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.