Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Role of Myths - Omnipotent Government by Ludwig von Mises

The Role of Myths
The term "myths" has long been used to signify purely fictitious narratives and doctrines. In this sense Christians call the teachings and stories of paganism myths. In this sense those who do not share the Christian faith call the biblical tales mythical. For the Christian they are not myths but truth.
This obvious fact has been distorted by writers who maintain that doctrines which cannot stand the criticism of reason can nonetheless be justified by ascribing to them a mythical character. They have tried to build up a rationalistic theory for the salvation of error and its protection against sound reasoning.
If a statement can be disproved, you cannot justify it by giving it the status of a myth and thus making it proof against reasonable objections. It is true that many fictions and doctrines, today gen­erally or in the main refuted and therefore called myths, have played a great role in history. But they played this role not as myths but as doctrines considered true. In the eyes of their supporters they were entirely authentic; they were their honest convictions. They turned to myths in the eyes of those who considered them fictitious and contrary to fact, and who therefore did not let their actions be in­fluenced by them.
For Georges Sorel a myth is the imaginary construction of a fu­ture successful action.[iii]But, we must add, to estimate the value of a method of procedure one point only has to be taken into account, namely, whether or not it is a suitable means to attain the end sought. If reasonable examination demonstrates that it is not, it must be rejected. It is impossible to render an unsuitable method of procedure more expedient by ascribing to it the quality of a myth. Sorel says: "If you place yourself on this ground of myths, you are proof against any kind of critical refutation."[iv]But the problem is not to succeed in polemic by taking recourse to subtleties and tricks. The only question is whether or not action guided by the doctrine concerned will attain the ends sought. Even if one sees, as Sorel does, the task of myths to be that of equipping men to fight for the de­struction of what exists[v], one cannot escape the question: Do these myths represent an adequate means to achieve this task? It needs to be pointed out, incidentally, that destruction of existing condi­tions alone cannot be considered as a goal; it is necessary to build up something new in the place of what is destroyed.
If it is proved by reasonable demonstration that socialism as a social system cannot realize what people wish or expect to realize through it, or that the general strike is not the appropriate means for the attainment of socialism, you cannot change these facts by declaring—as Sorel did—that socialism and the general strike are myths. People who cling to socialism and the general strike wish to attain certain aims through them. They are convinced that they will succeed by these methods. It is not as myths but as doctrines considered to be correct and well founded that socialism and the general strike are supported by millions of men.
Some free thinkers say: Christianity is an absurd creed, a myth; yet it is useful that the masses should adhere to the Christian dog­mas. But the advantage that these free thinkers expect depends upon the masses actually taking the Gospels as truth. It could not be at­tained if they were to regard the Commandments as myths.
Whoever rejects a political doctrine as wrong agrees with the gen­erally accepted terminology in calling it a myth.[vi]But if he wants to profit from a popular superstition in order to attain his own ends, he must be careful not to disparage it by calling it a myth openly. For he can make use of this doctrine only so long as others consider it to be truth. We do not know what those princes of the sixteenth century believed who joined the religious Reformation. If not sin­cere conviction but the desire for enrichment guided them, then they abused the faith of other people for the sake of their own selfish appetites. They would have prejudiced their own interests, how­ever, if they had called the new creed mythical. Lenin was cynical enough to say that revolutions must be achieved with the catch­words of the day. And he achieved his own revolution by affirming publicly—against his better conviction—the catchwords that had taken hold of public opinion. Some party leaders may be capable of being convinced of the falsehood of their party's doctrine. But doc­trines can have real influence only so far as people consider them right.
Socialism and interventionism, etatism and nationalism, are not myths, in the eyes of their advocates, but doctrines indicating the proper way to the attainment of their aims. The power of these teachings is based on the firm belief of the masses that they will ef­fectively improve their lot by applying them. Yet they are fallacious; they start from false assumptions and their reasoning is full of paralogisms. Those who see through these errors are right in calling them myths. But as long as they do not succeed in convincing their fellow citizens that these doctrines are untenable, the doctrines will dominate public opinion and politicians and statesmen will be guided by them. Men are always liable to error. They have erred in the past; they will err in the future. But they do not err purposely. They want to succeed, and they know very well that the choice of inappropriate means will frustrate their actions. Men do not ask for myths but for working doctrines that point the right means for the ends sought.
Nationalism in general and Nazism in particular are neither in­tentional myths nor founded or supported by intentional myths. They are political doctrines and policies (though faulty) and are even "scientific" in intent.
If somebody were prepared to call myths the variations on themes like "We are the salt of the earth," or "We are the chosen people," in which all nations and castes have indulged in one way or another, we should have to refer to what has been said about chauvinism. This is music for the enchantment and gratification of the commu­nity, mere pastime for the hours not devoted to political business. Politics is activity and striving toward aims. It should not be con­fused with mere indulgence in self-praise and self-adulation.

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