The primacy of politics is a dangerous dogma

Even after the fall of Communism, the vision of a planned and controlled society is alive and well. By putting politics first, however, the idea that human affairs must be managed centrally and bureaucratically necessarily limits individual rights and freedom of choice. In the end, it simply substitutes tyranny for liberty.

Soviet-era poster
The illusion that centralized state control is the best way to usher in general happiness has proved surprisingly resilient, outliving the fall of Communism. © dpa

In a nutshell

  • The French and Russian revolutions show how centralist zealots hijack popular grievances
  • As before, the fight against climate change and inequality promotes central state control
  • Remedies proposed by anti-market extremists will worsen the ills they propose to fight

After the demise of the inhuman Soviet empire, which collapsed under the weight of a failed economic and social model, one would assume that the advantages of free markets, property rights and entrepreneurship would be widely recognized.

The dangers posed by the socialist principle of central government planning should be easy to detect. Based on the vision of a planned and controlled society, the illusion it provides of economic equality is only made possible by limiting individual rights and freedom of choice, replacing liberty with tyranny.

Comparing market-based systems with socialist ones clearly shows the essential value of freedom and individual responsibility. These societies, in the spirit of the preamble to the U.S. Declaration of Independence, elevate the human right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to a universal principle.

Two ideas

Yet for all that, the idea that human affairs must be centrally and bureaucratically managed is very resilient. In this worldview, freedom is perceived as a danger. The faulty social concept of full equality and limited freedom has been tried under every possible pretext, for ostensibly higher causes.

The French Revolution was triggered by a crisis of the Ancien Regime, which became sclerotic and stumbled toward economic collapse, inflation and hunger. However, the people’s justified grievances were immediately hijacked by centralist zealots.

The revolution’s declared goal of “egalite” (never mentioned by the American founding fathers, whose successful system was based on the freedom to pursue opportunity rather than receive entitlements) exalted the concept of the nation-state, delegating great powers to government administration. This exaggerated nationalism (not to be confused with patriotism) led directly to the carnage of two world wars in the first half of the 20th century.

The ideas of social equality and an all-powerful nation laid the groundwork for National Socialism and Communism.

These two ideas, equality on one side and an all-powerful nation on the other, also laid the groundwork for two brutal and inhuman systems that haunted the 20th century – National Socialism and Communism. National Socialism was destroyed by fire in 1945, after six years of war, while Communism suffered a slow-motion collapse between the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. However, the spirit of both systems, especially Marxism, still lives on, though often in disguise.

In the 19th century, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels used their analysis of the social pathologies of the industrial revolution to design a centralist, egalitarian bureaucracy. Their authoritarian system was legitimized by the idea of a “workers’ and peasants’ paradise” and the dictatorship of the proletariat. These concepts became the philosophical pretext for the horrendous communist systems of the following century.

However, the idea that a small, self-appointed elite – whether pressure groups or an entrenched bureaucracy – should tell the rest of society how to live is still with us. The difficulty is that these people often genuinely believe that their ideas will bring true happiness. This belief blinds them to the negative consequences of central planning and limiting individual freedom. Curbs are frequently introduced under the pretext of a higher social good.

This zeal, in many cases even well-intended, often proves more dangerous than the pure demagoguery used in election campaigns. In the latter case, its practitioners seldom believe their own claims, making them less likely to convert them into policy.


Problems of waste and pollution are considerable. These are issues that should be addressed rationally with the benefit of scientific experience. Unfortunately, the climate debate has become emotionally charged to the point of fanaticism, making it less amenable to reasoned and pragmatic solutions. To the higher end of saving the world by slowing climate change, rules are passed that limit open debate and impede reasonable solutions.

The result is not to advance the fight against pollution and waste, but to limit personal freedom while adding an additional layer of bureaucracy and unnecessary costs. Some proponents of “saving the climate” are using the issue to interfere in the personal affairs of individual citizens and even the right of free speech. (At some American universities, scholars and students are not allowed to question the theses of climate change – a very dangerous limitation of academic discussion.)

Rice farmers collect their harvest in a village near Batambang, Cambodia
Over the past 40 years, free markets, entrepreneurship and innovation have lifted a billion people – like these Cambodian rice farmers – out of extreme poverty and hunger. © dpa

The fanaticism that now prevails leads to discrimination against people who are skeptical or simply original thinkers. By definition, the requirement to observe political correctness limits free expression. Unfortunately, hysteria will not prevent pollution. Climate change needs to be recognized primarily as a natural phenomenon. The principle of nature is never stability and balance – it is always evolution, change and imbalance.

In fact, a danger exists that the ideology of climate change will frustrate efficient reduction of pollution and waste just as much as the communist system proved unable to lift populations out of misery. The limitations on personal behavior and innovation being demanded by some climate change zealots could, like those imposed by their Communist counterparts a century ago, lead to broad serfdom to a centralized bureaucracy.

Cost of equality

Another dangerous dogma today is the issue of economic inequality. We are complaining about increasing inequality while basing our arguments on faulty statistics. Inequality is now used as a pretext for stronger state intervention in the economy. However, a man is only equal before God and the law. Otherwise, people are different. Material progress will inevitably result in inequality. People who invent and implement new techniques, products and services will logically be rewarded.

Economic equality causes collective misery.

We should also not forget that over the past 40 years – just when laments were raised about rising inequality – more than a billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty and hunger has been drastically reduced. This was a result of freer markets, entrepreneurship and innovation. Most of us can agree that rescuing people from poverty is more important than ensuring equality.

History shows that absolute economic equality exists only in dictatorships and causes collective misery. The best test cases are Germany and Korea. Before the reunification in 1990, West Germany had freedom while East Germany had equality, autocracy and a low standard of living. The same difference applies today in North and South Korea.

Politics first

What extreme proponents of fighting climate change and of fighting inequality have in common is the desire to assign government a very strong role in the economy. Typically, this involves elements of central planning, high taxation and arbitrary redistribution. Their guiding principle is the “primacy of politics” over economic logic, law and tradition. The emotionally freighted language they use creates hysteria, which exercises a strong influence over domestic politics.

There are many instances in history when politics reigned supreme. But all too frequently, its effects were detrimental. This lesson was not lost on Germany, which introduced a system called “the social market economy” after World War II. This policy laid the groundwork for the German “economic miracle” (Wirtschaftswunder) of the postwar period.

An essential element of the social market economy was the so-called Ordnungspolitik, which above all sought to limit the scope for government intervention in the economy. This approach proved remarkably successful. Unfortunately, the original idea of the social market economy is much eroded in today’s Germany. In fact, the adjective “social” now serves as a pretext for political intervention that would have been repugnant to its creators.

The tendency to put politics first is a much broader trend, apparent throughout Western Europe and among hard leftists in North America. This time, the favorite pretexts used to justify such thinking are the climate and inequality.

Whatever we think about it, the primacy of politics is a fact. Today our focus should be on finding ways to limit the damage such interventions inflict on society, the environment and the economy.

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