Economic Myths #4 – Profits are Evil

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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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Labourers, Capitalists and Entrepreneurs

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Libertarians are well aware of the Marxist myth that labourers or employees are “exploited” by the capitalists, the entrepreneurs, the employers and the bosses, the former producing all of the valuable output in society and only permitted to consume enough to keep them at bare subsistence while the latter cream off the fat and live a life of carefree opulence.

The details of the economic fallacies of this position we will not explore here. Rather, the issue we wish to concentrate on is the common misperception that is “easy” to be a capitalist-entrepreneur (whom, hereafter, we will refer to as a “businessman”) and back-breakingly “difficult” to be a labourer. Such an impression is hard to dispel when, after all, the majority of the population are labourers, only a slim minority are businessmen and the relationship between the two is nearly always at arm’s length. Don’t the businessmen have the luxury of dictating to us the terms of our employment, our wages, what time we have to be there in the morning, what time we can leave, when we can have lunch, how often we can go to the toilet? And don’t they then decide when they’ll let us in to the shops to buy the stuff we need, setting the prices we must pay to ensure themselves enough profit, and us having to choose from whatever they have decided we can buy? Aren’t we just lucky to have whatever scraps that they throw down to us from their table? Although there will always be a natural antagonism between boss and employee the latter should think twice before becoming too envious of those who offer him work by failing to realise the pitfalls of becoming a businessman and ignoring the advantages of remaining as a labourer. Let us explore some of these in detail.

First of all, as a labourer you have the advantage of receiving your income first and incurring your costs later. The businessman pays you immediately once your work is complete and then you have a definite amount of money in your hand right now that you know you can spend on whatever you like. Furthermore, you do not have to wait until the product that you are working on for the businessman is completed before receiving this income, which might be weeks, months or even years before it reaches the hands of the consumer. No, you get your money now, cash in hand, with no waiting. And once you go to the shops you know the prices that you will pay so you can estimate easily how much you can spend and how much you can save in order live sustainably. In short, living as a labourer has a high degree of certainty. Labourers do, of course, partly share in entrepreneurial burdens. Not only do they have to know which skills are the best to offer prospective employers but they also bear the risk of redundancy in the event that the employer is forced to cease trading, or if the entire industry in which they work should become obsolete. But his entrepreneurial risk is greatly diminished compared to that of the businessman. Moreover, as a labourer, there is normally a strict starting point to your day and a strict ending point. Yes, you have to turn up and work for those eight or so hours in the day between those times but the time outside of that is yours and work, except for the very highest salaried employees, does not have to interfere with your leisure time.

Let us contrast this with the position of the businessman. He does not have the benefit of receiving his income first and incurring his costs later. Rather, he must first of all save and then burden himself with costs (including your wages) on an operation without knowing precisely how much this operation will yield in income. Indeed, the whole operation might bring him a net loss. He doesn’t know precisely what the outcome will be and he is, indeed, taking an enormous risk by entering this venture. It is simply anticipation on his part. Yet you, even if you participate in his operation, have been insulated from this by being paid up front. The businessman doesn’t come back to you after the end of a loss-making year and demand some of your wages back. You get to keep everything whereas he may lose a significant portion of his wealth. Equally and oppositely, therefore nor should he be expected to give you some of his surplus at the end of a profitable year. Furthermore, while businessmen as a whole “set prices”, any one of them does not do so as he pleases. Rather, he has to compete with what other businessmen are willing to pay for their inputs on the one hand and sell their outputs for on the other. The prices he pays for goods, raw materials and your wages to produce the goods he will sell are set not by him but by the bids of all the other businessmen who wish to uses these resources in their competing operations. Our businessman must be prepared to pay at least as much as they are if he is to secure the inputs necessary to run his business. Indeed one of the great Marxist myths – that the capitalists drive down wages to the lowest possible – is made plainly untrue by this fact. It is the competition between businessmen that drives up the wages of labour as it increases the demand for it. What is likely to reduce wages, on the other hand, is the existence of other workers as each new labourer adds an additional supply of labour, especially in particular industries where certain skills are necessary for which there is a finite demand. Indeed one of the reasons why unionised labour has always supported the minimum wage is to make the lowest skilled workers unemployable and reduce the competition for their more highly skilled members, thus raising the wages of the latter at the expense of the former. So much, one might say, for the collective interests of each class. When it comes to the prices of the product to be sold, the businessman must similarly compete with all of the products offered by his competitors for the contents of the consumers’ wallets and purses. His prices will therefore be determined by all of the other asking prices of his competitors and he must be prepared to offer a low enough price to draw consumers away from these other businesses1. Once a product is produced it is normally in a businessman’s best interests to sell it as quickly as possible. He does not have the luxury of “un-producing” it, winding back the clock and choosing to do something else. Rather, he is stuck with it and the longer he holds onto it the more likely it is that perishable items will simply be wasted and more durable items will incur further costs of storage. The only option, barring the possibility of personal use (which is obviously impossible for any large scale business) will be to sell it. Very often, therefore, the supply curve for a businessman will be vertical, meaning that he is prepared to take whatever the consumers will pay for his wares. If this is not enough to cover his costs then he will go out of business. He only earns a profit if the consumers are prepared to pay more than the product cost to produce. Occasionally a business may hold onto goods in the anticipation that their prices will rise at a later date, but this is normally the function of speculators in commodities and raw materials which have a diverse range of potential uses and not the function of manufacturers and vendors of highly specific, consumer goods. While businesses as a whole set prices, therefore, any one business is highly restricted in the prices it pays for its inputs and the prices it receives for its outputs and it takes tremendous skill and foresight to ensure that the latter is higher than the former.

Furthermore, the profits that a businessman will earn if he is successful in this regard are in no way “deductions” from wages. Rather, properly considered, wages are deductions from profits. When an businessman brings his produced product to market on a certain day, it will sell for whatever people are prepared to pay for it that day and the businessman will consequently earn certain revenue. If, for the sake of argument, he had been able to bring that product to market without incurring a single cost then his profit would be his entire revenue. In the real world, however, he must incur costs and every single cost, including wages, that has brought him to the position of being able to sell that product is a deduction from that revenue and only the remainder is the resulting profit. If the deductions are too high then he makes a loss. Indeed, this is precisely how a company’s income statement is laid out – revenue at the top followed by costs deducted leading to the final figure which is the profit; hence the expression “the bottom line”. If another businessman brought the same type and quantity of products to market on the same day he would earn exactly the same revenue as our first businessman, but if this second businessman had done so while incurring fewer costs then his deductions would be lower and his profit would be higher. Every time a businessman considers hiring one more employee he has to estimate whether the additional revenue gained from doing so will be higher than the deduction from that revenue he must pay out in wages. In short, your help in his enterprise allows you to pinch from his pie upfront, and only at the very end, after you have vanished, does he know how big the pie is. If he is unsuccessful you, the labourer, might well have left nothing for him.

Another myth we need to tackle is that capitalist-entrepreneurs automatically become rich. For every successful entrepreneur there are a dozen or more failures because the ability to judge, in advance, which products and services consumers will want to and how much they are willing to pay is a rare skill; hence it is very highly rewarded when it is successful. In a genuine free market there would never be a “class” of capitalists or of entrepreneurs. Rather, everyone would be free to risk his money in a new business if he believed that he had identified a marketable good or service. What gives us the illusion of a capitalist class today is the government protection accorded to large, established businesses and their owners and managers. Indeed the cash-bloated financial sector has only swollen to its titanic size because of the largess that government lavishes on this industry, whereas in a genuine free market financial services would earn the ordinary rate of profit. Furthermore, government makes it extremely difficult to start a new business, crushing it with the cost of crippling regulatory requirements before the budding entrepreneurs can give thought to more relevant things such as their product, their customers and their genuine costs. All this serves to make the businessmen an impenetrable caste of permanent membership, hence increasing the resentment of their position. Furthermore, it is possible to mistake the volume of money sloshing around in a business for the wealth that business possesses. It might be awe-inspiring to see a company’s bank statement raking in millions of pounds a month whereas you, as a little labourer, might only earn a thousand pounds in the same period. But deep pockets are usually raided by fatter hands; just as the income is much greater than yours, so too are the outgoings. It matters not a whit if a company is seeing income of £1 million per month. What matters is the differential between the revenue and the costs. If, in order to earn £1 million pounds the business had to pay out £1.1 million pounds then it would be left with a net loss of £100K. Just because lots of money is coming in to the bank does not mean that a company has endless amounts of cash to play around with and this is compounded by the fact we mentioned earlier of businesses having to incur their costs before their revenue is received. At least as a labourer if you decide to spend a bit more on some luxury in a certain month you still have the ability to calculate precisely what you will have at the end of that month. Businesses do not have this ability and particularly where profit margins are slim only a very slight tipping of the balance into the red can cause money to evaporate very rapidly.

Related to this aspect of the volume of cash in a business is the so-called “inequality of bargaining power” – that businesses, being so big and wealthy are more “powerful” than the tiny labourer who has to come, cup in hand, for whatever he can get. There is, however, no such thing as “bargaining power”. Each party enters a contractual agreement because they each desire something that the other possesses. The value of one party gaining what is yours is in his mind and is not inherent in you. If you are able to negotiate terms that are very favourable to you it simply means that he values what you have more than you value what he has. You have no control over this aspect and all it would take is for someone else to come along and offer something that is better than what you have. Secondly, and, ironically, it is not the growing and profitable businesses – the ones who have “bargaining power” – that tend to be restrictive on how much they are willing to pay in costs. The enthusiasm of a new entrepreneurial venture coupled with the either the anticipation or the reality of large profits results in a lower degree of scrupulousness in controlling costs and the very opposite of a Scrooge-like approach to hiring workers. Indeed it has been estimated that entrepreneurs as a whole pay too much in advances for their inputs and make an overall loss, with even the big winners failing to cancel out the losses of the big winners2. The point at which businesses become tight-fisted is when there is strong competition in a saturated market, driving down profit margins resulting in the need to cut costs in order to stay ahead. In other words it is when profits are low – i.e. when a business’s bargaining power is restricted – that causes a business to demand less favourable terms for its employees. There is also the alternative possibility that a business can grow so large that it soaks up the entire supply of an input and hence is said to be insulated from competitive pressure in setting the prices it pays. This is the frequent allegation that is made against large supermarket chains such as Tesco in their dealings with small suppliers. Of this we can say three things. First, in a genuinely free market, if a business has grown that large then it has done so because it has met the needs of consumers better than anyone else. Secondly, such a behemoth contains the seeds of its own destruction as size and domination leads to complacency and stifling innovation, giving opportunity for more nimble and enthusiastic start-ups to enter the fray and draw away suppliers with more favourable terms. Indeed the evolution of the technology sector may, perhaps, illustrate this. Microsoft dominated the PC age; Google the internet age; and Facebook the social networking era. No one firm was able to retain its dominating influence as consumer focus shifted from one thing to the next. Indeed already we are perhaps seeing a waning of social networking with Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp specifically for the purpose of attracting a younger audience for whom instant communication through smartphone technology has proven to be more important than creating a profile on a website. Who will dominate this latter era, if it proves to be one, remains to be seen. Thirdly the large corporate monopoly as we have come to know it is most often sustained by government and not by its consumers. Regulatory privilege, artificial barriers of entry and direct government contracts insulate these firms from actual and potential competition, meaning that their “bargaining power” is bestowed by nothing more than government force and fiat. Clearly this would not be the case in a genuinely free market.

What we have seen therefore is that being a businessman is far from easy. Yes there may be the reward of large profits but the path to success, in a free market at least, is fraught with uncertainty and difficulty. Life as a labourer may be relatively low paid, dull, repetitive but at least it is relatively secure and certain. We should end by reinforcing the fact that throughout this essay we have been talking about businessmen who earn their profits through serving the needs of consumers – those who have successfully determined the needs of their customers and directed the scarce resources available accordingly. We have not been referring to the government-protected or what we might call the “political” entrepreneur who has won his riches through lobbying and government protection. These latter creatures should be reviled for what they are and by pressing ahead for the establishment of a genuine free market we can enjoy watching their ill-gotten fortunes evaporate into the hands of those businessmen who truly know how to serve our needs.

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1Contrary to another popular myth competition is not restricted to particular industries. If you are sell apples then it is in your interests to draw people away from spending their money on, say, cinema trips just as it is on other apple vendors. All businesses are competing for the finite contents of consumers’ bank balances.

2Virginia Postrel, Economic Scene; a Vital Economy is one that Suffers Lucky Fools Gladly, New York Times, September 6th 2001: “If the few big wins cancel out the many losses, starting a business would be a risky, but rational, bet — the sort of investment a “cautious businessman” might make. But Professor [John V C] Nye [economic historian] argued that the wins and the losses probably don’t cancel out. Even the biggest winners don’t make enough money personally to cover the losses of all the individuals who went into businesses that failed. The big winners are usually people who, based on rational calculations, shouldn’t have bet their time, money and ideas. They overestimated their chances of striking it rich. But they were lucky and beat the odds. Even more important, the lucky fools create huge spillover benefits for society: new sources of wealth, new jobs, new industries offering less-risky opportunities, new technologies that improve life. Entrepreneurship does generate net gains, but most of those gains don’t go to the risk-takers. The gains are spread out to the rest of us. Capitalism, in this view, works by exploiting the capitalists themselves.”

Time Preference and Human Action

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The role of time preference in human action can be a difficult subject to grasp correctly. This essay will seek to resolve some common misunderstandings that are essential before one can consider the full implications of the concept in economics. First of all we shall attempt to correct a few particular errors or myths before explaining the true, praxeological foundations of time preference.

Classes of Goods

The first misunderstanding we must address is that the concept of time preference is nearly always expressed with the statement “present goods are more valuable than future goods”. However such a formulation is only shorthand at the very best as it violates some well accepted and understood truths with which “Austrians” are well acquainted and have no difficulty in applying to other concepts. Humans do not have any relation at all to whole categories of goods in their physical embodiment – all of the gold, all of the iron, all of the bread in the world and so on. Rather, humans only act in relation to specific quantities, or units, of goods in order to meet their ends and it is these specific quantities to which value is imputed. Hence the so-called paradox of value – i.e. why a diamond, a seemingly trivial ornate luxury, is more expensive than a bottle of water, which is essential for life – was solved after having confounded the classical economists. The categories “present goods” and “future goods” are precisely this kind of holistic, indiscrete and meaningless concept that has no relevance to action. No human ever acts in relation to all of the present goods in the world, nor to all of the future goods. Rather, we have to examine the precise circumstances in action from which this shorthand derives.

Present Ends and Future Ends

Secondly we must realise that an understanding of time preference cannot come about from any comparison of present ends with future ends, that is, ends that must be met now compared to ends that must be met at some point in the future. Economic laws are only true when they conform to the ceteris paribus rule – that all else is equal. In understanding an economic phenomenon, it is necessary to hold all independent variables constant and to alter only the dependent variable under examination. With time preference, the variable under examination is goods, the means used to extinguish an end, and more specifically the time at which they become available. In testing this variable and making alterations to whether a good takes effect in the present or the future, the end itself, another variable, must remain constant. To talk of present ends and future ends in trying to understand time preference, however, is to make an alteration to a variable other than the one that is under examination. It is to change both the nature of the good and the nature of the end simultaneously, the equivalent of trying to understand the effects of an increase in the quantity demanded while also varying the quantity of supply. If demand was to rise beyond the valuation of the marginal buyer yet supply was to rise beyond the valuation of the marginal seller at an equal rate then price would, all else being equal, remain constant. One would derive from this the conclusion that an increase in demand has no effect upon price, which is clearly incorrect. With time preference, therefore, the examination is to determine the difference between the ability of a present good and a future good to satisfy the same end.

To elaborate on this point, a human has needs that arise at different times, some in the present and some in the future, depending on the length of his period of provision. He may, for example, realise that he needs to satisfy his hunger not only today but also tomorrow, the next day, next week and so on. However, humans themselves exist only in the present and all decisions, choices and actions must be made in the present – not tomorrow, not next week and not next year – and the ends to which they strive must all be ends that exist now. Simply because a need takes effect in the future and may be described as a “future need” does not mean, praxeologically, that it is a future end – end being a category of action that can exist only in the present. Therefore all ends that are sought after must take a place in a human’s rank of values now, and the urgency of their satisfaction will be determined by that rank. For example, I may know that I need to satisfy my hunger today and also that I will have to satisfy my hunger tomorrow. I have two loaves of bread now, one of which I devote to satisfying my hunger now so I eat it now; the other I direct towards the end of satisfying my hunger tomorrow so I store it in a bread bin. Or, in place of the latter, I may arrange to acquire a second loaf of bread tomorrow rather than having one available immediately. However one of these ends is not a present end of satisfying my hunger now and the other a future end of satisfying my hunger tomorrow. I can only make choices and decisions that lead to actions now, in the present, as I do not exist in the future. Therefore all ends must be expressed as present ends. The two ends are, therefore, correctly described as follows: the end of satisfying my hunger now; and the end of providing for the satisfaction of my hunger tomorrow. For the first end, the relevant action is eating the first loaf of bread today. For the second, it is directing the second loaf into the bread bin for storage (or arranging for the acquisition of the second loaf tomorrow). Both ends are therefore present ends met through present actions and if the second end is sufficiently high in my value rankings then it will need to be fulfilled now also and the stored loaf bread, or the expected acquisition of a second loaf of bread, is fulfilling this end now. Crucially, however, the importance that each end may have could be higher or lower than the other. There is no necessity for the second loaf of bread, simply because it will feed me tomorrow, to be less valuable than the first. If I am desperately hungry today then the first end, satisfying my hunger today, may be very high on my rank of values and the second end may be low. Alternatively, if I believe that tomorrow will bring excruciating hardship then the end of providing for tomorrow might be the highest end and the one with which I will be preoccupied. Solely because one end concerns the present and the other the future does not automatically mean that the end concerning the future is a less valuable and provides any explanation of time preference. And there is, consequently, no necessity for the second loaf of bread to be ranked lower in value than the first. Indeed, if providing for tomorrow was the more important end then if one loaf of bread was to vanish this loss would be shifted to the least valuable end – hence I would go hungry today and use the remaining loaf to eat tomorrow.

This analysis explains why, at any present moment in time, a set of fireworks for July 4th may be more valuable than the same set for May 4th; or why ice cream in winter is less valuable than ice cream the following summer; or why someone may engage in plain saving without any expectation of interest. Indeed it is quite conceivable that someone on May 4th would exchange a set of fireworks in return for acquiring the very same set (or even a set with a lower quantity or quality) back on July 4th. The understanding of time preference does not come from situations where the goods are available either now or in the future and where the ends also take effect at varying points of time also. Rather, it comes from those situations where the ends must be met now but where the goods are available at different points in time. In short, we are comparing the ability of a good available today with a good available at a point in the future to satisfy the same end.

Psychology and Physiology

Related to the previous discussion is the fact that psychological and physiological explanations of time preference are not sufficient to establish the necessary truth of the phenomenon. The notion that people may underestimate their future needs, that they may care less about the future than the present, or that their aging bodies will simply be less capable of enjoying satisfaction in the future may all be true but they needn’t necessarily be so. Further, much of this would again be varying the end rather than the type of good. Moreover as we shall see further below, the fact of uncertainty is not sufficient to explain time preference either. Rather, our investigation will concern why time preference arises praxeologically. In other words, what is it about action that causes the law of time preference to arise as a necessary result?

Goods and Serviceability

A step forward towards understanding the difference between a present unit of a good and a future unit of the same good is the difference between their serviceability. All goods derive their value from the ends that they service. Ends are ranked in order of urgency, that is a human will devote goods to fulfilling his most highly valued end first, the second highest next, and so on. As goods to fulfil ends are always scarce, any devotion of a good to one end involves the foregoing of other ends. Where goods can be devoted to either end A or to end B, for example, B will be foregone if the value of attaining A with the goods is ranked higher. Where a particular good is able to accomplish the fulfilment of an end alone (or in combination with very few other goods – there will always, at the very least, be labour) we can derive two things. First, as the good will be sharing its service towards the fulfilment of an end with very few other goods, close to the full value of the end will be imputed to the good. Secondly, because so few other goods have to be used to fulfil the end then there are more goods to be devoted to other ends, hence there are fewer ends that need to be foregone in the pursuit of this, most urgent end. Hence this latter end will be relatively more highly valued. Let’s say, for example, that there are five ends, A, B, C, D, and E, and that there are five goods a’, b’, c’, d’ and e’ to service these ends. If good a’ can service end A without any use of the remaining goods then this leaves all of these goods to service ends B-E. Not only will good a’ be accorded the full value of end A, but the relative value of end A and compared to ends B-E is high. We may say, in this instance, that the good possesses a high degree of serviceability. Where, however, a good requires a higher number of complementary goods to fulfil an end then a lower value will be imputed to that particular good as the full value of the end must now be imputed to a greater number of goods; furthermore, the necessary devotion of more goods towards fulfilling the end will mean that a greater number of other ends will have to be foregone. For example, if good a’ was not able to fulfil end A alone but, rather, needed to act in concert with goods b’-e’, then all of the ends B-E would have to be foregone in the pursuit of end A. While end A may be the highest individually valued end, losing all of these other ends will serve to reduce its relative value and, indeed, the cost may be so great that end A will simply be abandoned.

Let us examine this first of all by exploring an analogy to time, which is distance. Let us say that I strive towards the end of quenching my thirst and that this is my most highly valued end so that I want to act to fulfil it immediately. If I have a bottle of water right next to me that will satisfy this end then, ignoring the cost of labour, the value of the bottle of water will equate to that of the end itself1. The bottle of water has served to fulfil this end with a high degree of serviceability as it has not required the use of any other goods in order to accomplish its task. This means that more goods are left over for the fulfilment of other ends. So let us then say that, as I have easily fulfilled that end, I have a second end of going to pick apples for the day. I then, having had my first end fulfilled, can proceed merrily with the fulfilment of my second with the remaining stock of goods available. And having proceeded with this second end I may have more goods left over for the pursuit of a third end of baking bread. However, what if, in a second scenario, I still desire the same end of quenching my thirst but now the bottle is not right next to me but is ten miles away? This bottle is the same, physically homogenous resource as the bottle that was right next to me but if the distance of ten miles makes, in my mind, an appreciable difference what now is the value of the bottle? The distance means that an appreciable cost must be borne in order to utilise the bottle, costs that are not shared by the utilisation of this bottle in scenario one, rendering the bottle in the second scenario with a lesser degree of serviceability. These costs, clearly, are those that must be borne in order to transport the bottle to me or me to the bottle. Because of this necessity of transportation, complementary goods must now be brought in order to service the end. But these goods were goods that could have been devoted to ends other than quenching my thirst – namely, picking apples and baking bread. The lower serviceability of the bottle means that, in order to utilise it, additional ends to which means could have been devoted now have to be foregone. From this we can derive two conclusions. First, the degree of remoteness caused by distance means that the bottle in scenario two must share its fulfilment of the end with a greater number of goods compared to the bottle in scenario one. The lower capability of the distant bottle in scenario two means that the value of the end of quenching my thirst must be imputed to a greater number of goods2. The value of the bottle in scenario two, therefore, must be discounted accordingly. Secondly, the loss of the other ends – picking apples and baking bread – serves to impose a relatively lower value on the end of quenching my thirst. If this loss becomes too great – i.e that I am not prepared to forego the loss of picking apples and baking bread in order to quench my thirst – then the then the latter end will simply be abandoned and the bottle will cease to have value (or it may be earmarked for a lower valued end to which it may be more suited). In either case in scenario two – whether I proceed to bring the distant bottle to me or I abandon the end of quenching my thirst entirely – the value of the distant bottle in scenario two is lower than that of the bottle right next to me in scenario one.

It is this kind of understanding that is the foundation of an explanation for the phenomenon of time preference – a present unit of a good has greater serviceability in satisfying an end than a future unit of the same good. We will now explore this in detail.

Time and Serviceability

Although analogous, the remoteness of time presents a challenge more difficult than that of distance and there are some important differences. Whereas with distance, the lower value of the distant good could be explained by the option of foregoing lesser valued ends in order to overcome it, an acting human does not necessarily have this luxury with time. Nothing can be done to “speed up” time and its passage must be borne at a constant rate. We therefore have to look to the particulars of action that we touched upon earlier to explain why “remoteness” in time causes an otherwise equally serviceable unit of a good to have lower value.

An action is the result of a choice to satisfy ends with means available. But as we noted above human exists only in the present and must live through the present before the future arrives. A person cannot act in the future; he has to do so in the present. All decisions are therefore present decisions to act towards present means towards present ends. In other words, the very fact that a human acts at all means that he wants an end to be extinguished now or soon, not in the future or later – to act always means to meet an end sooner rather than later. The contrary position – to seek satisfaction in the future – is antithetical to action for if a person desires to meet an end later rather than sooner then he would never act. The present could pass without action but as soon as the later period of time came around it would itself then become the present and the person would be faced with the same conundrum – he would, at that moment, either have to act (in which case he would revert to preferring satisfaction sooner rather than later) or delay action again, in which case he would never act. The logic of action therefore requires sooner satisfaction rather than later. Indeed, even where the action concerned may not bring satisfaction for a long period of time, to begin the action is to demonstrate a preference for the satisfaction of the end to be brought closer in time. It follows also that the end to which action is directed first must be the one that is, in the eyes of the acting human, in the most urgent need of fulfilment, i.e. it is the highest valued end.

What does this mean for the value of a present unit versus the value of a future unit of a good? All goods, as we know, derive their value from the ends that they satisfy. If a human acts now in relation to a good – say a bottle of water – in order to achieve the end of extinguishing his thirst it means that, now, at this moment, this end is his most highly valued end and the good must be accorded (in the absence of other appreciable costs) the same value as the end. To act now means that this end must be fulfilled now, or at least brought closer in time to fulfilment. However, if we take the same moment in time – the present – but remove the good from present availability and move it to a future availability then what does this entail for action? It means that the most highly valued end at that moment cannot be fulfilled by that good. It completely lacks any serviceability towards this end compared to the serviceability of the presently available good. One of several things may happen as a result. If the end is to be satisfied now, substitute present goods must be found. These, however, must be drawn from the satisfaction of other ends and the urgency of these ends must be reweighed against the urgency of satisfying the human’s thirst in light of the fact that the present bottle of water is no longer available. It is quite conceivable that the end would be either abandoned entirely or satisfaction of it would be delayed – in either case it necessarily ceases to be the most valuable end. As other ends now become the object of action so they become more valuable and hence, the future good reduces in value accordingly3. Furthermore, if the end is either abandoned or satisfied by substitutes, the future bottle of water may be earmarked for a lesser valued end such as providing for tomorrow’s thirst – the end being necessarily lesser not because it takes effect in the future but because it is not the most valuable end to be met at the moment when quenching my thirst is most pressing, the very moment when the relevant valuation under scrutiny is occurring.  In all of these cases – substitution, abandonment, delay and direction of the good to a lower valued end – the future bottle of water derives a lower value than the present bottle of water. It is these facts, arising from the logic of action, that is the cause of the phenomenon of time preference, the future bottle being imputed with a discount to reflect its lower utility. We can therefore state the law of time preference as being as follows: a unit of a good that is available to satisfy an end immediately (or sooner) will be more valuable than a unit of a good that can only satisfy the same end in the future (or later).

We can also understand from this why there are gradations of serviceability of future goods – for example, a present unit of a good may be more valuable than a unit available one year from now, a unit one year from now more valuable than a unit two years from now, a unit available in two years more than one in three, and so on. For if the logic of action is to bring ends closer to their satisfaction the nearer in time a good is to that satisfaction the lighter will be the discount applied. If, for instance, a person chooses to delay satisfaction, then the lower that satisfaction will slip down the rankings the longer it must remain unfulfilled, as the cause of that delay is, by necessity, a decision to devote action to other, more highly valued ends in the meantime. The very fact of delay implies a lower value as to act is to place a higher valuation on the object of action now and to seek satisfaction now or sooner where as to not act or delay action is the precise opposite. From this we can also understand the capitalised value of durable goods – why, for instance, uses that are delivered in future slices of time incur a heavier discount the further they stretch into the future. For, at the moment of valuation, each separate use of the durable good must seek out its ability to fulfil an ever diminishing pool of ends that a human holds, each end reducing in value until they are dissipated. Hence the reason why land that is, for all intents and purposes, a permanent good that can yield utility for all eternity, trades for a finite price – to the extent that the remotest future uses can fulfil any end the human holds at all they will be of such infinitely small value as to be negligible.

What if a person deliberately and constantly decides not to act? Do we not here have a definitive example of where a person can persistently prefer future satisfaction? Not at all. To not act is itself an action that must have an end to fulfil. If so, whatever end this may be – peaceful meditation, reflection, or the strength gained through the bearing of hardship – it is more important than the end that some other present good could satisfy. To continue delaying, for example, the quenching of my thirst by not opening a bottle of water doesn’t mean that I prefer a future bottle of water to the present bottle of water. It simply means that not drinking is more valuable than drinking. As soon as, however, drinking becomes my most valuable end it would be the case that the present bottle of water would be more valuable than a future bottle of water in satisfying that end. The situation of choosing not to act therefore has no bearing on the phenomenon of time preference.

Finally, what about the situation where, for example, my most highly valued end is to provide for next week’s hunger and I want to ensure that this is met now, either by storing goods now or by arranging, now, for their acquisition next week? I have an apple available now but it will rot before next week comes and will not fulfil this end. An apple that becomes available next week however, will not be rotten and will fulfil the end. Surely, therefore, we now have a clear case of where a future unit of the same good is able to better satisfy the same end more than a present unit and won’t, in this instance, the future unit be accorded a higher value? Unfortunately not, because the fact that the present apple will rot imposes upon it a qualitative difference from the apple that will not. In other words, an apple that is rotten before the end is fulfilled is not the same good as an apple that is not rotten before the end is fulfilled. We are therefore altering a variable other than the one under examination and hence we can conclude nothing about the latter from such a situation.

Human Appreciation of Time

It must be emphasised that the difference in the elapse of time between the availability of a present unit of a good and a future unit is determined praxeologically. All actions do, of course, take place through time and all goods are remote in time to different degrees. If I decide to drink a bottle of water I first of all have to pick it up, open it and then bring it to my mouth, all of which has to occur through time. But in order to have any relevance in economics the difference has to be appreciated by the human – there has to be a conscious awareness of its passage. With the opening of the bottle all of the actions may happen so quickly that, in my mind, they are praxeologically simultaneous and I therefore impute no lower value to the unopened bottle sitting on the table to the water that I am swallowing and enjoying. On the other hand, the passage of a week before I can drink the water would probably make a lot of difference, especially if I had no other access to water in that time. Further still we can see that £100 received in five minutes will probably not be valued lower than £100 received in this very instant, whereas £100 received in one year’s time would be valued markedly lower. Moreover it should be obvious that it will never occur with units of free goods – a unit of present air is just as valueless as a unit of future air.

Does this fact mean that our analysis of time preference is circular? That we are explaining the fact that humans appreciate time by the fact that humans appreciate time? Not at all, for what we are trying to explain is why a future unit of a good must necessarily be of lower value than a present unit of a good. In other words, using a human’s appreciation of the factor of time as a given, we are concluding from the logic of action that time preference must always be in favour of a present good ahead of a future good. We are not begging the question by reaching this conclusion.

Uncertainty

Time preference has often been explained by the fact that the period of time that elapses between now and the availability of the future unit of the good is fraught with uncertainty – that because the future is always uncertain a person does not know whether the future unit will, in fact, become serviceable and hence this risk possibly serves to discount the utility of the future good. This uncertainty has two sources – a) uncertain future circumstances; b) the uncertainty of the future good actually becoming available. While it is true that uncertainty pervades all human action and that, generally, the longer the period of time that must elapse before an action is complete the greater the uncertainty, it is not in and of itself the cause of time preference. Even if uncertainty was reduced to the point of negligibility, to act now would still mean to prefer satisfaction now rather than later. A good that becomes available in the future must still either be the cause of the delay of satisfaction of the end, or, in the event that the end is satisfied with substitute goods, seek to fulfil a lower valued end or not end at all. In all cases the value of the future good would diminish.

This does not mean that uncertainty is redundant in a complete understanding of time preference; the height of uncertainty could certainly affect the rate of a person’s time preference as it imposes a psychic cost on a human which will affect the valuation of either the delayed end or the new end which a future good could satisfy. In other words, the fact of uncertainty would cause these ends to diminish further in value at the present moment in time, this further reduction being imputed back to the future good. But so too could total certainty serve to increase time preference. If, for example, it was certain that the world would be destroyed tomorrow time preference, far from falling as a result of the certain future, would rise to an astronomical height, with a heavy discount applying to goods that may become available as little as an hour into the future. On the other hand, if there was only a reduced chance of the world being destroyed the discount might be a little lighter. The effects of uncertainty are not therefore uniform upon the phenomenon of time preference and as an explanation of its ultimate cause it is neither necessary nor sufficient.

Exchange between Present and Future Goods

If what we have concluded above is true, that a unit of a future good must be less valuable than a unit of a present good, in which circumstances would a person exchange a present unit for a future unit? After all, we see this every day, mostly clearly in the lending of money at interest and almost certainly engage in the practice ourselves. What is it that could entice us to regard a future good as more valuable?

The key to understanding this is that, compared to our scenarios above, there must be an alteration to the serviceability of the future good that, in the eyes of the acting human, serves to increase its value above that of the present good. It cannot be the case that the same unit of a good available in the future is more valuable than the same unit available right now. What, therefore, is this alteration in serviceability to the future good? The answer should be familiar to us. Nearly always it is an increase the quantity of the future good while the quantity of the present good remains constant. So with the lending of money, for example, the present good may be £100 but the future good for which is exchanged may be £110. £110 has greater serviceability in terms of quantity compared to the £100, however the £100 has greater serviceability in terms of time compared to the £110. A human has to decide which of these two imbalances is of greater value to him. Typically we say that if he prefers a larger unit of a future good to a smaller unit of a present good he possesses “low time preference”. Conversely, if he prefers a smaller unit of a present good to a larger unit of a future good he is said to have “high time preference”. While this is useful shorthand for determining whether a person will have a propensity to save and invest rather than spend and consume (or indeed, when judging the direction of a society’s economic development), it does not tell us the whole picture. For to express a high or low time preference by trading present goods for future goods is an exchange like any other and a high value attached to the good received in exchange must correspond with a low value attached to the good given up in exchange. If, therefore, someone has a low time preference he must, conversely, have what we may term a relatively high “quantity preference” – the increased quantity of the future good being more valuable to him than the end that must be delayed, abandoned or met through substitutes today in order to receive it. On the other hand, if a person has high time preference he has a relatively low quantity preference, preferring to meet an end now with a smaller quantity of a good rather than delay it, abandon it or meet it through substitutes. We might say, therefore, that time preference and quantity preference are negatively correlated.

The concept of time preference is not necessarily limited to a single, homogenous good. It would, for example, be possible to exchange a quantity of present apples for a quantity of future oranges. In this case, while it would not be possible to determine a “rate” between the two quantities exchanged in the way that we can express an interest rate, we can say that a present apple would fetch in exchange a greater number of present oranges than a future apple. Or, conversely, a present orange could be sold for more present apples than a future orange could. There is also the possibility of a qualitative difference as opposed to a quantitative difference. A present apple may, for example, fetch a quantity of the ripest and most luxuriant present oranges whereas a future apple may only fetch the same quantity of lower grade, bog standard present oranges. All of these possibilities are expressions of the law that a present unit of a good is more valuable than a future unit of the same good.

Conclusion

What we have determined, therefore, is that the common expression “present goods are more valuable than future goods” is, at best useful shorthand that can muddy the waters when determining the fundamental truth. Neither also does an understanding of time preference arise from psychological considerations nor from the fact of uncertainty. Rather it is the logic of action itself that means a present unit of a good must always be more valuable than a future unit of a good when comparing their abilities to satisfy the same end. Only an advantageous change in the serviceability of the future good – such as an increase in its quantity – can serve to render the future good more valuable than the present good.

We have not explored the further implications of time preference in economics – particularly its role in interest and the business cycle, which is of great import to “Austrians”. However, a clear understanding of the fundamentals of the phenomenon should serve to enable one to tackle these difficult questions.

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1We are, of course, assuming that the bottle cannot be substituted in the event that it is lost in order to avoid the implications upon value that substitution has.

2Exactly the same would be true if, for example, the bottle was, as in scenario one, right next to me, but is now of an appreciably different quality or quantity (i.e. appreciable to the extent that the end cannot be satisfied to the same degree). Once again its serviceability, its power, as judged by my mind, to extinguish an end is diminished and other goods must be brought in to fully satisfy the end.

3It is of course true that in the case of the possibility of substitution the value of the present bottle of water would equate to that of the substitute goods and not from the end of quenching my thirst but this has no bearing upon our analysis of the relatively lower value of the future good as compared with that of the present good.

Social Democracy

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The author responded to a lengthy article, posted online, that advocated strongly social democracy. Unfortunately the original link has broken but the text below quotes the article in its entirety, interjected by responses.

“Democracy is a form of government in which all citizens take part. It is government of the people, by the people, and for the people. Socialism is where we all put our resources together and work for the common good of us all and not just for our own benefit. In this sense, we are sharing the wealth within society.”

Socialism is the abolition of private property in the means of production, i.e. no individual owns the physical entity of or is entitled to the capital value of any capital or producer good. Once this has been accomplished there remains the problem of how to direct these resources to the most highly valued ends. Contrary to the tacit assumption of many socialist thinkers there is no separate, conscious entity who feels and knows what the “common good” is; there are only individual humans who each value different ends independently; they may agree, in some cases, on what are valuable ends but they still hold these values as individuals and they are liable to change. Further, there will be disagreement on how these ends are to be achieved and precisely which of the scarce means are to be allocated to them. So how is a) the most valuable ends and b) the most suitable means for those ends to be determined under Socialism? How is disagreement on these matters to be reconciled?

All valuable ends are confronted by the same problem – scarcity of the means of production. Hence the economic problem is how to direct scarce means to the most highly valued ends. You can advocate that this can be done either through socialised property or private property but you cannot argue in favour of both together – they are entirely different solutions to the same problem. If you start from the premise that “certain industries” may be socialised you are already advocating that at least some of the factors of production should be allocated to these industries, but this can only be arbitrary. How do you know? And if you know how do you know which factors should be allocated and in which proportion? How do you compare one set of allocations with another set?

A system of private property in the means of production answers this through pricing, profit and loss. For private property gives way to exchange which creates supply and demand which produces prices which produces profit and loss. Hence costs and revenue can be reduced to a single common denominator, the unit of exchange (money), that allows resource allocation to be compared across the entire economy.

In the absence of private property, however, there can be no exchange. There are therefore no prices in the factor of production and no profit and loss. How are the factors of production to be compared? How is the electorate or its democratically elected caretakers of the means of production to compare the cost of 5 tonnes of steel, 3 tonnes of wood, 40 labour hours, 500 sheets of paper, 6 billboards of advertising, 30 hours of telephone calls if it cannot reduce these inputs to a common denominator?

“Of course when people hear that term, “Share the wealth” they start screaming, “OMG you want to rob from the rich and give it all to the poor!”  But that is NOT what Democratic Socialism means. To a Democratic Socialist, sharing the wealth means pooling tax money together to design social programs that benefit ALL citizens of that country, city, state, etc.”

If a person is wealthy in a pure private property society (where trade is entirely voluntary) it is because he has produced a comparatively high quantity of goods that other individuals are willing to purchase. A poorer person has produced comparatively less. The wealth of the rich can only grow if they abstain from consumption of their income and invest it in order to increase the number of goods they can produce. Most of the wealth of the rich consists of, or is derived from, real valuable assets – factories, commodities, plant, shops and inventories. They continue to be rich because these assets are productive – other people are willing to exchange them for another valued good, i.e. money. If they cease to be productive their capital value will decline and so will the wealth of the owner.

If the amount of pooled wealth available for government programs is to increase these real resources have to be liquidated from their current uses and the workers have to be laid off and transferred to Government employment. For every resource that is consumed in a government program that is one resource less that can be used for something else. By which method do you calculate whether the resources are being put to their most valuable ends in the hands of private entrepreneurs or in government programs?

“The fire and police departments are both excellent examples of Democratic Socialism in America.  Rather than leaving each individual responsible for protecting their own home from fire, everyone pools their money together, through taxes, to maintain a fire and police department. It’s operated under a non-profit status, and yes, your tax dollars pay for putting out other people’s fires. It would almost seem absurd to think of some corporation profiting from putting out fires. But it’s more efficient and far less expensive to have government run fire departments funded by tax dollars.”

This is no different from insurance. Individuals pool their premiums together with a private provider in order to provide the resources for extinguishing fires in an emergency and/or compensating the unfortunate victims of fire damage. The only difference is that each individual can choose whether to pool his premiums with one particular provider or not (or at all). The insurer therefore has to act in a way that will retain its customer base, one of which is to keep premiums lower than those of its competitors. The primary method of accomplishing this is to minimise the amount that has to be paid out in compensation and the only way to do this is to prevent and control fires as much as possible. The insurer may, therefore, specify that your home be fitted with some basic fire-fighting equipment such as fire extinguishers or fire blankets and that all of your equipment is electrically tested, for example. If the cost of this is less than the saving you make on a lower premium then you are likely to do this. They may charge higher premiums in cases where flammable substances are stored on a property, or refuse to insure you altogether because the risk would be too great, thus discouraging the accumulation of dangerous materials. The result of this is that each person pays according to the amount of risk he is willing to bear and everyone, consumer and insurer, is equally interested in taking steps to minimise the number of fires as much as possible.

If a fire does start, however, the longer they burn the more the insurer has to pay in compensation to a covered individual. They are therefore likely to respond with the utmost urgency with their own, privately owned, fire fighting equipment or privately contracted fire fighting supplier in order to minimise the amount of damage.

All of these incentives are lost when fire-fighting is managed by the Government. The Government does not need to be concerned about losing your premium to a competitor – you have to pay it in taxes or it will incarcerate you regardless. Hence it is less bothered about minimising the amount of damage. Fewer homes will therefore be installed with preventive equipment and less electrical testing will take place. There will therefore be more fires. Further the tax paid towards fire-fighting services is not adjusted to your individual level of risk; rather it is determined by your income. There is therefore less incentive to avoid the accumulation of risks that contribute towards fire. Every preventative measure you take is an extra cost but there is now no added benefit – you still have to pay the tax and you are still entitled to the same service as everyone else. The result will be less prevention and more fires, more destruction of property and consequently less overall societal wealth.

And finally, once a fire starts, the Government is not going to lose any money if your house burns. Even if it has to pay you compensation the Government will not go out of business if it has to pay too much, unlike a private firm. The Government-employed fire-fighters know that, regardless of what happens to your house, they will, in principle, still be employed and paid tomorrow regardless of the cost to the Government of compensating you for your house. This is not to suggest that Government fire-fighting will always be slow, shoddy and negligent. But given these facts what is the likelihood that a Government fire service will respond more efficiently to a case of fire than a private fire service?

This is a typical case of Government having carried out a particular function for so long that everyone forgets what it looks like when it is carried out privately. Yet the above should demonstrate how it would most likely be done and to a higher degree of efficiency than by the Government.

“Similarly, public education is another social program in the USA. It benefits all of us to have a taxpayer supported, publicly run education system. Unfortunately, in America, the public education system ends with high school.  Most of Europe now provides low cost or free college education for their citizens. This is because their citizens understand that an educated society is a safer, more productive and more prosperous society. Living in such a society, everyone benefits from public education.”

No one denies that education is a beneficial and indeed a good and beautiful thing. But for every resource spent on education there is one less resource to be spent on something else. How do you know that education is the most productive use for these resources?

We could devote the entire productivity of the world to a huge and glorious education system where everyone pops out as smart as Einstein. But there would be no cars, no shops, no food, no computers, no houses, no offices, no factories etc. because all resources are devoted to the education system.

The problem faced by an economic system is not to determine what is valuable in the abstract – it is how to direct the scarce means to their most highly valued ends before all others.

“When an American graduates from college, they usually hold burdensome debt in the form of student loans that may take 10 to even 30 years to pay off. Instead of being able to start a business or invest in their career, the college graduate has to send off monthly payments for years on end. On the other hand, a new college graduate from a European country begins without the burdensome debt that an American is forced to take on. The young man or woman is freer to start up businesses, take an economic risk on a new venture, or invest more money in the economy, instead of spending their money paying off student loans to for-profit financial institutions.  Of course this does not benefit wealthy corporations, but it does greatly benefit everyone in that society.”

But the cost has to be paid by someone. If the graduate has to pay for his own education then yes he has less money to “start up businesses, take an economic risk on a new venture, or invest more money in the economy”. But if everyone else has to pay for his education through taxes then everyone else has that little bit less to do all of those wonderful things. The graduate has only gained what everyone else has lost.

“EXAMPLE  American style capitalistic program for college: If you pay (average) $20,000 annually for four years of college, that will total $80,000 + interest for student loans. The interest you would owe could easily total or exceed the $80,000 you originally borrowed, which means your degree could cost in excess of $100,000.”

If the cost of $80 000 tuition is paid back by the graduate without the interest of, say, $20 000 then that is $20 000 less that can be loaned to another student. There will therefore be fewer funds available to loan to more students for their education. Fewer students will therefore be educated. That is presumably not the intended outcome of this author. Governments, of course, could simply raise taxes to make up the shortfall. But again, all this will mean is that what the graduate has gained the taxpayer has lost.

“EXAMPLE  European style social program for college: Your college classes are paid for through government taxes.  When you graduate from that college and begin your career, you also start paying an extra tax for fellow citizens to attend college. Question – You might be thinking how is that fair? If you’re no longer attending college, why would you want to help everyone else pay for their college degree? Answer – Every working citizen pays a tax that is equivalent to say, $20 monthly.  If you work for 40 years and then retire, you will have paid $9,600 into the Social college program.  So you could say that your degree ends up costing only $9,600. When everyone pools their money together and the program is non-profit, the price goes down tremendously. This allows you to keep more of your hard earned cash!”

The cost of $20 monthly is arbitrary and no proof of this being the real cost under such a system is offered. The conclusion that “the price goes down tremendously” is, therefore, a non-sequitur. If anything, the cost of education is likely to go up as relieving every individual of the cost of his tuition will cause an increase in demand which causes prices to rise.

This is the reason, in the UK, for the recent “outrages” over higher education tuition fees. Government sanctioned loans systems artificially stimulate demand while the Government also caps the number of students, hence leading to a reduction in supply. Increasing demand and suppressed supply equals spiralling costs.

It is therefore Government interference with the higher education system and not private finance that makes bearing the costs of higher education so intolerable to graduates.

“Health care is another example: If your employer does not provide health insurance, you must purchase a policy independently.  The cost will be thousands of dollars annually, in addition to deductible and co-pays. In Holland, an individual will pay around $35 monthly, period.  Everyone pays into the system and this helps reduce the price for everyone, so they get to keep more of their hard earned cash.”

Healthcare premiums are so expensive in the US precisely because of Government interference in the insurance industry (and the only reason that insurance is the preferred method of funding healthcare is an anomaly that originates in The Great Depression). If Governments legislate so as to compel a provider to insure risks which are perceived by the latter as higher and more costly then the latter is forced to take on the burden of paying more than it would like when these risky events transpire (an almost guaranteed certainty if the insured event is something over which the policyholder has control. This is simply compensating individuals for their deliberate actions). Costs, therefore, rise.

Socialised healthcare under Medicare and Medicaid under which the healthcare consumption of an individual is divorced from its cost to the individual, the ease of malpractice suits, and lengthy and bureaucratic drug approval processes mandated by the FDA all contribute to the rise in healthcare costs in the US. None of these are phenomena of the free market.

Holland also operates on an insurance-led basis. One should investigate whether the lower cost allegedly associated with this is because of less and not more Government involvement.

“In the United States we are told and frequently reminded that anything run by the government is bad and that everything should be operated by for-profit companies.”

This is a list of Federal Government departments and agencies. Just a brief glance will reveal Government involvement in commerce, transport, housing, education, broadcasting, agriculture, labour, security, energy, healthcare, environment and engineering. Even if America is “frequently reminded” by somebody “that anything run by the Government is bad” no person can look sensibly at this list and conclude that Government does not already control or regulate vast areas of the US economy.

“Of course, with for-profit entities the cost to the consumer is much higher because they have corporate executives who expect compensation packages of tens of millions of dollars and shareholders who expect to be paid dividends, and so on.”

Executive compensation cannot determine market prices of consumer goods. Every good purchased by you is evaluated on its merits alone, not on the costs that went into producing it. If you deem the merchant’s asking price to be less valuable to you than the utility you will gain from the good then you will make the purchase. Otherwise, you will not make the purchase. It is therefore because an entity’s goods are so highly valued and consequently sell so well that companies are willing to pay more to hire the best employees. Not so if their sales are less successful.

Profit (and loss) is revenue minus costs. In order to make a profit you must increase your revenue as much as possible but what is forgotten is that you must reduce your costs also. Employee compensation is a cost and the higher it is in relation to revenue the lower the profit of the entity will be; the lower the profit, the less it will be able to invest in growth and the sooner it is more likely to stumble in meeting the needs of consumers which is the first step to insolvency.

In 2011, total executive compensation at Tesco plc was £21.7m against a turnover £60.9bn, approximately 0.0356%. Even if executive compensation did drive up consumer prices one has to wonder how such a small percentage could make much of a difference.

Finally, regarding very large corporations one might wish to investigate the effects of monopoly and regulatory privilege granted by Government and the effects of Government–granted limited liability in generating a preference for the large, publically-traded entity before implying that these beasts are creations of the pure pricing, profit and loss system.

“This (and more) pushes up the price of everything, with much more money going to the already rich and powerful, which in turn, leaves the middle class with less spending money and creates greater class separation. This economic framework makes it much more difficult for average Joes to ‘lift themselves up by their bootstraps’ and raise themselves to a higher economic standing.”

You cannot leave the general population with less spending money and push up the price of everything simultaneously. If the population was left with less money then it would have less with which to bid for goods and services. The latter would therefore remain unsold until prices were dropped. If prices were dropped, profits for vendors would drop. If profits drop then costs have to be cut. One of those costs is executive compensation.

If a firm, however, is able to continue to raise its prices without affecting sales and this increases profit margins beyond that experienced in other industries, resources are diverted away from the less profitable industries and into the profitable both by the existing entity and by new competition. Supply is therefore increased and prices consequently decrease.

It is therefore very difficult for an entity to raise its prices to increase profits without a) choking off sales or b) attracting competing investment.

The most effective way for the latter to be avoided is for the entity to induce the Government to regulate the industry. Compulsory licensing, planning permission, Government imposed trading standards, health and safety standards, employment regulation, etc. all serve to deter competition. For every extra regulation that must be complied with is an extra cost that a new competitor must meet and, by virtue of its status as a start-up, must consist of a larger portion of its costs that those of an incumbent provider. There is therefore a tendency for larger firms to become entrenched and for the “Average Joes” to be unable to “lift themselves by their bootstraps” – all because of Government intervention.

“So next time you hear the word “socialism” and “spreading the wealth” in the same breath, understand that this is a serious misconception.”

That is precisely what the effect of socialism is. In a capitalist society wealth accumulates to each person according to his productivity. If another system is adopted then the wealth must be distributed in a different way with a different result; otherwise implementing socialism would be pointless. Hence socialist writers devoted part of their theory to the problem of distribution of goods in a socialist society, i.e. to “spreading the wealth”.

“Social programs require tax money and your taxes may be higher.”

Correct.

“But as you can see everyone benefits because other costs go down and, in the long run, you get to keep more of your hard earned cash!”

What has been demonstrated, in fact, is that costs rise under socialism. If an individual does not have to pay for his consumption, all else being equal he consumes more. Hence demand rises and so do costs.

“Democratic Socialism does NOT mean taking from the rich and giving to the poor.”

It means taking from the productive to fund the unproductive. This can be the only logical outcome of a system other than private property, where the fruit of production accrues to the producer.

“It works to benefit everyone so the rich can no longer take advantage of the poor and middle class.”

It benefits the unproductive ahead of the productive. The unproductive are able to take advantage of the productive. Productivity therefore becomes less valuable and decreases whereas un-productivity becomes more attractive. Societal wealth therefore declines.

POSTSCRIPT: The main error of the author of the original article (apart from providing blatant examples of Bastiat’s famous “broken window” fallacy) is the belief that a market economy provides benefits only for some whereas “democratic socialism” provides benefits for all. Precisely the opposite is true. Under the free market all exchanges are voluntary. If A exchanges a good with B then it must be because they each value what they receive more highly than what they give up. Both therefore benefit from the transaction and we can say that social utility is increased. A system of “democratic socialism” however would necessarily involve violently enforced transactions (taxes). If an individual has to be coerced into a transaction then it necessarily means that he values abstaining from the transaction more than entering it (otherwise he would have entered it voluntarily). The recipients of Government spending may gain (as does the Government itself) but here, in contrast to a market economy, some have gained at the expense of others. As we cannot make interpersonal utility comparisons (i.e. we cannot “measure” utility) it is impossible to say that the gain to one is greater than the loss to another. But even if this wasn’t true the fact remains that the coerced individuals would have gained greater utility from not being taxed and to them the transaction is very much a loss; hence a system of “democratic socialism” does not provide “benefits for all”.

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Saving One Life or Saving Many: An Apparent Moral Dilemma Unravelled

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An oft-posed moral dilemma runs something like this:

A runaway train is careering at full speed towards one of two sets of people on the track. Ahead of the train’s current position the track divides into two, the direction of the train being controlled by a set of “points” (sometimes called a “switcher”). After the divide one person is trapped on the first track and five people are trapped on the second track. Person A has no ability to stop the train, but he can control the switcher so that he can divert the train from one track to the other. Doing so will necessarily cause the train to strike and kill the people on that track but will save the people on the other track. What should A do?

Nearly every discussion of this problem launches head first into tackling the issue of whether five lives should be saved at the expense of one or vice versa. Seldom considered is whether A should do anything at all and whether any of the six people in peril have a right to command his assistance. We will therefore postpone discussion of the “many versus few” problem until this more fundamental issue has been resolved.

Ignoring, then, the fact that A’s assistance to the people on one track will necessarily cause the deaths of the people on the other, if A can be said to have an obligation to help any of the six people then this obligation must vest in these people a corresponding right to be helped. This right is manifest in the six people being able to demand the use of A’s resources, diverting them from what A would prefer to do with them towards what the six wish to do with them.

But where does this obligation and corresponding right come from? In the first place, if A did nothing and the train crashed into some or all of the people, A would not have caused this. The train was already running away, the people were already trapped on the track. No positive act of A has done anything to cause this situation. Regardless of whatever else A was doing the train would still have crashed and killed them.

It could still be argued that A’s failure to intervene was an active cause of the crash, i.e. what he didn’t do as opposed to what he did do was a necessary factor. The problem with this, though, is that there are thousands, if not millions, of other things that didn’t happen to intervene and prevent the crash. The train didn’t run out fuel; the wagons were not heavy enough to slow the train down the train to a safe speed; a meteor didn’t fall from heaven and crush the train in its path. Why is the lack of A’s intervention any more of an important absence than any of these examples? It might be retorted that A was in the position to act, that he had the ability to change the outcome whereas everything else depended upon the intervention of nature. But another cause of the crash was the fact that everyone else in the world didn’t help either. Why are they not equally obliged as A is to intervene? May be they didn’t have the ability that A did to prevent the outcome successfully or may be they were too far away, but how far away and how “impossible” does it have to be for them to intervene before the positive obligation for A to do so alone becomes active? How can this be measured non-arbitrarily? At what point do we single out A as being morally culpable?

Indeed, in the absence of any positive act of A being the cause of the crash, the only potential basis of the right of the six people to his intervention is that they have a “need” and A has the ability or “means” to fulfil it. Ignoring then the fact that other people in the world may also have the power to intervene is this a solid basis for this alleged right? The first problem is, again, one of measurement – how do we judge A’s “means” to intervene? Does he have to possess resources that will fully ameliorate the problem or is he still required to act if he can partially intervene? What about his knowledge? What if he doesn’t know what his actions will do or whether they will have any effect? Is he still obliged to do something? The second, more pressing problem, is judging the “need” of those who wish to be helped. What should the “need” consist of? Must it be urgent and life threatening? If so, how urgent and life threatening? Where precisely and non-arbitrarily is the cut off point, one side of which A has no obligation or culpability at all and on the other side he does? What if the “need” consists only of something that affects the quality of a person’s life rather than the life itself? Should this be included or excluded? And again at which level of “quality” and under whose judgment of it should A be deemed as being obliged to intervene?

Lest anyone considers all of the preceding paragraph to be too abstract this type of analysis relates directly to the redistributive efforts of Governments through taxation and the aggrandizement of the welfare-warfare state. The poor have a “need” that can be fulfilled by taking from the rich. People who are oppressed abroad “need” to be saved from the horrors of an evil dictator or an invading foreign power so we are taxed in order to pay for military help to be deployed.

Aside from the question of whether this is just, the economic effect of determining rights and obligations by “need” and “means” can only be wealth destroying. If X has a “right” to have his “needs” met by Y’s “means” then X producing the means to meet these needs himself will become, to him, relatively more costly and less beneficial. He will therefore produce fewer means. Similarly, if Y knows that a part of his productivity will be confiscated to meet X’s needs, then production of these means will become, to him, relatively more costly and less beneficial and he too will produce less. Further, because being in the position of having “needs” is now rewarded with other people’s resources, having “needs” instead of “means” becomes a more attractive option. There will therefore be more people with “needs” and fewer people with the ability to meet them. Overall, therefore, societal wealth will decline. Applying this to the runaway train scenario, if the six victims know that they have a right to be helped in the event of peril, relatively they will have less of an incentive to prevent the perilous situation from arising in the first place. Similarly A, knowing that he will be obliged to divert some of his resources to helping the six will, relatively, avoid putting himself in the position of being able to help by producing less. The result will be more needs and fewer resources to meet them and, hence, decreased societal wealth.

Therefore, in the absence of any positive cause by A of the runaway train (or any contractual agreement that stipulates A will intervene) none of the six person’s has any right to A’s intervention at all and correspondingly A has no obligation to provide such intervention.

Let us now, however, turn to another aspect of any intervention by A – the fact that saving one set of persons will necessarily mean that the other set is killed. Ignoring for the time being the fact that one of the tracks contains more people than the other, if any of the people have a right to intervention then what this entails is that the act of saving them will cause the deaths of one or more others1. What right does of the any of the six people have to be saved at the expense of another’s death? A person might be said to have a “right to life” but what of the “right to life” of the other person? Why is this not important? Furthermore, if A intervenes his intervention will now be a positive cause of deaths of other people. How can this be a moral obligation?

However, the live issue, and the one that always forms the core of the debate, is the fact that one of the tracks contains more people than the other and hence diverting the train onto this first track will kill more people. Is A, if he intervenes, justified in saving more lives at the expense of killing fewer?

There are numerous problems with arguing in the affirmative. First, how we do know that five lives are worth saving more than one? If something is worth something then by definition it is, in some way, valued. But valuations are made by individual human beings and so precisely whose valuation of these lives are we talking about? We could start by only considering the value that the potentially doomed people have of their own lives. But the problem is how do we measure this value and compare it between the individuals? In other words just how we do know that the five people together value their lives more than the single person does? What is the measurement of this value and how do we add it together? What if the five people were all suicidal or indifferent to living whereas the other individual possessed a great zest for life and the last thing he would ever want to do is extinguish it? Is it not possible, in that case, that killing the five would be a better outcome than killing the one? In any case it is never possible to determine as valuations are ordinal not cardinal and can never be added, subtracted, multiplied or whatever for not only a lone individual but also across many individuals.

Further, if we argue that saving a greater number of people is the correct moral choice must we not also consider how many people would be negatively (or even positively) affected by the deaths? What if the single person had a large and close family who would be devastated at his death whereas the other five were single and there is no one to grieve for them? Or what about their past or potential contribution to “society”? If the five people are lazy and idle vagrants who have never wanted to do a day’s work in their lives and have always eaten from the hand of the taxpayer whereas the single person is hard working and productive, wouldn’t more people benefit from the deaths of the five rather than the one? Or, rather, wouldn’t the deaths of the five be less of a tragic loss rather than the death of the one? What if the five people were Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao, and Kim Jong-Il whereas the single person was Mother Teresa? Surely we would be justified in letting all of them die if we can save the saintly nun?

Moreover, where the identities of the people are unknown to A how is he supposed to judge all of this in the heat of the moment (assuming he could at all)? Indeed how is he supposed to act morally at all in making this decision?

However, to reiterate, whose valuations are considered is irrelevant as the main problem with any type of “many versus few” analysis is the impossibility of making inter-personal utility comparisons. Even if we say that we are morally justified in killing the people whose lives have the least value to both themselves and others there is no measurement of this value and if there is no measurement then these values cannot be added to together and compared. We cannot, therefore, say that killing any number of people leads to a “better” or more moral outcome if it kills others, how ever many this may be. Any argument to the contrary must necessarily be based on these subjective, immeasurable valuations.

A possible reductio of these points might be something like this: what if the choice was between killing all the people in the world against killing only a handful? Surely it would be better to let the few die in order to save the entire world? But we are simply confronted with the same problems – better to whom and how do we measure it? What of the people (extreme environmentalists, for example) who consider the human race to be a filthy, disgusting, depraved parasite upon the Earth, engaging in endless destruction of the planet and of each other? What of those who believe that a drastic reduction in population is necessary if the world is to continue following a sustainable path? How do we know that the strength of these people’s desire to see the population largely killed off is less than the desire of everyone else to continue living? What if the few survivors pledged their dedication to building a new human race free of the flaws (real or imagined) of the present human race, resulting in a world without war, conflict, poverty and the like? Wouldn’t that be a “better” outcome than saving the present world?

In conclusion, therefore, none of the people on the tracks has any right to any intervention by A; none of them, further, has any right to be saved if such an act kills others; and, finally, A is not justified in saving people at the expense of killing fewer people.

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1 We should point out that if A did not intervene at all and the train careered onto its pre-ordained track then some people would be saved and others would be killed. But in this case the saving of some is not the cause of the death of the others – it was merely a case that some people were in the wrong place and others were in the right place, in just the same way as a person in the middle of the street is likely to get hit by a car while those on the pavement will not. What we are discussing here is the right of any of the people on the tracks to be saved through an intervention that necessarily will kill other people.