Why Nazism Was Socialism and Why Socialism Is Totalitarian

by George Reisman, Mises Institute:

My purpose today is to make just two main points: (1) To show why Nazi Germany was a socialist state, not a capitalist one. And (2) to show why socialism, understood as an economic system based on government ownership of the means of production, positively requires a totalitarian dictatorship.

The identification of Nazi Germany as a socialist state was one of the many great contributions of Ludwig von Mises.

When one remembers that the word "Nazi" was an abbreviation for "der Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiters Partei — in English translation: the National Socialist German Workers' Party — Mises's identification might not appear all that noteworthy. For what should one expect the economic system of a country ruled by a party with "socialist" in its name to be but socialism?

Nevertheless, apart from Mises and his readers, practically no one thinks of Nazi Germany as a socialist state. It is far more common to believe that it represented a form of capitalism, which is what the Communists and all other Marxists have claimed.

The basis of the claim that Nazi Germany was capitalist was the fact that most industries in Nazi Germany appeared to be left in private hands.

What Mises identified was that private ownership of the means of production existed in name only under the Nazis and that the actual substance of ownership of the means of production resided in the German government. For it was the German government and not the nominal private owners that exercised all of the substantive powers of ownership: it, not the nominal private owners, decided what was to be produced, in what quantity, by what methods, and to whom it was to be distributed, as well as what prices would be charged and what wages would be paid, and what dividends or other income the nominal private owners would be permitted to receive. The position of the alleged private owners, Mises showed, was reduced essentially to that of government pensioners.

De facto government ownership of the means of production, as Mises termed it, was logically implied by such fundamental collectivist principles embraced by the Nazis as that the common good comes before the private good and the individual exists as a means to the ends of the State. If the individual is a means to the ends of the State, so too, of course, is his property. Just as he is owned by the State, his property is also owned by the State.

But what specifically established de facto socialism in Nazi Germany was the introduction of price and wage controls in 1936. These were imposed in response to the inflation of the money supply carried out by the regime from the time of its coming to power in early 1933. The Nazi regime inflated the money supply as the means of financing the vast increase in government spending required by its programs of public works, subsidies, and rearmament. The price and wage controls were imposed in response to the rise in prices that began to result from the inflation.

The effect of the combination of inflation and price and wage controls is shortages, that is, a situation in which the quantities of goods people attempt to buy exceed the quantities available for sale.

Shortages, in turn, result in economic chaos. It's not only that consumers who show up in stores early in the day are in a position to buy up all the stocks of goods and leave customers who arrive later, with nothing — a situation to which governments typically respond by imposing rationing. Shortages result in chaos throughout the economic system. They introduce randomness in the distribution of supplies between geographical areas, in the allocation of a factor of production among its different products, in the allocation of labor and capital among the different branches of the economic system.

In the face of the combination of price controls and shortages, the effect of a decrease in the supply of an item is not, as it would be in a free market, to raise its price and increase its profitability, thereby operating to stop the decrease in supply, or reverse it if it has gone too far. Price control prohibits the rise in price and thus the increase in profitability. At the same time, the shortages caused by price controls prevent increases in supply from reducing price and profitability. When there is a shortage, the effect of an increase in supply is merely a reduction in the severity of the shortage. Only when the shortage is totally eliminated does an increase in supply necessitate a decrease in price and bring about a decrease in profitability.

As a result, the combination of price controls and shortages makes possible random movements of supply without any effect on price and profitability. In this situation, the production of the most trivial and unimportant goods, even pet rocks, can be expanded at the expense of the production of the most urgently needed and important goods, such as life-saving medicines, with no effect on the price or profitability of either good. Price controls would prevent the production of the medicines from becoming more profitable as their supply decreased, while a shortage even of pet rocks prevented their production from becoming less profitable as their supply increased.

As Mises showed, to cope with such unintended effects of its price controls, the government must either abolish the price controls or add further measures, namely, precisely the control over what is produced, in what quantity, by what methods, and to whom it is distributed, which I referred to earlier. The combination of price controls with this further set of controls constitutes the de facto socialization of the economic system. For it means that the government then exercises all of the substantive powers of ownership.

This was the socialism instituted by the Nazis. And Mises calls it socialism on the German or Nazi pattern, in contrast to the more obvious socialism of the Soviets, which he calls socialism on the Russian or Bolshevik pattern.

Of course, socialism does not end the chaos caused by the destruction of the price system. It perpetuates it. And if it is introduced without the prior existence of price controls, its effect is to inaugurate that very chaos. This is because socialism is not actually a positive economic system. It is merely the negation of capitalism and its price system. As such, the essential nature of socialism is one and the same as the economic chaos resulting from the destruction of the price system by price and wage controls. (I want to point out that Bolshevik-style socialism's imposition of a system of production quotas, with incentives everywhere to exceed the quotas, is a sure formula for universal shortages, just as exist under all around price and wage controls.)

At most, socialism merely changes the direction of the chaos. The government's control over production may make possible a greater production of some goods of special importance to itself, but it does so only at the expense of wreaking havoc throughout the rest of the economic system. This is because the government has no way of knowing the effects on the rest of the economic system of its securing the production of the goods to which it attaches special importance.

The requirements of enforcing a system of price and wage controls shed major light on the totalitarian nature of socialism — most obviously, of course, on that of the German or Nazi variant of socialism, but also on that of Soviet-style socialism as well.

We can start with the fact that the financial self-interest of sellers operating under price controls is to evade the price controls and raise their prices. Buyers otherwise unable to obtain goods are willing, indeed, eager to pay these higher prices as the means of securing the goods they want. In these circumstances, what is to stop prices from rising and a massive black market from developing?

The answer is a combination of severe penalties combined with a great likelihood of being caught and then actually suffering those penalties. Mere fines are not likely to provide much of a deterrent. They will be regarded simply as an additional business expense. If the government is serious about its price controls, it is necessary for it to impose penalties comparable to those for a major felony.

But the mere existence of such penalties is not enough. The government has to make it actually dangerous to conduct black-market transactions. It has to make people fear that in conducting such a transaction they might somehow be discovered by the police, and actually end up in jail. In order to create such fear, the government must develop an army of spies and secret informers. For example, the government must make a storekeeper and his customer fearful that if they engage in a black-market transaction, some other customer in the store will report them.

Because of the privacy and secrecy in which many black-market transactions can be conducted, the government must also make anyone contemplating a black-market transaction fearful that the other party might turn out to be a police agent trying to entrap him. The government must make people fearful even of their long-time associates, even of their friends and relatives, lest even they turn out to be informers.

And, finally, in order to obtain convictions, the government must place the decision about innocence or guilt in the case of black-market transactions in the hands of an administrative tribunal or its police agents on the spot. It cannot rely on jury trials, because it is unlikely that many juries can be found willing to bring in guilty verdicts in cases in which a man might have to go to jail for several years for the crime of selling a few pounds of meat or a pair of shoes above the ceiling price.

In sum, therefore, the requirements merely of enforcing price-control regulations is the adoption of essential features of a totalitarian state, namely, the establishment of the category of "economic crimes," in which the peaceful pursuit of material self-interest is treated as a criminal offense, and the establishment of a totalitarian police apparatus replete with spies and informers and the power of arbitrary arrest and imprisonment.

Clearly, the enforcement of price controls requires a government similar to that of Hitler's Germany or Stalin's Russia, in which practically anyone might turn out to be a police spy and in which a secret police exists and has the power to arrest and imprison people. If the government is unwilling to go to such lengths, then, to that extent, its price controls prove unenforceable and simply break down. The black market then assumes major proportions. (Incidentally, none of this is to suggest that price controls were the cause of the reign of terror instituted by the Nazis. The Nazis began their reign of terror well before the enactment of price controls. As a result, they enacted price controls in an environment ready made for their enforcement.)

Black market activity entails the commission of further crimes. Under de facto socialism, the production and sale of goods in the black market entails the defiance of the government's regulations concerning production and distribution, as well as the defiance of its price controls. For example, the goods themselves that are sold in the black market are intended by the government to be distributed in accordance with its plan, and not in the black market. The factors of production used to produce those goods are likewise intended by the government to be used in accordance with its plan, and not for the purpose of supplying the black market.

Under a system of de jure socialism, such as existed in Soviet Russia, in which the legal code of the country openly and explicitly makes the government the owner of the means of production, all black-market activity necessarily entails the misappropriation or theft of state property. For example, the factory workers or managers in Soviet Russia who turned out products that they sold in the black market were considered as stealing the raw materials supplied by the state.

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