A famous, very often quoted phrase says: “That government is best, which governs least.” I do not believe this to be a correct description of the functions of a good government. Government ought to do all the things for which it is needed and for which it was established. Government ought to protect the individuals within the country against the violent and fraudulent attacks of gangsters, and it should defend the country against foreign enemies. These are the functions of government within a free system, within the system of the market economy.
Under socialism, of course, the government is totalitarian, and there is nothing outside its sphere and its jurisdiction. But in the market economy the main task of the government is to protect the smooth functioning of the market economy against fraud or violence from within and from outside the country.
People who do not agree with this definition of the functions of government may say: “This man hates the government.” Nothing could be farther from the truth. If I should say that gasoline is a very useful liquid, useful for many purposes, but that I would nevertheless not drink gasoline because I think that would not be the right use for it, I am not an enemy of gasoline, and I do not hate gasoline. I only say that gasoline is very useful for certain purposes, but not fit for other purposes. If I say it is the government’s duty to arrest murderers and other criminals, but not its duty to run the railroads or to spend money for useless things, then I do not hate the government by declaring that it is fit to do certain things but not fit to do other things.
It has been said that under present-day conditions we no longer have a free market economy. Under present-day conditions we have something called the “mixed economy.” And for evidence of our “mixed economy”, people point to the many enterprises which are operated and owned by the government. The economy is mixed, people say, because there are, in many countries, certain institutions–like the telephone, telegraph, and railroads–which are owned and operated by the government.
That some of these institutions and enterprises are operated by the government is certainly true. But this fact alone does not change the character of our economic system. It does not even mean there is a “little socialism” within the otherwise non-socialist, free market economy. For the government, in operating these enterprises, is subject to the supremacy of the market, which means it is subject to the supremacy of the consumers. The government–if it operates, let us say, post offices or railroads–has to hire people who have to work in these enterprises. It also has to buy the raw materials and other things that are needed for the conduct of these enterprises. And on the other hand, it “sells” these services or commodities to the public. Yet, even though it operates these institutions using the methods of the free economic system, the result, as a rule, is a deficit. The government, however, is in a position to finance such a deficit–at least the members of the government and of the ruling party believe so.
It is certainly different for an individual. The individual’s power to operate something with a deficit is very limited. If the deficit is not very soon eliminated, and if the enterprise does not become profitable (or at least show that no further deficit losses are being incurred), the individual goes bankrupt and the enterprise must come to an end.
But for the government, conditions are different. The government can run at a deficit, because it has the power to tax people. And if the taxpayers are prepared to pay higher taxes in order to make it possible for the government to operate an enterprise at a loss–that is, in a less efficient way than it would be done by a private institution–and if the public will accept this loss, then of course the enterprise will continue.
In recent years, governments have increased the number of nationalized institutions and enterprises in most countries to such an extent that the deficits have grown far beyond the amount that could be collected in taxes from the citizens. What happens then is not the subject of today’s lecture. It is inflation, and I shall deal with that tomorrow. I mentioned this only because the mixed economy must not be confused with the problem of interventionism, about which I want to talk tonight.
What is interventionism? Interventionism means that the government does not restrict its activity to the preservation of order, or–as people used to say a hundred years ago–to “the production of security.” Interventionism means that the government wants to do more. It wants to interfere with market phenomena.
If one objects and says the government should not interfere with business, people very often answer: “But the government necessarily always interferes. If there are policemen on the street, the government interferes. It interferes with a robber looting a shop or it prevents a man from stealing a car.” But when dealing with interventionism and defining what is meant by interventionism, we are speaking about government interference with the market. (That the government and the police are expected to protect the citizens, which includes businessmen, and of course their employees, against attacks on the part of domestic or foreign gangsters, is in fact a normal, necessary expectation of any government. Such protection is not an intervention, for the government’s only legitimate function is, precisely, to produce security.)
What we have in mind when we talk about interventionism is the government’s desire to do more than prevent assaults and fraud. Interventionism means that the government not only fails to protect the smooth functioning of the market economy, but that it interferes with the various market phenomena; it interferes with prices, with wage rates, interest rates, and profits.
The government wants to interfere in order to force businessmen to conduct their affairs in a different way than they would have chosen if they had obeyed only the consumers. Thus, all the measures of interventionism by the government are directed toward restricting the supremacy of consumers. The government wants to arrogate to itself the power, or at least a part of the power, which, in the free market economy, is in the hands of the consumers.
This article is serialized from Economic Policy: Thoughts for Today and Tomorrow, a book based on six lectures delivered in Buenos Aires in 1959 on Capitalism, Socialism, Interventionism, Inflation, Foreign Investment, and Politics and Ideas by the great 20th century economist who was too good to receive a Noble Prize: Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973). Copyright (c) 1995 by Bettina Bien Greaves. All rights reserved.