Front Page Titles (by Subject) 5: The Quasi-market - Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, vol. 3 (LF ed.)
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5: The Quasi-market - Ludwig von Mises, Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, vol. 3 (LF ed.) 
Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, in 4 vols., ed. Bettina Bien Greaves (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2007). Vol. 3.
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The distinctive mark of socialism is the oneness and indivisibility of the will directing all production activities within the whole social system. When the socialists declare that “order” and “organization” are to be substituted for the “anarchy” of production, conscious action for the alleged planlessness of capitalism, true cooperation for competition, production for use for production for profit, what they have in mind is always the substitution of the exclusive and monopolistic power of only one agency for the infinite multitude of the plans of the individual consumers and those attending to the wishes of the consumers, the entrepreneurs and capitalists. The essence of socialism is the entire elimination of the market and of catallactic competition. The socialist system is a system without a market and market prices for the factors of production and without competition; it means the unrestricted centralization and unification of the conduct of all affairs in the hands of one authority. In the drafting of the unique plan that directs all economic activities the citizens cooperate, if at all, only by electing the director or the board of directors. For the rest they are only subordinates, bound to obey unconditionally the orders issued by the director, and wards of whose well-being the director takes care. All the excellences the socialists ascribe to socialism and all the blessings they expect from its realization are described as the necessary outcome of this absolute unification and centralization.
It is therefore nothing short of a full acknowledgment of the correctness and irrefutability of the economists’ analysis and devastating critique of the socialists’ plans that the intellectual leaders of socialism are now busy designing schemes for a socialist system in which the market, market prices for the factors of production, and catallactic competition are to be preserved. The overwhelmingly rapid triumph of the demonstration that no economic calculation is possible under a socialist system is without precedent indeed in the history of human thought. The socialists cannot help admitting their crushing final defeat. They no longer claim that socialism is matchlessly superior to capitalism because it brushes away markets, market prices, and competition. On the contrary. They are now eager to justify socialism by pointing out that it is possible to preserve these institutions even under socialism. They are drafting outlines for a socialism in which there are prices and competition.4
What these neosocialists suggest is really paradoxical. They want to abolish private control of the means of production, market exchange, market prices, and competition. But at the same time they want to organize the socialist utopia in such a way that people could act as if these things were still present. They want people to play market as children play war, railroad, or school. They do not comprehend how such childish play differs from the real thing it tries to imitate.
It was, say these neosocialists, a serious mistake on the part of the older socialists (i.e., of all socialists before 1920) to believe that socialism necessarily requires the abolition of the market and of market exchange and even that this fact is both the essential element and the preeminent feature of a socialist economy. This idea is, as they reluctantly admit, preposterous and its realization would result in a chaotic muddle. But fortunately, they say, there is a better pattern for socialism available. It is possible to instruct the managers of the various production units to conduct the affairs of their unit in the same way they did under capitalism. The manager of a corporation operates in the market society not on his account and at his own peril, but for the benefit of the corporation, i.e., the shareholders. He will go on under socialism in the same way with the same care and attention. The only difference will consist in the fact that the fruits of his endeavors will enrich the whole society, not the shareholders. For the rest he will buy and sell, recruit and pay workers, and try to make profits in the same way he did before. The transition from the managerial system of mature capitalism to the managerial system of the planned socialist commonwealth will be smoothly effected. Nothing will change except the ownership of the capital invested. Society will be substituted for the shareholders, the people will henceforth pocket the dividends. That is all.
The cardinal fallacy implied in this and all kindred proposals is that they look at the economic problem from the perspective of the subaltern clerk whose intellectual horizon does not extend beyond subordinate tasks. They consider the structure of industrial production and the allocation of capital to the various branches and production aggregates as rigid, and do not take into account the necessity of altering this structure in order to adjust it to changes in conditions. What they have in mind is a world in which no further changes occur and economic history has reached its final stage. They fail to realize that the operations of the corporate officers consist merely in the loyal execution of the tasks entrusted to them by their bosses, the shareholders, and that in performing the orders received they are forced to adjust themselves to the structure of the market prices, ultimately determined by factors other than the various managerial operations. The operations of the managers, their buying and selling, are only a small segment of the totality of market operations. The market of the capitalist society also performs all those operations which allocate the capital goods to the various branches of industry. The entrepreneurs and capitalists establish corporations and other firms, enlarge or reduce their size, dissolve them or merge them with other enterprises; they buy and sell the shares and bonds of already existing and of new corporations; they grant, withdraw, and recover credits; in short they perform all those acts the totality of which is called the capital and money market. It is these financial transactions of promoters and speculators that direct production into those channels in which it satisfies the most urgent wants of the consumers in the best possible way. These transactions constitute the market as such. If one eliminates them, one does not preserve any part of the market. What remains is a fragment that cannot exist alone and cannot function as a market.
The role that the loyal corporation manager plays in the conduct of business is much more modest than the authors of these plans assume. His is only a managerial function, a subsidiary assistance granted to the entrepreneurs and capitalists, which refers only to subordinate tasks. It can never become a substitute for the entrepreneurial function.5 The speculators, promoters, investors and moneylenders, in determining the structure of the stock and commodity exchanges and of the money market, circumscribe the orbit within which definite minor tasks can be entrusted to the manager’s discretion. In attending to these tasks the manager must adjust his procedures to the structure of the market created by factors which go far beyond the managerial functions.
Our problem does not refer to the managerial activities; it concerns the allocation of capital to the various branches of industry. The question is: In which branches should production be increased or restricted, in which branches should the objective of production be altered, what new branches should be inaugurated? With regard to these issues it is vain to cite the honest corporation manager and his well-tried efficiency. Those who confuse entrepreneurship and management close their eyes to the economic problem. In labor disputes the parties are not management and labor, but entrepreneurship (or capital) and the salaried and wage-receiving employees. The capitalist system is not a managerial system; it is an entrepreneurial system. One does not detract from the merits of corporation managers if one establishes the fact that it is not their conduct that determines the allocation of the factors of production to the various lines of industry.
Nobody has ever suggested that the socialist commonwealth could invite the promoters and speculators to continue their speculations and then deliver their profits to the common chest. Those suggesting a quasi-market for the socialist system have never wanted to preserve the stock and commodity exchanges, the trading in futures, and the bankers and moneylenders as quasi-institutions. One cannot play speculation and investment. The speculators and investors expose their own wealth, their own destiny. This fact makes them responsible to the consumers, the ultimate bosses of the capitalist economy. If one relieves them of this responsibility, one deprives them of their very character. They are no longer businessmen, but just a group of men to whom the director has handed over his main task, the supreme direction of the conduct of affairs. Then they—and not the nominal director—become the true directors and have to face the same problem the nominal director could not solve: the problem of calculation.
In recognition of the fact that such an idea would be simply nonsensical, the advocates of the quasi-market plan sometimes vaguely recommend another way out. The director should act as a bank lending the available funds to the highest bidder. This again is an abortive idea. All those who can bid for these funds have, as is self-evident in a socialist order of society, no property of their own. In bidding they are not restrained by any financial dangers they themselves run in promising too high a rate of interest for the funds borrowed. They do not in the least alleviate the burden of responsibility incumbent upon the director. The insecurity of the funds lent to them is in no way restricted by the partial guarantee which the borrower’s own means provide in credit transactions under capitalism. All the hazards of this insecurity fall only upon society, the exclusive owner of all resources available. If the director were without hesitation to allocate the funds available to those who bid most, he would simply put a premium upon audacity, carelessness, and unreasonable optimism. He would abdicate in favor of the least scrupulous visionaries or scoundrels. He must reserve to himself the decision on how society’s funds should be utilized. But then we are back again where we started: the director, in his endeavors to direct production activities, is not aided by the division of intellectual labor which under capitalism provides a practicable method for economic calculation.6
The employment of the means of production can be controlled either by private owners or by the social apparatus of coercion and compulsion. In the first case there is a market, there are market prices for all factors of production, and economic calculation is possible. In the second case all these things are absent. It is vain to comfort oneself with the hope that the organs of the collective economy will be “omnipresent” and “omniscient.”7 We do not deal in praxeology with the acts of the omnipresent and omniscient Deity, but with the actions of men endowed with a human mind only. Such a mind cannot plan without economic calculation.
A socialist system with a market and market prices is as self-contradictory as is the notion of a triangular square. Production is directed either by profit-seeking businessmen or by the decisions of a director to whom supreme and exclusive power is entrusted. There are produced either those things from the sale of which the entrepreneurs expect the highest profits or those things which the director wants to be produced. The question is: Who should be master, the consumers or the director? With whom should the ultimate decision rest whether a concrete supply of factors of production should be employed for the production of the consumers’ good a or the consumers’ good b? Such a question does not allow of any evasive answer. It must be answered in a straightforward and unambiguous way.8
[4. ]This refers, of course, only to those socialists or communists who, like professors H. D. Dickinson and Oskar Lange, are conversant with economic thought. The dull hosts of the “intellectuals” will not abandon their superstitious belief in the superiority of socialism. Superstitions die hard.
[5. ]Cf. above, pp. 305–8.
[6. ]Cf. Mises, Socialism (Macmillan, 1937; Yale, 1952), pp. 137–42; (Liberty Fund, 1981), pp. 119–32. Hayek, Individualism and Economic Order (Chicago, 1948), pp. 119–208; T. J. B. Hoff, Economic Calculation in the Socialist Society (London, 1949), pp. 129 ff.
[7. ]Cf. H. D. Dickinson, Economics of Socialism (Oxford, 1939), p. 191.
[8. ]For an analysis of the scheme of a corporative state see below, pp. 816–20.