April Freeman Banner 2014

ARTICLE

Interventionism

FEBRUARY 01, 1980 by LUDWIG VON MISES

A famous, very olden quoted phrase says: “That government is best, which governs least.” I do not believe this to be a correct description of the functions of a good government. Government ought to do all the things for which it is needed and for which it was established. Government ought to protect the individuals within the country against the violent and fraudulent attacks of gangsters, and it should defend the country against foreign enemies. These are the functions of government within a free system, within the system of the market economy.

Under socialism, of course, the government is totalitarian, and there is nothing outside its sphere and its jurisdiction. But in the market economy the main task of the government is to protect the smooth functioning of the market economy against fraud or violence from within and from outside the country.

People who do not agree with this definition of the functions of government may say: “This man hates the government.” Nothing could be farther from the truth. If I should say that gasoline is a very useful liquid, useful for many purposes, but that I would nevertheless not drink gasoline because I think that would not be the right use for it, I am not an enemy of gasoline, and I do not hate gasoline. I only say that gasoline is very useful for certain purposes, but not fit for other purposes. If I say it is the government’s duty to arrest murderers and other criminals, but not its duty to run the railroads or to spend money for useless things, then I do not hate the government by declaring that it is fit to do certain things but not fit to do other things.

It has been said that under present-day conditions we no longer have a free market economy. Under present-day conditions we have something called the “mixed economy.” And for evidence of our “mixed economy,” people point to the many enterprises which are operated and owned by the government. The economy is mixed, people say, because there are, in many countries, certain institutions—like the telephone, telegraph, and rail- roads—which are owned and operated by the government.

That some of these institutions and enterprises are operated by the government is certainly true. But this fact alone does not change the character of our economic system. It does not even mean there is a “little socialism” within the otherwise nonsocialist, free market economy. For the government, in operating these enterprises, is subject to the supremacy of the market, which means it is subject to the supremacy of the consumers. The government—if it operates, let us say, post of-rices or railroads—has to hire people, who have to work in these enterprises. It also has to buy the raw materials and other things that are needed for the conduct of these enterprises. And on the other hand, it “sells” these services or commodities to the public. Yet, even though it operates these institutions using the methods of the free economic system, the result, as a rule, is a deficit. The government, however, is in a position to finance such a deficit—at least the members of the government and of the ruling party believe so.

It is certainly different for an individual. The individual’s power to operate something with a deficit is very limited. If the deficit is not very soon eliminated, and if the enterprise does not become profitable (or at least show that no further deficit and losses are being incurred) the individual goes bankrupt and the enterprise must come to an end.

But for the government, conditions are different. The government can run at a deficit, because it has the power to tax people. And if the taxpayers are prepared to pay higher taxes in order to make it possible for the government to operate an enterprise at a loss—that is, in a less efficient way than it would be done by a private institution—and if the public will accept this loss, then of course the enterprise will continue.

Intervention Breeds Inflation

In recent years, governments have increased the number of nationalized institutions and enterprises in most countries to such an extent that the deficits have grown far beyond the amount that could be collected in taxes from the citizens. What happens then is not the subject of today’s lecture. It is inflation, and I shall deal with that tomorrow. I mentioned this only because the mixed economy must not be confused with the problem of interventionism, about which I want to talk tonight.

What is interventionism? Interventionism means that the government does not restrict its activity to the preservation of order, or—as people used to say a hundred years ago—to “the production of security.” Interventionism means that the government wants to do more. It wants to interfere with market phenomena.

If one objects and says the government should not interfere with business, people very often answer: “But the government necessarily always interferes. If there are policemen on the street, the government interferes. It interferes with a robber looting a shop or it prevents a man from stealing a car.” But when dealing with interventionism, and defining what is meant by interventionism, we are speaking about government interference with the market. (That the government and the police are expected to protect the citizens, which includes businessmen, and of course their employees, against attacks on the part of domestic or foreign gangsters, is in fact a normal, necessary expectation of any government. Such protection is not an intervention, for the government’s only legitimate function is, precisely, to produce security.)

What we have in mind when we talk about interventionism is the government’s desire to do more than prevent assaults and fraud. Interventionism means that the government not only fails to protect the smooth functioning of the market economy, but that it interferes with the various market phenomena; it interferes with prices, with wage rates, interest rates, and profits.

The government wants to interfere in order to force businessmen to conduct their affairs in a different way than they would have chosen if they had obeyed only the consumers. Thus, all the measures of interventionism by the government are directed toward restricting the supremacy of consumers. The government wants to arrogate to itself the power, or at least a part of the power, which, in the free market economy, is in the hands of the consumers.

Let us consider one example of interventionism, very popular in many countries and tried again and again by many governments, especially in times of inflation. I refer to price control.

Governments usually resort to price control when they have inflated the money supply and people have begun to complain about the resulting rise in prices. There are many famous historical examples of price control methods that failed, but I shall refer to only two of them because, in both these cases, the governments were really very energetic in enforcing or trying to enforce their price controls.

Price Controls in Ancient Rome and during the French Revolution

The first famous example is the case of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, very well- known as the last of those Roman emperors who persecuted the Christians. The Roman emperor in the second part of the third century had only one financial method, and this was currency debasement. In those primitive ages, before the invention of the printing press, even inflation was, let us say, primitive. It involved debasement of the coinage, especially the silver. The government mixed more and more copper into the silver until the color of the silver coins was changed and the weight was reduced considerably. The result of this coinage debasement and the associated increase in the quantity of money was an increase in prices, followed by an edict to control prices. And Roman emperors were not very mild when they enforced a law; they did not consider death too mild a punishment for a man who had asked for a higher price. They enforced price control, but they failed to maintain the society. The result was the disintegration of the Roman Empire and the system of the division of labor.

Then, 1500 years later, the same currency debasement took place during the French Revolution. But this time a different method was used. The technology for producing money was considerably improved. It was no longer necessary for the French to resort to debasement of the coinage: they had the printing press. And the printing press was very efficient. Again, the result was an unprecedented rise in prices. But in the French Revolution maximum prices were not enforced by the same method of capital punishment which the Emperor Diocletian had used. There had also been an improvement in the technique of killing citizens. You all remember the famous Doctor J. I. Guillotin (1738- 1814), who invented the guillotine. Despite the guillotine the French also failed with their laws of maximum price. When Robespierre himself was carted off to the guillotine the people shouted, “There goes the dirty Maximum.”

I wanted to mention this, because people olden say: “What is needed in order to make price control effective and efficient is merely more brutality and more energy.” Now certainly, Diocletian was very brutal, and so was the French Revolution. Nevertheless, price control measures in both ages failed entirely.

Now let us analyze the reasons for this failure. The government hears people complain that the price of milk has gone up. And milk is certainly very important, especially for the rising generation, for children. Consequently, the government declares a maximum price for milk, a maximum price that is lower than the potential market price would be. Now the government says: “Certainly we have done everything needed in order to make it possible for poor parents to buy as much milk as they need to feed their children.” But what happens? On the one hand, the lower price of milk increases the demand for milk; people who could not afford to buy milk at a higher price are now able to buy it at the lower price which the government has decreed. And on the other hand some of the producers, those producers of milk who are producing at the highest cost—that is, the marginal producers—are now suffering losses, because the price which the government has decreed is lower than their costs. This is the important point in the market economy.

Milk Production Curbed

The private entrepreneur, the private producer, cannot take losses in the long run. And as he cannot take losses in milk, he restricts the production of milk for the market. He may sell some of his cows for the slaughter house, or instead of milk he may sell some products made out of milk, for instance sour cream, butter or cheese.

Thus the government’s interference with the price of milk will result in less milk than there was before, and at the same time there will be a greater demand. Some people who are prepared to pay the government-decreed price cannot buy it. Another result will be that anxious people will hurry to be first at the shops. They have to wait outside. The long lines of people waiting at shops always appear as a familiar phenomenon in a city in which the government has decreed maximum prices for commodities that the government considers as important. This has happened everywhere when the price of milk was controlled. This was always prognosticated by economists. Of course, only by sound economists, and their number is not very great.

But what is the result of the government’s price control? The government is disappointed. It wanted to increase the satisfaction of the milk drinkers. But actually it has dissatisfied them. Before the government interfered, milk was expensive, but people could buy it. Now there is only an insufficient quantity of milk available. Therefore, the total consumption of milk drops. The children are getting less milk, not more. The next measure to which the government now resorts, is rationing. But rationing only means that certain people are privileged and are getting milk while other people are not getting any at all. Who gets milk and who does not, of course, is always very arbitrarily determined. One order may determine, for example, that children under four years old should get milk, and that children over four years, or between the age of four and six should get only half the ration which children under four years receive.

Feed Prices Controlled

Whatever the government does, the fact remains, there is only a smaller amount of milk available. Thus people are still more dissatisfied than they were before. Now the government asks the milk producers (because the government does not have enough imagination to find out for itself): “Why do you not produce the same amount of milk you produced before?” The government gets the answer: “We cannot do it, since the costs of production are higher than the maximum price which the government has established.” Now the government studies the costs of the various items of production, and it discovers one of the items is fodder.

“Oh,” says the government, “the same control we applied to milk we will now apply to fodder. We will determine a maximum price for fodder, and then you will be able to feed your cows at a lower price, at a lower expenditure. Then everything will be all right; you will be able to produce more milk and you will sell more milk.”

But what happens now? The same story repeats itself with fodder, and as you can understand, for the same reasons. The production of fodder drops and the government is again faced with a dilemma. So the government arranges new hearings, to find out what is wrong with fodder production. And it gets an explanation from the producers of fodder precisely like the one it got from the milk producers. So the government must go a step farther, since it does not want to abandon the principle of price control. It determines maximum prices for producers’ goods which are necessary for the production of fodder. And the same story happens again.

Other Products Affected

The government at the same time starts controlling not only milk, but also eggs, meat, and other necessities. And every time the government gets the same result, everywhere the consequence is the same. Once the government fixes a maximum price for consumer goods, it has to go farther back to producers’ goods, and limit the prices of the producers’ goods required for the production of the price-controlled consumer goods. And so the government, having started with only a few price controls, goes farther and farther back in the process of production, fixing maximum prices for all kinds of producers’ goods, including of course the price of labor, because without wage control, the government’s “cost control” would be meaningless.

Moreover, the government cannot limit its interference into the market to only those things which it views as vital necessities, like milk, butter, eggs, and meat. It must necessarily include luxury goods, because if it did not limit their prices, capital and labor would abandon the production of vital necessities and would turn to producing those things which the government considers unnecessary luxury goods. Thus, the isolated interference with one or a few prices of consumer goods always brings about effects—and this is important to realize—which are even less satisfactory than the conditions that pre vailed before: before the government interfered, milk and eggs were expensive; after the government interference they began to disappear from the market.

The government considered those items to be so important that it interfered; it wanted to increase the quantity and improve the supply. The result was the opposite: the isolated interference brought about a condition which from the point of view of the government—is even more undesirable than the previous state of affairs which the government wanted to alter. And as the government goes farther and farther, it will finally arrive at a point where all prices, all wage rates, all interest rates, in short, everything in the whole economic system, is determined by the government. And this, clearly, is socialism.

Controls After World War I

What I have told you here, this schematic and theoretical explanation, is precisely what happened in those countries which tried to enforce a maximum price control, where governments were stubborn enough to go step by step until they came to the end. This happened in the First World War, in Germany and England.

Let us analyze the situation in both countries. Both countries experienced inflation. Prices went up, and the two governments imposed price controls. Starting with a few prices, starting with only milk and eggs, they had to go farther and farther. The longer the war went on, the more inflation was generated. And after three years of war, the Germans—systematically as always—elaborated a great plan. They called it the Hindenburg Plan: everything in Germany considered to be good by the government at that time was named after Hindenburg.

The Hindenburg Plan meant that the whole German economic system should be controlled by the government: prices, wages, profits . . . everything. And the bureaucracy immediately began to put this into effect. But before they had finished, the debacle came: the German empire broke down, the entire bureaucratic apparatus disappeared, the revolution brought its bloody results—things came to an end.

In England they started in the same way, but after a time, in the spring of 1917, the United States entered the war and supplied the British with sufficient quantities of everything. Therefore the road to socialism, the road to serfdom, was interrupted.

Hitler’s Germany

Before Hitler came to power, Chancellor Brüning again introduced price control in Germany for the usual reasons. Hitler enforced it, even before the war started. For, in Hitler’s Germany, there was no private enterprise or private initiative. In Hitler’s Germany there was a system of socialism which differed from the Russian system only to the extent that the terminology and labels of the free economic system were still retained. There still existed “private enterprises,” as they were called. But the owner was no longer an entrepreneur, the owner was called a “shop manager” (Betriebsführer).

The whole of Germany was organized in a hierarchy of führers; there was the Highest Führer, Hitler of course, and then there were führers down to the many hierarchies of smaller führers. And the head of an enterprise was the Betriebsführer. And the workers of the enterprise were named by a word that, in the Middle Ages, had signified the retinue of a feudal lord: the Gefolgschaft. And all of these people had to obey the orders issued by an institution which had a terribly long name: Reichsführer-wirtschaftsministerium, at the head of which was the well-known fat man, named Goering, adorned with jewelry and medals.

And from this body of ministers with the long name came all the orders to every enterprise: what to produce, in what quantity, where to get raw materials and what to pay for them, to whom to sell the products and at what prices to sell them. The workers got the order to work in a definite factory, and they received wages which the government de creed. The whole economic system was now regulated in every detail by the government.

The Betriebsführer did not have the right to take the profits for himself; he received what amounted to a salary, and if he wanted to get more he would, for example, say: “I am very sick, I need an operation immediately, and the operation will cost 500 Marks,” then he had to ask the führer of the district (the Gauführer or Gauleiter) whether he had the right to take out more than the salary which was given to him. The prices were no longer prices, the wages were no longer wages, they were all quantitative terms in a system of socialism.

Now let me tell you how that system broke down. One day, aider years of fighting, the foreign armies arrived in Germany. They tried to preserve this government-directed economic system, but the brutality of Hitler would have been necessary to preserve it and, without this, it did not work.

Britain in World War II

And while this was going on in Germany, Great Britain—during the Second World War—did precisely what Germany did: starting with the price control of some com modities only, the British government began step by step (in the same way Hitler had done in peacetime, even before the start of the war) to control more and more of the economy until, by the time the war ended, they had reached something that was almost pure socialism.

Great Britain was not brought to socialism by the Labour government which was established in 1945. Great Britain became socialist during the war, through the government of which Sir Winston Churchill was the prime minister. The Labour government simply retained the system of socialism which the government of Sir Winston Churchill had already introduced. And this in spite of great resistance by the people.

The nationalizations in Great Britain did not mean very much; the nationalization of the Bank of England was merely nominal, because the Bank of England was already under the complete control of the government. And it was the same with the nationalization of the railroads and the steel industry. The “war socialism,” as it was called—meaning the system of interventionism proceeding step by step—had already virtually nationalized the system.

The difference between the German and British systems was not important since the people who operated them had been appointed by the government and in both cases they had to obey the government’s orders in every respect. As I said before, the system of the German Nazis retained the labels and terms of the capitalistic free market economy. But they meant something very different: there were now only governmental decrees.

This was also true for the British system. When the Conservative party in Britain was returned to power, some of those controls were removed. In Great Britain we now have attempts from one side to retain controls and from the other side to abolish them. (But one must not forget that, in England, conditions are very different from conditions in Russia.) The same is true for other countries which depend on the importation of food and raw materials and therefore have to export manufactured goods. For countries depending heavily on export trade, a system of government control simply does not work.

Thus, as far as there is economic freedom left (and there is still substantial freedom in some countries, such as Norway, England, Sweden), it exists because of the necessity to retain export trade. Earlier, I chose the example of milk, not because I have a special preference for milk, but because practically all governments—or most of them—in recent decades, have regulated milk, egg or butter prices.

Rent Control

I want to refer, in a few words, to another example, and that is rent control. If the government controls rents, one result is that people who would otherwise have moved from bigger apartments to smaller ones when their family conditions changed, will no longer do so. For example, consider parents whose children left home when they came into their twenties, married or went into other cities to work. Such parents used to change their apartments and take smaller and cheaper ones. This necessity disappeared when rent controls were imposed.

In Vienna, Austria, in the early twenties, where rent control was well-established, the amount of money that the landlord received for an average apartment under rent control was not more than twice the price of a ticket for a ride on the city-owned street cars. You can imagine that people did not have any incentive to change their apartments. And, on the other hand, there was no construction of new houses. Similar conditions prevailed in the United States after the Second World War and are continuing in many cities to this day.

One of the main reasons why many cities in the United States are in such great financial difficulty is that they have rent control and a resulting shortage of housing. So the government has spent billions for the building of new houses. But why was there such a housing shortage? The housing shortage developed for the same reasons that brought milk shortages when there was milk price control. That means: when the government interferes with the market, it is more and more driven towards socialism.

And this is the answer to those people who say: “We are not socialists, we do not want the government to control everything. We realize this is bad. But why should not the government interfere a little bit with the market? Why shouldn’t the government do away with some things which we do not like?”

These people talk of a “middle-of-the-road” policy. What they do not see is that the isolated interference, which means the interference with only one small part of the economic system, brings about a situation which the government itself—and the people who are asking for government interference—find worse than the conditions they wanted to abolish: the people who are asking for rent control are very angry when they discover there is a shortage of apartments and a shortage of housing.

But this shortage of housing was created precisely by government interference, by the establishment of rents below the level people would have had to pay in a free market.

There Is No Third System

The idea that there is a third system—between socialism and capitalism, as its supporters say—a system as far away from socialism as it is from capitalism but retains the advantages and avoids the disadvantages of each—is pure nonsense. People who believe there is such a mythical system can become really poetic when they praise the glories of interventionism. One can only say they are mistaken. The government interference which they praise brings about conditions which they themselves do not like.

One of the problems I will deal with later is protectionism. The government tries to isolate the domestic market from the world market. It introduces tariffs which raise the domestic price of a commodity above the world market price, making it possible for domestic producers to form cartels. The government then attacks the cartels, declaring: “Under these conditions, anti-cartel legislation is necessary.”

This is precisely the situation with most of the European governments. In the United States, there are yet other reasons for antitrust legislation and the government’s campaign against the specter of monopoly.

It is absurd to see the government—which creates by its own intervention the conditions making possible the emergence of domestic cartels—point its finger at business, saying: “There are cartels, therefore government interference with business is necessary.” It would be much simpler to avoid cartels by ending the government’s interference with the market—an interference which makes these cartels possible.

The idea of government interference as a “solution” to economic problems leads, in every country, to conditions which, at the least, are very unsatisfactory and often quite chaotic. If the government does not stop in time, it will bring on socialism.

Nevertheless, government interference with business is still very popular. As soon as someone does not like something that happens in the world, he says: “The government ought to do something about it. What do we have a government for? The government should do it.” And this is a characteristic remnant of thought from past ages, of ages preceding modern freedom, modern constitutional government, before representative government or modern republicanism.

Omnipotent Government

For centuries there was the doctrine—maintained and accepted by everyone—that a king, an anointed king, was the messenger of God; he had more wisdom than his subjects, and he had supernatural powers. As recently as the beginning of the nineteenth century, people suffering from certain diseases expected to be cured by the royal touch, by the hand of the king. Doctors were usually better; nevertheless, they had their patients try the king.

This doctrine of the superiority of a paternal government, of the supernatural and superhuman powers of the hereditary kings gradually disappeared—or at least we thought so. But it came back again. There was a German professor named Werner Sombart (I knew him very well), who was known the world over, who was an honorary doctor of many universities and an honorary member of the American Economic Association. That professor wrote a book, which is available in an English translation, published by the Princeton University Press. It is available also in a French translation, and probably also in Spanish—at least I hope it is available, because then you can check what I am saying. In this book published in our century, not in the Dark Ages, “Sir” Werner Sombart, a professor of economics, simply says: “The Führer, our Führer”—he means, of course, Hitler—“gets his orders directly from God, the Führer of the Universe.”

I spoke of this hierarchy of the führers earlier, and in this hierarchy, I mentioned Hitler as the ~Supreme Führer” . . . But there is, according to Werner Sombart, a still higher Führer, God, the Führer of the universe. And God, he wrote, gives His orders directly to Hitler. Of course, Professor Sombart said very modestly: ~’We do not know how God communicates with the Führer. But the fact cannot be denied.”

Now, if you hear that such a book can be published in the German language, the language of a nation which was once hailed as “the nation of philosophers and poets,” and if you see it translated into English and French, then you will not be astonished at the fact that even a little bureaucrat considers himself wiser and better than the citizens and wants to interfere with everything, even though he is only a poor little bureaucrat, and not the famous Professor Werner Sombart, honorary member of everything.

A Remedy?

Is there a remedy against such happenings? I would say, yes, there is a remedy. And this remedy is the power of the citizens; they have to prevent the establishment of such an autocratic regime that arrogates to itself a higher wisdom than that of the average citizen. This is the fundamental difference between freedom and serfdom.

The socialist nations have arrogated to themselves the term democracy. The Russians call their own system a People’s Democracy; they probably maintain that the people are represented in the person of the dictator. I think that one dictator, here in Argentina, was given a good answer. Let us hope that all other dictators, in other nations, will be accorded a similar response. []


Ludwig von Mises, 1881-1973, was one of the great defenders of a rational economic science, and perhaps the single most creative mind at work in this field in our century.

Found among the papers of Dr. Mises were transcripts of lectures he delivered in Argentina in 1959. These have now been edited by his widow and are available as a Regnery/Gateway paper-backed book. This article, one of the lectures, is here reprinted by permission of the publishers. All rights reserved.

The book, Economic Policy: Thoughts for Today and Tomorrow, also may be purchased at $4.95 from The Foundation for Economic Education, Inc., Irvington-on- Hudson, N.Y. 10533.

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