Mises Wire

Government Power vs Economic Power

When in dealing with market phenomena we apply the term “power,” we must be fully aware of the fact that we are employing it with a connotation that is entirely different from the traditional connotation attached to it in dealing with issues of government and affairs of state.

Governmental power is the faculty to beat into submission all those who would dare to disobey the orders issued by the authorities. Nobody would call government an entity that lacks this faculty. Every governmental action is backed by constables, prison guards, and executioners. However beneficial a governmental action may appear, it is ultimately made possible only by the government’s power to compel its subjects to do what many of them would not do if they were not threatened by the police and the penal courts. A government-supported hospital serves charitable purposes. But the taxes collected that enable the authorities to spend money for the upkeep of the hospital are not paid voluntarily. The citizens pay taxes because not to pay them would bring them to prison and physical resistance to the revenue agents could bring them to the gallows.

It is true that the majority of the people willy-nilly acquiesce in this state of affairs and, as David Hume put it, “resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers.” They proceed in this way because they think that in the long run they serve better their own interests by being loyal to their government than by overturning it. But this does not alter the fact that governmental power means the exclusive faculty to frustrate any disobedience by the recourse to violence. As human nature is, the institution of government is an indispensable means to make civilized life possible. The alternative is anarchy and the law of the stronger. But the fact remains that government is the power to imprison and to kill.

The concept of economic power as applied by the socialist authors means something entirely different. The fact to which it refers is the capacity to influence other people’s behavior by offering them something the acquisition of which they consider as more desirable than the avoidance of the sacrifice they have to make for it. In plain words: it means the invitation to enter into a bargain, an act of exchange. I will give you a if you give me b. There is no question of any compulsion nor of any threats. The buyer does not “rule” the seller and the seller does not “rule” the buyer.

Of course, in the market economy everybody’s style of life is adjusted to the division of labor, and a return to self-sufficiency is out of the question. Everybody’s bare survival would be jeopardized if he were forced suddenly to experience the autarky of ages gone by. But in the regular course of market transactions there is no danger of such a relapse into the conditions of the primeval household economy. A faint image of the effects of any disturbance in the usual course of market exchanges is provided when labor union violence, benevolently tolerated or even openly encouraged and aided by the government, stops the activities of vital branches of business.

In the market economy every specialist—and there are no other people than specialists—depends on all other specialists. This mutuality is the characteristic feature of interpersonal relations under capitalism. The socialists ignore the fact of mutuality and speak of economic power. For example, as they see it, “the capacity to determine product” is one of the powers of the entrepreneur.5 One can hardly misconstrue more radically the essential features of the market economy. It is not business, but the consumers who ultimately determine what should be produced. It is a silly fable that nations go to war because there is a munitions industry and that people are getting drunk because the distillers have “economic power.” If one calls economic power the capacity to choose—or, as the socialists prefer to say, to “determine”—the product, one must establish the fact that this power is fully vested in the buyers and consumers.

“Modern civilization, nearly all civilization,” said the great British economist Edwin Cannan, “is based on the principle of making things pleasant for those who please the market and unpleasant for those who fail to do so.”6 The market, that means the buyers; the consumers, that means all of the people. To the contrary, under planning or socialism the goals of production are determined by the supreme planning authority; the individual gets what the authority thinks he ought to get. All this empty talk about the economic power of business aims at obliterating this fundamental distinction between freedom and bondage.

[Excerpted from chapter 3 “The Elite under Capitalism,” Economic Freedom and Interventionism.]
  • 5Cf. for instance, A. A. Berle, Jr., Power without Property (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1959), p. 82.
  • 6Edwin Cannan, An Economist’s Protest (London: P. S. King & Son, Ltd., 1928), pp. vi–vii.
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