Front Page Titles (by Subject) 3: The Delimitation of Governmental Functions - Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, vol. 3 (LF ed.)
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3: The Delimitation of Governmental Functions - 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 Delimitation of Governmental Functions
Various schools of thought parading under the pompous names of philosophy of law and political science indulge in futile and empty brooding over the delimitation of the functions of government. Starting from purely arbitrary assumptions concerning allegedly eternal and absolute values and perennial justice, they arrogate to themselves the office of the supreme judge of earthly affairs. They misconstrue their own arbitrary value judgments derived from intuition as the voice of the Almighty or of the nature of things.
There is, however, no such thing as a perennial standard of what is just and what is unjust. Nature is alien to the idea of right and wrong. “Thou shalt not kill” is certainly not part of natural law. The characteristic feature of natural conditions is that one animal is intent upon killing other animals and that many species cannot preserve their own life except by killing others. The notion of right and wrong is a human device, a utilitarian precept designed to make social cooperation under the division of labor possible. All moral rules and human laws are means for the realization of definite ends. There is no method available for the appreciation of their goodness or badness other than to scrutinize their usefulness for the attainment of the ends chosen and aimed at.
From the notion of natural law some people deduce the justice of the institution of private property in the means of production. Other people resort to natural law for the justification of the abolition of private property in the means of production. As the idea of natural law is quite arbitrary, such discussions are not open to settlement.
State and government are not ends, but means. Inflicting evil upon other people is a source of direct pleasure only to sadists. Established authorities resort to coercion and compulsion in order to safeguard the smooth operation of a definite system of social organization. The sphere in which coercion and compulsion is applied and the content of the laws which are to be enforced by the police apparatus are conditioned by the social order adopted. As state and government are designed to make this social system operate safely, the delimitation of governmental functions must be adjusted to its requirements. The only standard for the appreciation of the laws and the methods for their enforcement is whether or not they are efficient in safeguarding the social order which it is desired to preserve.
The notion of justice makes sense only when referring to a definite system of norms which in itself is assumed to be uncontested and safe against any criticism. Many peoples have clung to the doctrine that what is right and what is wrong is established from the dawn of the remotest ages and for eternity. The task of legislators and courts was not to make laws, but to find out what is right by virtue of the unchanging idea of justice. This doctrine, which resulted in an adamant conservatism and a petrification of old customs and institutions, was challenged by the doctrine of natural right. To the positive laws of the country the notion of a “higher” law, the law of nature, was opposed. From the arbitrary standard of natural law the valid statutes and institutions were called just or unjust. To the good legislator was assigned the task of making the positive laws agree with the natural law.
The fundamental errors involved in these two doctrines have long since been unmasked. For those not deluded by them it is obvious that the appeal to justice in a debate concerning the drafting of new laws is an instance of circular reasoning. Delege ferenda there is no such a thing as justice. The notion of justice can logically only be resorted to de lege lata. It makes sense only when approving or disapproving concrete conduct from the point of view of the valid laws of the country. In considering changes in the nation’s legal system, in rewriting or repealing existing laws and writing new laws, the issue is not justice, but social expediency and social welfare. There is no such thing as an absolute notion of justice not referring to a definite system of social organization. It is not justice that determines the decision in favor of a definite social system. It is, on the contrary, the social system which determines what should be deemed right and what wrong. There is neither right nor wrong outside the social nexus. For the hypothetical isolated and self-sufficient individual the notions of just and unjust are empty. Such an individual can merely distinguish between what is more expedient and what is less expedient for himself. The idea of justice refers always to social cooperation.
It is nonsensical to justify or to reject interventionism from the point of view of a fictitious and arbitrary idea of absolute justice. It is vain to ponder over the just delimitation of the tasks of government from any preconceived standard of perennial values. It is no less impermissible to deduce the proper tasks of government from the very notions of government, state, law and justice. It was precisely this that was absurd in the speculations of medieval scholasticism, of Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel, and the German Begriffsjurisprudenz. Concepts are tools of reasoning. They must never be considered as regulative principles dictating modes of conduct.
It is a display of supererogatory mental gymnastics to emphasize that the notions of state and sovereignty logically imply absolute supremacy and thus preclude the idea of any limitations on the state’s activities. Nobody questions the fact that a state has the power to establish totalitarianism within the territory in which it is sovereign. The problem is whether or not such a mode of government is expedient from the point of view of the preservation and functioning of social cooperation. With regard to this problem no sophisticated exegesis of concepts and notions can be of any use. It must be decided by praxeology, not by a spurious metaphysics of state and right.
The philosophy of law and political science are at a loss to discover any reason why government should not control prices and not punish those defying the price ceilings decreed, in the same way as it punishes murderers and thieves. As they see it, the institution of private property is merely a revocable favor graciously granted by the almighty sovereign to the wretched individuals. There cannot be any wrong in repealing totally or partially the laws that granted this favor; no reasonable objection can be raised against expropriation and confiscation. The legislator is free to substitute any social system for that of the private ownership of the means of production, just as he is free to substitute another national anthem for that adopted in the past. The formula car tel est notre bon plaisir [for such is our good pleasure] is the only maxim of the sovereign lawgiver’s conduct.
As against all this formalism and legal dogmatism, there is need to emphasize again that the only purpose of the laws and the social apparatus of coercion and compulsion is to safeguard the smooth functioning of social cooperation. It is obvious that the government has the power to decree maximum prices and to imprison or to execute those selling or buying at a higher price. But the question is whether such a policy can or cannot attain the ends which the government wants to attain by resorting to it. This is a purely praxeological and economic problem. Neither the philosophy of law nor political science can contribute anything to its solution.
The problem of interventionism is not a problem of the correct delimitation of the “natural,” “just,” and “proper” tasks of state and government. The issue is: How does a system of interventionism work? Can it realize those ends which people, in resorting to it, want to attain?
The confusion and lack of judgment displayed in dealing with the problems of interventionism are amazing indeed. There are, for instance, people who argue thus: It is obvious that traffic regulations on the public roads are necessary. Nobody objects to the government’s interference with the car driver’s conduct. The advocates of laissez faire contradict themselves in fighting government interference with market prices and yet not advocating the abolition of government traffic regulation.
The fallacy of this argument is manifest. The regulation of traffic on a road is one of the tasks incumbent upon the agency that operates the road. If this agency is the government or the municipality, it is bound to attend to this task. It is the task of a railroad’s management to fix the timetable of the trains and it is the task of a hotel’s management to decide whether or not there should be music in the dining room. If the government operates a railroad or a hotel, it is the government’s task to regulate these things. With a state opera the government decides which operas should be produced and which should not; it would be a non sequitur, however, to deduce from this fact that it is also a task of the government to decide these things for a nongovernmental opera.
The interventionist doctrinaires repeat again and again that they do not plan the abolition of private ownership of the means of production, of entrepreneurial activities, and of market exchange. Also the supporters of the most recent variety of interventionism, the German soziale Marktwirtschaft, stress that they consider the market economy to be the best possible and most desirable system of society’s economic organization, and that they are opposed to the government omnipotence of socialism. But, of course, all these advocates of a middle-of-the-road policy emphasize with the same vigor that they reject Manchesterism and laissez-faire liberalism. It is necessary, they say, that the state interfere with the market phenomena whenever and wherever the “free play of the economic forces” results in conditions that appear as “socially” undesirable. In making this assertion they take it for granted that it is the government that is called upon to determine in every single case whether or not a definite economic fact is to be considered as reprehensible from the “social” point of view and, consequently whether or not the state of the market requires a special act of government interference.
All these champions of interventionism fail to realize that their program thus implies the establishment of full government supremacy in all economic matters and ultimately brings about a state of affairs that does not differ from what is called the German or the Hindenburg pattern of socialism. If it is in the jurisdiction of the government to decide whether or not definite conditions of the economy justify its intervention, no sphere of operation is left to the market. Then it is no longer the consumers who ultimately determine what should be produced, in what quantity, of what quality, by whom, where, and how—but it is the government. For as soon as the outcome brought about by the operation of the unhampered market differs from what the authorities consider “socially” desirable, the government interferes. That means the market is free as long as it does precisely what the government wants it to do. It is “free” to do what the authorities consider to be the “right” things, but not to do what they consider the “wrong” things; the decision concerning what is right and what is wrong rests with the government. Thus the doctrine and the practice of interventionism ultimately tend to abandon what originally distinguished them from outright socialism and to adopt entirely the principles of totalitarian all-around planning.