Front Page Titles (by Subject) Observations on the Causes of the Decline of Ancient Civilization - Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, vol. 3 (LF ed.)
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Observations on the Causes of the Decline of Ancient Civilization - Ludwig von Mises, Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, vol. 3 (LF ed.) 
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Observations on the Causes of the Decline of Ancient Civilization
Knowledge of the effects of government interference with market prices makes us comprehend the economic causes of a momentous historical event, the decline of ancient civilization.
It may be left undecided whether or not it is correct to call the economic organization of the Roman Empire capitalism. At any rate it is certain that the Roman Empire in the second century, the age of the Antonines, the “good” emperors, had reached a high stage of the social division of labor and of interregional commerce. Several metropolitan centers, a considerable number of middle-sized towns, and many small towns were the seats of a refined civilization. The inhabitants of these urban agglomerations were supplied with food and raw materials not only from the neighboring rural districts, but also from distant provinces. A part of these provisions flowed into the cities as revenue of their wealthy residents who owned landed property. But a considerable part was bought in exchange for the rural population’s purchases of the products of the city-dwellers’ processing activities. There was an extensive trade between the various regions of the vast empire. Not only in the processing industries, but also in agriculture there was a tendency toward further specialization. The various parts of the empire were no longer economically self-sufficient. They were interdependent.
What brought about the decline of the empire and the decay of its civilization was the disintegration of this economic interconnectedness, not the barbarian invasions. The alien aggressors merely took advantage of an opportunity which the internal weakness of the empire offered to them. From a military point of view the tribes which invaded the empire in the fourth and fifth centuries were not more formidable than the armies which the legions had easily defeated in earlier times. But the empire had changed. Its economic and social structure was already medieval.
The freedom that Rome granted to commerce and trade had always been restricted. With regard to the marketing of cereals and other vital necessities it was even more restricted than with regard to other commodities. It was deemed unfair and immoral to ask for grain, oil, and wine, the staples of these ages, more than the customary prices, and the municipal authorities were quick to check what they considered profiteering. Thus the evolution of an efficient wholesale trade in these commodities was prevented. The policy of the annona, which was tantamount to a nationalization or municipalization of the grain trade, aimed at filling the gaps. But its effects were rather unsatisfactory. Grain was scarce in the urban agglomerations, and the agriculturists complained about the unremunerativeness of grain growing.3 The interference of the authorities upset the adjustment of supply to the rising demand.
The showdown came when in the political troubles of the third and fourth centuries the emperors resorted to currency debasement. With the system of maximum prices the practice of debasement completely paralyzed both the production and the marketing of the vital foodstuffs and disintegrated society’s economic organization. The more eagerness the authorities displayed in enforcing the maximum prices, the more desperate became the conditions of the urban masses dependent on the purchase of food. Commerce in grain and other necessities vanished altogether. To avoid starving, people deserted the cities, settled on the countryside, and tried to grow grain, oil, wine, and other necessities for themselves. On the other hand, the owners of the big estates restricted their excess production of cereals and began to produce in their farmhouses—the villae —the products of handicraft which they needed. For their big-scale farming, which was already seriously jeopardized because of the inefficiency of slave labor, lost its rationality completely when the opportunity to sell at remunerative prices disappeared. As the owner of the estate could no longer sell in the cities, he could no longer patronize the urban artisans either. He was forced to look for a substitute to meet his needs by employing handicraftsmen on his own account in his villa. He discontinued big-scale farming and became a landlord receiving rents from tenants or sharecroppers. These coloni were either freed slaves or urban proletarians who settled in the villages and turned to tilling the soil. A tendency toward the establishment of autarky of each landlord’s estate emerged. The economic function of the cities, of commerce, trade, and urban handicrafts, shrank. Italy and the provinces of the empire returned to a less advanced state of the social division of labor. The highly developed economic structure of ancient civilization retrograded to what is now known as the manorial organization of the Middle Ages.
The emperors were alarmed with that outcome which undermined the financial and military power of their government. But their counteraction was futile as it did not affect the root of the evil. The compulsion and coercion to which they resorted could not reverse the trend toward social disintegration which, on the contrary, was caused precisely by too much compulsion and coercion. No Roman was aware of the fact that the process was induced by the government’s interference with prices and by currency debasement. It was vain for the emperors to promulgate laws against the city-dweller who relicta civitate rus habitare maluerit [deserted the cities, preferring to live in the country].4 The system of the leiturgia, the public services to be rendered by the wealthy citizens, only accelerated the retrogression of the division of labor. The laws concerning the special obligations of the shipowners, the navicularii, were no more successful in checking the decline of navigation than the laws concerning grain dealing in checking the shrinkage in the cities’ supply of agricultural products.
The marvelous civilization of antiquity perished because it did not adjust its moral code and its legal system to the requirements of the market economy. A social order is doomed if the actions which its normal functioning requires are rejected by the standards of morality, are declared illegal by the laws of the country, and are prosecuted as criminal by the courts and the police. The Roman Empire crumbled to dust because it lacked the spirit of liberalism and free enterprise. The policy of interventionism and its political corollary, the Führer principle, decomposed the mighty empire as they will by necessity always disintegrate and destroy any social entity.
Minimum Wage Rates
The very essence of the interventionist politicians’ wisdom is to raise the price of labor either by government decree or by violent action or the threat of such action on the part of labor unions. To raise wage rates above the height at which the unhampered market would determine them is considered a postulate of the eternal laws of morality as well as indispensable from the economic point of view. Whoever dares to challenge this ethical and economic dogma is scorned both as depraved and ignorant. Many of our contemporaries look upon people who are foolhardy enough “to cross a picket line” as primitive tribesmen looked upon those who violated the precepts of taboo conceptions. Millions are jubilant if such scabs receive their well-deserved punishment from the hands of the strikers while the police, the public attorneys, and the penal courts preserve a lofty neutrality or openly side with the strikers.
The market wage rate tends toward a height at which all those eager to earn wages get jobs and all those eager to employ workers can hire as many as they want. It tends toward the establishment of what is nowadays called full employment. Where there is neither government nor union interference with the labor market, there is only voluntary or catallactic unemployment. But as soon as external pressure and compulsion, be it on the part of the government or on the part of the unions, tries to fix wage rates at a higher point, institutional unemployment emerges. While there prevails on the unhampered labor market a tendency for catallactic unemployment to disappear, institutional unemployment cannot disappear as long as the government or the unions are successful in the enforcement of their fiat. If the minimum wage rate refers only to a part of the various occupations while other sectors of the labor market are left free, those losing their jobs on its account enter the free branches of business and increase the supply of labor in them. When unionism was restricted to skilled labor mainly, the wage rise achieved by the unions did not lead to institutional unemployment. It merely lowered the height of wage rates in those branches in which there were no efficient unions or no unions at all. The corollary of the rise in wages for organized workers was a drop in wages for unorganized workers. But with the spread of government interference with wages and with government support of unionism, conditions have changed. Institutional unemployment has become a chronic or permanent mass phenomenon.
Writing in 1930, Lord Beveridge, later an advocate of government and union meddling with the labor market, pointed out that the potential effect of “a high-wages policy” in causing unemployment is “not denied by any competent authority.”5 In fact, to deny this effect is tantamount to a complete disavowal of any regularity in the sequence and interconnectedness of market phenomena. Those earlier economists who sympathized with the unions were fully aware of the fact that unionization can achieve its ends only when restricted to a minority of workers. They approved of unionism as a device beneficial to the group interests of a privileged labor aristocracy, and did not concern themselves about its consequences for the rest of the wage earners.6 No one has ever succeeded in the effort to demonstrate that unionism could improve the conditions and raise the standard of living of all those eager to earn wages.
It is important to remember also that Karl Marx did not contend that unions could raise the average standard of wages. As he saw it, “the general tendency of capitalistic production is not to raise, but to sink the average standard of wages.” Such being the tendency of things, all that unionism can achieve with regard to wages is “making the best of the occasional chances for their temporary improvement.”7 The unions counted for Marx only as far as they attacked “the very system of wage slavery and present-day methods of production.”8 They should understand that “instead of the conservative motto, A fair day’s wages for a fair day’s work! they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword, Abolition of the wages system.”9 Consistent Marxians always opposed attempts to impose minimum wage rates as detrimental to the interests of the whole labor class. From the beginning of the modern labor movement there was always an antagonism between the unions and the revolutionary socialists. The older British and American unions were exclusively dedicated to the enforcement of higher wage rates. They looked askance upon socialism, “utopian” as well as “scientific.” In Germany there was a rivalry between the adepts of the Marxian creed and the union leaders. Finally, in the last decades preceding the outbreak of the first World War, the unions triumphed. They virtually converted the Social Democratic Party to the principles of interventionism and unionism. In France, Georges Sorel aimed at imbuing the unions with that spirit of ruthless aggression and revolutionary bellicosity which Marx wanted to impart to them. There is today in every nonsocialist country a manifest conflict between two irreconcilable factions within the unions. One group considers unionism a device for the improvement of the workers’ conditions within the frame of capitalism. The other group wants to drive the unions into the ranks of militant communism and approves of them only as far as they are the pioneers of a violent overthrow of the capitalistic system.
The problems of labor unionism have been obfuscated and utterly confused by pseudo-humanitarian blather. The advocates of minimum wage rates, whether decreed and enforced by the government or by violent union action, contend that they are fighting for the improvement of the conditions of the working masses. They do not permit anyone to question their dogma that minimum wage rates are the only appropriate means of raising wage rates permanently and for all those eager to earn wages. They pride themselves on being the only true friends of “labor,” of the “common man,” of “progress,” and of the eternal principles of “social justice.”
However, the problem is precisely whether there is any means for raising the standard of living of all those eager to work other than raising the marginal productivity of labor by accelerating the increase of capital as compared with population. The union doctrinaires are intent upon obscuring this primary issue. They never refer to the only point that matters, viz., the relation between the number of workers and the quantity of capital goods available. But certain policies of the unions involve a tacit acknowledgment of the correctness of the catallactic theorems concerning the determination of wage rates. Unions are anxious to cut down the supply of labor by anti-immigration laws and by preventing outsiders and newcomers from competing in the unionized sectors of the labor market. They are opposed to the export of capital. These policies would be nonsensical if it were true that the per capita quota of capital available is of no importance for the determination of wage rates.
The essence of the union doctrine is implied in the slogan exploitation. According to the union variety of the exploitation doctrine, which differs from the Marxian creed, labor is the only source of wealth, and expenditure of labor the only real cost. By rights, all proceeds from the sale of products should belong to the workers. The manual worker has a fair claim to the “whole produce of labor.” The wrong that the capitalistic mode of production does to the worker is seen in the fact that it permits landowners, capitalists, and entrepreneurs to withhold a part of the workers’ portion. The share which goes to these parasites is called unearned income. The workers are right in their endeavors to raise wage rates step by step to such a height that finally nothing will be left for the support of a class of idle and socially useless exploiters. In aiming at this end, the unions pretend to continue the battle which earlier generations fought for the emancipation of slaves and serfs and for the abolition of the imposts, tributes, tithes, and unpaid statute labor with which the peasantry was burdened for the benefit of aristocratic landlords. The labor movement is a struggle for freedom and equality, and for the vindication of the inalienable rights of man. Its ultimate victory is beyond doubt, for it is the inevitable trend of historical evolution to wipe out all class privileges and to establish firmly the realm of freedom and equality. The attempts of reactionary employers to halt progress are doomed.
Such are the tenets of present-day social doctrine. It is true that some people, although in perfect agreement with its philosophical ideas, support the practical conclusions derived by the radicals only with certain reservations and qualifications. These moderates do not propose to abolish “management’s” share altogether; they would be satisfied with cutting it down to a “fair” amount. As the opinions concerning the fairness of the revenues of the entrepreneurs and capitalists vary widely, the difference between the point of view of the radicals and that of the moderates is of little moment. The moderates also endorse the principle that real wage rates should always rise and never drop. In both world wars few voices in the United States disputed the claim of the unions that the wage earners’ take-home pay, even in a national emergency, should go up faster than the cost of living.
As the union doctrine sees it, there is no harm in confiscating the specific revenue of the capitalists and entrepreneurs partially or altogether. In dealing with this issue they speak of profits in the sense in which the classical economists applied this term. They do not distinguish between entrepreneurial profit, interest on the capital employed and compensation for the technical services rendered by the entrepreneur. We will deal later with the consequences resulting from the confiscation of interest and profits and with the syndicalist elements involved in the “ability to pay” principle and in profit-sharing schemes.10 We have examined the purchasing power argument as advanced in favor of a policy of raising wage rates above the potential market rates.11 What remains is to scrutinize the purport of the alleged Ricardo effect.
Ricardo is the author of the proposition that a rise in wages will encourage capitalists to substitute machinery for labor and vice versa.12 Hence, conclude the union apologists, a policy of raising wage rates, irrespective of what they would have been on the unhampered labor market, is always beneficial. It generates technological improvement and raises the productivity of labor. Higher wages always pay for themselves. In forcing the reluctant employers to raise wage rates, the unions become the pioneers of progress and prosperity.
Many economists approve of the Ricardian proposition although few of them are consistent enough to endorse the inference the union apologists draw from it. The Ricardo effect is by and large a stockin-trade of popular economics. Nonetheless, the theorem involved is one of the worst economic fallacies.
The confusion starts with the misinterpretation of the statement that machinery is “substituted” for labor. What happens is that labor is rendered more efficient by the aid of machinery. The same input of labor leads to a greater quantity or a better quality of products. The employment of machinery itself does not directly result in a reduction of the number of hands employed in the production of the article A concerned. What brings about this secondary effect is the fact that—other things being equal—an increase in the available supply of A lowers the marginal utility of a unit of A as against that of the units of other articles and that therefore labor is withdrawn from the production of A and employed in the turning out of other articles. The technological improvement in the production of A makes it possible to realize certain projects which could not be executed before because the workers required were employed for the production of A for which consumers’ demand was more urgent. The reduction of the number of workers in the A industry is caused by the increased demand of these other branches to which the opportunity to expand is offered. Incidentally, this insight explodes all talk about technological unemployment.
Tools and machinery are primarily not labor-saving devices, but means to increase output per unit of input. They appear as labor-saving devices if looked upon exclusively from the point of view of the individual branch of business concerned. Seen from the point of view of the consumers and the whole of society, they appear as instruments that raise the productivity of human effort. They increase supply and make it possible to consume more material goods and to enjoy more leisure. Which goods will be consumed in greater quantity and to what extent people will prefer to enjoy more leisure depends on people’s value judgments.
The employment of more and better tools is feasible only to the extent that the capital required is available. Saving—that is, a surplus of production over consumption—is the indispensable condition of every further step toward technological improvement. Mere technological knowledge is of no use if the capital needed is lacking. Indian businessmen are familiar with American ways of production. What prevents them from adopting the American methods is not the lowness of Indian wages, but lack of capital.
On the other hand, capitalist saving necessarily causes employment of additional tools and machinery. The role that plain saving, i.e., the piling up of stocks of consumers’ goods as a reserve for rainy days, plays in the market economy is negligible. Under capitalism saving is as a rule capitalist saving. The excess of production over consumption is invested either directly in the saver’s own business or farm or indirectly in other peoples’ enterprises through the instrumentality of savings deposits, common and preferred stock, bonds, debentures, and mortgages.13 To the extent to which people keep their consumption below their net income, additional capital is created and at the same time employed for the expansion of the capital equipment of the apparatus of production. As has been pointed out, this outcome cannot be affected by any synchronous tendency toward an increase in cash holdings.14 On the one hand, what is unconditionally needed for the employment of more and better tools is additional accumulation of capital. On the other hand, there is no employment available for additional capital other than that provided by the application of more and better tools.
Ricardo’s proposition and the union doctrine derived from it turn things upside down. A tendency toward higher wage rates is not the cause, but the effect, of technological improvement. Profit-seeking business is compelled to employ the most efficient methods of production. What checks a businessman’s endeavors to improve the equipment of his firm is only lack of capital. If the capital required is not available, no meddling with wage rates can provide it.
All that minimum wage rates can accomplish with regard to the employment of machinery is to shift additional investment from one branch into another. Let us assume that in an economically backward country, Ruritania, the stevedores’ union succeeds in forcing the entrepreneurs to pay wage rates which are comparatively much higher than those paid in the rest of the country’s industries. Then it may result that the most profitable employment for additional capital is to utilize mechanical devices in the loading and unloading of ships. But the capital thus employed is withheld from other branches of Ruritania’s business in which, in the absence of the union’s policy, it would have been employed in a more profitable way. The effect of the high wages of the stevedores is not an increase, but a drop in Ruritania’s total production.15
Real wage rates can rise only to the extent that, other things being equal, capital becomes more plentiful. If the government or the unions succeed in enforcing wage rates which are higher than those the unhampered labor market would have determined, the supply of labor exceeds the demand for labor. Institutional unemployment emerges.
Firmly committed to the principles of interventionism, governments try to check this undesired result of their interference by resorting to those measures which are nowadays called full-employment policy: unemployment doles, arbitration of labor disputes, public works by means of lavish public spending, inflation, and credit expansion. All these remedies are worse than the evil they are designed to remove.
Assistance granted to the unemployed does not dispose of unemployment. It makes it easier for the unemployed to remain idle. The nearer the allowance comes to the height at which the unhampered market would have fixed the wage rate, the less incentive it offers to the beneficiary to look for a new job. It is a means of making unemployment last rather than of making it disappear. The disastrous financial implications of unemployment benefits are manifest.
Arbitration is not an appropriate method for the settlement of disputes concerning the height of wage rates. If the arbitrators’ award fixes wage rates exactly at the potential market rate or below that rate, it is supererogatory. If it fixes wage rates above the potential market rate, the consequences are the same that any other mode of fixing minimum wage rates above the market height brings about, viz., institutional unemployment. It does not matter to what pretext the arbitrator resorts in order to justify his decision. What matters is not whether wages are “fair” or “unfair” by some arbitrary standard, but whether they do or do not bring about an excess of supply of labor over demand for labor. It may seem fair to some people to fix wage rates at such a height that a great part of the potential labor force is doomed to lasting unemployment. But nobody can assert that it is expedient and beneficial to society.
If government spending for public works is financed by taxing the citizens or borrowing from them, the citizens’ power to spend and invest is curtailed to the same extent as that of the public treasury expands. No additional jobs are created.
But if the government finances its spending program by inflation—by an increase in the quantity of money and by credit expansion—it causes a general cash-induced rise in the prices of all commodities and services. If in the course of such an inflation the rise in wage rates sufficiently lags behind the rise in the prices of commodities, institutional unemployment may shrink or disappear altogether. But what makes it shrink or disappear is precisely the fact that such an outcome is tantamount to a drop in real wage rates. Lord Keynes considered credit expansion an efficient method for the abolition of unemployment; he believed that “gradual and automatic lowering of real wages as a result of rising prices” would not be so strongly resisted by labor as any attempt to lower money wage rates.16 However, the success of such a cunning plan would require an unlikely degree of ignorance and stupidity on the part of the wage earners. As long as workers believe that minimum wage rates benefit them, they will not let themselves be cheated by such clever tricks.
In practice all these devices of an alleged full employment policy finally lead to the establishment of socialism of the German pattern. As the members of an arbitration court whom the employers have appointed and those whom the unions have appointed never agree with regard to the fairness of a definite rate, the decision virtually devolves upon the members appointed by the government. The power to determine the height of wage rates is thus vested in the government.
The more public works expand and the more the government undertakes in order to fill the gap left by the alleged “private enterprise’s inability to provide jobs for all,” the more the realm of private enterprise shrinks. Thus we are again faced with the alternative of capitalism or socialism. There cannot be any question of a lasting policy of minimum wage rates.
[3. ]Cf. Rostovtzeff, The Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire (Oxford, 1926), p. 187.
[4. ]Corpus Juris Civilis, 1. un. C. X. 37.
[5. ]Cf. W. H. Beveridge, Full Employment in a Free Society (London, 1944), pp. 92 f.
[6. ]Cf. Hutt, The Theory of Collective Bargaining, pp. 10–21.
[7. ]Cf. Marx, Value, Price and Profit, ed. E. Marx Aveling (Chicago, Charles H. Kerr & Company), p. 125.
[8. ]Cf. A. Lozovsky, Marx and the Trade Unions (New York, 1935), p. 17.
[9. ]Cf. Marx, op. cit., pp. 126–27.
[10. ]Cf. below, pp. 804–20.
[11. ]Cf. above, pp. 301–3.
[12. ]Cf. Ricardo, Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, chap. i, sec. v. The term, Ricardo effect is used by Hayek, Profits, Interest and Investment (London, 1939), p. 8.
[13. ]As we are dealing here with the conditions of the unhampered market economy, we may disregard the capital-consuming effects of government borrowing.
[14. ]See above, pp. 522–23.
[15. ]The example is merely hypothetical. Such a powerful union would probably prohibit the employment of mechanical devices in the loading and unloading of ships in order to “create more jobs.”
[16. ]Cf. Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (London, 1936), p. 264. For a critical examination of this idea see Albert Hahn, Deficit Spending and Private Enterprise, Postwar Readjustments Bulletin No. 8, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, pp. 28–29; Henry Hazlitt, The Failure of the “New Economics” (Princeton, 1959), pp. 263–95. About the success of the Keynesian stratagem in the ’thirties, cf. below, pp. 792–93.