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Chapter 14 Labor Productivity, Wages, and Unemployment

Planning for Freedom and Sixteen Other Essays and Addresses1

“Wages, Unemployment and Inflation”

Our economic system — the market economy or capitalism — is a system of consumers’ supremacy. The customer is sovereign; he is, says a popular slogan, “always right.” Businessmen are under the necessity of turning out what the consumers ask for and they must sell their wares at prices which the consumers can afford and are prepared to pay. A business operation is a manifest failure if the proceeds from the sales do not reimburse the businessman for all he has expended in producing the article. Thus the consumers in buying at a definite price determine also the height of the wages that are paid to all those engaged in the industries.

1. Wages Ultimately Paid By the Consumers

It follows that an employer cannot pay more to an employee than the equivalent of the value the latter’s work, according to the judgment of the buying public, adds to the merchandise. (This is the reason why the movie star gets much more than the charwoman.) If he were to pay more, he would not recover his outlays from the purchasers; he would suffer losses and would finally go bankrupt. In paying wages, the employer acts as a mandatory of the consumers, as it were. It is upon the consumers that the incidence of the wage payments falls. As the immense majority of the goods produced are bought and consumed by people who are themselves receiving wages and salaries, it is obvious that in spending their earnings the wage earners and employees themselves are foremost in determining the height of the compensation they and those like them will get.

2. What Makes Wages Rise

The buyers do not pay for the toil and trouble the worker took nor for the length of time he spent in working. They pay for the products. The better the tools are which the worker uses in his job, the more he can perform in an hour, the higher is, consequently, his remuneration. What makes wages rise and renders the material conditions of the wage earners more satisfactory is improvement in the technological equipment. American wages are higher than wages in other countries because the capital invested per head of the worker is greater and the plants are thereby in the position to use the most efficient tools and machines. What is called the American way of life is the result of the fact that the United States has put fewer obstacles in the way of saving and capital accumulation than other nations. The economic backwardness of such countries as India consists precisely in the fact that their policies hinder both the accumulation of domestic capital and the investment of foreign capital. As the capital required is lacking, the Indian enterprises are prevented from employing sufficient quantities of modern equipment, are therefore producing much less per man-hour, and can only afford to pay wage rates which, compared with American wage rates, appear as shockingly low.

There is only one way that leads to an improvement of the standard of living for the wage-earning masses, viz., the increase in the amount of capital invested. All other methods, however popular they may be, are not only futile, but are actually detrimental to the well-being of those they allegedly want to benefit.

3. What Causes Unemployment

The fundamental question is: is it possible to raise wage rates for all those eager to find jobs above the height they would have attained on an unhampered labor market?

Public opinion believes that the improvement in the conditions of the wage earners is an achievement of the unions and of various legislative measures. It gives to unionism and to legislation credit for the rise in wage rates, the shortening of hours of work, the disappearance of child labor, and many other changes. The prevalence of this belief made unionism popular and is responsible for the trend in labor legislation of the last two decades. As people think that they owe to unionism their high standard of living, they condone violence, coercion, and intimidation on the part of unionized labor and are indifferent to the curtailment of personal freedom inherent in the union-shop and closed-shop clauses. As long as these fallacies prevail upon the minds of the voters, it is vain to expect a resolute departure from the policies that are mistakenly called progressive.

Yet this popular doctrine misconstrues every aspect of economic reality. The height of wage rates at which all those eager to get jobs can be employed depends on the marginal productivity of labor. The more capital — other things being equal — is invested, the higher wages climb on the free labor market, i.e., on the labor market not manipulated by the government and the unions. At these market wage rates all those eager to employ workers can hire as many as they want. At these market wage rates all those who want to be employed can get a job. There prevails on a free labor market a tendency toward full employment. In fact, the policy of letting the free market determine the height of wage rates is the only reasonable and successful full-employment policy. If wage rates, either by union pressure and compulsion or by government decree, are raised above this height, lasting unemployment of a part of the potential labor force develops.

4. Credit Expansion No Substitute for Capital

These opinions are passionately rejected by the union bosses and their followers among politicians and the self-styled intellectuals. The panacea they recommend to fight unemployment is credit expansion and inflation, euphemistically called “an easy money policy.”

As has been pointed out above, an addition to the available stock of capital previously accumulated makes a further improvement of the industries’ technological equipment possible, thus raises the marginal productivity of labor and consequently also wage rates. But credit expansion, whether it is effected by issuing additional banknotes or by granting additional credits on bank accounts subject to check, does not add anything to the nation’s wealth of capital goods. It merely creates the illusion of an increase in the amount of funds available for an expansion of production. Because they can obtain cheaper credit, people erroneously believe that the country’s wealth has thereby been increased and that therefore certain projects that could not be executed before are now feasible. The inauguration of these projects enhances the demand for labor and for raw materials and makes wage rates and commodity prices rise. An artificial boom is kindled.

Under the conditions of this boom, nominal wage rates which before the credit expansion were too high for the state of the market and therefore created unemployment of a part of the potential labor force are no longer too high and the unemployed can get jobs again. However, this happens only because under the changed monetary and credit conditions prices are rising or, what is the same expressed in other words, the purchasing power of the monetary unit drops. Then the same amount of nominal wages, i.e., wage rates expressed in terms of money, means less in real wages, i.e., in terms of commodities that can be bought by the monetary unit. Inflation can cure unemployment only by curtailing the wage earner’s real wages. But then the unions ask for a new increase in wages in order to keep pace with the rising cost of living and we are back where we were before, i.e., in a situation in which large-scale unemployment can only be prevented by a further expansion of credit.

This is what happened in this country as well as in many other countries in the last years. The unions, supported by the government, forced the enterprises to agree to wage rates that went beyond the potential market rates, i.e., the rates which the public was prepared to refund to the employers in purchasing their products. This would have inevitably resulted in rising unemployment figures. But the government policies tried to prevent the emergence of serious unemployment by credit expansion, i.e., inflation. The outcome was rising prices, renewed demands for higher wages and reiterated credit expansion; in short, protracted inflation.

5. Inflation Cannot Go On Endlessly

But finally the authorities become frightened. They know that inflation cannot go on endlessly. If one does not stop in time the pernicious policy of increasing the quantity of money and fiduciary media, the nation’s currency system collapses entirely. The monetary unit’s purchasing power sinks to a point which for all practical purposes is not better than zero. This happened again and again, in this country with the Continental Currency in 1781, in France in 1796, in Germany in 1923. It is never too early for a nation to realize that inflation cannot be considered as a way of life and that it is imperative to return to sound monetary policies. In recognition of these facts the administration and the Federal Reserve authorities some time ago discontinued the policy of progressive credit expansion.

It is not the task of this short article to deal with all the consequences which the termination of inflationary measures brings about. We have only to establish the fact that the return to monetary stability does not generate a crisis. It only brings to light the malinvestments and other mistakes that were made under the hallucination of the illusory prosperity created by the easy money. People become aware of the faults committed and, no longer blinded by the phantom of cheap credit, begin to readjust their activities to the real state of the supply of material factors of production. It is this — certainly painful, but unavoidable — readjustment that constitutes the depression.

6. The Policy Of The Unions

One of the unpleasant features of this process of discarding chimeras and returning to a sober estimate of reality concerns the height of wage rates. Under the impact of the progressive inflationary policy the union bureaucracy acquired the habit of asking at regular intervals for wage raises, and business, after some sham resistance, yielded. As a result these rates were at the moment too high for the state of the market and would have brought about a conspicuous amount of unemployment. But the ceaselessly progressive inflation very soon caught up with them. Then the unions asked again for new raises and so on.

7. The Purchasing Power Argument

It does not matter what kind of justification the unions and their henchmen advance in favor of their claims. The unavoidable effects of forcing the employers to remunerate work done at higher rates than those the consumers are willing to restore to them in buying the products are always the same: rising unemployment figures.

At the present juncture the unions try to take up the old, a hundred times refuted purchasing power fable. They declare that putting more money into the hands of the wage earners — by raising wage rates, by increasing the benefits to the unemployed and by embarking upon new public works — would enable the workers to spend more and thereby stimulate business and lead the economy out of the recession into prosperity. This is the spurious pro-inflation argument to make all people happy through printing paper bills. Of course, if the quantity of the circulating media is increased, those into whose pockets the new fictitious wealth comes — whether they are workers or farmers or any other kind of people — will increase their spending. But it is precisely this increase in spending that inevitably brings about a general tendency of all prices to rise or, what is the same expressed in a different way, a drop in the monetary unit’s purchasing power. Thus the help that an inflationary action could give to the wage earners is only of a short duration. To perpetuate it, one would have to resort again and again to new inflationary measures. It is clear that this leads to disaster.

8. Wage Raises As Such Not Inflationary

There is a lot of nonsense said about these things. Some people assert that wage raises are “inflationary.” But they are not in themselves inflationary. Nothing is inflationary except inflation, i.e., an increase in the quantity of money in circulation and credit subject to check (check-book money). And under present conditions nobody but the government can bring an inflation into being. What the unions can generate by forcing the employers to accept wage rates higher than the potential market rates is not inflation and not higher commodity prices, but unemployment of a part of the people anxious to get a job. Inflation is a policy to which the government resorts in order to prevent the large-scale unemployment the unions’ wage raising would otherwise bring about.

9. The Dilemma of Present-Day Policies

The dilemma which this country — and no less many other countries — has to face is very serious. The extremely popular method of raising wage rates above the height the unhampered labor market would have established would produce catastrophic mass unemployment if inflationary credit expansion were not to rescue it. But inflation has not only very pernicious social effects. It cannot go on endlessly without resulting in the complete breakdown of the whole monetary system.

Public opinion, entirely under the sway of the fallacious labor union doctrines, sympathizes more or less with the union bosses’ demand for a considerable rise in wage rates. As conditions are today, the unions have the power to make the employers submit to their dictates. They can call strikes and, without being restrained by the authorities, resort with impunity to violence against those willing to work. They are aware of the fact that the enhancement of wage rates will increase the number of jobless. The only remedy they suggest is more ample funds for unemployment compensation and a more ample supply of credit, i.e., inflation. The government, meekly yielding to a misguided public opinion and worried about the outcome of the impending election campaign, has unfortunately already begun to reverse its attempts to return to a sound monetary policy. Thus we are again committed to the pernicious methods of meddling with the supply of money. We are going on with the inflation that with accelerated speed makes the purchasing power of the dollar shrink. Where will it end? This is the question which Mr. Reuther and all the rest never ask.

Only stupendous ignorance can call the policies adopted by the self-styled progressives “pro-labor” policies. The wage earner like every other citizen is firmly interested in the preservation of the dollar’s purchasing power. If, thanks to his union, his weekly earnings are raised above the market rate, he must very soon discover that the upward movement in prices not only deprives him of the advantages he expected, but besides makes the value of his savings, of his insurance policy and of his pension rights dwindle. And, still worse, he may lose his job and will not find another.

10. Insincerity In The Fight Against Inflation

All political parties and pressure groups protest that they are opposed to inflation. But what they really mean is that they do not like the unavoidable consequences of inflation, viz., the rise in living costs. Actually they favor all policies that necessarily bring about an increase in the quantity of the circulating media. They ask not only for an easy money policy to make the unions’ endless wage boosting possible but also for more government spending and — at the same time — for tax abatement through raising the exemptions.

Duped by the spurious Marxian concept of irreconcilable conflicts between the interests of the social classes, people assume that the interests of the propertied classes alone are opposed to the unions’ demand for higher wage rates. In fact, the wage earners are no less interested in a return to sound money than any other group or class. A lot has been said in the last months about the harm fraudulent officers have inflicted upon the union membership. But the havoc done to the workers by the unions’ excessive wage boosting is much more detrimental.

It would be an exaggeration to contend that the tactics of the unions are the sole threat to monetary stability and to a reasonable economic policy. Organized wage earners are not the only pressure group whose claims menace today the stability of our monetary system. But they are the most powerful and most influential of these groups and the primary responsibility rests with them.

11. The Importance of Sound Monetary Policies

Capitalism has improved the standard of living of the wage earners to an unprecedented extent. The average American family enjoys today amenities of which, only a hundred years ago, not even the richest nabobs dreamed. All this well-being is conditioned by the increase in savings and capital accumulated; without these funds that enable business to make practical use of scientific and technological progress the American worker would not produce more and better things per hour of work than the Asiatic coolies, would not earn more and would, like them, wretchedly live on the verge of starvation. All measures which — like our income and corporation tax system — aim at preventing further capital accumulation or even at capital decumulation are therefore virtually anti-labor and anti-social.

One further observation must still be made about this matter of saving and capital formation. The improvement of well-being brought about by capitalism made it possible for the common man to save and thus to become in a modest way himself a capitalist. A considerable part of the capital working in American business is the counterpart of the savings of the masses. Millions of wage earners own saving deposits, bonds and insurance policies. All these claims are payable in dollars and their worth depends on the soundness of the nation’s money. To preserve the dollar’s purchasing power is also from this point of view a vital interest of the masses. In order to attain this end, it is not enough to print upon the bank notes the noble maxim In God We Trust. One must adopt an appropriate policy.


Human Action2

3. Wages

Labor is a scarce factor of production. As such it is sold and bought on the market. The price paid for labor is included in the price allowed for the product or the services if the performer of the work is the seller of the product or the services. If bare labor is sold and bought as such, either by an entrepreneur engaged in production for sale or by a consumer eager to use the services rendered for his own consumption, the price paid is called wages.

For acting man his own labor is not merely a factor of production but also the source of disutility; he values it not only with regard to the mediate gratification expected but also with regard to the disutility it causes. But for him, as for everyone, other people’s labor as offered for sale on the market is nothing but a factor of production. Man deals with other people’s labor in the same way that he deals with all scarce material factors of production. He appraises it according to the principles he applies in the appraisal of all other goods. The height of wage rates is determined on the market in the same way in which the prices of all commodities are determined. In this sense we may say that labor is a commodity. The emotional associations which people, under the influence of Marxism, attach to this term do not matter. It suffices to observe incidentally that the employers deal with labor as they do with commodities because the conduct of the consumers forces them to proceed in this way.

It is not permissible to speak of labor and wages in general without resorting to certain restrictions. A uniform type of labor or a general rate of wages do not exist. Labor is very different in quality, and each kind of labor renders specific services. Each is appraised as a complementary factor for turning out definite consumers’ goods and services. Between the appraisal of the performance of a surgeon and that of a stevedore there is no direct connection. But indirectly each sector of the labor market is connected with all other sectors. An increase in the demand for surgical services, however great, will not make stevedores flock into the practice of surgery. Yet the lines between the various sectors of the labor market are not sharply drawn. There prevails a continuous tendency for workers to shift from their branch to other similar occupations in which conditions seem to offer better opportunities. Thus finally every change in demand or supply in one sector affects all other sectors indirectly. All groups indirectly compete with one another. If more people enter the medical profession, men are withdrawn from kindred occupations who again are replaced by an inflow of people from other branches and so on. In this sense there exists a connexity between all occupational groups however different the requirements in each of them may be. There again we are faced with the fact that the disparity in the quality of work needed for the satisfaction of wants is greater than the diversity in men’s inborn ability to perform work.

Connexity exists not only between different types of labor and the prices paid for them but no less between labor and the material factors of production. Within certain limits labor can be substituted for material factors of production and vice versa. The extent that such substitutions are resorted to depends on the height of wage rates and the prices of material factors.

The determination of wage rates — like that of the prices of material factors of production — can be achieved only on the market. There is no such thing as nonmarket wage rates, just as there are no nonmarket prices. As far as there are wages, labor is dealt with like any material factor of production and sold and bought on the market. It is usual to call the sector of the market of producers’ goods on which labor is hired the labor market. As with all other sectors of the market, the labor market is actuated by the entrepreneurs intent upon making profits. Each entrepreneur is eager to buy all the kinds of specific labor he needs for the realization of his plans at the cheapest price. But the wages he offers must be high enough to take the workers away from competing entrepreneurs. The upper limit of his bidding is determined by anticipation of the price he can obtain for the increment in salable goods he expects from the employment of the worker concerned. The lower limit is determined by the bids of competing entrepreneurs who themselves are guided by analogous considerations. It is this that economists have in mind in asserting that the height of wage rates for each kind of labor is determined by its marginal productivity. Another way to express the same truth is to say that wage rates are determined by the supply of labor and of material factors of production on the one hand and by the anticipated future prices of the consumers’ goods.

This catallactic explanation of the determination of wage rates has been the target of passionate but entirely erroneous attacks. It has been asserted that there is a monopoly of the demand for labor. Most of the supporters of this doctrine think that they have sufficiently proved their case by referring to some incidental remarks of Adam Smith concerning “a sort of tacit but constant and uniform combination” among employers to keep wages down.3 Others refer in vague terms to the existence of trade associations of various groups of businessmen. The emptiness of all this talk is evident. However, the fact that these garbled ideas are the main ideological foundation of labor unionism and the labor policy of all contemporary governments makes it necessary to analyze them with the utmost care.

The entrepreneurs are in the same position with regard to the sellers of labor as they are with regard to the sellers of the material factors of production. They are under the necessity of acquiring all factors of production at the cheapest price. But if in the pursuit of this endeavor some entrepreneurs, certain groups of entrepreneurs, or all entrepreneurs offer prices or wage rates which are too low, i.e., do not agree with the state of the unhampered market, they will succeed in acquiring what they want to acquire only if entrance into the ranks of entrepreneurship is blocked through institutional barriers. If the emergence of new entrepreneurs or the expansion of the activities of already operating entrepreneurs is not prevented, any drop in the prices of factors of production not consonant with the structure of the market must open new chances for the earning of profits. There will be people eager to take advantage of the margin between the prevailing wage rate and the marginal productivity of labor. Their demand for labor will bring wage rates back to the height conditioned by labor’s marginal productivity. The tacit combination among the employers to which Adam Smith referred, even if it existed, could not lower wages below the competitive market rate unless access to entrepreneurship required not only brains and capital (the latter always available to enterprises promising the highest returns), but in addition also an institutional title, a patent, or a license, reserved to a class of privileged people.

It has been asserted that a job-seeker must sell his labor at any price, however low, as he depends exclusively on his capacity to work and has no other source of income. He cannot wait and is forced to content himself with any reward the employers are kind enough to offer him. This inherent weakness makes it easy for the concerted action of the masters to lower wage rates. They can, if need be, wait longer, as their demand for labor is not so urgent as the worker’s demand for subsistence. The argument is defective. It takes it for granted that the employers pocket the difference between the marginal-productivity wage rate and the lower monopoly rate as an extra monopoly gain and do not pass it on to the consumers in the form of a reduction in prices. For if they were to reduce prices according to the drop in costs of production, they, in their capacity as entrepreneurs and sellers of the products, would derive no advantage from cutting wages. The whole gain would go to the consumers and thereby also to the wage-earners in their capacity as buyers; the entrepreneurs themselves would be benefited only as consumers. However, to retain the extra profit resulting from the “exploitation” of the workers’ alleged poor bargaining power would require concerted action on the part of employers in their capacity as sellers of the products. It would require a universal monopoly of all kinds of production activities which can be created only by an institutional restriction of access to entrepreneurship.

The essential point of the matter is that the alleged monopolistic combination of the employers about which Adam Smith and a great part of public opinion speak would be a monopoly of demand. But we have already seen that such alleged monopolies of demand are in fact monopolies of supply of a particular character. The employers would be in a position enabling them to lower wage rates by concerted action only if they were to monopolize a factor indispensable for every kind of production and to restrict the employment of this factor in a monopolistic way. As there is no single material factor indispensable for every kind of production, they would have to monopolize all material factors of production. This condition would be present only in a socialist community, in which there is neither a market nor prices and wage rates.

Neither would it be possible for the proprietors of the material factors of production, the capitalists and the landowners, to combine in a universal cartel against the interests of the workers. The characteristic mark of production activities in the past and in the foreseeable future is that the scarcity of labor exceeds the scarcity of most of the primary, nature-given material factors of production. The comparatively greater scarcity of labor determines the extent to which the comparatively abundant primary natural factors can be utilized. There is unused soil, there are unused mineral deposits and so on because there is not enough labor available for their utilization. If the owners of the soil that is tilled today were to form a cartel in order to reap monopoly gains, their plans would be frustrated by the competition of the owners of the submarginal land. The owners of the produced factors of production in their turn could not combine in a comprehensive cartel without the cooperation of the owners of the primary factors.

Various other objections have been advanced against the doctrine of the monopolistic exploitation of labor by a tacit or avowed combine of employers. It has been demonstrated that at no time and at no place in the unhampered market economy can the existence of such cartels be discovered. It has been shown that it is not true that the job-seekers cannot wait and are therefore under the necessity of accepting any wage rates, however low, offered to them by the employers. It is not true that every unemployed worker is faced with starvation; the workers too have reserves and can wait; the proof is that they really do wait. On the other hand waiting can be financially ruinous to the entrepreneurs and capitalists too. If they cannot employ their capital, they suffer losses. Thus all the disquisitions about an alleged “employers’ advantage” and “workers’ disadvantage” in bargaining are without substance.4

But these are secondary and accidental considerations. The central fact is that a monopoly of the demand for labor cannot and does not exist in an unhampered market economy. It could originate only as an outgrowth of institutional restrictions of access to entrepreneurship.

Yet one more point must be stressed. The doctrine of the monopolistic manipulation of wage rates by the employers speaks of labor as if it were a homogeneous entity. It deals with such concepts as demand for “labor in general” and supply of “labor in general.” But such notions have, as has been pointed out already, no counterpart in reality. What is sold and bought on the labor market is not “labor in general,” but definite specific labor suitable to render definite services. Each entrepreneur is in search of workers who are fitted to accomplish those specific tasks which he needs for the execution of his plans. He must withdraw these specialists from the employments in which they happen to work at the moment. The only means he has to achieve this is to offer them higher pay. Every innovation which an entrepreneur plans — the production of a new article, the application of a new process of production, the choice of a new location for a specific branch or simply the expansion of production already in existence either in his own enterprise or in other enterprises — requires the employment of workers hitherto engaged somewhere else. The entrepreneurs are not merely faced with a shortage of “labor in general,” but with a shortage of those specific types of labor they need for their plants. The competition among the entrepreneurs in bidding for the most suitable hands is no less keen than their competition in bidding for the required raw materials, tools, and machines and in their bidding for capital on the capital and loan market. The expansion of the activities of the individual firms as well as of the whole society is not only limited by the amount of capital goods available and of the supply of “labor in general.” In each branch of production it is also limited by the available supply of specialists. This is, of course, only a temporary obstacle which vanishes in the long run when more workers, attracted by the higher pay of the specialists in comparatively undermanned branches, will have trained themselves for the special tasks concerned. But in the changing economy such a scarcity of specialists emerges anew daily and determines the conduct of employers in search for workers.

Every employer must aim at buying the factors of production needed, inclusive of labor, at the cheapest price. An employer who paid more than agrees with the market price of the services his employees render him, would be soon removed from his entrepreneurial position. On the other hand an employer who tried to reduce wage rates below the height consonant with the marginal productivity of labor would not recruit the type of men that the most efficient utilization of his equipment requires. There prevails a tendency for wage rates to reach the point at which they are equal to the price of the marginal product of the kind of labor in question. If wage rates drop below this point, the gain derived from the employment of every additional worker will increase the demand for labor and thus make wage rates rise again. If wage rates rise above this point, the loss incurred from the employment of every worker will force the employers to discharge workers. The competition of the unemployed for jobs will create a tendency for wage rates to drop.

4. Catallactic Unemployment

If a job-seeker cannot obtain the position he prefers, he must look for another kind of job. If he cannot find an employer ready to pay him as much as he would like to earn, he must abate his pretensions. If he refuses, he will not get any job. He remains unemployed.

What causes unemployment is the fact that — contrary to the above-mentioned doctrine of the worker’s inability to wait — those eager to earn wages can and do wait. A job-seeker who does not want to wait will always get a job in the unhampered market economy in which there is always unused capacity of natural resources and very often also unused capacity of produced factors of production. It is only necessary for him either to reduce the amount of pay he is asking for or to alter his occupation or his place of work.

There were and still are people who work only for some time and then live for another period from the savings they have accumulated by working. In countries in which the cultural state of the masses is low, it is often difficult to recruit workers who are ready to stay on the job. The average man there is so callous and inert that he knows of no other use for his earnings than to buy some leisure time. He works only in order to remain unemployed for some time.

It is different in the civilized countries. Here the worker looks upon unemployment as an evil. He would like to avoid it provided the sacrifice required is not too grievous. He chooses between employment and unemployment in the same way in which he proceeds in all other actions and choices: he weighs the pros and cons. If he chooses unemployment, this unemployment is a market phenomenon whose nature is not different from other market phenomena as they appear in a changing market economy. We may call this kind of unemployment market-generated or catallactic unemployment.

The various considerations which may induce a man to decide for unemployment can be classified in this way:

1. The individual believes that he will find at a later date a remunerative job in his dwelling place and in an occupation which he likes better and for which he has been trained. He seeks to avoid the expenditure and other disadvantages involved in shifting from one occupation to another and from one geographical point to another. There may be special conditions increasing these costs. A worker who owns a homestead is more firmly linked with the place of his residence than people living in rented apartments. A married woman is less mobile than an unmarried girl. Then there are occupations which impair the worker’s ability to resume his previous job at a later date. A watchmaker who works for some time as a lumberman may lose the dexterity required for his previous job. In all these cases the individual chooses temporary unemployment because he believes that this choice pays better in the long run.

2. There are occupations the demand for which is subject to considerable seasonal variations. In some months of the year the demand is very intense, in other months it dwindles or disappears altogether. The structure of wage rates discounts these seasonal fluctuations. The branches of industry subject to them can compete on the labor market only if the wages they pay in the good season are high enough to indemnify the wage earners for the disadvantages resulting from the seasonal irregularity in demand. Then many of the workers, having saved a part of their ample earnings in the good season, remain unemployed in the bad season.

3. The individual chooses temporary unemployment for considerations which in popular speech are called noneconomic or even irrational. He does not take jobs which are incompatible with his religious, moral, and political convictions. He shuns occupations the exercise of which would impair his social prestige. He lets himself be guided by traditional standards of what is proper for a gentleman and what is unworthy. He does not want to lose face or caste.

Unemployment in the unhampered market is always voluntary. In the eyes of the unemployed man, unemployment is the minor of two evils between which he has to choose. The structure of the market may sometimes cause wage rates to drop. But, on the unhampered market, there is always for each type of labor a rate at which all those eager to work can get a job. The final wage rate is that rate at which all job-seekers get jobs and all employers as many workers as they want to hire. Its height is determined by the marginal productivity of each type of work.

Wage rate fluctuations are the device by means of which the sovereignty of the consumers manifests itself on the labor market. They are the measure adopted for the allocation of labor to the various branches of production. They penalize disobedience by cutting wage rates in the comparatively overmanned branches and recompense obedience by raising wage rates in the comparatively undermanned branches. They thus submit the individual to a harsh social pressure. It is obvious that they indirectly limit the individual’s freedom to choose his occupation. But this coercion is not rigid. It leaves to the individual a margin in the limits of which he can choose between what suits him better and what less. Within this orbit he is free to act of his own accord. This amount of freedom is the maximum of freedom that an individual can enjoy in the framework of the social division of labor, and this amount of coercion is the minimum of coercion that is indispensable for the preservation of the system of social cooperation. There is only one alternative left to the catallactic pressure exercised by the wages system: the assignment of occupations and jobs to each individual by the peremptory decrees of an authority, a central board planning all production activities. This is tantamount to the suppression of all freedom.

It is true that under the wages system the individual is not free to choose permanent unemployment. But no other imaginable social system could grant him a right to unlimited leisure. That man cannot avoid submitting to the disutility of labor is not an outgrowth of any social institution. It is an inescapable natural condition of human life and conduct.

It is not expedient to call catallactic unemployment in a metaphor borrowed from mechanics “frictional” unemployment. In the imaginary construction of the evenly rotating economy there is no unemployment because we have based this construction on such an assumption. Unemployment is a phenomenon of a changing economy. The fact that a worker discharged on account of changes occurring in the arrangement of production processes does not instantly take advantage of every opportunity to get another job but waits for a more propitious opportunity is not a consequence of the tardiness of the adjustment to the change in conditions, but is one of the factors slowing down the pace of this adjustment. It is not an automatic reaction to the changes which have occurred, independent of the will and the choices of the job-seekers concerned, but the effect of their intentional actions. It is speculative, not frictional.

Catallactic unemployment must not be confused with institutional unemployment. Institutional unemployment is not the outcome of the decisions of the individual job-seekers. It is the effect of interference with the market phenomena intent upon enforcing by coercion and compulsion wage rates higher than those the unhampered market would have determined. The treatment of institutional unemployment belongs to the analysis of the problems of interventionism.

  • 1. [Ludwig von Mises, Planning for Freedom and Sixteen Other Essays and Addresses (1952; South Holland, Ill.: Libertarian Press, 1980), chap. 10, pp. 150–61.]
  • 2. [Ludwig von Mises, Human Action (1949; Auburn, Ala.: Mises Institute, 1998), chap. 21: “Work and Wages,” pp. 589–98.]
  • 3. Cf. Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (Basle, 1791), vol. 1, Bk. I, chap. 8, p. 100. Adam Smith himself seems to have unconsciously given up the idea. Cf. W.H. Hutt, The Theory of Collective Bargaining (London, 1930), pp. 24–25.
  • 4. All these and many other points are carefully analyzed by Hutt, Theory of Collective Bargaining, pp. 35–72.