One of the elements of any economic system founded upon free exchange that induces a purple-faced rage amongst statists and progressives is the concept of profit. This residual – the amount left over once an entity has deducted its costs from its revenue – is said to line the pockets of greedy shareholders while exploiting labourers and consumers.

First of all it is important to understand what we mean and what we do not mean by profit. Here we will be discussing profits that an entity may earn purely as a result of voluntary trade and free exchange; we do not mean those “accounting” profits that entities may earn as a result of favourable government regulations, direct government subsidy or any kind of residual of a trade relationship based upon force. These profits – including bank bailouts and stimulus funding – are rightly to be condemned as unjust and immoral, sustaining the power base of the incompetent, wealthy elite at the expense of everyone else. But such a condemnation must not be allowed to throw out a very precious baby with repulsively filthy bathwater – for profit is one of the most vital elements that gives life to an economic system that relies upon the division of labour.

For the praxeologist profit is, of course, endemic in any human action and not just those based upon monetary calculation. All actions seek to produce better circumstances than those that would prevail, but for the action. All humans in everything they do therefore seek for a psychic profit – making more money than before is only one of these possible actions. Strictly speaking, therefore, any condemnation of profit would be a performative contradiction as, in the mind of the critic, the satisfaction of achieving condemnation would be a better circumstance than not having done so. Although such a technical and theoretical argument is unlikely to appeal to the mass of lay persons who view profits as evil and unjust, it is important to understand the roots of the concept for here we can see the importance of the profit motive – the stimulus for engaging enterprise in the first place. Without the possibility of earning profit – i.e. a better circumstance than that which prevailed before – no entrepreneur or inventor would ever bother developing and bringing to market all of the wonderful products that make our standard of living so high.

Abandoning for a moment our commitment to wertfrei economics and embracing the belief that anything that benefits the consumer or labourer is “good” and anything that harms him is “bad”, let us examine two or three specific, recurring myths concerning the concept of profit.

First of all, let us deal with the allegation that profits line the pockets of the capitalists at the expense of workers and consumers. Profits are not achieved at the “expense” of anybody. The amount of profit is only ever determinable in retrospect after all of the consumers have purchased their wares and all of the workers have been paid their wages. At the time that the consumers bought the products and the workers negotiated their terms of employment nobody knew what the profit was going to be – or even if there would be a profit at all! If you felt that you were being “fleeced” at the time you purchased a product or sold your labour then why did you enter the transaction? If a firm should be required to divest its profits back to those whom it has cheated and stolen from then what happens when the firm makes a loss? Does it work the other way round too? Did not the customers and the workers cheat the firm in this instance? Should the firm be able to go back to a customer who may have purchased an item six months ago and take more from him to wipe out the deficit? Profits, instead, benefit the consumer by ensuring that scarce productive resources are devoted to their most highly valued ends – industries and production lines where profits are abnormally low will have resources reduced and redirected to areas where they are abnormally high, thus decreasing supply in the former and increasing it in the latter. Ironically, the combined action of entrepreneurs has the ultimate effect of eliminating all profit by balancing resources throughout the economy. It is only because consumers’ tastes and preferences are constantly changing that profit opportunities continue to exist and deployment of resources must be repetitively assessed and altered accordingly. Ultimately, therefore, it is the consumer who is responsible for the existence of profit and not the capitalist-entrepreneur. Furthermore, it is profit that provides entrepreneurs with the resources to further invest in capital equipment and expand the business. This will increase supply and lower prices.

Second, even if the concept of profit for inducing enterprise was accepted, what of the allegation that profits are really used to “extract” money from the industry to pay shareholders – money that would otherwise be invested back in the business to the benefit of consumers? What this overlooks is the fact that if a distribution is made to owners or shareholders it is because the entity has already invested in the business to the extent that is economically viable and any further expansion would be wasteful. While the firm may retain some additional earnings as a buffer in anticipation of a poor performing year or for some other kind of insurance, masses of retained earnings are otherwise wasted by lying in corporate bank accounts. It is better to distribute those funds to the shareholders so that they can be reinvested in other productive enterprises that are still in need of investment. Thus the consumer is benefitted by this fresh investment in other products and services that ensures that the supply of these can also be increased and their price lowered.

Finally, it is worth emphasising that which we indicated above – that profits are never certain and the possibility of their corollary – loss – is always present. Capitalist-entrepreneurs do not first of all calculate how much profit they want and then work out how much they will pay for inputs and charge for outputs. Such a calculation may form the motivation to engage in enterprise and it might determine the boundaries of their productive action but they cannot force the outcome to agree to their projections. Rather, they must be prepared to be the highest bidder for inputs and the lowest seller for outputs in order to ensure that they can purchase resources on the one hand and then sell the resulting products on the other. This process is fraught with uncertainty and only at the end is it possible to ascertain if it has been profitable – and, indeed, a certain line of production which may hitherto have been profitable may suddenly find it is loss-making. All it may take is a marginal increase in costs as a result of competing entrepreneurs bidding away resources to other uses, coupled with no corresponding increase in sales in order to completely wipe out any profit. Or may be consumer tastes change and competing products and services become more attractive? Although profit is the motivator of entrepreneurial activity it is never certain and everyone else must be paid in full before it can materialise, if it does at all.

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