L. Mises, The superiority of the West is not necessarily permanent

Mises was emphatically pro-Westem, for he valued freedom above all, and saw the West as responsible for the idea of freedom. The idea can be traced to the Greeks, since they “were the first to grasp the meaning and significance of institutions warranting liberty” (Mises, 1950, p. 303).

From “The Cultural Thought of Ludwig von Mises”, by Jeffrey A. Tucker and Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr., The Journal of Libertarian Studies, 10/1 (Fall 1991)

Despite the oligarchies of Greece, the “essential tenor of Greek ideology was the pursuit of liberty” (p. 305). Their ideas were transmitted to the Romans and later to Europe, and through the Europeans to America. The Western idea of liberty led to representative government, the rule of law, independent courts, habeas corpus, judicial examination, freedom of speech, and separation of church and state. The West “transformed the subjects of tyranny into free citizens” (p. 304).

This contrasts with the East. The “ancient works of Oriental philosophy and poetry can compare with the most valuable works of the West” (p. 311). But the West overtook the East because of the Western emphasis on freedom. As a result, “for many centuries the East has not generated any book of importance. The intellectual and literary history of modem ages hardly records any name of an Oriental author. The East has no longer contributed anything to the intellectual effort of mankind. The problems and controversies that agitated the West remained unknown to the East. In Europe there was commotion; in the East there was stagnation, indolence and indifference” (p. 311).

The West, unlike the East, thought that the power of despots ought to be questioned, that the individual should be independent of the state, and therefore it was necessary to create a “legal framework that would protect the private citizens’ wealth against confiscation on the part of the tyrants.” Since in the East no wealth was protected except that of the rulers, “big-scale capital accumulation was prevented.” No middle class developed, and thus there “was no public to encourage and to patronize authors, artists and inventors.” The children of the East “know nothing else than to follow the routine of their environment”: advancement through the state (p. 311).

In contrast, “the alert youth of the West looks upon the world as a field of action in which he can win fame, eminence, honors, and wealth; nothing appears too difficult for his ambition.” “The noble self-reliance of Western man found triumphant expression in such dithyrambs as Sophocles‘s choric Antigone-hymn upon man and his enterprising effort and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Nothing of the kind has been ever heard in the Orient” (pp. 311-12).

The idea of liberty made possible the wealth of the West. Other civilizations reject Western ideas, while longing for the material benefits of capitalism. “The non-Caucasians may hate and despise the white man,” says Mises; “they may plot his destruction and take pleasure in extravagant praise of their own civilizations. But they yearn for the tangible achievements of the West, for its science, technology, therapeutics, its methods of administration and of industrial management” (Mises, 1957, p. 332). “Whatever people may say about Western civilization, the fact remains that all peoples look with envy upon its achievements, want to reproduce them, and thereby implicitly admit its superiority.” But other cultures will fail to achieve the West’s prosperity so long as they insist on “preserving their traditional rites and taboos and their customary style of life” (p. 333).

But was not communism also a product of the West? Mises replies that no one advocating absolutism would get a hearing in the West, and that communism had to be disguised as “super-liberalism, as the fulfillment and consummation of the very ideas of freedom and liberty” (Mises, 1950, p. 306). Moreover, the communists were free to write and publish in the West, whereas ideas contrary to the rulers of the East were not to be aired.

To Mises, however, the superiority of the West is not necessarily permanent. It would inevitably decline if “the scions of the builders of the white man’s civilization should renounce their freedom and voluntarily surrender to the suzerainty of omnipotent government” (p. 312). Nor can the West’s superiority, no matter how relevant to the past, be used to predict the future (Mises, 1957, p. 335).

From “The Cultural Thought of Ludwig von Mises”, by Jeffrey A. Tucker and Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr., The Journal of Libertarian Studies, 10/1 (Fall 1991)