In a previous essay the present author commented on the role of envy in relation to greed. This short post will seek to comment on the relationship between social utility and envy, elaborating on a position put forward by Murray N Rothbard.

Rothbard treated the problem of envy and societal wealth in the following way:

If A and B trade two goods or services, they each do so because they will be, or rather expect to be, better off as a result of the trade. Surely it is legitimate then to say that A and B are both better off, and “therefore” that “society is better off,” since no one demonstrably loses by the exchange. It is implicit, and even explicit from the use of the value-loaded term “optimal,” that this exchange is therefore a “good thing.” I am sympathetic to the view that this exchange is a good thing, but I do not believe that this can be concluded merely from the fact of exchange, as the Pareto Optimum does. In the first place, there might well be one or    more people in existence who dislike and envy A or B, and who therefore experience pain and psychic loss because the object of their envy has now improved his lot. We cannot therefore conclude from the mere fact of an exchange that “everyone” is better off, and we can therefore not simply leap to the valuation idea of social utility. In order to pronounce this voluntary exchange as “good,” we need another term to our syllogism: we must make the ethical pronouncement that envy is evil, and should not be allowed to cloud our approval of the exchange. But in that case we are back to the need for a coherent ethical system. I believe, as an “ethicist,” that envy is evil, but I see no willingness among economists to admit the need for, much less set forth, any sort of coherent ethical position.1

In an earlier article he provided an elaboration as to why the potential for envy does not prevent us from saying that societal wealth increases from free exchange:

But what about…the envious man who hates the benefits of others? To  the extent that he himself has participated in the market, to that extent he reveals that he likes and benefits from the market. And we are not interested in his opinions about the exchanges made by  others, since his  preferences are not demonstrated through action and are therefore irrelevant. How do we know that this hypothetical envious one loses in utility because of the exchanges of others? Consulting his verbal opinions does not suffice, for his proclaimed envy might be a joke or a literary game or a deliberate lie. We are led inexorably, then, to the conclusion that the processes of the free market always lead to a gain in social utility. And we can say this with absolute validity as economists, without engaging in ethical judgments.2

In other words because of the concept of preference demonstrated through action it is not possible to determine whether a third party is envious:

Actual choice reveals, or demonstrates, a man’s preferences; that is, that his preferences are deducible from what he has chosen in action. Thus, if a man chooses to spend an hour at a concert rather than a movie, we deduce that the former was preferred, or ranked higher on his value scale. Similarly, if a man spends five dollars on a shirt we deduce that he preferred purchasing the shirt to any other uses he could have found for the money. This concept of preference, rooted in real choices, forms the keystone of the logical structure of economic analysis.3

Nevertheless I believe a stronger and more precise elaboration can be made. From the fact of action we are able to deduce that a person acts to bring about a set of circumstances that he prefers to those that exist prior to the action. But this valuation of circumstances is made ex-ante, a fact to which Rothbard alludes but passes over, in the first passage quoted above. It is an assessment of the value of that which is against that which he/she wants to bring about. It is only in this ex-ante sense that we are able to say that if A and B participate in a voluntary exchange that they are “better off”. The envy of a third party, however, can only arise at the ex-post stage, that is after the completion of the action – the envy is of the circumstances that have arisen as a result of the action. In the ex-ante position the action exists only in the mind of the acting individual/s. Any feelings of third parties must necessarily arise because of the state of the world as it is prior to action, not because of it. When we say that societal wealth increases from a voluntary action we mean that this is true only ex-ante.

The situation ex-post is markedly different. At this point we are, in fact, not able to deduce if anyone is better off, even the parties to the exchange let alone potentially envious third parties. So not only may third parties be envious and bitter at what has arisen from A and B’s exchange but A and/or B themselves may feel that they have suffered a psychic loss and, if they could have their time again, would not repeat the exchange. Once the actions are completed and the desires of the minds of the acting individuals have expressed themselves through real actions we move into the ex-post world where nothing more about the action can be said.

Why are we not able to determine this ex-post situation? Precisely because of the concept of demonstrated preference elaborated above. Unless valuations are expressed through action we cannot deduce at all the ex-post position. A person may be profitable, loss-making, envious, hurt or whatever but this is merely hypothetical without the specific evaluation of the individual being deducible through his actions.

It follows that when different methods of economic organisation are being compared, it is only the ex-ante consideration that is relevant as this is the only one that can be deduced through actions. For the actions of all individuals, whether they are of an individual, a corporation, a Government or the Central Planning Board only demonstrate their ex-ante valuations. And it is only with free exchange that both parties to the transactions expect to be better off. All other forms of organisation necessarily involve involuntary actions where at least one party does not expect to benefit (otherwise they would have made the action voluntarily), the impossibility of measuring this loss meaning that we cannot conclude there has been any increase in societal wealth.

In sum, therefore,

  • Under conditions of voluntary action all parties to an action will benefit ex-ante;
  • Ex-ante an action exists only in the mind of the acting individual/s. Third parties can neither gain nor lose ex-ante as nothing has happened in the world for them to assess;
  • It can therefore be said that voluntary action will increase societal wealth ex-ante.
  • Under conditions of involuntary action at least one party will not benefit ex-ante. It cannot be said, as a consequence, that societal wealth increases;
  • Ex-post it is not possible to deduce whether anyone has gained or lost; this can only be evaluated through further, concrete actions which themselves can only be analysed according to the criteria just elaborated.

Nevertheless it must be stressed that this is insufficient to justify free exchange unless we insert ethical norms that state why we should want societal wealth to be increased; indeed, why should we want everyone to be better off? Why not a majority or a minority? There is nothing to stop someone from saying “I accept that free exchange makes everyone better off but I don’t want everyone to be better off. I think that a person should make sure that himself and his friends are better off regardless of the consequences to everyone else.” Rothbard again:

The fact that the free market maximizes social utility, or that State action cannot be considered voluntary, or that the  laissez-faire economists were better welfare analysts than they are given credit for, in itself implies no plea for laissez-faire or for any other social system. What welfare economics does is to present these conclusions to the framer of ethical judgments as part of the data for his ethical system. To the person who  scorns social utility or admires coercion, our analysis might furnish powerful arguments for a policy of thoroughgoing Statism.4

Such a possibility cannot be ruled out from the fact of free exchange alone. They can be ruled out praxeologically but this must be the subject for a later essay.

1Murray N Rothbard, Value Implications of Economic Theory, Ch. 12 in Economic Controversies, p. 243.

2Murray N Rothbard, Towards a Reconstruction of Utility and Welfare Economics, Ch 14 in Economic Controversies, p. 320.

3Ibid., p. 290.

4Ibid., p. 333.

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