Front Page Titles (by Subject) 2: The Role of Power - Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, vol. 2 (LF ed.)
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2: The Role of Power - 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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The Role of Power
The Historical School and Institutionalism condemn economics for disregarding the role which power plays in real life. The basic notion of economics, viz., the choosing and acting individual, is, they say, an unrealistic concept. Real man is not free to choose and to act. He is subject to social pressure, to the sway of irresistible power. It is not the individuals’ value judgments, but the interactions of the forces of power that determine the market phenomena.
These objections are no less spurious than all other statements of the critics of economics.
Praxeology in general and economics and catallactics in particular do not contend or assume that man is free in any metaphysical sense attached to the term freedom. Man is unconditionally subject to the natural conditions of his environment. In acting he must adjust himself to the inexorable regularity of natural phenomena. It is precisely the scarcity of the nature-given conditions of his welfare that enjoins upon man the necessity to act.4
In acting man is directed by ideologies. He chooses ends and means under the influence of ideologies. The might of an ideology is either direct or indirect. It is direct when the actor is convinced that the content of the ideology is correct and that he serves his own interests directly in complying with it. It is indirect when the actor rejects the content of the ideology as false, but is under the necessity of adjusting his actions to the fact that this ideology is endorsed by other people. The mores of their social environment are a power which people are forced to consider. Those recognizing the spuriousness of the generally accepted opinions and habits must in each instance choose between the advantages to be derived from resorting to a more efficient mode of acting and the disadvantages resulting from the contempt of popular prejudices, superstitions, and folkways.
The same is true with regard to violence. In choosing man must take into account the fact that there is a factor ready to exercise violent compulsion upon him.
All the theorems of catallactics are valid also with regard to actions influenced by such social or physical pressure. The direct or indirect might of an ideology and the threat of physical compulsion are merely data of the market situation. It does not matter, for instance, what kind of considerations motivate a man not to offer a higher bid for the purchase of a commodity than the one he really makes without obtaining the good concerned. For the determination of the market price it is immaterial whether he spontaneously prefers to spend his money for other purposes or whether he is afraid of being looked upon by his fellow men as an upstart, or as a spendthrift, afraid of violating a government-decreed ceiling price or of defying a competitor ready to resort to violent revenge. In any case, his abstention from bidding a higher price contributes to the same extent to the emergence of the market price.5
It is customary nowadays to signify the position which the owners of property and the entrepreneurs occupy on the market as economic power or market power. This terminology is misleading when applied to the conditions of the market. All that happens in the unhampered market economy is controlled by the laws dealt with by catallactics. All market phenomena are ultimately determined by the choices of the consumers. If one wants to apply the notion of power to phenomena of the market, one ought to say: in the market all power is vested in the consumers. The entrepreneurs are forced, by the necessity of earning profits and avoiding losses, to consider in every regard—e.g. also in the conduct of the wrongly so-called “internal” affairs of their plants, especially personnel management—the best possible and cheapest satisfaction of the consumers as their supreme directive. It is very inexpedient to employ the same term “power” in dealing with a firm’s ability to supply the consumers with automobiles, shoes, or margarine better than others do and in referring to the strength of a government’s armed forces to crush any resistance.
Ownership of material factors of production as well as entrepreneurial or technological skill do not—in the market economy—bestow power in the coercive sense. All they grant is the privilege to serve the real masters of the market, the consumers, in a more exalted position than other people. Ownership of capital is a mandate entrusted to the owners, under the condition that it should be employed for the best possible satisfaction of the consumers. He who does not comply with this imposition forfeits his wealth and is relegated to a place in which his ineptitude no longer hurts people’s well-being.
[4. ]Most social reformers, foremost among them Fourier and Marx, pass over in silence the fact that the nature-given means of removing human uneasiness are scarce. As they see it, the fact that there is not an abundance of all useful things is merely caused by the inadequacy of the capitalist mode of production and will therefore disappear in the “higher phase” of communism. An eminent Menshevik author who could not help referring to the nature-given barriers to human well-being, in genuinely Marxian style, calls Nature “the most relentless exploiter.” Cf. Manya Gordon, Workers Before and After Lenin (New York, 1941), pp. 227, 458.
[5. ]The economic consequences of the interference of external compulsion and coercion with the market phenomena are dealt with in the sixth part of this book.