Cartels and Liberalism

Cartels and Liberalism
Profile photo of Ludwig von Mises

This article is excerpted from Liberalism, Chapter 2]

7. Cartels, Monopolies, and Liberalism

The opponents of liberalism assert that the necessary preconditions for the adoption of the liberal program no longer exist in the contemporary world. Liberalism was still practicable when many concerns of medium size were engaged in keen competition in each industry. Nowadays, since trusts, cartels, and other monopolistic enterprises are in complete control of the market, liberalism is as good as done for in any case. It is not politics that has destroyed it, but a tendency inherent in the inexorable evolution of the system of free enterprise.

The division of labor gives a specialized function to each productive unit in the economy. This process never stops as long as economic development continues. We long ago passed the stage at which the same factory produced all types of machines. Today a machine factory that does not limit itself exclusively to the production of certain types of machinery is no longer able to meet competition. With the progress of specialization, the area served by an individual supplier must continue to widen. The market supplied by a textile mill that produces only a few kinds of fabrics must be larger than that served by a weaver who weaves every kind of cloth. Undoubtedly this progressive specialization of production tends toward the development in every field of enterprises that have the whole world for their market. If this development is not opposed by protectionist and other anticapitalist measures, the result will be that in every branch of production there will be a relatively small number of concerns, or even only a single concern, intent on producing with the highest degree of specialization and on supplying the whole world.

Today, of course, we are very far from this state of affairs, since the policy of all governments aims at snipping off from the unity of the world economy small areas in which, under the protection of tariffs and other measures designed to achieve the same result, enterprises that would no longer be able to meet competition on the free world market are artificially preserved or even first called into being. Apart from considerations of commercial policy, measures of this kind, which are directed against the concentration of business, are defended on the ground that they alone have prevented the consumers from being exploited by monopolistic combinations of producers.

In order to assess the validity of this argument, we shall assume that the division of labor throughout the whole world has already advanced so far that the production of every article offered for sale is concentrated in a single concern, so that the consumer, in his capacity as a buyer, is always confronted with only a single seller. Under such conditions, according to an ill-considered economic doctrine, the producers would be in a position to keep prices pegged as high as they wished, to realize exorbitant profits, and thereby to worsen considerably the standard of living of the consumers. It is not difficult to see that this idea is completely mistaken. Monopoly prices, if they are not made possible by certain acts of intervention on the part of the government, can be lastingly exacted only on the basis of control over mineral and other natural resources. An isolated monopoly in manufacturing that yielded greater profits than those yielded elsewhere would stimulate the formation of rival firms whose competition would break the monopoly and restore prices and profits to the general rate. Monopolies in manufacturing industries cannot, however, become general, since at every given level of wealth in an economy the total quantity of capital invested and of available labor employed in production?and consequently also the amount of the social product?is a given magnitude. In any particular branch of production, or in several, the amount of capital and labor employed could be reduced in order to increase the price per unit and the aggregate profit of the monopolist or monopolists by curtailing production. The capital and labor thereby freed would then flow into another industry. If, however, all industries attempt to curtail production in order to realize higher prices, they forthwith free labor and capital which, because they are offered at lower rates, will provide a strong stimulus to the formation of new enterprises that must again destroy the monopolistic position of the others. The idea of a universal cartel and monopoly of the manufacturing industry is therefore completely untenable.

Genuine monopolies can be established only by control of land or mineral resources. The notion that all the arable land on earth could be consolidated into a single world monopoly needs no further discussion; the only monopolies that we shall consider here are those originating in the control of useful minerals. Monopolies of this kind do, in fact, already exist in the case of a few minerals of minor importance, and it is at any rate conceivable that attempts to monopolize other minerals as well may some day prove successful. This would mean that the owners of such mines and quarries would derive an increased ground rent from them and that the consumers would restrict consumption and look for substitutes for the materials that had become more expensive. A world petroleum monopoly would lead to an increased demand for hydroelectric power, coal, etc. From the standpoint of world economy and sub specie aeternitatis, this would mean that we would have to be more sparing than we otherwise would have been in our use of those costly materials that we can only exhaust, but cannot replace, and thus leave more of them for future generations than would have been the case in an economy free of monopolies.

The bugbear of monopoly, which is always conjured up when one speaks of the unhampered development of the economy, need cause us no disquiet. The world monopolies that are really feasible could concern only a few items of primary production. Whether their effect is favorable or unfavorable cannot be so easily decided. In the eyes of those who, in treating economic problems, are unable to free themselves from feelings of envy, these monopolies appear as pernicious from the very fact that they yield their owners increased profits. Whoever approaches the question without prepossessions will find that such monopolies lead to a more sparing use of those mineral resources that are at man’s disposal only in a rather limited quantity. If one really envies the monopolist his profit, one can, without danger and without having to expect any harmful economic consequences, have it pass into the public coffers by taxing the income from the mines.

In contradistinction to these world monopolies are the national and international monopolies, which are of practical importance today precisely because they do not originate in any natural evolutionary tendency on the part of the economic system when it is left to itself, but are the product of antiliberal economic policies. Attempts to secure a monopolistic position in regard to certain articles are in almost all cases feasible only because tariffs have divided the world market up into small national markets. Besides these, the only other cartels of any consequence are those which the owners of certain natural resources are able to form because the high cost of transportation protects them against the competition of producers from other areas in the narrow compass of their own locality.

It is a fundamental error, in judging the consequences of trusts, cartels, and enterprises supplying a market with one article alone, to speak of “control” of the market and of “price dictation” by the monopolist. The monopolist does not exercise any control, nor is he in a position to dictate prices. One could speak of control of the market or of price dictation only if the article in question were, in the strictest and most literal sense of the word, necessary for existence and absolutely irreplaceable by any substitute. This is evidently not true of any commodity. There is no economic good whose possession is indispensable to the existence of those prepared to purchase it on the market.

What distinguishes the formation of a monopoly price from the formation of a competitive price is the fact that, under certain very special conditions, it is possible for the monopolist to reap a greater profit from the sale of a smaller quantity at a higher price (which we call the monopoly price) than by selling at the price that the market would determine if more sellers were in competition (the competitive price). The special condition required for the emergence of a monopoly price is that the reaction of the consumers to a price increase does not involve a falling off of demand so sharp as to preclude a greater total profit from fewer sales at higher prices. If it is actually possible to achieve a monopolistic position in the market and to use it to realize monopoly prices, then profits higher than average will be yielded in the branch of industry concerned.

It may be that, in spite of these higher profits, new enterprises of the same kind are not undertaken because of the fear that, after reducing the monopoly price to the competitive price, they will not prove correspondingly profitable. One must, nevertheless, take into account the possibility that related industries, which are in a position to enter into production of the cartelized article at a relatively small cost, may appear as competitors; and, in any case, industries producing substitute commodities will be immediately at hand to avail themselves of the favorable circumstances for expanding their own production. All these factors make it extraordinarily rare for a monopoly to arise in a manufacturing industry that is not based on monopolistic control of particular raw materials. Where such monopolies do occur, they are always made possible only by certain legislative measures, such as patents and similar privileges, tariff regulations, tax laws, and the licensing system. A few decades ago people used to speak of a transportation monopoly. To what extent this monopoly was based on the licensing system remains uncertain. Today people generally do not bother much about it. The automobile and the airplane have become dangerous competitors of the railroads. But even before the appearance of these competitors the possibility of using waterways already set a definite limit to the rates that the railroads could venture to charge for their services on several lines.

It is not only a gross exaggeration, but a misunderstanding of the facts, to speak, as one commonly does today, of the formation of monopolies as having eliminated an essential prerequisite for the realization of the liberal ideal of a capitalist society. Twist and turn the monopoly problem as one may, one always comes back to the fact that monopoly prices are possible only where there is control over natural resources of a particular kind or where legislative enactment’s and their administration create the necessary conditions for the formation of monopolies. In the unhampered development of the economy, with the exception of mining and related branches of production, there is no tendency toward the exclusion of competition. The objection commonly raised against liberalism that the conditions of competition as they existed at the time when classical economics and liberal ideas were first developed no longer prevail is in no way justified. Only a few liberal demands (viz., free trade within and between nations) need to be realized in order to re-establish these conditions.

Profile photo of Ludwig von Mises

Ludwig von Mises was one of the most notable economists and social philosophers of the twentieth century. In the course of a long and highly productive life, developed an integrated, deduct­ive science of economics based on the fundamental axiom that in­dividual human beings act purposively to achieve desired goals. Even though his economic analysis itself was "value-free" — in the sense of being irrelevant to values held by economists — Mises concluded that the only viable economic policy for the human race was a policy of unrestricted laissez-faire, of free markets and the unhampered exercise of the right of private property, with government strictly limited to the defense of person and property within its territorial area.

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