Friday, April 18, 2014

Abstinence Reconsidered II: Beware of Pity

Stefan Zweig was a master of the nested narrative. His novel, Beware of Pity was one of his works that inspired the film, The Grand Budapest Hotel. The narrator's introduction from the novel will be familiar to those who have enjoyed the movie:
Nothing is further from the truth than the only too common notion that the author's fantasy is incessantly at work within him, that his invention has an inexhaustible and continuous fund of stories and incidents upon which to draw. In reality he need only, instead of setting out to find, let himself be found by, characters and happenings, which, in so far as he has preserved the heightened capacity for observing and listening, unceasingly seek him out as their instrument of communication. To the person who has over and over again tried to trace human destinies, many tell their own story.
The Austrian war hero, Captain Hofmiller tells the first of these stories to the narrator, inside of which he relates the story told to him by Dr. Condor, who in turn recounts the confession of the Hungarian nobleman, Herr von Kekesfalva, who was formerly "the narrow-chested little Jewish lad called Leopold Kanitz." Kanitz transforms himself into von Kekesfalva through an audacious swindle that is, in its ultimate consummation, sentimentally touching.

One can only fully appreciate the banality of Ludwig von Mises's The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality through the prism of Zweig's subtle psychological study of self-denial. There is nothing subtle about von Mises's aggressive vindication of the "three progressive classes." The mawkish vehemence of his manichaean hypothesis virtually parodies itself:
Saving—capital accumulation—is the agency that has transformed step by step the awkward search for food on the part of savage cave dwellers into the modern ways of industry. The pacemakers of this evolution were the ideas that created the institutional framework within which capital accumula­tion was rendered safe by the principle of private ownership of the means of production. Every step forward on the way toward prosperity is the effect of saving. The most ingenious technological inventions would be practically useless if the capital goods required for their utilization had not been accumulated by saving. 
The entrepreneurs employ the capital goods made available by the savers for the most economical satisfaction of the most urgent among the not-yet-satisfied wants of the consumers. Together with the technologists, intent upon perfecting the methods of processing, they play, next to the savers themselves, an active part in the course of events that is called economic progress. The rest of mankind profit from the activities of these three classes of pioneers. But whatever their own doings may be, they are only beneficiaries of changes to the emergence of which they did not contribute anything.
The characteristic feature of the market economy is the fact that it allots the greater part of the improvements brought about by the endeavors of the three progressive classes—those saving, those investing the capital goods, and those elaborating new methods for the employment of capital goods—to the non-progressive majority of people. Capital accumulation exceeding the increase in population raises, on the one hand, the marginal productivity of labor and, on the other hand, cheapens the products. The market process provides the common man with the opportunity to enjoy the fruits of other peoples’ achievements. It forces the three progressive classes to serve the non-progressive majority in the best possible way.
Not only are the workers not exploited by capitalists, it is they -- the common folk, the non-progressive majority -- who exploit the "three classes of pioneers" and heedlessly consume the bulk of the fruits of their benefactors' abstinence. "The story of how Leopold Kanitz became lord and master of Kekesfalva," Dr. Condor recounted to Herr Leutnant Hofmiller, as they conferred in one of the alcoves of the Tiroler Weinstube, "begins in a slow train from Budapest to Vienna."

Beware of Pity is, of course, fiction, as are the tales within tales within tales in the novel. It would be as absurd for me to "argue against" Ludwig von Mises's account of the accumulation of capital and the exploitation of the capitalists by the rest of mankind as it would be to challenge Dr. Condor's story about how Kanitz obtained his fortune and became von Kekesfalva.

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