Mises Daily

Wages and Subsistence

[This article is excerpted from chapter 21 of Human Action, the Scholar’s Edition and is read by Jeff Riggenbach.]

The life of primitive man was an unceasing struggle against the scantiness of the nature-given means for his sustenance. In this desperate effort to secure bare survival, many individuals and whole families, tribes, and races succumbed. Primitive man was always haunted by the specter of death from starvation. Civilization has freed us from these perils. Human life is menaced day and night by innumerable dangers; it can be destroyed at any instant by natural forces which are beyond control or at least cannot be controlled at the present stage of our knowledge and our potentialities. But the horror of starvation no longer terrifies people living in a capitalist society. He who is able to work earns much more than is needed for bare sustenance.

There are also, of course, disabled people who are incapable of work. Then there are invalids who can perform a small quantity of work; but their disability prevents them from earning as much as normal workers do; sometimes the wage rates they could earn are so low that they could not maintain themselves. These people can keep body and soul together only if other people help them. The next of kin, friends, the charity of benefactors and endowments, and communal poor relief take care of the destitute. Alms folk do not cooperate in the social process of production; as far as the provision of the means for the satisfaction of wants is concerned, they do not act; they live because other people look after them. The problems of poor relief are problems of the arrangement of consumption, not of the arrangement of production activities. They are as such beyond the frame of a theory of human action that refers only to the provision of the means required for consumption, not to the way in which these means are consumed. Catallactic theory deals with the methods adopted for the charitable support of the destitute only as far as they can possibly affect the supply of labor. It has sometimes happened that the policies applied in poor relief have encouraged unwillingness to work and the idleness of able-bodied adults.

In the capitalist society there prevails a tendency toward a steady increase in the per capita quota of capital invested. The accumulation of capital soars above the increase in population figures. Consequently the marginal productivity of labor, wage rates, and the wage earners’ standard of living tend to rise continually. But this improvement in well-being is not the manifestation of the operation of an inevitable law of human evolution; it is a tendency resulting from the interplay of forces that can freely produce their effects only under capitalism. It is possible and, if we take into account the direction of present-day policies, even not unlikely that capital consumption on the one hand and an increase or an insufficient drop in population figures on the other hand will reverse things. Then it could happen that men will again learn literally what starvation means and that the relation of the quantity of capital goods available and population figures will become so unfavorable as to make part of the workers earn less than a bare subsistence. The mere approach to such conditions would certainly cause irreconcilable dissensions within society, conflicts the violence of which must result in a complete disintegration of all societal bonds. The social division of labor cannot be preserved if part of the cooperating members of society are doomed to earn less than a bare subsistence.

The notion of a physiological minimum of subsistence to which the “iron law of wages” refers and which demagogues put forward again and again is of no use for a catallactic theory of the determination of wage rates. One of the foundations upon which social cooperation rests is the fact that labor performed according to the principle of the division of labor is so much more productive than the efforts of isolated individuals that able-bodied people are not troubled by the fear of starvation that daily threatened their forebears. Within a capitalist commonwealth the minimum of subsistence plays no catallactic role.

Furthermore, the notion of a physiological minimum of subsistence lacks that precision and scientific rigor that people have ascribed to it. Primitive man, adjusted to a more animal-like than human existence, could keep himself alive under conditions that are literally unbearable to his dainty scions pampered by capitalism. There is no such thing as a physiologically and biologically determined minimum of subsistence, valid for every specimen of the zoological species homo sapiens. No more tenable is the idea that a definite quantity of calories is needed to keep a man healthy and progenitive, and a further definite quantity to replace the energy expended in working. The appeal to such notions of cattle breeding and the vivisection of guinea pigs does not aid the economist in his endeavors to comprehend the problems of purposive human action. The “iron law of wages” and the essentially identical Marxian doctrine of the determination of “the value of labor power” by “the working time necessary for its production, consequently also for its reproduction,”8 are the least tenable of all that has ever been taught in the field of catallactics.

Yet it was possible to attach some meaning to the ideas implied in the iron law of wages. If one sees in the wage earner merely a chattel and believes that he plays no other role in society, if one assumes that he aims at no other satisfaction then feeding and proliferation and does not know of any employment for his earnings other than the procurement of those animal satisfactions, one may consider the iron law as a theory of the determination of wage rates. In fact the classical economists, frustrated by their abortive value theory, could not think of any other solution of the problem involved. For Torrens and Ricardo, the theorem that the natural price of labor is the price that enables the wage earners to subsist and to perpetuate their race without any increase or diminution was the logically inescapable inference from their untenable value theory. But when their epigones saw that they could no longer satisfy themselves with this manifestly preposterous law, they resorted to a modification of it that was tantamount to a complete abandonment of any attempt to provide an economic explanation of the determination of wage rates. They tried to preserve the cherished notion of the minimum of subsistence by substituting the concept of a “social” minimum for the concept of a physiological minimum. They no longer spoke of the minimum required for the necessary subsistence of the laborer and for the preservation of an undiminished supply of labor; they spoke instead of the minimum required for the preservation of a standard of living sanctified by historical tradition and inherited customs and habits. While daily experience taught impressively that, under capitalism, real wage rates and the wage earners’ standard of living were steadily rising, while it became from day to day more obvious that the traditional walls separating the various strata of the population could no longer be preserved, because the social improvement in the conditions of the industrial workers demolished the vested ideas of social rank and dignity, these doctrinaires announced that old customs and social convention determine the height of wage rates. Only people blinded by preconceived prejudices and party bias could resort to such an explanation in an age in which industry supplies the consumption of the masses again and again with new commodities hitherto unknown and makes accessible to the average worker satisfactions of which no king could dream in the past.

It is not especially remarkable that the Prussian Historical School of the wirtschaftliche Staatswissenschaften viewed wage rates no less than commodity prices and interest rates as “historical categories” and that in dealing with wage rates it had recourse to the concept of “income adequate to the individual’s hierarchical station in the social scale of ranks.” It was the essence of the teachings of this school to deny the existence of economics and to substitute history for it. But it is amazing that Marx and the Marxians did not recognize that their endorsement of this spurious doctrine entirely disintegrated the body of the so-called Marxian system of economics. When the articles and dissertations published in England in the early 1860s convinced Marx that it was no longer permissible to cling unswervingly to the wage theory of the classical economists, he modified his theory of the value of labor power. He declared that “the extent of the so-called natural wants and the manner in which they are satisfied, are in themselves a product of historical evolution” and “depend to a large extent on the degree of civilization attained by any given country and, among other factors, especially on the conditions and customs and pretensions concerning the standard of life under which the class of free laborers has been formed.” Thus “a historical and moral element enter into the determination of the value of labor power.” But when Marx adds that nonetheless “for a given country at any given time, the average quantity of indispensable necessaries of life is a given fact,”9 he contradicts himself and misleads the reader. What he has in mind is no longer the “indispensable necessaries,” but the things considered indispensable from a traditional point of view, the means necessary for the preservation of a standard of living adequate to the workers’ station in the traditional social hierarchy. The recourse to such an explanation means virtually the renunciation of any economic or catallactic elucidation of the determination of wage rates. Wage rates are explained as a datum of history. They are no longer seen as a market phenomenon, but as a factor originating outside of the interplay of the forces operating on the market.

However, even those who believe that the height of wage rates as they are actually paid and received in reality are forced upon the market from without as a datum cannot avoid developing a theory that explains the determination of wage rates as the outcome of the valuations and decisions of the consumers. Without such a catallactic theory of wages, no economic analysis of the market can be complete and logically satisfactory. It is simply nonsensical to restrict the catallactic disquisitions to the problems of the determination of commodity prices and interest rates and to accept wage rates as a historical datum. An economic theory worthy of the name must be in a position to assert with regard to wage rates more than that they are determined by a “historical and moral element.” The characteristic mark of economics is that it explains the exchange ratios manifested in market transactions as market phenomena the determination of which is subject to a regularity in the concatenation and sequence of events. It is precisely this that distinguishes economic conception from the historical understanding, theory from history.

We can well imagine a historical situation in which the height of wage rates is forced upon the market by the interference of external compulsion and coercion. Such institutional fixing of wage rates is one of the most important features of our age of interventionist policies. But with regard to such a state of affairs it is the task of economics to investigate what effects are brought about by the disparity between the two wage rates, the potential rate that the unhampered market would have produced by the interplay of the supply of and the demand for labor on the one hand, and on the other the rate that external compulsion and coercion impose upon the parties to the market transactions.

It is true, wage earners are imbued with the idea that wages must be at least high enough to enable them to maintain a standard of living adequate to their station in the hierarchical gradation of society. Every single worker has his particular opinion about the claims he is entitled to raise on account of “status,” “rank,” “tradition,” and “custom” in the same way as he has his particular opinion about his own efficiency and his own achievements. But such pretensions and self-complacent assumptions are without any relevance for the determination of wage rates. They limit neither the upward nor the downward movement of wage rates. The wage earner must sometimes satisfy himself with much less than what, according to his opinion, is adequate to his rank and efficiency. If he is offered more than he expected, he pockets the surplus without a qualm. The age of laissez-faire for which the iron law and Marx’s doctrine of the historically determined formation of wage rates claim validity witnessed a progressive, although sometimes temporarily interrupted, tendency for real wage rates to rise. The wage earners’ standard of living rose to a height unprecedented in history and never thought of in earlier periods.

The labor unions pretend that nominal wage rates at least must always be raised in accordance with the changes occurring in the monetary unit’s purchasing power in such a way as to secure to the wage earner the unabated enjoyment of the previous standard of living. They raise these claims also with regard to wartime conditions and the measures adopted for the financing of war expenditure. In their opinion even in wartime neither inflation nor the withholding of income taxes must affect the worker’s take-home real wage rates. This doctrine tacitly implies the thesis of the Communist Manifesto that “the working men have no country” and have “nothing to lose but their chains”; consequently they are neutral in the wars waged by the bourgeois exploiters and do not care whether their nation conquers or is conquered. It is not the task of economics to scrutinize these statements. It only has to establish the fact that it does not matter what kind of justification is advanced in favor of the enforcement of wage rates higher than those the unhampered labor market would have determined. If as a result of such claims real wage rates are really raised above the height consonant with the marginal productivity of the various types of labor concerned, the unavoidable consequences must appear without any regard to the underlying philosophy.

The same is valid with regard to the confused doctrine that wage earners are entitled to claim for themselves all the benefits derived from improvements in what union officers call the productivity of labor. On the unhampered labor market wage rates always tend toward the point at which they coincide with the marginal productivity of labor. The concept of the productivity of labor in general is no less empty than all other universal concepts of this kind, e.g., the concept of the value of iron or gold in general. To speak of the productivity of labor in a sense other than that of the marginal productivity is meaningless. What these union officers have in mind is an ethical justification of their policies. However, the economic consequences of these policies are not affected by the pretexts advanced in their favor.

Wage rates are ultimately determined by the value the wage earner’s fellow citizens attach to his services and achievements. Labor is appraised like a commodity not because the entrepreneurs and capitalists are hardhearted and callous but because they are unconditionally subject to the supremacy of the pitiless consumers. The consumers are not prepared to satisfy anybody’s pretensions, presumptions, and self-conceit. They want to be served in the cheapest way.

This article is excerpted from chapter 21 of Human Action, the Scholar’s Edition and is read by Jeff Riggenbach.

  • 8Cf. Marx, Das Kapital (7th ed. Hamburg, 1914), I, 133. In the Communist Manifesto (Section II) Marx and Engels formulate their doctrine in this way: “The average price of wage labor is the minimum wage, i.e., that quantum of means of subsistence which is absolutely required to keep the laborer in bare existence as laborer.” It “merely suffices to prolong and reproduce a bare existence.”
  • 9Cf. Marx, Das Kapital, p. 134. Italics are mine. The term used by Marx which in the text is translated as “necessaries of life” is “Lebensmittel.” The Muret-Sanders Dictionary (16th ed.) translates this term “articles of food, provisions, victuals, grub.”
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