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TGIF: Freedom or Power

by | Jun 7, 2024

TGIF: Freedom or Power

by | Jun 7, 2024

bawerk portrait

Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk, the Austrian-school economist who learned from Carl Menger and taught Ludwig von Mises, speaks to the ages. We ignore his lessons to our peril. One hundred ten years ago, in a journal article titled “Control or Economic Law,” he wrote:

[J]ust as natural phenomena are governed by immutable eternal laws, quite independent of human will and human laws, so in the sphere of economics there exist certain laws against which the will of man, and even the powerful will of the state, remain impotent; and that the flow of economic forces cannot, by artificial interference of societal control, be driven out of certain channels into which it is inevitably pressed by the force of economic laws.

In other words, contrary to what politicians say, we as a society cannot do anything “if only we have the will.” Böhm-Bawerk went on:

Such a law, among others, was considered to be that of supply and demand, which again and again had been observed to triumph over the attempts of powerful governments to render bread cheap in lean years by means of “unnatural” price regulations, or to confer upon bad money the purchasing power of good money. And inasmuch as in the last analysis, the remuneration of the great factors of production—land, labor, and capital—in other words, the distribution of wealth among the various classes of society, represents merely one case, although the most important practical case of the general laws of price, the entire all-important problem of distribution of wealth became dependent upon the question of whether it was regulated and dominated by natural economic laws, or by the arbitrary influence of social control.

Böhm-Bawerk was not saying that economic laws were invulnerable to political and social interference or institutions—far from it. The government distorts the market all the time. That’s why his lesson is so important. We’d hardly need to be taught about the importance of economic laws if intervention bounced off market participants like bullets off of Superman.

Price controls bring forth not an abundance of low-priced goods to help the poor but shortages of wanted products. Today many people suffer the hardship of government suppression of the building of new houses and apartments. (See Bryan Caplan’s Build, Baby, Build: The Science and Ethics of Housing Regulation.)

In any given case, how much influence market forces and nonmarket control have is not an easy question. It takes study rather than dogmatism. However, even political intervention must operate within the law of price. Repeated efforts to abolish interest on loans (usury) have failed because lenders and borrowers eagerly found ways around the prohibition. Markets—bargaining based on subjective marginal utility—will operate despite the formidable obstacles rulers place in their way. That’s true for all prices. Thank goodness for that. But consumers will be harmed, and the state’s ostensible objectives won’t be achieved.

Böhm-Bawerk notes that the most “selfish” single-seller in the market (assuming no government protection) must contend with the economic laws: “Generally speaking, the fear of outside competition forms perhaps the greatest safeguard against too unscrupulous a use of monopolies preying on the general public.” Nothing invites competition like abnormally high prices and profits. That’s why would-be monopolists turn to the government for help. Their dreams of power are doomed without it. (Antitrust law is a fraud. It protects inferior companies, not consumers.)

The same is true in a labor market where only one buyer of labor services (employer) is active. If he pays too much or too little under market conditions, economic forces will let him know — if the government stays out. Profit or loss, success or bankruptcy? That is the question.

Böhm-Bawerk would understand what’s happening with fast-food restaurants in California, where the government has mandated a large increase in the minimum wage:

If an entrepreneur is induced, through the motive of self-interest, to select the “minor evil,” and permits a wage increase exacted from him, then an analogous motive of self-interest will urge him to reorganize the various factors of production by means of which he produces his goods. If the factor of production called “labor” has become more expensive than before, in comparison with the other factors of production, through an extorted wage increase, then it is almost unthinkable that the same relative apportionment of the various factors of production would remain the most rational in an economic sense….

California fast-food joints are closing, substituting machines for human beings, or raising prices. It’s happened many times all over the country.

[T]he most imposing dictate of power … can never effect anything in
contradiction to the economic laws of value, price, and distribution; it must always be in conformity with these; it cannot invalidate them; it can merely confirm and fulfill them.

Mises picked up his teacher’s theme. As Israel Kizner writes in his book Ludwig von Mises: The Man and His Economics, quoting from his teacher’s Epistemological Problems of Economics,

Mises saw the emergence of economic understanding in the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries as introducing a genuinely revolutionary insight into man’s understanding of the conditions within which society exists…. With the advent of economic science, [Mises wrote,] “Now it was learned that in the social realm too there is something operative which power and force are unable to alter and to which they must adjust themselves if they hope to achieve success, in precisely the same  way as they must take into account the laws of nature.”

Society does not face a choice between control and economic law. Rather, the choice is between unhampered consumer-enhancing economic law and economic law twisted against consumers by bureaucrats. That is because, as Mises wrote in Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total War, “economic laws are inexorable, and … government interference with business cannot attain its ends but must result in a state of affairs which—from the point of view of the government and the supporters of its policy—is even less desirable than the conditions which it was designed to alter.

Sheldon Richman

Sheldon Richman

Sheldon Richman is the executive editor of The Libertarian Institute and a contributing editor at Antiwar.com. He is the former senior editor at the Cato Institute and Institute for Humane Studies; former editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education; and former vice president at the Future of Freedom Foundation. His latest books are Coming to Palestine and What Social Animals Owe to Each Other.

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