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Free Economy and Social Order

June 20, 2012

Tags Free MarketsInterventionismPrices

[Day 3 of Robert Wenzel's 30-day reading list that will lead you to become a knowledgeable libertarian, this article was originally published in the Freeman, January 11, 1954.]

Most of us, and all of us most of the time, deal with the market economy as a definite type of economic order, a sort of "economic technique" as opposed to the socialist "technique." For this view, it is significant that we call its constructional principle the "price mechanism." Here we move in the world of prices, of markets, of supply and demand, of competition, of wage rates, of interest rates, of exchange rates, and whatnot.

That is, of course, right and proper — as far as it goes. But there is a great danger of overlooking an important fact: the market economy as an economic order must be correlated to a certain structure of society, and to a definite mental climate which is appropriate to it.

The success of the market economy wherever it has been restored in our time — most conspicuously in western Germany — has resulted, even in some socialist circles, in a tendency to appropriate the market economy as a technical device capable of being built into a society which, in all other respects, is socialist.

The market economy then appears as part of a comprehensive social and political system which, in its conception, is a highly centralized colossal machinery. In that sense, there has always been a sector of market economy also in the Soviet system, but we all realize that this sector is a mere gadget, a technical device, not a living thing. Why? Because the market economy as a field of liberty, spontaneity, and free coordination cannot thrive in a social system which is the very opposite.

That leads to my first main proposition: the market economy rests on two essential pillars, not on one alone. It assumes not only the freedom of prices and competition (whose virtues the new socialist adepts of the market economy now reluctantly acknowledge), but rests equally on the institution of private property. This property must be genuine. It must comprise all the rights of free disposal without which — as formerly in Nationalist Socialist Germany and today in Norway — it becomes an empty legal shell. To these rights must be added the right to bequeath property.

Property in a free society has a double function. It means not only that the individual sphere of decision and responsibility is, as we have learned as lawyers, demarcated against other individuals, but it also means that property protects the individual sphere against the government and its ever-present tendency toward omnipotence. It is both a horizontal and a vertical boundary. And it is in this double function that property must be understood as the indispensable condition of liberty.

It is curious and saddening to see how blind the average type of socialist is vis-à-vis the economic, moral, and sociological functions of property, and even more that particular social philosophy in which property must be rooted. In this tendency to ignore the meaning of property, socialism has made enormous progress in our time. Traces of this may be discovered even in modern discussion on the problems of enterprise and management, which sometimes give the impression that the property owner is the "forgotten man" of our age.

The Role of Private Property

The intellectual constructions of "market socialism" are a good example of how the most serious fallacies ensue if we overlook the functions of private property. These fallacies can already be demonstrated on the level of ordinary economic analysis. But I wish to suggest that it is the whole social climate, the form of life, and the habits of planning for life which matter.

There is a definite "leftist" ideology, inspired by excessive social rationalism, as opposed to a "rightist," conservative one, respecting certain things we cannot touch, weigh, or measure but which are of sovereign importance. The real role of property cannot be understood unless we see it as one of the most important examples of something of much wider significance.

It illustrates the fact that the market economy is a form of economic order that is correlated to a concept of life and a socio-moral pattern which, for want of an appropriate English or French term, we may call buergerliche in the wide sense of this German word, which is largely free of the disparaging associations of the adjective "bourgeois."

This buergerliche foundation of the market economy must be frankly acknowledged. All the more so because a century of Marxist propaganda and intellectualist romanticism has been astonishingly and alarmingly successful in spreading a parody of this concept. In fact, the market economy can thrive only as part of and surrounded by a buergerliche social order.

Its place is in a society where certain elementary things are respected and are coloring the whole life of the community: individual responsibility; respect of certain indisputable norms; the individual's honest and serious struggle to get ahead and develop his faculties; independence anchored in property; responsible planning of one's own life and that of one's family; thriftiness; enterprise; assuming well calculated risks; the sense of workmanship; the right relation to nature and the community; the sense of continuity and tradition; the courage to brave the uncertainties of life on one's own account; the sense of the natural order of things.

Those who find all this contemptible and reeking of narrow-mindedness and "reaction" must be seriously asked to reveal their own scale of values and to tell us what kind of values they want to defend against communism without borrowing ideas from it.

That is only another way of saying that the market economy supposes a society which is the opposite of a "proletarianized" one, the opposite of a mass society — with its lack of a solid and necessarily hierarchical structure, and its corresponding sense of being uprooted. Independence, property, individual reserves, natural anchors of life, saving, thrift, responsibility, reasonable planning of life, all these are alien to such a society. They are destroyed by it, at least to that extent that they cease to give the tone to society. But we must realize that these are precisely the conditions of a durable free society.

The moment has come to see clearly that this is the real watershed of social philosophies. Here the ultimate parting of ways takes place, and there is no getting around the fact that the concepts and patterns of life which clash against each other in this field are decisive for the fate of society, and that they are irreconcilable.

Once we admit this, we must be prepared to see its significance in every field and to draw the corresponding conclusions. It is indeed remarkable to see how far we all are already drawn into the habits of thinking of an essentially unbuergerliche world. That is a fact which the economists also ought to take to heart, for they are among the worst sinners.

Enchanted by the elegance of a certain type of analysis, how often we discuss the problems of aggregate savings and investments, the hydraulics of income flows, the attractions of vast schemes of economic stabilization and of social security, the beauties of advertising or installment credits, the advantages of "functional" public finance, the progress of giant enterprise and whatnot, without realizing that, in doing so, we take for granted a society which is already largely deprived of those buergerliche conditions and habits which I described.

It is shocking to think how far our minds are already moving in terms of a proletarianized, mechanized, centralized mass society. It has become almost impossible for us to reason other than, in terms of income and expenditure, of input and output, having forgotten to think in terms of property. That is, by the way, the deepest reason for my own fundamental and insurmountable distrust in Keynesian and post-Keynesian economics.

It is, indeed, highly significant that Keynes attained fame mostly for his trite and cynical remark that "in the long run, we are all dead." And it is even more significant that so many contemporary economists have found this dictum particularly spiritual and progressive. But let us remember that it only echoes the slogan of the Ancien Regime in the 18th century: Apres nous le deluge. And let us ask why this is so significant. Because it reveals the decidedly unbuergerliche, the Bohemian spirit of this modern trend in economics and in economic policy. It betrays the new hardboiled happy-go-luckiness, the tendency to live from hand to mouth, and to make the style of the Bohemian the new watchword for a more enlightened generation.

To incur debts becomes a positive virtue; to save, a capital sin. To live beyond one's means, as individuals and as nations, is the logical consequence. But what else is this than Entbuergerlichung, deracination, proletarianization, nomadization? And is not this the very opposite of our concept of civilization which is derived from civis, the Buerger?

Muddling through from day to day and from one expedient to another, to boast that "money does not matter" — that is, indeed, the opposite of an honest, disciplined, and orderly concept and plan of life. The income of people living on these lines may have become buergerliche, but their style of life is still proletarian.

A Growing Concept

It is clearly impossible in the space of a short article to study the impact of all this in all the important fields. I have discussed it in regards to private property. It is further very disquieting to see how this concept has permeated more and more the economic and social policies of our time. One major example is the Mitbestimmungsrecht (codetermination — the right of workers and trade-union representatives to participate in the administration of industrial enterprises and thus to take over some functions of proper ownership) in West Germany.

To give an illustration: the director of a large power plant in Germany tells me how silly he felt the other day when, in wage negotiations with trade-union officials, he had to deal with the same men who, at the same time, sit beside him at meetings of trustees of the power plants themselves. He adds that the structure of enterprises in West Germany approaches more and more that which Tito seems to have in mind. And that is happening in the very country which is considered today the model of a successful restoration of the free-market economy!

Another example of this gradual dissolution of the meaning of property, and of the corresponding norms, which can be observed in many countries, is the softening of the responsibility of the debtor. By lax legal procedure with regard to execution and bankruptcy, this, more often than not, amounts — in the name of social justice — to the expropriation of the creditor. It is hardly necessary to recall, in this connection, the expropriation of the hapless class of house owners by rent control, and the effects of progressive taxation.

Let us apply our reflections to another most important field: money. Let us recognize that respect for money as something intangible is, like property, an essential part of the social order and of the mentality which are the prerequisites of the market economy.

To illustrate my case, I want to tell two stories which I take from the financial history of France. At the end of 1870, Gambetta, the leader of the French Resistance after the defeat of the Second Empire, left the besieged capital in a balloon for Tours to create the new republican army. In his desperate need for money, he remembered that his admired predecessors of the Revolution had financed their wars by printing and assignats. He asked the representative of the Banque de France to print for him a few hundred million notes. But he met with a flat and indignant refusal. At that time, such a demand was considered so monstrous that Gambetta did not insist. The Jacobin firebrand and all-powerful dictator yielded to the determined no of the representative of the central bank who would not accept even a supreme national emergency as an excuse for the crime of inflation.

A few months later, the socialist revolt known as the Commune occurred in Paris. The gold reserves and the plates of the notes of the Banque de France were at the mercy of the revolutionaries. But, badly in need of money and politically unscrupulous as they were, they strongly resisted the temptation to lay their hands on them. In the very midst of the flames of civil war, the central bank and its money were sacrosanct to them.

The significance of these two stories will not escape anyone. It would, indeed, be harsh to ask what has become of this respect for money in our time, not least of all in France. To restore this respect and the corresponding discipline in money and credit policy is one of the most important conditions for the durable success of all our efforts to restore and maintain a free economy and, therewith, a free society.


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