All Commentary
Friday, June 1, 1973

Can We Keep Free Enterprise?

Public hostility results from poor education and cultural hostility


Nine-tenths of what is written today on economic questions is either an implied or explicit attack on capitalism. The attacks are occasionally answered. But none of the answers, even when they are heard, are ever accepted as conclusive. The attacks keep coming, keep multiplying. You cannot pick up your daily newspaper without encountering half a dozen. The sporadic answers are lost in the torrent of accusation. The charges or implied charges outnumber the rebuttals ten to one.

What is wrong? Does capitalism, after all, have an indefensible case? Have its champions been not only hopelessly outnumbered but hopelessly out argued? We can hardly think so if we recall only a few of the great minds that have undertaken the task of defense, directly or indirectly, in the past — Hume, Adam Smith, Ricardo, Malthus, Bastiat, Senior, Böhm-Bawerk, John Bates Clark; or of the fine minds that have undertaken it in our day — Ludwig von Mises, F. A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, Murray Rothbard, Hans Sennholz, Israel Kirzner, David McCord Wright, and so many others.

What, then, is wrong? I venture to suggest that no defense of capitalism, no matter how brilliant or thorough, will ever be generally accepted as definitive. The attacks on capitalism stem from at least five main impulses or propensities, all of which will probably be with us permanently, because they seem to be inherent in our nature. They are: (1) genuine compassion at the sight of individual misfortune; (2) impatience for a cure; (3) envy; (4) the propensity to think only of the intended or immediate results of any proposed government intervention and to overlook the secondary or long-term results; and (5) the propensity to compare any actual state of affairs, and its inevitable defects, with some hypothetical ideal.

These five drives or tendencies blend and overlap. Let us look at them in order, beginning with compassion. Most of us, at the sight of extreme poverty, are moved to want to do something to relieve it — or to get others to relieve it. And we are so impatient to see the poverty relieved as soon as possible that, no matter how forbidding the dimensions of the problem, we are tempted to think it will yield to some simple, direct, and easy solution.

The Role of Envy

Let us look now at the role of envy. Few of us are completely free from it. It seems to be part of man’s nature never to be satisfied as long as he sees other people better off than himself. Few of us, moreover, are willing to accept the better fortune of others as the result of greater effort or gifts on their part. We are more likely to attribute it at best to “luck” if not to “the system.” In any case, the pressure to pull down the rich seems stronger and more persistent in most democracies than the prompting to raise the poor.

Envy reveals itself daily in political speeches and in our laws. It plays a definite role in the popularity of the graduated income tax, which is firmly established in nearly every country today, though it violates every canon of equity. As J. R. McCulloch put it in the 1830′s: “The moment you abandon the cardinal principle of exacting from all individuals the same proportion of their income or of their property, you are at sea without rudder or compass, and there is no amount of injustice or folly you may not commit.”

McCulloch’s prediction has been borne out by events. Historically, almost every time there has been a revision of income tax rates the progression has become steeper. When the graduated income tax was first adopted in the United States in 1913, the top rate was 7 per cent. Some thirty years later it had risen to 91 per cent. In Great Britain the top rate went from 8¼ to 971/2 per cent in a similar period. It has been repeatedly demonstrated that these confiscatory rates yield negligible revenues. The reduction of real income that they cause is certainly greater than the revenue they yield. In brief, they have hurt even the taxpayers in the lower brackets.

Yet envy has played a crucial role in keeping the progressive income tax. The bulk of the taxpayers accept far higher rates of taxation than they would if the rates were uniform; for the taxpayers in each tax bracket console themselves with the thought that their wealthier neighbors must be paying a far higher rate. Thus though about two thirds (65.5 per cent) of the income tax is paid (1969) by those with adjusted gross incomes of $20,000 or less, there is an almost universal illusion that the real burden of the tax is falling on the very rich.

But perhaps the greatest reason why governments again and again abandon the principles of free enterprise is mere shortsightedness. They attempt to cure some supposed economic evil directly by some simple measure, and completely fail to foresee or even to ask what the secondary or long-term consequences of that measure will be.

Tampering with Money

From time immemorial, whenever governments have felt that their country was insufficiently wealthy, or when trade was stagnant or unemployment rife, the theory has arisen that the fundamental trouble was a “shortage of money.” After the invention of the printing press, when a government could stamp a slip of paper with any denomination or issue notes without limit, any imaginable increase in the money supply became possible.

What was not understood was that any simulative effect was temporary, and purchased at excessive cost. If the boom was obtained by an overexpansion of bank credit, it was bound to be followed by a recession or crisis when the new credit was paid off. If the boom was obtained by printing more government fiat money, it temporarily made some people richer only at the cost of making other people (in real terms) poorer.

When the supply of money is increased the purchasing power of each unit must correspondingly fall. In the long run, nothing whatever is gained by increasing the issuance of paper money. Prices of goods tend, other things equal, to rise proportionately with the increase in money supply. If the stock of money is doubled, it can in the long run purchase no more goods and services than the smaller stock of money would have done.

And yet the government of nearly every country in the world today is busily increasing the issuance of paper money, partly if not entirely because of its belief that it is “relieving the shortage of money” and “promoting faster economic growth.” This illusion is intensified by the habit of counting the currency unit as if its purchasing power were constant. In 1971 there was a great outburst of hurrahs because the GNP (gross national product) had at last surpassed the magic figure of a trillion dollars. (It reached $1,046 billion.) It was forgotten that if the putative GNP of 1971 had been stated in terms of dollars at their purchasing power in 1958 this 1971 GNP would have come to only $740 billion, and if stated in terms of the dollar’s purchasing power in 1939 would have come to only $320 billion.

Yet monetary expansion is everywhere today — in every country and in the International Monetary Fund with its SDR’s — the official policy. Its inevitable effect is rising prices. But rising prices are not popular. Therefore governments forbid prices to rise.

And this price control has the enormous political advantage of deflecting attention away from the government’s own responsibility for creating inflation, and by implication puts the blame for rising prices on the greed of producers and sellers.

Price Control

The record of price controls goes as far back as human history. They were imposed by the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt. They were decreed by Hammurabi, king of Babylon, in the eighteenth century B. C. They were tried in ancient Athens.

In 301 A. D., the Roman Emperor Diocletian issued his famous edict fixing prices for nearly eight hundred different items, and punishing violation with death. Out of fear, nothing was offered for sale and the scarcity grew far worse. After a dozen years and many executions, the law was repealed.

In Britain, Henry III tried to regulate the price of wheat and bread in 1202. Antwerp enacted price-fixing in 1585, a measure which some historians believe brought about its downfall. Price-fixing laws enforced by the guillotine were also imposed during the French Revolution, though the soaring prices were caused by the revolutionary government’s own policy in issuing enormous amounts of paper currency.

Yet from all this dismal history the governments of today have learned absolutely nothing. They continue to over issue paper money to stimulate employment and “economic growth”; and then they vainly try to prevent the inevitable soaring prices with ukases ordering everybody to hold prices down.

Harmful Intervention

But though price-fixing laws are always futile, this does not mean that they are harmless. They can do immensely more economic damage than the inflation itself. They are harmful in proportion as the legal price ceilings are below what unhampered market prices would be, in proportion to the length of time the price controls remain in effect, and in proportion to the strictness with which they are enforced.

For if the legal price for any commodity, whether it is bread or shoes, is held by edict substantially below what the free market price would be, the low fixed price must over encourage the demand for it, discourage its production, and bring about a shortage. The profit margin in making or selling it will be too small as compared with the profit margin in producing or selling something else.

In addition to causing scarcities of some commodities, and bottlenecks in output, price control must eventually distort and unbalance the whole structure of production. For not only the absolute quantities, but the proportions in which the tens of thousands of different goods and services are produced, are determined in a free market by the relative supply and demand, the relative money prices, and the relative costs of production of commodities A, B, C, and N. Market prices have work to do. They are signals to both producers and consumers. They tell where the shortages and surpluses are. They tell which commodities are going to be more profitable to produce and which less. To remove or destroy or forbid these signals must discoordinate and discourage production.

Selective Controls—No Stopping Place

General price controls are comparatively rare. Governments more often prefer to put a ceiling on one particular price. A favorite scapegoat since World War I has been the rent of apartments and houses.

Rent controls, once imposed, are sometimes continued for a generation or more. When they are imposed, as they nearly always are, in a period of inflation, the frozen rents year by year become less and less realistic. The long-term effect is that the landlords have neither the incentive nor the funds to keep the rental apartments or houses in decent repair, let alone to improve them. Losses often force owners to abandon their properties entirely. Private builders, fearing the same fate, hesitate to erect new rental housing. Slums proliferate, a shortage of housing develops, and the majority of tenants, in whose supposed interest the rent control was imposed in the first place, become worse off than ever.

Perhaps the oldest and most widespread form of price control in the world is control of interest rates. In ancient China, India, and Rome, and nearly everywhere throughout the Middle Ages, all interest was called “usury”, and prohibited altogether. This made economic progress all but impossible. Later, the taking of interest was permitted, but fixed legal ceilings were imposed. These held back economic progress but did not, like total prohibition, prevent it entirely.

Yet political hostility to higher than customary interest rates never ceases. Today, bureaucrats combat such “exorbitant” rates more often by denunciation than by edict. The favorite government method today for keeping interest rates down is to have the monetary managers flood the market with new loanable funds. This may succeed for a time, but the long run effect of over issuance of money and credit is to arouse fears among businessmen that inflation and rising prices will continue. So lenders, to protect themselves against an expected fall in the future purchasing power of their dollars, add a “price premium”. This makes the gross market rate of interest higher than ever.

The propensity of politicians to learn nothing about economics is illustrated once again in the laws governing foreign trade. The classical economists of the eighteenth century utterly demolished the arguments for protectionism. They showed that the long run effect of protective tariffs and other barriers could only be to make production more inefficient, to make consumers pay more and to slow down economic progress. Yet protectionism is nearly as rampant as it was before 1776, when The Wealth of Nations was published.

The Conquest of Poverty

In the same way, all the popular political measures to reduce or relieve poverty are more distinguished for their age than for their effectiveness.

The major effect of minimum wage laws is to create unemployment, chiefly among the unskilled workers that the law is designed to help. We cannot make a worker’s services worth a given amount by making it illegal for anyone to offer him less. We merely deprive him of the right to earn the amount that his abilities and opportunities would permit him to earn, while we deprive the community of the moderate services he is capable of rendering. We drive him on relief.

And by driving more people on relief by minimum wage laws on the one hand, while on the other hand enticing more and more people to get on relief by constantly increasing the amounts we offer them, we encourage the runaway growth of relief rolls. Now, as a way to “cure” this growth, reformers come forward to propose a guaranteed annual income or a “negative income tax.” The distinguishing feature of these handouts is that they are to be given automatically, without a means test, and regardless of whether or not the recipient chooses to work. The result could only be enormously to increase the number of idle, and correspondingly to increase the tax burden on those who work. We can always have as much unemployment as we are willing to pay for.

At bottom, almost every government “antipoverty” measure in history has consisted of seizing part of the earnings or savings of Peter to support Paul. Its inevitable long run result is to undermine the incentives of both Peter and Paul to work or to save.

What is overlooked in all these government interventions is the miracle of the market — the amazing way in which free enterprise maximizes the incentives to production, to work, innovation, efficiency, saving, and investment, and graduates both its penalties and rewards with such accuracy as to tend to bring about the production of the tens of thousands of wanted goods and services in the proportions in which they are most demanded by consumers. Only free private enterprise, in fact, can solve what economists call this problem of economic calculation.

The Problem of Calculation

Socialism is incapable of solving the problem. The bureaucratic managers of nationalized industries may be conscientious, God-fearing men; but as they have no fear of suffering personal losses through error or inefficiency, and no hope of gaining personal profits through cost cutting or daring innovation, they are bound, at best, to become safe routineers, and to tolerate a torpid inefficiency.

But this is the smallest part of the problem. For a complete socialism would be without the guide of the market, without the guide of money prices or of costs in terms of money. The bureaucratic managers of the socialist economy would not know which items they were producing at a social profit and which at a social loss. Nor would they know how much to try to produce of each item or service, or how to make sure that the production of tens of thousands of different commodities was synchronized or coordinated. They could, of course (as they sometimes have), assign arbitrary prices to raw materials and to the various finished items. But they would still not know how much or whether the bookkeeping profits or losses shown reflected real profits or losses. In short, they would be unable to solve the problem of economic calculation. They would be working in the dark.

The directors of a socialist economy would have to fix wages arbitrarily, and if these did not draw the right number of competent workers into making the various things the directors wanted produced, and in the quantities they wanted them to be produced, they would have to use coercion, forcibly assign workers to particular jobs, and direct the economy from the center, in a military kind of organization. This militarization and regimentation of work is what, in fact, Cuba, Russia, and Red China have resorted to.

Rising Expectations

We come finally to the fifth reason that I offered at the beginning for the chronic hostility to free enterprise. This is the tendency to compare any actual state of affairs, and its inevitable defects, with some hypothetical ideal; to compare whatever is with some imagined paradise that might be. In spite of the prodigious and accelerative advances that a dominantly private enterprise economy has made in the last two centuries, and even in the last two decades, these advances can always be shown to have fallen short of some imaginable state of affairs that might be even better.

It may be true, for example, that money wages in the United States have increased fivefold, and even after all allowance has been made for rising living costs, that real wages have more than doubled in the last generation. But why haven’t they tripled? It may be true that the number of the “poor”, by the Federal bureaucrats’ yardstick, fell from 20 per cent of the population in 1962 (when the estimate was first made) to 13 per cent in 1970. But why should there be any poor people left at all? It may be true that the employees of the corporations already get seven eighths of the entire sum available for distribution between them and the stockholders. But why don’t the workers get the whole of it? And so on and so on.

The very success of the system has encouraged constantly rising expectations and demands — expectations and demands that keep racing ahead of what even the best imaginable system could achieve.

The struggle to secure what we now know as capitalism — i.e., unhampered markets and private ownership of the means of production — was long and arduous. It has proved an inestimable boon to mankind. Yet if this system is to be saved from willful destruction, the task of the incredibly few who seem to understand how and why it works is endless. They cannot afford to rest their case on any defense of free enterprise, or any exposure of socialism or other false remedies, that they or their predecessors may have made in the past. There have been some magnificent defenses over the past two centuries, from Adam Smith to Bastiat, and from Böhm-Bawerk to Mises and Hayek. But they are not enough. Every day capitalism faces some new accusation, or one that parades as new.

Eternal Vigilance:  Truth Needs Repeating

In brief, ignorance, shortsightedness, envy, impatience, good intentions, and a utopian idealism combine to engender an endless barrage of charges against “the system” — which means against free enterprise. And so the return fire, if free enterprise is to be preserved, must also be endless.

I find I have only been applying to one particular field an exhortation that Goethe once applied to all fields of knowledge. In 1828 he wrote in a letter to Eckermann:

“The truth must be repeated again and again, because error is constantly being preached round about us. And not only by isolated individuals, but by the majority. In the newspapers and encyclopedias, in the schools and universities, everywhere error is dominant, securely and comfortably ensconced in public opinion which is on its side.”

Yet above all in political and economic thought today, the need to keep repeating the truth has assumed an unprecedented urgency. What is under constant and mounting attack is capitalism — which means free enterprise —which means economic freedom —which means, in fact, the whole of human freedom. For as Alexander Hamilton warned: “Power over a man’s subsistence is power over his will.”

What is threatened, in fact, is no less than our present civilization itself; for it is capitalism that has made possible the enormous advances not only in providing the necessities and amenities of life, but in science, technology, and knowledge of all kinds, upon which that civilization rests.

All those who understand this have the duty to explain and defend the system. And to do so, if necessary, over and over again.

This duty does not fall exclusively on professional economists. It falls on each of us who realizes the untold benefits of free enterprise and the present threat of its destruction to expound his convictions within the sphere of his own influence, as well as to support others who are expounding like convictions. Each of us is as free to practice what he preaches as to preach what he practices. The opportunity is as great as the challenge.

 

 


  • Henry Hazlitt (1894-1993) was the great economic journalist of the 20th century. He is the author of Economics in One Lesson among 20 other books. See his complete bibliography. He was chief editorial writer for the New York Times, and wrote weekly for Newsweek. He served in an editorial capacity at The Freeman and was a board member of the Foundation for Economic Education.