The socialist system, however, forbids this fundamental freedom to choose one’s own career. Under socialist conditions, there is only one economic authority, and it has the right to determine all matters concerning production.

One of the characteristic features of our day is that people use many names for the same thing. One synonym for socialism and communism is “planning.” If people speak of “planning” they mean, of course, central planning, which means one plan made by the government—one plan that prevents planning by anyone except the government.

A British lady, who also is a member of the Upper House, wrote a book entitled Plan or No Plan, a book which was quite popular around the world. What does the title of her book mean? When she says “plan,” she means only the type of plan envisioned by Lenin and Stalin and their successors, the type which governs all the activities of all the people of a nation. Thus, this lady means a central plan which excludes all the personal plans that individuals may have. Her title Plan or No Plan is therefore an illusion, a deception; the alternative is not a central plan or no plan, it is the total plan of a central governmental authority or freedom for individuals to make their own plans, to do their own planning. The individual plans his life, every day, changing his daily plans whenever he will.

The free man plans daily for his needs; he says, for example: “Yesterday I planned to work all my life in Cordoba.” Now he learns about better conditions in Buenos Aires and changes his plans, saying: “Instead of working in Cordoba, I want to go to Buenos Aires.” And that is what freedom means. It may be that he is mistaken, it may be that his going to Buenos Aires will turn out to have been a mistake. Conditions may have been better for him in Cordoba, but he himself made his plans.

Under government planning, he is like a soldier in an army. The soldier in the army does not have the right to choose his garrison, to choose the place where he will serve. He has to obey orders. And the socialist system—as Karl Marx, Lenin, and all socialist leaders knew and admitted—is the transfer of army rule to the whole production system. Marx spoke of “industrial armies,” and Lenin called for “the organization of everything—the postoffice, the factory, and other industries, according to the model of the army.”

Therefore, in the socialist system everything depends on the wisdom, the talents, and the gifts of those people who form the supreme authority. That which the supreme dictator—or his committee—does not know, is not taken into account. But the knowledge which mankind has accumulated in its long history is not acquired by everyone; we have accumulated such an enormous amount of scientific and technical knowledge over the centuries that it is humanly impossible for one individual to know all these things, even though he be a most gifted man.

And people are different, they are unequal. They always will be. There are some people who are more gifted in one subject and less in another one. And there are people who have the gift to find new paths, to change the trend of knowledge. In capitalist societies, technological progress and economic progress are gained through such people. If a man has an idea, he will try to find a few people who are clever enough to realize the value of his idea. Some capitalists, who dare to look into the future, who realize the possible consequences of such an idea, will start to put it to work. Other people, at first, may say: “They are fools”; but they will stop saying so when they discover that this enterprise, which they called foolish, is flourishing, and that people are happy to buy its products.

Under the Marxian system, on the other hand, the supreme government body must first be convinced of the value of such an idea before it can be pursued and developed. This can be a very difficult thing to do, for only the group of people at the head—or the supreme dictator himself—has the power to make decisions. And if these people—because of laziness or old age, or because they are not very bright and learned—are unable to grasp the importance of the new idea, then the new project will not be undertaken.

We can think of examples from military history. Napoleon was certainly a genius in military affairs; he had one serious problem, however, and his inability to solve that problem culminated, finally, in his defeat and exile to the loneliness of St. Helena. Napoleon’s problem was: “How to conquer England?” In order to do that, he needed a navy to cross the English Channel, and there were people who told him they had a way to accomplish that crossing, people who—in an age of sailing ships—had come up with the new idea of steam ships. But Napoleon did not understand their proposal.

Then there was Germany’s Generalstab, the famous German general staff. Before the First World War, it was universally considered to be unsurpassed in military wisdom. A similar reputation was held by the staff of General Foch in France. But neither the Germans nor the French—who, under the leadership of General Foch, later defeated the Germans—realized the importance of aviation for military purposes. The German general staff said: “Aviation is merely for pleasure, flying is good for idle people. From a military point of view, only the Zeppelins are important,” and the French general staff was of the same opinion.

Later, during the period between World War I and World War II, there was a general in the United States who was convinced that aviation would be very important in the next war. But all other experts in the United States were against him. He could not convince them. If you have to convince a group of people who are not directly dependent on the solution of a problem, you will never succeed. This is true also of noneconomic problems.

There have been painters, poets, writers, composers, who complained that the public did not acknowledge their work and caused them to remain poor. The public may certainly have had poor judgment, but when these artists said: “The government ought to support great artists, painters, and writers,” they were very much in the wrong. Whom should the government entrust with the task of deciding whether a newcomer is really a great painter or not? It would have to rely on the judgment of the critics, and the professors of the history of art who are always looking back into the past yet who very rarely have shown the talent to discover new genius. This is the great difference between a system of “planning” and a system in which everyone can plan and act for himself.

It is true, of course, that great painters and great writers have often had to endure great hardships. They might have succeeded in their art, but not always in getting money. Van Gogh was certainly a great painter. He had to suffer unbearable hardship and, finally, when he was thirty-seven years old, he committed suicide. In all his life he sold only one painting and the buyer of it was his cousin. Apart from this one sale, he lived from the money of his brother, who was not an artist nor a painter. But van Gogh’s brother understood a painter’s needs. Today you cannot buy a van Gogh for less than hundred or two hundred thousand dollars.

Under a socialist system, van Gogh’s fate might have been different. Some government official would have asked some well-known painters (whom van Gogh certainly would not have regarded as artists at all) whether this young man, half or completely crazy, was really a painter worthy to be supported. And they without a doubt, would have answered: “No, he is not a painter; he is not an artist; he is just a man who wastes paint;” and they would have sent him into a milk factory or into a home for the insane. Therefore all this enthusiasm in favor of socialism by the rising generation of painters, poets, musicians, journalists, actors, is based on an illusion. I mention this because these groups are among the most fanatical supporters of the socialist idea.

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Ludwig Von Mises

Ludwig Von Mises (1881-1973) was the 20th century's foremost economist. He was the author of Human Action, Socialism, and a dozen other works.

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