Commentary

War and the Market Economy

By Ludwig Von Mises
May 26, 2003

The market economy, say the socialists and the interventionists, is at best a system that may be tolerated in peacetime. But when war comes, such indulgence is impermissible. It would jeopardize the vital interests of the nation for the sole benefit of the selfish concerns of capitalists and entrepreneurs. War, and in any case modern total war, peremptorily requires government control of business.

Hardly anybody has been bold enough to challenge this dogma. It served in both World Wars as a convenient pretext for innumerable measures of government interference with business which in many countries step by step led to full “war socialism.” When the hostilities ceased, a new slogan was launched. The period of transition from war to peace and of “reconversion,” people contended, requires even more government control than the period of war. Besides, why should one ever return to a social system which can work, if at all, only in the interval between two wars? The most appropriate thing would be to cling permanently to government control in order to be duly prepared for any possible emergency.

An examination of the problems which the United States had to face in the second World War will clearly show how fallacious this reasoning is.

What America needed in order to win the war was a radical conversion of all its production activities. All not absolutely indispensable civilian consumption was to be eliminated. The plants and farms were henceforth to turn out only a minimum of goods for nonmilitary use. For the rest, they were to devote themselves completely to the task of supplying the armed forces.

The realization of this program did not require the establishment of controls and priorities. If the government had raised all the funds needed for the conduct of war by taxing the citizens and by borrowing from them, everybody would have been forced to cut down his consumption drastically. The entrepreneurs and farmers would have turned toward production for the government because the sale of goods to private citizens would have dropped. The government, now by virtue of the inflow of taxes and borrowed money the biggest buyer on the market, would have been in a position to obtain all it wanted. Even the fact that the government chose to finance a considerable part of the war expenditure by increasing the quantity of money in circulation and by borrowing from the commercial banks would not have altered this state of affairs. The inflation must, of course, bring about a marked tendency toward a rise in the prices of all goods and services. The government would have had to pay higher nominal prices. But it would still have been the most solvent buyer on the market. It would have been possible for it to outbid the citizens who on the one hand had not the right of manufacturing the money they needed and on the other hand would have been squeezed by enormous taxes.

But the government deliberately adopted a policy which was bound to make it impossible for it to rely upon the operation of the unhampered market. It resorted to price control and make it illegal to raise commodity prices. Furthermore it was very slow in taxing the incomes swollen by the inflation. It surrendered to the claim of the unions that the worker’s real take-home wages should be kept at a height which would enable them to preserve in the war their prewar standard of living. In fact, the most numerous class of the nation, the class which in peacetime consumed the greatest part of the total amount of goods consumed, had so much more money in their pockets that their power to buy and to consume was greater than in peacetime. The wage earners — and to some extent also the farmers and the owners of plants producing for the government — would have frustrated the government’s endeavors to direct industries toward the production of war materials. They would have induced business to produce more, not less, of those goods which in wartime are considered superfluous luxuries. It was this circumstance that forced the Administration to resort to the systems of priorities and of rationing. The shortcomings of the methods adopted for financing war expenditure made government control of business necessary. If no inflation had been made and if taxation had cut down the income (after taxes) of all citizens, not only of those enjoying higher incomes, to a fraction of their peacetime revenues, these controls would have been supererogatory. The endorsement of the doctrine that the wage earners’ real income must in wartime be even higher than in peacetime made them unavoidable.

Not government decrees and the paper work of hosts of people on the governments payroll, but the efforts of private enterprise produced those goods which enabled the American armed forces to win the war and to provide all the material equipment its allies needed for their cooperation. The economist does not infer anything from these historical facts. But it is expedient to mention them as the interventionists would have us believe that a decree prohibiting the employment of steel for the construction of apartment houses automatically produces airplanes and battleships.

The adjustment of production activities to a change in the demand of consumers is the source of profits. The greater the discrepancy between the previous state of production activities and that agreeing with the new structure of demand, the greater adjustments are required and the greater profits are earned by those who succeed best in accomplishing these adjustments. The sudden transition from peace to war revolutionizes the structure of the market, makes radical readjustments indispensable and thus becomes for many a source of high profits. The planners and interventionists regard such profits as a scandal. As they see it, the first duty of government in time of war is to prevent the emergence of new millionaires. It is, they say, unfair to let some people become richer while other people are killed or maimed.

Nothing is fair in war. It is not just that God is for the big battalions and that those who are better equipped defeat poorly equipped adversaries. It is not just that those in the front line shed their life-blood in obscurity, while the commanders, comfortably located in headquarters hundreds of miles behind the trenches, gain glory and fame. It is not just that John is killed and Mark crippled for the rest of his life, while Paul returns home safe and sound and enjoys all the privileges accorded to veterans.

It may be admitted that it is not “fair” that war enhances the profits of those entrepreneurs who contribute best to the equipment of the fighting forces. But it would be foolish to deny that the profit system produces the best weapons. It was not socialist Russia that aided capitalist America with lend-lease; the Russians were lamentably defeated before American-make bombs fell on Germany and before they got the arms manufactured by American big business. The most important thing in war is not to avoid the emergence of high profits, but to give the best equipment to one’s own country’s soldiers and sailors. The worst enemies of a nation are those malicious demagogues who would give their envy precedence over the vital interests of their nation’s cause.

Of course, in the long run war and the preservation of the market economy are incompatible. Capitalism is essentially a scheme for peaceful nations. But this does not mean that a nation which is forced to repel foreign aggressors must substitute government control for private enterprise. If it were to do this, it would deprive itself of the most efficient means of defense. There is no record of a socialist nation which defeated a capitalist nation. In spite of their much glorified war socialism, the Germans were defeated in both World Wars.

What the incompatibility of war and capitalism really means is that war and high civilization are incompatible. If the efficiency of capitalism is directed by governments toward the output of instruments of destruction, the ingenuity of private business turn out weapons which are powerful enough to destroy everything. What makes war and capitalism incompatible with one another is precisely the unparalleled efficiency of the capitalist mode of production.

The market economy, subject to the sovereignty of the individual consumers, turns out products which make the individual’s life more agreeable. It caters to the individual’s demand for more comfort. It is this that made capitalism despicable in the eyes of the apostles of violence. They worshiped the “hero,” the destroyer and killer, and despised the bourgeois and his “peddler mentality.” Now mankind is reaping the fruits which ripened from the seeds sown by these men.

Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973) was one of the leading free market economists of the 20th century. This article is excerpted from “Human Action: A Treatise on Economics” by Ludwig von Mises (Foundation for Economic Education and Fox & Wilkes, 1996).