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The Enduring Relevance of Mises’s and Hayek’s Critique of Socialism

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In my latest column for AIER I do my best to explain that the argument leveled against socialism by Ludwig von Mises and F.A. Hayek remains relevant even when the government’s goal is not full-on (‘classic’) socialism of the sort that was advocated in the first half of the 20th century [2]. A slice:

Prices arise whenever prospective buyers offer to purchase inputs (including labor services) from owners who have the right to accept or reject these offers. The resulting pattern of prices reveals the prevailing, relative scarcities of different inputs. If the amount of steel necessary to build 10,000 lawn-mower blades is priced at less than is the amount of aluminum necessary to build 10,000 blades of the same quality, the blade manufacturer is not only informed by prices that steel is in more abundant supply for his purposes, the lower price of steel incents him to act on this information. He uses steel rather than aluminum. As my colleagues Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok succinctly note in their textbook, Modern Principles of Economics [3], “A price is a signal wrapped up in an incentive.”

Importantly, applicability of the Mises-Hayek argument does not kick in only when the economy becomes fully socialized. While it’s true that the greater the extent of intervention the worse will be the resulting economic damage, the Mises-Hayek argument is the general one that all market prices are rich with information – information that is inaccessible without markets – and that whenever government acts to distort or hide this information the economy suffers.

Consider a government that intervenes only by imposing a protective tariff on steel. The resulting higher price of steel tells a lie to market participants; it tells them that steel is less abundant than it really is. If the tariff pushes the price of steel above that of aluminum, the blade manufacturer will produce the 10,000 blades using scarcer aluminum rather than more-abundant steel. Lawn-mower blades are thus produced using an input – aluminum – that ‘should’ be reserved to produce other outputs. These other outputs will either go unproduced or be produced in lower quality.

Yet in an economy as large as that of today’s global market, this lone inefficient use of resources will obviously not quake society’s foundations. Its impact won’t register on even the most sensitive economic Richter scale. Given the size and dynamism of the modern economy, detecting – not to mention measuring – the negative impact of this tariff on overall economic performance would be practically impossible.

While this lone intervention will not, unlike full-on socialism, cause economic collapse, its negative impact nevertheless is real. If the government adds to this protective tariff on steel a subsidy to aircraft manufacturers, the pattern of market prices is further distorted. More resources are used wastefully. More consumer goods and services that would have been produced go unproduced.