Front Page Titles (by Subject) Corruption - Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, vol. 3 (LF ed.)
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Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, in 4 vols., ed. Bettina Bien Greaves (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2007). Vol. 3.
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An analysis of interventionism would be incomplete if it were not to refer to the phenomenon of corruption.
There are hardly any acts of government interference with the market process that, seen from the point of view of the citizens concerned, would not have to be qualified either as confiscations or as gifts. As a rule, one individual or a group of individuals is enriched at the expense of other individuals or groups of individuals. But in many cases, the harm done to some people does not correspond to any advantage for other people.
There is no such thing as a just and fair method of exercising the tremendous power that interventionism puts into the hands of the legislature and the executive. The advocates of interventionism pretend to substitute for the—as they assert, “socially” detrimental—effects of private property and vested interests the unlimited discretion of the perfectly wise and disinterested legislator and his conscientious and indefatigable servants, the bureaucrats. In their eyes the common man is a helpless infant, badly in need of a paternal guardian to protect him against the sly tricks of a band of rogues. They reject all traditional notions of law and legality in the name of a “higher and nobler” idea of justice. Whatever they themselves do is always right because it hurts those who selfishly want to retain for themselves what, from the point of view of this higher concept of justice, ought to belong to others.
The notions of selfishness and unselfishness as employed in such reasoning are self-contradictory and vain. As has been pointed out, every action aims at the attainment of a state of affairs that suits the actor better than the state that would prevail in the absence of this action. In this sense every action is to be qualified as selfish. The man who gives alms to hungry children does it, either because he values his own satisfaction expected from this gift higher than any other satisfaction he could buy by spending this amount of money, or because he hopes to be rewarded in the beyond. The politician is, in this sense, always selfish no matter whether he supports a popular program in order to get an office or whether he firmly clings to his own—unpopular—convictions and thus deprives himself of the benefits he could reap by betraying them.
In the terminology of anticapitalism the words selfish and unselfish are used to classify people from the point of view of a doctrine that considers equality of wealth and income as the only natural and fair state of social conditions, that brands those who own or earn more than the average as exploiters, and that condemns entrepreneurial activities as detrimental to the commonweal. To be in business, to depend directly on the approval or disapproval of one’s actions by the consumers, to woo the patronage of the buyers, and to earn profit if one succeeds in satisfying them better than one’s competitors do is, from the point of view of officialdom’s ideology, selfish and shameful. Only those on the government’s payroll are rated as unselfish and noble.
Unfortunately the officeholders and their staffs are not angelic. They learn very soon that their decisions mean for the businessmen either considerable losses or—sometimes—considerable gains. Certainly there are also bureaucrats who do not take bribes; but there are others who are anxious to take advantage of any “safe” opportunity of “sharing” with those whom their decisions favor.
In many fields of the administration of interventionist measures, favoritism simply cannot be avoided. Take, for example, the case of export or import licenses. Such a license has for the licensee a definite cash value. To whom ought the government grant a license and to whom should it be denied? There is no neutral or objective yardstick available to make the decision free from bias and favoritism. Whether or not money changes hands in the affair does not matter. The scandal is the same when the license is given to people who have rendered or are expected to render other kinds of valuable services (e.g., in casting their votes) to the people upon whom the decision depends.
Corruption is a regular effect of interventionism. It may be left to the historians and to the lawyers to deal with the problems involved.8
Interference by Taxation
The Neutral Tax
To keep the social apparatus of coercion and compulsion running requires expenditure of labor and commodities. Under a liberal system of government these expenditures are small compared with the sum of the individuals’ incomes. The more the government expands the sphere of its activities, the more its budget increases.
If the government itself owns and operates plants, farms, forests, and mines, it might consider covering a part or the whole of its financial needs from interest and profit earned. But government operation of business enterprises as a rule is so inefficient that it results in losses rather than in profits. Governments must resort to taxation, i.e., they must raise revenues by forcing the subjects to surrender a part of their wealth or income.
A neutral mode of taxation is conceivable that would not divert the operation of the market from the lines in which it would develop in the absence of any taxation. However, the vast literature on problems of taxation as well as the policies of governments have hardly ever given thought to the problem of the neutral tax. They have been more eager to find the just tax.
The neutral tax would affect the conditions of the citizens only to the extent required by the fact that a part of the labor and material goods available is absorbed by the government apparatus. In the imaginary construction of the evenly rotating economy the treasury continually levies taxes and spends the whole amount raised, neither more nor less, for defraying the costs incurred by the activities of the government’s officers. A part of each citizen’s income is spent for public expenditure. If we assume that in such an evenly rotating economy there prevails perfect income equality in such a way that every household’s income is proportional to the number of its members, both a head tax and a proportional income tax would be neutral taxes. Under these assumptions there would be no difference between them. A part of each citizen’s income would be absorbed by public expenditure, and no secondary effects of taxation would emerge.
The changing economy is entirely different from this imaginary construction of an evenly rotating economy with income equality. Continuous change and the inequality of wealth and income are essential and necessary features of the changing market economy, the only real and working system of the market economy. In the frame of such a system no tax can be neutral. The very idea of a neutral tax is as unrealizable as that of neutral money. But, of course, the reasons for this inescapable non-neutrality are different in the case of taxes from what they are in the case of money.
A head tax that taxes every citizen equally and uniformly without any regard to the size of his income and wealth, falls more heavily upon those with more moderate means than upon those with more ample means. It restricts the production of the articles consumed by the masses more sharply than that of the articles mainly consumed by the wealthier citizens. On the other hand, it tends to curtail saving and capital accumulation less than a more burdensome taxation of the wealthier citizens does. It does not slow down the tendency toward a drop in the marginal productivity of capital goods as against the marginal productivity of labor to the same extent as does taxation discriminating against those with higher income and wealth, and consequently it does not to the same extent retard the tendency toward a rise in wage rates.
The actual fiscal policies of all countries are today exclusively guided by the idea that taxes should be apportioned according to each citizen’s “ability to pay.” In the considerations which finally resulted in the general acceptance of the ability-to-pay principle there was some dim conception that taxing the well-to-do more heavily than those with moderate means renders a tax somewhat more neutral. However this may be, it is certain that any reference to tax neutrality was very soon entirely discarded. The ability-to-pay principle has been raised to the dignity of a postulate of social justice. As people see it today, the fiscal and budgetary objectives of taxation are of secondary importance only. The primary function of taxation is to reform social conditions according to justice. From this point of view, a tax appears as the more satisfactory the less neutral it is and the more it serves as a device for diverting production and consumption from those lines into which the unhampered market would have directed them.
The Total Tax
The idea of social justice implied in the ability-to-pay principle is that of perfect financial equality of all citizens. As long as any inequality of income and wealth remains it can as plausibly be argued that these larger incomes and fortunes, however small their absolute amount, indicate some excess of ability to be levied upon, as it can be argued that any existing inequalities of income and wealth indicate differences in ability. The only logical stopping place of the ability-to-pay doctrine is at the complete equalization of incomes and wealth by confiscation of all incomes and fortunes above the lowest amount in the hands of anyone.1
The notion of the total tax is the antithesis of the notion of the neutral tax. The total tax completely taxes away—confiscates—all incomes and estates. Then the government, out of the community chest thus filled, gives to everybody an allowance for defraying the costs of his sustenance. Or, what comes to the same thing, the government in taxing leaves free that amount which it considers everybody’s fair share and completes the shares of those who have less up to the amount of their fair share.
The idea of the total tax cannot be thought out to its ultimate logical consequences. If the entrepreneurs and capitalists do not derive any personal benefit or damage from their utilization of the means of production, they become indifferent with regard to the choice between various modes of conduct. Their social function fades away, and they become disinterested irresponsible administrators of public property. They are no longer bound to adjust production to the wishes of the consumers. If only the income is taxed away while the capital stock itself is left free, an incentive is offered to the owners to consume parts of their wealth and thus to hurt the interests of everyone. A total income tax would be a very inept means for the transformation of capitalism into socialism. If the total tax affects wealth no less than income, it is no longer a tax, i.e., a device for collecting government revenue within a market economy. It becomes a measure for the transition to socialism. As soon as it is consummated, socialism has been substituted for capitalism.
Even when looked upon as a method for the realization of socialism, the total tax is disputable. Some socialists launched plans for a prosocialist tax reform. They recommended either a 100 per cent estate and gift tax or taxing away totally the rent of land or all unearned income—i.e., in the socialist terminology, all revenue not derived from manual labor performed. The examination of these projects is superfluous. It is enough to know that they are utterly incompatible with the preservation of the market economy.
Fiscal and Nonfiscal Objectives of Taxation
The fiscal and nonfiscal objectives of taxation do not agree with one another.
Consider, for instance, excise duties on liquor. If one considers them as a source of government revenue, the more they yield the better they appear. Of course, as the duty must enhance the price of the beverage, it restricts sales and consumption. It is necessary to find out by testing under what rate of duty the yield becomes highest. But if one looks at liquor taxes as a means of reducing the consumption of liquor as much as possible, the rate is better the higher it is. Pushed beyond a certain limit, the tax makes consumption drop considerably, and also the revenue concomitantly. If the tax fully attains its nonfiscal objective of weaning people entirely from drinking alcoholic beverages, the revenue is zero. It no longer serves any fiscal purpose; its effects are merely prohibitive. The same is valid not only with regard to all kinds of indirect taxation but no less for direct taxation. Discriminating taxes levied upon corporations and big business would, if raised above a certain limit, result in the total disappearance of corporations and big business. Capital levies, inheritance and estate taxes, and income taxes are similarly self-defeating if carried to extremes.
There is no solution for the irreconcilable conflict between the fiscal and the nonfiscal ends of taxation. The power to tax involves, as Chief Justice Marshall pertinently observed, the power to destroy. This power can be used for the destruction of the market economy, and it is the firm resolution of many governments and parties to use it for this purpose. With the substitution of socialism for capitalism, the dualism of the coexistence of two distinct spheres of action disappears. The government swallows the whole orbit of the individual’s autonomous actions and becomes totalitarian. It no longer depends for its financial support on the means exacted from the citizens. There is no longer any such thing as a separation of public funds and private funds.
Taxation is a matter of the market economy. It is one of the characteristic features of the market economy that the government does not interfere with the market phenomena and that its technical apparatus is so small that its maintenance absorbs only a modest fraction of the total sum of the individual citizens’ incomes. Then taxes are an appropriate vehicle for providing the funds needed by the government. They are appropriate because they are low and do not perceptibly disarrange production and consumption. If taxes grow beyond a moderate limit, they cease to be taxes and turn into devices for the destruction of the market economy.
This metamorphosis of taxes into weapons of destruction is the mark of present-day public finance. We do not deal with the quite arbitrary value judgments concerning the problems of whether heavy taxation is a curse or a benefit and whether the expenditures financed by the tax yield are or are not wise and beneficial.2 What matters is that the heavier taxation becomes, the less compatible it is with the preservation of the market economy. There is no need to raise the question of whether or not it is true that “no country was ever yet ruined by large expenditures of money by the public and for the public.”3 It cannot be denied that the market economy can be ruined by large public expenditures and that it is the intention of many people to ruin it in this way.
Businessmen complain about the oppressiveness of heavy taxes. Statesmen are alarmed about the danger of “eating the seedcorn.” Yet, the true crux of the taxation issue is to be seen in the paradox that the more taxes increase, the more they undermine the market economy and concomitantly the system of taxation itself. Thus the fact becomes manifest that ultimately the preservation of private property and confiscatory measures are incompatible. Every specific tax, as well as a nation’s whole tax system, becomes self-defeating above a certain height of the rates.
The Three Classes of Tax Interventionism
The various methods of taxation which can be used for the regulation of the economy—i.e., as instruments of an interventionist policy—can be classified in three groups:
We do not have to deal with the third class, as it is merely a means for the realization of socialism and as such is outside the scope of interventionism.
The first class is in its effects not different from the restrictive measures dealt with in the following chapter.
The second class encompasses confiscatory measures dealt with in Chapter 32.
Restriction of Production
The Nature of Restriction
We shall deal in this chapter with those measures which are directly and primarily intended to divert production (in the broadest meaning of the word, including commerce and transportation) from the ways it would take in the unhampered market economy. Each authoritarian interference with business diverts production, of course, from the lines it would take if it were only directed by the demand of the consumers as manifested on the market. The characteristic mark of restrictive interference with production is that the diversion of production is not merely an unavoidable and unintentional secondary effect, but precisely what the authority wants to bring about. Like any other act of intervention, such restrictive measures affect consumption also. But this again, in the case of the restrictive measures we are dealing with in this chapter, is not the primary end the authority aims at. The government wants to interfere with production. The fact that its measure influences the ways of consumption also is, from its point of view, either altogether contrary to its intentions or at least an unwelcome consequence with which it puts up because it is unavoidable and is considered as a minor evil when compared with the consequences of nonintervention.
Restriction of production means that the government either forbids or makes more difficult or more expensive the production, transportation, or distribution of definite articles, or the application of definite modes of production, transportation, or distribution. The authority thus eliminates some of the means available for the satisfaction of human wants. The effect of its interference is that people are prevented from using their knowledge and abilities, their labor and their material means of production in the way in which they would earn the highest returns and satisfy their needs as much as possible. Such interference makes people poorer and less satisfied.
This is the crux of the matter. All the subtlety and hair-splitting wasted in the effort to invalidate this fundamental thesis are vain. On the unhampered market there prevails an irresistible tendency to employ every factor of production for the best possible satisfaction of the most urgent needs of the consumers. If the government interferes with this process, it can only impair satisfaction; it can never improve it.
The correctness of this thesis has been proved in an excellent and irrefutable manner with regard to the historically most important class of government interference with production, the barriers to international trade. In this field the teachings of the classical economists, especially those of Ricardo, are final and settle the issue forever. All that a tariff can achieve is to divert production from those locations in which the output per unit of input is higher to locations in which it is lower. It does not increase production; it curtails it.
People expatiate on alleged government encouragement of production. However, government does not have the power to encourage one branch of production except by curtailing other branches. It withdraws the factors of production from those branches in which the unhampered market would employ them and directs them into other branches. It little matters what kind of administrative procedures the government resorts to for the realization of this effect. It may subsidize openly or disguise the subsidy in enacting tariffs and thus forcing its subjects to defray the costs. What alone counts is the fact that people are forced to forego some satisfactions which they value more highly and are compensated only by satisfactions which they value less. At the bottom of the interventionist argument there is always the idea that the government or the state is an entity outside and above the social process of production, that it owns something which is not derived from taxing its subjects, and that it can spend this mythical something for definite purposes. This is the Santa Claus fable raised by Lord Keynes to the dignity of an economic doctrine and enthusiastically endorsed by all those who expect personal advantage from government spending. As against these popular fallacies there is need to emphasize the truism that a government can spend or invest only what it takes away from its citizens and that its additional spending and investment curtails the citizens’ spending and investment to the full extent of its quantity.
While government has no power to make people more prosperous by interference with business, it certainly does have the power to make them less satisfied by restriction of production.
The Price of Restriction
The fact that restricting production invariably involves a curtailment of the individual citizens’ satisfaction does not mean that such restriction is necessarily to be regarded as a damage. A government does not wantonly resort to restrictive measures. It wants to attain certain ends and considers the restriction as the appropriate means for the realization of its plan. The appraisal of restrictive policies depends therefore on the answer to two questions: Is the means chosen by the government fitted to attain the end sought? Is the realization of this end a compensation for the individual citizens’ privation? In raising these questions we look upon restriction of production as we look upon taxes. Payment of taxes also directly curtails the taxpayer’s satisfaction. But it is the price he pays for the services which government renders to society and to each of its members. As far as the government fulfills its social functions and the taxes do not exceed the amount required for securing the smooth operation of the government apparatus, they are necessary costs and repay themselves.
The adequacy of this mode of dealing with restrictive measures is especially manifest in all those cases in which restriction is resorted to as a substitute for taxation. The bulk of expenditure for national defense is defrayed by the treasury out of the public revenue. But occasionally another procedure is chosen. It happens sometimes that the nation’s preparedness to repel aggression depends on the existence of certain branches of industry which would be absent in the unhampered market. These industries must be subsidized, and the subsidies granted are to be considered as any other armaments expenditure. Their character remains the same if the government grants them indirectly by the imposition of an import duty for the products concerned. The difference is only that then the consumers are directly burdened with the costs incurred, while in the case of a government subsidy they defray these costs indirectly by paying higher taxes.
In enacting restrictive measures governments and parliaments have hardly ever been aware of the consequences of their meddling with business. Thus, they have blithely assumed that protective tariffs are capable of raising the nation’s standard of living, and they have stubbornly refused to admit the correctness of the economic teachings concerning the effects of protectionism. The economists’ condemnation of protectionism is irrefutable and free of any party bias. For the economists do not say that protection is bad from any preconceived point of view. They show that protection cannot attain those ends which the governments as a rule want to attain by resorting to it. They do not question the ultimate end of the government’s action; they merely reject the means chosen as inappropriate to realize the ends aimed at.
Most popular among all restrictive measures are those styled prolabor legislation. Here too the governments and public opinion badly misjudge the effects. They believe that restricting the hours of work and prohibiting child labor exclusively burdens the employers and is a “social gain” for the wage earners. However, this is true only to the extent that such laws reduce the supply of labor and thus raise the marginal productivity of labor as against the marginal productivity of capital. But the drop in the supply of labor results also in a decrease in the total amount of goods produced and thereby in the average per capita consumption. The total cake shrinks, but the portion of the smaller cake which goes to the wage earners is proportionately higher than what they received from the bigger cake; concomitantly the portion of the capitalists drops.1 It depends on the concrete data of each case whether or not this outcome improves or impairs the real wage rates of the various groups of wage earners.
The popular appraisal of prolabor legislation was based on the error that wage rates have no causal relation whatever to the value that the workers’ labor adds to the material. Wage rates, says the “iron law,” are determined by the minimum amount of indispensable necessities of life; they can never rise above the subsistence level. The difference between the value produced by the worker and the wages paid to him goes to the exploiting employer. If this surplus is curtailed by restricting the working hours, the wage earner is relieved of a part of his toil and trouble, his wages remain unchanged, and the employer is deprived of a part of his unfair profit. The restriction of total output curtails only the income of the exploiting bourgeois.
It has been pointed out already that the role which prolabor legislation played in the evolution of Western capitalism was until a few years ago much less important than would be suggested by the vehemence with which the problems involved have been publicly discussed. Labor legislation, for the most part, merely provided a legal recognition of changes in conditions already consummated by the rapid evolution of business.2 But in the countries which were slow in adopting capitalistic modes of production and are backward in developing modern methods of processing and manufacturing, the problem of labor legislation is crucial. Deluded by the spurious doctrines of interventionism, the politicians of these nations believe that they can improve the lot of the destitute masses by copying the labor legislation of the most advanced capitalistic countries. They look upon the problems involved as if they were merely to be treated from what is erroneously called the “human angle” and fail to recognize the real issue.
It is a sad fact indeed that in Asia many millions of tender children are destitute and starving, that wages are extremely low when compared with American or Western European standards, that hours of work are long, and that sanitary conditions in the workshops are deplorable. But there is no means of eliminating these evils other than to work, to produce, and to save more and thus to accumulate more capital. This is indispensable for any lasting improvement. The restrictive measures advocated by self-styled philanthropists and humanitarians would be futile. They would not only fail to improve conditions, they would make things a good deal worse. If the parents are too poor to feed their children adequately, prohibition of child labor condemns the children to starvation. If the marginal productivity of labor is so low that a worker can earn in ten hours only wages which are substandard when compared with American wages, one does not benefit the laborer by decreeing the eight-hour day.
The problem under discussion is not the desirability of improving the wage earners’ material well-being. The advocates of what are miscalled prolabor laws intentionally confuse the issue in repeating again and again that more leisure, higher real wages, and freeing children and married women from the necessity of seeking jobs would make the families of the workers happier. They resort to falsehood and mean calumny in calling those who oppose such laws as detrimental to the vital interests of the wage earners “labor-baiters” and “enemies of labor.” The disagreement does not refer to the ends sought; it concerns solely the means to be applied for their realization. The question is not whether or not improvement of the masses’ welfare is desirable. It is exclusively whether or not government decrees restricting the hours of work and the employment of women and children are the right means for raising the workers’ standard of living. This is a purely catallactic problem to be solved by economics. Emotional talk is beside the point. It is a poor disguise for the fact that these self-righteous advocates of restriction are unable to advance any tenable objections to the economists’ well-founded argumentation.
The fact that the standard of living of the average American worker is incomparably more satisfactory than that of the average Hindu worker, that in the United States hours of work are shorter and that the children are sent to school and not to the factories, is not an achievement of the government and of the laws of the country. It is the outcome of the fact that the capital invested per head of the employees is much greater than in India and that consequently the marginal productivity of labor is much higher. This is not the merit of “social policies”; it is the result of the laissez faire methods of the past which abstained from sabotaging the evolution of capitalism. It is this laissez faire that the Asiatics must adopt if they want to improve the lot of their peoples.
The poverty of Asia and other backward countries is due to the same causes which made conditions unsatisfactory in the early periods of Western capitalism. While population figures increased rapidly, restrictive policies delayed the adjustment of production methods to the needs of the growing number of mouths. It is to the imperishable credit of the laissez faire economists, whom the typical textbooks of our universities dismiss as pessimists and apologists of the unfair greed of exploiting bourgeois, that they paved the way for economic freedom which raised the average standard of living to an unprecedented height.
Economics is not dogmatic, as the self-styled “unorthodox” advocates of government omnipotence and totalitarian dictatorship contend. Economics neither approves nor disapproves of government measures restricting production and output. It merely considers it its duty to clarify the consequences of such measures. The choice of policies to be adopted devolves upon the people. But in choosing they must not disregard the teachings of economics if they want to attain the ends sought.
There are certainly cases in which people may consider definite restrictive measures as justified. Regulations concerning fire prevention are restrictive and raise the cost of production. But the curtailment of total output they bring about is the price to be paid for avoidance of greater disaster. The decision about each restrictive measure is to be made on the ground of a meticulous weighing of the costs to be incurred and the prize to be obtained. No reasonable man could possibly question this rule.
Restriction as a Privilege
Every disarrangement of the market data affects various individuals and groups of individuals in a different way. For some people it is a boon, for others a blow. Only after a while, when production is adjusted to the emergence of the new datum, are these effects exhausted. Thus a restrictive measure, while placing the immense majority at a disadvantage, may temporarily improve some people’s position. For those favored the measure is tantamount to the acquisition of a privilege. They are asking for such measures because they want to be privileged.
Here again the most striking example is provided by protectionism. The imposition of a duty on the importation of a commodity burdens the consumers. But to the domestic producers it is a boon. From their point of view decreeing new tariffs and raising already existing tariffs is an excellent thing.
The same is valid with regard to many other restrictive measures. If the government restricts—either by direct restriction or by fiscal discrimination—big business and corporations, the competitive position of small-size enterprises is strengthened. If it restricts the operation of big stores and chain stores, the small shopkeepers rejoice.
It is important to realize that what those benefited by these measures consider an advantage for themselves lasts only for a limited time. In the long run the privilege accorded to a definite class of producers loses its power to create specific gains. The privileged branch attracts newcomers, and their competition tends to eliminate the specific gains derived from the privilege. Thus the eagerness of the law’s pet children to acquire privileges is insatiable. They continue to ask for new privileges because the old ones lose their power.
On the other hand, the repeal of a restrictive measure to the existence of which the structure of production has already been adjusted means a new disarrangement of the market data, favors the short-run interests of some people and hurts the short-run interests of other people. Let us illustrate the issue by referring to a tariff item. Ruritania years ago, let us say in 1920, decreed a tariff on the importation of leather. This was a boon for the enterprises which at the moment happened to be engaged in the tanning industry. But then later the size of the industry expanded and the windfall gains which the tanners enjoyed in 1920 and in the following years petered out. What remains is merely the fact that a part of the world’s leather production is shifted from locations in which the output per unit of input is higher, to locations in Ruritania in which production requires higher costs. The residents of Ruritania pay higher prices for leather than they would pay in the absence of the tariff. As a greater part of Ruritania’s capital and labor is employed in the tanneries than would be the case under free trade for leather, some other domestic industries shrank or were at least prevented from growing. Less leather is imported from abroad and a smaller amount of Ruritanian products is exported as payment for leather imported. The volume of Ruritania’s foreign trade is curtailed. Not a single soul in the whole world derives any advantage from the preservation of the old tariff. On the contrary, everyone is hurt by the drop in the total output of mankind’s industrial effort. If the policy adopted by Ruritania with regard to leather were to be adopted by all nations and with regard to every kind of merchandise in the most rigid way so as to abolish international trade altogether and to make every nation perfectly autarkic, all people would have to forego entirely the advantages which the international division of labor gives them.
It is obvious that the repeal of the Ruritanian tariff on leather must in the long run benefit everybody, Ruritanians as well as foreigners. However, in the short run it would hurt the interests of the capitalists who have invested in Ruritanian tanneries. It would no less hurt the short-run interests of the Ruritanian workers specialized in tannery work. A part of them would have either to emigrate or to change their occupation. These capitalists and workers passionately fight all attempts to lower the leather tariff or to abolish it altogether.
This shows clearly why it is politically extremely difficult to brush away measures restricting production once the structure of business has been adjusted to their existence. Although their effects are pernicious to everybody, their disappearance is in the short run disadvantageous to special groups. These special groups interested in the preservation of the restrictive measures are, of course, only minorities. In Ruritania only the small fraction of the population engaged in the tanneries can suffer from the abolition of the tariff on leather. The immense majority are buyers of leather and leather goods and would be benefited by a drop in their prices. Outside the boundaries of Ruritania, only those people would be hurt who are engaged in those industries which will shrink because the leather industry will expand.
The last objection advanced by the opponents of free trade runs this way: Granted that only those Ruritanians engaged in tanning hides are immediately interested in the preservation of the tariff on leather. But every Ruritanian belongs to one of the many branches of production. If each domestic product is protected by the tariff, the transition to free trade hurts the interests of each industry and thereby those of all specialized groups of capital and labor the sum of which is the whole nation. It follows that repealing the tariff would in the short run be prejudicial to all citizens. And it is short-run interests only that count.
This argument involves a threefold error. First, it is not true that all branches of industry would be hurt by the transition to free trade. On the contrary. Those branches in which the comparative costs of production are lowest will expand under free trade. Their short-run interests would be favored by the abolition of the tariff. The tariff on those products they themselves turn out is of no advantage for them, as they could not only survive, but expand under free trade. The tariff on those products for which the comparative cost of production is higher in Ruritania than abroad hurts them by directing capital and labor, which otherwise would have fertilized them, into those other branches.
Second, the short-run principle is entirely fallacious. In the short run every change in the market data hurts those who did not anticipate it in time. A consistent champion of the short-run principle must advocate perfect ridigity and immutability of all data and oppose any change, including any therapeutical and technological improvement.3 Ifinacting people were always to prefer the avoidance of an evil in the nearer future to the avoidance of an evil in the remoter future, they would come down to the animal level. It is the very essence of human action as distinct from animal behavior that it consciously renounces some temporally nearer satisfaction in order to reap some greater but temporally remoter satisfaction.4
Finally, if the problem of the abolition of Ruritania’s comprehensive tariff system is under discussion, one must not forget the fact that the short-run interests of those engaged in tanning are hurt only by the abolition of one of the items of the tariff while they are favored by the abolition of the other items concerning the products of the industries in which comparative cost is high. It is true that wage rates of the tannery workers will drop for some time as against those in other branches and that some time will elapse until the appropriate long-run proportion between wage rates in the various branches of Ruritanian production will be established. But concomitantly with the merely temporary drop in their earnings, these workers will experience a drop in the prices of many articles they are buying. And this tendency toward an improvement in their conditions is not a phenomenon only of the period of transition. It is the consummation of the lasting blessings of free trade which, in shifting every branch of industry to the location in which comparative cost is lowest, increases the productivity of labor and the total quantity of goods produced. It is the lasting long-run boon which free trade secures to every member of the market society.
The opposition to the abolition of tariff protection would be reasonable from the personal point of view of those engaged in the leather industry if the tariff on leather were the only tariff. Then one could explain their attitude as dictated by status interests, the interests of a caste which would be temporarily hurt by the abolition of a privilege although its mere preservation no longer confers any benefit on them. But in this hypothetical case the opposition of the tanners would be hopeless. The majority of the nation would overrule it. What strengthens the ranks of the protectionists is the fact that the tariff on leather is no exception, that many branches of industry are in a similar position and are fighting the abolition of tariff items concerning their own branch. This is, of course, not an alliance based on each group’s special group interests. If everybody is protected to the same extent, everybody not only loses as consumer as much as he gains as producer. Everybody, moreover, is harmed by the general drop in the productivity of labor which the shifting of industries from more favorable to less favorable locations brings about. Conversely the abolition of all tariff items would benefit everybody in the long run, while the short-run harm which the abolition of some special tariff item brings to the special interests of the group concerned is already in the short run at least partly compensated by the consequences of the abolition of the tariff on the products the members of this group are buying and consuming.
Many people look upon tariff protection as if it were a privilege accorded to their nation’s wage earners, procuring them, for the full duration of its existence, a higher standard of living than they would enjoy under free trade. This argument is advanced not only in the United States, but in every country in the world in which average real wage rates are higher than in some other country.
Now, it is true that under perfect mobility of capital and labor there would prevail all over the world a tendency toward an equalization of the price paid for labor of the same kind and quality.5 Yet, even if there were free trade for products, this tendency is absent in our real world of migration barriers and institutions hindering foreign investment of capital. The marginal productivity of labor is higher in the United States than it is in India because capital invested per head of the working population is greater, and because Indian workers are prevented from moving to America and competing on the American labor market. There is no need, in dealing with the explanation of this difference, to investigate whether natural resources are or are not more abundant in America than in India and whether or not the Indian worker is racially inferior to the American worker. However this may be, these facts, namely, the institutional checks upon the mobility of capital and labor, suffice to account for the absence of the equalization tendency. As the abolition of the American tariff could not affect these two facts, it could not impair the standard of living of the American wage earner in an adverse sense.
On the contrary. Given a state of affairs in which the mobility of capital and labor is restricted, the transition to free trade for products must necessarily raise the American standard of life. Those industries in which American costs are higher (American productivity is lower) would shrink and those in which costs are lower (productivity is higher) would expand.
Under free trade the Swiss watchmakers would expand their sales on the American market and the sales of their American competitors would shrink. But this is only a part of the consequences of free trade. Selling and producing more, the Swiss would earn and buy more. It does not matter whether they themselves buy more of the products of other American industries or whether they increase their domestic purchases and those in other countries, for instance, in France. Whatever happens, the equivalent of the additional dollars they earned must finally go to the United States and increase the sales of some American industries. If the Swiss do not give away their products as a gift, they must spend these dollars in buying.
The popular opinion to the contrary is due to the illusory idea that America could expand its purchases of imported products by reducing the total sum of its citizens’ cash holdings. This is the notorious fallacy according to which people buy without regard to the size of their cash holdings, and according to which the very existence of cash holdings is simply the outcome of the fact that something is left over because there is nothing more to buy. We have already shown why this Mercantilist doctrine is entirely wrong.6
What the tariff really brings about in the field of wage rates and the wage earners’ standard of living is something quite different.
In a world in which there is free trade for commodities, while the migration of workers and foreign investment are restricted, there prevails a tendency toward an establishment of a definite relation between the wages paid for the same kind and quality of labor in various countries. There cannot prevail a tendency toward an equalization of wage rates. But the final price to be paid for labor in various countries is in a certain numerical relation. This final price is characterized by the fact that all those eager to earn wages get a job and all those eager to employ workers are able to hire as many hands as they want. There is “full employment.”
Let us assume that there are two countries only—Ruritania and Laputania. In Ruritania the final wage rate is double what it is in Laputania. Now the government of Ruritania resorts to one of those measures which are erroneously styled “prolabor.” It burdens the employers with an additional expenditure the size of which is proportional to the number of workers employed. For example, it reduces the hours of work without permitting a corresponding drop in weekly wage rates. The result is a drop in the quantity of goods produced and a rise in the price of the unit of every good. The individual worker enjoys more leisure, but his standard of living is curtailed. What else could a general decrease in the quantity of goods available bring about?
This outcome is an internal event in Ruritania. It would emerge also in the absence of any foreign trade. The fact that Ruritania is not autarkic, but buys from and sells to Laputania, does not alter its essential features. But it implicates Laputania. As the Ruritanians produce and consume less, they will buy less from Laputania. In Laputania there will not be a general drop in production. But some industries which produced for export to Ruritania will henceforth have to produce for the domestic Laputanian market. Laputania will see the volume of its foreign trade drop; it will become, willy-nilly, more autarkic. This is a blessing in the eyes of the protectionists. In truth, it means deterioration in the standard of living; production at higher costs is substituted for that at lower costs. What Laputania experiences is the same thing that the residents of an autarkic country would experience if an act of God were to curtail the productivity of one of the country’s industries. As far as there is division of labor, everybody is affected by a drop in the amount other people contribute to supplying the market.
However, these inexorable final international consequences of Ruritania’s new pro-labor law will not affect the various branches of Laputania’s industry in the same way. A sequence of steps is needed in both countries until at last a perfect adjustment of production to the new state of data is brought about. These short-run effects are different from the long-run effects. They are more spectacular than the long-run effects. While hardly anybody can fail to notice the short-run effects, the long-run effects are recognized only by economists. While it is not difficult to conceal the long-run effects from the public, something must be done about the easily recognizable short-run effects lest the enthusiasm for such allegedly pro-labor legislation fade away.
The first short-run effect to appear is the weakening of the competitive power of some Ruritanian branches of production as against those of Laputania. As prices rise in Ruritania, it becomes possible for some Laputanians to expand their sales in Ruritania. This is a temporary effect only; in the end the total sales of all Laputanian industries in Ruritania will drop. It is possible that in spite of this general drop in the amount of Laputanian exports to Ruritania, some of the Laputanian industries will expand their sales in the long run. (This depends on the new configuration of comparative costs.) But there is no necessary interconnection between these short-run and long-run effects. The adjustments of the period of transition create kaleidoscopically changing situations which may differ entirely from the final outcome. Yet the short-sighted public’s attention is completely absorbed by these short-run effects. They hear the businessmen affected complain that the new Ruritanian law gives to Laputanians the opportunity to undersell both in Ruritania and in Laputania. They see that some Ruritanian businessmen are forced to restrict their production and to discharge workers. And they begin to suspect that something may be wrong with the teachings of the self-styled “unorthodox friends of labor.”
But the picture is different if there is in Ruritania a tariff high enough to prevent Laputanians from even temporarily expanding their sales on the Ruritanian market. Then the most spectacular shortrun effects of the new measure are masked in such a way that the public does not become aware of them. The long-run effects, of course, cannot be avoided. But they are brought about by another sequence of short-run effects which is less offensive because less visible. The talk about alleged “social gains” produced by the shortening of the hours of work is not exploded by the immediate emergence of effects which everyone, and most of all the discharged workers, consider undesirable.
The main function of tariffs and other protectionist devices today is to disguise the real effects of interventionist policies designed to raise the standard of living of the masses. Economic nationalism is the necessary complement of these popular policies which pretend to improve the wage earners’ material well-being while they are in fact impairing it.7
Restriction as an Economic System
There are, as has been shown, cases in which a restrictive measure can attain the end sought by its application. If those resorting to such a measure think that the attainment of this goal is more important than the disadvantages brought about by the restriction—i.e., the curtailment in the quantity of material goods available for consumption—the recourse to restriction is justified from the point of view of their value judgments. They incur costs and pay a price in order to get something that they value more than what they had to expend or to forego. Nobody, and certainly not the theorist, is in a position to argue with them about the propriety of their value judgments.
The only adequate mode of dealing with measures restricting production is to look at them as sacrifices made for the attainment of a definite end. They are quasi-expenditures and quasi-consumption. They are an employment of things that could be produced and consumed in one way for the realization of certain other ends. These things are prevented from coming into existence, but this quasi-consumption is precisely what satisfies the authors of these measures better than the increase in goods available which the omission of the restriction would have produced.
With certain restrictive measures this point of view is universally adopted. If a government decrees that a piece of land should be kept in its natural state as a national park and should be withheld from any other utilization, nobody would classify such a venture as anything else than an expenditure. The government deprives the citizens of the increment in various products which the cultivation of this land could bring about, in order to provide them with another satisfaction.
It follows that restriction of production can never play any role other than that of an ancillary complement of a system of production. One cannot construct a system of economic action out of such restrictive measures alone. No complex of such measures can be linked together into an integrated economic system. They cannot form a system of production. They belong in the sphere of consumption, not in the sphere of production.
In scrutinizing the problems of interventionism we are intent upon examining the claims of the advocates of government interference with business that their system offers an alternative to other economic systems. No such claim can reasonably be raised with regard to measures restricting production. The best they can attain is curtailment of output and satisfaction. Wealth is produced by expending a certain quantity of factors of production. Curtailing this quantity does not increase, but decreases, the amount of goods produced. Even if the ends aimed at by shortening the hours of work could be attained by such a decree, it would not be a measure of production. It is invariably a way of cutting down output.
Capitalism is a system of social production. Socialism, say the socialists, is also a system of social production. But with regard to measures restricting production, even the interventionists cannot raise a similar claim. They can only say that under capitalism too much is produced and that they want to prevent the production of this surplus in order to realize other ends. They themselves must confess that there are limits to the application of restriction.
Economics does not contend that restriction is a bad system of production. It asserts that it is not at all a system of production but rather a system of quasi-consumption. Most of the ends the interventionists want to attain by restriction cannot be attained this way. But even where restrictive measures are fit to attain the ends sought, they are only restrictive.8
The enormous popularity which restriction enjoys in our day is due to the fact that people do not recognize its consequences. In dealing with the problem of shortening the hours of work by government decree, the public is not aware of the fact that total output must drop and that it is very probable that the wage earners’ standard of living will be potentially lowered too. It is a dogma of present-day “unorthodoxy” that such a “pro-labor” measure is a “social gain” for the workers and that the costs of these gains fall entirely upon the employers. Whoever questions this dogma is branded as a “sycophantic” apologist of the unfair pretensions of rugged exploiters, and pitilessly persecuted. It is insinuated that he wants to reduce the wage earners to the poverty and the long working hours of the early stages of modern industrialism.
As against all this slander it is important to emphasize again that what produces wealth and well-being is production and not restriction. That in the capitalist countries the average wage earner consumes more goods and can afford to enjoy more leisure than his ancestors, and that he can support his wife and children and need not send them to work, is not an achievement of governments and labor unions. It is the outcome of the fact that profit-seeking business has accumulated and invested more capital and thus increased the marginal productivity of labor.
Interference with the Structure of Prices
The Government and the Autonomy of the Market
Interference with the structure of the market means that the authority aims at fixing prices for commodities and services and interest rates at a height different from what the unhampered market would have determined. It decrees, or empowers—either tacitly or expressly—definite groups of people to decree prices and rates which are to be considered either as maxima or as minima, and it provides for the enforcement of such decrees by coercion and compulsion.
In resorting to such measures the government wants to favor either the buyer—as in the case of maximum prices—or the seller—as in the case of minimum prices. The maximum price is designed to make it possible for the buyer to procure what he wants at a price lower than that of the unhampered market. The minimum price is designed to make it possible for the seller to dispose of his merchandise or his services at a price higher than that of the unhampered market. It depends on the political balance of forces which groups the authority wants to favor. At times governments have resorted to maximum prices, at other times to minimum prices for various commodities. At times they have decreed maximum wage rates, at other times minimum wage rates. It is only with regard to interest that they have never had recourse to minimum rates; when they have interfered, they have always decreed maximum interest rates. They have always looked askance upon saving, investing, and moneylending.
If this interference with commodity prices, wage rates, and interest rates includes all prices, wage rates, and interest rates, it is tantamount to the full substitution of socialism (of the German pattern) for the market economy. Then the market, interpersonal exchange, private ownership of the means of production, entrepreneurship, and private initiative, virtually disappear altogether. No individual any longer has the opportunity to influence the process of production of his own accord; every individual is bound to obey the orders of the supreme board of production management. What in the complex of these orders are called prices, wage rates, and interest rates are no longer prices, wage rates, and interest rates in the catallactic sense of these terms. They are merely quantitative determinations fixed by the director without reference to a market process. If the governments resorting to price control and the reformers advocating price control were always intent upon the establishment of socialism of the German pattern, there would be no need for economics to deal with price control separately. All that has to be said with reference to such price control is already contained in the analysis of socialism.
Many advocates of government interference with prices have been and are very much confused with regard to this issue. They have failed to recognize the fundamental difference between a market economy and a nonmarket society. The haziness of their ideas has been reflected in vague and ambiguous language and in a bewildering terminology.
There were and are advocates of price control who have declared that they want to preserve the market economy. They are outspoken in their assertion that government fixing of prices, wage rates, and interest rates can attain the ends the government wants to attain by their promulgation without abolishing altogether the market and private ownership of the means of production. They even declare that price control is the best or the only means of preserving the system of private enterprise and of preventing the coming of socialism. They become very indignant if somebody questions the correctness of their doctrine and shows that price control, if it is not to make things worse from the point of view of the governments and the interventionist doctrinaires, must finally result in socialism. They protest that they are neither socialists nor communists, and that they aim at economic freedom and not at totalitarianism.
It is the tenets of these interventionists that we have to examine. The problem is whether it is possible for the police power to attain the ends it wants to attain by fixing prices, wage rates, and interest rates at a height different from what the unhampered market would have determined. It is beyond doubt that a strong and resolute government has the power to decree such maximum or minimum rates and to take revenge upon the disobedient. But the question is whether or not the authority can attain those ends which it wants to attain by resorting to such decrees.
History is a long record of price ceilings and anti-usury laws. Again and again emperors, kings, and revolutionary dictators have tried to meddle with the market phenomena. Severe punishment was inflicted on refractory dealers and farmers. Many people fell victim to persecutions which met with the enthusiastic approval of the masses. Nonetheless, all these endeavors failed. The explanation which the writings of lawyers, theologians and philosophers provided for the failure was in full agreement with the ideas held by the rulers and the masses. Man, they said, is intrinsically selfish and sinful, and the authorities were unfortunately too lax in enforcing the law. What was needed was more firmness and peremptoriness on the part of those in power.
Cognizance of the issue involved was first reached with regard to a special problem. Various governments long practiced currency debasement. They substituted baser and cheaper metals for a part of the gold or silver which the coins previously contained, or they reduced the weight and the size of the coins. But they retained for the debased coins the customary names of the old ones and they decreed that they should be given and received at the nominal par. Then later the governments tried to enjoin on their subjects analogous constraint with regard to the exchange ratio between gold and silver and that between metallic money and credit money or fiat money. In searching for the causes which made all such decrees abortive, the forerunners of economic thought had already discovered by the last centuries of the Middle Ages the regularity which was later called Gresham’s Law. There was still a long way to go from this isolated insight to the point where the philosophers of the eighteenth century became aware of the interconnectedness of all market phenomena.
In describing the results of their reasoning the classical economists and their successors sometimes resorted to idiomatic expressions which could easily be misinterpreted by those who wanted to misinterpret them. They occasionally spoke of the “impossibility” of price control. What they really meant was not that such decrees are impossible, but that they cannot attain those ends which the governments are trying to attain and that they make things worse, not better. They concluded that such decrees are contrary to purpose and inexpedient.
It is necessary to see clearly that the problem of price control is not merely one of the problems to be dealt with by economics, not a problem with regard to which there can arise disagreement among various economists. The issue involved is rather: Is there any such thing as economics? Is there any regularity in the sequence and interconnectedness of the market phenomena? He who answers these two questions in the negative denies the very possibility, rationality and existence of economics as a branch of knowledge. He returns to the beliefs held in the ages which preceded the evolution of economics. He declares to be untrue the assertion that there is any economic law and that prices, wage rates, and interest rates are uniquely determined by the data of the market. He contends that the police have the power to determine these market phenomena ad libitum. An advocate of socialism need not necessarily negate economics; his postulates do not necessarily imply the indeterminateness of the market phenomena. But the interventionist, in advocating price control, cannot help nullifying the very existence of economics. Nothing is left of economics if one denies the law of the market.
The German Historical School was consistent in its radical condemnation of economics and in its endeavors to substitute wirtschaftliche Staatswissenschaften (the economic aspects of political science) for economics. So were many adepts of British Fabianism and American Institutionalism. But those authors who do not totally reject economics and yet assert that price control can attain the ends sought lamentably contradict themselves. It is logically impossible to reconcile the point of view of the economist and that of the interventionist. If prices are uniquely determined by the market data, they cannot be freely manipulated by government compulsion. The government’s decree is just a new datum, and its effects are determined by the operation of the market. It need not necessarily produce those results which the government wants to realize in resorting to it. It may happen that the final outcome of the interference is, from the point of view of the government’s intention, even more undesirable than the previous state of affairs which the government wanted to alter.
One does not invalidate these propositions by putting the term economic law in quotation marks and by finding fault with the notion of the law. In speaking of the laws of nature we have in mind the fact that there prevails an inexorable interconnectedness of physical and biological phenomena and that acting man must submit to this regularity if he wants to succeed. In speaking of the laws of human action we refer to the fact that such an inexorable interconnectedness of phenomena is present also in the field of human action as such and that acting man must recognize this regularity too if he wants to succeed. The reality of the laws of praxeology is revealed to man by the same signs that reveal the reality of natural law, namely, the fact that his power to attain chosen ends is restricted and conditioned. In the absence of laws man would either be omnipotent and would never feel any uneasiness which he could not remove instantly and totally, or he could not act at all.
These laws of the universe must not be confused with the man-made laws of the country and with man-made moral precepts. The laws of the universe about which physics, biology, and praxeology provide knowledge are independent of the human will, they are primary ontological facts rigidly restricting man’s power to act. The moral precepts and the laws of the country are means by which men seek to attain certain ends. Whether or not these ends can really be attained this way depends on the laws of the universe. The man-made laws are suitable if they are fit to attain these ends and contrary to purpose if they are not. They are open to examination from the point of view of their suitableness or unsuitableness. With regard to the laws of the universe any doubt of their suitableness is supererogatory and vain. They are what they are and take care of themselves. Their violation penalizes itself. But the man-made laws need to be enforced by special sanctions.
Only the insane venture to disregard physical and biological laws. But it is quite common to disdain praxeological laws. Rulers do not like to admit that their power is restricted by any laws other than those of physics and biology. They never ascribe their failures and frustrations to the violation of economic law.
Foremost in the repudiation of economic knowledge was the German Historical School. It was an unbearable idea to those professors that their lofty idols, the Hohenzollern Electors of Brandenburg and Kings of Prussia, should have lacked omnipotence. To refute the teachings of the economists, they buried themselves in old documents and compiled numerous volumes dealing with the history of the administration of these glorious princes. This, they wrote, is a realistic approach to the problems of state and government. Here you find unadulterated facts and real life, not the bloodless abstractions and faulty generalizations of the British doctrinaires. In truth, all that these ponderous tomes report is a long record of policies and measures which failed precisely because of their neglect of economic law. No more instructive case history could ever be written than these volumes of Prussian documents, the Acta Borussica.
However, economics cannot acquiesce in such exemplification. It must enter into a precise scrutiny of the mode in which the market reacts to government interference with the price structure.
The Market’s Reaction to Government Interference
The characteristic feature of the market price is that it tends to equalize supply and demand. The size of the demand coincides with the size of supply not only in the imaginary construction of the evenly rotating economy. The notion of the plain state of rest as developed by the elementary theory of prices is a faithful description of what comes to pass in the market at every instant. Any deviation of a market price from the height at which supply and demand are equal is—in the unhampered market—self-liquidating.
But if the government fixes prices at a height different from what the market would have fixed if left alone, this equilibrium of demand and supply is disturbed. Then there are—with maximum prices—potential buyers who cannot buy although they are ready to pay the price fixed by the authority, or even a higher price. Then there are—with minimum prices—potential sellers who cannot sell although they are ready to sell at the price fixed by the authority, or even at a lower price. The price can no longer segregate those potential buyers and sellers who can buy or sell from those who cannot. A different principle for the allocation of the goods and services concerned and for the selection of those who are to receive portions of the supply available necessarily comes into operation. It may be that only those are in a position to buy who come first, or only those to whom particular circumstances (such as personal connections) assign a privileged position, or only those ruthless fellows who chase away their rivals by resorting to intimidation or violence. If the authority does not want chance or violence to determine the allocation of the supply available and conditions to become chaotic, it must itself regulate the amount which each individual is permitted to buy. It must resort to rationing.1
But rationing does not affect the core of the issue. The allocation of portions of the supply already produced and available to the various individuals eager to obtain a quantity of the goods concerned is only a secondary function of the market. Its primary function is the direction of production. It directs the employment of the factors of production into those channels in which they satisfy the most urgent needs of the consumers. If the government’s price ceiling refers only to one consumers’ good or to a limited amount of consumers’ goods while the prices of the complementary factors of production are left free, production of the consumers’ goods concerned will drop. The marginal producers will discontinue producing them lest they suffer losses. The not absolutely specific factors of production will be employed to a greater extent for the production of other goods not subject to price ceilings. A greater part of the absolutely specific factors of production will remain unused than would have remained in the absence of price ceilings. There emerges a tendency to shift production activities from the production of the goods affected by the maximum prices into the production of other goods. This outcome is, however, manifestly contrary to the intentions of the government. In resorting to price ceilings the authority wanted to make the commodities concerned more easily accessible to the consumers. It considered precisely those commodities so vital that it singled them out for a special measure in order to make it possible even for poor people to be amply supplied with them. But the result of the government’s interference is that production of these commodities drops or stops altogether. It is a complete failure.
It would be vain for the government to try to remove these undesired consequences by decreeing maximum prices likewise for the factors of production needed for the production of the consumers’ goods the prices of which it has fixed. Such a measure would be successful only if all factors of production required were absolutely specific. As this can never be the case, the government must add to its first measure, fixing the price of only one consumers’ good below the potential market price, more and more price ceilings, not only for all other consumers’ goods and for all material factors of production, but no less for labor. It must compel every entrepreneur, capitalist, and employee to continue producing at the prices, wage rates, and interest rates which the government has fixed, to produce those quantities which the government orders them to produce, and to sell the products to those people—producers or consumers—whom the government determines. If one branch of production were to be exempt from this regimentation, capital and labor would flow into it; production would be restricted precisely in those other—regimented—branches which the government considered so important that it interfered with the conduct of their affairs.
Economics does not say that isolated government interference with the prices of only one commodity or a few commodities is unfair, bad, or unfeasible. It says that such interference produces results contrary to its purpose, that it makes conditions worse, not better, from the point of view of the government and those backing its interference. Before the government interfered, the goods concerned were, in the eyes of the government, too dear. As a result of the maximum price their supply dwindles or disappears altogether. The government interfered because it considered these commodities especially vital, necessary, indispensable. But its action curtailed the supply available. It is therefore, from the point of view of the government, absurd and nonsensical.
If the government is unwilling to acquiesce in this undesired and undesirable outcome and goes further and further, if it fixes the prices of all goods and services of all orders and obliges all people to continue producing and working at these prices and wage rates, it eliminates the market altogether. Then the planned economy, socialism of the German Zwangswirtschaft pattern, is substituted for the market economy. The consumers no longer direct production by their buying and abstention from buying; the government alone directs it.
There are only two exceptions to the rule that maximum prices restrict supply and thus bring about a state of affairs which is contrary to the aims sought by their imposition. One refers to absolute rent, the other to monopoly prices.
The maximum price results in a restriction of supply because the marginal producers suffer losses and must discontinue production. The nonspecific factors of production are employed for the production of other products not subject to price ceilings. The utilization of the absolutely specific factors of production shrinks. Under unhampered market conditions they would have been utilized up to the limit determined by the absence of an opportunity to use the nonspecific among the complementary factors for the satisfaction of more urgent wants. Now only a smaller part of the available supply of these absolutely specific factors can be utilized; concomitantly that part of the supply that remains unused increases. But if the supply of these absolutely specific factors is so scanty that under the prices of the unhampered market their total supply was utilized, a margin is given within which the government’s interference does not curtail the supply of the product. The maximum price does not restrict production as long as it has not entirely absorbed the absolute rent of the marginal supplier of the absolutely specific factor. But at any rate it results in a discrepancy between the demand for and the supply of the product.
Thus the amount by which the urban rent of a piece of land exceeds the agricultural rent provides a margin in which rent control can operate without restricting the supply of rental space. If the maximum rents are graduated in such a way as never to take away from any proprietor so much that he prefers to use the land for agriculture rather than for the construction of buildings, they do not affect the supply of apartments and business premises. However, they increase the demand for such apartments and premises and thus create the very shortage that the governments pretend to fight by their rent ceilings. Whether or not the authorities resort to rationing the space available is catallactically of minor importance. At any rate, their price ceilings do not abolish the catallactic phenomenon of the urban rent. They merely transfer the rent from the landlord’s income into the tenant’s income.
In practice, of course, governments resorting to rent restriction never adjust their ceilings to these considerations. They either rigidly freeze gross rents as they prevailed on the eve of their interference or allow only a limited addition to these gross rents. As the proportion between the two items included in the gross rent, urban rent proper and price paid for the utilization of the superstructure, varies according to the special circumstances of each dwelling, the effect of rent ceilings is also very different. In some cases the expropriation of the owner to the benefit of the lessee involves only a fraction of the difference between the urban rent and the agricultural rent; in other cases it far exceeds this difference. But however this may be, the rent restriction creates a housing shortage. It increases demand without increasing supply.
If maximum rents are decreed not only for already available rental space, but also for buildings still to be constructed, the construction of new buildings is no longer remunerative. It either stops altogether or slumps to a low level; the shortage is perpetuated. But even if rents in new buildings are left free, construction of new buildings drops. Prospective investors are deterred because they take into account the danger that the government will at a later date declare a new emergency and expropriate a part of their revenues in the same way as it did with the old buildings.
The second exception refers to monopoly prices. The difference between a monopoly price and the competitive price of the commodity in question provides a margin in which maximum prices could be enforced without defeating the ends sought by the government. If the competitive price is p and the lowest among the possible monopoly prices m, a ceiling price of c, c being higher than p and lower than m, would make it disadvantageous for the seller to raise the price above p. The maximum price could reestablish the competitive price and increase demand, production, and the supply offered for sale. A dim cognizance of this concatenation is at the bottom of some suggestions asking for government interference in order to preserve competition and to make it operate as beneficially as possible.
We may for the sake of argument pass over the fact that all such measures would appear as paradoxical with regard to all those instances of monopoly prices which are the outcome of government interference. If the government objects to monopoly prices for new inventions, it should stop granting patents. It would be absurd to grant patents and then to deprive them of any value by forcing the patentee to sell at the competitive price. If the government does not approve of cartels, it should rather abstain from all measures (such as import duties) which provide business with the opportunity to erect combines.
Things are different in those rare instances in which monopoly prices come into existence without assistance from the governments. Here governmental maximum prices could reestablish competitive conditions if it were possible to find out by academic computation at which height a nonexisting competitive market would have determined the price. That all endeavors to construct nonmarket prices are vain has been shown.2 The unsatisfactory results of all attempts to determine what the fair or correct price for the services of public utilities should be are well known to all experts.
Reference to these two exceptions explains why in some very rare cases maximum prices, when applied with very great caution within a narrow margin, do not restrict the supply of the commodity or the service concerned. It does not affect the correctness of the general rule that maximum prices bring about a state of affairs which, from the point of view of the government decreeing them, is more undesirable than conditions as they would have been in the absence of price control.
[8. ]It is usual today to plead the cause of communist revolutions by denouncing the attacked noncommunist government as corrupt. Thus one tried to justify the support that a part of the American press and some of the representatives of the American Administration gave first to the Chinese communists and then to those of Cuba by calling the regime of Chiang Kai-shek and later that of Batista corrupt. But from this point of view, every communist revolution against a government that is not fully committed to laissez faire appears as justified.
[1. ]Cf. Harley Lutz, Guideposts to a Free Economy (New York, 1945), p. 76.
[2. ]This is the customary method of dealing with problems of public finance. Cf., e.g., Ely, Adams, Lorenz, and Young, Outlines of Economics (3d ed. New York, 1920), p. 702.
[1. ]Entrepreneurial profits and losses are not affected by prolabor legislation as they entirely depend on the more or less successful adjustment of production to the changing conditions of the market. With regard to these, labor legislation counts only as a factor producing change.
[2. ]Cf. above, pp. 614–17.
[3. ]This consistency was displayed by some Nazi philosophers. Cf. Sombart, A New Social Philosophy, pp. 242–45.
[4. ]See above, pp. 479–88.
[5. ]For a detailed analysis, cf. above, p. 627.
[6. ]See above, pp. 448–52.
[7. ]See also what has been said about the function of cartels on pp. 365–69.
[8. ]As for the objections raised against this thesis from the point of view of the Ricardo effect, see below, pp. 773–76.
[1. ]For the sake of simplicity we deal in the further disquisitions of this section only with maximum prices for commodities and in the next section only with minimum wage rates. However, our statements are, mutatis mutandis, equally valid for minimum prices for commodities and maximum wage rates.
[2. ]Cf. above, pp. 395–97.