Front Page Titles (by Subject) 2.: Capitalism or Market Economy - Interventionism: An Economic Analysis
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2.: Capitalism or Market Economy - Ludwig von Mises, Interventionism: An Economic Analysis 
Interventionism: An Economic Analysis, Edited with a Foreword by Bettina Bien Greaves (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2011).
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Interventionism was written by Ludwig von Mises in 1940 and is here translated from the original German by Thomas Francis McManus and Heinrich Bund. Editorial additions and index © 1998, 2011 by Liberty Fund, Inc. Interventionism was originally published in 1998 by Foundation for Economic Education, Inc.
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Capitalism or Market Economy
In the capitalistic economy the means of production are owned by individuals or associations of individuals, such as corporations. The owners use the means of production directly to produce, or they lend them, for a compensation, to others who want to use them in production. The individuals or associations of individuals who produce with their own or with borrowed money are called entrepreneurs.
Superficially, it seems that the entrepreneurs decide what should be produced, and how it should be produced. However, as they do not produce for their own needs but for those of all members of the community, they have to sell the products on the market to consumers, that is, those individuals who want to use and consume them. Only that entrepreneur is successful and realizes a profit who knows how to produce in the best and cheapest way, that is with a minimum expenditure of material and labor, the articles most urgently wanted by the consumers. Therefore, in actuality the consumers, not the entrepreneurs, determine the direction and scope of production. In the market economy the consumers are sovereign. They are the masters, and the entrepreneurs have to strive, in their own interest, to serve the wishes of the consumers to the best of their ability.
The market economy has been called a democracy of consumers, because it brings about a daily recurring ballot of consumer preferences. The casting of votes at an election and the spending of dollars in the market are both methods of expressing public opinion. The consumers decide, by buying or by refraining from buying, the success or failure of the entrepreneurs. They make poor entrepreneurs rich and rich entrepreneurs poor. They take away the means of production from those entrepreneurs who do not know how to use them best in the service of the consumers and transfer them to those who know how to make better use of them. It is true that only the entrepreneurs producing consumers’ goods have direct contact with the consumers; only they are immediately dependent on the consumers; only they receive directly the consumers’ orders. But they transmit those orders and their dependence to the entrepreneurs who bring producers’ goods to the market. The producers of consumers’ goods have to purchase where they can, at lowest cost, the producers’ goods which are required for the ultimate satisfaction of the wants of the consumers. Should they fail to use the cheapest supplies, should they fail to make the most efficient use of the producers’ goods in production, they would be unable to satisfy the wants of the consumers at lowest prices; more efficient entrepreneurs who know better how to buy and how to produce would crowd them out of the market. The consumer as buyer may follow his own liking and his own fancy. The entrepreneur must do the buying for his enterprise as the most efficient satisfaction of the wants of the consumers dictates. Deviations from this line prescribed by the consumers affect the entrepreneur’s returns, thus causing losses and endangering his position as entrepreneur.
Such is the oft-decried harshness of the entrepreneur who figures everything in dollars and cents. He is forced to take this attitude by order of the consumers, who are unwilling to reimburse the entrepreneurs for unnecessary expenditures. What in everyday language is called economy is simply law prescribed by the consumers for the actions of the entrepreneurs and their helpers. The consumers, by their behavior in the market, are the ones who indirectly determine prices and wages and, thus, the distribution of wealth among the members of society. Their choices in the market determine who shall be entrepreneur and owner of the means of production. By every dollar spent, the consumers influence the direction, size, and kind of production and marketing.
The entrepreneurs do not form a closed class or order. Any individual may become an entrepreneur if he has the ability to foresee the future development of the market better than his fellow-citizens, if he can inspire the confidence of capitalists, and if his attempts to act on his own risk and responsibility prove successful. One becomes an entrepreneur, literally, by pushing forward and exposing oneself to the impartial test to which the market puts everyone who wants to become or remain an entrepreneur. Everyone has the privilege of choosing whether he wants to submit himself to this rigorous examination or not. He doesn’t have to wait to be asked to do so—he must step forward on his own initiative, and he has to worry where and how he can secure the means for his entrepreneurial activity.
For decades it was repeatedly asserted that the rise of poor people into entrepreneurial positions was no longer possible in the stage of “late capitalism.” The proof for this assertion was never given. Since this thesis was first voiced, the composition of the entrepreneurial class has basically changed; a considerable part of the former entrepreneurs and their heirs have disappeared, and the most outstanding entrepreneurs of today are again what we usually call self-made men. This constant recomposition of the entrepreneurial elite is as old as the capitalist economy itself and forms an integral part of it.
What is true of the entrepreneurs holds true for the capitalists as well. Only the capitalist who knows how to use his capital properly (from the consumer’s point of view), that is, to invest it so that the means of production will be employed most efficiently in the service of consumers, is able to keep and augment his property. If he does not want to suffer losses the capitalist has to place his means at the disposal of successful enterprises. In the market economy the capitalist, just like the entrepreneurs and the workers, serves the consumers. It seems superfluous to point out specifically in this connection that the consumers are not merely consumers but that the totality of the consumers is identical with the totality of the workers, entrepreneurs, and capitalists.
In a world of unchanging economic conditions the exact amounts which the entrepreneurs would expend for the means of production as wages, interest, and rent would later be received by them in the prices of their products. Production costs would thus equal the prices of the products and the entrepreneurs would neither make profits nor suffer losses. But the world of reality is constantly changing, and therefore all industrial activity is essentially uncertain and speculative in character. Goods are produced to meet a future demand, about which we have little positive knowledge in the present. It is from this uncertainty that profits and losses arise; the profits and losses of the entrepreneurs depend upon how successfully they can forecast the state of future demand. Only that entrepreneur realizes a profit who anticipates the future wants of the consumers better than his competitors.
It is irrelevant to the entrepreneur, as the servant of the consumers, whether the wishes and wants of the consumers are wise or unwise, moral or immoral. He produces what the consumers want. In this sense he is amoral. He manufactures whiskey and guns just as he produces food and clothing. It is not his task to teach reason to the sovereign consumers. Should one entrepreneur, for ethical reasons of his own, refuse to manufacture whiskey, other entrepreneurs would do so as long as whiskey is wanted and bought. It is not because we have distilleries that people drink whiskey; it is because people like to drink whiskey that we have distilleries. One may deplore this. But it is not up to the entrepreneurs to improve mankind morally. And they are not to be blamed if those whose duty this is have failed to do so.
Thus the market in the capitalist economy is the process regulating production and consumption. It is the nerve center of the capitalist system. Through it the orders of the consumers are transmitted to the producers, and the smooth functioning of the economic system is secured thereby. The market prices establish themselves at the level which equates demand and supply. When, other things being equal, more goods are brought to the market, prices fall; when, other things being equal, demand increases, prices rise.
One thing more must be noted. If within a society based on private ownership of the means of production some of these means are publicly owned and operated, this still does not make for a mixed system which would combine socialism and private property. As long as only certain individual enterprises are publicly owned, the remaining being privately owned, the characteristics of the market economy which determine economic activity remain essentially unimpaired. The publicly owned enterprises, too, as buyers of raw materials, semi-finished goods, and labor, and as sellers of goods and services, must fit into the mechanism of the market economy; they are subject to the same laws of the market. In order to maintain their position they, too, have to strive after profits or at least to avoid losses. When it is attempted to mitigate or eliminate this dependence by covering the losses of such enterprises by subsidies out of public funds, the only accomplishment is a shifting of this dependence somewhere else. This is because the means for the subsidies have to be raised somewhere. They may be raised by collecting taxes; the burden of such taxes has its effects on the market, not on the government collecting the tax; it is the market and not the revenue department which decides upon whom the tax falls and how it affects production and consumption. In these facts the domination of the market and the inescapable force of its laws are evidenced.2
[2. ]For a fuller discussion of this point, I have to refer to what is said in my book, Nationalökonomie, Theorie des Handelns und Wirtschaftens (Geneva, 1940), pp. 224–228. [See Mises’s Human Action, the English-language successor to Nationalökonomie, pp. 233–235 in first 1949 ed.; pp. 232–234 in later editions.—Editor]