by Ludwid von Mises
This is an excerpt from Human Action (Yale University Press, 1949).
What is needed to make peace durable is change in ideologies.
The conflict between the have-nots and the haves is a real conflict. But it is present only in a world in which any sovereign government is free to hurt the interest of all peoples—its own included—by depriving the consumers of the advantages a better exploitation of this country’s resources would give them. It is not sovereignty as such that makes for war, but sovereignty of governments not entirely committed to the principles of the market economy.
Liberalism did not and does not build its hopes upon abolition of the sovereignty of the various national governments, a venture which would result in endless wars. It aims at a general recognition of the idea of economic freedom. If all people become liberal and conceive that economic freedom best serves their own interests, national sovereignty will no longer engender conflict and war. What is needed to make peace durable is neither international treaties and covenants nor international tribunals and organizations like the defunct League of Nations or its successor, the United Nations. If the principle of the market economy is universally accepted, such makeshifts are unnecessary; if it is not accepted, they are futile. Durable peace can only be the outgrowth of a change in ideologies. As long as the peoples cling to the Montaigne dogma and think that they cannot prosper economically except at the expense of other nations, peace will never be anything other than a period of preparation for the next war.
Protectionism Leads to Strife
Economic nationalism is incompatible with durable peace. Yet economic nationalism is unavoidable where there is government interference with business. Protectionism is indispensable where there is no domestic free trade. Where there is government interference with business, free trade even in the short run would frustrate the aims sought by the various interventionist measures.
It is an illusion to believe that a nation would lastingly tolerate other nations’ policies which harm the vital interest of its own citizens. Let us assume that the United Nations had been established in the year 1600 and that the Indian tribes of North America had been admitted as members of this organization. Then the sovereignty of these Indians would have been recognized as inviolable. They would have been given the right to exclude all aliens from entering their territory and from exploiting its rich natural resources which they themselves did not know how to utilize. Does anybody really believe that any international covenant or charter could have prevented the Europeans from invading these countries?
Many of the richest deposits of various mineral substances are located in areas whose inhabitants are too ignorant, too inert, or too dull to take advantage of the riches nature has bestowed upon them. If the governments of these countries prevent aliens from exploiting these deposits, or if their conduct of public affairs is so arbitrary that no foreign investments are safe, serious harm is inflicted upon all those foreign peoples whose material well-being could be improved by a more adequate utilization of the deposits concerned. It does not matter whether the policies of these governments are the outcome of a general cultural backwardness or of the adoption of the now fashionable ideas of interventionism and economic nationalism. The result is the same in both cases.
Change in Ideologies
There is no use in conjuring away these conflicts by wishful thinking. What is needed to make peace durable is a change in ideologies.
What generates war is the economic philosophy almost universally espoused today by governments and political parties. As this philosophy sees it, there prevail within the unhampered market economy irreconcilable conflicts between the interests of various nations. Free trade harms a nation; it brings about impoverishment. It is the duty of government to prevent the evils of free trade by trade barriers.
We may, for the sake of argument, disregard the fact that protectionism also hurts the interests of the nations which resort to it. But there can be no doubt that protectionism aims at damaging the interests of foreign peoples and really does damage them. It is an illusion to assume that those injured will tolerate other nations’ protectionism if they believe that they are strong enough to brush it away by the use of arms.
The philosophy of protectionism is a philosophy of war. The wars of our age are not at variance with popular economic doctrines; they are, on the contrary, the inescapable result of a consistent application of these doctrines.
Why League of Nations Failed
The League of Nations did not fail because its organization was deficient. It failed because it lacked the spirit of genuine liberalism. It was a convention of governments imbued with the spirit of economic nationalism and entirely committed to the principles of economic warfare. While the delegates indulged in mere academic talk about good will among the nations, the governments whom they represented inflicted a good deal of evil upon all other nations.
The two decades of the League’s functioning were marked by each nation’s adamant economic warfare against all other nations. The tariff protectionism of the years before 1914 was mild indeed when compared with what developed in the ‘twenties and ‘thirties—viz., embargoes, quantitative trade control, foreign exchange control, monetary devaluation, and so on.
The prospects for the United Nations are not better, but rather worse. Every nation looks upon imports, especially upon imports of manufactured goods, as upon a disaster. It is the avowed goal of almost all countries to bar foreign manufactures as much as possible from access to their domestic markets. Almost all nations are fighting against the specter of an unfavorable balance of trade. They do not want to cooperate; they want to protect themselves against the alleged dangers of cooperation.