When an Idea‘s Time Has Come

It isn’t a “moment,” and it is unstoppable.

One of the greatest flourishes in the history of oratory was delivered by Ron Paul on September 2, 2008, the day of the Republican Party National Convention, at his counter-convention called “ The Rally for the Republic”:

An idea whose time has come cannot be stopped by any army or any government!
Ron Paul at the Rally for the Republic

Paul began with two intensely building syllable-triplets (“idea whose” and “time has come”), followed by a rapid, syncopated crescendo that reached its apex with the final word. The crowd of nearly fifteen thousand roared and chanted.

Thomas Paine

This sentiment, echoing a similar one by Victor Hugo, can be indeed be stirring, especially when delivered so masterfully. And it has deep roots in the American tradition. Thomas Paine once wrote:

“An army of principles will penetrate where an army of soldiers cannot. Neither the Channel nor the Rhine will arrest its progress. It will march on the horizon of the world and it will conquer.”
Mao Zedong

Some devotees of “Realpolitik” may dismiss this notion as idealistic and naïve. For example, Mao Zedong wrote in his Little Red Book that:

“Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”

Who is right, Paul, Paine, and Hugo—or Mao?

In a sense, Mao does have a point. As Ludwig von Mises wrote, government “means always coercion and compulsion,” and that:

Ludwig von Mises
“It is beating, imprisoning, hanging. Whatever a government does it is ultimately supported by the actions of armed constables.”

But are those “actions of armed constables” themselves supported by anything, or are they self-supporting, as Mao’s quote seems to imply?

There is a fatal problem with accepting the latter. As Murray Rothbard argued:

Murray N. Rothbard
“Since predation must be supported out of the surplus of production, it is necessarily true that the class constituting the State—the full-time bureaucracy (and nobility)—must be a rather small minority…”

Furthermore, if the governing are necessarily a tiny minority, then, as David Hume wrote:

“…force is always on the side of the governed…”

And Mises dealt with an objection that is often raised against this conclusion:

David Hume
“Victorious minorities sometimes owe their success to their technological superiority. This does not alter the case. In the long run it is impossible to withhold the better arms from the members of the majority.”
Étienne de la Boétie

The above insights raise a fundamental question: why do majority populaces submit to states—which consist of a physically weaker minority ruling class? This conundrum has puzzled philosophers since 1552, when Étienne de la Boétie raised it with regard to monarchical power in his The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude:

“I should like merely to understand how it happens that so many men, so many villages, so many cities, so many nations, sometimes suffer under a single tyrant…” (…)
“They suffer plundering, wantonness, cruelty, not from an army, not from a barbarian horde, on account of whom they must shed their blood and sacrifice their lives, but from a single man; not from a Hercules nor from a Samson, but from a single little man. Too frequently this same little man is the most cowardly and effeminate in the nation, a stranger to the powder of battle and hesitant on the sands of the tournament; not only without energy to direct men by force, but with hardly enough virility to bed with a common woman!”

Two centuries later, David Hume expressed the same conundrum, extending it to governments in general:

“Nothing appears more surprizing to those, who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye, than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few; and the implicit submission, with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers.”

Boétie concluded that people must, to some degree, conspire in their own subjugation.

“He who thus domineers over you has only two eyes, only two hands, only one body, no more than is possessed by the least man among the infinite numbers dwelling in your cities; he has indeed nothing more than the power that you confer upon him to destroy you. Where has he acquired enough eyes to spy upon you, if you do not provide them yourselves? How can he have so many arms to beat you with, if he does not borrow them from you? The feet that trample down your cities, where does he get them if they are not your own? How does he have any power over you except through you? How would he dare assail you if he had no cooperation from you? What could he do to you if you yourselves did not connive with the thief who plunders you, if you were not accomplices of the murderer who kills you, if you were not traitors to yourselves?”

Hume came to a similar conclusion, adding that governments of all forms are necessarily supported by public opinion, which is what leads the people to acquiesce in their own domination.

“When we enquire by what means this wonder is effected, we shall find, that, as force is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. It is therefore, on opinion only that government is founded; and this maxim extends to the most despotic and most military governments, as well as to the most free and most popular. The sultan of Egypt, or the emperor of Rome, might drive his harmless subjects, like brute beasts, against their sentiments and inclination: But he must, at least, have led his mamalukes, or prætorian bands, like men, by their opinion. “

Mises lauded this insight as pathbreaking:

“The way toward a realistic distinction between freedom and bondage was opened, two hundred years ago, by David Hume’s immortal essay, On the First Principles of Government. Government, taught Hume, is always government of the many by the few. Power is therefore always ultimately on the side of the governed, and the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. This cognition, logically followed to its conclusion, completely changed the discussion concerning liberty. The mechanical and arithmetical point of view was abandoned. If public opinion is ultimately responsible for the structure of government, it is also the agency that determines whether there is freedom or bondage. There is virtually only one factor that has the power to make people unfree-tyrannical public opinion. The struggle for freedom is ultimately not resistance to autocrats or oligarchs but resistance to the despotism of public opinion.”

Government, as well as the social order in general, depends on public opinion. And public opinion, in turn, is informed and guided by ideology, which Mises defined as “the totality of our doctrines concerning individual conduct and social relations,” and which includes both doctrines that concern ends, like political philosophies, and doctrines that concern means, like economic theories. Therefore, it is ultimately ideology that is what gives a state widespread influence, or “might,” as Mises called it, which is what it uses to rule.

“…might is the power to direct other people’s actions. He who is mighty, owes his might to an ideology. Only ideologies can convey to a man the power to influence other people’s choices and conduct. One can become a leader only if one is supported by an ideology which makes other people tractable and accommodating. Might is thus not a physical and tangible thing, but a moral and spiritual phenomenon. A king’s might rests upon the recognition of the monarchical ideology on the part of his subjects.
He who uses his might to run the state, i.e., the social apparatus of coercion and compulsion, rules. Rule is the exercise of might in the political body. Rule is always based upon might, i.e., the power to direct other people’s actions.”

Mises then takes on the “Realpolitik” doctrine directly:

Of course, it is possible to establish a government upon the violent oppression of reluctant people. (…)Yet such violent oppression is no less founded upon ideological might. (…) He needs the ideological support of a group in order to subdue other groups. (…) Whether or not he succeeds in making his sway last depends on the numerical relation of the two groups, those who support him voluntarily and those whom he beats into submission. Though a tyrant may temporarily rule through a minority if this minority is armed and the majority is not, in the long run a minority cannot keep the majority in subservience. (…)
A durable system of government must rest upon an ideology acknowledged by the majority. The “real” factor, the “real forces” that are the foundation of government and convey to the rulers the power to use violence against renitent minority groups are essentially ideological, moral, and spiritual.

Thus, contrary to Mao’s dictum, political power is based on “might,” which is based on public opinion, which is based on ideology. Political power flows, not from the barrel of a gun, but from ideas. In fact, Mao’s own rise to power, and that of many like him, was ultimately due in large part to the fact that the idea of a planned society, including its purest form, socialism, had captured the hearts, minds, and imaginations of entire generations, from the mid-19th century onward. Its time, however fleeting, had come, and many regimes that tried to stop the march of socialist ideas with force utterly failed. As Mises wrote, “Both force and money are impotent against ideas.” It was only widespread disenchantment with socialism and total central planning that halted the march.

Moreover, freedom from political power is also based on “might,” public opinion, and, ultimately, ideas. When the time does come for the ideas of liberty—libertarian political philosophy and sound economics—it won’t be, as The New York Times recently put it, a “libertarian moment.” It will be, as Ron Paul clarified, a “libertarian transition.” And the state, for all its weapons, cages, and Federal Reserve notes, will be powerless to stop it, because the ideas of liberty are the negation of the ideas upon which the state’s power rests.

It was the ideas of the political philosophers of liberalism and of the laissez-faire economists that were ultimately responsible for the limited flowering of liberty that occurred prior to the rise of the modern managerial state, and that, thankfully, has not yet been absolutely reversed in all respects.

And it is the ideas of thinkers like Mises and Rothbard, propagated by institutions like the Mises Institute and individuals like you, that can give moral leaders like Ron Paul the “might to sway the public to choose liberty. That being done, the battle will have been already won.

As some of my readers may know, I developed and run the Mises Academy, the online learning platform of the Mises Institute. I am pleased to announce that we recently launched the Mises Curriculum, which offers in one very affordable package a comprehensive education in Austrian economics and libertarian political philosophy. If you would like to thoroughly prepare yourself to help Ron Paul make liberty become the idea whose time has come, I can think of no better way to do it. For more information, and to register, go to Mises.org/Curriculum. Thank you.

Also published at DanSanchez.me.