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The Case Against the Market Economy

Mises Daily: Monday, April 09, 2012 by

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[Human Action (1949)]

The objections which the various schools of Sozialpolitik raise against the market economy are based on very bad economics. They repeat again and again all the errors that the economists long ago exploded. They blame the market economy for the consequences of the very anticapitalistic policies which they themselves advocate as necessary and beneficial reforms. They fix on the market economy the responsibility for the inevitable failure and frustration of interventionism.

These propagandists must finally admit that the market economy is after all not so bad as their "unorthodox" doctrines paint it. It delivers the goods. From day to day it increases the quantity and improves the quality of products. It has brought about unprecedented wealth. But, objects the champion of interventionism, it is deficient from what he calls the social point of view. It has not wiped out poverty and destitution. It is a system that grants privileges to a minority, an upper class of rich people, at the expense of the immense majority. It is an unfair system. The principle of welfare must be substituted for that of profits.

We may try, for the sake of argument, to interpret the concept of welfare in such a way that its acceptance by the immense majority of nonascetic people would be probable. The better we succeed in these endeavors, the more we deprive the idea of welfare of any concrete meaning and content. It turns into a colorless paraphrase of the fundamental category of human action, viz., the urge to remove uneasiness as far as possible. As it is universally recognized that this goal can be more readily, and even exclusively, attained by social division of labor, men cooperate within the framework of societal bonds. Social man as differentiated from autarkic man must necessarily modify his original biological indifference to the well-being of people beyond his own family. He must adjust his conduct to the requirements of social cooperation and look upon his fellow men's success as an indispensable condition of his own. From this point of view one may describe the objective of social cooperation as the realization of the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Hardly anybody would venture to object to this definition of the most desirable state of affairs and to contend that it is not a good thing to see as many people as possible as happy as possible. All the attacks directed against the Bentham formula have centered around ambiguities or misunderstandings concerning the notion of happiness; they have not affected the postulate that the good, whatever it may be, should be imparted to the greatest number.

However, if we interpret welfare in this manner, the concept becomes meaningless. It can be invoked for the justification of every variety of social organization. It is a fact that some of the defenders of Negro slavery contended that slavery is the best means of making the Negroes happy and that today in the South many whites sincerely believe that rigid segregation is beneficial no less to the colored man than it allegedly is to the white man. The main thesis of racism of the Gobineau and Nazi variety is that the hegemony of the superior races is salutary to the true interests even of the inferior races. A principle that is broad enough to cover all doctrines, however conflicting with one another, is of no use at all.

But in the mouths of the welfare propagandists the notion of welfare has a definite meaning. They intentionally employ a term the generally accepted connotation of which precludes any opposition. No decent man likes to be so rash as to raise objections against the realization of welfare. In arrogating to themselves the exclusive right to call their own program the program of welfare, the welfare propagandists want to triumph by means of a cheap logical trick. They want to render their ideas safe against criticism by attributing to them an appellation which is cherished by everybody. Their terminology already implies that all opponents are ill-intentioned scoundrels eager to foster their selfish interests to the prejudice of the majority of good people.

The plight of Western civilization consists precisely in the fact that serious people can resort to such syllogistic artifices without encountering sharp rebuke. There are only two explanations open. Either these self-styled welfare economists are themselves not aware of the logical inadmissibility of their procedure, in which case they lack the indispensable power of reasoning; or they have chosen this mode of arguing purposely in order to find shelter for their fallacies behind a word which is intended beforehand to disarm all opponents. In each case their own acts condemn them.

There is no need to add anything to the disquisitions of the preceding chapters concerning the effects of all varieties of interventionism. The ponderous volumes of welfare economics have not brought forth any arguments that could invalidate our conclusions. The only task that remains is to examine the critical part of the welfare propagandists' work, their indictment of the market economy.

All this passionate talk of the welfare school ultimately boils down to three points. Capitalism is bad, they say, because there is poverty, inequality of incomes and wealth, and insecurity.