Front Page Titles (by Subject) 3: The Formation of Fortunes Within the Market Economy - Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis
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3: The Formation of Fortunes Within the Market Economy - 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 Formation of Fortunes Within the Market Economy
The assertion that wealth on the one hand and poverty on the other are ever increasing was maintained at first without any conscious connection with an economic theory. Its supporters think they have derived it from an observation of social relations. But the observer’s judgment is influenced by the idea that the sum of wealth in any society is a given quantity, so that if some possess more others must possess less.13 As, however, in every society the growth of new riches and the coming into existence of new poverty are always to be found in a conspicuous manner whilst the slow decline of ancient fortunes and the slow enrichment of less propertied classes easily escape the eye of the inattentive student, it is easy to arrive at the premature conclusion summed up in the socialist catchword “the rich richer, the poor poorer.”
No protracted argument is required to prove that the evidence completely fails to substantiate this assertion. It is quite an unfounded hypothesis that in a society based on the division of labour the wealth of some implies the poverty of others. Under certain assumptions it is true of militarist societies, where there is no division of labour. But of a capitalist society it is untrue. Moreover an opinion formed on the basis of casual observations of that narrow section with which the individual is personally acquainted is quite insufficient proof of the theory of concentration.
The foreigner who visits England equipped with good recommendations has opportunities for learning something of the noble and wealthy families, and their manner of living. If he wants to know more or feels it his duty to make his visit more than a mere pleasure trip, he is allowed to make a flying tour of the works of great enterprises. For the layman, there is nothing particularly attractive about this. At first the noise, the bustle, the activity astonish the visitor, but after inspecting two or three factories the spectacle grows monotonous. Such a study of social relations, on the other hand, as can be undertaken during a short visit to England, is more stimulating. A walk through the slums of London or any other large city produces more vivid impressions, and the effect on the traveller who, when not occupied in this study, will be hurrying from one entertainment to another, is twice as powerful. Thus visits to the slums have become a popular item in the itinerary of the Continental’s obligatory tour of England. In this way the future statesman and economist gathered an impression of the effects of industry on the masses, which became a basis for the social views of a lifetime. He went home firm in the opinion that industry makes few rich and many poor. When later he wrote or spoke about industrial conditions he never forgot to describe the misery he had found in the slums, elaborating the most painful details, often with more or less conscious exaggeration. All the same his picture tells us nothing more than that some people are rich and some poor. But to know this, we do not need the report of people who have seen the suffering with their own eyes. Before they wrote we knew that Capitalism has not yet abolished all misery in the world. What they have to set about proving is that the number of wealthy people is decreasing, while the wealthy individual grows richer, and that the number and the poverty of the poor is steadily on the increase. It would, however, take a theory of economic evolution to prove this.
Attempts to demonstrate by statistical research the progressive increase of the misery of the masses and the growth of wealth among a numerically diminishing rich class are no better than these mere appeals to emotion. The estimates of money incomes at the disposal of statistical inquiry are unusable because the purchasing power of money alters. This fact alone is enough to show that we lack any basis for comparing arithmetically the distribution of income over a number of years. For where it is not possible to reduce to a common denominator the various goods and services of which incomes are composed, one cannot form any series for historical comparison from known statistics of income and capital.
The attention of sociologists is often drawn to the fact that mercantile and industrial wealth, that is, wealth not invested in land and mining property, seldom maintains itself in one family for a long period. The bourgeois families rise steadily from poverty to wealth, sometimes so quickly that a man who has been in want a few years previously becomes one of the richest of his time. The history of modern fortunes is full of stories of beggar boys who have made themselves millionaires. Little is said of the decay of fortunes among the well-to-do. This does not usually take place so quickly as to strike the casual observer; closer examination, however, will reveal how unceasing the process is. Seldom does mercantile and industrial wealth maintain itself in one family for more than two or three generations, unless, by investment in land, it has ceased to be wealth of this nature.14 It becomes property in land, no longer used in the business of active acquisition.
Fortunes invested in capital do not, as the naive economic philosophy of the common man imagines, represent eternal sources of income. That capital yields a profit, that it even maintains itself at all, is by no means a self-evident fact following a priori from the fact of its existence. The capital goods, of which capital is concretely composed, appear and disappear in production; in their place come other goods, ultimately consumption goods, out of the value of which the value of the capital mass must be reconstituted. This is possible only when the production has been successful, that is when it has produced more value than it absorbed. Not only profits of capital, but the reproduction of capital presupposes a successful process of production. The profits of capital and maintenance of capital are always the result of successful enterprise. If this enterprise falls, the investor loses not only the yield on the capital, but his original capital fund as well. One ought carefully to distinguish between produced means of production and the primary factors of production. In agriculture and forestry the original and indestructible forces of the soil are maintained even though production fails, for faulty management cannot dissipate them. They may become valueless through changes in demand, but they cannot lose their inherent capacity to yield produce. This is not so in manufacturing production. There everything can be lost, root and branch. Production must continually replenish capital. The individual capital goods which compose it have a limited life; the existence of capital is prolonged only by the manner in which the owner deliberately reinvests it in production. To own capital one must earn it afresh day by day. In the long run a capital fortune is not a source of income which can be enjoyed in idleness.
To combat these arguments by pointing to the steady yield from “good” capital investments would be wrong. The point is that the investments must be “good,” and to be that, they must be the result of successful speculation. Arithmetical jugglers have calculated the amount to which a penny, invested at compound interest at the time of Christ, would have grown by now. The result is so striking that one might very well ask why nobody was clever enough to reap a fortune this way. But quite apart from all the other obstacles to such a course of action, there is the crowning disability that to every capital investment is attached the risk of a total or partial loss of the original capital sum. This is true not only of the entrepreneur’s investment, but also of the investment the capitalist makes in lending to the entrepreneur, for his investment naturally depends completely on the entrepreneur’s. His risk is smaller, because the entrepreneur offers him as security that part of his own wealth which is outside the immediate undertaking, but qualitatively the two risks are the same. The moneylender too can, and often does, lose his wealth.15
An eternal capital investment is as non-existent as a secure one. Every capital investment is speculative; its success cannot be foreseen with absolute assurance. Not even the idea of an “eternal and secure” capital yield could have arisen if the concepts of capital investment had been taken from the sphere of business and capital enterprise. The ideas of eternity and security come from rents secured on landed property and from the related government securities. It corresponds to actual conditions when the law recognizes as trustee investments only those which are in land or in incomes secured on land or afforded by the State or by other public corporations. In capitalist enterprise there is no secure income and no security of wealth. It is obvious that an entail invested in enterprises outside agriculture, forestry, and mining would be senseless.
If, then, capital sums do not grow of themselves, if for their maintenance alone, quite apart from their fructification and increase, successful speculation is constantly required, there can be no question whatever of a tendency for fortunes to grow bigger and bigger. Fortunes cannot grow; someone has to increase them.16 For this the successful activity of an entrepreneur is needed. The capital reproduces itself, bears fruit and increases only so long as a successful and lucky investment endures. The more rapid the change in economic environment the shorter the time in which an investment is to be considered as good. For the making of new investments, for reorganization of production, for innovations in technique, abilities are needed which only a few possess. If under exceptional circumstances these are inherited from generation to generation, the successors are able to maintain the wealth left by their ancestors, even perhaps to increase it, despite the fact that it may have been split up on inheritance. But if, as is generally the case, the heirs are not equal to the demands which life makes on an entrepreneur, the inherited wealth rapidly vanishes.
When rich entrepreneurs wish to perpetuate their wealth in the family they take refuge in land. The descendants of the Fuggers and the Welsers17 live even today in considerable affluence, if not luxury, but they have long since ceased to be merchants and have transformed their wealth into landed property. They became members of the German nobility, differing in no way from other South German noble families. Numerous merchant families in other countries have undergone the same development; having become rich in trade and industry they have ceased to be merchants and entrepreneurs and have become landowners, not to increase their fortunes but to maintain them and transmit them to their children and their children’s children. The families which did otherwise soon disappeared in obscure poverty. There are few banking families whose business has existed for a hundred years or more, and a closer glance at the affairs of these few will show that they are generally commercially active only in administering fortunes really invested in land and mines. There are no ancient fortunes which thrive in the sense that they continually increase.
[13. ]Michels, Die Verelendungstheorie (Leipzig, 1928), pp. 19 ff.
[14. ]Hansen, Die drei Bevölkerungsstufen (Munich, 1889), pp. 181 ff.
[15. ]This is quite apart from the effects of currency depreciation.
[16. ]Considerant tries to prove the theory of concentration with a metaphor borrowed from mechanics: “Les capitaux suivent aujourd’hui sans contrepoids la loi de leur propre gravitation; c’est que, s’attirant en raison de leurs masses, les richesses sociales se concentrent de plus en plus entre ks mains des grands possesseurs.” (“Capital today follows, without any opposing force, the law of its own magnetism. Capital attracts capital to itself, by mason of its very size. Social wealth is concentrated more and more in the hands of the largest owners.”) Quoted by Tugan-Baranowsky, Der moderne Sozialismus in seiner geschichtlichen Entwicklung, p. 62. That is word play, nothing more.
[17. ]The Fuggers and the Welsers were prominent, wealthy German families, descended respectively from Johannes Fugger, a successful weaver of the first half of the 19th century, and Bartholomeus Welser (d.1559), the head of a large banking and commercial firm (Pub.).