Front Page Titles (by Subject) 4: Righteousness as the Ultimate Standard of the Individual's Actions - Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, vol. 3 (LF ed.)
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4: Righteousness as the Ultimate Standard of the Individual’s Actions - 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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Righteousness as the Ultimate Standard of the Individual’s Actions
According to a widespread opinion it is possible, even in the absence of government interference with business, to divert the operation of the market economy from those lines along which it would develop if left to exclusive control by the profit motive. Advocates of a social reform to be accomplished by compliance with the principles of Christianity or with the demands of “true” morality maintain that conscience should also guide well-intentioned people in their dealings on the market. If all people were prepared not only to concern themselves about profit, but no less about their religious and moral obligations, no government compulsion and coercion would be required in order to put things right. What is needed is not a reform of government and the laws of the country, but the moral purification of man, a return to the Lord’s commandments and to the precepts of the moral code, a turning away from the vices of greed and selfishness. Then it will be easy to reconcile private ownership of the means of production with justice, righteousness, and fairness. The disastrous effects of capitalism will be eliminated without prejudice to the individual’s freedom and initiative. People will dethrone the Moloch capitalism without enthroning the Moloch state.
The arbitrary value judgments which are at the bottom of these opinions need not concern us here. What these critics blame capitalism for is irrelevant; their errors and fallacies are beside the point. What does matter is the idea of erecting a social system on the twofold basis of private property and of moral principles restricting the utilization of private property. The system recommended, say its advocates, will be neither socialism nor capitalism nor interventionism. Not socialism, because it will preserve private ownership of the means of production; not capitalism, because conscience will be supreme and not the urge for profit; not interventionism, because there will be no need for government interference with the market.
In the market economy the individual is free to act within the orbit of private property and the market. His choices are final. For his fellow men his actions are data which they must take into account in their own acting. The coordination of the autonomous actions of all individuals is accomplished by the operation of the market. Society does not tell a man what to do and what not to do. There is no need to enforce cooperation by special orders or prohibitions. Noncooperation penalizes itself. Adjustment to the requirements of society’s productive effort and the pursuit of the individual’s own concerns are not in conflict. Consequently no agency is required to settle such conflicts. The system can work and accomplish its tasks without the interference of an authority issuing special orders and prohibitions and punishing those who do not comply.
Beyond the sphere of private property and the market lies the sphere of compulsion and coercion; here are the dams which organized society has built for the protection of private property and the market against violence, malice, and fraud. This is the realm of constraint as distinguished from the realm of freedom. Here are rules discriminating between what is legal and what is illegal, what is permitted and what is prohibited. And here is a grim machine of arms, prisons, and gallows and the men operating it, ready to crush those who dare to disobey.
Now, the reformers with whose plans we are concerned suggest that along with the norms designed for the protection and preservation of private property further ethical rules should be ordained. They want to realize in production and consumption things other than those realized under the social order in which the individuals are not checked by any obligation other than that of not infringing upon the persons of their fellow men and upon the right of private property. They want to ban those motives that direct the individual’s action in the market economy (they call them selfishness, acquisitiveness, profit-seeking) and to replace them with other impulses (they call them conscientiousness, righteousness, altruism, fear of God, charity). They are convinced that such a moral reform would in itself be sufficient to safeguard a mode of operation of the economic system, more satisfactory from their point of view than that of unhampered capitalism, without any of those special governmental measures which interventionism and socialism require.
The supporters of these doctrines fail to recognize the role which those springs of action they condemn as vicious play in the operation of the market economy. The only reason why the market economy can operate without government orders telling everybody precisely what he should do and how he should do it is that it does not ask anybody to deviate from those lines of conduct which best serve his own interests. What integrates the individual’s actions into the whole of the social system of production is the pursuit of his own purposes. In indulging in his “acquisitiveness” each actor contributes his share to the best possible arrangement of production activities. Thus, within the sphere of private property and the laws protecting it against encroachments on the part of violent or fraudulent action, there is no antagonism between the interests of the individual and those of society.
The market economy becomes a chaotic muddle if this predominance of private property which the reformers disparage as selfishness is eliminated. In urging people to listen to the voice of their conscience and to substitute considerations of public welfare for those of private profit, one does not create a working and satisfactory social order. It is not enough to tell a man not to buy on the cheapest market and not to sell on the dearest market. It is not enough to tell him not to strive after profit and not to avoid losses. One must establish unambiguous rules for the guidance of conduct in each concrete situation.
Says the reformer: The entrepreneur is rugged and selfish when, taking advantage of his own superiority, he underbids the prices asked by a less efficient competitor and thus forces the man to go out of business. But how should the “altruistic” entrepreneur proceed? Should he under no circumstances sell at a price lower than any competitor? Or are there certain conditions which justify underbidding the competitor’s prices?
Says the reformer on the other hand: The entrepreneur is rugged and selfish when, taking advantage of the state of the market, he asks a price so high that poor people are excluded from purchasing the merchandise. But what should the “good” entrepreneur do? Should he give away the merchandise free of charge? If he charges any price, however low, there will always be people who cannot buy at all or not so much as they would buy if the price were still lower. What group of those eager to buy is the entrepreneur free to exclude from getting the merchandise?
There is no need to deal at this point of our investigation with the consequences resulting from any deviation from the height of prices as determined on an unhampered market. If the seller avoids underbidding his less efficient competitor, a part at least of his supply remains unsold. If the seller offers the merchandise at a price lower than that determined on an unhampered market, the supply available is insufficient to enable all those ready to expend this lower price to get what they are asking for. We will analyze later these as well as other consequences of any deviation from the market prices.2 What we must recognize even at this point is that one cannot content oneself simply by telling the entrepreneur that he should not let himself be guided by the state of the market. It is imperative to tell him how far he must go in asking and paying prices. If it is no longer profit-seeking that directs the entrepreneurs’ actions and determines what they produce and in what quantities, if the entrepreneurs are no longer bound by the instrumentality of the profit motive to serve the consumers to the best of their abilities, it is necessary to give them definite instructions. One cannot avoid guiding their conduct by specified orders and prohibitions, precisely such decrees as are the mark of government interference with business. Any attempt to render such interference superfluous by attributing primacy to the voice of conscience, to charity and brotherly love, is vain.
The advocates of a Christian social reform pretend that their ideal of greed and profit-seeking tamed and restrained by conscientiousness and compliance with the moral law worked rather well in the past. All the evils of our day are caused by defection from the precepts of the church. If people had not defied the commandments and had not coveted unjust profit, mankind would still enjoy the bliss experienced in the Middle Ages when at least the elite lived up to the principles of the Gospels. What is needed is to bring back those good old days and then to see that no new apostasy deprives men of their beneficent effects.
There is no need to enter into an analysis of the social and economic conditions of the thirteenth century which these reformers praise as the greatest of all periods of history. We are concerned merely with the notion of just prices and wage rates which was essential in the social teachings of the doctors of the church and which the reformers want to raise to the position of the ultimate standard of economic conduct.
It is obvious that with theorists this notion of just prices and wage rates always refers and always referred to a definite social order which they considered the best possible order. They recommend the adoption of their ideal scheme and its preservation forever. No further changes are to be tolerated. Any alteration of the best possible state of social affairs can only mean deterioration. The world view of these philosophers does not take into account man’s ceaseless striving for improvement of the material conditions of wellbeing. Historical change and a rise in the general standard of living are notions foreign to them. They call “just” that mode of conduct that is compatible with the undisturbed preservation of their utopia, and everything else unjust.
However, the notion of just prices and wage rates as present to the mind of people other than philosophers is very different. When the non-philosopher calls a price just, what he means is that the preservation of this price improves or at least does not impair his own revenues and station in society. He calls unjust any price that jeopardizes his own wealth and station. It is “just” that the prices of those goods and services which he sells rise more and more and that the prices of those goods and services he buys drop more and more. To the farmer no price of wheat, however high, appears unjust. To the wage earner no wage rates, however high, appear unfair. But the farmer is quick to denounce every drop in the price of wheat as a violation of divine and human laws, and the wage earners rise in rebellion when their wages drop. Yet the market society has no means of adjusting production to changing conditions other than the operation of the market. By means of price changes it forces people to restrict the production of articles less urgently asked for and to expand the production of those articles for which consumers’ demand is more urgent. The absurdity of all endeavors to stabilize prices consists precisely in the fact that stabilization would prevent any further improvement and result in rigidity and stagnation. The flexibility of commodity prices and wage rates is the vehicle of adjustment, improvement, and progress. Those who condemn changes in prices and wage rates as unjust, and who ask for the preservation of what they call just, are in fact combating endeavors to make economic conditions more satisfactory.
It is not unjust that there has long prevailed a tendency toward such a determination of the prices of agricultural products that the greater part of the population abandoned farming and moved toward the processing industries. But for this tendency, 90 per cent or more of the population would still be occupied in agriculture and the processing industries would have been stunted in their growth. All strata of the population, including the farmers, would be worse off. If the scholastic doctrine of the just price had been put into practice, the thirteenth century’s economic conditions would still prevail. Population figures would be much smaller than they are today and the standard of living much lower.
Both varieties of the just price doctrine, the philosophical and the popular, agree in their condemnation of the prices and wage rates as determined on the unhampered market. But this negativism does not in itself provide any answer to the question of what height the just prices and wage rates should attain. If righteousness is to be elevated to the position of the ultimate standard of economic action, one must unambiguously tell every actor what he should do, what prices he should ask, and what prices he should pay in each concrete case, and one must force—by recourse to an apparatus of violent compulsion and coercion—all those venturing disobedience to comply with these orders. One must establish a supreme authority issuing norms and regulating conduct in every respect, altering these norms if need be, interpreting them authentically, and enforcing them. Thus the substitution of social justice and righteousness for selfish profit-seeking requires for its realization precisely those policies of government interference with business which the advocates of the moral purification of mankind want to make superfluous. No deviation from the unhampered market economy is thinkable without authoritarian regimentation. Whether the authority in which these powers are vested is called lay government or theocratical priesthood makes no difference.
The reformers, in exhorting people to turn away from selfishness, address themselves to capitalists and entrepreneurs, and sometimes, although only timidly, to wage earners as well. However, the market economy is a system of consumers’ supremacy. The sermonizers should appeal to consumers, not to producers. They should persuade the consumers to renounce preferring better and cheaper merchandise to poorer and dearer merchandise lest they hurt the less efficient producer. They should persuade them to restrict their own purchases in order to provide poorer people with the opportunity to buy more. If one wants the consumers to act in this way, one must tell them plainly what to buy, in what quantity, from whom, and at what prices; and one must provide for enforcing such orders by coercion and compulsion. But then one has adopted exactly that system of authoritarian control which moral reform wants to make unnecessary.
Whatever freedom individuals can enjoy within the framework of social cooperation is conditional upon the concord of private gain and public weal. Within the orbit in which the individual, in pursuing his own wellbeing, advances also—or at least does not impair—the well-being of his fellow men, people going their own ways jeopardize neither the preservation of society nor the concerns of other people. A realm of freedom and individual initiative emerges, a realm in which man is allowed to choose and to act of his own accord. This sphere of freedom, by the socialists and interventionists contemptuously dubbed “economic freedom,” is alone what makes any of those conditions possible that are commonly called freedoms within a system of social cooperation under the division of labor. It is the market economy or capitalism with its political corollary (the Marxians would have to say: with its “superstructure”), representative government.
Those who contend that there is a conflict between the acquisitiveness of various individuals or between the acquisitiveness of individuals on the one hand and the commonweal on the other, cannot avoid advocating the suppression of the individuals’ right to choose and to act. They must substitute the supremacy of a central board of production management for the discretion of the citizens. In their scheme of the good society there is no room left for private initiative. The authority issues orders and everybody is forced to obey.
[2. ]See below, pp. 758–67.