Front Page Titles (by Subject) 2: The Price of Restriction - Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, vol. 3 (LF ed.)
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2: The Price of Restriction - Ludwig von Mises, Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, vol. 3 (LF ed.) 
Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, in 4 vols., ed. Bettina Bien Greaves (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2007). Vol. 3.
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The 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.
[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.