Why Minimum Wages and Price Controls Don’t Work


Extract of Liberalism: In the Classical Tradition by Ludwig von Mises

The socialist ideal is now beginning to lose more and more of its adherents. The penetrating economic and sociological investigations of the problems of socialism that have shown it to be impracticable have not remained without effect, and the failures in which socialist experiments everywhere have ended have disconcerted even its most enthusiastic supporters. Gradually people are once more beginning to realize that society cannot do without private property.

Yet the hostile criticism to which the system of private ownership of the means of production has been subjected for decades has left behind such a strong prejudice against the capitalist system that, in spite of their knowledge of the inadequacy and impracticability of socialism, people cannot make up their minds to admit openly that they must return to liberal views on the question of property. To be sure, it is conceded that socialism, the communal ownership of the means of production, is altogether, or at least for the present, impracticable. But, on the other hand, it is asserted that unhampered private ownership of the means of production is also an evil. Thus people want to create a third way, a form of society standing midway between private ownership of the means of production, on the one hand, and communal ownership of the means of production, on the other. Private property will be permitted to exist, but the ways in which the means of production are employed by the entrepreneurs, capitalists, and landowners will be regulated, guided, and controlled by authoritarian decrees and prohibitions. In this way, one forms the conceptual image of a regulated market, of a capitalism circumscribed by authoritarian rules, of private property shorn of its allegedly harmful concomitant features by the intervention of the authorities.

One can best acquire an insight into the meaning and nature of this system by considering a few examples of the consequences of government interference. The crucial acts of intervention with which we have to deal aim at fixing the prices of goods and services at a height different from what the unhampered market would have determined.

Fixing Market Prices

In the case of prices formed on the unhampered market, or which would have been formed in the absence of interference on the part of the authorities, the costs of production are covered by the proceeds. If a lower price is decreed by the government, the proceeds will fall short of the costs. Merchants and manufacturers will, therefore, unless the storage of the goods involved would cause them to deteriorate rapidly in value, withhold their merchandise from the market in the hope of more favorable times, perhaps in the expectation that the government order will soon be rescinded. If the authorities do not want the goods concerned to disappear altogether from the market as a result of their interference, they cannot limit themselves to fixing the price; they must at the same time also decree that all stocks on hand be sold at the prescribed price.

But even this does not suffice. At the price determined on the unhampered market, supply and demand would have coincided. Now, because the price was fixed lower by government decree, the demand has increased while the supply has remained unchanged. The stocks on hand are not sufficient to satisfy fully all who are prepared to pay the prescribed price. A part of the demand will remain unsatisfied. The mechanism of the market, which otherwise tends to equalize supply and demand by means of price fluctuations, no longer operates. Now people who would have been prepared to pay the price prescribed by the authorities must leave the market with empty hands. Those who were in line earlier or who were in a position to exploit some personal connection with the sellers have already acquired the whole stock; the others have to go unprovided. If the government wishes to avoid this consequence of its intervention, which runs counter to its intentions, it must add rationing to price control and compulsory sale: a governmental regulation must determine how much of a commodity may be supplied to each individual applicant at the prescribed price.


But once the supplies already on hand at the moment of the government’s intervention are exhausted, an incomparably more difficult problem arises. Since production is no longer profitable if the goods are to be sold at the price fixed by the government, it will be reduced or entirely suspended. If the government wishes to have production continue, it must compel the manufacturers to produce, and, to this end, it must also fix the prices of raw materials and half-finished goods and the wages of labor. Its decrees to this effect, however, cannot be limited to only the one or the few branches of production that the authorities wish to regulate because they deem their products especially important. They must encompass all branches of production. They must regulate the price of all commodities and all wages. In short, they must extend their control over the conduct of all entrepreneurs, capitalists, landowners, and workers. If some branches of production are left free, capital and labor will flow into these, and the government will fail to attain the goal that it wished to achieve by its first act of intervention. But the object of the authorities is that there should be an abundance of production in precisely that branch of industry which, because of the importance they attach to its products, they have especially singled out for regulation. It runs altogether counter to their design that precisely in consequence of their intervention this branch of production should be neglected.

It is therefore clearly evident that an attempt on the part of the government to interfere with the operation of the economic system based on private ownership of the means of production fails of the goal that its authors wished to achieve by means of it. It is, from the point of view of its authors, not only futile, but downright contrary to purpose, because it enormously augments the very “evil” that it was supposed to combat. Before the price controls were decreed, the commodity was, in the opinion of the government, too expensive; now it disappears from the market altogether. This, however, is not the result aimed at by the government, which wanted to make the commodity accessible to the consumer at a cheaper price. On the contrary: from its viewpoint, the absence of the commodity, the impossibility of securing it, must appear as by far the greater evil. In this sense one can say of the intervention of the authorities that it is futile and contrary to the purpose that it was intended to serve, and of the system of economic policy that attempts to operate by means of such acts of intervention that it is impracticable and unthinkable, that it contradicts economic logic.

Doubling Down on Bad Policy – There is No Middle Way !

If the Government will not set this right again by desisting, from its interference, i.e., by rescinding the price controls, then it must follow up the first step with others. To the prohibition against asking any price higher than the prescribed one it must add not only measures to compel the sale of all stocks on hand under a system of enforced rationing, but price ceilings on goods of higher order, wage controls, and, ultimately, compulsory labor for entrepreneurs and workers. And these regulations cannot be limited to one or a few branches of production, but must encompass them all. There is simply no other choice than this: either to abstain from interference in the free play of the market, or to delegate the entire management of production and distribution to the government. Either capitalism or socialism: there exists no middle way.

The mechanism of the series of events just described is well known to all who have witnessed the attempts of governments in time of war and during periods of inflation to fix prices by fiat. Everyone knows nowadays that government price controls had no other result than the disappearance from the market of the goods concerned. Wherever the government resorts to the fixing of prices, the result is always the same. When, for instance, the government fixes a ceiling on residential rents, a housing shortage immediately ensues. In Austria, the Social Democratic Party has virtually abolished residential rent. The consequence is that in the city of Vienna, for example, in spite of the fact that the population has declined considerably since the beginning of the World War and that several thousand new houses have been constructed by the municipality in the meantime, many thousands of persons are unable to find accommodations.

Minimum Wages

Let us take still another example: the fixing of minimum wage rates.

When the relationship between employer and employee is left undisturbed by legislative enactment’s or by violent measures on the part of trade unions, the wages paid by the employer for every type of labor are exactly as high as the increment of value that it adds to the materials in production. Wages cannot rise any higher than this because, if they did, the employer could no longer make a profit and hence would be compelled to discontinue a line of production that did not pay. But neither can wages fall any lower, because then the workers would turn to other branches of industry where they would be better rewarded, so that the employer would be forced to discontinue production because of a labor shortage.

There is, therefore, in the economy always a wage rate at which all workers find employment and every entrepreneur who wishes to undertake some enterprise still profitable at that wage finds workers. This wage rate is customarily called by economists the “static” or “natural” wage. It increases if, other things being equal, the number of workers diminishes; it decreases if, other things being equal, the available quantity of capital for which employment in production is sought suffers any diminution. However, one must, at the same time, observe that it is not quite precise to speak simply of “wages” and “labor. Labor services vary greatly in quality and quantity (calculated per unit of time), and so too do the wages of labor.

If the economy never varied from the stationary state, then in a labor market unhampered by interference on the part of the government or by coercion on the part of the labor unions there would be no unemployed. But the stationary state of society is merely an imaginary construction of economic theory, an intellectual expedient indispensable for our thinking, that enables us, by contrast, to form a clear conception of the processes actually taking place in the economy which surrounds us and in which we live. Life—fortunately, we hasten to add—is never at rest. There is never a standstill in the economy, but perpetual changes, movement, innovation, the continual emergence of the unprecedented. There are, accordingly, always branches of production that are being shut down or curtailed because the demand for their products has fallen off, and other branches of production that are being expanded or even embarked upon for the first time. If we think only of the last few decades, we can at once enumerate a great number of new industries that have sprung up: e.g., the automobile industry, the airplane industry, the motion picture industry, the rayon industry, the canned goods industry, and the radio broadcasting industry. These branches of industry today employ millions of workers, only some of whom have been drawn from the increase in population. Some came from branches of production that were shut down, and even more from those that, as a result of technological improvements, are now able to manage with fewer workers.

Occasionally the changes that occur in the relations among individual branches of production take place so slowly that no worker is obliged to shift to a new type of job; only young people, just beginning to earn their livelihood, will enter, in greater proportion, the new or expanding industries, Generally, however, in the capitalist system, with its rapid strides in improving human welfare, progress takes place too swiftly to spare individuals the necessity of adapting themselves to it. When, two hundred years or more ago, a young lad learned a craft, he could count on practicing it his whole life long in the way he had learned it, without any fear of being injured by his conservatism. Things are different today. The worker too must adjust himself to changing conditions, must add to what he has learned, or begin learning anew. He must leave occupations which no longer require the same number of workers as previously and enter one which has just come into being or which now needs more workers than before. But even if he remains in his old job, he must learn new techniques when circumstances demand it.

All this affects the worker in the form of changes in wage rates. If a particular branch of business employs relatively too many workers, it discharges some, and those discharged will not easily find new work in the same branch of business. The pressure on the labor market exercised by the discharged workers depresses wages in this branch of production. This, in turn, induces the worker to look for employment in those branches of production that wish to attract new workers and are therefore prepared to pay higher wages.

From this it becomes quite clear what must be done in order to satisfy the workers’ desire for employment and for high wages. Wages in general cannot be pushed above the height that they would normally occupy in a market unhampered either by government interference or other institutional pressures without creating certain side effects that cannot be desirable for the worker.

Wages can be driven up in an individual industry or an individual country if the transfer of workers from other industries or their immigration from other countries is prohibited. Such wage increases are effected at the expense of the workers whose entrance is barred. Their wages are now lower than they would have been if their freedom of movement had not been hindered. The rise in wages of one group is thus achieved at the expense of the others. This policy of obstructing the free movement of labor can benefit only the workers in countries and industries suffering from a relative labor shortage. In an industry or a country where this is not the case, there is only one thing that can raise wages: a rise in the general productivity of labor, whether by virtue of an increase in the capital available or through an improvement in the technological processes of production.

If, however, the government fixes minimum wages by law above the height of the static or natural wage, then the employers will find that they are no longer in a position to carry on successfully a number of enterprises that were still profitable when wages stood at the lower point. They will consequently curtail production and discharge workers. The effect of an artificial rise in wages, i.e., one imposed upon the market from the outside, is, therefore, the spread of unemployment.

Coercive Labour Unions

Now, of course, no attempt is being made today to fix minimum wage rates by law on a large scale. But the position of power that the trade unions occupy has enabled them to do so even in the absence of any positive legislation to that effect. The fact that workers form unions for the purpose of bargaining with the employers does not, in and of itself, necessarily provoke disturbances in the operation of the market. Even the fact that they successfully arrogate to themselves the right to break, without notice, contracts duly entered into by them and to lay down their tools would not itself result in any further disturbance in the labor market. What does create a new situation in the labor market is the element of coercion involved in strikes and compulsory union membership that prevails today in most of the industrial countries of Europe. Since the unionized workers deny access to employment to those who are not members of their union, and resort to open violence during strikes to prevent other workers from taking the place of those on strike, the wage demands that the unions present to the employers have precisely the same force as government decrees fixing minimum wage rates. For the employer must, if he does not wish to shut down his whole enterprise, yield to the demands of the union. He must pay wages such that the volume of production has to be restricted, because what costs more to produce cannot find as large a market as what costs less. Thus, the higher wages exacted by the trade unions become a cause of unemployment.

The unemployment originating from this source differs entirely in extent and duration from that which arises from the changes constantly taking place in the kind and quality of the labor demanded in the market. If unemployment had its cause only in the fact that there is constant progress in industrial development, it could neither assume great proportions nor take on the character of a lasting institution. The workers who can no longer be employed in one branch of production soon find accommodation in others which are expanding or just coming into being. When workers enjoy freedom of movement and the shift from one industry to another is not impeded by legal and other obstacles of a similar kind, adjustment to new conditions takes place without too much difficulty and rather quickly. For the rest, the setting up of labor exchanges would contribute much toward reducing still further the extent of this type of unemployment.

But the unemployment produced by the interference of coercive agencies in the operation of the labor market is no transitory phenomenon continually appearing and disappearing. It is incurable as long as the cause that called it into existence continues to operate, i.e., as long as the law or the violence of the trade unions prevents wages from being reduced, by the pressure of the jobless seeking employment, to the level that they would have reached in the absence of interference on the part of the government or the unions, namely, the rate at which all those eager for work ultimately find it.

For the unemployed to be granted support by the government or by the unions only serves to enlarge the evil. If what is involved is a case of unemployment springing from dynamic changes in the economy, then the unemployment benefits only result in postponing the adjustment of the workers to the new conditions. The jobless worker who is on relief does not consider it necessary to look about for a new occupation if he no longer finds a position in his old one; at least, he allows more time to elapse before he decides to shift to a new occupation or to a new locality or before he reduces the wage rate he demands to that at which he could find work. If unemployment benefits are not set too low, one can say that as long as they are offered, unemployment cannot disappear.

If, however, the unemployment is produced by the artificial raising of the height of wage rates in consequence of the direct intervention of the government or of its toleration of coercive practices on the part of the trade unions, then the only question is who is to bear the costs involved, the employers or the workers. The state, the government, the community never do so; they load them either onto the employer or onto the worker or partially onto each. If the burden falls on the workers, then they are deprived entirely or partially of the fruits of the artificial wage increase they have received; they may even be made to bear more of these costs than the artificial wage increase yielded them. The employer can be saddled with the burden of unemployment benefits to some extent by having to pay a tax proportionate to the total amount of wages paid out by him. In this case, unemployment insurance, by raising the costs of labor, has the same effect as a further increase in wages above the static level: the profitability of the employment of labor is reduced, and the number of workers who still can be profitably engaged is concomitantly decreased. Thus, unemployment spreads even further, in an ever widening spiral. The employers can also be drawn on to pay the costs of the unemployment benefits by means of a tax on their profits or capital, without regard for the number of workers employed. But this too only tends to spread unemployment even further. For when capital is consumed or when the formation of new capital is at least slowed down, the conditions for the employment of labor become, ceteris paribus, less favorable.

It is obviously futile to attempt to eliminate unemployment by embarking upon a program of public works that would otherwise not have been undertaken. The necessary resources for such projects must be withdrawn by taxes or loans from the application they would otherwise have found. Unemployment in one industry can, in this way, be mitigated only to the extent that it is increased in another.

From whichever side we consider interventionism, it becomes evident that this system leads to a result that its originators and advocates did not intend and that, even from their standpoint, it must appear as a senseless, self-defeating, absurd policy.

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