Front Page Titles (by Subject) 4: Period of Production, Waiting Time, and Period of Provision - Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, vol. 2 (LF ed.)
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4: Period of Production, Waiting Time, and Period of Provision - Ludwig von Mises, Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, vol. 2 (LF ed.) 
Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, in 4 vols., ed. Bettina Bien Greaves (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2007). Vol. 2.
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Period of Production, Waiting Time, and Period of Provision
If one were to measure the length of the period of production spent in the fabrication of the various goods available now, one would have to trace back their history to the point at which the first expenditure of original factors of production took place. One would have to establish when natural resources and labor were first employed for processes which—besides contributing to the production of other goods—also contributed ultimately to the production of the good in question. The solution of this problem would require the solubility of the problem of physical imputation. It would be necessary to establish in quantitative terms to what extent tools, raw materials, and labor which directly or indirectly were used in the production of the good concerned contributed to the result. One would have to go back in these inquiries to the very origins of capital accumulation by saving on the part of people who previously lived from hand to mouth. It is not only practical difficulties which prevent such historical studies. The very insolubility of the problem of physical imputation stops us at the first step of such ventures.
Neither acting man himself nor economic theory needs a measurement of the time expended in the past for the production of goods available today. They would have no use for such data even if they knew them. Acting man is faced with the problem of how to take best advantage of the available supply of goods. He makes his choices in employing each part of this supply in such a way as to satisfy the most urgent of the not yet satisfied wants. For the achievement of this task he must know the length of the waiting time which separates him from the attainment of the various goals among which he has to choose. As has been pointed out and must be emphasized again, there is no need for him to look backward to the history of the various capital goods available. Acting man counts waiting time and the period of production always from today on. In the same way in which there is no need to know whether more or less labor and material factors of production have been expended in the production of the products available now, there is no need to know whether their production has absorbed more or less time. Things are valued exclusively from the point of view of the services they can render for the satisfaction of future wants. The actual sacrifices made and the time absorbed in their production are beside the point. These things belong to the dead past.
It is necessary to realize that all economic categories are related to human action and have nothing at all to do directly with the physical properties of things. Economics is not about goods and services; it is about human choice and action. The praxeological concept of time is not the concept of physics or biology. It refers to the sooner or the later as operative in the actors’ judgments of value. The distinction between capital goods and consumers’ goods is not a rigid distinction based on the physical and physiological properties of the goods concerned. It depends on the position of the actors and the choices they have to make. The same goods can be looked upon as capital goods or as consumers’ goods. A supply of goods ready for immediate enjoyment is capital goods from the point of view of a man who looks upon it as a means for his own sustenance and that of hired workers during a waiting time.
An increase in the quantity of capital goods available is a necessary condition for the adoption of processes in which the period of production and therefore waiting time are longer. If one wants to attain ends which are temporally farther away, one must resort to a longer period of production because it is impossible to attain the end sought in a shorter period of production. If one wants to resort to methods of production with which the quantity of output is higher per unit of input expended, one must lengthen the period of production. For the processes with which output is smaller per unit of input have been chosen only on account of the shorter period of production they require. But on the other hand, not every employment chosen for the utilization of capital goods accumulated by means of additional saving requires a process of production in which the period of production from today on to the maturing of the product is longer than with all processes already adopted previously. It may be that people, having satisfied their more urgent needs, now want goods which can be produced within a comparatively short period. The reason why these goods have not been produced previously was not that the period of production they require was deemed too long, but that there was a more urgent employment open for the factors required.
If one chooses to assert that every increase in the supply of capital goods available results in a lengthening of the period of production and of waiting time, one reasons in the following way: If a are the goods already previously produced and b the goods produced in the new processes started with the aid of the increase in capital goods, it is obvious that people had to wait longer for a and b than they had to wait for a alone. In order to produce a and b it was not only necessary to acquire the capital goods required for the production of a, but also those required for the production of b. If one had expended for an increase of immediate consumption the means of sustenance saved to make workers available for the production of b, one would have attained the satisfaction of some wants sooner.
The treatment of the capital problem customary with those economists who are opposed to the so-called “Austrian” view assumes that the technique employed in production is unalterably determined by the given state of technological knowledge. The “Austrian” economists, on the other hand, show that it is the supply of capital goods available at each moment that determines which of the many known technological methods of production will be employed.8 The correctness of the “Austrian” point of view can easily be demonstrated by a scrutiny of the problem of relative scarcity of capital.
Let us look at the condition of a country suffering from such scarcity of capital. Take, for instance, the state of affairs in Rumania about 1860. What was lacking was certainly not technological knowledge. There was no secrecy concerning the technological methods practiced by the advanced nations of the West. They were described in innumerable books and taught at many schools. The elite of Rumanian youth had received full information about them at the technological universities of Austria, Switzerland, and France. Hundreds of foreign experts were ready to apply their knowledge and skill in Rumania. What was wanting were the capital goods needed for a transformation of the backward Rumanian apparatus of production, transportation, and communication according to Western patterns. If the aid granted to the Rumanians on the part of the advanced foreign nations had consisted merely in providing them with technological knowledge, they would have had to realize that it would take a very long time until they caught up with the West. The first thing for them to have done would have been to save in order to make workers and material factors of production available for the performance of more time-consuming processes. Only then could they successively produce the tools required for the construction of those plants which in the further course were to produce the equipment needed for the construction and operation of modern plants, farms, mines, railroads, telegraph lines, and buildings. Scores of decades would have passed until they had made up for the time lost. There would not have been any means of accelerating this process than by restricting current consumption as far as physiologically possible for the intermediary period.
However, things developed in a different way. The capitalist West lent to the backward countries the capital goods needed for an instantaneous transformation of a great part of their methods of production. It saved them time and made it possible for them to multiply very soon the productivity of their labor. The effect for the Rumanians was that they could immediately enjoy the advantages derived from the modern technological procedures. It was as if they had started at a much earlier date to save and to accumulate capital goods.
Shortage of capital means that one is further away from the attainment of a goal sought than if one had started to aim at it at an earlier date. Because one neglected to do this in the past, the intermediary products are wanting, although the nature-given factors from which they are to be produced are available. Capital shortage is dearth of time. It is the effect of the fact that one was late in beginning the march toward the aim concerned. It is impossible to describe the advantages derived from capital goods available and the disadvantages resulting from the paucity of capital goods without resorting to the time element of sooner and later.9
To have capital goods at one’s disposal is tantamount to being nearer to a goal aimed at. An increment in capital goods available makes it possible to attain temporally remoter ends without being forced to restrict consumption. A loss in capital goods, on the other hand, makes it necessary either to abstain from striving after certain goals which one could aim at before or to restrict consumption. To have capital goods means, other things being equal,10 a temporal gain. As against those who lack capital goods, the capitalist, under the given state of technological knowledge, is in a position to reach a definite goal sooner without restricting consumption and without increasing the input of labor and nature-given material factors of production. His head start is in time. A rival endowed with a smaller supply of capital goods can catch up only by restricting his consumption.
The start which the peoples of the West have gained over the other peoples consists in the fact that they have long since created the political and institutional conditions required for a smooth and by and large uninterrupted progress of the process of larger-scale saving, capital accumulation, and investment. Thus, by the middle of the nineteenth century, they had already attained a state of well-being which far surpassed that of races and nations less successful in substituting the ideas of acquisitive capitalism for those of predatory militarism. Left alone and unaided by foreign capital these backward peoples would have needed much more time to improve their methods of production, transportation, and communication.
It is impossible to understand the course of world affairs and the development of the relations between West and East in the last centuries, if one does not comprehend the importance of this large-scale transfer of capital. The West has given to the East not only technological and therapeutical knowledge, but also the capital goods needed for an immediate practical application of this knowledge. These nations of Eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa have been able, thanks to the foreign capital imported, to reap the fruits of modern industry at an earlier date. They were to some extent relieved from the necessity of restricting their consumption in order to accumulate a sufficient stock of capital goods. This was the true nature of the alleged exploitation of the backward nations on the part of Western capitalism about which their nationalists and the Marxians lament. It was a fecundation of the economically backward nations by the wealth of the more advanced nations.
The benefits derived were mutual. What impelled the capitalists of the West to embark upon foreign investment was the demand on the part of the domestic consumers. Consumers asked for goods which could not be produced at all at home and for a cheapening of goods which could be produced at home only with rising costs. If the consumers of the capitalist West had behaved in a different way or if the institutional obstacles to capital export had proved insurmountable, no capital export would have occurred. There would have been more longitudinal expansion of domestic production instead of lateral expansion abroad.
It is not the task of catallactics but of history to deal with the consequences of the internationalization of the capital market, its working, and its final disintegration brought about by the expropriation policies adopted by the receiving countries. Catallactics has only to scrutinize the effects of a richer or poorer supply of capital goods. We compare the conditions of two isolated market systems A and B. Both are equal in size and population figures, the state of technological knowledge, and in natural resources. They differ from one another only in the supply of capital goods, this supply being larger in A than in B. This enjoins that in A many processes of production are employed with which the output is greater per unit of input than with those employed in B. In B one cannot consider the adoption of these processes on account of the comparative scarcity of capital goods. Their adoption would require a restriction of consumption. In B many manipulations are performed by manual labor which in A are performed by labor-saving machines. In A goods are produced with a longer durability; in B one must abstain from producing them although the lengthening of durability is obtained by a less than proportionate increase in input. In A the productivity of labor and consequently wage rates and the standard of living of the wage earners are higher than in B.11
Prolongation of the Period of Provision Beyond the Expected Duration of the Actor’s Life
The judgments of value which determine the choice between satisfaction in nearer and in remoter periods of the future are expressive of present valuation and not of future valuation. They weigh the significance attached today to satisfaction in the nearer future against the significance attached today to satisfaction in the remoter future.
The uneasiness which acting man wants to remove as far as possible is always present uneasiness, i.e., uneasiness felt in the very moment of action, and it always refers to future conditions. The actor is discontented today with the expected state of affairs in various periods of the future and tries to alter it through purposive conduct.
If action is primarily directed toward the improvement of other people’s conditions and is therefore commonly called altruistic, the uneasiness the actor wants to remove is his own present dissatisfaction with the expected state of other people’s affairs in various periods of the future. In taking care of other people he aims at alleviating his own dissatisfaction.
It is therefore not surprising that acting man often is intent upon prolonging the period of provision beyond the expected duration of his own life.
Some Applications of the Time-Preference Theory
Every part of economics is open to intentional misrepresentation and misinterpretation on the part of people eager to excuse or to justify fallacious doctrines underlying their party programs. To prevent such misuse as far as possible it seems expedient to add some explanatory remarks to the exposition of the time-preference theory.
There are schools of thought which flatly deny that men differ with regard to innate characteristics inherited from their ancestors.12 In the opinion of these authors the only difference between the white men of Western civilization and Eskimos is that the latter are in arrears in their progress toward modern industrial civilization. This merely temporal difference of a few thousand years is insignificant when compared with the many hundreds of thousands of years which were absorbed by man’s evolution from the simian state of his apelike forebears to the conditions of present-day Homo sapiens. It does not support the assumption that racial differences prevail between the various specimens of mankind.
Praxeology and economics are foreign to the issues raised by this controversy. But they must take precautionary measures lest they become implicated by partisan spirit in this clash of antagonistic ideas. If those fanatically rejecting the teachings of modern genetics were not entirely ignorant of economics, they would certainly try to turn the time-preference theory to their advantage. They would refer to the circumstance that the superiority of the Western nations consists merely in their having started earlier in endeavors to save and to accumulate capital goods. They would explain this temporal difference by accidental factors, the better opportunity offered by environment.
Against such possible misinterpretations one must emphasize the fact that the temporal head start gained by the Western nations was conditioned by ideological factors which cannot be reduced simply to the operation of environment. What is called human civilization has up to now been a progress from cooperation by virtue of hegemonic bonds to cooperation by virtue of contractual bonds. But while many races and peoples were arrested at an early stage of this movement, others kept on advancing. The eminence of the Western nations consisted in the fact that they succeeded better in checking the spirit of predatory militarism than the rest of mankind and that they thus brought forth the social institutions required for saving and investment on a broader scale. Even Marx did not contest the fact that private initiative and private ownership of the means of production were indispensable stages in the progress from primitive man’s penury to the more satisfactory conditions of nineteenth-century Western Europe and North America. What the East Indies, China, Japan, and the Mohammedan countries lacked were institutions for safeguarding the individual’s rights. The arbitrary administration of pashas, kadis, rajahs, mandarins, and daimios was not conducive to large-scale accumulation of capital. The legal guarantees effectively protecting the individual against expropriation and confiscation were the foundations upon which the unprecedented economic progress of the West came into flower. These laws were not an outgrowth of chance, historical accidents, and geographical environment. They were the product of reason.
We do not know what course the history of Asia and Africa would have taken if these peoples had been left alone. What happened was that some of these peoples were subject to European rule and others—like China and Japan—were forced by the display of naval power to open their frontiers. The achievements of Western industrialism came to them from abroad. They were ready to take advantage of the foreign capital lent to them and invested in their territories. But they were rather slow in the reception of the ideologies from which modern industrialism had sprung. Their assimilation to Western ways of life is superficial.
We are in the midst of a revolutionary process which will very soon do away with all varieties of colonialism. This revolution is not limited to those countries which were subject to the rule of the British, the French and the Dutch. Even nations which without any infringement of their political sovereignty had profited from foreign capital are intent upon throwing off what they call the yoke of foreign capitalists. They are expropriating the foreigners by various devices—discriminatory taxation, repudiation of debts, undisguised confiscation, foreign exchange restrictions. We are on the eve of the complete disintegration of the international capital market. The economic consequences of this event are obvious; its political repercussions are unpredictable.
In order to appreciate the political consequences of the disintegration of the international capital market it is necessary to remember what effects were brought about by the internationalization of the capital market. Under the conditions of the later nineteenth century it did not matter whether or not a nation was prepared and equipped with the required capital in order to utilize adequately the natural resources of its territory. There was practically free access for everybody to every area’s natural wealth. In searching for the most advantageous opportunities for investment, capitalists and promoters were not stopped by national borderlines. As far as investment for the best possible utilization of the known natural resources was concerned, the greater part of the earth’s surface could be considered as integrated into a uniform world-embracing market system. It is true that this result was attained in some areas, like the British and the Dutch East Indies and Malaya, only by colonial regimes and that autochthonous governments of these territories would probably not have created the institutional setting indispensable for the importation of capital. But Eastern and Southern Europe and the Western Hemisphere had of their own accord joined the community of the international capital market.
The Marxians were intent upon indicting foreign loans and investments for the lust for war, conquest, and colonial expansion. In fact the internationalization of the capital market, together with free trade and the freedom of migration, was instrumental in removing the economic incentives to war and conquest. It no longer mattered for a man where the political boundaries of his country were drawn. The entrepreneur and the investor were not checked by them. Precisely those nations which in the age preceding the first World War were paramount in foreign lending and investment were committed to the ideas of peace-loving “decadent” liberalism. Of the foremost aggressor nations Russia, Italy, and Japan were not capital exporters; they themselves needed foreign capital for the development of their own natural resources. Germany’s imperialist adventures were not supported by its big business and finance.13
The disappearance of the international capital market alters conditions entirely. It abolishes the freedom of access to natural resources. If one of the socialist governments of the economically backward nations lacks the capital needed for the utilization of its natural resources, there will be no means to remedy this situation. If this system had been adopted a hundred years ago, it would have been impossible to exploit the oil fields of Mexico, Venezuela, and Iran, to establish the rubber plantations in Malaya or to develop the banana production of Central America. It is illusory to assume that the advanced nations will acquiesce forever in such a state of affairs. They will resort to the only method which gives them access to badly needed raw materials; they will resort to conquest. War is the alternative to freedom of foreign investment as realized by the international capital market.
The inflow of foreign capital did not harm the receiving nations. It was European capital that accelerated considerably the marvelous economic evolution of the United States and the British Dominions. Thanks to foreign capital the countries of Latin America and Asia are today equipped with facilities for production and transportation which they would have had to forego for a very long time if they had not received this aid. Real wage rates and farm yields are higher today in those areas than they would have been in the absence of foreign capital. The mere fact that almost all nations are vehemently asking today for “foreign aid” explodes the fables of the Marxians and the nationalists.
However, the mere lust for imported capital goods does not resuscitate the international capital market. Investment and lending abroad are only possible if the receiving nations are unconditionally and sincerely committed to the principle of private property and do not plan to expropriate the foreign capitalists at a later date. It was such expropriations that destroyed the international capital market.
Intergovernmental loans are no substitute for the functioning of an international capital market. If they are granted on business terms, they presuppose no less than private loans the full acknowledgment of property rights. If they are granted, as is usually the case, as virtual subsidies without any regard for payment of principal and interest, they impose restrictions upon the debtor nation’s sovereignty. In fact such “loans” are for the most part the price paid for military assistance in coming wars. Such military considerations already played an important role in the years in which the European powers prepared the great wars of our age. The outstanding example was provided by the huge sums which the French capitalists, pressed hard by the Government of the Third Republic, lent to Imperial Russia. The Tsars used the capital borrowed for armaments, not for an improvement of the Russian apparatus of production.
[8. ]Cf. F. A. Hayek, The Pure Theory of Capital (London, 1941), p. 48. It is awkward indeed to attach to certain lines of thought national labels. As Hayek remarks pertinently (p. 47, n. 1), the classical English economists since Ricardo, and particularly J. S. Mill (the latter probably partly under the influence of J. Rae), were in some regards more “Austrian” than their recent Anglo-Saxon successors.
[9. ]Cf. W. S. Jevons, The Theory of Political Economy (4th ed. London, 1924), pp. 224–29.
[10. ]This implies also equality in the quantity of nature-given factors available.
[11. ]Cf. John Bates Clark, Essentials of Economic Theory (New York, 1907), pp. 133 ff.
[12. ]About the Marxian attack against genetics, cf. T. D. Lysenko, Heredity and Variability (New York, 1945). A critical appraisal of the controversy is provided by J. R. Baker, Science and the Planned State (New York, 1945), pp. 71–76.
[13. ]Cf. Mises, Omnipotent Government (New Haven, 1944), p. 99 and the books quoted there.