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Economic Calculation

The preeminence of the capitalist system consists in the fact that it is the only system of social cooperation and division of labor which makes it possible to apply a method of reckoning and computation in planning new projects and appraising the usefulness of the operation of those plants, farms, and workshops already working. The impracticability of all schemes of socialism and central planning is to be seen in the impossibility of any kind of economic calculation under conditions in which there is no private ownership of the means of production and consequently no market prices for these factors.

The problem to be solved in the conduct of economic affairs is this: There are countless kinds of material factors of production, and within each class they differ from one another both with regard to their physical properties and to the places at which they are available. There are millions and millions of workers and they differ widely, with regard to their ability to work. Technology provides us with information about numberless possibilities in regard to what could be achieved by using this supply of natural resources, capital goods, and manpower for the production of consumers’ goods. Which of these potential procedures and plans are the most advantageous? Which should be carried out because they are apt to contribute to the satisfaction of the most urgent needs? Which should be postponed or discarded because their execution would divert factors of production from other projects the execution of which would contribute more to the satisfaction of urgent needs?

It is obvious that these questions cannot be answered by some calculation in kind. One cannot make a variety of things enter into a calculus if there is no common denominator for them. In the capitalist system all designing and planning is based on the market prices. Without them all the projects and blueprints of the engineers would be a mere academic pastime. They would demonstrate what could be done and how. But they would not be in a position to determine whether the realization of a certain project would really increase material well-being or whether it would not, by withdrawing scarce factors of production from other lines, jeopardize the satisfaction of more urgent needs, that is, of needs considered more urgent by the consumers. The guide of economic planning is the market price. The market prices alone can answer the question whether the execution of a project P will yield more than it costs, that is, whether it will be more useful than the execution of other conceivable plans which cannot be realized because the factors of production required are used for the performance of project P.

It has been frequently objected that this orientation of economic activity according to the profit motive, i.e., according to the yardstick of a surplus of yield over costs, leaves out of consideration the interests of the nation as a whole and takes account only of the selfish interests of individuals, different from and often even contrary to the national interests. This idea lies at the bottom of all totalitarian planning. Government control of business, it is claimed by the advocates of authoritarian management, looks after the nation’s well-being, while free enterprise, driven by the sole aim of making profits, jeopardizes national interests. The case is exemplified nowadays by citing the problen1 of synthetic rubber. Germany, under the rule of Nazi socialism, has developed the production of synthetic rubber, while Great Britain and the United States, under the supren1acy of profit-seeking free enterprise, did not care about the unprofitable manufacture of such an expensive Ersatz. Thus they neglected an important item of war preparedness and exposed their independence to a serious danger.

Nothing can be more spurious than this reasoning. Nobody ever asserted that the conduct of a war and preparing a nation’s armed forces for the emergency of a war are a task that could or should be left to the activities of individual citizens. The defense of a nation’s security and civilization against aggression on the part both of foreign foes and of domestic gangsters is the first duty of any government. If all men were pleasant and virtuous, if no one coveted what belongs to another, there would be no need for a government, for armies and navies, for policemen, for courts, and prisons. It is the government’s business to make the provisions for war. No individual citizen and no group or class of citizens are to blame if the government fails in these endeavors. ‘”the guilt rests always with the government and consequently, in a democracy, with the majority of voters.

Germany armed for war. As the German General Staff knew that it would be impossible for warring Germany to import natural rubber, they decided to foster domestic production of synthetic rubber. There is no need to inquire whether or not the British and American military authorities were convinced that their countries, even in case of a new World War, would be in a position to rely upon the rubber plantations of Malaya and the Dutch Indies. At any rate they did not consider it necessary to pile up domestic stocks of natural rubber or to embark upon the production of synthetic rubber. Some American and British businessmen examined the progress of synthetic rubber production in Germany. But as the cost of the synthetic product was considerably higher than that of the natural product, they could not venture to imitate the example set by the Germans. No entrepreneur can invest money in a project which does not offer the prospect of profitability. It is precisely this fact that makes the consumers sovereign and forces the enterpriser to produce what the consumers are most urgently asking for. The consumers, that is, the American and the British public, were not ready to allow for synthetic rubber prices which would have rendered its production profitable. The cheapest way to provide rubber was for the Anglo-Saxon countries to produce other merchandise, for instance, motor cars and various machines, to sell these things abroad, and to import foreign natural rubber.

If it had been possible for the Governments of London and Washington to foresee the events of December, 1941, and January and February, 1942, they would have turned toward measures securing a domestic production of synthetic rubber. It is immaterial with regard to our problem which method they would have chosen for financing this part of defense expenditure. They could subsidize the plants concerned or they could raise, by means of tariffs, the domestic price of rubber to such a level that home production of synthetic rubber would have become profitable. At any rate the people would have been forced to pay for what was done.

If the government does not provide for a defense measure, no capitalist or entrepreneur can fill the gap. To reproach some chemical corporations for not having taken up production of synthetic rubber is no more sensible than to blame the motor industry for not, immediately after Hitler’s rise to power, converting its plants into plane factories. Or it would be as justifiable to blame a scholar for having wasted his time writing a book on American history or philosophy instead of devoting all his efforts to training himself for his future functions in the Expeditionary Force. If the government fails in its task of equipping the nation to repel an attack, no individual citizen has any way open to remedy the evil but to criticize the authorities in addressing the sovereign-the voters-in speeches, articles, and books. 1

Many doctors describe the ways in which their fellow citizens spend their money as utterly foolish and opposed to their real needs. People, they say, should change their diet, restrict their consumption of intoxicating beverages and tobacco, and employ their leisure time in a more reasonable manner. These doctors are probably right. But it is not the task of government to improve the behavior of its “subjects.” Neither is it the task of businessmen. They are not the guardians of their customers. If the public prefers hard to soft drinks, the entrepreneurs have to yield to these wishes. He who wants to reform his countrymen must take recourse to persuasion. This alone is the democratic way of bringing about changes. If a man fails in his endeavors to convince other people of the soundness of his ideas, he should blame his own disabilities. He should not ask for a law, that is, for compulsion and coercion by the police.

The. ultimate basis of economic calculation is the valuation of all consumers’ goods on the part of all the people. It is true that these consumers are fallible and that their judgment is sometimes misguided. We may assume that they would appraise the various commodities differently if they were better instructed. However, as human nature is, we have no means of substituting the wisdom of an infallible authority for people’s shallowness.

We do not assert that the market prices are to be considered as expressive of any perennial and absolute value. There are no such things as absolute values, independent of the subjective preferences of erring men. Judgments of value are the outcome of human arbitrariness. They reflect all the shortcomings and weaknesses of their authors. However, the only alternative to the determination of market prices by the choices of all consumers is the determination of values by the judgment of some small groups of men, no less liable to error and frustration than the majority, notwithstanding the fact that they are called “authority.” No matter how the values of consumers’ goods are determined, whether they are fixed by a dictatorial decision or by the choices of all consumers-the whole people-values are always relative, subjective, and human, never absolute, objective, and divine.

What must be realized is that within a market society organized on the basis of free enterprise and private ownership of the means of production the prices of consumers’ goods are faithfully and closely reflected in the prices of the various factors required for their production. Thus it becomes feasible to discover by means of a precise calculation which of the indefinite multitude of thinkable processes of production are more advantageous and which less. “More advantageous” means in this connection: an employment of these factors of production in such a way that the production of the consumers’ goods more urgently asked for by the consumers gets a priority over the production of commodities less urgently asked for by the consumers. Economic calculation makes it possible for business to adjust production to the demands of the consumers. On the other hand, under any variety of socialism, the central board of production management would not be in a position to engage in economic calculation. Where there are no markets and consequently no market prices for the factors of production, they cannot become elements of a calculation.

For a full understanding of the problems involved we must try to grasp the nature and the origin of profit.

Within a hypothetical system without any change there would not be any profits and losses at all. In such a stationary world, in which nothing new occurs and all economic conditions remain permanently the same, the total sum that a manufacturer must spend for the factors of production required would be equal to the price he gets for the product. The prices to be paid for the material factors of production, the wages and interest for the capital invested, would absorb the whole price of the product. Nothing would be left for profit. It is obvious that such a system would not have any need for entrepreneurs and no economic function for profits. As only those things are produced today which were produced yesterday, the day before yesterday, last year, and ten years ago, and as the same routine will go on forever, as no changes occur in the supply or demand either of consumers’ or of producers’ goods or in technical methods, as all prices are stable, there is no room left for any entrepreneurial activity.

But the actual world is a world of permanent change. Population figures, tastes, and wants, the supply of factors of production and technological methods are in a ceaseless flux. In such a state of affairs there is need for a continuous adjustment of production to the change in conditions. This is where the entrepreneur comes in.

Those eager to make profits are always looking for an opportunity. As soon as they discover that the relation of the prices of the factors of production to the anticipated prices of the products seem to offer such an opportunity, they step in. If their appraisal of all the elements involved was correct, they make a profit. But immediately the tendency toward a disappearance of such profits begins to take effect. As an outcome of the new projects inaugurated, the prices of the factors of production in question go up and, on the other hand, those of the products begin to drop. Profits are a permanent phenomenon only because there are always changes in market conditions and in methods of production. He who wants to make profits must be always on the watch for new opportunities. And in searching for profit, he adjusts production to the demands of the consuming public.

We can view the whole market of material factors of production and of labor as a public auction. The bidders are the entrepreneurs. Their highest bids are limited by their expectation of the prices the consumers will be ready to pay for the products. The co-bidders competing with them, whom they must outbid if they are not to go away empty-handed, are in the same situation. All these bidders are, as it were, acting as mandatories of the consumers. But each of them represents a different aspect of the consumers’ wants, either another commodity or another way of producing the same commodity. The competition among the various entrepreneurs is essentially a competition among the various possibilities open to individuals to remove as far as possible their state of uneasiness by the acquisition of consumers’ goods. The resolution of any man to buy a refrigerator and to postpone the purchase of a new car is a determining factor in the formation of the prices of cars and of refrigerators. The competition between the entrepreneurs reflects these prices of consumers’ goods in the formation of the prices of the factors of production. The fact that the various wants of the individual, which conflict because of the inexorable scarcity of the factors of production, are represented on the market by various competing entrepreneurs results in prices for these factors that make economic calculation not only feasible but imperative. An entrepreneur who does not calculate, or disregards the result of the calculation would very soon go bankrupt and be removed from his managerial function.

But within a socialist community in which there is only one manager there are neither prices of the factors of production nor economic calculation. To the entrepreneur of capitalist society a factor of production through its price sends out a warning: Don’t touch me, I am earmarked for the satisfaction of another, more urgent need. But under socialism these factors of production are mute. They give no hint to the planner. Technology offers him a great variety of possible solutions for the same problem. Each of them requires the outlay of other kinds and quantities of various factors of production. But as the socialist manager cannot reduce them to a common denominator, he is not in a position to find out which of them is the most advantageous.

It is true that under socialism there would be neither discernible profits nor discernible losses. Where there is no calculation, there is no means of getting an answer to the question whether the projects planned or carried out were those best fitted to satisfy the most urgent needs; success and failure remain unrecognized in the dark. The advocates of socialism are badly mistaken in considering the absence of discernible profit and loss an excellent point. It is, on the contrary, the essential vice of any socialist management. It is not an advantage to be ignorant of whether or not what one is doing is a suitable means of attaining the ends sought. A socialist management would be like a man forced to spend his life blindfolded.

It has been objected that the market system is at any rate quite inappropriate under the conditions brought about by a great war. If the market mechanism were to be left alone, it would be impossible for the government to get all the equipment needed. The scarce factors of production required for the production of armaments would be wasted for civilian uses which, in a war, are to be considered as less important, even as luxury and waste. Thus it was imperative to resort to the system of government-established priorities and to create the necessary bureaucratic apparatus.

The error of this reasoning is that it does not realize that the necessity for giving the government full power to determine for what kinds of production the various raw materials should be used is not an outcome of the war but of the methods applied in financing the war expenditure.

If the whole amount of money needed for the conduct of the war had been collected by taxes and by borrowing from the public, everybody would have been forced to restrict his consumption drastically. With a money income (after taxes) much lower than before, the consumers would have stopped buying many goods they used to buy before. the war. The manufacturers, precisely because they are driven by the profit motive, would have discontinued producing such civilian goods and would have shifted to the production of those goods which the government, now by virtue of the inflow of taxes the biggest buyer on the market, would be ready to buy.

However, a great part of the war expenditure is financed by an increase of currency in circulation and by borrowing from the commercial banks. On the other hand, under price control, it is illegal to raise commodity prices. With higher money incomes and with unchanged commodity prices people would not only not have restricted but have increased their buying of goods for their own consumption. To avoid this, it was necessary to take recourse to rationing and to government-imposed priorities. These measures were needed because previous government interference that paralyzed the operation of the market resulted in paradoxical and highly unsatisfactory conditions. Not the insufficiency of the market mechanism but the inadequacy of previous government meddling with market phenomena made the priority system unavoidable. In this as in many other instances the bureaucrats see in the failure of their preceding measures a proof that further inroads into the market system are necessary.

From Bureaucracy, by Ludwig von Mises, pp. 22–31.