Ours is an age of the progressive expert who nearly always is wrong but still is embraced by progressive politicians, the media, and academe.
Original Article: "Are Progressive "Experts" Fallible? Yes, But Don't Tell Them That"
This Audio Mises Wire is generously sponsored by Christopher Condon.
One might assume that new rounds of monetary stimulus will bring new peaks in housing construction, reversing the ongoing housing shortage. That hasn't happened.
Original Article: "The Housing Boom Is Already Over. The Housing Shortage Will Continue."
This Audio Mises Wire is generously sponsored by Christopher Condon.
As of 2022 the national student debt reached $1.6 trillion with the average student loan debt at about $28,000. Many former college students are discovering it is difficult to pay back such a large amount of debt. This is especially true of students that graduate with fruitless degrees like sociology, for example. These majors are only good as prerequisites to a master’s degree. Most graduates find themselves working jobs that are completely unrelated to their studies.
For the graduates with useful degrees such as engineering or nursing, large amounts of student loan debt will still be a burden. For some universities the student loan default rates are as a high as 30–40 percent. The debate about whether the government should intervene in the student debt crisis is a hot debate, but few ask why the price of tuition is so expensive in the first place.
The Correlation of Tuition with Government Subsidies
In 1965 the Higher Education Act (HEA) was created. It mandated federal funding directed toward higher education. This was the beginning of the Federal Pell Grant Program and the William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan Program. These government programs provide subsidized loans to be used by students to pay for tuition. The result has been a tremendous increase of the money supply into higher education.
Government-subsidized student loans in 1960 were $11 billion and spiked to $48 billion by 1975. Between 1960 and 1980 public funding for higher education increased 390 percent, but the cost of tuition did not remain unchanged. In 1964 the average cost of tuition adjusted for inflation at a public university was only $248 and by 2007 increased to $8,055.
How are colleges spending all the revenue they receive from tuition? Some of this money funds lavish, multimillion-dollar athletic facilities and sports arenas. Some is spent on recreational centers, statues, or art projects that have nothing to do with improving education. The expansion of liberal arts degree programs such as gender studies or African American studies contribute little to a graduate’s value in the workforce. Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Connecticut offer degrees in bag pipping and puppetry, respectively. The University of Texas offers an English class that aims to analyze Taylor Swift songs in the context of traditional literature. It’s doubtful that anyone will agree the thousands of dollars spent on this class reflects the benefit of enrolling in such a class.
The College-Industrial Complex
Colleges are willing to raise the price of tuition so long as student loans are guaranteed. In a free market private loans are funded by a bank, credit union, or the school itself. These lenders must weigh the risk of a loan being paid back. Graduates may or may not be able to pay back their loan. This varies for each student based on the amount of money lent and the type of job they work after college.
Private lenders will not lend an excessively risky amount of money if the chance of the loan being paid back is unlikely. If students were limited to the market value of loans and were not able to pay for their tuition, then attendance would drop until an equilibrium is reached between demand for college degrees is balanced with the price and utility of obtaining one. These were the circumstances before the government got involved, and in most cases, students could work all summer and make enough money to pay for a year of tuition and never have to take out a loan.
Currently under the government-subsidized industry, loans are funded by politically connected financial institutions via the Federal Reserve, which have no risk of bankruptcy when too many people default on their student loans. Schools gladly raise the price of tuition so long as the amount of lending also increases. The result is skyrocketing student debt and the creation of an inflationary bubble.
Capitalism Gets Blamed
Capitalism is an economic system based on the recognition of free markets or the separation of economy and state. Under these circumstances no relationship exists between colleges and government. However, capitalism is often the scapegoat for unaffordable tuition created by the Federal Reserve’s meddling in higher education. It’s argued that capitalism is predicated on selfish greed and responsible for exploiting students, but what’s more exploitative than unmitigated lending to young, vulnerable adults?
Still, socialist ideas of free (costless) education as a solution to student debt has gained popularity. Barack Obama mentioned in his last State of the Union address that he wanted free community college and to reduce student loan borrowers’ payment obligations. Joe Biden’s student loan forgiveness program does just that. Never mind that this does nothing to solve the underlying problem of overpriced tuition and will only create more inflation.
This may be a benefit to former students and administrators, but only at the expense of the rest of society. Libertarian philosopher and economist Henry Hazlitt correctly identifies this problem in his book Economics in One Lesson. His lesson is based on two main economic fallacies: one, to only observe the immediate consequences of a government policy while neglecting the lasting consequences and two, to only observe the benefactors while neglecting the others.
If the $1.6 trillion of total student debt were completely subsidized through the Federal Reserve’s money creation, the immediate effect is that graduates would have more money to spend on other things, like clothes, food, vacations, cars, and houses for example. More money would circulate to other industries and cause an artificial boom in the economy.
This is the immediate consequence and focuses only on the benefit of college graduates and administrators. However, it ignores all the working class or anyone who did not attend college and are now on the hook for indirectly paying for college graduates’ tuition. The lasting consequences would result in the inevitable economic bust due to the mismatch between supply and demand. Wealth that was produced in other industries would be squandered on rising prices only to benefit the educational industrial complex.
If college tuition were priced according to market forces in a free economy, then the graduates would be largely debt free while still having the opportunity to accumulate wealth. All the cronies in the college system would have to find more valuable work in other areas of the economy. The net result would be a more productive, wealthier, less inflationary society.
Prominent Democrats, including President Joe Biden, have repeatedly expressed interest in reinstating a federal assault weapons ban. Biden himself included an assault weapon ban in his 1994 crime bill, which lasted ten years until its expiration in 2004. Biden has claimed that the ban did its job and reduced mass shootings: “When we passed the assault weapons ban, mass shootings went down. When the law expired, mass shootings tripled.”
But a detailed review of the data demonstrates that the ban had no real benefits whatsoever, and neither did it lessen the frequency of major shootings.
What Is an Assault Weapon?
Contrary to popular belief, an assault weapons ban does not ban AR- or AK-style rifles. Assault weapons bans focus primarily on the specific functions of these rifles. The 1994 ban described assault weapons as semiautomatic rifles that
had the ability to accept a detachable magazine and possessed two of the following five features: (1) a folding or telescopic stock; (2) a pistol grip that protrudes conspicuously beneath the action of the weapon; (3) a bayonet mount; (4) a flash suppressor or threaded barrel designed to accommodate a flash suppressor; or (5) a grenade launcher.
This definition permits some adjustments to be made to rifles, such as an AR-15, that would make them completely legal (or “compliant”). Rifles that comply must have a fixed stock. Stocks cannot be telescopic or folding. A pistol grip is incompatible with a compliant rifle. Compliant rifles typically have a stock that has additional material added to it, so the pistol grip is attached to the stock or is extended far enough to prevent the shooter from wrapping around it with their thumb. The maximum number of rounds the rifle’s magazine can hold is 10. Any more than that is regarded as a high-capacity magazine. The rifle may not have a flash suppressor.
Many creative minds have discovered countless ways to transform basic AR-style rifles into completely compliant weapons. Today, several states have their own assault weapons bans with similar or identical provisions as the 1994 federal ban. In these states, the ownership of AR-15s and such is not at all uncommon. The same went for gun owners during the federal ban from 1994–2004.
The reality of compliant assault weapons is a strong indicator that the assault weapons ban did not work, outside of some inconveniences for gun owners. Any owner could easily convert a compliant rifle into a fully functional (and illegal) one using minimal tools and labor. And many, including mass shooters, take advantage of this. The 1994 ban led to a sharp increase in the demand for assault weapons, which initially increased prices. But after an increase in production, prices began to fall to their previous state. A 2002 study showed:
In the short-term, the federal AW ban reduced the availability of AWs to criminal users by increasing the cost of these weapons in primary and, presumably, secondary markets. However, the ban also stimulated production increases for AWs and legal substitute models, resulting in a post-ban decline in prices.
Proponents of a renewed ban completely overlook the rise in the ownership of assault weapons both before and after the 1994 ban. Any positive benefits cited by Biden and other politicians and talking heads are seriously called into question in light of this fact.
Did the Ban Decrease Mass Shootings?
When we closely examine the facts, Biden’s assertion that the ban will reduce the number of mass shootings is shown to be, to put it mildly, an excessive exaggeration. It is safe to assume that Biden derived this claim from a 2019 study that references the Mother Jones mass shootings database, or possibly he obtained it directly from Mother Jones. Either way, there are numerous flaws in citing this data as evidence. The methodology Mother Jones utilized to create their dataset on mass shootings and the conclusions that were made using this data have garnered criticism from criminologists such as Grant Duwe, who points to underreporting problems and says that “the Mother Jones list relied exclusively on news reports as a source of data, and news coverage tends to be less accessible for the older cases.”
He anchored the hunt for more in-depth news reporting on mass homicides in his own study of homicide using the FBI’s Supplementary Homicide Reports (SHR) data. The SHR data has several shortcomings, but it is the most complete homicide dataset currently accessible that sheds light on, among other things, when and where the majority of mass shootings have occurred in the United States. Duwe’s research revealed that mass shootings are “roughly as common now as they were in the 1980s and ’90s.”
But what about the frequency of assault weapons used in mass shootings? Did that change? Economist John R. Lott says: “There was no drop in the number of attacks with assault weapons during the 1994 to 2004 ban. There was an increase after the ban sunset, but the change is not statistically significant.”
Did the Ban Decrease Gun Homicides?
Assault rifles (and rifles in general) are very rarely used in gun crimes, so we would not expect to see any significant decrease in gun homicides or gun crimes due to the 1994 ban. Multiple studies have been done examining the effects of the ban on gun homicides and the results are generally inconclusive. A 2016 review published in JAMA found that four different studies, “do not provide evidence that the ban was associated with a significant decrease in firearm homicides.”
Between 1991, when violent crime reached an all-time high, and 2017, the country’s overall violent crime rate decreased by 47 percent, with a murder rate decline of 34 percent. Meanwhile, it appears foolish to attempt to count the almost two hundred million new firearms purchased by Americans, including the more than twenty million AR-15s and the hundreds of millions of “large” pistol and rifle magazines.
The assumption that the 1994 assault weapons prohibition was successful in lowering gun homicides, mass shootings, or even the possession of assault weapons is not backed by strong evidence. Most likely, those who advocate for the ban’s reintroduction are unaware of the compelling evidence against the prohibition, whether on purpose or accidentally. When the police and ATF start enforcing a new ban, there may even be an uptick in violence.
[Editor's Note: In this very important chapter 15 of Human Action (the first half of which is presented here), Mises explains what the market really is - a process where millions of individuals interact through voluntary exchanges - and how it gives rise to the quantitative prices that undergird the mental concept of capital and hence economic calculation. In laying out his analysis of the market itself, Mises has produced a chapter which could, according to Robert Murphy, "almost serve as a stand-alone introduction to free market economics."]
1. The Characteristics of the Market Economy
The market economy is the social system of the division of labor under private ownership of the means of production. Everybody acts on his own behalf; but everybody's actions aim at the satisfaction of other people's needs as well as at the satisfaction of his own. Everybody in acting serves his fellow citizens. Everybody, on the other hand, is served by his fellow citizens. Everybody is both a means and an end in himself; an ultimate end for himself and a means to other people in their endeavors to attain their own ends. This system is steered by the market. The market directs the individual's activities into those channels in which he best serves the wants of his fellow men.
There is in the operation of the market no compulsion and coercion. The state, the social apparatus of coercion and compulsion, does not interfere with the market and with the citizens' activities directed by the market. It employs its power to beat people into submission solely for the prevention of actions destructive to the preservation and the smooth operation of the market economy. It protects the individual's life, health, and property against violent or fraudulent aggression on the part of domestic gangsters and external foes. Thus the state creates and preserves the environment in which the market economy can safely operate.
The Marxian slogan "anarchic production" pertinently characterizes this social structure as an economic system which is not directed by a dictator, a production tsar who assigns to each a task and compels him to obey this command. Each man is free; nobody is subject to a despot. Of his own accord the individual integrates himself into the cooperative system. The market directs him and reveals to him in what way he can best promote his own welfare as well as that of other people. The market is supreme. The market alone puts the whole social system in order and provides it with sense and meaning.
The market is not a place, a thing, or a collective entity. The market is a process, actuated by the interplay of the actions of the various individuals cooperating under the division of labor. The forces determining the — continually changing — state of the market are the value judgments of these individuals and their actions as directed by these value judgments. The state of the market at any instant is the price structure, i.e., the totality of the exchange ratios as established by the interaction of those eager to buy and those eager to sell. There is nothing inhuman or mystical with regard to the market. The market process is entirely a resultant of human actions. Every market phenomenon can be traced back to definite choices of the members of the market society.
The market process is the adjustment of the individual actions of the various members of the market society to the requirements of mutual cooperation. The market prices tell the producers what to produce, how to produce, and in what quantity. The market is the focal point to which the activities of the individuals converge. It is the center from which the activities of the individuals radiate.
The market economy must be strictly differentiated from the second thinkable — although not realizable — system of social cooperation under the division of labor: the system of social or governmental ownership of the means of production. This second system is commonly called socialism, communism, planned economy, or state capitalism. The market economy — or capitalism, as it is usually called — and the socialist economy preclude one another. There is no mixture of the two systems possible or thinkable; there is no such thing as a mixed economy, a system that would be in part capitalistic and in part socialist. Production is directed either by the market or by the decrees of a production tsar or a committee of production tsars.
If within a society based on private ownership of the means of production some of these means are publicly owned and operated — that is, owned and operated by the government or one of its agencies — this does not make for a mixed system which would combine socialism and capitalism. The fact that the state or municipalities own and operate some plants does not alter the characteristic features of the market economy. These publicly owned and operated enterprises are subject to the sovereignty of the market. They must fit themselves, as buyers of raw materials, equipment, and labor, and as sellers of goods and services, into the scheme of the market economy. They are subject to the laws of the market and thereby depend on the consumers who may or may not patronize them. They must strive for profits or, at least, to avoid losses. The government may cover losses of its plants or shops by drawing on public funds. But this neither eliminates nor mitigates the supremacy of the market; it merely shifts it to another sector. For the means for covering the losses must be raised by the imposition of taxes. But this taxation has its effects on the market and influences the economic structure according to the laws of the market. It is the operation of the market, and not the government collecting the taxes, that decides upon whom the incidence of the taxes falls and how they affect production and consumption. Thus the market, not a government bureau, determines the working of these publicly operated enterprises.
Nothing that is in any way connected with the operation of a market is in the praxeological or economic sense to be called socialism. The notion of socialism as conceived and defined by all socialists implies the absence of a market for factors of production and of prices of such factors. The "socialization" of individual plants, shops, and farms — that is, their transfer from private into public ownership — is a method of bringing about socialism by successive measures. It is a step on the way toward socialism, but not in itself socialism. (Marx and the orthodox Marxians flatly deny the possibility of such a gradual approach to socialism. According to their doctrine the evolution of capitalism will one day reach a point in which at one stroke capitalism is transformed into socialism.)
Government-operated enterprises and the Russian Soviet economy are, by the mere fact that they buy and sell on markets, connected with the capitalist system. They themselves bear witness to this connection by calculating in terms of money. They thus utilize the intellectual methods of the capitalist system that they fanatically condemn.
For monetary economic calculation is the intellectual basis of the market economy. The tasks set to acting within any system of the division of labor cannot be achieved without economic calculation. The market economy calculates in terms of money prices. That it is capable of such calculation w-as instrumental in its evolution and conditions its present-day operation. The market economy is real because it can calculate.
The mental tool of the market economy is economic calculation. The fundamental notion of economic calculation is the notion of capital and its correlative income.
The notions of capital and income as applied in accountancy and in the mundane reflections of which accountancy is merely a refinement, contrast the means and the ends. The calculating mind of the actor draws a boundary line between the consumers' goods which he plans to employ for the immediate satisfaction of his wants and the goods of all orders — including those of the first order1 — which he plans to employ for providing, by further acting, for the satisfaction of future wants. The differentiation of means and ends thus becomes a differentiation of acquisition and consumption, of business and household, of trading funds and of household goods. The whole complex of goods destined for acquisition is evaluated in money terms, and this sum — the capital — is the starting point of economic calculation. The immediate end of acquisitive action is to increase or, at least, to preserve the capital. That amount which can be consumed within a definite period without lowering the capital is called income. If consumption exceeds the income available, the difference is called capital consumption. If the income available is greater than the amount consumed, the difference is called saving. Among the main tasks of economic calculation are those of establishing the magnitudes of income, saving, and capital consumption.
The reflections which led acting man to the notions implied in the concepts of capital and income are latent in every premeditation and planning of action. Even the most primitive husbandmen are dimly aware of the consequences of acts which to a modern accountant would appear as capital consumption. The hunter's reluctance to kill a pregnant hind and the uneasiness felt even by the most ruthless warriors in cutting fruit trees were manifestations of a mentality which was influenced by such considerations. These considerations were present in the age-old legal institution of usufruct and in analogous customs and practices. But only people who are in a position to resort to monetary calculation can evolve to full clarity the distinction between an economic substance and the advantages derived from it, and can apply it neatly to all classes, kinds, and orders of goods and services. They alone can establish such distinctions with regard to the perpetually changing conditions of highly developed processing industries and the complicated structure of the social cooperation of hundreds of thousands of specialized jobs and performances.
Looking backward from the cognition provided by modern accountancy to the conditions of the savage ancestors of the human race, we may say metaphorically that they too used "capital." A contemporary accountant could apply all the methods of his profession to their primitive tools of hunting and fishing, to their cattle breeding and their tilling of the soil, if he knew what prices to assign to the various items concerned. Some economists concluded there from that "capital" is a category of all human production, that it is present in every thinkable system of the conduct of production processes — i.e., no less in Robinson Crusoe's involuntary hermitage than in a socialist society — and that it does not depend upon the practice of monetary calculation.2 This is, however, a confusion. The concept of capital cannot be separated from the context of monetary calculation and from the social structure of a market economy in which alone monetary calculation is possible. It is a concept which makes no sense outside the conditions of a market economy. It plays a role exclusively in the plans and records of individuals acting on their own account in such a system of private ownership of the means of production, and it developed with the spread of economic calculation in monetary terms.3
Modern accountancy is the fruit of a long historical evolution. Today there is, among businessmen and accountants, unanimity with regard to the meaning of capital. Capital is the sum of the money equivalent of all assets minus the sum of the money equivalent of all liabilities as dedicated at a definite date to the conduct of the operations of a definite business unit. It does not matter in what these assets may consist, whether they are pieces of land, buildings, equipment, tools, goods of any kind and order, claims, receivables, cash, or whatever.
It is a historical fact that in the early days of accountancy the tradesmen, the pacemakers on the way toward monetary calculation, did not for the most part include the money equivalent of their buildings and land in the notion of capital. It is another historical fact that agriculturists were slow in applying the capital concept to their land. Even today in the most advanced countries only a part of the farmers are familiar with the practice of sound accountancy. Many farmers acquiesce in a system of bookkeeping that neglects to pay heed to the land and its contribution to production. Their book entries do not include the money equivalent of the land and are consequently indifferent to changes in this equivalent. Such accounts are defective because they fail to convey that information which is the sole aim sought by capital accounting. They do not indicate whether or not the operation of the farm has brought about a deterioration in the land's capacity to contribute to production, that is, in its objective use value. If an erosion of the soil has taken place, their books ignore it, and thus the calculated income (net yield) is greater than a more complete method of bookkeeping would have shown.
It is necessary to mention these historical facts because they influenced the endeavors of the economists to construct the notion of real capital.
The economists were and are still today confronted with the superstitious belief that the scarcity of factors of production could be brushed away, either entirely or at least to some extent, by increasing the amount of money in circulation and by credit expansion. In order to deal adequately with this fundamental problem of economic policy they considered it necessary to construct a notion of real capital and to oppose it to the notion of capital as applied by the businessman whose calculation refers to the whole complex of his acquisitive activities. At the time the economists embarked upon these endeavors the place of the money equivalent of land in the concept of capital was still questioned. Thus the economists thought it reasonable to disregard land in constructing their notion of real capital. They defined real capital as the totality of the produced factors of production available. Hairsplitting discussions were started as to whether inventories of consumers' goods held by business units are or are not real capital. But there was almost unanimity that cash is not real capital.
Now this concept of a totality of the produced factors of production is an empty concept. The money equivalent of the various factors of production owned by a business unit can be determined and summed up. But if we abstract from such an evaluation in money terms, the totality of the produced factors of production is merely an enumeration of physical quantities of thousands and thousands of various goods. Such an inventory is of no use to acting. It is a description of a part of the universe in terms of technology and topography and has no reference whatever to the problems raised by the endeavors to improve human well-being. We may acquiesce in the terminological usage of calling the produced factors of production capital goods. But this does not render the concept of real capital any more meaningful.
The worst outgrowth of the use of the mythical notion of real capital was that economists began to speculate about a spurious problem called the productivity of (real) capital. A factor of production is by definition a thing that is able to contribute to the success of a process of production. Its market price reflects entirely the value that people attach to this contribution. The services expected from the employment of a factor of production (i.e., its contribution to productivity) are in market transactions paid according to the full value people attach to them. These factors are considered valuable only on account of these services. These services are the only reason why prices are paid for them. Once these prices are paid, nothing remains that can bring about further payments on the part of anybody as a compensation for additional productive services of these factors of production. It was a blunder to explain interest as an income derived from the productivity of capital.4
No less detrimental was a second confusion derived from the real capital concept. People began to meditate upon a concept of social capital as different from private capital. Starting from the imaginary construction of a socialist economy, they were intent upon defining a capital concept suitable to the economic activities of the general manager of such a system. They were right in assuming that this manager would be eager to know whether his conduct of affairs was successful (viz., from the point of view of his own valuations and the ends aimed at in accordance with these valuations) and how much he could expend for his wards' consumption without diminishing the available stock of factors of production and thus impairing the yield of further production. A socialist government would badly need the concepts of capital and income as a guide for its operations. However, in an economic system in which there is no private ownership of the means of production, no market, and no prices for such goods, the concepts of capital and income are mere academic postulates devoid of any practical application. In a socialist economy there are capital goods, but no capital.
The notion of capital makes sense only in the market economy. It serves the deliberations and calculations of individuals or groups of individuals operating on their own account in such an economy. It is a device of capitalists, entrepreneurs, and farmers eager to make profits and to avoid losses. It is not a category of all acting. It is a category of acting within a market economy.
All civilizations have up to now been based on private ownership of the means of production. In the past, civilization and private property have been linked together. Those who maintain that economics is an experimental science and nevertheless recommend public control of the means of production, lamentably contradict themselves. If historical experience could teach us anything, it would be that private property is inextricably linked with civilization. There is no experience to the effect that socialism could provide a standard of living as high as that provided by capitalism.5
The system of market economy has never been fully and purely tried. But there prevailed in the orbit of Western civilization since the Middle Ages by and large a general tendency toward the abolition of institutions hindering the operation of the market economy. With the successive progress of this tendency, population figures multiplied and the masses' standard of living was raised to an unprecedented and hitherto undreamed-of level. The average American worker enjoys amenities for which Croesus, Crams, the Medici, and Louis XIV would have envied him.
The problems raised by the socialist and interventionist critique of the market economy are purely economic and can be dealt with only in the way in which this book tries to deal with them: by a thorough analysis of human action and all thinkable systems of social cooperation. The psychological problem of why people scorn and disparage capitalism and call everything they dislike "capitalistic" and everything they praise "socialistic" concerns history and must be left to the historians. But there are several other issues which we must stress at this point.
The advocates of totalitarianism consider "capitalism" a ghastly evil, an awful illness that came upon mankind. In the eyes of Marx, it was an inevitable stage of mankind's evolution, but for all that the worst of evils; fortunately salvation is imminent and will free man forever from this disaster. In the opinion of other people it would have been possible to avoid capitalism if only men had been more moral or more skillful in the choice of economic policies. All such lucubrations have one feature in common. They look upon capitalism as if it were an accidental phenomenon which could be eliminated without altering conditions that are essential in civilized man's acting and thinking. As they neglect to bother about the problem of economic calculation, they are not aware of the consequences which the abolition of the monetary calculus is bound to bring about. They do not realize that socialist men for whom arithmetic will be of no use in planning action, will differ entirely in their mentality and in their mode of thinking from our contemporaries. In dealing with socialism, we must not overlook this mental transformation, even if we were ready to pass over in silence the disastrous consequences which would result for man's material well-being.
The market economy is a man-made mode of acting under the division of labor. But this does not imply that it is something accidental or artificial and could be replaced by another mode. The market economy is the product of a long evolutionary process. It is the outcome of man's endeavors to adjust his action in the best possible way to the given conditions of his environment that he cannot alter. It is the strategy, as it were, by the application of which man has triumphantly progressed from savagery to civilization.
This mode of argumentation is very popular among present-day authors: capitalism was the economic system which brought about the marvelous achievements of the last two hundred years; therefore it is done for because what was beneficial in the past cannot be so for our time and for the future. Such reasoning is in open contradiction to the principles of experimental cognition. There is no need at this point to raise again the question of whether or not the science of human action can adopt the methods of the experimental natural sciences. Even if it were permissible to answer this question in the affirmative, it would be absurd to argue as these à rebours experimentalists do. Experimental science argues that because a was valid in the past, it will be valid in the future too. It must never argue the other way round and assert that because a was valid in the past, it is not valid in the future.
It is customary to blame the economists for an alleged disregard of history. The economists, it is contended, consider the market economy as the ideal and eternal pattern of social cooperation. They concentrate their studies upon investigating the conditions of the market economy and neglect everything else. They do not bother about the fact that capitalism emerged only in the last two hundred years and that even today it is restricted to a comparatively small area of the earth's surface and to a minority of peoples. There were and are other civilizations with a different mentality and different modes of conducting economic affairs. Capitalism is, when seen sub specie aeternitatis, a passing phenomenon, an ephemeral stage of historical evolution, just the transition from precapitalistic ages to a postcapitalistic future.
All these criticisms are spurious. Economics is, of course, not a branch of history or of any other historical science. It is the theory of all human action, the general science of the immutable categories of action and of their operation under all thinkable special conditions under which man acts. It provides as such the indispensable mental tool for dealing with historical and ethnographic problems. A historian or an ethnographer who neglects in his work to take full advantage of the results of economics is doing a poor job. In fact he does not approach the subject matter of his research unaffected by what he disregards as theory. He is at every step of his gathering of allegedly unadulterated facts, in arranging these facts, and in his conclusions derived from them, guided by confused and garbled remnants of perfunctory economic doctrines constructed by botchers in the centuries preceding the elaboration of an economic science and long since entirely exploded.
The analysis of the problems of the market society, the only pattern of human action in which calculation can be applied in planning action, opens access to the analysis of all thinkable modes of action and of all economic problems with which historians and ethnographers are confronted. All noncapitalistic methods of economic management can be studied only under the hypothetical assumption that in them too cardinal numbers can be used in recording past action and planning future action. This is why economists place the study of the pure market economy in the center of their investigations.
It is not the economists who lack the "historical sense" and ignore the factor of evolution, but their critics. The economists have always been fully aware of the fact that the market economy is the product of a long historical process which began when the human race emerged from the ranks of the other primates. The champions of what is mistakenly called "historicism" are intent upon undoing the effects of evolutionary changes. In their eyes everything the existence of which they cannot trace back to a remote past or cannot discover in the customs of some primitive Polynesian tribes is artificial, even decadent. They consider the fact that an institution was unknown to savages as a proof of its uselessness and rottenness. Marx and Engels and the Prussian professors of the Historical School exulted when they learned that private property is "only" a historical phenomenon. For them this was the proof that their socialist plans were realizable.6
The creative genius is at variance with his fellow citizens. As the pioneer of things new and unheard of he is in conflict with their uncritical acceptance of traditional standards and values. In his eyes the routine of the regular citizen, the average or common man, is simply stupidity. For him "bourgeois" is a synonym of imbecility.7 The frustrated artists who take delight in aping the genius's mannerism in order to forget and to conceal their own impotence adopt this terminology. These bohemians call everything they dislike "bourgeois." Since Marx has made the term "capitalist" equivalent to "bourgeois," they use both words synonymously. In the vocabularies of all languages the words "capitalistic" and "bourgeois" signify today all that is shameful, degrading, and infamous.8 Contrariwise, people call all that they deem good and praiseworthy "socialist." The regular scheme of arguing is this: A man arbitrarily calls anything he dislikes "capitalistic," and then deduces from this appellation that the thing is bad.
This semantic confusion goes still further. Sismondi, the romantic eulogists of the Middle Ages, all socialist authors, the Prussian Historical School, and the American Institutionalists taught that capitalism is an unfair system of exploitation sacrificing the vital interests of the majority of people for the sole benefit of a small group of profiteers. No decent man can advocate this "mad" system. The economists who contend that capitalism is beneficial not only to a small group but to everyone are "sycophants of the bourgeoisie." They are either too dull to recognize the truth or bribed apologists of the selfish class interests of the exploiters.
Capitalism, in the terminology of these foes of liberty, democracy, and the market economy, means the economic policy advocated by big business and millionaires. Confronted with the fact that some — but certainly not all — wealthy entrepreneurs and capitalists nowadays favor measures restricting free trade and competition and resulting in monopoly, they say: Contemporary capitalism stands for protectionism, cartels, and the abolition of competition. It is true, they add, that at a definite period of the past British capitalism favored free trade both on the domestic market and in international relations. This was because at that time the class interests of the British bourgeoisie were best served by such a policy. Conditions, however, changed and today capitalism, i.e., the policy advocated by the exploiters, aims at another policy.
It has already been pointed out that this doctrine badly distorts both economic theory and historical facts.9 There were and there will always be people whose selfish ambitions demand protection for vested interests and who hope to derive advantage from measures restricting competition. Entrepreneurs grown old and tired and the decadent heirs of people who succeeded in the past dislike the agile parvenus who challenge their wealth and their eminent social position. Whether or not their desire to make economic conditions rigid and to hinder improvements can be realized, depends on the climate of public opinion. The ideological structure of the nineteenth century as fashioned by the prestige of the teachings of the liberal economists rendered such wishes vain. When the technological improvements of the age of liberalism revolutionized the traditional methods of production, transportation, and marketing, those whose vested interests were hurt did not ask for protection because it would have been a hopeless venture. But today it is deemed a legitimate task of government to prevent an efficient man from competing with the less efficient. Public opinion sympathizes with the demands of powerful pressure groups to stop progress. The butter producers are with considerable success fighting against margarine and the musicians against recorded music. The labor unions are deadly foes of every new machine. It is not amazing that in such an environment less efficient businessmen aim at protection against more efficient competitors.
It would be correct to describe this state of affairs in this way: Today many or some groups of business are no longer liberal; they do not advocate a pure market economy and free enterprise, but, on the contrary, are asking for various measures of government interference with business. But it is entirely misleading to say that the meaning of the concept of capitalism has changed and that "mature capitalism" — as the Americans call it — or "late capitalism" — as the Marxians call it — is characterized by restrictive policies to protect the vested interests of wage earners, farmers, shopkeepers, artisans, and sometimes also of capitalists and entrepreneurs. The concept of capitalism is as an economic concept immutable, if it means anything, it means market economy. One deprives oneself of the semantic tools to deal adequately with the problems of contemporary history and economic policies if one acquiesces in a different terminology. This faulty nomenclature becomes understandable only if we realize that the pseudo-economists and the politicians who apply it want to prevent people from knowing what the market economy really is. They want to make people believe that all the repulsive manifestations of restrictive government policies are produced by "capitalism."
4. The Sovereignty of the Consumers
The direction of all economic affairs is in the market society a task of the entrepreneurs. Theirs is the control of production. They are at the helm and steer the ship. A superficial observer would believe that they are supreme. But they are not. They are bound to obey unconditionally the captain's orders. The captain is the consumer. Neither the entrepreneurs nor the farmers nor the capitalists determine what has to be produced. The consumers do that. If a businessman does not strictly obey the orders of the public as they are conveyed to him by the structure of market prices, he suffers losses, he goes bankrupt, and is thus removed from his eminent position at the helm. Other men who did better in satisfying the demand of the consumers replace him.
The consumers patronize those shops in which they can buy what they want at the cheapest price. Their buying and their abstention from buying decides who should own and run the plants and the land. They make poor people rich and rich people poor. They determine precisely what should be produced, in what quality, and in what quantities. They are merciless egoistic bosses, full of whims and fancies, changeable and unpredictable. For them nothing counts other than their own satisfaction. They do not care a whit for past merit and vested interests. If something is offered to them that they like better or that is cheaper, they desert their old purveyors. In their capacity as buyers and consumers they are hard hearted and callous, without consideration for other people.
Only the sellers of goods and services of the first order are in direct contact with the consumers and directly depend on their orders. But they transmit the orders received from the public to all those producing goods and services of the higher orders. For the manufacturers of consumers' goods, the retailers, the service trades, and the professions are forced to acquire what they need for the conduct of their own business from those purveyors who offer them at the cheapest price. If they were not intent upon buying in the cheapest market and arranging their processing of the factors of production so as to fill the demands of the consumers in the best and cheapest way, they would be forced to go out of business. More efficient men who succeeded better in buying and processing the factors of production would supplant them. The consumer is in a position to give free rein to his caprices and fancies. The entrepreneurs, capitalists, and farmers have their hands tied; they are bound to comply in their operations with the orders of the buying public. Even deviation from the lines prescribed by the demand of the consumers debits their account. The slightest deviation, whether willfully brought about or caused by error, bad judgment, or inefficiency, restricts their profits or makes them disappear. A more serious deviation results in losses and thus impairs or entirely absorbs their wealth. Capitalists, entrepreneurs, and landowners can only preserve and increase their wealth by filling best the orders of the consumers. They are not free to spend money which the consumers are not prepared to refund to them in paying more for the products. In the conduct of their business affairs they must be unfeeling and stonyhearted because the consumers, their losses, are themselves unfeeling and stonyhearted.
The consumers determine ultimately not only the prices of the consumers' goods, but no less the prices of all factors of production. They determine the income of every member of the market economy. The consumers, not the entrepreneurs, pay ultimately the wages earned by every worker, the glamorous movie star as well as the charwoman. With every penny spent the consumers determine the direction of all production processes and the minutest details of the organization of all business activities. This state of affairs has been described by calling the market a democracy in which every penny gives a right to cast a ballot.10 It would be more correct to say that a democratic constitution is a scheme to assign to the citizens in the conduct of government the same supremacy the market economy gives them in their capacity as consumers. However, the comparison is imperfect. In the political democracy only the votes cast for the majority candidate or the majority plan are effective in shaping the course of affairs. The votes polled by the minority do not directly influence policies. But on the market no vote is cast in vain. Every penny spent has the power to work upon the production processes. The publishers cater not only to the majority by publishing detective stories, but also to the minority reading lyrical poetry and philosophical tracts. The bakeries bake bread not only for healthy people, but also for the sick on special diets. The decision of a consumer is carried into effect with the full momentum he gives it through his readiness to spend a definite amount of money.
It is true, in the market the various consumers have not the same voting right. The rich cast more votes than the poorer citizens. But this inequality is itself the outcome of a previous voting process. To be rich, in a pure market economy, is the outcome of success in filling best the demands of the consumers. A wealthy man can preserve his wealth only by continuing to serve the consumers in the most efficient way.
Thus the owners of the material factors of production and the entrepreneurs are virtually mandataries or trustees of the consumers, revocably appointed by an election daily repeated.
There is in the operation of a market economy only one instance in which the proprietary class is not completely subject to the supremacy of the consumers. Monopoly prices are an infringement of the sway of the consumers.
The Metaphorical Employment of the Terminology of Political Rule
The orders given by businessmen in the conduct of their affairs can be heard and seen. Nobody can fail to become aware of them. Even messenger boys know that the boss runs things around the shop. But it requires a little more brains to notice the entrepreneur's dependence on the market. The orders given by the consumers are not tangible; they cannot be perceived by the senses. Many people lack the discernment to take cognizance of them. They fall victim to the delusion that entrepreneurs and capitalists are irresponsible autocrats whom nobody calls to account for their actions.11
The outgrowth of this mentality is the practice of applying to business the terminology of political rule and military action. Successful businessmen are called kings or dukes, their enterprises an empire, a kingdom, or a dukedom. If this idiom were only a harmless metaphor, there would be no need to criticize it. But it is the source of serious errors which play a sinister role in contemporary doctrines.
Government is an apparatus of compulsion and coercion. It has the power to obtain obedience by force. The political sovereign, be it an autocrat or the people as represented by its mandataries, has power to crush rebellions as long as his ideological might subsists.
The position which entrepreneurs and capitalists occupy in the market economy is of a different character. A "chocolate king" has no power over the consumers, his patrons. He provides them with chocolate of the best possible quality and at the cheapest price. He does not rule the consumers, he serves them. The consumers are not tied to him. They are free to stop patronizing his shops. He loses his "kingdom" if the consumers prefer to spend their pennies elsewhere. Nor does he "rule" his workers. He hires their services by paying them precisely that amount which the consumers are ready to restore to him in buying the product. Still less do the capitalists and entrepreneurs exercise political control. The civilized nations of Europe and America were long controlled by governments which did not considerably hinder the operation of the market economy. Today many of these countries too are dominated by parties which are hostile to capitalism and believe that every harm inflicted upon capitalists and entrepreneurs is extremely beneficial to the people.
In an unhampered market economy the capitalists and entrepreneurs cannot expect an advantage from bribing officeholders and politicians. On the other hand, the officeholders and politicians are not in a position to blackmail businessmen and to extort graft from them. In an interventionist country, powerful pressure groups are intent upon securing for their members privileges at the expense of weaker groups and individuals. Then the businessmen may deem it expedient to protect themselves against discriminatory acts on the part of the executive officers and the legislature by bribery; once used to such methods, they may even try to employ them in order to secure privileges for themselves. At any rate the fact that businessmen corrupt politicians and officeholders and are blackmailed by such people does not indicate that they are supreme and rule the countries. It is those ruled — and not the rulers — who bribe and are paying tribute.
The majority of businessmen are prevented from resorting to bribery either by their moral convictions or by fear. They venture to preserve the free enterprise system and to defend themselves against discrimination by legitimate democratic methods. They form trade associations and try to influence public opinion. The results of these endeavors have been rather poor, as is evidenced by the triumphant advance of anticapitalist policies. The best that they have been able to achieve is to delay for a while some especially obnoxious measures.
Demagogues misrepresent this state of affairs in the crassest way. They tell us that these associations of bankers and manufacturers are the true rulers of their countries and that the whole apparatus of what they call "plutodemocratic" government is dominated by them. A simple enumeration of the laws passed in the last decades by any country's legislature is enough to explode such legends.
In nature there prevail irreconcilable conflicts of interests. The means of subsistence are scarce. Proliferation tends to outrun subsistence. Only the fittest plants and animals survive. The antagonism between an animal starving to death and another that snatches the food away from it is implacable.
Social cooperation under the division of labor removes such antagonisms. It substitutes partnership and mutuality for hostility. The members of society are united in a common venture.
The term competition as applied to the conditions of animal life signifies the rivalry between animals which manifests itself in their search for food. We may call this phenomenon biological competition. Biological competition must not be confused with social competition, i.e., the striving of individuals to attain the most favorable position in the system of social cooperation. As there will always be positions which men value more highly than others, people will strive for them and try to outdo rivals. Social competition is consequently present in every conceivable mode of social organization. If we want to think of a state of affairs in which there is no social competition, we must construct the image of a socialist system in which the chief in his endeavors to assign to everybody his place and task in society is not aided by any ambition on the part of his subjects. The individuals are entirely indifferent and do not apply for special appointments. They behave like the stud horses which do not try to put themselves in a favorable light when the owner picks out the stallion to impregnate his best brood mare. But such people would no longer be acting men.
In a totalitarian system social competition manifests itself in the endeavors of people to court the favor of those in power. In the market economy competition manifests itself in the facts that the sellers must outdo one another by offering better or cheaper goods and services and that the buyers must outdo one another by offering higher prices. In dealing with this variety of social competition which may be called catallactic competition, we must guard ourselves against various popular fallacies.
The classical economists favored the abolition of all trade barriers preventing people from competing on the market. Such restrictive laws, they explained, result in shifting production from those places in which natural conditions of production are more favorable to places in which they are less favorable. They protect the less efficient man against his more efficient rival. They tend to perpetuate backward technological methods of production. In short they curtail production and thus lower the standard of living. In order to make all people more prosperous, the economists argued, competition should be free to everybody. In this sense they used the term free competition. There was nothing metaphysical in their employment of the term free. They advocated the nullification of privileges barring people from access to certain trades and markets. All the sophisticated lucubrations caviling at the metaphysical connotations of the adjective free as applied to competition are spurious; they have no reference whatever to the catallactic problem of competition.
As far as natural conditions come into play, competition can only be "free" with regard to those factors of production which are not scarce and therefore not objects of human action. In the catallactic field competition is always restricted by the inexorable scarcity of the economic goods and services. Even in the absence of institutional barriers erected to restrict the number of those competing, the state of affairs is never such as to enable everyone to compete in all sectors of the market. In each sector only comparatively small groups can engage in competition.
Catallactic competition, one of the characteristic features of the market economy, is a social phenomenon. It is not a right, guaranteed by the state and the laws, that would make it possible for every individual to choose ad libitum the place in the structure of the division of labor he likes best. To assign to everybody his proper place in society is the task of the consumers. Their buying and abstention from buying is instrumental in determining each individual's social position. Their supremacy is not impaired by any privileges granted to the individuals qua producers. Entrance into a definite branch of industry is virtually free to newcomers only as far as the consumers approve of this branch's expansion or as far as the newcomers succeed in supplanting those already occupied in it by filling better or more cheaply the demands of the consumers. Additional investment is reasonable only to the extent that it fills the most urgent among the not-yet-satisfied needs of the consumers. If the existing plants are sufficient, it would be wasteful to invest more capital in the same industry. The structure of market prices pushes the new investors into other branches.
It is necessary to emphasize this point because the failure to grasp it is at the root of many popular complaints about the impossibility of competition. Some fifty years ago people used to declare: You cannot compete with the railroad companies; it is impossible to challenge their position by starting competing lines; in the field of land transportation there is no longer competition. The truth was that at that time the already-operating lines were by and large sufficient. For additional capital investment the prospects were more favorable in improving the serviceableness of the already operating lines and in other branches of business than in the construction of new railroads. However, this did not interfere with further technological progress in transportation technique. The bigness and the economic "power" of the railroad companies did not impede the emergence of the motorcar and the airplane.
Today people assert the same with regard to various branches of big business: You cannot challenge their position; they are too big and too powerful. But competition does not mean that anybody can prosper by simply imitating what other people do. It means the opportunity to serve the consumers in a better or cheaper way without being restrained by privileges granted to those whose vested interests the innovation hurts. What a newcomer who wants to defy the vested interests of the old established firms needs most is brains and ideas. If his project is fit to fill the most urgent of the unsatisfied needs of the consumers or to purvey them at a cheaper price than their old purveyors, he will succeed in spite of the much-tallied-of bigness and power of the old firms.
Catallactic competition must not be confused with prizefights and beauty contests. The purpose of such fights and contests is to discover who is the best boxer or the prettiest girl. The social function of catallactic competition is, to be sure, not to establish who is the smartest boy and to reward the winner by a title and medals. Its function is to safeguard the best satisfaction of the consumers which they can attain under the given state of the economic data.
Equality of opportunity is a factor neither in prizefights and beauty contests nor in any other field of competition, whether biological or social. The immense majority of people are by the physiological structure of their bodies deprived of a chance to attain the honors of a boxing champion or a beauty queen. Only very few people can compete on the labor market as opera singers and movie stars. The most favorable opportunity to compete in the field of scientific achievement is provided to the university professors. Yet, thousands and thousands of professors pass away without leaving any trace in the history of ideas and scientific progress, while many of the handicapped outsiders win glory through marvelous contributions.
It is usual to find fault with the fact that catallactic competition is not open to everybody in the same way. The start is much more difficult for a poor boy than for the son of a wealthy man. But the consumers are not concerned about the problem of whether or not the men who shall serve them start their careers under equal conditions. Their only interest is to secure the best possible satisfaction of their needs. If the system of hereditary property is more efficient in this regard, they prefer it to other less-efficient systems. They look at the matter from the point of view of social expediency and social welfare, not from the point of view of an alleged, imaginary, and unrealizable "natural" right of every individual to compete with equal opportunity. The realization of such a right would require placing at a disadvantage those born with better intelligence and greater will power than the average man. It is obvious that this would be absurd.
The term competition is mainly employed as the antithesis of monopoly. In this mode of speech the term monopoly is applied in different meanings which must be clearly separated.
The first connotation of monopoly, very frequently implied in the popular use of the term, signifies a state of affairs in which the monopolist, whether an individual or a group of individuals, exclusively controls one of the vital conditions of human survival. Such a monopolist has the power to starve to death all those who do not obey his orders. He dictates and the others have no alternative but either to surrender or to die. With regard to such a monopoly there is no market or any other kind of catallactic competition. The monopolist is the master and the rest are slaves entirely dependent on his good graces. There is no need to dwell upon this kind of monopoly. It has no reference whatever to a market economy. It is enough to cite one instance. A world-embracing socialist state would exercise such an absolute and total monopoly; it would have the power to crush its opponents by starving them to death.12
The second connotation of monopoly differs from the first in that it describes a state of affairs compatible with the conditions of a market economy. A monopolist in this sense is an individual or a group of individuals, fully combining for joint action, who has the exclusive control of the supply of a definite commodity. If we define the term monopoly in this way, the domain of monopoly appears very vast. The products of the processing industries are more or less different from one another. Each factory turns out products different from those of the other plants. Each hotel has a monopoly on the sale of its services on the site of its premises. The professional services rendered by a physician or a lawyer are never perfectly equal to those rendered by any other physician or lawyer. Except for certain raw materials, foodstuffs, and other staple goods, monopoly is everywhere on the market.
However, the mere phenomenon of monopoly is without any significance and relevance for the operation of the market and the determination of prices. It does not give the monopolist any advantage in selling his products. Under copyright law every rhymester enjoys a monopoly in the sale of his poetry. But this does not influence the market. It may happen that no price whatever can be realized for his stuff and that his books can only be sold at their waste-paper value.
Monopoly in this second connotation of the term becomes a factor in the determination of prices only if the demand curve for the monopoly good concerned is shaped in a particular way. If conditions are such that the monopolist can secure higher net proceeds by selling a smaller quantity of his product at a higher price than by selling a greater quantity of his supply at a lower price, there emerges a monopoly price higher than the potential market price would have been in the absence of monopoly. Monopoly prices are an important market phenomenon, while monopoly as such is only important if it can result in the formation of monopoly prices.
It is customary to call prices which are not monopoly prices competitive prices. While it is questionable whether or not this terminology is expedient, it is generally accepted and it would he difficult to change it. But one must guard oneself against its misinterpretation. It would be a serious blunder to deduce from the antithesis between monopoly price and competitive price that the monopoly price is the outgrowth of the absence of competition. There is always catallactic competition on the market. Catallactic competition is no less a factor in the determination of monopoly prices than it is in the determination of competitive prices. The shape of the demand curve that makes the appearance of monopoly prices possible and directs the monopolists' conduct is determined by the competition of all other commodities competing for the buyers' dollars. The higher the monopolist fixes the price at which he is ready to sell, the more potential buyers turn their dollars toward other vendible goods. On the market every commodity competes with all other commodities.
There are people who maintain that the catallactic theory of prices is of no use for the study of reality because there has never been "free" competition or because, at least today, there is no longer any such thing. All these doctrines are wrong.13 They misconstrue the phenomena and simply do not know what competition really is. It is a fact that the history of the last decades is a record of policies aiming at the restriction of competition. It is the manifest intention of these schemes to grant privileges to certain groups of producers by protecting them against the competition of more efficient competitors. In many instances these policies have brought about the conditions required for the emergence of monopoly prices. In many other instances this was not the case and the result was only a state of affairs preventing many capitalists, entrepreneurs, farmers, and workers from entering those branches of industry in which they would have rendered the most valuable services to their fellow citizens. Catallactic competition has been seriously restricted, but the market economy is still in operation although sabotaged by government and labor-union interference. The system of catallactic competition is still functioning although the productivity of labor has been seriously reduced.
It is the ultimate end of these anticompetition policies to substitute for capitalism a socialist system of planning in which there is no catallactic competition at all. While shedding crocodile tears about the decline of competition, the planners want to abolish this "mad" competitive system. They have attained their goal in some countries. But in the rest of the world they have only restricted competition in some branches of business by increasing the number of people competing in other branches.
The forces aiming at a restriction of competition play a great role in our day. It is an important task of the history of our age to deal with them. Economic theory has no need to refer to them in particular. The fact that there are trade barriers, privileges, cartels, government monopolies and labor unions is merely a datum of economic history. It does not require special theorems for its interpretation.
The words freedom and liberty signified for the most eminent representatives of mankind one of the most precious and desirable goods. Today it is fashionable to sneer at them. They are, trumpets the modern sage, "slippery" notions and "bourgeois" prejudices.
Freedom and liberty are not to be found in nature. In nature there is no phenomenon to which these terms could be meaningfully applied. Whatever man does, he can never free himself from the restraints which nature imposes upon him. If he wants to succeed in acting, he must submit unconditionally to the laws of nature.
Freedom and liberty always refer to interhuman relations. A man is free as far as he can live and get on without being at the mercy of arbitrary decisions on the part of other people. In the frame of society everybody depends upon his fellow citizens. Social man cannot become independent without forsaking all the advantages of social cooperation. The self-sufficient individual is independent, but he is not free. He is at the mercy of everybody who is stronger than himself. The stronger fellow has the power to kill him with impunity. It is therefore nonsense to rant about an alleged "natural" and "inborn" freedom which people are supposed to have enjoyed in the ages preceding the emergence of social bonds. Man was not created free; what freedom he may possess has been given to him by society. Only societal conditions can present a man with an orbit within the limits of which he can attain liberty.
Liberty and freedom are the conditions of man within a contractual society. Social cooperation under a system of private ownership of the means of production means that within the range of the market the individual is not bound to obey and to serve an overlord. As far as he gives and serves other people, he does so of his own accord in order to be rewarded and served by the receivers. He exchanges goods and services; he does not do compulsory labor and does not pay tribute. He is certainly not independent. He depends on the other members of society. But this dependence is mutual. The buyer depends on the seller and the seller on the buyer.
The main concern of many writers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was to misrepresent and to distort this obvious state of affairs. The workers, they said, are at the mercy of their employers. Now, it is true that the employer has the right to fire the employee. But if he makes use of this right in order to indulge in his whims, he hurts his own interests. It is to his own disadvantage if he discharges a better man in order to hire a less efficient one. The market does not directly prevent anybody from arbitrarily inflicting harm on his fellow citizens; it only puts a penalty upon such conduct. The shopkeeper is free to be rude to his customers provided he is ready to bear the consequences. The consumers are free to boycott a purveyor provided they are ready to pay the costs. What impels every man to the utmost exertion in the service of his fellow men and curbs innate tendencies toward arbitrariness and malice is, in the market, not compulsion and coercion on the part of gendarmes, hangmen, and, penal courts; it is self-interest. The member of a contractual society is free because he serves others only in serving himself. What restrains him is only the inevitable natural phenomenon of scarcity. For the rest he is free in the range of the market. There is no kind of freedom and liberty other than the kind which the market economy brings about. In a totalitarian hegemonic society the only freedom that is left to the individual, because it cannot be denied to him, is the freedom to commit suicide.
The state, the social apparatus of coercion and compulsion, is by necessity a hegemonic bond. If government were in a position to expand its power ad libitum, it could abolish the market economy and substitute for it all-around totalitarian socialism. In order to prevent this, it is necessary to curb the power of government. This is the task of all constitutions, bills of rights, and laws. This is the meaning of all the struggles which men have fought for liberty.
The detractors of liberty are in this sense right in calling it a "bourgeois" issue and in blaming the rights guaranteeing liberty for being negative. In the realm of state and government, liberty means restraint imposed upon the exercise of the police power.
Liberty and freedom are terms employed for the description of the social conditions of the individual members of a market society in which the power of the indispensable hegemonic bond, the state, is curbed lest the operation of the market be endangered. In a totalitarian system there is nothing to which the attribute "free" could be attached but the unlimited arbitrariness of the dictator.
There would be no need to dwell upon this obvious fact if the champions of the abolition of liberty had not purposely brought about a semantic confusion. They realized that it was hopeless for them to fight openly and sincerely for restraint and servitude. The notions liberty and freedom had such prestige that no propaganda could shake their popularity. Since time immemorial in the realm of Western civilization liberty has been considered as the most precious good. What gave to the West its eminence was precisely its concern about liberty, a social ideal foreign to the oriental peoples. The social philosophy of the Occident is essentially a philosophy of freedom. The main content of the history of Europe and the communities founded by European emigrants and their descendants in other parts of the world was the struggle for liberty. "Rugged" individualism is the signature of our civilization. No open attack upon the freedom of the individual had any prospect of success.
Thus the advocates of totalitarianism chose other tactics. They reversed the meaning of words. They call true or genuine liberty the condition of the individuals under a system in which they have no right other than to obey orders. They call themselves true liberals because they strive after such a social order. They call democracy the Russian methods of dictatorial government. They call the labor union methods of violence and coercion "industrial democracy."
They call freedom of the press a state of affairs in which only the government is free to publish books and newspapers. They define liberty as the opportunity to do the "right" things, and, of course, they arrogate to themselves the determination of what is right and what is not. In their eyes government omnipotence means full liberty. To free the police power from all restraints is the true meaning of their struggle for freedom.
The market economy, say these self-styled liberals, grants liberty only to a parasitic class of exploiters, the bourgeoisie. These scoundrels enjoy the freedom to enslave the masses. The wage earner is not free; he must toil for the sole benefit of his masters, the employers. The capitalists appropriate to themselves what according to the inalienable rights of man should belong to the worker. Under socialism the worker will enjoy freedom and human dignity because he will no longer have to slave for a capitalist. Socialism means the emancipation of the common man, means freedom for all. It means, moreover, riches for all.
These doctrines have been able to triumph because they did not encounter effective rational criticism. Some economists did a brilliant job in unmasking their crass fallacies and contradictions. But the public ignores the teachings of economics. They are too heavy for the readers of tabloids and pulp magazines. The arguments advanced by average politicians and writers against socialism are either silly or irrelevant. It is useless to stand upon an alleged "natural" right of individuals to own property if other people assert that the foremost "natural" right is that of income equality. Such disputes can never be settled. It is beside the point to criticize nonessential, attendant features of the socialist program. One does not refute socialism by attacking the socialists' stand on religion, marriage, birth control, and art. Moreover, in dealing with such matters the critics of socialism were often in the wrong. Thus, for instance, they were so inept as to turn the disapproval of the Bolshevist persecution of the Russian Church into an approbation of this debased, adamantly intolerant church and its superstitious practices.
In spite of these serious shortcomings of the defenders of economic freedom it was impossible to fool all the people all the time about the essential features of socialism. The most fanatical planners were forced to admit that their projects involve the abolition of many freedoms people enjoy under capitalism and "plutodemocracy." Pressed hard, they resorted to a new subterfuge. The freedom to be abolished, they emphasize, is merely the spurious "economic" freedom of the capitalists that harms the common man. Outside the "economic sphere" freedom will not only be fully preserved, but considerably expanded. "Planning for Freedom" has lately become the most popular slogan of the champions of totalitarian government and the Russification of all nations.
The fallacy of this argument stems from the spurious distinction between two realms of human life and action, entirely separated from one another, viz., the "economic" sphere and the "noneconomic" sphere. With regard to this issue there is no need to add anything to what has been said in the preceding parts of this book. However, there is another point to be stressed.
Freedom, as people enjoyed it in the democratic countries of Western civilization in the years of the old liberalism's triumph, was not a product of constitutions, bills of rights, laws, and statutes. Those documents aimed only at safeguarding liberty and freedom, firmly established by the operation of the market economy, against encroachments on the part of officeholders. No and no civil law can guarantee and bring about freedom otherwise than by supporting and defending the fundamental institutions of the market economy. Government means always coercion and compulsion and is by necessity the opposite of liberty. Government is a guarantor of liberty and is compatible with liberty only if its range is adequately restricted to the preservation of economic freedom. Where there is no market economy, the best-intentioned provisions of constitutions and laws remain a dead letter.
The freedom of man under capitalism is an effect of competition. The worker does not depend on the good graces of an employer. If his employer discharges him, he finds another employer.14 The consumer is not at the mercy of the shopkeeper. He is free to patronize another shop if he likes. Nobody must kiss other people's hands or fear their disfavor. Interpersonal relations are businesslike. The exchange of goods and services is mutual; it is not a favor to sell or to buy, it is a transaction dictated by selfishness on either side.
It is true that in his capacity as a producer every man depends either directly — e.g., the entrepreneur — or indirectly — e.g., the hired worker — on the demands of the consumers. However, this dependence upon the supremacy of the consumers is not unlimited. If a man has a weighty reason for defying the sovereignty of the consumers, he can try it. There is in the range of the market a very substantial and effective right to resist oppression. Nobody is forced to go into the liquor industry or into a gun factory if his conscience objects. He may have to pay a price for his conviction; there are in this world no ends the attainment of which is gratuitous. But it is left to a man's own decision to choose between a material advantage and the call of what he believes to be his duty. In the market economy the individual alone is the supreme arbiter in matters of his satisfaction.15
Capitalist society has no means of compelling a man to change his occupation or his place or work other than to reward those complying with the wants of the consumers by higher pay. It is precisely this kind of pressure which many people consider as unbearable and hope to see abolished under socialism. They are too dull to realize that the only alternative is to convey to the authorities full power to determine in what branch and at what place a man should work.
In his capacity as a consumer man is no less free. He alone decides what is more and what is less important for him. He chooses how to spend his money according to his own will.
The substitution of economic planning for the market economy removes all freedom and leaves to the individual merely the right to obey. The authority directing all economic matters controls all aspects of a man's life and activities. It is the only employer. All labor becomes compulsory labor because the employee must accept what the chief deigns to offer him. The economic tsar determines what and how much of each the consumer may consume. There is no sector of human life in which a decision is left to the individual's value judgments. The authority assigns a definite task to him, trains him for this job, and employs him at the place and in the manner it deems expedient.
As soon as the economic freedom which the market economy grants to its members is removed, all political liberties and bills of rights become humbug. Habeas corpus and trial by jury are a sham if, under the pretext of economic expediency, the authority has full power to relegate every citizen it dislikes to the arctic or to a desert and to assign him "hard labor" for life. Freedom of the press is a mere blind if the authority controls all printing offices and paper plants. And so are all the other rights of men.
A man has freedom as far as he shapes his life according to his own plans. A man whose fate is determined by the plans of a superior authority, in which the exclusive power to plan is vested, is not free in the sense in which this term "free" was used and understood by all people until the semantic revolution of our day brought about a confusion of tongues.
7. Inequality of Wealth and Income
The inequality of individuals with regard to wealth and income is an essential feature of the market economy.
The fact that freedom is incompatible with equality of wealth and income has been stressed by many authors. There is no need to enter into an examination of the emotional arguments advanced in these writings. Neither is it necessary to raise the question of whether the renunciation of liberty could in itself guarantee the establishment of equality of wealth and income and whether or not a society could subsist on the basis of such an equality. Our task is merely to describe the role inequality lays in the framework of the market society.
In the market society, direct compulsion and coercion are practiced only for the sake of preventing acts detrimental to social cooperation. For the rest, individuals are not molested by the police power. The law-abiding citizen is free from the interference of jailers and hangmen. What pressure is needed to impel an individual to contribute his share to the cooperative effort of production is exercised by the price structure of the market. This pressure is indirect. It puts on each individual's contribution a premium graduated according to the value which the consumers attach to this contribution. In rewarding the individual's effort according to its value, it leaves to everybody the choice between a more or less complete utilization of his own faculties and abilities. This method can, of course, not eliminate the disadvantages of inherent personal inferiority. But it provides an incentive to everybody to exert his faculties and abilities to the utmost.
The only alternative to this financial pressure as exercised by the market is direct pressure and compulsion as exercised by the police power. The authorities must be entrusted with the task of determining the quantity and quality of work that each individual is bound to perform. As individuals are unequal with regard to their abilities, this requires an examination of their personalities on the part of the authorities. The individual becomes an inmate of a penitentiary, as it were, to whom a definite task is assigned. If he fails to achieve what the authorities have ordered him to do, he is liable to punishment.
It is important to realize in what the difference consists between direct pressure exercised for the prevention of crime and that exercised for the extortion of a definite performance. In the former case all that is required from the individual is to avoid a certain mode of conduct, precisely determined by law. As a rule it is easy to establish whether or not this interdiction has been observed. In the second case the individual is liable to accomplish a definite task; the law forces him toward an indefinite action, the determination of which is left to the decision of the executive power. The individual is bound to obey whatever the administration orders him to do. Whether or not the command issued by the executive power was adequate to his forces and faculties and whether or not he has complied with it to the best of his abilities is extremely difficult to establish. Every citizen is with regard to all aspects of his personality and with regard to all manifestations of his conduct subject to the decisions of the authorities. In the market economy in a trial before a penal court the prosecutor is obliged to produce sufficient evidence that the defendant is guilty. But in matters of the performance of compulsory work it devolves upon the defendant to prove that the task assigned to him was beyond his abilities or that he has done all that can be expected of him. The administrators combine in their persons the offices of the legislator, the executor of the law, the public prosecutor, and the judge. The defendants are entirely at their mercy. This is what people have in mind when speaking of lack of freedom.
No system of the social division of labor can do without a method that makes individuals responsible for their contributions to the joint productive effort. If this responsibility is not brought about by the price structure of the market and the inequality of wealth and income it begets, it must be enforced by the methods of direct compulsion as practiced by the police.
- 1. For this man these goods are not goods of the first order, but goods of a higher order, factors of further production.
- 2. Cf., e.g., R. v. Strigl, Kapital und Produktion (Vienna, 1934), p. 3.
- 3. Cf. Frank A. Fetter in Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences. III, 190.
- 4. Cf. below, pp. 522–531.
- 5. For an examination of the Russian "experiment" see Mises, Planned Chaos (Irvington-on-Hudson, 1947), pp. 80–87.
- 6. The most amazing product of this widespread method of thought is the book of a Prussian professor, Bernhard Laum (Die geschlossene Wirtschaft [Tübingen, 19331). Laum assembles a vast collection of quotations from ethnographical writings showing that many primitive tribes considered economic autarky as natural, necessary, and morally good. He concludes from this that autarky is the natural and most expedient state of economic management and that the return to autarky which he advocates is "a biologically necessary process" (p. 491).
- 7. Guy de Maupassant analyzed Flaubert's alleged hatred of the bourgeois in Etude sur Gustave Flaubert (reprinted in Oeuvres complètes de Gustave Flaubert [Paris, 1885], Vol. VII). Flaubert, says Maupassant, "aimait le monde" (p. 67); that is, he liked to move in the circle of Paris society composed of aristocrats, wealthy bourgeois, and the élite of artists, writers, philosophers, scientists, statesmen, and entrepreneurs (promoters). He used the term bourgeois as synonymous with imbecility and defined it this way: "I call a bourgeois whoever has mean thoughts (pense bassement)." Hence it is obvious that in employing the term bourgeois Flaubert did not have in mind the bourgeoisie as a social class, but a kind of imbecility he most frequently found in this class. He was full of contempt for the common man ("le bon peuple") as well. However, as he had more frequent contacts with the "gens du monde" than with workers, the stupidity of the former annoyed him more than that of the latter (p. 59). These observations of Maupassant held good not only for Flaubert, but for the "antibourgeois" sentiments of all artists. Incidentally, it must be emphasized that from a Marxian point of view Flaubert is a "bourgeois" writer and his novels arc an "ideological superstructure" of the "capitalist or bourgeois mode of production."
- 8. The Nazis used "Jewish" as a synonym of both "capitalist" and "bourgeois."
- 9. Cf. above, pp. 81–84.
- 10. Cf. Frank A. Fetter, The Principles of Economics (3d ed. New York, 1913), pp. 394, 410.
- 11. Beatrice Webb, Lady Passfield, herself the daughter of a wealthy businessman, may be quoted as an outstanding example of this mentality. Cf. My Apprenticeship (New York, 1926), p. 42.
- 12. Cf. Trotsky (1937) as quoted by Hayek, The Road to Serfdom (London, 1944) p. 89.
- 13. For a refutation of the fashionable doctrines of imperfect and of monopolistic competition, cf. F.A. Hayek, Individualism and Economic Order (Chicago, 1948), pp. 92–118.
- 14. See below, pp. 595–596.
- 15. In the political sphere resistance to oppression practiced by the established government is the ultima ratio of those oppressed. However illegal and unbearable the oppression, however lofty and noble the motives of the rebels, and however beneficial the consequences of their violent resistance, a revolution is always an illegal act, disintegrating the established order of state and government. It is an essential mark of civil government that it is in its territory the only agency which is in a position to resort to measures of violence or to declare legitimate whatever violence is practiced by other agencies. A revolution is an act of warfare between the citizens, it abolishes the very foundations of legality and is at best restrained by the questionable international customs concerning belligerency. If victorious, it can afterwards establish a new legal order and a new government. But it can never enact a legal "right to resist oppression." Such an impunity granted to people venturing armed resistance to the armed forces of the government is tantamount to anarchy and incompatible with any mode of government. The Constituent Assembly of the first French Revolution was foolish enough to decree such a right; but it was not so foolish as to take its own decree seriously.