Front Page Titles (by Subject) 5: The Period of Adjustment - Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, vol. 2 (LF ed.)
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5: The Period of Adjustment - 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 Period of Adjustment
Every change in the market data has its definite effects upon the market. It takes a definite length of time before all these effects are consummated, i.e., before the market is completely adjusted to the new state of affairs.
Catallactics has to deal with all the various individuals’ conscious and purposive reactions to the changes in the data and not, of course, merely with the final result brought about in the market structure by the interplay of these actions. It may happen that the effects of one change in the data are counteracted by the effects of another change occurring, by and large, at the same time and to the same extent. Then no considerable change in the market prices finally results. The statistician, exclusively preoccupied with the observation of mass phenomena and the outgrowth of the totality of market transactions as manifested in market prices, ignores the fact that the nonemergence of changes in the height of prices is merely accidental and not the outcome of a continuance in the data and the absence of specific adjustment activities. He fails to see any movement and the social consequences of such movements. Yet each change in the data has its own course, generates certain reactive responses on the part of the individuals affected and disturbs the relation between the various members of the market system even if eventually no considerable changes in the prices of the various goods and no changes at all in the figures concerning the total amount of capital in the whole market system result.8
Economic history can give vague information, after the fact, about the length of adjustment periods. The method of attaining such information is, of course, not measurement, but historical understanding. The various adjustment processes are in reality not isolated. Synchronously an indefinite number of them take their course, their paths intersect, and they mutually influence one another. To disentangle this intricate tissue and to observe the chain of actions and reactions set into motion by a definite change in the data is a difficult task for the historian’s understanding and the results are mostly meager and questionable.
The understanding of the length of adjustment periods is also the most difficult task incumbent upon those eager to understand the future, the entrepreneurs. Yet for success in entrepreneurial activities mere anticipation of the direction in which the market will react to a certain event is of little significance if it is not supplemented by an adequate anticipation of the length of the various adjustment periods involved. Most of the mistakes committed by entrepreneurs in the conduct of affairs and most of the blunders vitiating the prognoses of future business trends on the part of “expert” forecasters are caused by errors concerning the length of adjustment periods.
In dealing with effects brought about by changes in the data, it is customary to distinguish between the temporally nearer and the temporally remoter effects, viz., the short-run effects and the long-run effects. This distinction is much older than the terminology in which it is expressed nowadays.
In order to discover the immediate—the short-run—effects brought about by a change in a datum, there is as a rule no need to resort to a thorough investigation. The short-run effects are for the most part obvious and seldom escape the notice of a naïve observer unfamiliar with searching investigations. What started economic studies was precisely the fact that some men of genius began to suspect that the remoter consequences of an event may differ from the immediate effects visible even to the most simple-minded layman. The main achievement of economics was the disclosure of such long-run effects hitherto unnoticed by the unaffected observer and neglected by the statesman.
From their startling discoveries the classical economists derived a rule for political practice. Governments, statesmen, and political parties, they argued, in planning and acting should consider not only the short-run consequences but also the long-run consequences of their measures. The correctness of this inference is incontestable and indisputable. Action aims at the substitution of a more satisfactory state of affairs for a less satisfactory. Whether or not the outcome of a definite action will be considered more or less satisfactory depends on a correct anticipation of all its consequences, both short run and long run.
Some people criticize economics for alleged neglect of the shortrun effects and for alleged preference given to the study of the longrun effects. The reproach is nonsensical. Economics has no means of scrutinizing the results of a change in the data other than to start with its immediate consequences and to analyze, step by step, proceeding from the first reaction to the remoter reactions, all the subsequent consequences, until it finally arrives at its ultimate consequences. The long-run analysis necessarily always fully includes the short-run analysis.
It is easy to understand why certain individuals, parties and pressure groups are eager to propagate the exclusive sway of the short-run principle. Politics, they say, should never be concerned about the long-run effects of a device and should never abstain from resorting to a measure from which benefits are expected in the short run merely because its long-run effects are detrimental. What counts is only the short-run effects; “in the long run we shall all be dead.”* All that economics has to answer to these passionate critics is that every decision should be based on a careful weighing of all its consequences, both those in the short run and those in the long run. There are certainly, both in the actions of individuals and in the conduct of public affairs, situations in which the actors may have good reasons to put up even with very undesirable long-run effects in order to avoid what they consider still more undesirable short-run conditions. It may sometimes be expedient for a man to heat the stove with his furniture. But if he does, he should know what the remoter effects will be. He should not delude himself by believing that he has discovered a wonderful new method of heating his premises.
That is all that economics opposes to the frenzy of the short-run apostles. History, one day, will have to say much more. It will have to establish the role that the recommendation of the short-run principle—this revival of Madame de Pompadour’s notorious phrase après nous le déluge [after us the deluge]—played in the most serious crisis of Western civilization. It will have to show how welcome this slogan was to governments and parties whose policies aimed at the consumption of the spiritual and material capital inherited from earlier generations.
[8. ]With regard to changes in the elements determining the purchasing power of mony see above, p. 419. With regard to the decumulation and accumulation of capital see above, pp. 515–16.
[* ][John Maynard Keynes, Monetary Reform (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1924), p. 88.]