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The Ludwig von Mises Institute

Advancing Austrian Economics, Liberty, and Peace

Advancing the scholarship of liberty in the tradition of the Austrian School

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Liberalism
Ludwig von Mises

2
Liberal Economic Policy

2. Private Property and Its Critics

Man's life is not a state of unalloyed happiness. The earth is no paradise. Although this is not the fault of social institutions, people are wont to hold them responsible for it. The foundation of any and every civilization, including our own, is private ownership of the means of production. Whoever wishes to criticize modern civilization, therefore, begins with private property. It is blamed for everything that does not please the critic, especially those evils that have their origin in the fact that private property has been hampered and restrained in various respects so that its full social potentialities cannot be realized.

The usual procedure adopted by the critic is to imagine how wonderful everything would be if only he had his own way. In his dreams he eliminates every will opposed to his own by raising himself, or someone whose will coincides exactly with his, to the position of absolute master of the world. Everyone who preaches the right of the stronger considers himself as the stronger. He who espouses the institution of slavery never stops to reflect that he himself could be a slave. He who demands restrictions on the liberty of conscience demands it in regard to others, and not for himself. He who advocates an oligarchic form of government always includes himself in the oligarchy, and he who goes into ecstasies at the thought of enlightened despotism or dictatorship is immodest enough to allot to himself, in his daydreams, the role of the enlightened despot or dictator, or, at least, to expect that he himself will become the despot over the despot or the dictator over the dictator. Just as no one desires to see himself in the position of the weaker, of the oppressed, of the overpowered, of the negatively privileged, of the subject without rights; so, under socialism, no one desires himself otherwise than in the role of the general director or the mentor of the general director. In the dream and wish fantasies of socialism there is no other life that would be worth living.

Anticapitalist literature has created a fixed pattern for these fantasies of the daydreamer in the customary opposition between profitability and productivity. What takes place in the capitalist social order is contrasted in thought with what?corresponding to the desires of the critic?would be accomplished in the ideal socialist society. Everything that deviates from this ideal image is characterized as unproductive. That the greatest profitability for private individuals and the greatest productivity for the community do not always coincide was long considered the most serious reproach against the capitalist system. Only in recent years has the knowledge gained ground that in the majority of these cases a socialist community could proceed no differently from the way individuals in a capitalist community do. But even where the alleged opposition actually does exist, it cannot simply be assumed that a socialist society would necessarily do what is right and that the capitalist social order is always to be condemned if it does anything else. The concept of productivity is altogether subjective; it can never provide the starting-point for an objective criticism.

It is not worth while, therefore, to concern ourselves with the musings of our daydream-dictator. In his dream vision, everyone is willing and obedient, ready to execute his commands immediately and punctiliously. But it is quite another question how things must appear in a real, and not merely visionary, socialist society. The assumption that the equal distribution of the total annual output of the capitalist economy among all members of society would suffice to assure everyone a sufficient livelihood is, as simple statistical calculations show, altogether false. Thus, a socialist society could scarcely achieve a perceptible increase in the standard of living of the masses in this way. If it holds out the prospect of well-being, and even riches, for all, it can do so only on the assumption that labor in a socialist society will be more productive than it is under capitalism and that a socialist system will be able to dispense with a number of superfluous?and consequently unproductive?expenditures.

In connection with this second point, one thinks, for example, of the abolition of all those expenses originating in the costs of marketing merchandise, of competition, and of advertising. It is clear that there is no room in a socialist community for such expenditures. Yet one must not forget that the socialist apparatus of distribution too will involve not inconsiderable costs, perhaps even greater than those of a capitalist economy. But this is not the decisive element in our judgment of the significance of these expenses. The socialist assumes, without question, as a matter of course, that in a socialist system the productivity of labor will be at least the same as in a capitalist society, and he seeks to prove that it will be even greater. But the first assumption is by no means as self-evident as the advocates of socialism seem to think. The quantity of things produced in a capitalist society is not independent of the manner in which production is carried on. What is of decisive significance is that at every single stage of each branch of production the special interest of the persons engaged in it is bound up most intimately with the productivity of the particular share of labor being performed. Every worker must exert himself to the utmost, since his wages are determined by the output of his labor, and every entrepreneur must strive to produce more cheaply?i.e., with less expenditure of capital and labor?than his competitors.

Only because of these incentives has the capitalist economy been able to produce the wealth that is at its command. To take exception to the alleged excessive costs of the capitalist marketing apparatus is to take a myopic view of things indeed. Whoever reproaches capitalism with squandering resources because there are many competing haberdashers and even more tobacconists to be found on bustling business streets fails to see that this sales organization is only the end result of an apparatus of production that warrants the greatest productivity of labor. All advances in production have been achieved only because it is in the nature of this apparatus continually to make advances. Only because all entrepreneurs are in constant competition and are mercilessly weeded out if they do not produce in the most profitable manner are methods of production perpetually being improved and refined. Were this incentive to disappear, there would be no further progress in production and no effort to economize in the application of the traditional methods. Consequently, it is completely absurd to pose the question how much could be saved if the costs of advertising were abolished. One must rather ask how much could be produced if competition among producers were abolished. The answer to this question cannot be in doubt.

Men can consume only if they labor, and then only as much as their labor has produced. Now it is the characteristic feature of the capitalist system that it provides each member of society with this incentive to carry on his work with the greatest efficiency and thus achieves the highest output. In a socialist society, this direct connection between the labor of the individual and the goods and services he might thereby enjoy would be lacking. The incentive to work would not consist in the possibility of enjoying the fruit of one's labor, but in the command of the authorities to work and in one's own feeling of duty. The precise demonstration that this organization of labor is unfeasible will be offered in a later chapter.

What is always criticized in the capitalist system is the fact that the owners of the means of production occupy a preferential position. They can live without working. If one views the social order from an individualistic standpoint, one must see in this a serious shortcoming of capitalism. Why should one man be better off than another? But whoever considers things, not from the standpoint of individual persons, but from that of the whole social order, will find that the owners of property can preserve their agreeable position solely on condition that they perform a service indispensable for society. The capitalist can keep his favored position only by shifting the means of production to the application most important for society. If he does not do this?if he invests his wealth unwisely?he will suffer losses, and if he does not correct his mistake in time, he will soon be ruthlessly ousted from his preferential position. He will cease to be a capitalist, and others who are better qualified for it will take his place. In a capitalist society, the deployment of the means of production is always in the hands of those best fitted for it; and whether they want to or not, they must constantly take care to employ the means of production in such a way that they yield the greatest output.

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