Economic Myths #8 – Capitalism is Exploitative

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The myth that capitalism is exploitative – or rather, that capitalists, the private owners of the means of production, and entrepreneurs – exploit both workers and consumers is as old as the history of this political-economic system itself and has been a primary driving force behind the growth of the state and, indeed, of outright socialist and communist revolution. Although much watered down from those early days, the idea that there is some kind of antagonism between the capitalist “class” and the rest of us persists.

As “Austrian” economists we know, of course, that it is absolutely and undeniably true that any free and voluntary exchange, upon which capitalism and private property must rely, only takes place because each party expects to benefit from the transaction. This alone is sufficient scientific proof to dismiss any idea that capitalism exploits one party for the benefit of another. Nevertheless we should, of course, tackle directly the specific incarnations of this myth as they appear today.

The myth has its roots in the Marxian confusion of political castes with economic classes – the idea that the relationship between capitalists and workers, which is free and voluntary, was akin to that of king and subject, or landed aristocracy and peasant – relationships that were involuntary and subjected the masses to servitude. Caste systems were static and designed to keep people in their place; under conditions of free exchange, however, economic classes have a continually changing membership based upon one’s ability to serve consumers. This ability varies from person to person, of course, but nobody is legally prevented from becoming an entrepreneur and nobody, once they are a successful entrepreneur, has their wealth and status legally protected. A wealthy capitalist might find his fortune decimated when he loses this crucial ability to serve consumers and the latter turn to other suppliers for their wares; he may have to re-join the ranks of salaried employees if he is to make ends meet. On the other hand, an ordinary worker may see a gap in the market unnoticed by the current entrepreneurs of the day and set up a successful business accordingly. This does not mean say, of course, that political castes do not exist today. We can see quite clearly from bank bailouts that there are a distinct upper caste that is protected from its mistakes and is able to retain its wealth and status at the expense of the rest of us. Indeed all the similar injustices that did occur during the early history of capitalism were not owing to the capitalists’ reliance upon genuine private property and free exchange – rather, they used the power of the state to enforce their illegitimate property interests. The mercantilist corn laws, for instance, which artificially propped up the price of corn for the benefit of cereal producers are a good example from the early nineteenth century. Capitalism itself, however, does not produce these injustices.

Moving on to some more contemporary arguments, do businesses exploit the “needs” of consumers for whatever it is that the latter want? Do they withhold “vital” and “necessary” wares releasing them only at extortionate prices thinking only of their selfish greed for profits? The argument is ridiculous because all trade and exchange relies upon the desires of the trading parties – whether it is for food, housing, cars, computers, or trips to the cinema. The entrepreneurs in business exist to fulfil and satisfy, not exploit these needs. If they are able to charge high prices it is only because the supply, relative to demand, is low and has to be rationed to those who value the goods the most. This argument regarding exploitation usually surfaces today in one of two situations. The first is during sudden supply shocks or demand spikes that send prices soaring and allows suppliers to book large profits as they obviously paid for the inputs at much lower, wholesale prices. As these usually occur during times of emergency or crisis, aren’t the businesses exploiting the dire need of the consumers for such staples as water, canned food and fuel? Such an argument ignores the fact that it is not the businesses driving the demand – it is the other people who are willing to pay more to get their hands on the suddenly scarce items. The only options are to allow other entrants into the marketplace to bring more resources into the production of scarce goods and lower their price, which would satisfy everyone with more supply of those goods that are most needed in these crisis situations; or, to fix the prices of the wares below their market clearing level which would lead to guaranteed shortages. Needless to say, government always opts for the latter. The second situation that attracts criticism is when the entrepreneur is in the business of providing something “essential” such as energy or healthcare. Yet these businesses are almost always cripplingly regulated and interfered with by government that it is impossible to define them as anything approaching free markets. Britain’s Energy market is a case in point. Apart from the vast government bureaucracy that oversees the industry, idiosyncratic interferences such as the announcement by the leader of the opposition Labour Party, Ed Miliband, that his government would freeze energy prices if his party wins the 2015 general election also take their toll upon consumers. Firms are not passing on the reduction of wholesale Energy prices to consumers and are booking profits now for fear that they will be locked into furnishing energy at low tariffs in a period when wholesale prices are rising, should Miliband make good his threat. In contrast if you look to any industry that government tends to leave alone you do not find the same criticisms hurled at the dominant suppliers. Up until now we have seen that supermarkets, although subjected to food standards regulations that no doubt have raised prices, have benefitted from relatively less government interference and, apart from a few murmurings from food purists and local activists, inexpensive food has ensured that they have never been a serious political issue. However, now that food prices are starting to rise can we expect government to start poking its nose increasingly into the food industry and blaming the resulting shortages and disarray on the “exploitation” of the big supermarkets? Furthermore, given that trade is always a two-way process we could also say that the consumers “exploit” the need of businesses for money. These entities have suppliers and employees to pay and they are often desperate to get their hands on your cash – if someone else offers a lower price they could be left high and dry by your decision to shop elsewhere, threatening the employment and livelihoods of all of those people that work in the business you shun simply because you have the guile to want to pay less! It is partly for that reason that the supply curve for consumer goods is generally vertical, with merchants selling goods for any price they can get simply to shift them and have at least some cash to meet their future outgoings.

In a genuine free market businesses can never exploit anyone or hold anyone to ransom. A consumer would have the power to take his custom elsewhere if the business failed to meet his needs at an agreeable price. Although businesses as a whole set prices for consumer products and wages, no one individual business can do so and each one must be prepared to sell goods for, at most, as much as the next business, and to pay wages at least as high. These boundaries can be crippling if the selling prices are lower or insubstantially higher than the prices the business must pay out. Businesses, unprotected by government privilege, therefore have to be on their toes constantly in case someone comes along with a better offer. The beneficiary of this process is the consumer-employee, who always knows he is paying the lowest price for what he buys and receives the highest wage for his work that can ever be paid.

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Labourers, Capitalists and Entrepreneurs

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Libertarians are well aware of the Marxist myth that labourers or employees are “exploited” by the capitalists, the entrepreneurs, the employers and the bosses, the former producing all of the valuable output in society and only permitted to consume enough to keep them at bare subsistence while the latter cream off the fat and live a life of carefree opulence.

The details of the economic fallacies of this position we will not explore here. Rather, the issue we wish to concentrate on is the common misperception that is “easy” to be a capitalist-entrepreneur (whom, hereafter, we will refer to as a “businessman”) and back-breakingly “difficult” to be a labourer. Such an impression is hard to dispel when, after all, the majority of the population are labourers, only a slim minority are businessmen and the relationship between the two is nearly always at arm’s length. Don’t the businessmen have the luxury of dictating to us the terms of our employment, our wages, what time we have to be there in the morning, what time we can leave, when we can have lunch, how often we can go to the toilet? And don’t they then decide when they’ll let us in to the shops to buy the stuff we need, setting the prices we must pay to ensure themselves enough profit, and us having to choose from whatever they have decided we can buy? Aren’t we just lucky to have whatever scraps that they throw down to us from their table? Although there will always be a natural antagonism between boss and employee the latter should think twice before becoming too envious of those who offer him work by failing to realise the pitfalls of becoming a businessman and ignoring the advantages of remaining as a labourer. Let us explore some of these in detail.

First of all, as a labourer you have the advantage of receiving your income first and incurring your costs later. The businessman pays you immediately once your work is complete and then you have a definite amount of money in your hand right now that you know you can spend on whatever you like. Furthermore, you do not have to wait until the product that you are working on for the businessman is completed before receiving this income, which might be weeks, months or even years before it reaches the hands of the consumer. No, you get your money now, cash in hand, with no waiting. And once you go to the shops you know the prices that you will pay so you can estimate easily how much you can spend and how much you can save in order live sustainably. In short, living as a labourer has a high degree of certainty. Labourers do, of course, partly share in entrepreneurial burdens. Not only do they have to know which skills are the best to offer prospective employers but they also bear the risk of redundancy in the event that the employer is forced to cease trading, or if the entire industry in which they work should become obsolete. But his entrepreneurial risk is greatly diminished compared to that of the businessman. Moreover, as a labourer, there is normally a strict starting point to your day and a strict ending point. Yes, you have to turn up and work for those eight or so hours in the day between those times but the time outside of that is yours and work, except for the very highest salaried employees, does not have to interfere with your leisure time.

Let us contrast this with the position of the businessman. He does not have the benefit of receiving his income first and incurring his costs later. Rather, he must first of all save and then burden himself with costs (including your wages) on an operation without knowing precisely how much this operation will yield in income. Indeed, the whole operation might bring him a net loss. He doesn’t know precisely what the outcome will be and he is, indeed, taking an enormous risk by entering this venture. It is simply anticipation on his part. Yet you, even if you participate in his operation, have been insulated from this by being paid up front. The businessman doesn’t come back to you after the end of a loss-making year and demand some of your wages back. You get to keep everything whereas he may lose a significant portion of his wealth. Equally and oppositely, therefore nor should he be expected to give you some of his surplus at the end of a profitable year. Furthermore, while businessmen as a whole “set prices”, any one of them does not do so as he pleases. Rather, he has to compete with what other businessmen are willing to pay for their inputs on the one hand and sell their outputs for on the other. The prices he pays for goods, raw materials and your wages to produce the goods he will sell are set not by him but by the bids of all the other businessmen who wish to uses these resources in their competing operations. Our businessman must be prepared to pay at least as much as they are if he is to secure the inputs necessary to run his business. Indeed one of the great Marxist myths – that the capitalists drive down wages to the lowest possible – is made plainly untrue by this fact. It is the competition between businessmen that drives up the wages of labour as it increases the demand for it. What is likely to reduce wages, on the other hand, is the existence of other workers as each new labourer adds an additional supply of labour, especially in particular industries where certain skills are necessary for which there is a finite demand. Indeed one of the reasons why unionised labour has always supported the minimum wage is to make the lowest skilled workers unemployable and reduce the competition for their more highly skilled members, thus raising the wages of the latter at the expense of the former. So much, one might say, for the collective interests of each class. When it comes to the prices of the product to be sold, the businessman must similarly compete with all of the products offered by his competitors for the contents of the consumers’ wallets and purses. His prices will therefore be determined by all of the other asking prices of his competitors and he must be prepared to offer a low enough price to draw consumers away from these other businesses1. Once a product is produced it is normally in a businessman’s best interests to sell it as quickly as possible. He does not have the luxury of “un-producing” it, winding back the clock and choosing to do something else. Rather, he is stuck with it and the longer he holds onto it the more likely it is that perishable items will simply be wasted and more durable items will incur further costs of storage. The only option, barring the possibility of personal use (which is obviously impossible for any large scale business) will be to sell it. Very often, therefore, the supply curve for a businessman will be vertical, meaning that he is prepared to take whatever the consumers will pay for his wares. If this is not enough to cover his costs then he will go out of business. He only earns a profit if the consumers are prepared to pay more than the product cost to produce. Occasionally a business may hold onto goods in the anticipation that their prices will rise at a later date, but this is normally the function of speculators in commodities and raw materials which have a diverse range of potential uses and not the function of manufacturers and vendors of highly specific, consumer goods. While businesses as a whole set prices, therefore, any one business is highly restricted in the prices it pays for its inputs and the prices it receives for its outputs and it takes tremendous skill and foresight to ensure that the latter is higher than the former.

Furthermore, the profits that a businessman will earn if he is successful in this regard are in no way “deductions” from wages. Rather, properly considered, wages are deductions from profits. When an businessman brings his produced product to market on a certain day, it will sell for whatever people are prepared to pay for it that day and the businessman will consequently earn certain revenue. If, for the sake of argument, he had been able to bring that product to market without incurring a single cost then his profit would be his entire revenue. In the real world, however, he must incur costs and every single cost, including wages, that has brought him to the position of being able to sell that product is a deduction from that revenue and only the remainder is the resulting profit. If the deductions are too high then he makes a loss. Indeed, this is precisely how a company’s income statement is laid out – revenue at the top followed by costs deducted leading to the final figure which is the profit; hence the expression “the bottom line”. If another businessman brought the same type and quantity of products to market on the same day he would earn exactly the same revenue as our first businessman, but if this second businessman had done so while incurring fewer costs then his deductions would be lower and his profit would be higher. Every time a businessman considers hiring one more employee he has to estimate whether the additional revenue gained from doing so will be higher than the deduction from that revenue he must pay out in wages. In short, your help in his enterprise allows you to pinch from his pie upfront, and only at the very end, after you have vanished, does he know how big the pie is. If he is unsuccessful you, the labourer, might well have left nothing for him.

Another myth we need to tackle is that capitalist-entrepreneurs automatically become rich. For every successful entrepreneur there are a dozen or more failures because the ability to judge, in advance, which products and services consumers will want to and how much they are willing to pay is a rare skill; hence it is very highly rewarded when it is successful. In a genuine free market there would never be a “class” of capitalists or of entrepreneurs. Rather, everyone would be free to risk his money in a new business if he believed that he had identified a marketable good or service. What gives us the illusion of a capitalist class today is the government protection accorded to large, established businesses and their owners and managers. Indeed the cash-bloated financial sector has only swollen to its titanic size because of the largess that government lavishes on this industry, whereas in a genuine free market financial services would earn the ordinary rate of profit. Furthermore, government makes it extremely difficult to start a new business, crushing it with the cost of crippling regulatory requirements before the budding entrepreneurs can give thought to more relevant things such as their product, their customers and their genuine costs. All this serves to make the businessmen an impenetrable caste of permanent membership, hence increasing the resentment of their position. Furthermore, it is possible to mistake the volume of money sloshing around in a business for the wealth that business possesses. It might be awe-inspiring to see a company’s bank statement raking in millions of pounds a month whereas you, as a little labourer, might only earn a thousand pounds in the same period. But deep pockets are usually raided by fatter hands; just as the income is much greater than yours, so too are the outgoings. It matters not a whit if a company is seeing income of £1 million per month. What matters is the differential between the revenue and the costs. If, in order to earn £1 million pounds the business had to pay out £1.1 million pounds then it would be left with a net loss of £100K. Just because lots of money is coming in to the bank does not mean that a company has endless amounts of cash to play around with and this is compounded by the fact we mentioned earlier of businesses having to incur their costs before their revenue is received. At least as a labourer if you decide to spend a bit more on some luxury in a certain month you still have the ability to calculate precisely what you will have at the end of that month. Businesses do not have this ability and particularly where profit margins are slim only a very slight tipping of the balance into the red can cause money to evaporate very rapidly.

Related to this aspect of the volume of cash in a business is the so-called “inequality of bargaining power” – that businesses, being so big and wealthy are more “powerful” than the tiny labourer who has to come, cup in hand, for whatever he can get. There is, however, no such thing as “bargaining power”. Each party enters a contractual agreement because they each desire something that the other possesses. The value of one party gaining what is yours is in his mind and is not inherent in you. If you are able to negotiate terms that are very favourable to you it simply means that he values what you have more than you value what he has. You have no control over this aspect and all it would take is for someone else to come along and offer something that is better than what you have. Secondly, and, ironically, it is not the growing and profitable businesses – the ones who have “bargaining power” – that tend to be restrictive on how much they are willing to pay in costs. The enthusiasm of a new entrepreneurial venture coupled with the either the anticipation or the reality of large profits results in a lower degree of scrupulousness in controlling costs and the very opposite of a Scrooge-like approach to hiring workers. Indeed it has been estimated that entrepreneurs as a whole pay too much in advances for their inputs and make an overall loss, with even the big winners failing to cancel out the losses of the big winners2. The point at which businesses become tight-fisted is when there is strong competition in a saturated market, driving down profit margins resulting in the need to cut costs in order to stay ahead. In other words it is when profits are low – i.e. when a business’s bargaining power is restricted – that causes a business to demand less favourable terms for its employees. There is also the alternative possibility that a business can grow so large that it soaks up the entire supply of an input and hence is said to be insulated from competitive pressure in setting the prices it pays. This is the frequent allegation that is made against large supermarket chains such as Tesco in their dealings with small suppliers. Of this we can say three things. First, in a genuinely free market, if a business has grown that large then it has done so because it has met the needs of consumers better than anyone else. Secondly, such a behemoth contains the seeds of its own destruction as size and domination leads to complacency and stifling innovation, giving opportunity for more nimble and enthusiastic start-ups to enter the fray and draw away suppliers with more favourable terms. Indeed the evolution of the technology sector may, perhaps, illustrate this. Microsoft dominated the PC age; Google the internet age; and Facebook the social networking era. No one firm was able to retain its dominating influence as consumer focus shifted from one thing to the next. Indeed already we are perhaps seeing a waning of social networking with Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp specifically for the purpose of attracting a younger audience for whom instant communication through smartphone technology has proven to be more important than creating a profile on a website. Who will dominate this latter era, if it proves to be one, remains to be seen. Thirdly the large corporate monopoly as we have come to know it is most often sustained by government and not by its consumers. Regulatory privilege, artificial barriers of entry and direct government contracts insulate these firms from actual and potential competition, meaning that their “bargaining power” is bestowed by nothing more than government force and fiat. Clearly this would not be the case in a genuinely free market.

What we have seen therefore is that being a businessman is far from easy. Yes there may be the reward of large profits but the path to success, in a free market at least, is fraught with uncertainty and difficulty. Life as a labourer may be relatively low paid, dull, repetitive but at least it is relatively secure and certain. We should end by reinforcing the fact that throughout this essay we have been talking about businessmen who earn their profits through serving the needs of consumers – those who have successfully determined the needs of their customers and directed the scarce resources available accordingly. We have not been referring to the government-protected or what we might call the “political” entrepreneur who has won his riches through lobbying and government protection. These latter creatures should be reviled for what they are and by pressing ahead for the establishment of a genuine free market we can enjoy watching their ill-gotten fortunes evaporate into the hands of those businessmen who truly know how to serve our needs.

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1Contrary to another popular myth competition is not restricted to particular industries. If you are sell apples then it is in your interests to draw people away from spending their money on, say, cinema trips just as it is on other apple vendors. All businesses are competing for the finite contents of consumers’ bank balances.

2Virginia Postrel, Economic Scene; a Vital Economy is one that Suffers Lucky Fools Gladly, New York Times, September 6th 2001: “If the few big wins cancel out the many losses, starting a business would be a risky, but rational, bet — the sort of investment a “cautious businessman” might make. But Professor [John V C] Nye [economic historian] argued that the wins and the losses probably don’t cancel out. Even the biggest winners don’t make enough money personally to cover the losses of all the individuals who went into businesses that failed. The big winners are usually people who, based on rational calculations, shouldn’t have bet their time, money and ideas. They overestimated their chances of striking it rich. But they were lucky and beat the odds. Even more important, the lucky fools create huge spillover benefits for society: new sources of wealth, new jobs, new industries offering less-risky opportunities, new technologies that improve life. Entrepreneurship does generate net gains, but most of those gains don’t go to the risk-takers. The gains are spread out to the rest of us. Capitalism, in this view, works by exploiting the capitalists themselves.”