1. Skip to navigation
  2. Skip to content
  3. Skip to sidebar

The Ludwig von Mises Institute

Tu Ne Cede Malis

Advancing the scholarship of liberty in the tradition of the Austrian School for 30 years

Search Mises.org
Previous Chapter *  Next Chapter
Table of Contents

SECTION I The Economics of an Isolated Socialist Community

Chapter 7
The Distribution of Income

1 The Nature of Distribution Under Liberalism and Socialism

On logical grounds, treatment of the problem of income should properly come at the end of any investigation into the life of the socialist community. Production must take place before distribution is possible, therefore, logically, the former should be discussed before the latter. But the problem of distribution is so prominent a feature of Socialism as to suggest the earliest possible discussion of the question. For fundamentally, Socialism is nothing but a theory of "just" distribution; the socialist movement is nothing but an attempt to achieve this ideal. All socialist schemes start from the problem of distribution and all come back to it. For Socialism the problem of distribution is the economic problem.

The problem of distribution is moreover peculiar to socialism. It arises only in a socialist economy. It is true, we are in the habit of speaking of distribution in an economic society based on private property, and economic theory deals with the problem of income and the determination of the prices of the factors of production under the heading "Distribution." This terminology is traditional, and it is so firmly established that the substitution of another would be unthinkable. Nevertheless, it is misleading and does not indicate the nature of the theory which it is meant to describe. Under Capitalism incomes emerge as a result of market transactions which are indissolubly linked up with production. We do not first produce things and afterwards distribute them. When products are supplied for use and consumption, incomes for the greater part have already been determined, since they arise during the process of production and are indeed derived from it. Workers, landowners, and capitalists and a large number of the entrepreneurs contributing to production have already received their share before the product is ready for consumption. The prices which are obtained for the final product on the market decide only the income which a section of entrepreneurs obtain from the process of production. (The influence which these prices have on the income of other classes has already been exerted via the anticipations of the entrepreneurs.) As thus in the capitalistic order of society the aggregation of individual incomes to form a total social income is only a theoretical conception, the concept of distribution is only figurative. The reason that this expression has been adopted, instead of the simple and more suitable term formation of income, is that the founders of scientific economics, the Physiocrats and the English classical school, only gradually learned to free themselves from the etatistic outlook of mercantilism. Although precisely this analysis of income formation as a result of market transactions was their principal achievement, they adopted the practice—fortunately without any harm to the content of their teachings—of grouping the chapters dealing with the different kinds of income under the heading "distribution."[1]

Only in the socialist community is there any distribution of consumable goods in the true sense of the word. If in considering capitalistic society we use the term distribution in any but a purely figurative sense then an analogy is being made between the determination of income in a socialist and in a capitalist community. The conception of any actual process of distribution of income must be kept out of any investigation of the mechanism of capitalist society.

2 The Social Dividend

According to the fundamental idea of Socialism only goods which are ripe for consumption are eligible for distribution. Goods of a higher order remain the property of the community for purposes of further production; they must not be distributed. Goods of the first order, on the contrary, are without exception destined to be distributed: they constitute indeed the net social dividend. Since in considering the socialist society we cannot quite get rid of ideas which are only appropriate to the capitalist order, it is usual to say that the society will retain a part of the consumers' goods for public consumption. We are really thinking of that part of consumption which in the capitalistic society is usually called public expenditure. Where the principle of private property is rigidly applied this public expenditure consists exclusively of the cost of maintaining the apparatus which assures the undisturbed course of things. The only task of the strictly Liberal state is to secure life and property against attacks both from external and internal foes. It is a producer of security, or, as Lassalle mockingly termed it, a night watchman's state. In a socialist community there will be the corresponding task of securing the socialist order and the peaceful course of socialistic production. Whether the apparatus of coercion and violence which serves this purpose will still be known as the state or be called by some other name, and whether it will be legally given a separate status among the other functions incumbent upon the socialist community, is a matter of complete indifference to us. We have only to make it clear that all expenditure devoted to this end will appear in the socialist community as general costs of production. So far as they involve the use of labour for the purposes of distributing the social dividend, they must be reckoned in such a way that the workers employed get their share.

But public expenditure includes other outlays. Most states and municipalities provide their citizens with certain utilities in kind, sometimes gratuitously, sometimes at a charge which covers only a part of the expense. As a rule this happens in the case of single services which are yielded by durable commodities. Thus parks, art galleries, public libraries, places of worship, are made available for those who wish to use them. Similarly, roads and streets are accessible to everyone. Moreover, direct distribution of consumption goods takes place, as for example, when medicine and diet are given to the sick and educational apparatus to pupils; personal service is also supplied when medical treatment is given. All this is not Socialism, it is not production on the basis of common ownership of the means of production. Distribution, indeed, occurs here, but what is distributed is first collected by taxation from the citizens. Only so far as this distribution deals with products of state or municipal production can it be described as a piece of Socialism within the framework of an otherwise liberal order of society. We need not stop to inquire how far this branch of state and municipal activity is due to views which have been influenced by the socialist critics of capitalist society and how far it is due to the special nature of certain particularly durable consumption goods which yield almost unlimited service. For us it is only important that in the case of this public expenditure, even in an otherwise capitalistic society, a distribution in the actual sense of the word takes place.

Moreover, the socialist community will not make a physical distribution of all consumers' goods. It is not likely to present a copy of every new book to every citizen, but rather to place the books in public reading rooms for the general use. It will do the same with its schools and teaching, its public gardens, playgrounds and assembly halls. The expenditure which all these arrangements necessitate is not deducted from the social dividend; on the contrary, it is a part of the social dividend.

This part of the social dividend exhibits this one peculiarity, that without prejudice to the principles which determine the distribution of consumable consumers' goods and part of durable goods, special principles of distribution can be applied to it corresponding to the special nature of the services involved. The way in which art collections and scientific publications are made available for general use is quite independent of the rules which are otherwise applied to the distribution of goods of the first order.

3 The Principles of Distribution

The socialist community is characterized by the fact that in it there is no connection between production and distribution. The magnitude of the share which is assigned for the use of each citizen is quite independent of the value of the service he renders. It would be fundamentally impossible to base distribution on the imputation of value because it is an essential feature of socialistic methods of production that the shares of the different factors of production in the result cannot be ascertained; and any arithmetical test of the relations between effort and result is impossible.

It would therefore not be possible to base even a part of distribution on an economic calculation of the contribution of the different factors, e.g. by first granting the worker the full product of his labour which under the capitalist system he would receive in the form of wages, and then applying a special form of distribution in the case of the shares which are attributed to the material factors of production and to the work of the entrepreneur. On the whole socialists lack any clear conception of this fact. But a faint suspicion of them pervades the Marxian doctrine that under Socialism the categories wages, profit, and rent would be unthinkable.

There are four different principles upon which socialistic distribution can conceivably be based: equal distribution per head, distribution according to service rendered to the community, distribution according to needs, and distribution according to merit. These principles can be combined in different ways.

The principle of equal distribution derives from the old doctrine of natural law of the equality of all human beings. Rigidly applied it would prove absurd. It would permit no distinction between adults and children, between the sick and the healthy, between the industrious and the lazy, or between good and bad. It could be applied only in combination with the other three principles of distribution. It would at least be necessary to take into account the principle of distribution according to needs, so that shares might be graded according to age, sex, health and special occupational needs; it would be necessary to take into account the principle of distribution according to services rendered, so that distinction could be made between industrious and less industrious, and between good and bad workers; and finally, some account would have to be taken of merit, so as to make reward or punishment effective. But even if the principle of equal distribution is modified in these ways the difficulties of socialistic distribution are not removed. In fact, these difficulties cannot be overcome at all.

We have already shown the difficulties raised by applying the principle of distribution according to value of services rendered. In the capitalist system the economic subject receives an income corresponding to the value of his contribution to the general process of production. Services are rewarded according to their value. It is precisely this arrangement which Socialism wishes to change and to replace by one under which the shares attributed to the material factors of production and to the entrepreneur would be so distributed that no property owner and no entrepreneur would have a standing fundamentally different from that of the rest of the community. But this involves a complete divorce of distribution from economic imputation of value. It has nothing to do with the value of the individual's service to the community. It could be brought into external relation with the service rendered only if the service of the individual were made the basis of distribution according to some external criteria. The most obvious criterion appears to be the number of hours worked. But the significance to the social dividend of any service rendered is not to be measured by the length of working time. For, in the first place, the value of the service differs according to its use in the economic scheme. The results will differ according to whether the service is used in the right place, that is to say, where it is most urgently required, or in the wrong place. In the socialist organization, however, the worker cannot be made ultimately responsible for this, but only those who assign him the work. Secondly, the value of the service varies according to the quality of the work and according to the particular capability of the worker; it varies according to his strength and his zeal. It is not difficult to find ethical reasons for equal payments to workers of unequal capabilities. Talent and genius are the gifts of God, and the individual is not responsible for them, as is often said. But this does not solve the problem whether it is expedient or practicable to pay all hours of labour the same price.

The third principle of distribution is according to needs. The formula of each according to his needs is an old slogan of the unsophisticated communist. It is occasionally backed up by referring to the fact that the Early Christians shared all goods in common.[2] Others again regard it as practicable because it is supposed to form the basis of distribution within the family. No doubt it could be made universal if the disposition of the mother, who hungers gladly rather than that her children should go without, could be made universal. The advocates of the principle of distribution according to needs overlook this. They overlook much more besides. They overlook the fact that so long as any kind of economic effort is necessary only a part of our needs can be satisfied, and a part must remain unsatisfied. The principle of "to each according to his needs" remains meaningless so long as it is not defined to what extent each individual is allowed to satisfy his needs. The formula is illusory since everyone has to forgo the complete satisfaction of all his needs.[3] It could indeed be applied within narrow limits. The sick and suffering can be assigned special medicine, care, and attendance, better attention and special treatment for their special needs, without making this consideration for exceptional cases the general rule.

Similarly it is quite impossible to make the merit of the individual the general principle of distribution. Who is to decide on merits? Those in power have often had very strange views on the merits or demerits of their contemporaries. And the voice of the people is not the voice of God. Who would the people choose today as the best of their contemporaries? It is not unlikely that the choice would fall on a film star, or perhaps on a prize-fighter. Today the English people would probably be inclined to call Shakespeare the greatest Englishman. Would his contemporaries have done so? And how would they esteem a second Shakespeare if he were among them today? Moreover, why should those be penalized in whose lap Nature has not placed the great gifts of talent and genius? Distribution according to the merits of the individual would open the door wide to mere caprice and leave the individual defenseless before the oppression of the majority. Conditions would be created which would make life unbearable.

As far as the economics of the problem are concerned it is a matter of indifference which principle or which combination of different people is made a basis for distribution. Whatever principle is adopted the fact remains that each individual will receive an allocation from the community. The citizen will receive a bundle of claims which can be exchanged within a certain time for a definite amount of different goods. In this way he will procure his daily meals, fixed shelter, occasional pleasures, and from time to time new clothing. Whether the satisfaction of needs which he obtains in this way is great or small will depend upon the productivity of the efforts of the community.

4 The Process of Distribution

It is not necessary that each individual should himself consume the whole share allotted to him. He can let some go to waste, give some away, or, as far as the commodity permits, put some aside for later consumption. Some, however, he can exchange. The beer drinker will readily forgo his share of non-alcoholic drink to obtain more beer. The abstainer will be prepared to forgo his claim to spirits if he can acquire other commodities instead. The aesthete will surrender a visit to the cinema for the sake of more opportunities to hear good music; the lowbrow will willingly exchange tickets to art galleries for more congenial pleasures. Everyone will be ready to exchange, but the exchange will be confined to consumers' goods. Producers' goods will be res extra commercium (things beyond commerce).

Such exchange need not be confined to direct barter: it can also take place indirectly within certain narrow limits. The same reasons which have led to indirect exchange in other types of society will make it advantageous to those exchanging in the socialistic community. It follows that even here there will be opportunity for the use of a general medium of exchange—money.

The role of money in the socialist economy will be fundamentally the same as in a free economic system—that of a general facilitator of exchange. But the significance of this role will be quite different. In a society based on the collective ownership of the means of production, the significance of the role of money will be incomparably narrower than in a society based on private property in the means of production. For in the socialist commonwealth, exchange itself has a much narrower significance, since it is confined to consumers' goods only. There cannot be money prices of producers' goods since these do not enter into exchange. The accounting function which money exercises in production in a free economic order will no longer exist in a socialist community. Money calculations of value will be impossible.

Nevertheless the central administration of production and distribution cannot leave out of consideration the exchange relations which arise in this sort of traffic. Clearly it would have to take them into account if it desired to make different commodities mutually substitutable when assessing the distribution of the social dividend.

Thus if in the process of exchange the relation of one cigar to five cigarettes was established, the administration could not arbitrarily lay it down that one cigar equalled three cigarettes, so that it might be able on this basis to give one individual only cigars and another only cigarettes. If the tobacco allowance has not been equally distributed, partly in cigars and partly in cigarettes, that is to say, if some—either according to their wishes or by order of the government—received only cigars and others only cigarettes, the exchange relations already established could not be ignored. Otherwise all those who received cigarettes would be unfairly treated, compared with those receiving cigars, since the person who had received a cigar could exchange it for five cigarettes whilst he had obtained it as the equivalent of three cigarettes.

Alterations of exchange relationships in this traffic among the citizens would consequently compel the administration to make corresponding changes in the substitution ratios of the various commodities. Every such change will indicate that the relations between the various needs of the citizens and their satisfaction had altered, that people now wanted some commodities more than before, others less. The economic administration would presumably endeavor to adjust production to this change. It would endeavour to produce more of the more desired commodity and less of the less desired. But one thing, however, it would not be able to do: it would not be able to permit the individual citizens to redeem their tobacco tickets arbitrarily in cigars or cigarettes. If individuals were allowed free choice of cigars or cigarettes they might demand more cigars or more cigarettes than had been produced, or, on the other hand, cigars or cigarettes might be left on hand at the distributing centers because no one demanded them.

The labour theory of value appears to offer a simple solution of this problem. For an hour of labour a citizen receives a token which entitles him to the product of one hour of labour, with a deduction to defray the general obligation of the community, e.g. support of the disabled, expenditure on cultural purposes. Allowing for this deduction to cover the expenditure borne by the community as a whole, every worker who has worked one hour will have the right to obtain products on which one hour of labour has been expended. Any one who is ready to pay by giving to the community his own working time corresponding to the working time used to produce them can draw from the supply centers consumers' goods and services and apply them to his own use.

But such a principle of distribution would not work, since labour is not uniform or homogeneous. There are qualitative differences between the different forms of labour which, taken in conjunction with variations in the supply and demand of the resulting products, lead to different values. Ceteris paribus the supply of pictures cannot be increased without the quality of the work suffering. The worker who has supplied an hour of simple labour cannot be granted the right to consume the product of an hour of work of a higher quality: and it would be impossible in a socialist community to establish any connection between the importance of work done for the community and the share in the yield of communal production given for the work. Payment for work would be quite arbitrary. For the methods of calculating value used in a free economic society based on private ownership of the means of production would be inaccessible to it since, as we have seen, such imputation is impossible in a socialistic society. Economic facts would clearly limit the power of society to reward the labourer arbitrarily; in the long run the wage total can in no circumstances exceed the income of society. Within this limit, however, the community is free to act. It can decide to pay all work equally, regardless of quality; it can just as easily make a distinction between the various hours of work, according to the quality of the work rendered. But in both cases it must reserve the right to decide the particular distribution of the products.

Even if we abstract from differences in the quality of labour and its product and accept the possibility of determining how much labour inheres in any product, the community would never allow the individual who had rendered an hour of labour to consume the product of an hour's labour. For all economic goods entail material costs apart from labour. A product for which more raw material is required must not be made equivalent to a product requiring less raw material.

5 The Costs of Distribution

Socialistic criticism of the capitalist system devotes much space to complaints about the high costs of what can be called the apparatus of distribution. They include under this the cost of all national and political institutions, including expenditure on military purposes and war. They also include the expense to society arising from free competition. All the expenditure on advertisement and the activities of persons involved in the competitive struggle such as agents, commercial travellers, etc., and the costs entailed by the efforts of firms to remain independent instead of amalgamating into larger units or joining cartels which make possible specialization and thereby the cheapening of production, are debited to the distributive process of the capitalist system. The socialistic society will, so the critics think, save enormously by putting an end to this waste.

The expectation that the socialist community will save that outlay which can properly be termed state expenditure is derived from the doctrine, peculiar to many anarchists and to Marxian socialists, that state compulsion would be superfluous in a society not based on private property in the means of production. They argue that in the socialist community "obedience to the simple fundamental rules governing any form of social life will very soon become of necessity a habit," but this is backed up by a hint that "evasion of regulation and control enforced by the whole people will undoubtedly be enormously difficult," and will incur "swift and severe punishment," since "the armed workers" would not be "sentimental intellectuals" nor "let themselves be mocked."[4] All this is merely playing with words. Control, Arms, Punishment, are not these "a special repressive authority," and thus according to Engels' own words a "State"?[5] Whether the compulsion is exercised by armed workers—who cannot work while they bear arms—or by the workers' sons clad in police uniforms, will make no difference to the costs which the compulsion entails.

But the State is a coercive apparatus not only to its own inhabitants: it applies coercion externally. Only a state comprising the whole universe would need to exert no external coercion and then only because in that event there would be no foreign land, no foreigners and no foreign states. Liberalism, with its fundamental antagonism to warfare, wants to give the whole world some state form of organization. If this can be achieved it is inconceivable without a coercive apparatus. If all the armies of the individual states were abolished we could not dispense with a world apparatus of coercion, a world police to ensure world peace. Whether Socialism unites all states into a single one or whether it leaves them independent of each other, in any case it too will not be able to do without a coercive apparatus.

The socialist apparatus of coercion too will entail some expense. Whether this will be greater or less than the expense of the state apparatus of the capitalist society naturally we cannot say. We merely need to see that the social dividend will be reduced by the amount involved.

As for the wastes of distribution under Capitalism, little need be said. Since in capitalist society there is no distribution in the real sense of the word there are no costs of distribution. Trading expenses and similar costs cannot be called distribution costs, not only because they are not the costs of a distribution, which is a special process in itself, but also because the effects of the services devoted to these purposes extend far beyond the mere distribution of goods. Competition is not confined to distribution: that is only a part of its service. It serves equally the process of production, indeed it is essential for any organization of production which is to ensure high productivity. It is not enough therefore to compare these costs with the costs incurred by the apparatus of distribution and management in a socialist community. If socialist methods of production reduce productivity—and we shall speak of this later—it matters little that it saves the work of commercial travellers, brokers and advertisers.

[1]Cannan, A History of the Theories of Production and Distribution in English Political Economy from 1776 to 1848, 3rd ed. (London, 1917), pp. 183 ff. Also p. 294 of Socialism.

[2]Acts of the Apostles, II. 45.

[3]See Pecqueur's criticism of this formula of distribution in Theorie nouvelle d'Economie sociale et politique (Paris, 1842), pp. 613 ff. Pecqueur shows himself superior to Marx, who unhesitatingly indulges in the illusion that "In a higher stage of the communist society ... the narrow bourgeois legal horizon could be completely surpassed and society could write on its banners: From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs!" Marx, Zur Kritik des sozialdemokratischen Parteiprogramms yon Gotha, p. 17.

[4]Lenin, Staat und Revolution, p. 96.

[5]Engels, Herrn Eugen Dührings Umwälzung der Wissenschaft, p. 302.

Previous Chapter *  Next Chapter
Table of Contents