The 20th century was a period of startling technological advancement. Compared to the lifestyle of average people in 1925, most of human history before that time amounted to what we’d now call “camping.”
Just 30 years earlier, most people traveled on foot or by animal power, except when taking trains. They lit their homes with candles and provided themselves with heat mostly by burning wood, just as their prehistoric ancestors had. They went outside to use the bathroom. They died from diseases we brush off today with a 10-day regimen of pills.
The technological explosion in the early 20th century had its roots in the 19th, when what used to be called liberal values informed the Western world. By “liberal,” I mean individual liberty, free markets, and limited government. Today, we call that worldview “classical liberal” or “libertarian” (really the same philosophy at different stages of development) because “liberal” no longer means anything of the sort.
Many people believe the cataclysmic world wars were an inevitable price the world had to pay for too much freedom. That’s the opposite of the truth. The early 20th century saw a violent reaction against the tidal wave of freedom that had swept the world during the previous century. At the center of this anti-liberal sentiment was resentment against free markets.
“Laissez faire is dead,” politicians routinely said. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The anti-capitalist mindset was international and, within America, bipartisan. The Progressive Era became mainstream with Republican president Teddy Roosevelt in the White House. It was under Roosevelt that the seeds of the modern, omnipotent executive branch were planted. Those seeds were given tender-loving care by Woodrow Wilson as he attempted to militarize the economy, hoping wartime anti-capitalist policies would become permanent.
There was a brief pause in America during the 1920s, but overseas the anti-capitalist mindset ran rampant. People have forgotten – or perhaps were never taught – how central anti-capitalist thinking was to Italian fascism and Naziism. That’s why during the 1930s even Hitler had admirers here in the United States. He was seen as a “man who could get things done” in terms of overriding the voluntary relationships of the free market to achieve government-promulgated economic outcomes.
It is also the reason both Hitler and Mussolini praised FDR’s New Deal. No, the New Deal wasn’t quite as totalitarian as what Mussolini or Hitler were doing in Europe. FDR never legally prohibited people from quitting their jobs, as Hitler had done, in order to maintain “full employment.” But as Vincent Vega would say, “it’s the same ballpark.” The New Deal brought the economy under the arbitrary orders of executive branch bureaucrats, where much of it remains to this day.
WWII is widely believed to be a glorious event. Supposedly, the forces of totalitarianism were defeated by the champions of “democracy,” establishing a New World Order (novus ordo seclorum) under which the United States would lead the world in stamping out tyranny forever.
It’s a nice story that is somewhat undermined by the facts. In truth, both world wars were disasters for Western civilization. Yes, Hitler was defeated, but it’s hard to argue in retrospect that bringing half of Europe under the brutal rule of the Soviets, who killed ten times more people than the Nazis and were at least as totalitarian, was a slam dunk win.
Worse yet, the relatively freer societies among the Allies became significantly less free. The United States became a garrison state, first ostensibly to oppose the Soviets, and then terrorism, and now…a virus. The European allies descended into socialism from which they only marginally retreated during the late 20th century. The US now seems eager to repeat their mistakes.
The progenitor of the world wars and everything that followed was the anti-capitalist mindset that swept the world in the first half of the 20th century. It was the belief that political power could improve economic outcomes that led to the rise of dictators like Hitler and Mussolini in Europe and dictators-lite like Wilson and the Roosevelts here in America.
Like a bad sequel, the anti-capitalist mindset is back. While the Republican Party may never have delivered the laissez faire market they campaigned on, they understood the need to at least give it lip service. Why? Because a large segment of their constituents wanted to hear it. And that sentiment among a large segment of the public – even if not a majority – is the only thing that can check further destruction of our liberty.
Now, with “economic nationalism” on the right and “democratic socialism” on the left dominating the thinking of close to 100 percent of the population, we are back to the near-unanimous contempt for laissez faire markets that defined the 1930s. And this time, the nation states are armed with nuclear and biological weapons.
How will this latest epidemic of anti-capitalist thinking end?
This article, The Anti-Capitalism of the 20th Century Is Back. Will the Story End the Same?, was originally published by the Foundation for Economic Education and appears here with permission. Please support their mission.