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6. Wages and Subsistence

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 [p. 603] work. Then there are invalids who can perform a small quantity of work, but whose 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 human action which 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, real 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 which 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 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 [p. 604] 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 which 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 which people have ascribed to it. Primitive man, adjusted to a more animal-like than human existence, could keep himself alive under conditions which are 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 than 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 which 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 which was tantamount [p. 605] 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 'sixties 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 [p. 606] 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 which 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 which 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 which external compulsion and coercion impose upon the parties to the market transactions. [p. 607]

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 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.

In reviewing the whole history of mankind from the early beginnings of civilization up to our age, it makes sense to establish in general terms the fact that the productivity of human labor has been [p. 608] multiplied, for indeed the members of a civilized nation produce today much more than their ancestors did. But this concept of the productivity of labor in general is devoid of any praxeological or catallactic meaning and does not allow any expression in numerical terms. Still less is it permissible to refer to it in attempts to deal with the problems of the market.

Present-day labor-union doctrine operates with a concept of productivity of labor that is designedly constructed to provide an alleged ethical justification for syndicalistic ventures. It defines productivity either as the total market value in terms of money that is added to the products by the processing (either of one firm or by all the firms of a branch of industry), divided by the number of workers employed, or as output (of this firm or branch of industry) per manhour of work. Comparing the magnitudes computed in this way for the beginning of a definite period of time and for its end, they call the amount by which the figure computed for the later date exceeds that for the earlier date "increase in productivity of labor," and they pretend that it by rights belongs entirely to the workers. They demand that this whole amount should be added to the wage rates which the workers received at the beginning of the period. Confronted with these claims of the unions, the employers for the most part do not contest the underlying doctrine and do not question the concept of productivity of labor involved. They accept it implicitly in pointing out that wage rates have already risen to the full extent of the increase in productivity, computed according to this method, or that they have already risen beyond this limit.

Now this procedure of computing the productivity of the work performed by the labor force of a firm or an industry is entirely fallacious. One thousand men working forty hours a week in a modern American shoe factory turn out every month m pairs of shoes. One thousand men working with the traditional old-fashioned tools in small artisan shops somewhere in the backward countries of Asia produce over the same period of time, even when working much longer than forty hours weekly, many fewer than m pairs. Between the United States and Asia the difference in productivity computed according to the methods of the union doctrine is enormous. It is certainly not due to any inherent virtues of the American worker. He is not more diligent, painstaking, skillful, or intelligent than the Asiatics. (We may even assume that many of those employed in a modern factory perform much simpler operations than those required from a man handling the old-fashioned tools.) The superiority of the American plant is entirely caused by the superiority of its equipment and the prudence of its entrepreneurial conduct. What [p. 609] prevents the businessmen of the backward countries from adopting the American methods of production is lack of capital accumulated, not any insufficiency on the part of their workers.

On the eve of the "Industrial Revolution," conditions in the West did not differ much from what they are today in the East. The radical change of conditions that bestowed on the masses of the West the present average standard of living (a high standard indeed when compared with precapitalistic or with Soviet conditions) was the effect of capital accumulation by saving and the wise investment of it by farsighted entrepreneurship. No technological improvement would have been possible if the additional capital goods required for the practical utilization of new inventions had not previously been made available by saving.

While the workers in their capacity as workers did not, and do not, contribute to the improvement of the apparatus of production, they are (in a market economy which is not sabotaged by government or union violence), both in their capacity as workers and in their capacity as consumers, the foremost beneficiaries of the ensuing betterment of conditions.

What initiates the chain of actions that results in an improvement of economic conditions is the accumulation of new capital through saving. These additional funds render the execution of projects possible which, for the lack of capital goods, could not have been executed previously. Embarking upon the realization of the new projects, the entrepreneurs compete on the market for the factors of production with all those already engaged in projects previously entered upon. In their attempts to secure the necessary quantity of raw materials and of manpower, they push up the prices of raw materials and wage rates. Thus the wage earners, already at the start of the process, reap a share of the benefits that the abstention from consumption on the part of the savers has begotten. In the farther course of the process they are again favored, now in their capacity as consumers, by the drop in prices that the increase in production tends to bring about.[10]

Economics describes the final outcome of this sequence of changes thus: An increase in capital invested results, with an unchanged number of people intent upon earning wages, in a rise of the marginal utility of labor and therefore of wage rates. What raises wage rates is an increase in capital exceeding the increase in population or, in other words, an increase in the per-head quota of capital invested. On the unhampered labor market, wage rates always tend toward the height at which they equal the marginal productivity of each kind of [p. 610] labor, that is the height that equals the value added to or subtracted from the value of the product by the employment or discharge of a man. At this rate all those in search of employment find jobs, and all those eager to employ workers can hire as many as they want. If wages are raised above this market rate, unemployment of a part of the potential labor force inevitably results. It does not matter what kind of doctrine is advanced in order to justify the enforcement of wage rates that exceed the potential market rates.

Wage rates are ultimately determined by the value which 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 consumers of which today the earners of wages and salaries form the immense majority. The consumers are not prepared to satisfy anybody's pretensions, presumptions, and self-conceit. They want to be served in the cheapest way.

A Comparison Between the Historical Explanation of Wage Rates

and the Regression Theorem

It may be useful to compare the doctrine of Marxism and the Prussian Historical School, according to which wage rates are a historical datum and not a catallactic phenomenon, with the regression theorem of money's purchasing power.[11]

The regression theorem establishes the fact that no good can be employed for the function of a medium of exchange which at the very beginning of its use for this purpose did not have exchange value on account of other employments. This fact does not substantially affect the daily determination of money's purchasing power as it is produced by the interplay of the supply of and the demand for money on the part of people intent upon keeping cash. The regression theorem does not assert that any actual exchange ratio between money on the one hand and commodities and services on the other hand is a historical datum not dependent on today's market situation. It merely explains how a new kind of media of exchange can come into use and remain in use. In this sense it says that there is a historical component in money's purchasing power.

It is quite different with the Marxian and Prussian theorems. As this doctrine sees it, the actual height of wage rates as it appears on the market is a historical datum. The valuations of the consumers who mediately are the buyers of labor and those of the wage earners, the sellers of labor, are of no avail. Wage rates are fixed by historical events of the past. They can neither rise above nor drop below this [p. 611] height. The fact that wage rates are higher in Switzerland than in India can be explained only by history, just as only history can explain why Napoleon I became a Frenchman and not an Italian, an emperor and not a Corsican lawyer. It is impossible, in the explanation of the discrepancy between the wage rates of shepherds or of bricklayers in these two countries, to resort to factors unconditionally in operation on every market. An explanation can only be provided by the history of these two nations.


[8] Cf. 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 a 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 produce a bare existence."

[9] Cf. 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 (16 ed.) translates this term "articles of food, provisions, victuals, grub."

[10] See above, pp. 296-297.

[11] See above, pp. 408-410.

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