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2. Fundamentals of Intervention > 2. Different Effects of Intervention on Utility

E. Utility Ex Post

We have thus seen that individuals maximize their utility ex ante on the free market and that the direct result of an invasion is that the invader's utility gains at the expense of a loss in utility by his victim. But what about utilities ex post? People may expect to benefit when they make a decision, but do they actually benefit from its results? The remainder of this volume will largely consist of analysis of what we may call the “indirect” consequences of the market or of intervention, supplementing the above direct analysis. It will deal with chains of consequences that can be grasped only by study and are not immediately visible to the naked eye.

Error can always occur in the path from ante to post, but the free market is so constructed that this error is reduced to a minimum. In the first place, there is a fast-working, easily understandable test that tells the entrepreneur, as well as the income-receiver, whether he is succeeding or failing at the task of satisfying the desires of the consumer. For the entrepreneur, who carries the main burden of adjustment to uncertain consumer desires, the test is swift and sure—profits or losses. Large profits are a signal that he has been on the right track; losses, that he has been on a wrong one. Profits and losses thus spur rapid adjustments to consumer demands; at the same time, they perform the function of getting money out of the hands of the bad entrepreneurs and into the hands of the good ones. The fact that good entrepreneurs prosper and add to their capital, and poor ones are driven out, insures an ever smoother market adjustment to changes in conditions. Similarly, to a lesser extent, land and labor factors move in accordance with the desire of their owners for higher incomes, and more value-productive factors are rewarded accordingly.

Consumers also take entrepreneurial risks on the market. Many critics of the market, while willing to concede the expertise of the capitalist-entrepreneurs, bewail the prevailing ignorance of consumers, which prevents them from gaining the utility ex post that they expected to have ex ante. Typically, Wesley C. Mitchell entitled one of his famous essays: “The Backward Art of Spending Money.” Professor Ludwig von Mises has keenly pointed out the paradoxical position of so many “progressives” who insist that consumers are too ignorant or incompetent to buy products intelligently, while at the same time touting the virtues of democracy, where the same people vote for politicians whom they do not know and for policies that they hardly understand.

In fact, the truth is precisely the reverse of the popular ideology. Consumers are not omniscient, but they do have direct tests by which to acquire their knowledge. They buy a certain brand of breakfast food and they don't like it; so they don't buy it again. They buy a certain type of automobile and they do like its performance; so they buy another one. In both cases, they tell their friends of this newly won knowledge. Other consumers patronize consumers’ research organizations, which can warn or advise them in advance. But, in all cases, the consumers have the direct test of results to guide them. And the firm that satisfies the consumers expands and prospers, while the firm that fails to satisfy them goes out of business.

On the other hand, voting for politicians and public policies is a completely different matter. Here there are no direct tests of success or failure whatever, neither profits and losses nor enjoyable or unsatisfying consumption. In order to grasp consequences, especially the indirect consequences of governmental decisions, it is necessary to comprehend a complex chain of praxeological reasoning, such as will be developed in this volume. Very few voters have the ability or the interest to follow such reasoning, particularly, as Schumpeter points out, in political situations. For in political situations, the minute influence that any one person has on the results, as well as the seeming remoteness of the actions, induces people to lose interest in political problems or argumentation.13 Lacking the direct test of success or failure, the voter tends to turn, not to those politicians whose measures have the best chance of success, but to those with the ability to “sell” their propaganda. Without grasping logical chains of deduction, the average voter will never be able to discover the error that the ruler makes. Thus, suppose that the government inflates the money supply, thereby causing an inevitable rise in prices. The government can blame the price rise on wicked speculators or alien black marketeers, and, unless the public knows economics, it will not be able to see the fallacies in the ruler's arguments.

It is ironic that those writers who complain of the wiles and lures of advertising do not direct their criticism at the advertising of political campaigns, where their charges would be relevant. As Schumpeter states:

The picture of the prettiest girl that ever lived will in the long run prove powerless to maintain the sales of a bad cigarette. There is no equally effective safeguard in the case of political decisions. Many decisions of fateful importance are of a nature that makes it impossible for the public to experiment with them at its leisure and at moderate cost. Even if that is possible, however, judgment is as a rule not so easy to arrive at as it is in the case of the cigarette, because effects are less easy to interpret.14

It might be objected that, while the average voter may not be competent to decide on policies that require for his decision chains of praxeological reasoning, he is competent to pick the experts—the politicians and bureaucrats—who will decide on the issues, just as the individual may select his own private expert adviser in any one of numerous fields. But the point is precisely that in government the individual does not have the direct, personal test of success or failure for his hired expert that he does on the market. On the market, individuals tend to patronize those experts whose advice proves most successful. Good doctors or lawyers reap rewards on the free market, while the poor ones fail; the privately hired expert tends to flourish in proportion to his demonstrated ability. In government, on the other hand, there is no concrete test of the expert's success. In the absence of such a test, there is no way by which the voter can gauge the true expertise of the man he must vote for. This difficulty is aggravated in modern-style elections, where the candidates agree on all the fundamental issues. For issues, after all, are susceptible to reasoning; the voter can, if he so wishes and he has the ability, learn about and decide on the issues. But what can any voter, even the most intelligent, know about the true expertise or competence of individual candidates, especially when elections are shorn of virtually all important issues? The voter can then fall back only on the purely external, packaged “personalities” or images of the candidates. The result is that voting purely on candidates makes the result even less rational than mass voting on the issues themselves.

Furthermore, the government itself contains inherent mechanisms that lead to poor choices of experts and officials. For one thing, the politician and the government expert receive their revenues, not from service voluntarily purchased on the market, but from a compulsory levy on the populace. These officials, therefore, wholly lack the pecuniary incentive to care about serving the public properly and competently. And, what is more, the vital criterion of “fitness” is very different in the government and on the market. In the market, the fittest are those most able to serve the consumers; in government, the fittest are those most adept at wielding coercion and/or those most adroit at making demagogic appeals to the voting public.

Another critical divergence between market action and democratic voting is this: the voter has, for example, only a 1/50 millionth power to choose among his would-be rulers, who in turn will make vital decisions affecting him, unchecked and unhampered until the next election. In the market, on the other hand, the individual has the absolute sovereign power to make the decisions concerning his person and property, not merely a distant, 1/50 millionth power. On the market the individual is continually demonstrating his choice of buying or not buying, selling or not selling, in the course of making absolute decisions regarding his property. The voter, by voting for some particular candidate, is demonstrating only a relative preference over one or two other potential rulers; he must do this within the framework of the coercive rule that, whether or not he votes at all, one of these men will rule over him for the next several years.15

Thus, we see that the free market contains a smooth, efficient mechanism for bringing anticipated, ex ante utility into the realization of ex post. The free market always maximizes ex ante social utility as well. In political action, on the contrary, there is no such mechanism; indeed, the political process inherently tends to delay and thwart the realization of any expected gains. Furthermore, the divergence between ex post gains through government and through the market is even greater than this; for we shall find that in every instance of government intervention, the indirect consequences will be such as to make the intervention appear worse in the eyes of many of its original supporters.

In sum, the free market always benefits every participant, and it maximizes social utility ex ante; it also tends to do so ex post, since it works for the rapid conversion of anticipations into realizations. With intervention, one group gains directly at the expense of another, and therefore social utility cannot be increased; the attainment of goals is blocked rather than facilitated; and, as we shall see, the indirect consequences are such that many interveners themselves will lose utility ex post. The remainder of this work is largely devoted to tracing the indirect consequences of various forms of governmental intervention.

  • 13. Joseph A. Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (New York: Harper & Bros., 1942), pp. 258–60. See also Anthony Downs, “An Economic Theory of Political Action in a Democracy,” Journal of Political Economy, April, 1957, pp. 135–50.
  • 14. Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, p. 263.
  • 15. For a further discussion of these points, see Man, Economy, and State, pp. 886–91.