‘Trends Can Change’: Ludwig von Mises (1951) Speaks to Us Today
“[T]rends of evolution can change, and hitherto they almost always have changed. But they changed only because they met firm opposition. The prevailing trend toward … the servile state will certainly not be reversed if nobody has the courage to attack its underlying dogmas.”
- Ludwig von Mises (see below)
Statism won at the top of the ticket earlier this week–and many places beneath. Limited-government advocates are feeling low and wondering if the dependency vote can be overcome in future elections to turn fiscal crises into new opportunities for economic freedom.
Small consolation: the Libertarian Party’s Gary Johnson beat the Green Party’s Jill Stein by a landslide. But the small parties combined received less than two million votes. Johnson’s 1.2 million votes–about 1.2 percent in the 48 states where he was on the ballot–compared to 400,000 for Stein. 
But think back to most of the last century where central economic planning was the orthodoxy. If you were not a socialist, you were a Keynesian. It was hard for even the greatest of the great free-market economists, including the author of the excerpt below, to get university appointments.
And don’t forget how a Cornell economist got in trouble with his department over his assigned reading of F. A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom in 1946. F. A. “Baldy” Harper went on to help found the Foundation for Economic Education in that year and went on to found the Institute for Humane Studies, now at George Mason University.
Feeling low the day after the election, I left the public policy world and began reading a book on the legendary football coach at the University of Texas, Darrell K. Royal. He had many memorable quotations, and one struck me as pertinent given another four years of Obama. Royal said back in 1966:
“Defeat comes from within. There is no such thing as defeat, except in no longer trying …. It is when an individual admits down deep in his heart that he has had all he wants that he becomes defeated. As long as he still fights and has not given up, there is still a chance.”
Just hours later I heard that Coach Royal died at age 88 in Austin, Texas (New York Times obit here).
Trends Can Change!
Now to the wisdom of Ludwig von Mises that he penned more than sixty years ago against the Marxian doctrine of historical determinism against capitalism.
One of the cherished dogmas implied in contemporary fashionable doctrines is the belief that tendencies of social evolution, as manifested in the recent past, will prevail in the future too. Study of the past, it is assumed, discloses the shape of things to come. Any attempt to reverse or even to stop a trend is doomed to failure. Man must submit to the irresistible power of historical destiny….
In the last decades there prevailed a trend toward more and more government interference with business. The sphere of the private citizen’s initiative was narrowed down. Laws and administrative decrees restricted the field in which entrepreneurs and capitalists were free to conduct their activities in compliance with the wishes of the consumers as manifested in the structure of the market. From year to year an ever-increasing portion of profits and interest on capital invested was confiscated by taxation of corporation earnings and individual incomes and estates.
“Social” control, i.e., government control, of business is step by step substituted for private control. The “progressives” are certain that this trend toward wresting “economic” power from the parasitic “leisure class” and its transfer to “the people” will go on until the “welfare state” will have supplanted the nefarious capitalistic system which history has doomed forever. Notwithstanding sinister machinations on the part of “the interests,” mankind — led by government economists and other bureaucrats, politicians, and union bosses — marches steadily toward the bliss of an earthly paradise.
The prestige of this myth is so enormous that it quells any opposition. It spreads defeatism among those who do not share the opinion that everything which comes later is better than what preceded, and are fully aware of the disastrous effects of all-around planning, i.e., totalitarian socialism. They, too, meekly submit to what, the pseudo-scholars tell them, is inevitable. It is this mentality of passively accepting defeat that has made socialism triumph in many European countries and may very soon make it conquer in this country too….
‘Inevitability’ of Statism
The Marxian dogma of the inevitability of socialism was based on the thesis that capitalism necessarily results in progressive impoverishment of the immense majority of people. All the advantages of technological progress benefit exclusively the small minority of exploiters. The masses are condemned to increasing “misery, oppression, slavery, degradation, exploitation.” No action on the part of governments or labor unions can succeed in stopping this evolution. Only socialism, which is bound to come “with the inexorability of a law of nature,” will bring salvation by “the expropriation of the few usurpers by the mass of people.”
Facts have belied this prognosis no less than all other Marxian forecasts. In the capitalist countries, the common man’s standard of living is today incomparably higher than it was in the days of Marx. It is simply not true that the fruits of technological improvement are enjoyed exclusively by the capitalists while the laborer, as the Communist Manifesto says, “instead of rising with the progress of industry, sinks deeper and deeper.”
Not a minority of “rugged individualists,” but the masses, are the main consumers of the products turned out by large-scale production. Only morons can still cling to the fable that capitalism “is incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within his slavery.”
Today the doctrine of the irreversibility of prevailing trends has supplanted the Marxian doctrine concerning the inevitability of progressive impoverishment…. But even if it were true that a historical trend must go on forever, and that therefore the coming of socialism is inevitable, it would still not be permissible to infer that socialism will be a better — or even more than that, the most perfect — state of society’s economic organization. There is nothing to support such a conclusion other than the arbitrary pseudo-theological surmises of Hegel, Comte, and Marx, according to which every later stage of the historical process must necessarily be a better state….
Now trends of evolution can change, and hitherto they almost always have changed. But they changed only because they met firm opposition. The prevailing trend toward what Hilaire Belloc called the servile state will certainly not be reversed if nobody has the courage to attack its underlying dogmas.
This article, originally published in The Freeman (February 12, 1951), is excerpted from Ludwig von Mises, Planning for Freedom (1952). Mises (1881–1973) is considered the dean of modern Austrian-School Economics.
 Among third-party Presidential candidates, Libertarian Gary Johnson received approximately 1.1 million votes, great than all other third-party candidates combined. Green Party candidate Jill Stein received around 400,000 votes. For more information, see here.