Capitalism’s Failure: A Myth

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This is an extract of an article by Ludwig von Mises originally published in 1932.

It tells us that the current fervent objections to capitalism are nothing new: almost 100 years ago, people were already talking about the failure of capitalism.

The article was originally published as “Die Legende von Versagen des Kapitalismus” in Der Internationale Kapitalismus und die Krise, Festschrift für Julius Wolf (1932).

Some spacing and titles have been added.

The nearly universal opinion expressed these days is that the economic crisis of recent years marks the end of capitalism. Capitalism allegedly has failed, has proven itself incapable of solving economic problems, and so mankind has no alternative, if it is to survive, then to make the transition to a planned economy, to socialism.

This is hardly a new idea. The socialists have always maintained that economic crises are the inevitable result of the capitalistic method of production and that there is no other means of eliminating economic crises than the transition to socialism. If these assertions are expressed more forcefully these days and evoke greater public response, it is not because the present crisis is greater or longer than its predecessors, but rather primarily because today public opinion is much more strongly influenced by socialist views than it was in previous decades…

Economic theory predicted the effects of interventionism and state and municipal socialism exactly as they happened. All the warnings were ignored. For 50 or 60 years the politics of European countries has been anticapitalist and antiliberal. More than 40 years ago Sidney Webb (Lord Passfield) wrote,

it can now fairly be claimed that the socialist philosophy of to-day is but the conscious and explicit assertion of principles of social organization which have been already in great part unconsciously adopted. The economic history of the century is an almost continuous record of the progress of Socialism…

Economic Leaders

If entrepreneurs and capitalists were liberal thinkers around 1800 in England and interventionist, statist, and socialist thinkers around 1930 in Germany, the reason is that entrepreneurs and capitalists were also captivated by the prevailing ideas of the times. In 1800 no less than in 1930 entrepreneurs had special interests which were protected by interventionism and hurt by liberalism.

Today the great entrepreneurs are often cited as “economic leaders.” Capitalistic society knows no “economic leaders.” Therein lies the characteristic difference between socialist economies on the one hand and capitalist economies on the other hand: in the latter, the entrepreneurs and the owners of the means of production follow no leadership save that of the market. The custom of citing initiators of great enterprises as economic leaders already gives some indication that these days it is not usually the case that one reaches these positions by economic successes but rather by other means.

In the interventionist state it is no longer of crucial importance for the success of an enterprise that operations be run in such a way that the needs of the consumer are satisfied in the best and least expensive way; it is much more important that one has “good relations” with the controlling political factions, that the interventions redound to the advantage and not the disadvantage of the enterprise…

An enterprise may be well run, but it will go under if it does not know how to protect its interests in the arrangement of tariff rates, in the wage negotiations before arbitration boards, and in governing bodies of cartels. It is much more important to have “connections” than to produce well and cheaply.

Consequently the men who reach the top of such enterprises are not those who know how to organize operations and give production a direction which the market situation demands, but rather men who are in good standing both “above” and “below,” men who know how to get along with the press and with all political parties, especially with the radicals, such that their dealings cause no offense. This is that class of general directors who deal more with federal dignitaries and party leaders than with those from whom they buy or to whom they sell.

Because many ventures depend on political favors, those who undertake such ventures must repay the politicians with favors. There has been no big venture in recent years which has not had to expend considerable sums for transactions which from the outset were clearly unprofitable but which, despite expected losses, had to be concluded for political reasons. This is not to mention contributions to non-business concerns — election funds, public welfare institutions, and the like…

Socialization

This politically expedited “tendency for big businesses to socialize themselves,” that is, for letting interests other than the regard “for the highest possible yield for the stockholders” determine the management of the ventures, has been greeted by statist writers as a sign that we have already vanquished capitalism. In the course of the reform of German stock rights, even legal efforts have already been made to put the interest and well-being of the entrepreneur, namely “his economic, legal, and social self-worth and lasting value and his independence from the changing majority of changing stockholders,” above those of the shareholder.

With the influence of the state behind them and supported by a thoroughly interventionist public opinion, the leaders of big enterprises today feel so strong in relation to the stockholders that they believe they need not take their interests into account. In their conduct of the businesses of society in those countries in which statism has most strongly come to rule — for example in the successor states of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire — they are as unconcerned about profitability as the directors of public utilities. The result is ruin. The theory which has been advanced says that these ventures are too large to be run simply with a view toward profit. This concept is extraordinarily opportune whenever the result of conducting business while fundamentally renouncing profitability is the bankruptcy of the enterprise. It is opportune, because at this moment the same theory demands the intervention of the state for support of enterprises which are too big to be allowed to fail…

Conclusion

It is true that socialism and interventionism have not yet succeeded in completely eliminating capitalism. If they had, we Europeans, after centuries of prosperity, would rediscover the meaning of hunger on a massive scale. Capitalism is still prominent enough that new industries are coming into existence, and those already established are improving and expanding their equipment and operations. All the economic advances which have been and will be made stem from the persistent remnant of capitalism in our society. But capitalism is always harassed by the intervention of the government and must pay as taxes a considerable part of its profits in order to defray the inferior productivity of public enterprise.

The crisis under which the world is presently suffering is the crisis of interventionism and of state and municipal socialism, in short the crisis of anticapitalist policies. Capitalist society is guided by the play of the market mechanism. On that issue there is no difference of opinion. The market prices bring supply and demand into congruence and determine the direction and extent of production. It is from the market that the capitalist economy receives its sense. If the function of the market as regulator of production is always thwarted by economic policies in so far as the latter try to determine prices, wages, and interest rates instead of letting the market determine them, then a crisis will surely develop.

To read the full essay with footnotes, visit the Mises Institute.

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