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Chapter 13 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.


Human Action2


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. 150–55.]
  • 2. [Ludwig von Mises, Human Action (1949; Auburn, Ala.: Mises Institute, 1998), chap. 21: “Work and Wages,” pp. 595–98.]
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