Front Page Titles (by Subject) 2: Economic Calculation in the Socialist Community - Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis
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2: Economic Calculation in the Socialist Community - Ludwig von Mises, Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis 
Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis, trans. J. Kahane, Foreword by F.A. Hayek (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1981).
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Economic Calculation in the Socialist Community
The theory of economic calculation shows that in the socialistic community economic calculation would be impossible.
In any large undertaking the individual works or departments are partly independent in their accounts. They can reckon the cost of materials and labour, and it is possible at any time for an individual group to strike a separate balance and to sum up the results of its activity in figures. In this way it is possible to ascertain with what success each separate branch has been operated and thereby to make decisions concerning the reorganization, limitations or extension of existing branches or the establishment of new ones. Some mistakes are of course unavoidable in these calculations. They arise partly from the difficulty of allocating overhead costs. Other mistakes again arise from the necessity of calculating from insufficiently determined data, as, e.g. when in calculating the profitability of a certain process, depreciation of the machinery employed is determined by assuming a certain working life for the machine. But all such errors can be confined within certain narrow limits which do not upset the total result of the calculation. Whatever uncertainty remains is attributed to the uncertainty of future conditions inevitable in any imaginable state of affairs.
It seems natural then to ask why individual branches of production in a socialistic community should not make separate accounts in the same manner. But this is impossible. Separate accounts for a single branch of one and the same undertaking are possible only when prices for all kinds of goods and services are established in the market and furnish a basis of reckoning. Where there is no market there is no price system, and where there is no price system there can be no economic calculation.
Some may think that it is possible to permit exchange between the different groups of undertakings so as to establish a system of exchange relations (prices) and in this way create a basis for economic calculation in the socialistic community. Thus within a framework of a unitary economic system which does not recognize private property in the means of production, individual branches of industry with separate administration could be set up, subject of course, to the supreme economic authority, but able to transfer to each other goods and services for a consideration reckoned in a common medium of exchange. This, roughly, is how people conceive the productive organization of socialistic industry when they speak nowadays of complete socialization and the like. But here again the decisive point is evaded. Exchange relations in productive goods can only be established on the basis of private property in the means of production. If the Coal Syndicate delivers coal to the Iron Syndicate a price can be fixed only if both syndicates own the means of production in the industry. But that would not be Socialism but Syndicalism.
For those socialist writers who accept the labour theory of value the problem is, of course, quite simple.
“As soon,” says Engels, “as Society has taken possession of the means of production and applies them to direct social production the labour of everyone, however different its specific use may be, will immediately become direct social labour. The amount of social labour inherent in any product does not require to be ascertained in any roundabout way: everyday experience will show how much of it on the average is necessary. Society can easily reckon how many hours of labour inhere in a steam engine, in a hectolitre of wheat of the last harvest, in a hundred square metres of cloth of a certain quality. Of course society will have to find out how much work is required for the manufacture of every article of consumption. It will have to base its plans on a consideration of the means of production at its disposal—and of course the labour force falls into this category. The utility of the different objects of consumption weighed against one another and against the labour necessary for their production will finally determine the plan. The people will decide everything quite easily without the intervention of the much-vaunted value.”15
It is not part of our business here to restate the critical arguments against the labour theory of value. They interest us at this point only in so far as they enable us to judge the possibility of making labour the basis of economic calculation in a socialistic community.
At first sight it would appear that calculations based on labour take into account the natural conditions of production, as well as conditions arising from the human element. The Marxian concept of the socially necessary labour time takes the law of diminishing returns into consideration in so far as it results from different natural conditions of production. If the demand for a commodity increases and less favourable natural conditions have to be exploited, then the average socially necessary time for the production of a unit also increases. If more favourable conditions of production are discovered then the necessary quantum of social labour declines.16 But this is not enough. Computation of changes in marginal labour costs only take account of natural conditions in so far as they influence labour costs. Beyond that, the “labour” calculation breaks down. It leaves, for instance, the consumption of material factors of production entirely out of account. Suppose the socially necessary labour time for producing two commodities P and Q is ten hours, and that the production of a unit both of P and of Q requires material A, one unit of which is produced by one hour of socially necessary labour, and that the production of P involves two units of A and eight hours of labour, and of Q one unit of A and nine hours of labour. In a calculation based on labour time P and Q are equivalent, but in a calculation based on value P must be worth more than Q. The former calculation is false. Only the latter corresponds to the essence and object of economic calculation. It is true that this surplus by which the value of P exceeds that of Q, this material substratum, “is furnished by nature without the help of man,”17 but provided it is present only in such quantities that it becomes an economic factor it must also in some form enter into economic calculation.
The second deficiency of the labour calculation theory is that it disregards differences in the quality of labour. For Marx all human labour is economically homogeneous, because it is always the “productive expenditure of human brain, muscles, nerves, hands, etc.” “Skilled labour is only intensified, or rather multiplied simple labour, so that a small quantity of skilled labour equals a larger quantity of simple labour. Experience shows that this resolution of skilled into simple constantly happens. A commodity may be the product of highly skilled labour, but its value equates it to the product of simple labour and represents only a certain quantity of simple labour.”18 Böhm-Bawerk was justified in describing this argument as a masterpiece of astounding naivety.19 In criticizing it one may conveniently leave undecided whether one can discover a unitary physiological measure of all human labour, physical as well as “mental.” For it is certain that between men themselves there are differences of capability and skill which result in differing qualities of the goods and services produced. What is ultimately decisive for the solution of the problem of the feasibility of using labour as a basis of economic calculation is the question whether one can assimilate different kinds of work to a common denominator without a valuation of the products by the consumer. It is clear that the argument which Marx brings to bear on this point has failed. Experience does indeed show that commodities enter into exchange regardless of the question whether they are the products of skilled or simple labour. But this would only prove that a definite quantity of simple labour is equal to a definite quantity of skilled labour if it were proved that labour is the source of exchange value. But not only is this unproven; it is exactly what Marx originally set out to prove. The fact that in exchange a substitute relation between simple and skilled labour has arisen in the form of wage rates—a point to which Marx does not here allude—is not in the least a proof of this homogeneity. This process of equating is a result of the working of the market, not its presupposition. Calculations based on labour cost rather than on monetary values would have to establish a purely arbitrary relation by which to resolve skilled into simple labour, and this would make them useless as an instrument for the economic organization of resources.
It was long thought that the labour theory of value provided a necessary ethical basis for the demand to socialize the means of production. We know now that this was an error. Although the majority of socialists have adopted this view and although even Marx with his professedly non-ethical standpoint could not shake it off, it is clear that, on the one hand, the political demands for the introduction of the socialistic method of production neither need nor receive support from the labour theory of value, and, on the other hand, that those who hold different views on the nature and cause of value can also have socialistic tendencies. But from another point of view, the labour theory of value is still an essential dogma for the advocates of the socialistic method of production. For socialistic production in a society based on division of labour seems practicable only if there is an objective recognizable unit of value which would enable economic calculations to be made in an exchangeless and moneyless community and labour seems the only thing to serve this purpose.
[15. ]Engels, Herrn Eugen Dührings Umwälzung der Wissenschaft, pp. 335 ff. Publisher’s Note: In the English edition, Anti-Dühring: Herrn Eugen Dühring’s Revolution in Science, pp. 429 ff.
[16. ]Marx, Das Kapital, Vol. 1, pp. 5 ff. Publisher’s Note: In English, see Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. 3 volumes. Vol. I. The Process of Capitalist Production. Translated from the 3rd German edition by Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling. Edited by Frederick Engels. Revised and amplified according to the 4th German edition by Ernest Untermann. Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Co., 1906. (Note: This Volume I also reprinted by Random House as a Modern Library Giant, with same paging as the Kerr edition.) Vol. II. The Process of Circulation of Capital. Vol. III. The Process of Capitalist Production as a Whole. Both Volumes II and III were translated by Ernest Untermann and edited by Frederick Engels. Both were published by the same Charles H. Kerr & Co. of Chicago in 1909. In this footnote, pp. 5 ff. refers to pp. 45 ff. in the English Vol. I.
[17. ]Ibid., pp. 9 ff. Publisher’s Note: pp. 50 ff. in English translation.
[18. ]Ibid., pp. 10 ff. Publisher’s Note: pp. 51-52 in English translation.
[19. ]Böhm-Bawerk, Kapital und Kapitalzins, Vol. I, 3rd ed. (Innsbruck, 1914), p. 531. Publisher’s Note: Böhm-Bawerk’s three volume work in English is: Böhm-Bawerk, Eugen von. Capital and Interest. 3 volumes. (South Holland, Illinois: Libertarian Press, 1959.) Volume I. History and Critique of Interest Theories. Translated by George D. Huncke and Hans F. Sennholz.