The Austrian-American free market economist Ludwig
von Mises (1881-1973) left
Switzerland for the United States in August 1940. During the war years he wrote
a number of books which criticised government intervention and control of the
economy, especially price controls, rationing, policies of economic autarchy,
the diversion of labor and other resources to war production, and the financing
of the war through loans, confiscation, and inflation. Among these are Interventionism:
An Economic Analysiss (1940), Omnipotent Government:The Rise of the
Total State and Total War (1944), and Bureaucracy (1944). While
Mises was living and working in the U.S. he would have seen the propaganda
produced by the American government encouraging U.S. citizens to make sacrifices
for the war effort, such as the use of "ration books" and price controls
in order to allocate resources away from consumers and towards war industries,
to seek work in "essential" war industries and the transport of munitions,
and to forgo the use of certain products essential to the war effort such as
fats and rubber. We reproduce some of these images here.
Above is the front cover of an American ration book from 1943; below
is a poster from the American Office of Price Administration which argues that
without rationing housewives would find the grocer's shelves empty, but
with government price controls and strict rationing these shelves would be
bursting with food and other consumer products. But note the fine print in
This book is the property of the United States Government.
It is unlawful to sell it to any other person, or to use it or permit anyone
else to use it, except to obtain rationed goods in accordance with regulations
of the Office of Price Administration. Any person who finds a lost War Ration
Book must return it to the War Price and Rationing Board which issued it. Persons
who violate rationing regulations are subject to $10,000 fine imprisonment,
This 1943 fine would be about $130,000 in 2011 dollars which
suggests that the fine was high in order to discourage the rampant black markets
and cheating which always emerge when the government restricts supply and controls
prices of goods which are in high demand. On the back cover of the War ration
Book there are some instructions on how to use the book and some justification
for its introduction. It states:
Rationing is a vital part of your country's war effort. Any attempt to
violate the rules is an effort to deny someone his share and will create
hardship and help the enemy.
This book is your Government's assurance of your right to buy your fair
share of certain goods made scarce by war. Price ceilings have also been
established for your protection. Dealers must post these prices conspicuously.
Don't pay more.
Give your whole support to rationing and thereby conserve our vital goods.
Be guided by the rule: "If you don't need it, DON'T BUY IT."
On the other hand, Mises rejected price controls and war rationing on the
grounds that it violated the freedom of producers and consumers to trade peacefully
with each and because it failed to achieve the aim of the government of insuring
supply at a "fair" price. Instead it inevitably results in shortages,
high prices, corruption of officials, and black markets. If kept in place long
enough the policy eventually leads to socialism. In his book Omnipotent
Government (1944) he wrote:
The aim of price control is to decree prices, wages, and interest rates different
from those fixed by the market. Let us first consider the case of maximum prices,
where the government tries to enforce prices lower than the market prices.
The prices set on the unhampered market correspond to an equilibrium of
demand and supply. Everybody who is ready to pay the market price can buy
as much as he wants to buy. Everybody who is ready to sell at the market
price can sell as much as he wants to sell. If the government, without a
corresponding increase in the quantity of goods available for sale, decrees
that buying and selling must be done at a lower price, and thus makes it
illegal either to ask or to pay the potential market price, then this equilibrium
can no longer prevail. With unchanged supply there are now more potential
buyers on the market, namely, those who could not afford the higher market
price but are prepared to buy at the lower official rate. There are now potential
buyers who cannot buy, although they are ready to pay the price fixed by
the government or even a higher price. The price is no longer the means of
segregating those potential buyers who may buy from those who may not. A
different principle of selection has come into operation. Those who come
first can buy; others are too late in the field. The visible outcome of this
state of things is the sight of housewives and children standing in long
lines before the groceries, a spectacle familiar to everybody who has visited
Europe in this age of price control. If the government does not want only
those to buy who come first (or who are personal friends of the salesman),
while others go home empty-handed, it must regulate the distribution of the
stocks available. It has to introduce some kind of rationing.
But price ceilings not only fail to increase the supply, they reduce it. Thus
they do not attain the ends which the authorities wish. On the contrary, they
result in a state of things which from the point of view of the government
and of public opinion is even less desirable than the previous state which
they had intended to alter. If the government wants to make it possible for
the poor to give their children more milk, it has to buy the milk at the market
price and sell it to these poor parents with a loss, at a cheaper rate. The
loss may be covered by taxation. But if the government simply fixes the price
of milk at a lower rate than the market, the result will be the contrary of
what it wants. The marginal producers, those with the highest costs, will,
in order to avoid losses, go out of the business of producing and selling milk.
They will use their cows and their skill for other, more profitable purposes.
They will, for example, produce cheese, butter, or meat. There will be less
milk available for the consumers, not more. Then the government has to choose
between two alternatives: either to refrain from any endeavors to control the
price of milk and to abrogate its decree, or to add to its first measure a
second one. In the latter case it must fix the prices of the factors of production
necessary for the production of milk at such a rate that the marginal producers
will no longer suffer losses and will abstain from restricting the output.
But then the same problem repeats itself on a remoter plane. The supply of
the factors of production necessary for the production of milk drops, and again
the government is back where it started, facing failure in its interference.
If it keeps stubbornly on, pushing forward its schemes, it has to go still
further. It has to fix the prices of the factors of production necessary for
the production of those factors of production which are needed for the production
of milk. Thus the government is forced to go further and further, fixing the
prices of all consumer goods and of all factors of production—both human (i.e.,
labor) and material—and to force every entrepreneur and every worker to continue
work at these prices and wages. No branch of industry can be omitted from this
all-round fixing of prices and wages and from this general order to produce
those quantities which the government wants to see produced. If some branches
were to be left free, the result would be a shifting of capital and labor to
them and a corresponding fall of the supply of goods whose prices the government
has fixed. However, it is precisely these goods which the government considers
especially important for the satisfaction of the needs of the masses.
But when this state of all-round control of business is achieved, the market
economy has been replaced by the German pattern of socialist planning. The
government’s board of production management now exclusively controls all business
activities and decides how the means of production—men and material resources—must
The isolated measures of price fixing fail to attain the ends sought. In fact,
they produce effects contrary to those aimed at by the government. If the government,
in order to eliminate these inexorable and unwelcome consequences, pursues
its course further and further, it finally transforms the system of capitalism
and free enterprise into socialism.
Many American and British supporters of price control are fascinated by the
alleged success of Nazi price control. They believe that the German experience
has proved the practicability of price control within the framework of a system
of market economy. You have only to be as energetic, impetuous, and brutal
as the Nazis are, they think, and you will succeed. These men who want to fight
Nazism by adopting its methods do not see that what the Nazis have achieved
has been the building up of a system of socialism, not a reform of conditions
within a system of market economy.
There is no third system between a market economy and socialism. Mankind has
to choose between those two systems—unless chaos is considered an alternative.
Below are some official U.S. government propaganda posters urging the American
people to accept the system of war rationing:
The image on the left is part of the collection of war posters from the Boston
Public Library, Print Department <http://www.flickr.com/photos/boston_public_library/>.
It was entitled "Rationing means a fair share for all of us" and was drawn by
Herbert Roese in 1943 for the Office of Price
Administration. The library describes it as follows "Two pictures illustrate
the outcome of a trip to the grocer with and without rationing. The top picture,
captioned "without rationing," shows
a woman leaving with a case of canned goods and while an apologetic grocer
gestures towards his empty shelves in response to a second woman's request.
The lower picture, captioned "with rationing," shows the grocer standing
in front of well-stocked shelves and handing each woman a single can."
The image on the right is entitled "America needs your scrap rubber" and was
produced by the War Production Board in 1942. Natural rubber was sourced in
only a few overseas locations (such as Malaya which in 1942 was occupied by
Japan) and was in short supply. Nazi Germany had realised the importance
of gasoline and rubber to any future war effort and had taken steps in 1936
in its "Four Year Plan" to begin producing artificial rubber and gasoline.
The United States was forced to severely ration rubber by banning production
for civilian uses (such as tires for automobiles) and urging citizens to recycle.
The captions in the poster tell people how much rubber is needed to produce
4 key war products: "(1) "A Gas Mask requires 1.11 pounds
of rubber," (2) "A Life Raft requires 17 to 100 pounds of rubber," (3) "A
Scout Car requires 306 pounds of rubber," (4) "A Heavy Bomber requires
1,825 pounds of rubber."
The image on the left is another war poster from the collection in the Boston
Public Library. It is entitled "Save waste fats for explosives. Take
them to your meat dealer" and was drawn by Henry Koerner in 1943 for the Office
of War Information.
The image on the right attempts to make the individual consumer of gasoline
feel guilty for driving alone in his car at a time when gasoline was much needed
for military purposes. Along with natural rubber, gasoline was in very short
supply for use in military vehicles and aircraft. The poster urges the consumer
to "Join a Car-Sharing Club TODAY!"
The image on the left was produced by the Office of War Information in 1943
and is entitled "Plant a victory garden. Our food is fighting". The
description states "Color drawing of man, woman, and child gardening with
full baskets of vegetables. The boy is in the foreground behind basket of vegetables;
the man and woman are in the background holding hoes and bending over the soil.
Caption below image reads "A garden will make your rations go further.""
The image on the right was drawn by Courtney Allen and is called "The
sky's the limit! Keep buying war bonds". It was commissioned by the United
States Department of the Treasury in 1944. The description states "Two
men and a woman working on American military airplane engine, with other airplanes
in background. In the upper left hand corner is a bomb logo with the words "6th
with the bomb hanging over a flag of the Empire of Japan. One of the more common
propaganda posters in WW1, for all sides,
were for war loans. Given the more sophisticated and expensive weaponry used
in WW2 and the larger numbers of men under arms, paying for the war was a massive
undertaking and it resulted in a very large increase in the size of government
expenditure and the national debt.
The image on the left is by George Roepp and is entitled "I've found
the job where I fit best! Find your war job in industry, agriculture, business" and
was drawn for the Office of War
Information in 1943. The description states "Poster showing head and shoulders
of woman operating machinery as part of World War II production effort" One
of the major changes introduced into American society in WW2 was the replacement
of men in many walks of life who had been conscripted into the army (some 9
million by the end of the war). Their places were taken in many cases by women
who entered the workforce to undertake these occupations for the first time.
The image on the right is by Adolph Treidler and is entitled "Here's
a war job for you!". It was produced in 1944 for the Railroad Manpower
Mobilization Committee and is part of the collection at the Boston Public Library.
The description states "Busy railroad yard showing trains on five tracks.
Caption below image reads "Railroad workers urgently needed. Apply to
any railroad office or agent -- any office of the Railroad Retirement Board
-- or to the U.S. Employment Service." Rail transportation was recognized
as vital to the war effort early as the First World War when the American government
the railroads. They were returned to private ownership shortly after the war.
They were not re-nationionalized in WW2 but were highly regulated.