What caused the collapse of the Roman Empire during the 3rd century that is also threatening our civilization now? Is the collapse of Western civilization really inevitable as various thinkers and critics argue? Ludwig von Mises answered these questions in his 6th and last lecture on economic policy, "Politics and Ideas". This lecture was delivered in Argentina in 1958 and published as part of a book in 1979.
Ludwig von Mises strongly acknowledged that the internal forces that corrupted the Roman Empire are also present within Western civilization. He identified them as economic interventionism and monetary inflation. However, he strongly contradicted the opinions of influential scholars such as the German teacher Oswald Spengler and the British historian Arnold Toynbee who predicted the inevitability of the collapse of Western civilization. For him, the metaphorical comparison between the death of "civilization to a plant is completely arbitrary" (p.101). Though he admitted that there are similarities between the Roman Empire and Western civilization, he also argued about the existence of differences. And in these differences, better ideas play a critical role to change the direction of present civilization.
In this article, I want to narrate my understanding of Mises' point of view as to how this process of internal corruption started.
The Economic Root of Political Troubles
Mises began his lecture by citing the frustration of the hopes of 18th century Enlightenment. Thinkers during that time was characterized by strong optimism as to the dawn of the new age of freedom, prosperity, and progress. Such optimism was indeed followed by unprecedented economic improvement for the following two centuries. However, in the 20th century, a "warlike spirit" started to return alongside with humanity's disappointment with the constitutional system developed at the end of the 18th century. Most people did not see the connection between the change in economic policy and the growing political problems.
Mises argued that you cannot separate the two. In fact, political turmoils that time were just natural consequences of replacing the previous economic policy with a new one. And it was exactly at this point, that interventionism started to appear. Mises stated that the so-called...
"...decay of freedom, of constitutional government and representative institutions, is the consequence of the radical change in economic and political ideas. The political events are the inevitable consequence of the change in economic policies" (p.94).
Shift to Interventionism and Its Detrimental Results
The previous political ideas were characterized by concern for the nation's welfare as a whole. Even though, there were real party differences, they were considered normal and acceptable believing that opposing parties were only thinking for the good of the entire nation. But with the entrance of interventionism, everything has changed.
A new entity has emerged out of interventionist climate. The classical meaning of political parties has been lost and replaced by special interest groups or "pressure groups" (p.96).
Mises defined a pressure group as "a group of people who want to attain for themselves a special privilege at the expense of the rest of the nation" (ibid). Under interventionism, it is considered "the duty of the government to support, to subsidize, and to give privileges" (ibid.) to these groups. Special privileges may include "tariff on competing imports", "subsidy", or making of laws to prevent other groups "from competing with the members of the pressure group" (ibid.).
Mises further observes that the retention of the two-party system in the US is just "a camouflage of the real situation" (ibid.). Both parties have their own pressure groups representing various economic interests such as silver, wheat, meat, oil, and many more. In this kind of political atmosphere, the interest of the nation as a whole is sacrificed. In fact, pressure groups are so powerful that it influences even the nation's foreign policy.
Other consequences of interventionism include the weakening of nations' power and of representatives to resist tyranny, constant increase in public consumption, incapability of governments to stop inflation, and the decline of Western civilization. It was at this point that Mises mentioned the names of Spengler and Toynbee who wrote about the inevitability of the collapse of Western civilization.
Similarities and Differences
Mises acknowledged the similarities between the Roman Empire and the Western civilization. He described how interventionism and inflation destroyed the Roman Empire from within:
"The result, of course, was that the supply of foodstuffs in the cities declined. The people in the cities were forced to go back to the country and to return to agricultural life. The Romans never realized what was happening. They did not understand it. They had not developed the mental tools to interpret the problems of the division of labor and the consequences of inflation upon market prices. That this currency inflation, currency debasement, was bad, this they knew of course very well" (p.103).
"Consequently, the emperors made laws against this movement. There were laws preventing the city dweller from moving to the country, but such laws were ineffective. As the people did not have anything to eat in the city, as they were starving, no law could keep them from leaving the city and going back into agriculture. The city dweller could no longer work in the processing industries of the cities as an artisan. And, with the loss of the markets in the cities, no one could buy anything there anymore" (ibid.).
"Thus we see that, from the third century on, the cities of the Roman Empire were declining and that the division of labor became less intensive than it had been before" (ibid.).
So what Mises was saying was that as a result of interventionism and inflation, the supply of food declined, people abandoned the cities and returned to countryside and to agriculture, and markets disappeared from the cities. The emperor's decree to stop the migration was powerless when people had nothing to eat. In fact, during the last stage of the empire's decline, emperors were assassinated "on the average of every three years" (ibid.).
An interesting part in Mises' description was the absence of people's awareness about what was happening to them. They lacked the necessary "mental tools" to interpret their struggle. I think it is in this part where we can see the differences between the Roman Empire and Western civilization. For Mises, we are in a more advantageous situation than the people during the 3rd century simply because more and more people are becoming aware about the real problem of present civilization. Unlike, in those days, nobody dared to contradict the Roman government. But today, centers promoting free market ideas are increasing in number all over the world.
The Need for Better Ideas
For Mises, the real struggle lies in providing better ideas. And in this struggle, the role of intellectuals is vital. In the first place, the crisis in current civilization is an offshoot of the labors of the intellectuals under Marxist's spell. It is them who shaped the mind of the policy makers.
Marxism must be replaced with free market ideas. It is not true that this ideology works for the good of the masses simply because none of its formulators came from the masses. All the intellectuals that developed anti-free market ideas including Marx himself came not from the proletariat, but from the bourgeois. For Mises, the free enterprise provides better ideas. See how he described such need:
"Everything that happens in the social world in our time is the result of ideas. Good things and bad things. What is needed is to fight bad ideas...We must substitute better ideas for wrong ideas. We must refute the doctrines that promote union violence. We must oppose the confiscation of property, the control of prices, inflation, and all those evils from which we suffer" (p.105).
"These ideas must be brought to the public in such a way that they persuade people. We must convince them that these ideas are the right ideas and not the wrong ones. The great age of the nineteenth century, the great achievements of capitalism, were the result of the ideas of the classical economists, of Adam Smith and David Ricardo, of Bastiat and others" (ibid.).
"What we need is nothing else than to substitute better ideas for bad ideas. This, I hope and am confident, will be done by the rising generation. Our civilization is not doomed, as Spengler and Toynbee tell us. Our civilization will not be conquered by the spirit of Moscow. Our civilization will and must survive. And it will survive through better ideas than those which now govern most of the world today, and these better ideas will be developed by the rising generation" (ibid.).
Mises concluded his final lecture with a message of hope:
"I hope that in a few years the number of those who are supporting ideas for freedom in this country, and in other countries, will increase considerably. I myself have full confidence in the future of freedom, both political and economic" (ibid.).
Source: Mises, Ludwig von. (1979). Economic Policy: Thoughts for Today and Tomorrow. Chicago: Regnery/Gateway, Inc.