Front Page Titles (by Subject) 4: The Stimulus to Labour - Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis
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4: The Stimulus to Labour - 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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The Stimulus to Labour
It is the duty of the citizen of the socialist commonwealth to work for the community according to his powers and his ability: in return he has a claim against the community for a share in the social dividend. He who unjustifiably omits to perform his duty will be recalled to obedience by the usual methods of state coercion. The economic administration would exercise so great a power over individual citizens that it is inconceivable that anyone could permanently withstand it.
It is not sufficient however that citizens should arrive at their tasks punctually and spend the prescribed number of hours at their posts. They must really work while they are there.
In the capitalist system the worker receives the value of the product of his labour. The static or natural wage-rate tends to such a level that the worker receives the value of the product of his labour: i.e. all that is attributable to his work.64 The worker himself is therefore concerned that his productivity should be as great as possible. This does not apply to work done for piece rates only. The level of time rates is also dependent upon the marginal productivity of the particular kind of work concerned. The technical form of wage payment which is customary does not alter the level of wages in the long run. The wage rate has always a tendency to return to its static level, and time rates are no exception.
But even so work done for time wages gives us an opportunity of observing how work is carried on when the worker feels that he is not working for himself, because there is no connection between his output and his remuneration. Under time wages the more skilful worker has no inducement to do more than the minimum expected from every worker. Piece wages are an incentive to the maximum activity, time wages to the minimum. Under Capitalism the graduation of time wages for different kinds of work greatly mitigates these social effects of the system of payment by time. The worker has a motive in finding a position where the minimum work required is as great as he can perform, because the wage increases with the rise in the minimum requirements.
Only when we depart from the principle of graduating time wages according to the work required does the time wage begin to affect production adversely. This is particularly noticeable in the case of state and municipal employment. Here, in the last few decades, not only has the minimum required from the individual workers been continually reduced, but every incentive to better work—for example, different treatment of the various grades and rapid promotion of industrious and capable workers to better-paid posts—has been removed. The result of this policy has clearly vindicated the principle that the worker only puts forth his best efforts when he knows that he stands to gain by it.
Under Socialism the usual connection between work performed and its remuneration cannot exist. All attempts to ascertain what the work of the individual has produced and thereby to determine the wage rate, must fail because of the impossibility of calculating the productive contributions of the different factors of production. The socialist community could probably make distribution dependent upon certain external aspects of the work performed. But any such differentiation would be arbitrary. Let us suppose that the minimum requirement is determined for each branch of production. Let us suppose this is done on the basis of Rodbertus’ proposal for a “normal working day.” For each industry there is laid down the time which a worker with average strength and effort can continue to work and the amount of work which an average worker of average skill and industry can perform in this time.65 We will completely ignore the technical difficulties in the way of deciding, in any particular concrete example the question whether this minimum has been achieved or not. Nevertheless it is obvious that any such general determination can only be quite arbitrary. The workers of the different industries would never be made to agree on this point. Everyone would maintain that he had been overtasked and would strive for a reduction of the amount set to him. Average quality of the worker, average skill, average strength, average effort, average industry—these are all vague conceptions that cannot be exactly determined.
Now it is evident that the minimum performance calculated for the worker of average quality, skill, and strength will be achieved only by a part—say one-half—of the workers. The others will do less. How can the authorities ascertain whether a performance below the minimum is due to laziness or incapacity? Either the unfettered decision of the administration must be allowed free play, or certain general criteria must be established. Doubtless, as a result, the amount of work performed would be continually reduced.
Under Capitalism everybody who takes an active part in business life is concerned that labour should be paid the whole product. The employer who dismisses a worker who is worth his wage harms himself. The foreman who discharges a good worker and retains a bad one, adversely affects the business results of the department under his charge, and thereby indirectly himself. Here we do not need formal criteria to limit the decisions of those who have to judge the work performed. Under Socialism such criteria would have to be established, because otherwise the powers entrusted to persons in charge could be arbitrarily misused. And so then the worker would have no further interest in the actual performance of work. He would only be concerned to do as much as is prescribed by the formal criteria in order to avoid punishment.
What kind of results will be achieved by workers, who are not directly interested in the product of the work, can be learnt from the experience of a thousand years of slave labour. Officials and employees of state and municipal undertakings provide new examples. An attempt may be made to weaken the argumentative force of the first example by contending that these workers had no interest in the result of their labour because they did not share in the distribution; in the socialist community everyone would realize that he was working for himself and that would spur him on to the highest activity. But this is just the problem. If the worker exerts himself more at the work then he has so much the more labour disutility to overcome. But he will receive only an infinitesimal fraction of the result of his increased effort. The prospect of receiving a two thousand millionth part of the result of his increased effort will scarcely stimulate him to exert his powers any more than he needs.66
Socialist writers generally pass over these ticklish questions in silence or with a few inconsequential remarks. They only bring forward a few moralistic phrases and nothing else.67 The new man of Socialism will be free from base self-seeking; he will be morally infinitely above the man of the frightful age of private property and from a profound knowledge of the coherency of things and from a noble perception of duty he will devote all his powers to the general welfare.
But closer examination shows that these arguments lead to only two conceivable alternatives: free obedience to the moral law with no compulsion save that of the individual conscience, or enforced service under a system of reward and punishment. Neither will achieve the end. The former supplies no sufficient incentive to persist in overcoming the disutility of labour even though it is publicly extolled on every possible occasion and proclaimed in all schools and churches; the latter can only lead to a formal performance of duty, never to performance with the expenditure of all one’s powers.
The writer who has occupied himself most thoroughly with this problem is John Stuart Mill. All subsequent arguments are derived from his. His ideas are to be encountered everywhere in the literature of the subject and in everyday political discussion; they have even become popular catchwords. Everyone is familiar with them even if he is totally unacquainted with the author.68 They have provided for decades one of the main props of the socialist idea, and have contributed more to its popularity than the hate-inspired and frequently contradictory arguments of socialist agitators.
One of the main objections, says Mill, that could be urged against the practicability of the socialist idea, is that each person would be incessantly occupied in evading his fair share of work. But those who urge this objection forget to how great an extent the same difficulty exists under the system under which nine-tenths of the business of society is now conducted. The objection supposes that honest and efficient labour is only to be had from those who are themselves individually to reap the benefit of their own exertions. But under the present system only a small fraction of all labour can do this. Time rates or fixed salaries are the prevailing forms of remuneration. Work is performed by people who have less personal interest in the execution of the task than the members of a socialist community, since, unlike the latter, they are not working for an enterprise in which they are partners. In the majority of cases they are not personally superintended and directed by people whose own interests are bound up with the results of the enterprise. For employees paid by time carry out even the supervisory, managing and technical work. It may be admitted that labour would be more productive in a system in which the whole or a large share of the product of extra exertion belongs to the labourer, but under the present system it is precisely this incentive which is lacking. Even if communistic labour might be less vigorous than that of a peasant proprietor, or a workman labouring on his own account, it would probably be more energetic than that of a labourer for hire, who has no personal interest in the matter at all.
One can easily see the cause of Mill’s mistake. The last representative of the classical school of economists, he did not survive to see the transformation of economics by the subjective theory of value, and he did not know the connection between wage rates and the marginal productivity of labour. He does not perceive that the worker has an interest in doing his utmost because his income depends upon the value of the work which he performs. Without the light of modern economic thought he sees only on the surface and not into the heart of things. Doubtless the individual working for a time wage has no interest in doing more than will keep his job. But if he can do more, if his knowledge, capability and strength permit, he seeks for a post where more is wanted and where he can thus increase his income. It may be that he fails to do this out of laziness, but this is not the fault of the system. The system does all that it can to incite everyone to the utmost diligence, since it ensures to everyone the fruits of his labour. That Socialism cannot do this is the great difference between Socialism and Capitalism.
In the extreme case of obstinate perseverance in not performing a due share of work, the socialist community, Mill thinks, would have reserve powers which society now has at its disposal: it could submit the workers to the rules of a coercive institution. Dismissal, the only remedy at present, is no remedy when no other labourer who can be engaged does any better than his predecessor. The power to dismiss only enables an employer to obtain from his workman the customary amount of labour; but that customary labour may be of any degree of inefficiency.
The fallacy of this argument is plain. Mill does not realize that the wage rate is adjusted according to this customary amount of labour, and that the worker who wishes to earn more must do more. It may be admitted straight away that wherever the time wage prevails the individual worker is obliged to seek elsewhere for a job in which the customary amount of labour is greater because he has no chance of increasing his income by doing more work if he remains where he is. In the circumstances he must change over to piece work, take up another occupation, or even emigrate. In this way millions have emigrated from those European countries, where the customary amount of labour is low, to Western Europe or to the United States, where they have to work more but earn more. The inferior workers remain behind, and are content to work less for less wages.
If this is kept in mind it is also easy to understand the case of supervisory and managerial work performed by employees. Their activities, too, are paid according to the value of the service: they, too, must do as much as they can if they wish to obtain the highest possible income. They can and must be given authority in the name of the entrepreneur to take on and dismiss workers without any fear that they will abuse the power. They perform the social task incumbent upon them of securing that the worker obtains only as much wages as his work is worth, apart from any other consideration whatever.69 The system of economic calculation supplies a sufficient test of the efficacy of their work. This distinguishes their work from the kind of control which could be exercised under Socialism. They harm themselves if from revengeful motives they treat a worker worse than he deserves. (Naturally “deserves” is not used here in any ethical sense.) This authority to dismiss workers and fix their wages which the employer possesses and delegates to subordinates, is considered by socialists to be dangerous in the hands of private individuals. But the socialists overlook the fact that the employer’s ability to exercise this power is limited, that he cannot dismiss and mistreat arbitrarily because the result would be harmful to himself. In endeavouring to purchase labour as cheaply as possible the employer is fulfilling one of his most important social tasks.
Mill admits that in the present state of society the neglect by the uneducated classes of labourers for hire of the duties which they engage to perform is flagrant. This, he thinks, can only be attributed to a low level of education. Under Socialism, with universal education, all citizens would undoubtedly fulfill their duty towards society as zealously as the majority of those members of the upper and middle classes who are in receipt of salaries, perform it today. It is clear that Mill’s thought repeatedly involves the same error. He does not see that in this case too, there is a correspondence between payment and performance. Finally he is compelled to admit that, there can be no doubt that remuneration by fixed salaries does not produce the maximum of zeal in any class of functionaries. To this extent, Mill says, objection could reasonably be made against the socialist organization of labour. It is, however, according to Mill, by no means certain that this inferiority will continue in a socialist community as is assumed by those whose imaginations are little used to range beyond the state of things with which they are familiar. It is not impossible that under Socialism the public spirit will be so general that disinterested devotion to the common welfare will take the place of self seeking. Here Mill lapses into the dreams of the Utopians and conceives it possible that public opinion will be powerful enough to incite the individual to increased zeal for labour, that ambition and self-conceit will be effective motives, and so on.
It need only be said that unfortunately we have no reason to assume that human nature will be any different under Socialism from what it is now. And nothing goes to prove that rewards in the shape of distinctions, material gifts, or even the honourable recognition of fellow citizens, will induce the workers to do more than the formal execution of the tasks allotted to them. Nothing can completely replace the motive to overcome the irksomeness of labour which is given by the opportunity to obtain the full value of that labour.
Many socialists of course think that this argument can be refuted by appeal to the labour which in the past has been performed without the incentive of a wage payment. They instance the case of the labours of scientists and artists, of the doctor who exhausts himself at the sickbed, the soldier who dies the death of a hero, the statesman who sacrifices all for his idea. But the artist and the scientist find their satisfaction in the work itself, and in the recognition which they hope to gain at some time, if only from posterity, even though material gains are not forthcoming. The doctor and the professional soldier are in the same position as many other workers whose work is associated with danger. The supply of workers for these professions reflects their lesser attractiveness, and the wage is adapted correspondingly. But if, in spite of the danger, a man enters the profession for sake of the higher remuneration and other advantages and honours, he cannot evade the dangers without the greatest prejudice to himself. The professional soldier who turned tail, the doctor who refused to treat an infectious case, would endanger their future careers to such an extent that they have virtually no choice in the matter. It cannot be denied that there are doctors who are concerned to do their utmost in cases where no one would detect remissness, and that there are professional soldiers who incur danger when no one would reproach them for avoiding it. But in these exceptional cases, as in the case of the staunch statesman who is ready to die for his principles, man raises himself, as is given to few to do, to the highest peak of manhood, to complete union of will and deed. In his exclusive devotion to a single purpose which sets aside all other desires, thoughts and feelings, removes the instinct of self-preservation and makes him indifferent to pain and suffering, such a man forgets the world, and nothing remains except the one thing to which he sacrifices himself and his life. Of such men it used to be said, according to the estimate set on their aims, that the spirit of the Lord moved them, or that they were possessed of the devil—so incomprehensible were their motives to the ordinary run of mankind.
It is certain that mankind would not have risen above the beasts if it had not had such leaders; but it is certain that mankind does not in the main consist of such men. The essential social problem is to make useful members of society out of the general masses.
Socialist writers have for a long time ceased to exercise their ingenuity on this insoluble problem. Kautsky can tell us nothing more than that habit and discipline will provide incentives to work in the future. “Capital has so accustomed the modern labourer to work day in and day out that he cannot endure to be without his work. There are even people who are so accustomed to work that they do not know what to do with their leisure time and are unhappy when they cannot work.” Kautsky does not seem to fear that this habit could be shaken off more easily than other habits such as eating and sleeping but he is not prepared to rely on this incentive alone, and freely admits that “it is the weakest.” He therefore recommends discipline. Naturally not “military discipline” nor “blind obedience to an authority imposed from above,” but “democratic discipline—the free subjection to elected leadership.” But then doubts arise and he endeavours to dispel them with the idea that under Socialism labour will be so attractive “that it will be a pleasure to work,” but finally admits that this will not be sufficient at first, and at last arrives at the conclusion that besides the attractiveness of the work some other incentive must be brought to bear, “that of the wages of labour.”70
Thus even Kautsky, after many limitations and considerations, arrives at this result, that the irksomeness of labour will only be overcome if the product of labour, and only the product of his own labour, accrues to the worker, in so far as he is not also an owner or an employer. But this is to deny the feasibility of socialistic organization of labour, since private property in the means of production cannot be abolished without abolishing at the same time the possibility of remunerating the labourer according to the product of his labour.
[64. ]Clark, Distribution of Wealth (New York, 1907), pp. 257 ff.
[65. ]Rodbertus, Johann Karl, Briefe und sozialpolitische Aufsätze, ed. R. Meyer (Berlin, 1881), pp. 553 ff. We shall not enter here into Rodbertus’ other proposals for the normal working day. They are throughout based on the untenable view Rodbertus has formed about the problem of value.
[66. ]Schäffle, Die Quintessenz des Sozialismus, 18th ed. (Gotha, 1919), pp. 30 ff.
[67. ]Degenfeld-Schonburg, Die Motive des volkswirtschaftlichen Handelns und der deutsche Marxismus (Tübingen, 1920), p. 80.
[68. ]J. S. Mill, Principles, pp. 226 ff. We cannot here examine how far Mill took over these ideas from others. Their wide diffusion they owe to the brilliant exposition in which Mill has presented them in his much read work.
[69. ]Competition between the entrepreneurs sees to it that wages do not fall below this level.
[70. ]Kautsky, Die soziale Revolution, II, pp. 25 ff.