Ludwig von Mises: Economist, Philosopher, Prophet
AUGUST 24, 2011 by LUDWIG VON MISES
Editor’s Note: September 29 is the anniversary of the birth of Ludwig von Mises, the great Austrian economist, defender of classical liberalism, and adviser to FEE. Below is a selection of Mises’s writings published in The Freeman over the years.
It is customary to speak metaphorically of the automatic and anonymous forces actuating the “mechanism” of the market. Such metaphors disregard the fact that the only factors directing the market and the determination of prices are purposive acts of men. There is no automatism; there are only men consciously and deliberately aiming at ends chosen.
The market is a social body; it is the foremost social body. Everybody in acting serves his fellow citizens. Everybody, on the other hand, is served by his fellow citizens. Everybody is both a means and an end in himself, an ultimate end for himself and a means to other people in their endeavors to attain their own ends.
Each man is free; nobody is subject to a despot. Of his own accord the individual integrates himself into the cooperative system. The market directs him and reveals to him in what way he can best promote his own welfare as well as that of other people. The market is supreme. The market alone puts the whole social system in order and provides it with sense and meaning.
The market is not a place, a thing or a collective entity. The market is a process, actuated by the interplay of the actions of the various individuals cooperating under the division of labor.
The recurrence of individual acts of exchange generates the market step by step with the evolution of the division of labor within a society based on private property. Such exchanges can be effected only if each party values what he receives more highly than what he gives away.
The divisibility of money, unlimited for all practical purposes, makes it possible to determine the exchange ratios with nicety.
The market process is coherent and indivisible. It is an indissoluble intertwinement of actions and reactions, of moves and countermoves. But the insufficiency of our mental abilities enjoins upon us the necessity of dividing it into parts and analyzing each of these parts separately. In resorting to such artificial cleavages we must never forget that the seemingly autonomous existence of these parts is an imaginary makeshift of our minds. They are only parts, that is, they cannot even be thought of as existing outside the structure of which they are parts.
The market economy as such does not respect political frontiers. Its field is the world. The market makes people rich or poor, determines who shall run the big plants and who shall scrub the floors, fixes how many people shall work in the copper mines and how many in the symphony orchestras. None of these decisions is made once and for all; they are revocable every day. The selective process never stops.
To assign to everybody his proper place in society is the task of the consumers. Their buying and abstention from buying is instrumental in determining each individual’s social position. The consumers determine ultimately not only the prices of the consumers’ goods, but no less the prices of all factors of production. They determine the income of every member of the market economy. The consumers, not the entrepreneurs, pay ultimately the wages earned by every worker, the glamorous movie star as well as the charwoman. It is true, in the market the various consumers have not the same voting right. The rich cast more votes than the poorer citizens. But this inequality is itself the outcome of a previous voting process.
If a businessman does not strictly obey the orders of the public as they are conveyed to him by the structure of market prices, he suffers losses, he goes bankrupt. Other men who did better in satisfying the demand of the consumers replace him.
The consumers make poor people rich and rich people poor. They determine precisely what should be produced, in what quality, and in what quantities. They are merciless bosses, full of whims and fancies, changeable and unpredictable. They do not care one whit for past merit and vested interests.
Market prices tell producers what to produce, how to produce, and in what quantity. The market is the focal point to which activities of the individuals converge. It is the center from which the activities of individuals radiate.
The market economy, or capitalism, as it is usually called, and the socialist economy preclude one another. There is no mixture of the two systems possible or thinkable; there is no such thing as a mixed economy, a system that would be in part capitalistic and in part socialist. The market economy is the product of a long evolutionary process. It is the strategy, as it were, by the application of which man has triumphantly progressed from savagery to civilization.
It is no longer possible to define neatly the boundaries between the kind of action which is the proper field of economic science in the narrower sense, and other action.
Acting man is always concerned with both “material” and “ideal” things. He chooses between alternatives. No matter whether they are to be classified as material or ideal.
The general theory of choice is much more than merely a theory of the “economic side” of human endeavors and of man’s striving for commodities and an improvement in his material well-being. It is the science of every kind of human action. Choosing determines all human decisions.
Out of the political economy of the classical school emerges the general theory of human action, praxeology. The economic or catallactic problems are imbedded in a more general science, and can no longer be severed from this connection. No treatment of economic problems proper can avoid starting from acts of choice; economics becomes a part, although the hitherto best elaborated part, of a more universal science, praxeology.
Praxeology—and consequently economics too—is a deductive system. It draws its strength from the starting point of its deductions, from the category of action. No economic theorem can be considered sound that is not solidly fastened upon this foundation by an irrefutable chain of reasoning. A statement proclaimed without such a connection is arbitrary and floats in midair. It is impossible to deal with a special segment of economics if one does not encase it in a complete system of action.
The empirical sciences start from singular events and proceed from the unique and individual to the more universal. Their treatment is subject to specialization. They can deal with segments without paying attention to the whole field. The economist must never be a specialist. In dealing with any problem he must always fix his glance upon the whole system.
In speaking of the laws of nature we have in mind the fact that there prevails an inexorable interconnectedness of physical and biological phenomena and that acting man must submit to this regularity if he wants to succeed. In speaking of the laws of human action we refer to the fact that such an inexorable interconnectedness of phenomena is present also in the field of human action as such and that acting man must recognize this regularity too if he wants to succeed.
In physics we are faced with changes occurring in various sense phenomena. We discover a regularity in the sequence of these changes and these observations lead us to the construction of a science of physics.
In praxeology the first fact we know is that men are purposively intent upon bringing about some changes. It is this knowledge that integrates the subject matter of praxeology and differentiates it from the subject matter of the natural sciences. We know the forces behind the changes, and this aprioristic knowledge leads us to a cognition of the praxeological process. The physicist does not know what electricity “is.” He knows only phenomena attributed to something called electricity. But the economist knows what actuates the market process. It is only thanks to this knowledge that he is in a position to distinguish market phenomena from other phenomena and to describe the market process.
Praxeology is a theoretical and systematic, not a historical, science. Its statements and propositions are not derived from experience. They are, like those of logic and mathematics, a priori. They are not subject to verification or falsification on the ground of experience and facts.
The teachings of praxeology and economics are valid for every human action without regard to its underlying motives, causes, and goals. The ultimate judgments of value and the ultimate ends of human action are given for any kind of scientific inquiry; they are not open to any further analysis. Praxeology deals with the ways and means chosen for the attainment of such ultimate ends. Its object is means, not ends. The only standard which it applies is whether or not the means chosen are fit for the attainment of the ends aimed at.
Only the insane venture to disregard physical and biological laws. But it is quite common to disdain praxeological laws. Rulers do not like to admit that their power is restricted by any laws other than those of physics and biology. They never ascribe their failures and frustrations to the violation of economic law.
Profit and Loss
Profits are the driving force of the market economy. The greater the profits, the better the needs of the consumers are supplied. For profits can only be reaped by removing discrepancies between the demands of the consumers and the previous state of production activities. He who serves the public best, makes the highest profits. In fighting profits governments deliberately sabotage the operation of the market economy.
The profits of those who have produced goods and services for which the buyers scramble are not the source of the losses of those who have brought to the market commodities in the purchase of which the public is not prepared to pay the full amount of production costs expended. These losses are caused by the lack of insight displayed in anticipating the future state of the market and the demand of the consumers.
There are in the market economy no conflicts between the interests of the buyers and sellers. There are disadvantages caused by inadequate foresight. It would be a universal boon if every man and all members of the market society would always foresee future conditions correctly and in time and act accordingly. However, man is not omniscient. It is wrong to look at these problems from the point of view of resentment and envy.
If profits were to be curtailed for the benefit of those whom a change in the data has injured, the adjustment of supply to demand would not be improved but impaired. If one were to prevent doctors from occasionally earning high fees, one would not increase but rather decrease the number of those choosing the medical profession.
Profit and loss are favorable to some members of society and unfavorable to others. Hence, people concluded, the gain of one man is the damage of another; no man profits but by the loss of others. This dogma is at the bottom of all modern doctrines teaching that there prevails, within the frame of the market economy, an irreconcilable conflict among the interests of any nation and those of all other nations. It is entirely wrong with regard to any kind of entrepreneurial profit or loss.
What produces a man’s profit in the course of affairs within an unhampered market society is not his fellow citizen’s plight and distress, but the fact that he alleviates or entirely removes what causes his fellow citizen’s uneasiness. What hurts the sick is the plague, not the physician who treats the disease. The doctor’s gain is not an outcome of the epidemics, but the aid he gives to those afflicted.
An excess of the total amount of profits over that of losses is a proof of the fact that there is economic progress and improvement in the standard of living of all strata of the population. The greater this excess is, the greater is the increment in general prosperity. Entrepreneurial profits and losses are essential phenomena of the market economy. There cannot be a market economy without them.
It is absurd to speak of a “rate of profit” or a “normal rate of profit.” Profit is not related to or dependent on the amount of capital employed by the entrepreneur. Capital does not “beget” profit. Profit and loss are entirely determined by the success or failure of the entrepreneur to adjust production to the demand of the consumers. Entrepreneurial profits are not a lasting phenomenon but only temporary. There prevails an inherent tendency for profits and losses to disappear.
The entrepreneurial function, the striving of entrepreneurs after profits, is the driving power in the market economy. Profit and loss are the devices by means of which the consumers exercise their supremacy on the market. The behavior of the consumers makes profits and losses appear and thereby shifts ownership of the means of production from the hands of the less efficient into those of the more efficient.
Production for profit is necessarily production for use, as profits can only be earned by providing the consumers with those things they most urgently want to use.
Money is a medium of exchange.
A medium of exchange is a good which people acquire neither for their own consumption nor for employment in their own production activities, but with the intention of exchanging it at a later date against those goods which they want to use either for consumption or for production. Nothing can enter into the function of a medium of exchange which was not already previously an economic good to which people assigned exchange value before it was demanded as such a medium. Money is the thing which serves as the generally accepted and commonly used medium of exchange. This is its only function. All other functions which people ascribe to money are merely particular aspects of its primary and sole function, that of a medium of exchange.
What is employed as money is a commodity which is used also for nonmonetary purposes. Under the gold standard, gold is money and money is gold.
A medium of exchange is a good which people acquire neither for their own consumption nor for employment in their own production activities, but with the intention of exchanging it at a later date against those goods which they want to use either for consumption or for production. Nothing can enter into the function of a medium of exchange which was not already previously an economic good to which people assigned exchange value before it was demanded as such a medium. Money is the thing which serves as the generally accepted and commonly used medium of exchange. This is its only function. All other functions which people ascribe to money are merely particular aspects of its primary and sole function, that of a medium of exchange. What is employed as money is a commodity which is used also for nonmonetary purposes. Under the gold standard, gold is money and money is gold.
It is immaterial whether or not the laws assign legal tender quality only to gold coins minted by the government.What counts is that these coins really contain a fixed weight of gold and that every quantity of bullion can be transformed into coins. Under the gold standard the dollar and the pound sterling were merely names for a definite weight of gold.We call such a money commodity money.
A second sort of money is credit money. Credit money evolved out of the use of money substitutes. It was customary to use claims, payable on demand and absolutely secure, as substitutes for the sum of money to which they gave claim.
As long as these claims had been daily maturing claims against a debtor of undisputed solvency and could be collected without notice and free of expense, their exchange value was equal to their face value; it was this perfect equivalence which assigned to them the character of money substitutes.
Fiat money is money consisting of mere tokens which can neither be employed for any industrial purposes nor convey a claim against anybody. The important thing to be remembered is that with every sort of money, demonetization—i.e., the abandonment of its use as a medium of exchange—must result in a serious fall of its exchange value.
In the course of history various commodities have been employed as media of exchange. A long evolution eliminated the greater part of these commodities from the monetary function. Only two, the precious metals gold and silver, remained. In the second part of the nineteenth century more and more governments deliberately turned toward the demonetization of silver.
The choice of the good to be employed as a medium of exchange and as money is never indifferent. It determines the course of the cash-induced changes in purchasing power. The question is only who should make the choice: the people buying and selling on the market, or the government? It was the market which in a selective process, going on for ages, finally assigned to the precious metals gold and silver the character of money. For two hundred years the governments have interfered with the market’s choice of the money medium. Even the most bigoted étatists [statists] do not venture to assert that this interference has proved beneficial.