Descriptive terms which people use are often quite misleading. In talking about modern captains of industry and leaders of big business, for instance, they call a man a “chocolate king” or a “cotton king” or an “automobile king.” Their use of such terminology implies that they see practically no difference between the modern heads of industry and those feudal kings, dukes or lords of earlier days. But the difference is in fact very great, for a chocolate king does not rule at all, he serves. He does not reign over conquered territory, independent of the market, independent of his customers. The chocolate king–or the steel king or the automobile king or any other king of modern industry–depends on the industry he operates and on the customers he serves. This “king” must stay in the good graces of his subjects, the consumers; he loses his “kingdom” as soon as he is no longer in a position to give his customers better service and provide it at lower cost than others with whom he must compete.
Two hundred years ago, before the advent of capitalism, a man’s social status was fixed from the beginning to the end of his life; he inherited it from his ancestors, and it never changed. If he was born poor, he always remained poor, and if he was born rich–a lord or a duke–he kept his dukedom and the property that went with it for the rest of his life.
As for manufacturing, the primitive processing industries of those days existed almost exclusively for the benefit of the wealthy. Most of the people (ninety percent or more of the European population) worked the land and did not come in contact with the city-oriented processing industries. This rigid system of feudal society prevailed in the most developed areas of Europe for many hundreds of years.
However, as the rural population expanded, there developed a surplus of people on the land. For this surplus of population without inherited land or estates, there was not enough to do, nor was it possible for them to work in the processing industries; the kings of the cities denied them access. The numbers of these “outcasts” continued to grow, and still no one knew what to do with them They were, in the full sense of the word, “proletarians,” outcasts whom the government could only put into the workhouse or the poorhouse. In some sections of Europe, especially in the Netherlands and in England, they became so numerous that, by the eighteenth century, they were a real menace to the preservation of the prevailing social system.
Today, in discussing similar conditions in places like India or other developing countries, we must not forget that, in eighteenth-century England, conditions were much worse. At that time, England had a population of six or seven million people, but of those six or seven million people, more than one million, probably two million, were simply poor outcasts for whom the existing social system made no provision. What to do with these outcasts was one of the great problems of eighteenth-century England.
Another great problem was the lack of raw materials. The British, very seriously, had to ask themselves this question: what are we going to do in the future, when our forests will no longer give us the wood we need for our industries and for heating our houses? For the ruling classes it was a desperate situation. The statesmen did not know what to do, and the ruling gentry were absolutely without any ideas on how to improve conditions.
Out of this serious social situation emerged the beginnings of modern capitalism. There were some persons among those outcasts, among those poor people, who tried to organize others to set up small shops which could produce something. This was an innovation. These innovators did not produce expensive goods suitable only for the upper classes; they produced cheaper products for everyone’s needs. And this was the origin of capitalism as it operates today. It was the beginning of mass production, the fundamental principle of capitalistic industry. Whereas the old processing industries serving the rich people in the cities had existed almost exclusively for the demands of the upper classes, the new capitalist industries began to produce things that could be purchased by the general population. It was mass production to satisfy the needs of the masses.
This is the fundamental principle of capitalism as it exists today in all of those countries in which there is a highly developed system of mass production: Big business, the target of the most fanatic attacks by the so-called leftists, produces almost exclusively to satisfy the wants of the masses. Enterprises producing luxury goods solely for the well-to-do can never attain the magnitude of big businesses. And today, it is the people who work in large factories who are the main consumers of the products made in those factories. This is the fundamental difference between the capitalistic principles of production and the feudalistic principles of the preceding ages.
When people assume, or claim, that there is a difference between the producers and the consumers of the products of big businesses, they are badly mistaken. In American department stores you hear the slogan, “the customer is always right.” And this customer is the same man who produces in the factory those things which are sold in the department stores. The people who think that the power of big business is enormous are mistaken also, since big business depends entirely on the patronage of those who buy its products: the biggest enterprise loses its power and its influence when it loses its customers.
Fifty or sixty years ago it was said in almost all capitalist countries that the railroad companies were too big and too powerful; they had a monopoly; it was impossible to compete with them. It was alleged that, in the field of transportation, capitalism had already reached a stage at which it had destroyed itself, for it had eliminated competition. What people overlooked was the fact that the power of the railroads depended on their ability to serve people better than any other method of transportation. Of course it would have been ridiculous to compete with one of these big railroad companies by building another railroad parallel to the old line, since the old line was sufficient to serve existing needs. But very soon there came other competitors. Freedom of competition does not mean that you can succeed simply by imitating or copying precisely what someone else has done. Freedom of the press does not mean that you have the right to copy what another man has written and thus to acquire the success which this other man has duly merited on account of his achievements. It means that you have the right to write something different. Freedom of competition concerning railroads, for example, means that you are free to invent something, to do something, which will challenge the railroads and place them in a very precarious competitive situation.
In the United States the competition to the railroads–in the form of buses, automobiles, trucks, and airplanes–has caused the railroads to suffer and to be almost completely defeated, as far as passenger transportation is concerned.
The development of capitalism consists in everyone’s having the right to serve the customer better and/or more cheaply. And this method, this principle, has, within a comparatively short time, transformed the whole world. It has made possible an unprecedented increase in world population.
In eighteenth-century England, the land could support only six million people at a very low standard of living. Today more than fifty million people enjoy a much higher standard of living than even the rich enjoyed during the eighteenth-century. And today’s standard of living in England would probably be still higher, had not a great deal of the energy of the British been wasted in what were, from various points of view, avoidable political and military “adventures.”
These are the facts about capitalism. Thus, if an Englishman–or, for that matter, any other man in any country of the world–says today to his friends that he is opposed to capitalism, there is a wonderful way to answer him: “You know that the population of this planet is now ten times greater than it was in the ages preceding capitalism; you know that all men today enjoy a higher standard of living than your ancestors did before the age of capitalism. But how do you know that you are the one out of ten who would have lived in the absence of capitalism? The mere fact that you are living today is proof that capitalism has succeeded, whether or not you consider your own life very valuable.”
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 1995 by Bettina Bien Greaves. All rights reserved.