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4. Restriction as an Economic System
There are, as has been shown, cases in which a restrictive measure can attain the end sought by its application. If those resorting to such a measure think that the attainment of this goal is more important than the disadvantages brought about by the restriction--i.e., the curtailment in the quantity of material goods available for consumption--the [p. 756] recourse to restriction is justified from the point of view of their value judgments. They incur costs and pay a price in order to get something that they value more than what they had to expend or to forego. Nobody, and certainly not the theorist, is in a position to argue with them about the propriety of their value judgments.
The only adequate mode of dealing with measures restricting production is to look at them as sacrifices made for the attainment of a definite end. They are quasi-expenditures and quasi-consumption. They are an employment of things that could be produced and consumed in one way for the realization of certain other ends. These things are prevented from coming into existence, but this quasi-consumption is precisely what satisfies the authors of these measures better than the increase in goods available which the omission of the restriction would have produced.
With certain restrictive measures this point of view is universally adopted. If a government decrees that a piece of land should be kept in its natural state as a national park and should be withheld from any other utilization, nobody would classify such a venture as anything else than an expenditure. The government deprives the citizens of the increment in various products which the cultivation of this land could bring about, in order to provide them with another satisfaction.
It follows that restriction of production can never play any role other than that of an ancillary complement of a system of production. One cannot construct a system of economic action out of such restrictive measures alone. No complex of such measures can be linked together into an integrated economic system. They cannot form a system of production. They belong in the sphere of consumption, not in the sphere of production.
In scrutinizing the problems of interventionism we are intent upon examining the claims of the advocates of government interference with business that their system offers an alternative to other economic systems. No such claim can reasonably be raised with regard to measures restricting production. The best they can attain is curtailment of output and satisfaction. Wealth is produced by expending a certain quantity of factors of production. Curtailing this quantity does not increase, but decreases, the amount of goods produced. Even if the ends aimed at by shortening the hours of work could be attained by such a decree, it would not be a measure of production. It is invariably a way of cutting down output.
Capitalism is a system of social production. Socialism, say the socialists, is also a system of social production. But with regard to measures restricting production, even the interventionists cannot raise [p. 757] a similar claim. They can only say that under capitalism too much is produced and that they want to prevent the production of this surplus in order to realize other ends. They themselves must confess that there are limits to the application of restriction.
Economics does not contend that restriction is a bad system of production. It asserts that it is not at all a system of production but rather a system of quasi-consumption. Most of the ends the interventionists want to attain by restriction cannot be attained this way. But even where restrictive measures are fit to attain the ends sought, they are only restrictive.8
The enormous popularity which restriction enjoys in our day is due to the fact that people do not recognize its consequences. In dealing with the problem of shortening the hours of work by government decree, the public is not aware of the fact that total output must drop and that it is very probable that the wage earners' standard of living will be potentially lowered too. It is a dogma of present-day "unorthodoxy" that such a "prolabor" measure is a "social gain" for the workers and that the costs of these gains fall entirely upon the employers. Whoever questions this dogma is branded as a "sycophantic" apologist of the unfair pretensions of rugged exploiters, and pitilessly persecuted. It is insinuated that he wants to reduce the wage earners to the poverty and the long working hours of the early stages of modern industrialism.
As against all this slander it is important to emphasize again that what produces wealth and well-being is production and not restriction. That in the capitalist countries the average wage earner consumes more goods and can afford to enjoy more leisure than his ancestors, and that he can support his wife and children and need not send them to work, is not an achievement of governments and labor unions. It is the outcome of the fact that profit-seeking business has accumulated and invested more capital and thus increased the marginal productivity of labor. [p. 758]
- 8. As for the objections raised against this thesis from the point of view of the Ricardo effect, see below, pp. 773-776.