Mises Daily

The "State of Nature" Is a State of Poverty

From time immemorial men have prattled about the blissful conditions their ancestors enjoyed in the original "state of nature." From old myths, fables, and poems the image of this primitive happiness passed into many popular philosophies of the 17th and 18th centuries. In their language, the term natural denoted what was good and beneficial in human affairs, while the term civilization had the connotation of opprobrium. The fall of man was seen in the deviation from the primitive conditions of ages in which there was but little difference between man and other animals. At that time, these romantic eulogists of the past asserted, there were no conflicts between men. Peace was undisturbed in the Garden of Eden.

Yet nature does not generate peace and good will. The characteristic mark of the "state of nature" is irreconcilable conflict. Each specimen is the rival of all other specimens. The means of subsistence are scarce and do not grant survival to all. The conflicts can never disappear. If a band of men, united with the object of defeating rival bands, succeeds in annihilating its foes, new antagonisms arise among the victors over the distribution of the booty. The source of the conflicts is always the fact that each man's portion curtails the portions of all other men. This is a dilemma that does not allow of any peaceful solution.

What makes friendly relations between human beings possible is the higher productivity of the division of labor. It removes the natural conflict of interests. For where there is division of labor, there is no longer a question of the distribution of a supply not capable of enlargement. Thanks to the higher productivity of labor performed under the division of tasks, the supply of goods multiplies. A preeminent common interest, the preservation and further intensification of social cooperation, becomes paramount and obliterates all essential collisions.

Catallactic competition is substituted for biological competition. It makes for harmony of the interests of all members of society. The very condition from which the irreconcilable conflicts of biological competition arise — viz., the fact that all people by and large strive after the same things — is transformed into a factor making for harmony of interests. Because many people or even all people want bread, clothes, shoes, and cars, large-scale production of these goods becomes feasible and reduces the costs of production to such an extent that they are accessible at low prices.

The fact that my fellow man wants to acquire shoes as I do, does not make it harder for me to get shoes, but easier. What enhances the price of shoes is the fact that nature does not provide a more ample supply of leather and other raw materials required, and that one must submit to the disutility of labor in order to transform these raw materials into shoes. The catallactic competition of those who, like me, are eager to have shoes makes shoes cheaper, not more expensive.

This is the meaning of the theorem of the harmony of the rightly understood interests of all members of the market society.1

When the classical economists made this statement, they were trying to stress two points:

  1. that everybody is interested in the preservation of the social division of labor, the system that multiplies the productivity of human efforts
  2. that in the market society consumers' demand ultimately directs all production activities

The fact that not all human wants can be satisfied is not due to inappropriate social institutions or to deficiencies of the system of the market economy. It is a natural condition of human life. The belief that nature bestows upon man inexhaustible riches and that misery is an outgrowth of man's failure to organize the good society is entirely fallacious.

The "state of nature" that the reformers and utopians depicted as paradisiac was in fact a state of extreme poverty and distress.

"Poverty," says Bentham, "is not the work of the laws, it is the primitive condition of the human race."2

Even those at the base of the social pyramid are much better off than they would have been in the absence of social cooperation. They too are benefited by the operation of the market economy and participate in the advantages of civilized society.

The 19th-century reformers did not drop the cherished fable of the original earthly paradise. Frederick Engels incorporated it in the Marxian account of mankind's social evolution. However, they no longer set up the bliss of the aurea aetas as a pattern for social and economic reconstruction. They contrast the alleged depravity of capitalism with the ideal happiness man will enjoy in the socialist Elysium of the future. The socialist mode of production will abolish the fetters by means of which capitalism checks the development of the productive forces, and will increase the productivity of labor and wealth beyond all measure. The preservation of free enterprise and the private ownership of the means of production benefits exclusively the small minority of parasitic exploiters and harms the immense majority of working men. Hence there prevails within the frame of the market society an irreconcilable conflict between the interests of "capital" and those of "labor." This class struggle can disappear only when a fair system of social organization — either socialism or interventionism — is substituted for the manifestly unfair capitalist mode of production.

Such is the almost universally accepted social philosophy of our age. It was not created by Marx, although it owes its popularity mainly to the writings of Marx and the Marxians. It is today endorsed not only by the Marxians, but no less by most of those parties who emphatically declare their anti-Marxism, and pay lip service to free enterprise. It is the official social philosophy of Roman Catholicism as well as of Anglo-Catholicism; it is supported by many eminent champions of the various Protestant denominations and of the Orthodox Oriental Church. It is an essential part of the teachings of Italian Fascism and of German Nazism and of all varieties of interventionist doctrines. It was the ideology of the Sozialpolitik of the Hohenzollerns in Germany and the French royalists aiming at the restoration of the house of Bourbon-Orléans, of the New Deal of President Roosevelt, and of the nationalists of Asia and Latin America. The antagonisms between these parties and factions refer to accidental issues — such as religious dogma, constitutional institutions, foreign policy — and, first of all, to the characteristic features of the social system that is to be substituted for capitalism. But they all agree in the fundamental thesis that the very existence of the capitalist system harms the vital interests of the immense majority of workers, artisans, and small farmers, and they all ask in the name of social justice for the abolition of capitalism.3

"The belief that nature bestows upon man inexhaustible riches and that misery is an outgrowth of man's failure to organize the good society is entirely fallacious."

All socialist and interventionist authors and politicians base their analysis and critique of the market economy on two fundamental errors. First, they fail to recognize the speculative character inherent in all endeavors to provide for future want satisfaction, i.e., in all human action. They naively assume that there cannot exist any doubt about the measures to be applied for the best possible provisioning of the consumers. In a socialist commonwealth there will be no need for the production tsar (or the central board of production management) to speculate. He will "simply" have to resort to those measures which are beneficial to his wards.

The advocates of a planned economy have never conceived that the task is to provide for future wants that may differ from today's wants and to employ the various available factors of production in the most expedient way for the best possible satisfaction of these uncertain future wants. They have not conceived that the problem is to allocate scarce factors of production to the various branches of production in such a way that no wants considered more urgent should remain unsatisfied because the factors of production required for their satisfaction were employed, i.e., wasted, for the satisfaction of wants considered less urgent.

This economic problem must not be confused with the technological problem. Technological knowledge can merely tell us what could be achieved under the present state of our scientific insight. It does not answer the questions as to what should be produced and in what quantities, and which of the multitude of technological processes available should be chosen. Deluded by their failure to grasp this essential matter, the advocates of a planned society believe that the production tsar will never err in his decisions.

In the market economy the entrepreneurs and capitalists cannot avoid committing serious blunders because they know neither what the consumers want nor what their competitors are doing. The general manager of a socialist state will be infallible because he alone will have the power to determine what should be produced and how, and because no action of other people will cross his plans.4

The second fundamental error involved in the socialists' critique of the market economy stems from their faulty theory of wages. They have failed to realize that wages are the price paid for the wage earner's achievement, i.e., for the contribution of his efforts to the processing of the good concerned or, as people say, for the value his services add to the value of the materials. No matter whether there are time wages or piece work wages, the employer always buys the worker's performance and services, not his time.

It is therefore not true that in the unhampered market economy the worker has no personal interest in the execution of his task. The socialists are badly mistaken in asserting that those paid a certain rate per hour, per day, per week, per month, or per year are not impelled by their own selfish interests when they work efficiently. It is not lofty ideals and the sense of duty that deter a worker paid according to the length of time worked from carelessness and loafing around the shop, but very substantial arguments. He who works more and better gets higher pay, and he who wants to earn more must increase the quantity and improve the quality of his performance.

The hard-boiled employers are not so gullible as to let themselves be cheated by slothful employees; they are not so negligent as those governments who pay salaries to hosts of loafing bureaucrats. Neither are the wage earners so stupid as not to know that laziness and inefficiency are heavily penalized on the labor market.

On the shaky ground of their misconception of the catallactic nature of wages, the socialist authors have advanced fantastic fables about the increase in the productivity of labor to be expected from the realization of their plans. Under capitalism, they say, the worker's zeal is seriously impaired because he is aware of the fact that he himself does not reap the fruits of his labor and that his toil and trouble enrich merely his employer, this parasitic and idle exploiter. But under socialism every worker will know that he works for the benefit of society, of which he himself is a part. This knowledge will provide him with the most powerful incentive to do his best. An enormous increase in the productivity of labor and thereby in wealth will result.

However, the identification of the interests of each worker and those of the socialist commonwealth is a purely legalistic and formalistic fiction that has nothing to do with the real state of affairs. While the sacrifices an individual worker makes in intensifying his own exertion burden him alone, only an infinitesimal fraction of the produce of his additional exertion benefits himself and improves his own wellbeing. While the individual worker enjoys completely the pleasures he may reap by yielding to the temptation to carelessness and laziness, the resulting impairment of the social dividend curtails his own share only infinitesimally.

Under such a socialist mode of production all personal incentives that selfishness provides under capitalism are removed, and a premium is put upon laziness and negligence. Whereas in a capitalist society selfishness incites everyone to the utmost diligence, in a socialist society it makes for inertia and laxity. The socialists may still babble about the miraculous change in human nature that the advent of socialism will effect, and about the substitution of lofty altruism for mean egotism. But they must no longer indulge in fables about the marvelous effects the selfishness of each individual will bring about under socialism.5

"The 'state of nature' that the reformers and utopians depicted as paradisiac was in fact a state of extreme poverty and distress."

No judicious man can fail to conclude from the evidence of these considerations that in the market economy the productivity of labor is incomparably higher than it would be under socialism. However, this cognition does not settle the question between the advocates of capitalism and those of socialism from a praxeological, i.e., scientific, point of view.

A bona fide advocate of socialism who is free from bigotry, prepossession, and malice could still contend, "It may be true that P, the total net income turned out in a market society, is larger than p, the total net income turned out in a socialist society. But if the socialist system assigns to each of its members an equal share of p (viz., p/z = d), all those whose income in the market society is smaller than d are favored by the substitution of socialism for capitalism. It may happen that this group of people includes the majority of men. At any rate it becomes evident that the doctrine of the harmony between the rightly understood interests of all members of the market society is untenable. There is a class of men whose interests are hurt by the very existence of the market economy and who would be better off under socialism."

The liberals contest the conclusiveness of this reasoning. They believe that p will lag so much behind P that d will be smaller than the income that even those earning the lowest wages get in the market society. There can be no doubt that the objection raised by the liberals is well-founded. However, their refutation of the socialist claims is not based on praxeological considerations and therefore lacks the apodictic and incontestable argumentative power inherent in a praxeological demonstration. It is based on a judgment of relevance, the quantitative appraisal of the difference between the two magnitudes P and p. In the field of human action such quantitative cognition is obtained by understanding, with regard to which full agreement between men cannot be reached. Praxeology, economics, and catallactics are of no use for the settlement of such dissensions concerning quantitative issues.

The advocates of socialism could even go further and say, "Granted that each individual will be worse off under socialism than even the poorest under capitalism. Yet we spurn the market economy in spite of the fact that it supplies everybody with more goods than socialism. We disapprove of capitalism on ethical grounds as an unfair and amoral system. We prefer socialism on grounds commonly called noneconomic and put up with the fact that it impairs everybody's material well-being."6

It cannot be denied that this haughty indifference with regard to material well-being is a privilege reserved to ivory-tower intellectuals, secluded from reality, and to ascetic anchorites. What made socialism popular with the immense majority of its supporters was, on the contrary, the illusion that it would supply them with more amenities than capitalism. But however this may be, it is obvious that this type of prosocialist argumentation cannot be touched by the liberal reasoning concerning the productivity of labor.

"Whereas in a capitalist society selfishness incites everyone to the utmost diligence, in a socialist society it makes for inertia and laxity."

If no other objections could be raised to the socialist plans than that socialism will lower the standard of living of all or at least of the immense majority, it would be impossible for praxeology to pronounce a final judgment. Men would have to decide the issue between capitalism and socialism on the ground of judgments of value and of judgments of relevance. They would have to choose between the two systems as they choose between many other things. No objective standard could be discovered that would make it possible to settle the dispute in a manner that allows no contradiction and must be accepted by every sane individual. The freedom of each man's choice and discretion would not be annihilated by inexorable necessity.

However, the true state of affairs is entirely different. Man is not in a position to choose between these two systems. Human cooperation under the system of the social division of labor is possible only in the market economy. Socialism is not a realizable system of society's economic organization because it lacks any method of economic calculation. …

The establishment of this truth does not amount to a depreciation of the conclusiveness and the convincing power of the antisocialist argument derived from the impairment of productivity to be expected from socialism. The weight of this objection raised to the socialist plans is so overwhelming that no judicious man could hesitate to choose capitalism. Yet this would still be a choice between alternative systems of society's economic organization, preference given to one system as against another.

However, such is not the alternative. Socialism cannot be realized because it is beyond human power to establish it as a social system. The choice is between capitalism and chaos.

A man who chooses between drinking a glass of milk and a glass of a solution of potassium cyanide does not choose between two beverages; he chooses between life and death. A society that chooses between capitalism and socialism does not choose between two social systems; it chooses between social cooperation and the disintegration of society.

Socialism is not an alternative to capitalism; it is an alternative to any system under which men can live as human beings. To stress this point is the task of economics as it is the task of biology and chemistry to teach that potassium cyanide is not a nutriment but a deadly poison.

This article is excerpted from chapter 24 of Human Action under the subtitled "The Harmony of the 'Rightly Understood' Interests."

  • 1For "rightly understood" interests we may as well say interests "in the long run."
  • 2Cf. Bentham, "Principles of the Civil Code," in Works, I, 309.
  • 3The official doctrine of the Roman Church is outlined in the encyclical Quadragesimo anno of Pope Pius XI (1931). The Anglo-Catholic doctrine is presented by the late William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury, in the book Christianity and the Social Order (Penguin Special, 1942). Representative of the ideas of European continental Protestantism is the book of Emil Brunner, Justice and the Social Order, trans. by M. Hottinger (New York, 1945). A highly significant document is the section on "The Church and Disorder of Society" of the draft report which the World Council of Churches in September, 1948 recommended for appropriate action to the one hundred and fifty–odd denominations whose delegates are members of the Council. For the ideas of Nicolas Berdyaew, the most eminent apologist of Russian Orthodoxy, cf. his book The Origin of Russian Communism (London, 1937), especially pp. 217–218 and 225. It is often asserted that an essential difference between the Marxians and the other socialist and interventionist parties is to be found in the fact that the Marxians stand for class struggle, while the latter parties look at the class struggle as upon a deplorable outgrowth of the irreconcilable conflict of class interests inherent in capitalism and want to overcome it by the realization of the reforms they recommend. However, the Marxians do not praise and kindle the class struggle for its own sake. In their eyes the class struggle is good only because it is the device by means of which the "productive forces," those mysterious forces directing the course of human evolution, are bound to bring about the "classless" society in which there will be neither classes nor class conflicts.
  • 4The thorough exposure of this delusion is provided by the proof of the impossibility of economic calculation under socialism. See the fifth part of this book, below.
  • 5The doctrine refuted in the text found its most brilliant expositor in John Stuart Mill (Principles of Political Economy [People's ed., London, 1867], pp. 126 ff.). However, Mill resorted to this doctrine merely in order to refute an objection raised against socialism, viz., that, by eliminating the incentive provided by selfishness, it would impair the productivity of labor. He was not so blind as to assert that the productivity of labor would multiply under socialism. For an analysis and refutation of Mill's reasoning, cf. Mises, Socialism, pp. 173–181.
  • 6This mode of reasoning was mainly resorted to by many eminent champions of Christian socialism. The Marxians used to recommend socialism on the ground that it would multiply productivity and bring unprecedented material wealth to everybody. Only lately have they changed their tactics. They declare that the Russian worker is happier than the American worker in spite of the fact that his standard of living is much lower; the knowledge that he lives under a fair social system compensates by far for all his material hardships.
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