30 Aug 2014

Mises on Empire and Liberalism

Pacifism 14 Comments

To repeat, I really like Dan McCarthy. He knows a ton more about history and politics than I do. But in his recent article in The American Conservative, he made the case that the British and now U.S. empires were necessary for a domestic liberal society. I have already linked you to my general response at antiwar.com. But here, let me specifically respond to McCarthy’s attempt to enlist Ludwig von Mises in his cause. This wasn’t relevant for the broader antiwar.com article, but you guys might like it…

Although it’s not central to his argument, McCarthy tries to bolster his credibility with libertarian readers by quoting from Ludwig von Mises’ discussion of colonial policy in his short work entitled Liberalism (by which Mises meant classical liberalism), published originally in 1927. After the famous Austrian economist first establishes that the European standard of living was utterly dependent on the continued importation of raw materials from Asia and Africa, Mises goes on to write (which McCarthy quotes):

Ought the well-being of Europe and, at the same time, that of the colonies as well to be allowed to decline further in order to give the natives a chance to determine their own destinies, when this would lead, in any event, not to their freedom, but merely to a change of masters?

This is the consideration that must be decisive in judging questions of colonial policy. European officials, troops, and police must remain in these areas, as far as their presence is necessary in order to maintain the legal and political conditions required to insure the participation of the colonial territories in international trade. [Ludwig von Mises, Liberalism, pp. 127-128]

For those familiar with the work of Mises—champion of individual liberty and proponent of peace—the above quotation is very surprising. McCarthy is aware of this, and uses Mises’ remarks (written, remember, in the interwar period) to bolster McCarthy’s own (qualified) case for empire. After quoting Mises as we have done above, McCarthy comments:

As shocking as these words might seem coming from one of the free market’s greatest champions, the conditional quality of Mises’s prescription ought to be noted: if trade is possible without colonialism, then national self-determination can be permitted. Liberal imperialism is not directed toward gratuitous conquest but toward maintaining a global environment conducive to liberalism.

Liberalism and empire reinforced one another in manifold ways. Britain met military necessities of the Napoleonic wars with moves toward domestic liberalization—more civil rights for Catholics and Dissenting Protestants, who could hardly be asked to serve under arms while being required to swear religious oaths and denied the chance to participate in politics. The manpower needed to police the seas even after Napoleon’s defeat provided further incentives for reform, as did the growing wealth brought about by the trade that empire and peace made possible.

Thus we see the rhetorical move McCarthy makes. By no means is McCarthy happy about his conclusion; he has a conscience, and doesn’t relish the idea that empires might have some beneficial consequences. Alas, McCarthy thinks, they simply do: we cannot ignore the apparent lessons of history. In his essay, McCarthy makes the case that we never could have achieved a relatively free, democratic society without the protection offered by empire (first the British and then the American). As we’ve seen above, McCarthy tries to use the free-market hero Ludwig von Mises—the “last knight” of liberalism—as a star witness in his camp.

Although I am sure McCarthy did not intend it, he nonetheless has provided a very misleading portrayal of Mises’ position. Let us present the preceding discussion in Mises’ section on “Colonial Policy,” drawn from a few pages prior to where McCarthy’s quotation begins. Now keep in mind, the title of McCarthy’s provocative essay is, “Why Liberalism Means Empire.” McCarthy’s whole thesis is that the good society desired by the (classical) liberal requires empire. With that in mind, let’s see what Mises had to say, starting three pages before the spot where McCarthy began quoting him:

The considerations and objectives that have guided the colonial policy of the European powers since the age of the great discoveries stand in the sharpest contrast to all the principles of liberalism. The basic idea of colonial policy was to take advantage of the military superiority of the white race over the members of other races. The Europeans set out, equipped with all the weapons and contrivances that their civilization placed at their disposal, to subjugate weaker peoples, to rob them of their property, and to enslave them. Attempts have been made to extenuate and gloss over the true motive of colonial policy with the excuse that its sole object was to make it possible for primitive peoples to share in the blessings of European civilization. Even assuming that this was the real objective of the governments that sent out conquerors to distant parts of the world, the liberal could still not see any adequate basis for regarding this kind of colonization as useful or beneficial. If, as we believe, European civilization really is superior to that of the primitive tribes of Africa or to the civilizations of Asia—estimable though the latter may be in their own way—it should be able to prove its superiority by inspiring these peoples to adopt it of their own accord. Could there be a more doleful proof of the sterility of European civilization than that it can be spread by no other means than fire and sword?

No chapter of history is steeped further in blood than the history of colonialism. Blood was shed uselessly and senselessly. Flourishing lands were laid waste; whole peoples destroyed and exterminated. All this can in no way be extenuated or justified. The dominion of Europeans in Africa and in important parts of Asia is absolute. It stands in the sharpest contrast to all the principles of liberalism and democracy, and there can be no doubt that we must strive for its abolition. The only question is how the elimination of this intolerable condition can be accomplished in the least harmful way possible. [Mises, Liberalism, pp. 124-125]

It would be difficult for Mises to have provided a more thorough repudiation of McCarthy’s thesis. I am confident–citing the authority of Mises himself–in claiming that the British Empire was not necessary for upholding classical liberalism up to World War I. Beyond that, I already explained in my antiwar.com piece why U.S. entry into WW2–and its subsequent empire–were also antithetical to a free society at home.

14 Responses to “Mises on Empire and Liberalism”

  1. Major.Freedom says:


    Reminds me of certain disreputable people quoting Mises’ discussion on fascism without including the other parts that constitutes a conclusive repudiation of it.

    In case anyone is interested, the book “A People’s History of the United States” by Howard Zinn devotes the first sections of his book to the details of the horrors of European colonialism. That is where I learned Columbus’ expedition was one of bringing back gold and slaves, rape fests, and genocide for those who dissented. Didn’t learn that in school.

    I was watching Good Will Hunting the other day and that is the book Will recommended Robin William’s character read.

    Zinn was a Marxist, and his book as expected lumps in capitalism with feudalism and slavery, but if you can forgive him this fault, the book is definitely an eye opener.

  2. Gamble says:

    Well done Bob.

    Pretty sure resident lK does similar to Hayek.

  3. Bob Roddis says:

    I went to a very liberal elementary school in a Jewish Detroit suburb. We learn a lot about both the Holocaust and the Spanish slaughter of the Indians (we learned nothing of the Union army’s slaughter of the Indians). In fifth grade (1961) I checked out this book on the Spanish explorers so much that my parents bought it for me for Christmas. I still have it:


    So, some people did learn about this in public school (on the related topic of the failure of government enterprise).

  4. Bob Roddis says:

    For light summer reading, try “King Leopold’s Ghost” by Adam Hochschild on the fun-time Belgians and their Congo.


    The fun loving Belgians would cut off the hands of folks and their kids who didn’t wan’t to help modernize the Congo via the rubber industry. That couldn’t have had a long lasting impact of their society, right?

    • Ken B says:

      Indeed. Why the Congo was run like it was simply owned by someone!

  5. Enopoletus Harding says:

    More Congo and parallel countries, post-decolonization:
    I blame the DRC’s woes on the U.N. more than on improper decolonization, though the latter certainly had a role. Senegal, however, has no excuse.

    • Enopoletus Harding says:

      I think some countries, (e.g., Libya, Venezuela, the DRC, possibly Iraq) are fit for U.S. rule for decades. Others (e.g., Syria) must be intervened in, but not have their forms of government changed. Others (e.g., Eritrea) must be intervened in in order for the regime to fall.

      • Enopoletus Harding says:

        A 20% American levy on Iraq’s oil revenues would pay for the Iraq war in its entirety about half a century, assuming oil production isn’t disrupted.

        • Bob Murphy says:

          A 20% American levy on Iraq’s oil revenues would pay for the Iraq war in its entirety about half a century, assuming oil production isn’t disrupted.

          Then you got these other countries that expect the U.S. to invade and occupy them for decades and they don’t even want to pay for it. Ingrates.

          • Enopoletus Harding says:

            Exactly, Bob. The U.S. military should be funded by those who most benefit from it, not simply from U.S. taxpayers (how did they benefit from the first Gulf War? I certainly don’t see how.).

      • Bob Murphy says:

        Have you informed any of the people in these countries of your decision, Enopoletus? I’m sure they’re anxious to find out their fate.

  6. Sheldon Richman says:

    Thanks, Bob! And for your Antiwar.com piece as well.

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