Austro-Libertarianism – Three Next Steps

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Austro-libertarianism undoubtedly has a long history of scholarship of which it can proudly exemplify as not only providing a coherent body of truthful insights into the way in which the world really works, but also provides a foundation for a just and prosperous society.

However, far from resting on any laurels (and I doubt any scholar in this tradition would ever believe that we are at the stage where we can do such a thing), this essay will suggest three areas of development to which scholars in the Austro-libertarian tradition may wish to focus their research.

Pure Praxeology

The first area is to reconceive “Austrian” economics as a pure (or at least “purer” theory) of praxeology. Although “Austrian” economics is noted for deriving its laws from the theory of individual human action, economics traditionally – not least because concepts such as exchange, production, prices, money, and so on are the complex phenomena that we wish to study and understand the nature of – concentrates only on action above the level of the bilateral exchange of wares for a money income. Our economic categorisations and concepts therefore rest on that limitation. “Austrian” treatises, although they begin quite properly by explaining how economic theory is derived from the action axiom (together also with extremely useful chapters on unilateral or “Robinson Crusoe” exchange), soon begin to espouse their theories in terms of these more aggregative concepts, only occasionally returning to individual action in order to emphasise a particular point1.

A simple example to illustrate this point is the economist’s approach to the classification of goods. A “consumer good” is one that is purchased by a consumer for money without any further sale for money expected. Bread, for example, is treated as a consumer good because it generally goes through no further monetary exchange prior to being consumed. At the individual level, however, the bread may only be a capital good in making, say, a sandwich. Labour is combined with the bread and other goods – say cheese and tomatoes – in order to produce the final consumer good of a cheese and tomato sandwich. We can say the same thing about cutlery and crockery, paper and ink and so on. All of these goods are used at the level below that of exchange for money by individuals to produce further goods. “Land”, on the other hand, is treated as the natural resources which are a gift to all humans, not just an individual human being. However, a good produced by another human being may, to the individual who happens to stumble upon it, comprise “land” in the sense that it is a free gift to him and that he has not had to exert any productive effort in order to bring it into the condition in which he finds it. If, for example, I find an abandoned car in perfect working order and (assuming there are no competing ownership claims), even though the car is a produced good, as far as my action and my computation of costs and benefits towards that action goes, the car is a gift of nature and is in exactly the same condition as, say, a tree that has grown naturally.

It is easy to see why any loss of the connection to individual action can quickly lead economists in the “Austrian” tradition and their fellow travellers down wrong paths. Murray N Rothbard provides an extensive critique of W H Hutt’s aggregative concept of “consumer sovereignty” – the idea that all consumers are sovereign over producers and that the latter exist only for the benefit of the former and not for themselves2. The market place is where everybody seeks to benefit himself through voluntary exchange, and there is not, in fact, a distinct class of labourers, of producers and of consumers with one being “sovereign” over the other. Rather, everybody at differing points of the day (even from minute to minute) participates in a different economic category – a man is a labourer when he goes to work; he is a consumer when he stops by at the shop on his way home; he is a capitalist if he purchases some shares for his pension, and so on. Questions of “sovereignty” – the boundaries of rule – concern only the political arena. Concentration on the basis of economic law in individual human action would have avoided any fallacy and prevented a resort to parcel phenomena into homogenous, collective blocks. However, Rothbard hardly escapes the same danger to which Hutt succumbed, building his entire theory of production using the economic fiction of the Evenly Rotating Economy (ERE), an economy in which all economic activity is repeated and known. Thus, entrepreneurial profit and loss is eliminated. This model allows (or, perhaps, forces) Rothbard to conclude that capital goods earn no net rents and that all rents are paid back to the original factors of production – land and labour – a theme that is oft repeated throughout his entire treatise. It is submitted here, however, that regardless of how such an approach may be helpful in illustrating the complexity of the structure of production, any firm or even implied conclusions drawn from it are likely to be grossly misleading and can only lead to error. The most dangerous false step from this presentation is to assume that the ownership of land – as an original factor – provides essentially free income to those who happen to hold it. Needless to say Rothbard takes great pains to rebut this conclusion, but his attempt could be condensed, with a slight modification, to a single paragraph:

As the only income to ground land that is not profit or interest, we are left with the original gains to the first finder of land. But, here again, there is capitalization and not a pure gain. Pioneering—finding new land, i.e., new natural resources—is a business like any other. Investing in it takes capital, labor, and entrepreneurial ability. The expected rents of finding and using are taken into account when the investments and expenses of exploration and shaping into use are made. Therefore, these gains are also capitalized backward in the original investment, and the tendency will be for them too to be the usual interest return on the investment. Deviations from this return will constitute entrepreneurial profits and losses. Therefore, we conclude that there is practically nothing unique about incomes from ground land and that all net income in the productive system goes to wages, to interest, and to profit3.

The correct position, therefore, is that “things” do not “earn” anything. All actions, whether they involve the dispensation of labour, land or capital goods, require the sacrifice of one state of affairs (“costs”) in the pursuit of another state of affairs. It is hoped that the ends brought about are more valuable than the ends given up. The creation of this value if the action is successful (or its destruction if it is not) is the product of entrepreneurial judgment. All income from any action is therefore paid out to cover costs, interest or entrepreneurial profit and loss. All net rents in the economy accrue only to this latter element – successful entrepreneurial judgment with the means at one’s disposal, whether this is your labour, land that you own, or a capital good that you hold. All of these things that can be bought or sold for more or less money than is sufficient to cover their costs plus interest. It is only by remaining firmly anchored to action at the individual level that this realisation can remain in focus4.

Coupled with this endeavour of better preserving the link between the complex phenomena in the economy with individual action is a greater emphasis on “Austrian” methodology not as a separate topic but one to be espoused during the course of the treatise. The reason for this is that a “vulgar” conception of “Austrianism” would state that all economic theory and all of the laws of economics are deduced logically from the action axiom and one or two subsidiary axioms. Truths derived empirically have little or no place in “Austrian” economics. This is not, however, altogether true. Only the core theory concerning the action axiom and its immediately related categories, in addition to some of the more fundamental laws (such as the law of marginal utility) are deduced logically. However, there is a great body of “Austrian” economic law that requires the ascertainment of empirical facts. We cannot, for example, derive economic laws of bilateral exchange without ascertaining the existence of more than one human being, an endeavour which any individual cannot simply deduce. We cannot have an “Austrian” approach to the economic effects of taxation unless one group of persons had, in fact, attempted to tax another group. We cannot have an “Austrian” business cycle theory without first assuming the existence of banks, the practice of fractional reserve banking, a loan market and even money itself must be presupposed. Although the regression theorem, for instance, is a valid praxeological law5, it would only exist if we first of all knew that money existed and that people had chosen to use a good as a general medium of exchange. Now it is true, of course, that these laws would remain valid and true even if the substantive human choices upon which they rely had not been made. If we imagined a world without money, for example, and pondered its existence merely as a hypothetical we could still derive “Austrian” laws concerning it without it ever actually existing. The actual phenomena in existence simply direct our interest to them as those are the areas that matter in our lives and hence are the things we wish to study and understand. No doubt it is also quite impossible to try and “imagine” alternative institutions and choices that have never existed and to apply to them the core “Austrian” theory, especially as our own experience of real concepts such as money, exchange, prices, banking and so on often provides an illustrative tool to our theoretical insights. However, it is more accurate to speak of the entire endeavour of “Austrian” economics not solely as a body of economic law that is deduced logically, but as the application of the core theory, deduced from the action axiom, to the substantive institutional choices that humans have made, the existence of which is verified empirically6. More prominent highlighting of the “Austrian” method and the source of each parcel of knowledge during the course of a treatise would aid greatly any misunderstanding in this regard.

Ethics

The second area of fertile development in “Austro-libertarianism” is the necessity to sever or more sharply delineate the relationship, often casually assumed not only in political philosophy but also in the opinions of lay persons, between legal norms and moral norms. That is, the question of what should be legal – in other words, those norms which may be enforced by the imposition of violence – should be separated from the question of what is good, worthy or preferable. It is submitted that this is one of the greatest barriers to a proper understanding of the role of violence in interpersonal morality, and has been dealt with in detail by the present author here, here and here. Many people happily recognise the illegitimacy of the legal (violent) enforcement against themselves of norms that other people value as moral ends which, as the hapless victims of this enforcement, they themselves do not (or at the very least, they would complain about it). But, because of the prevalence of the legitimising effect of democracy and the blurring of any distinct line between the governors and the governed, most would not think twice to advocacy of the legal (violent) enforcement of ends that they deem good against other people. Indeed, the criterion for what should be legally enforced boils down to little more than what most people think should be legally enforced. Libertarians need to create an understanding that the proper role of violent enforcement is restricted to preserving the physical integrity of each individual’s person and property – and as moral agency requires such integrity in order for a person to choose and act, such an insight is crucial for any proper understanding of interpersonal morality. The examination of whether something is bad, unpleasant or a vice must be separated from the question of whether its prevention should be enforced legally; and, equally and oppositely, the examination of that which should be peacefully permitted by the law should be separated from the question of whether such acts are good and noble things. In addition to aiding moral and political philosophy, this would be of a benefit to libertarianism specifically as it would render inert the perceived support for all of those bad and unpleasant things – drugs, prostitution, gambling, blackmail, and so on – which are non-violent but are nevertheless not necessarily things that we would wish to see in our society7.

Inflation

The final area for development in Austro-libertarianism, this time in the field of economic history and anthropology, is to engage in a rigorous study of the effects of inflation and inflationism throughout history. “Austrian” scholars have certainly charted well the purely economic effects but, in the opinion of the present author, an exhaustive study of the social, cultural, political, and aesthetic effects of inflation is yet to be written, at least in the “Austrian” tradition. As Henry Hazlitt notes:

[Inflation]…discourages all prudence and thrift. It encourages squandering, gambling, reckless waste of all kinds. It often makes it more profitable to speculate than to produce. It tears apart the whole fabric of stable economic relationships. Its inexcusable injustices drive men toward desperate remedies. It plants the seeds of fascism and communism. It leads men to demand totalitarian controls. It ends invariably in bitter disillusion and collapse8.

Apart from the wide “macro” effects of inflation – not least of which include the birth of odious ideological movements and regimes and their ability to fund wars and conflict – also of interest is how inflation effects us at the individual level. For example, how many of our day-to-day products that we enjoy today are the result of genuine development by a capitalist economy and how many are simply substitutes developed in an era of inflation to enable people to attempt to salvage some of their previous standard of living? Products such as instant coffee, condensed milk; synthetic clothing; plastic bottles; and so on. How many genuine labour saving products were developed not because people genuinely wanted to save time but because inflation had either reduced their income to such a degree that time came at a premium or because inflation had induced impatience and a present-oriented fervour? Indeed the latter may have had distinct ramifications beyond the economic – the birth of adolescence as a distinct demographic; the sexualisation of society; the preference for entertainment ahead of learning; the attraction to style rather than to substance; the prominence of sound bites and “tweets” rather than in-depth analysis; the emphasis on youth and adaptability to an ever changing world rather than on age and accumulated wisdom. All of these things have significant consequences for which inflation much at least be partly responsible. Further, how much does inflation distort our views of reality and of what is possible? Inflation, as Hazlitt noted, makes speculation rather than production profitable – the image of productivity and wealth creation rather than the very thing itself. It makes big or easy wins more attractive than patient investment in a lifelong endeavour. But at the extreme we might say that we have attempted to replace reality itself with dreamed ideals. Government, has taken over and replaced real money (gold and silver) with a fake paper counterfeit. Having replaced reality with one form of fakery, we expect government to be able to legislate to replace reality with our pseudo visions, to carry out the miracle of transforming stones into bread. Thomas Nast’s cartoon, Milk Tickets for Babies in Place of Milk (below), concerning the inflation during the American Civil War, perhaps captures the foundation of this mindset in artistic form. The cartoon contains representations of reality that are passed off, for example, by Acts of Congress as reality itself. As English professor Paul A Cantor explains:

Nast’s illustration brilliantly captures [the confusion of] things with representations of things. Like Magritte [in the painting The Treachery of Images], Nast reminds us that a picture of a cow is not actually a cow, but he is not making a merely aesthetic statement. He is drawing a more serious analogy between the duplicity involved in artistic representation and the duplicity involved in the government printing money and forcibly establishing it as legal tender, an analogy embodied in the parallel “This is a Cow By Act of the Artist” and “This is Money by the Act of Congress”9.

Given that “Austrians” lead in the way in a providing a genuine understanding of the definition and effects of inflation it would be appropriate for an historian versed in “Austrian” theory to undertake a full study along the lines that we have suggested here.

View the video version of this post.

1It is also the case that most “Austrian” scholars writing today received their initial education in the mainstream economics tradition and only later “turned” to “Austrianism”. Thus one senses a tendency, if not a persistency, to lapse into the comfort of aggregative and pseudo-concepts, at best obscuring the essential connection to individual human action, and at worst completely losing it and ending up in the rhetoric of collectivist and societal-oriented action.

2Murray N Rothbard, Man, Economy and State with Power & Market, p. 631-6

3Ibid., p.530, emphasis added.

4The present author is not enthusiastic about the excessive use of equilibrium constructs and they should, at the most, be used as a tool in order to distinguish one concept from another, an endeavour that would be impossible without such a construct. Nevertheless, it is possible that a dynamic equilibrium – a fiction in which there is change and entrepreneurial profit and loss but where all forecasts of the particular entrepreneur in the model are correct – together with a focus on the costs of land acquisition and of the dispensation of labour would have created a better illustration than the ERE. But whatever model is used, it is submitted that the illustration of every stage of production, whether it is with land, labour or capital, necessitates the elements of costs, interest and entrepreneurial judgment and that, contra to Rothbard’s assertion that the mental construction of the ERE is necessary in explaining the structure of production, a much clearer grasp of reality can be and, indeed, is attained without omitting any of the crucial elements.

5Although this is disputed. See Gary North, The Regression Theorem as Conjectural History, Ch. 7 in Jörg Guido Hülsmann (ed.), The Theory of Money and Fiduciary Media – Essays in Celelbration of the Centennial.

6If anyone should doubt this and remain steadfastly wedded to the idea that “all” of “Austrian” economics is deduced logically this then he should attempt to present an “Austrian” treatise written in formal logic.

7The present author has dealt with the so-called “thick” or “thin” libertarian debate here.

8Henry Hazlitt, Economics in One Lesson, p.157.

9Paul A Cantor, Hyperinflation and Hyperreality: Thomas Mann in Light of Austrian Economics, The Review of Austrian Economics, Vol. 7, No. 1 (1994), 3-29.

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Some Common Objections to “Austrian” Economics

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“Austrian” economics is a heterodox school of thought – its theorems and, more crucially, its methods at arriving at those theorems are not embraced as mainstream by the majority of the economics profession. Economics is, like all academia, a largely government controlled and funded science and it is probably no surprise that a school of thought that lays bare the consequences of government action is met with little enthusiasm. Nevertheless it is appropriate to examine and rebut some of the substantive objections to “Austrian” economics so that proponents of this school of thought can more sharply attune themselves when responding to them.

“Austrian” Economics is Old!

The charge that “Austrian” economics is old or outdated rests on the fallacy that progress always moves in a single direction and that everything that is known today either contains or is built upon that which is known yesterday. Hence there is no need to examine the “old” stuff. Yet the history of knowledge has seldom been one of a continued and unbroken progress. Rather, crucial insights have been lost and areas of study have been shunted on to false and wrongheaded directions, both in the natural sciences and in the social sciences, with intellectual vested interests often replacing open minded hypothesising. The history of science abounds with false paradigms of which flat earth theory and the geocentric universe are only the most patently obvious; more recently, however, it has been suggested that the conclusions reached by the theory of relativity are better explained by traditional classical physics1, and libertarians themselves have pointed out that the conventional approaches to medicine in areas such as HIV/AIDs and cancer is more concerned with propping up the profits of big pharma than in developing a genuine scientific understanding of these ailments. This is not, of course, the place to validate any of these challenges but they do serve as a warning that what we might regard as absolutely true and correct today may not be and that we have led ourselves down a blind alley. Speaking more generally, the twentieth century was possibly the most bloodthirsty and unstable in history, contrasted with the less eventful and unfairly stigmatised “dark ages” where state power was less firmly entrenched. Democracy has become the leading orthodoxy whereas faith in earlier systems of government is at an all-time low, even though democracy’s ethical superiority is far from clear. In economics itself, Rothbard has suggested that the foundation of economic thought built by Adam Smith obliterated many important insights of the earlier thinkers such as Cantillon and Turgot, even going so far as to blame Smith for the injection into economics of the labour theory of value2. The revolution in Keynesian thought and positivist methodology in the first half of the twentieth century also pushed economics from a path on which it shared much in common with the earlier “Austrian” school. Indeed the curious and scarcely challenged acceptance of Keynes’ General Theory completely blew from the water the “Austrian” explanation of business cycles as it applied to the Great Depression. As Henry Hazlitt later quipped, “what is original in the book is not true and what is true is not original” and the entire tome was never properly debated – merely accepted3. Indeed, economics today suffers from a distinct splintering into hermetically sealed units that seldom interact with each other or acknowledge a common foundation. In addition to the wedge between micro and macroeconomics, we seem to have labour economics, industrial economics, oil economics, financial economics, international economics, and so on. Most of these bubbles are little more than statistic-gathering lobbying channels to favour key industries rather than areas of study that are influential upon core economic theory. Furthermore, intellectual thought has often had a dismal record at being ahead of reality – until the 1990s Marxism was rife in academic circles and as late as 1989 Paul Samuelson, in the 13th edition of his bestselling economics textbook, stated that the Soviet economic system was “proof that…a socialist command economy can function and even thrive”. To ignore an old area of thought, or to refuse to dust the cobwebs off long-ignored treatises is not necessarily an exercise that is conducive to the preservation and growth of knowledge and, indeed, more than risks violating the first duty of the scholar – to preserve that which is already known to be true. More Menger and Mises would do far more for the economics profession than 2014 journal articles by PhDs and Nobel Prize winners.

“Austrian” Economics is too Political!

The charge that “Austrian” economics is too political may at first appear surprising given that its primary theorist, Ludwig von Mises, was extremely clear on his support for the wertfrei science and only spoke of his passion for laissez-faire in his capacity as a citizen and not as an economist, or so he claimed. Although it is true that most of those who embrace “Austrian” economists are libertarians in one form or another, this charge is more likely to originate from the fact that “Austrian” economics leads to the radical and stark conclusions that government would not benefit the average citizen, nor would it succeed in doing anything that which most people want government to do. Such results are intolerable for government advocates and hence they try to paint “Austrian” economics as having a political bias. Unfortunately, such an attitude reveals the political bias inherent in their own schools of thought. Indeed, the entirety of the mainstream, with its experimental method and drive towards socially engineered outcomes, is inherently statist, normally considering only which government action is the right one. It seldom asks itself the questions whether any government action is appropriate at all. Most macroeconomic research is funded by the US Federal Reserve and it is hardly likely that such an institution, the actions of which are so central to the “Austrian” theory of the business cycle, will be willing to engage its critics on its payroll. A little more broadly, the defects in Marx’s economic thought – his misconception of economic classes and his inability to defend his labour theory of value against the uniformity of profit levels in capital-intensive and labour-intensive industries – can be attributed not the fact that not that he was simply a bad thinker but that his thinking was subservient to his political ends4. Indeed, one of his staunchest critics, Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk, still praised Marx as “an intellectual force of the very highest order” in the book where he laid waste to Marx’s labour theory of value5. At the very least, therefore, “Austrian” economics is no more politicised than any other school of thought.

Austrian Economics is not Empirical!

The familiar charge that “Austrian” economics is deduced from the action axiom and does not make use of experimentally tested hypotheses is one of the primary dividing lines between the “Austrian” school and the mainstream. The present author has recently explained the “Austrian” method and we will not repeat here what we have examined already. Rather, we will concentrate now upon a more subtle criticism which is that, although “Austrian” economics makes the claim to be a deductive science, it must nevertheless make use of empirical facts and that both Human Action and Man, Economy and State are rife with empirical assumptions. Aren’t “Austrians”, therefore, completely misstating their own method? This criticism, however, confuses core theory on the one hand, which is formal and deductive, with the application of that theory to substantive choices that humans have made on the other. The core of “Austrian” theory – actions, ends, means, choices and the laws that are derived from them such as supply and demand, marginal utility, and so on – are deduced from the action axiom. Yet the interest in our field of study is the effects of the complex phenomena that exist in the world and the existence of certain human choices need to be taken as empirical facts in order to analyse them. If we are to have a theory of money humans must have chosen to use money; if we are to have a theory of banking, the fractional reserve system and of business cycles, humans must have chosen to use banks; if we are to have a theory of production then humans must have chosen to engage in investment and roundabout production rather than leading a hand to mouth existence. Indeed, even the existence of other humans is an empirical fact (albeit a highly certain one) that is necessary for any theory of bilateral exchange. Examination of all of these areas, which make use of the empirically validated, substantive choices that humans have made, are nothing more than application of the core, deductive economic theory to real life situations simply because these are the things that we are interested in knowing about. The conclusions reached would still be true even if those choices had never been made, but the fact that they were made is what brings them to the forefront of our attention.

A related charge from the empiricist camp is that, as a deductive science whose truths are valid a priori, “Austrian” economics can only yield analytical truths – endless tautologies that are merely elaborated definitions of the original axiom. Hence it has nothing new to say and if we wish to learn synthetic truths about reality then we must go out into the world and observe. The so-called analytic-a priori/synthetic-a postierori distinction is a convenient way for methodological objectors to the “Austrians” to attempt to dispose of valid truths that they cannot otherwise refute. If, as it is claimed, nothing about reality can be known without empirical validation, then surely that epistemological claim, which is asserted as a law of reality, applies to itself? To be consistent with what it says, this statement too would have to be tested empirically to see if it is a true law of reality. Otherwise, by its own standard, it is merely an analytical assertion which, while it may be true in and of itself, says nothing of reality at all. Regardless of this however, the wider allegation that “Austrian” economics says nothing of reality is rendered false when we consider that the action axiom itself is a law of reality. Any action demonstrates an undeniable recognition of the harmony between means and ends as they exist in the universe. A human may deny that the matrix of means and ends constitutes reality but this action of denial, which must make use of them, demonstrates that he does not hold this to be so. In denying that the action axiom is a law of reality, the person is trying to create an end in the real universe using available means that are suitable for this purpose. If the action axiom says nothing about reality then neither too do the ends that he attempts to create have anything to do with reality and so they can safely be ignored. If he was in genuine denial that the nexus of means and ends constituted reality then he would keep his mouth shut and refrain from any action whatsoever. If, therefore, the action axiom is a law of reality then so too are the laws that are deduced from them also laws of reality. Indeed it is precisely because the “Austrian” method begins with action in the world that it is firmly grounded as a school that deals with reality and with phenomena as we find them. It is patently not an epistemology that babbles on about metaphysics, imaginary constructs and ethereal musings.

Austrian Economists do not make Predictions!

The previous objection – that “Austrian” economics can say nothing about reality – is joined at the hip with this final objection that we shall consider here, that “Austrian” economists do not make predictions. One of the more sophisticated guises of this objection runs something like this: if “Austrian” economics says absolutely and necessarily true things about reality, how is it possible, when it comes to applying them to a real world situation, their validity, or emergence, becomes contingent? How is it that these can be undeniably true laws about the world yet we do not know when they are going to make their appearance and cannot be used to make predictions?

The answer to this is that “Austrian” economics can be used to make predictions – it is just that the formal laws of human action are not sufficient to make those predictions about human behaviour. Such a limitation does not invalidate the necessary truth of those laws. The fundamental categories of action are necessarily true because we cannot conceive of a mode of action in which they would be untrue. We cannot, for example, ever imagine an action that is not the result of a choice to use ends towards means. Thus, the laws that are deduced from these fundamental categories must also be absolutely true.

Looking for a moment to the natural sciences, all scientific propositions are conditional statements of the “if-then” variety, the appearance of which in the real world is contingent upon the actual conditions they require being present. A chemist may be able to tell you that, provided that two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen are present under certain conditions then they will join to form a molecule of water. Undoubtedly this law will be very useful in making predictions as we now know what will happen when certain conditions are present. But to make a prediction of future events we also need to know whether such conditions will be satisfied at X point in the future – and this is an entirely separate question. The law by itself, therefore, is not enough to make a prediction. To make predictions, we first need to study the outcome that will result when a certain configuration of variables is present; and then we need to determine whether that precise configuration will occur at some point in time. The fact that we need to carry out both tasks has no bearing on the truth or validity of the law. Carrying out the second task – attempting to determine whether certain conditions will be present – may be more straightforward for a natural scientist to do, given that unconscious matter has no will of its own. But outside of controlled laboratory conditions, even predictions of this nature have proved immensely difficult. We cannot predict the weather accurately more than about a week in advance, nor earthquakes in time to evacuate affected populations. It has previously been predicted by scientists that a rocket would never be able to leave the Earth’s atmosphere; that rail travel at high speed would not be possible because passengers would die of asphyxia; and even Einstein once predicted that Nuclear energy would be unobtainable. All of this is before we even consider the science behind the whole climate change saga and the truly abysmal scientific predictions made in fields where human action has been a variable, such as “peak oil” and other resource depletion. None of these predictions has anything to do with what happens when certain conditions are present – rather, they are predictions about whether the required conditions will be present for a particular outcome.

Natural scientists may give the appearance that both elements of prediction are a unified whole as they can predict both elements in their role as scientists by following the same method of empirical observation. When we turn to human action, however, the formal, qualitative laws of praxeology will bind human action within a certain framework. We can say that if X conditions are present then Y result will occur. These laws can be used to predict outcomes. But a whole and complete prediction of human action requires also a prediction of the substance of human choices and of the conditions in which humans will find themselves – about which, praxeology has nothing to say. Thus the praxeologist in his role as a praxeologist, does not, unlike the natural scientist, make predictions. Given the difficulty, as we just outlined, of making predictions about unconscious matter, how much more difficult must it be to make predictions of human behaviour where quantitative and substantive predictions concerning human action cannot be made with scientific certainty? The difficulty in predicting human behaviour, caused by the volition of human choice, does not, though, have any bearing upon the necessary truth of the laws of praxeology – and if anything, those laws are the mainstays in making such predictions. The fact also that the laws cannot be expressed quantitatively is also no bearing on their necessary truth – human action proceeds in whole, discrete steps and any change in conditions must be sufficient to make a change in a human’s rank of values. Whether and what point such a change will be made also cannot be reduced to scientific certainty but must, rather, be based firmly on our empathetic understanding of our fellow human beings and their response to the conditions in which they find themselves, which much also be predicted. If this was not true then profit would not exist in the world. For if every human desire and the consequent action was predictable with scientific certainty then every resource would be bid up exactly to the level of its cost. It is precisely the task of the entrepreneur to estimate future human desires and choices and to direct resources accordingly. Where he correctly estimates the conditions his application of the appropriate praxeological law will render his prediction correct.

Neither also is “Austrian” economics, however much its theorems may be necessarily true, not weaker because it lacks substantive prediction and quantitative measurement. The boundaries of science are that which can be known in the universe and “Austrian” economics restricts itself to formal, qualitative laws of action precisely because that is all that can be known with scientific certainty. To acknowledge the limits of scientific endeavour is simply intellectual honesty and not a weakness. It remains incumbent upon the mainstream to explain why they think that “science” is about making known that which is simply unknowable.

We can conclude this piece by stating that “Austrians” themselves sometimes, at the very least, give the appearance of making predictions in their capacity as “Austrian” economists. The forecasts of wild inflation and five figure gold prices that have not come to pass since the 2008 crash should remind “Austrian” economists who are desperate to display the truthfulness of their insights that these are entrepreneurial judgments and not scientific facts.

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1See, for example, Petr Beckmann, Einstein Plus Two

2Murray N Rothbard, An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought, Vol. I, Economic Thought Before Adam Smith, Ch. 16.

3Henry Hazlitt, The Failure of the New Economics – An Analysis of the Keynesian Fallacies, pp. 4-9.

4Murray N Rothbard, An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought, Vol. II, Classical Economics, p. 317.

5Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk, Karl Marx and the Close of his System, p. 77-78. In this passage, Böhm-Bawerk states that the belief of Marx, and of the classical economists, in the labour theory of value was a “cherished philosophical principle” that was not routed in strict, scientific analysis.

 

The “Austrian” Method Part Two of Two – Human Action and the Natural Sciences

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In part one of this two-part series of essays on the “Austrian” method, we explored how action forms the grounding of our epistemology. We will now, in this second and final part, determine the correct approaches for humans to go out into the world and study the complex phenomena that exist.

Methodological Dualism

The “Austrian” approach to the explanation of phenomena is that science must apply a definitive and rigorous methodological dualism – taking one approach towards the study of human action on the hand and a different approach towards the study of the actions of unconscious matter on the other. The study of humans – that is, of their conscious actions as opposed to the actions motivated by the chemical and biological physiology of their bodies, such a heartbeat – must be validated by deduction from the action axiom. Within this category of study falls praxeology and the parts of it that branch into economics and ethics. The study of unconscious matter, on the other hand, must be validated empirically, encompassing all of the areas of study to which we typically apply the epithet “science” – physics, chemistry, biology and so on. This position of the “Austrians” is contrary to that of the mainstream economics profession which takes a methodological monistic approach, with the study of human action being categorised in exactly the same way as dead, unconscious matter and subjected to validation by evidential testing. Indeed science these days is almost synonymous with “evidence” and any conclusions that are not validated through evidence are seen to be worthless. The huge myriad of facts and statistics that are gathered about society are all used as “evidence” to indicate a particular problem or that a government intervention is or is not working. Indeed the entire approach gives credence to those who seek to bring about social engineering – if humans are merely mechanical objects that always behave in manner X when action Y is imposed then society can be manipulated like a puppet on a string in accordance with the will of the political leaders. If the product of this engineering is a failure then the hypothesis is merely viewed as being incorrect and – regardless of the lives ruined or lost in the first round – perhaps we should try seeing if humans behave not in manner X but in manner Z when action Y is imposed. By failing (or refusing to acknowledge) that it is the method itself and not the specific conclusions under it that are at fault, endless rounds of programmes and interferences are justified in order to try and get government to shape society according to whatever preoccupations – justice, equality, fairness etc. – happen to rule the roost. It is not too outlandish to suggest that the biggest social experiment of this kind – the Soviet Union – took seventy gut-wrenching years and countless millions of lives before it was abandoned as a failure. The settlement of this question, therefore, and proof of the necessity of methodological dualism is one of the most important bulwarks against tyranny that liberty-minded individuals should be prepared to understand.

Deduction

Our first task is not to establish whether this dualism is justified, but, rather, whether it is possible to learn anything of substance at all through reasoning and deduction. A positivist objection to validating knowledge through reasoning is that it must necessarily be analytical and tautological rather than synthetic and progressive of knowledge. In other words, everything we need to know is contained in the original proposition and deducing further knowledge from it amounts merely to an engagement in endless definitions that teach us nothing new about the world whatsoever. But just because something is deduced from a given proposition does not mean that it is simply an elaborated definition of that original fact; rather, we very much learn something new about the world that affects how we interact with it. Even a very simple proposition – such as two parallel lines will never meet – will have impacts on geometry, design, endeavours in construction and even our spatial awareness. Try building an object where your design relies on the false proposition that two parallel lines will, at some point, meet and you will probably find that it will collapse. Similarly, the fact that we derive the whole corpus of economic theory from the simple proposition that “humans act” does not mean that we are expressing redundant and pointless definitions through economic theorising. All of the subsidiary axioms – that humans choose means, towards ends, at a cost, resulting in profit or loss – as well as concepts we derive from them – supply and demand, marginal utility, prices, exchange, interest, capital goods – and not to mention all of the further complex laws that we deduce from them all collapse into the basic axiom that humans act. Yet to understand these concepts and laws is not to engage in endless tautology. Do we not learn anything new about the world by deducing from the fact that humans act that price controls will cause either a shortage or surplus of the controlled goods? Do we not gain something from realising that increased taxation will raise the cost of production and hence retard its extent? All of these concepts and laws tell us something we did not know before about how we interact with the world and we would be very much at a loss without their realisation.

Unconscious and Conscious Beings

Having established this, therefore, let us proceed to justify the methodological division between the validation of knowledge of the actions of unconscious matter on the one hand and the actions of humans on the other. As we mentioned in part one, the seeking of knowledge in inherently bound with our role as actors and how we can enhance our use of means towards ends motivated by choices. The study of all complex phenomena in the universe is fundamentally an endeavour to enhance our understanding of another fundamental category of action, that of causality and the operation of causes – how one event causes another. It is through our role as actors where we must display and utilise an inherent understanding of the causal link between events that we come to realise the necessity for methodological dualism.

The physical objects around us in the world are all capable of being categorised as means through which we may meet our ends. A particular action utilising an object as a means will give a certain result – the end may be fulfilled, unfulfilled or fulfilled to a degree short of that desired; “over-fulfilment” – that is that the means through action produce more of an end that that which was sought may also be considered but it overlaps with un-fulfilment if the result is to create a net loss by impacting on other ends. This success or non-success of actions – that is, the suitability of means for ends – determines our knowledge of causes between these two categories of action. With unconscious objects humans tend to find that the same outcomes occur from repetition of a certain action under like conditions – if I let go of a ball it drops to the ground; if I do it a second time it drops to the ground again. In other words I find that on each occasion repeated actions to attain an end display a universal causal link between means and ends. However, if I shout at the ball to wash my laundry for me, I will learn that there is no causal link between shouting at a ball and my laundry being cleaned, however much I may repeat the action. This forms the basis of all approaches to the gaining of knowledge of unconscious matter – by holding all other variables constant and altering only the variable under examination we derive the laws of physics and chemistry from our observation, through action, of this matter. Importantly, these laws are invariably true and operate whenever the conditions are fulfilled. A further aspect that we know innately from our actions is that these truths tend to be quantitative as well as qualitative – that a given quantity of means is necessary to produce the end and variations of that quantity may either enhance or spoil attainment of the end. If I wish to sweeten my hot beverage I may add a spoonful of sugar; half a spoonful giving half the sweetness would be too little and two spoonfuls giving twice the sweetness would be too much. In the laboratory this translates into quantitative or proportionate laws; when we examine the boiling and freezing points of water, for example, we do not simply form a broad, qualitative law that increasing temperature will increase the energy of water molecules and lowering it will decrease the energy; rather, we know that a temperature of 100 degrees Celsius will boil water and a temperature of 0 degrees will freeze it, with each degree towards those points approaching it incrementally. As we know from observing our kettle or a pot on the stove, water doesn’t sit their tepidly until the boiling point is reached then vaporise suddenly; rather it starts to bubble and steam at much lower temperatures. Similarly, water approaching freezing will not suddenly ice over all at once but begins to turn to frost and slush at 2-3 degrees. Quantitative laws whose effects occur in infinitely small steps are precisely those truths of unconscious matter that are determined by the natural sciences, validated fundamentally through our inherent understanding of our use of them as means in actions towards ends. As we stated in part one, the fact that we continue to act to utilise means towards ends indicates that these causal links are not random or spontaneous but are, rather, objective laws of reality.

From our actions towards humans, however, we learn something markedly different. The realm of the physiological and chemical properties of their bodies is, of course, the same as that of unconscious matter – prick a man and he will bleed; hold a flame to him and his skin will burn. The domain of his consciously chosen actions, however, is where we find two important differences. First, the same human will not necessarily behave in the same way when the same situation is repeated, even if all other variables are held constant. Second, two humans will not necessarily behave in the same way in the same situation at the same time, even though they may each be acting under the same conditions. If I walk into a busy shop and shoot a gun in the air, some of the people will dash for cover, some will stand petrified, others will scream, others still may rush to tackle me to the ground and so on. Different people respond to the event in different ways. If I then leave and, a few minutes later, walk in and do the same thing again what will I find? Will the same people who dashed for cover last time do the same thing this time? Will the exact same people who screamed last time do so a second time? The answer is likely to be no – some of those who dashed for cover or stood petrified last time may now be buoyed up by their prior experience and join the ranks of those who rush to tackle me; those who tried to stop me last time, however, may not wish to risk their lives a second time and will run for shelter. Of course it is equally possible that they will all behave in exactly the same way – what is important is the fact that this aspect cannot be determined. The conscious choice of human actions serves to break those actions free of reliance upon the laws of physics. I don’t have to wait for the wind to push me two metres to the left; I can just decide to move my legs and walk that distance in that direction. Actions must, of course, always be in congruence with natural laws; I can’t for instance, jump and expect to be propelled into space. I can, however, make the conscious decision to build a rocket that will take me into orbit if the means are available and I don’t need to sit around and wait for the inertia of physical matter to do it for me. Human choice and volition, therefore, replaces the laws of physics as the cause of human action. Importantly, the place of human choice must be regarded as not just a cause but the ultimate cause of such action. The very existence of free will precludes the possibility of universal laws regarding the substance of a given action that is motivated by that will. Either an individual is free to do what he wants or he is not and his actions are reliant upon some other inertia. Psychology – the study of why humans make the choices that they do – may one day determine whether given physical or chemical impetuses in the brain always result in a given action; but until that stage is reached we must regard human choice as a distinctly teleological phenomenon. Economic science therefore proceeds in a markedly different direction from that of the natural sciences. Economists begin from the general, ultimate cause of human action and deduce from it the specific laws of phenomena; natural scientists, on the other hand, begin with the specific phenomena and work “backwards” to determine their more general causes.

Should the teleological nature of human action be doubted then consider the case of the individual who seeks to derive knowledge of other humans. Knowledge, as we have said, is the perquisite of actors – its purpose is to determine more accurately the technical requirements for future action, enhancing the understanding of the suitability of means directed towards ends. Let’s say that a man wants to hold a dinner party and wishes to serve either steak or salmon – whichever is less expensive (or more expensive, if he was trying to impress his guests). If the steak is cheaper he will serve steak and if salmon is cheaper he will serve salmon. Before this knowledge is gained his future action – whether he will serve steak or salmon – is uncertain and conditional upon the content of the knowledge. When he receives that knowledge – let’s say that steak is cheaper – he makes a choice to serve steak at his party. But he could easily have chosen salmon if salmon had been the less expensive of the two. In other words the very seeking of knowledge itself proves the uncertainty of future action and any attempt to seek knowledge of other, equally acting human beings, and derive concrete laws concerning the substance of their action would be contradictory.

Our knowledge of humans, as opposed to that of unconscious matter, therefore appears to be curtailed by a very wide margin. For we cannot, in our actions, approach other humans in the same way as we approach other matter – we cannot mould and shape humans in the way that we can other means to which we devote our ends. Does this mean, then, that we can know nothing at all about human action? Does our attempt at any study at all necessarily lead us into a dead end and should we give up? Not at all; we learnt in part one how our actions form the bedrock of our epistemology and how it necessarily constrains and conditions our search for knowledge. In exactly the same way, while we cannot form strictly substantive laws of human action, we can discover laws regarding their formal requirements – laws that exist by virtue of action itself regardless of the content of the individual action. In short, if we cannot examine the impetus towards the substance of actions and derive no laws at all from their observation we need to return to the root of the formal constraints of action by examining action itself.

The Characteristics of Laws of Human Action

There are three important qualities regarding the truths that we derive from the fact of action – first, they are deduced logically from the action axiom; second, they are formal and not substantive laws; and third, they are qualitative and not quantitative. They are deduced because only an actor has the innate ability to understand the meaning of action. In our own role as actors, we have an introspective understanding of the meaning of action and what it is to be an actor and we rely upon this understanding to draw conclusions about other actors. When a person picks up a cup in order to drink for instance, we know that this is not a random movement instigated by the laws of physics; rather, we know, from the knowledge we have validated from our own action, that this person is using means towards ends as the result of a choice. Simply observing and cataloguing the physical movements would tell us nothing at all – we might know that his arms move 46.3 centimetres to the left and his fingers clasp the cup and raise it 31.7 centimetres from the height of the table; but only reflection upon these movements, derived from our own role as actors, will tell us anything about these movements as freely chosen actions using means towards ends. Any kind of empirical validation of this knowledge is therefore impossible. Second, the laws are formal in that they specify the qualities of actions as a general category but have nothing to say about their substance. We may deduce, for example, the law that, all else being equal, an increase in the demand for a good will raise its price. But we have nothing to say on precisely what this good will be and when it will be demanded. Indeed, nothing about the physical quality of objects tells us whether they will be economic goods at all – such a categorisation being dependent upon the volition of the human mind. What is desired today may be discarded as useless tomorrow and vice versa. And finally, these truths are qualitative and not quantitative because actions occur in whole, discrete and concrete steps that take place in one go and do not proceed in infinitely small increments or decrements. If the temperature of a room is raised by one degree per minute water in the room may gain energy gradually by a measurable step per degree. Yet a human in the same room will not start shedding small parts of his jersey gradually at each degree; rather, there will come a point later where he perceives himself to be too hot and will take off the entire jersey in one go. Further, the impetuses that result in a change of choice resulting in an action are not uniform between human beings – others might find that they get too hot at a lower or higher temperature. And on a different day they may all make a different decision. Similarly, two objects that contain minute, physical differences may be regarded as the same good by the acting human. One bottle of water might contain exactly one litre of water; another might contain 1.0001 litres. Yet to the acting human this difference may be negligible and he will happily regard each bottle as interchangeable. It is partly for this basic reason that the application of mathematical formulae to explain (or rather, to predict) human action is invalid – mathematical sequences proceed in infinitely small gradations, the result of which would lead one to expect that human action also proceeds in such tiny, measurable steps.

It is these aspects that cause much ire and infuriation in the mainstream economics profession. Under the mantle “science is measurement” any method that rejects the formation of quantitative and substantive laws is seen as inherently unscientific. Science, however, is the seeking of knowledge as it exists in the universe; it is therefore perfectly scientific to state that laws must be qualitative if that is all they ever can be; grossly unscientific behaviour – indeed, an aberration on the part of anyone who proclaims to respect discovery of the truth – is to attempt to make known that which never can be. If quantitative laws cannot be determined then that is the boundary of scientific discovery.

The attempt to ascertain laws of human action through empirical validation produces only statistics and historical truths about the choices that were made at that particular time and place by those particular humans. Simply because the price of meat doubled during a shortage of cattle in Ruritania in 1952 does not mean that such a shortage in 2014 will also cause a doubling in price – or any change in price at all. Empirical validation fails to work in the realm of human action because none of the variables are ever held constant in two situations. The laws must instead be validated by holding the variables constant in one’s mind and deducing what must be the necessary result by virtue of the formal qualities of action. It follows from this also that the laws cannot be used to predict, with any scientific accuracy, future action – something that “Austrians” sometimes unwittingly overlook in their zeal to promote their otherwise correct understanding of economic theory. “Austrians” who have predicted a heavy increase in price inflation following the Federal Reserve’s money printing have had to cope with the smug retorts of the mainstream as this inflation has not emerged, largely because the demand to hold cash, particularly by the banks, has also increased. We cannot ever say that, for example, if the quantity of money is increased that there will be price inflation of any measurable quantity or even if price inflation will appear at all. All we can say is that, if all else remains equal, one is betting very heavily on the result of price inflation by carrying out the action of printing money. The focus of “Austrian” economists is to explain phenomena and not to engage in the Friedmann-ite obsession with the prediction of future events. Ironically, however, given their superior explanatory power, “Austrian” predictions tend to be more accurate than those of the mainstream – “Austrians”, for example, were among the few to recognise the instability of the housing bubble prior to the 2008 crash. Furthermore, being derived from absolutely true, self-evident premises the laws themselves – should our logic be correct – must also be absolutely true for the entirety of time, regardless of whether the particular phenomenon with which the law is concerned ever appears in society. A Robinson Crusoe island, for example, would be devoid of interpersonal exchange; and yet the laws of interpersonal exchange would still be true and valid. Phenomena which appear in society may determine the scope and direction of that which we wish to study, but they do not preclude the truthfulness of phenomena that have not made an appearance or do so to a lesser extent. Even if empirical validation in this field was possible, therefore, its limitation to present and visible phenomena would result in knowledge of a markedly poorer tapestry. It is unlikely that the Robinson Crusoe situation of unilateral exchange has ever existed to be observed and yet so informative is this situation of our basic economic understanding that we would be worse off without it.

Does this mean that we can never say anything at all about the content of actions? We can, but only on the basis of empathetic understanding of our fellow human beings and not upon any strictly defined laws. The realms of entrepreneurship and historical analysis use this method to determine and explain the actions and choices of humans in the future and the past respectively. Profit opportunities exist precisely because future actions cannot be embedded in concrete law; if they were everyone would know what they would be and every good and service would consequently be bidded up or down to precisely its cost. Rather, entrepreneurs must take their empathetic understanding of human desires in the future and combine it with superior logistical and technical knowledge of his goods or services and methods of production in order to make a profit. The historian, in forming explanation of past choices, must do this retrospectively. Use of the natural sciences and the sciences of human action will provide a circumscribed explanation for the most part – an historian who attempted to explain the effects of the Irish potato famine as the result of witchcraft would clearly be a charlatan, for example. Yet the key question of why historical figures acted as they did, their thoughts and feelings that motivated them towards action – a branch of historical investigation that Mises labelled thymology – can only ever be based on the historian’s empathetic view of the factual conditions under which the historical character was acting. The result is historical explanations that are based not upon concrete and certain knowledge but are simply more or less persuasive than others.

Conclusion

What we have outlined in these two parts is only the briefest possible sketch of the “Austrian” method as it applies both to economics specifically and to wider epistemology. It is therefore appropriate to end with a core bibliography of works that explore the “Austrian” method in more detail than we have been able to here:

 

Introductory Works:

Gordon, David                    An Introduction to Economic Reasoning

White, Lawrence                The Methodology of the Austrian Economists

 

Texts:

Menger, Carl                          Investigations into the Method of the Social Sciences

Mises, Ludwig von               Epistemological Problems of Economics

Human Action, Part One, “Human Action”

Theory and History

The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science

Robbins, Lionel                    Essay on the Nature and Significance of Economic Science

Rothbard, Murray N            The Logic of Action, Section One, “Method”

Hoppe, Hans Hermann      Economic Science and the Austrian Method

                                                   The Economics and Ethics of Private Property, Part Two , Chs. 9, 10, 14

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The “Austrian” Method Part One of Two – Foundations of “Austrian” Epistemology

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One of the primary dividing lines between practitioners of the “Austrian” School of economics and those of the mainstream is the appropriate method of economic reasoning – how are economic theorems validated and thus known to be true? “Austrians”, of course, are famous for their assertion that all of economic theory is deduced from a handful of axioms concerning human action, plus one or two empirical truths, such as the desire for leisure time. The mainstream, on the other hand, treats economics as being more akin to the natural sciences, where propositions are first formulated as hypotheses that must then be tested and validated empirically by sensory observation.

In commenting on this disagreement we shall, in this first part of our examination, go to the very heart of the matter and first of all define what we mean by epistemology and secondly to examine how it is that we know absolutely anything whatsoever. This is necessary before we look more closely at the “Austrian” method as it applies specifically to economics in part two.

Once more we must say that we are tackling here a very deep and extensive area of philosophy and much of that which we present will necessarily be brief, undeveloped and possibly incomplete. Nevertheless we hope here to outline the foundations of this important and much derided area of “Austrian” theory and its implications not only for economics but also for the social sciences and philosophy more widely.

The Purpose of “Austrian” Epistemology

One of the most frequent objections to the “Austrian” method is the misunderstanding that its chief concern is with how knowledge is acquired. Surely, these critics contend, we must have experience of, for example, what is supply and what is demand, or how to use money before we can formulate any theorems that concern them? We cannot just sit back and muse in our mind over these concepts divorced from any real, sensory interaction with what these things mean. However, the a priori nature of “Austrian” economic reasoning has less to do with how knowledge is attained and more to do with the cardinal question of how knowledge is validated – in other words, how do we know a given proposition to be true? Take, for example, the assertion that two parallel lines will never meet. We are not interested in the particular origins of my experience of parallel lines; rather, the question we want to answer is given that I have an experience of parallel lines what validates my conclusion that they will never meet? Do I need to construct the proposition “two parallel lines will never meet” as a hypothesis and then validate that hypothesis by empirical testing? Or will critical reflection upon the problem resolve the matter? In other words, do I need to go out and test a large sample of parallel lines in the real world in order to determine whether they will never meet; or can I reason in my mind that this must be absolutely and undeniably true?

The two titans of the twentieth century “Austrian” School, Ludwig von Mises and Murray N Rothbard, disagreed on the epistemological status of the fundamental categories of human action. Mises, who was influenced by Kantian epistemology, regarded them as “categories of the mind” and that they therefore existed prior to any experience. On the other hand Rothbard, an Aristoletian, denied this and regarded them as “broadly empirical”, something that could only be realised through experience. In other words they did not share the same theory concerning how we come to know the fundamental categories of human action. This divergence of opinion, however, did not prevent them both from recognising the essential self-evident truth of these fundamental categories and from recognising that such categories, regardless of how they come to be known, will always be a priori to the complex phenomena for which economics seeks an explanation. In spite of their differences in some of the more esoteric questions of epistemology, therefore, both could agree that all of the laws of economics are validated by reasoning and deduction from these self-evident categories and not from empirical testing. It is, therefore, the requirements for the validity of economic theory that separates practitioners of the Austrian School from their mainstream colleagues. This will be the focus of our attention in these essays.

Epistemology and Human Action

Let us therefore turn to the foundations of the “Austrian” method in wider epistemology. Contrary to what empiricists and relativists may claim, what is true and valid is heavily constrained by certain conditions of the universe in which humans find themselves. Truth and knowledge are not a tabula rasa upon which we can scribe whatever interesting pieces of information happen to come along. Even if they were we would first have to presuppose the existence and understanding of certain concepts simply to make such a record and communication – concepts such as identity, non-contradiction, alternatives, possibilities, causality, language, quantities, and of course, at the base of it all,  truth itself. You cannot record or communicate unless you have a common understanding of the concepts that you are recording or communicating. It is such presupposed concepts that heavily anchor the ambit of that which constitutes objective knowledge. Where does our knowledge of all of these aspects come from and how does it constrain or condition our search for further veracity?

It is submitted that at the very basis of all knowledge are a limited number of self-evident truths – truths that are proven simply by the endeavour of attempting to validate them. Furthermore, these self-evident truths are revealed to us through our action and the action axiom – the fact that we act in the universe and interact with reality – as all human endeavours in acquiring knowledge are actions and it is the formal conditions of actions that constrain the boundaries of knowledge.

The unique quality of self-evident truths is that they do not need further validation – to validate a proposition is to make it evident; yet if either stating or enquiring into the proposition is to validate it then one does not need to waste time and effort seeking further validation through observation, evidence or whatever; it is absurd to endeavour to make evident that which already is.

The first self-evident truths that we can derive from the action axiom are the individual actor’s identity, his consciousness and his existence. For any enquiry into the question of whether he exists and whether he is conscious answers that very question itself; for he cannot make such an enquiry without demonstrating to himself his existence and his consciousness. Furthermore, he presupposes his identity and his separation from other beings and objects – his enquiry being “do I exist?” and not whether a tree or China exists. He would settle the former question by introspection but not the latter questions, indicating his realisation of his identical separation from those other concepts, objects or beings. Any attempt by the individual to deny his existence, consciousness and identity would be to prove them – one cannot deny that one exists or is conscious; nor can one construct such an argument without recognising that he and he alone is the subject separate and distinct from other beings and objects.

Second, we have the constraints imposed by the formal categories of action itself – ends, means, choices and so on. All action must make a choice to direct means to an end at the exclusion of other ends with the outcome of either a psychic profit or a psychic loss. All enquiries are themselves actions that make use of these categories and so any attempt to disprove them would be futile. But what other self-evident truths are revealed by these categories of action? All actions must combine two or more means to produce an end at the cost of another end; what this reveals is our knowledge of conjunctions – “and” and “or” – for we must combine one means and another in order to produce either end A or end B. We also reveal our knowledge of quantities – for every end requires a specific quantity of a combination of means. A single cup and half a pint of water may be enough to satisfy the end of quenching my thirst; fewer cups or less water would fail to quench it; more cups would be superfluous and more water would cause a flood. Our actions always aim at combining means in the correct proportions. Quantities, incidentally, are a praxeological concept and are not reliant upon whatever we choose to represent them in notation or communication. We know that 2 plus 2 will always equal 4 whenever we act in relation to goods in the real world. The numbers themselves – 1, 2 3, 4 etc. – are simply symbols that we apply to the praxeological concept of each given quantity, routed in our understanding of action – 1 to a single unit of a good, 2 to double that quantity of units, 3 to triple the quantity, and so on. On paper 2 plus 2 could equal 5 but this only serves to change the symbols that we apply to these concepts and all that we have done is renamed that which we once called “4” as “5”. The concepts of 2, 4 and 5 always remain constant and routed in our action and regardless of what we call these quantities a fixed quantity of a good plus another fixed quantity will always arrive at the same quantity in sum however much the operation is repeated. Moreover, regardless of the symbols we choose our expression of quantities is always in a form or magnitude that best serves to meet our ends – both the diameter of a screw and the distance between London and New York City are lengths in space, yet it is praxeologically convenient for us to express the former in millimetres and the latter in either kilometres or miles.

As well as further embedding the law of identity in our recognition of these categories of action, we also reveal an understanding of the law of non-contradiction (A or not-A). For an action is motivated by the condition of scarcity thus revealing that we know that we cannot have our cake and eat it; nor can we swim and remain dry; nor can we be in two places at once. To believe the contrary would mean that a human would never act as he would expect all of his ends to arrive at his doorstep immediately. Action pursues either one end or another and is routed in the realisation that to achieve both or all of them would be a contradiction.

Third, actions all have to take place in space and we interact with this space in order to fulfil our ends. Hence we know automatically that our world is constructed in three dimensions and that certain interactions with space will fulfil our ends whereas others will not. If an apple is to my right then I reach out to my right and I am able to take possession of the apple; if it is on my left then I reach out to the left. More importantly, from this knowledge we derive all of the laws of Euclidean geometry that we use in order to interact with space.

Fourth, we have an understanding of the nature of causality as all actions are designed to produce a causal interference in the world that alters the assumed chain of events. If I wish to eat an apple and proceed to pick an apple from a tree I demonstrate that I know that my action will cause me to take possession of the apple and will cease its hanging from the branch. If I kick a ball my action causes it to fly through the air to another location. If humans did not have an innate understanding of causality then they would never act as they would not know that their movements would bring about the end desired. Action therefore demonstrates an understanding of the phenomenon of causality.

Fifth, we must know through our actions that we live in an aura of uncertainty – uncertainty in the sense that the actor does not know whether a given event is certain to materialise – not whether it is actually certain to do so in practice. If the actor knows that it is certain that event A will happen at point T then there would be no purpose in acting in order to bring about event B. An action to bring about event B at point T indicates that the actor knows that the materialisation of event A at point T is not certain and is subject to change. In any case, regardless of the knowledge of the certainty of events, action itself – the individual motivation towards ends by desires and choices – demonstrates that the world is not ruled by determinism. If it was the materialisation of all future actions of any individual would be motivated not by the individual desires of the human but by a pre-ordained plan that is written into the fabric of the universe. The fact that an actor expresses desires and choices that result in actions that change the course of events demonstrates that there is no fixed course to occurrences in the universe and that they can be altered by an expression of free will, if the means are sufficient. Furthermore, the act of making an enquiry also demonstrates the universal fact of uncertainty – the nature of an enquiry is that the answer is uncertain and could be one way or another. If the answer was certain then we would never bother to make an enquiry as we would already know the correct answer.

Finally, we have an understanding of the nature of time. All actions must take place through time and thus we know that we exist in a linear continuity. If actions did not have to take place through time then the ends would be achieved instantly and thus there would be no action – nor would there be any need to sequence the attainment of ends in order of preference. Indeed time, like quantities, is an inherently praxeological phenomenon. If humans were not subject to the condition of scarcity that motivated them to act and all of their ends were attained to their fullest instantly then the universe might physically exist in what we know as the “passage of time” but humans would have no awareness of this concept. All events would be contemporaneous and all enjoyments received instantly – there would be no comprehension of historical sequence and temporal distance would be non-existent. Any measurement of this non-existent distance in hours, minutes and seconds – let alone centuries, decades and years – would clearly be impossible.

By virtue of the inescapable fact that humans act we lay the groundwork for epistemology through our revelation of these self-evident truths – self-evident because any attempt to deny them must reveal their truth. We therefore realise that there is a body of truths that we know to be absolutely and apodictically true. The fundamental importance of this realisation cannot be denied – these categories of action that we have elaborated constrain and condition our search for knowledge and we cannot imagine knowledge that is incompatible with them. They are not mere conventions or choices of enquiry but are, rather, incontestably and undeniably true presuppositions of all arguments and theorems that may be posited. They are not the results of such arguments but are, rather, the starting blocks – that with which we must work in order to deduce further truth. More importantly, however, it anchors our search for objective truth of reality without having to investigate metaphysical and supernatural problems. In the deepest and murkiest waters of epistemology “truth” could mean pretty much anything we want it to mean. We could hold that simply because something is perceptible and realisable to us does not mean that it is “truthful” according to some as yet unknown, higher plain of understanding. Take, for example, the sensory perceptions. The fact that I can see an object, can touch it, can smell it taste it and if I drop it I can hear it break does not necessarily mean that the proposition “this object exists” is necessarily true – I am just perceiving it to be true. The world is not really full of colour nor do noises actually exist – these are simply interpretations by the brain of particular frequencies of light wave and sound wave respectively. Indeed there may be other senses that I do not possess that may depict hidden reality that I cannot perceive. Taken to an extreme, for all I know nobody else may exist and nothing of what I can perceive around me may be real – it might be some giant hallucination or a video game concocted by some other being who inhabits the genuinely real universe. Is it not possible that reality could just be a product of my consciousness and could I not be deluding myself when I try to concoct objective truths to comprehend that reality? These questions, however, do not concern us when we ground our epistemology upon action. If I act so as to use a cup as means from which to drink a beverage in order to satisfy the end of quenching my thirst I demonstrates my knowledge of the cup’s existence and its possession of certain qualities that affect its suitability as means in action and its direction towards the end of quenching thirst. I can try and deny this and reason that, upon some “higher” plain of understanding, this cup does not exist or that it possesses qualities which it does not. Yet my actions towards this object will always prove the opposite, from actions that both succeed in attaining their ends and those that fail. I might claim that the law that the angles of all triangles sum to 180 degrees is not really true according to some mystical level of knowledge. And yet when I act so as to construct one, or if I try to build a structure that relies on triangles, I will always have to use triangles with angles that sum to 180 degrees; if I did not the outcome would be a failure to attain my end. There is therefore a distinct epistemological harmony and coherence that is revealed to us through the categories of actions – choices, means, ends, results – that ground our knowledge in objective reality and rescue it from ethereal musings. If there was no such coherence between these categories then a person would simply never act at all as there would be no objective laws that link these categories. The characteristic of genuine hallucinations is that they display discordance between the categories of action. In a real case, an individual experienced a hallucination induced by LSD in which he believed his partner had turned into a vicious snake; terrified, he grabbed a knife and proceeded to stab the snake. His end was to kill the snake – a being that looked like a snake, behaved like a snake, hissed like snake and to all intents and purposes was, to him, a snake. And yet the result was that he killed not a snake but his partner. It is clear that where the identities and qualities of means and ends change randomly at will it would be impossible to ground our epistemology on any plain of reality at all. The fact that we are able to continue to act, to meet ends through means motivated by choices indicates that this is not so. Even the failure to meet ours ends indicates not a lack of objective law but the fact that the means were not appropriate for the ends sought – and will be inappropriate once again if the action is repeated under the same conditions. Unless interactive flaws, such as the appearance of the snake, begin to emerge in our current reality then we can be content that we are not all undergoing a mass hallucination, that this is the reality in which we live and this is what we are interested in as the object of our study. More powerfully, however, any action whatsoever demonstrates an individual’s belief in an objective knowledge of this reality that he is powerless to deny – for to do so would itself be an action that displays knowledge of the harmony between choices, means and ends.

We are with confidence, therefore, able to take a position contrary to those of positivism, relativism, skepticism, nihilism and the like and hold that there is a body of truths that are absolutely and undeniably true, undeniable because their self-evidence is revealed to us through the fact their denial would simply end up proving them. It is this springboard – epistemology grounded upon an action – that leads directly to the “Austrian” understanding of how to derive knowledge of other humans and of inanimate, unconscious objects.

Finally, we must also state the fact that the endeavour to attain knowledge and truth is itself bound inherently with our role as actors. Our goal in explaining complex phenomena and gaining an understanding of the world around us is to enhance the effectiveness of our actions – even if the end is merely to attain knowledge for some aesthetic purpose such as the exercising of the mind and the enjoyment of an inherent sense of beauty and order that one may perceive in truth. Non-actors, those creatures whose movements are motivated simply by instinct, never seek the attainment of knowledge for they do not possess the rational mind through which to process it; and if we were humans living in a world of total abundance the seeking of knowledge would be superfluous. Not only would a lack of knowledge itself indicate scarcity but when all enjoyments and satisfactions are achieved instantaneously the attainment of knowledge would have no purpose. Al things would be known and enjoyed immediately and there would be no enquiry into anything whatsoever. At its most basic level, therefore, knowledge itself is a category of action and is intimately bound with our role has human actors.

Conclusion

Having sketched the foundations of our epistemology, therefore, we can go on in the next part to the “Austrian” understanding of human action and the actions of non-humans and the implications of this understanding for economics.

View the video version of this post.

Land and Natural Resources Part Two – Trade and Exchange

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In part one of this two-part series of essays we explored the utility, value, profits and losses that are associated with a single human’s action in relation to land and natural resources. In this second part we will now turn to a consideration of the same in a world where there are multiple humans and the economy is a complex one of trade and exchange of these resources.

Land Settlement in the Complex Economy

Where we have a world of many humans each of them are, at birth, in the same position as our lone human at his birth. They are gifted their own bodies, their standing room and a set of free goods that they do not need to make the object of their action in order to derive utility from. Every action thereafter will be taken at a cost with the object of receiving a gain that will outweigh that cost. To reiterate again these costs and gains must be estimated in advance and so every action is only speculative; there is no certainty that an action will, in fact, yield a gain. In a world of trade and exchange land and its product will trade for money and so these gains and costs will, likewise, be estimated not in terms of land’s physical product but in terms of the money that they will fetch in exchange. Now, therefore, leaving aside mental appreciations such as aesthetics or personal value attached to specific areas of land such as one’s home, we are not talking about merely psychic profits and losses but the actual revenue and outflow of money from operations with natural resources. In other words, how can one make money from using natural resources and how can we categorise the components of this income?

The first, if seemingly trite, observation concerning an unsettled plot of land is that no one has estimated the land as being valuable. In other words no one yet believes that the revenue to be gained from settling this land will outweigh the cost of doing so. Existing settlements or other prospects are deemed to be more valuable than settling the plot in question. The prices of the scarce resources that will be devoted towards settling the plot are being bid up by other potential uses and people estimate that the yield from the land will not be sufficient to cover these costs. Where, therefore, one human decides to settle land it will be because he, uniquely, decides that this land will, in fact, yield a definite gain and that everyone else is in error in leaving the land fallow. Let us again take the example of Plot A, demonstrating now the gains and costs not in terms of physical product but in terms of money. There are only three possibilities:

  1. Plot A will make a profit;
  2. Plot A will break even;
  3. Plot A will make a loss.

Let us examine each of these possibilities in turn, assuming again that the prevailing rate of interest will apply a 10% discount to the gross yield in each year. In scenario 1, we will take the gross yield to be £200K per year with the costs amounting to £100K per year. We can illustrate the net gain as follows in Figure A:

Figure A

Year      Gross Yield        Costs                Gross Gain        (Discount)          Net

1          £200K               £100K               £100K               (£10K)              £90K

2          £200K               £100K               £100K               (£20K)              £80K

3          £200K               £100K               £100K               (£30K)              £70K

4          £200K               £100K               £100K               (£40K)              £60K

5          £200K               £100K               £100K               (£50K)              £50K

6          £200K               £100K               £100K               (£60K)              £40K

7          £200K               £100K               £100K               (£70K)              £30K

8          £200K               £100K               £100K               (£80K)              £20K

9          £200K               £100K               £100K               (£90K)              £10K

10         £200K               £100K               £100K               (£100K)            £0K

The result of this has been a net profit for the land settlor. The land has actually turned out to yield more monetary income than was estimated by everyone else. In other words, everybody else was incorrect in estimating that the land would not produce an end that is more highly valued than some alternative. Rather, the product of the land is more highly valued than other ends to which the scarce factors of production could have been allocated and this value will be imputed back to the land itself so we can say that the land will have a capitalised value equal to the sum of the final column which, in this instance, is £450K. We will return to this again shortly but before that we shall examine scenarios two and three. In the former, it should be obvious that there will be no net gain at all. Let us illustrate this by assuming that the land will still yield £200K per year but now costs have risen to an equal amount:

Figure B

Year      Gross Yield        Costs                Gross Gain        (Discount)          Net

1          £200K               £200K               £0K                   (£0K)                £0K

2          £200K               £200K               £0K                   (£0K)                £0K

3          £200K               £200K               £0K                   (£0K)                £0K

4          £200K               £200K               £0K                   (£0K)                £0K

5          £200K               £200K               £0K                   (£0K)                £0K

6          £200K               £200K               £0K                   (£0K)                £0K

7          £200K               £200K               £0K                   (£0K)                £0K

8          £200K               £200K               £0K                   (£0K)                £0K

9          £200K               £200K               £0K                   (£0K)                £0K

10         £200K               £200K               £0K                   (£0K)               £0K

In this instance what is produced is exactly what is paid out in costs and there was, therefore, absolutely no point in settling the land. While there has not been a loss and the settlor is not in any worse position than he was before, there has also been no gain and the entire operation has been pointless. What about scenario three? Now let’s assume that costs remain at £200K but that now the land only yields £100K of gross income:

Figure C

Year      Gross Yield        Costs                Gross Gain        (Discount)          Net

1          £100K               £200K               (£100K)             £10K                 (£90K)

2          £100K               £200K               (£100K)             £20K                 (£80K)

3          £100K               £200K               (£100K)             £30K                 (£70K)

4          £100K               £200K               (£100K)             £40K                 (£60K)

5          £100K               £200K               (£100K)             £50K                 (£50K)

6          £100K               £200K               (£100K)             £60K                 (£40K)

7          £100K               £200K               (£100K)             £70K                 (£30K)

8          £100K               £200K               (£100K)             £80K                 (£20K)

9          £100K               £200K               (£100K)             £90K                 (£10K)

10         £100K               £200K               (£100K)             £100K              (£0K)

Here the settlement was entirely erroneous and will result in year after year of net losses for the settlor. He estimated incorrectly that the yield from the land would be sufficient to cover the costs and, in fact, there were more valuable uses to which these costs could have been devoted. The entire operation has been a waste and the land will simply be abandoned1.

Let us now turn back to scenario one where the land yielded a profit. We noted that the settlor realises a gain upon the realisation that the land will produce a yield the value of which exceeds that of its costs. Once again, as in part one, we must emphasise that this gain is earned not by the “productivity of the land” or its “natural powers”. The land was only doing that which it is under the orders of the laws of physics to do. Rather the earnings, the net income, are wholly the reward of the decision of the settlor to turn that land into productive use, a decision that resulted from his judgment that the land would yield more than its costs, an outcome that was, furthermore, clouded with uncertainty. Everyone else was free to make the same decision and to settle the land first but nobody did. To the extent, therefore, that a person earns a net income from productive use on the land it is only because this person, uniquely, has realised that devoting scarce resources to its settlement and use will yield a stream of utility that is more valuable to consumers than that which existed before. It was his decision that created the increase in value with the resulting flow of productive services, and it is to this aspect that the net income flows.

If this is doubted then we should consider the situation of the evenly rotating economy where all revenues equal cost. In other words there is trade and activity but all the utility of what is received from an action equals exactly the utility of that which is foregone. So if the produce of land yields £200K per year then the landowner will have to pay precisely £200K per year in costs2. If this was the way the world worked then it should be clear that there is no room at all for uncertainty and for decision making. If it is certain that there is no realisation of value, that nothing could ever be made better, then there is no premium to be put on the making of judgments that results in decisions. Net income disappears precisely because there is no need for these aspects. It is only because we live in a world where things can be made better and that this betterment is shrouded in uncertainty that a judgment must be exercised in order to realise it. Good judgments that direct the scarce resources available to a stream of utility that is more preferable than that given up are rewarded with net income. Bad judgments which waste those resources on ends that are not preferred are penalised with losses.

What about, for the sake of completion, a world where things could be made better but that the improvement is certain? That if we made a decision we would know for sure that the outcome would exactly be as intended so that, in other words, everyone’s judgment would exactly predict what would happen. If this was so then everyone’s judgment and everyone’s decisions would be exactly the same. A person can only profit from a decision because everyone else has underestimated the value of the yield from a productive activity, this underestimation resulting in an underbidding for the productive resources that are devoted to that activity. If, however, everyone knew the outcome then there would be no underbidding at all and all costs of production would be bid up fully to the height of the revenue of the resulting product. Hence, there would be no net income.

Therefore our conclusion can only be that the realisation of value is a product of superior human judgment.

Going back to our landowner does he now realise a constant, year on year net income from his ownership of the land? Unfortunately for him he does not. For the £450K worth of net income, representing the capitalised value of the land, is was he earns now and correspondingly takes its place in his rank of values now. It must therefore be ranked alongside other actions which could be more or less valuable now and while he hangs onto the land he always bears the opportunity cost of foregoing other actions. In the case of our lone human in part one this was the result of having to decide whether to continue to produce on the current plot of land or whether to stop and move to an alternative piece of land. In the complex economy, however, the decision that must constantly be assessed and remade is whether to hang onto the land or to sell it to a purchaser. Let us examine the ramifications of this necessity.

Trade of Land

In the first place, let us assume that the net present value of the land – £450K – is not only correct but that also all entrepreneurs know that it is correct and that this is certain. In other words the precise yields from and costs of production on the land are as they are in Figure A above and everyone knows that there will be no deviation from this schedule. What this means is that the purchase price will be bid up to exactly this net present value – £450K – with all potential suitors offering not a penny more and not a penny less. The decision for the landowner is a very simple one – to carry on with production of the land and wait for the fruits of its productivity; or to sell and to accept the present value of this future yield now in cash. The result of this is to impose upon our landowner an opportunity cost that completely wipes out any continuing net gains in income. As he can take the present value of the yield in cash the foregoing of this opportunity through holding onto the land will leave him only with interest from the future yields, i.e. the difference in value of the future yields when they mature and the capitalised value of the land now.

In reality, however, the situation is much different. Rather than everyone knowing the future yields of land they constantly have to be estimated. As we said in part one there are at least four factors that affect this:

a)     Direct costs of farming a plot will change from year after year and must be estimated in advance of their occurrence;

b)     Opportunity costs will change from year after year and, likewise, must be estimated;

c)      The gross yield of a plot of land is not certain in advance; rather, factors such as the weather, seed quality and soil deterioration will intervene;

d)     The discount to be applied to future gains is dependent upon the individual’s time preference rate which is subject to change.

To this we may add one more:

e)     The precise end to which the land is devoted also has to be decided. Should it be used for farming, for the building of a factory, or for building houses? Which of these streams of utility is most valuable to the customers who will provide the revenue?

Every entrepreneur, therefore, including the present land owner must constantly assess and estimate the effect on the productivity of the land by these aspects and this list is not necessarily exhaustive. Having estimated the future yield, each entrepreneur will discount it to a net present value resulting in a price that he is willing to pay for the land now3. Let us look at the mechanics of this fact in situations that lead to a profitable outcome for our landowner. Let’s say that there are three entrepreneurs, A, B and C, of whom our current landowner is entrepreneur A. Each engages in his estimation and calculates the following net present values of the land:

A        £450K

B        £350K

C        £250K

In this instance every other entrepreneur estimates the net present value of the land as being lower than the estimate of A. As A estimates that there is more to be gained from holding onto the land and selling its produce at a later period in time than from selling the land now then he will refuse to sell the land to the highest bidder which is B. If A is correct and the land yields a produce that is more than the estimate of the next highest bidding entrepreneur (let’s say that A’s estimate is precisely correct) then what is the analysis of A’s income? As his opportunity cost was to sell the land for £350K and earn interest on this sum, his actual outcome has been to hold onto the land and earn interest on a sum of £450K. The difference between these two will therefore form a net income – an income that A received solely because he estimated the produce of the land as being higher than that of rival entrepreneurs. Examining each of our criteria a) through to e) above he could have done this a number of ways and, in practice, a combination of them will always be active:

a)     A more accurately estimated the costs of farming the land as being lower than the estimates of B or C; or the methods that A chose in farming the land were less costly than those that B or C would have employed. A’s economy therefore conserved scarce resources to be released for employment towards the fulfilment of other ends.

b)     A accurately estimated that the other opportunities available to him would yield a lower (if any) net income than holding onto the land;

c)      A more accurately predicted the conditions of farming than B or C; the latter might have erroneously predicted more unfavourable farming conditions which led to their lower estimates;

d)     This is a little more complex and will be examined when we discuss land hoarding and speculation (below). Suffice it to say that A may have more accurately estimated the future societal rate of time preference than B or C and hence the discount to be applied to the future yields;

e)     And finally, A might have devoted the land to an end that is more valuable in the eyes of consumers than B or C would have done and thus the consumers were willing to pay a higher amount for its produce than for the produce that B or C might have churned out from the same land4.

Let us say that having witnessed A’s burst of productivity, B and C revise their estimations of the land’s capabilities. For argument’s sake, A maintains his estimate at the previous level:

A        £450K

B        £550K

C        £350K

Here what should be clear is that A now has the opportunity to sell the land for a net present value that is greater than his estimate of the same. He believes that B has overestimated its productivity and will incur a loss if he purchases for that sum. A therefore cashes in by selling to B and earns interest on the sum of £550K. To his horror, however, B finds that the land only yields a present value of £450K and hence he earns interest on this lower sum. It would have been better for B to have foregone the purchase and held onto the cash, earning interest on £550K instead of £450K. The difference between these two therefore represents B’s loss and A’s profit. The loss of B has accrued to a bad decision, a decision to devote the scarce resources available to an end that was less productive than that estimated. The reader can examine our criteria a) – e) above in order to speculate upon the source of B’s error, but the important point is this: where there is a net income it results from diverting the scarce resources to an end more highly valued than that estimated by other entrepreneurs. A loss is made when resources are devoted to an end that is less highly valued than that estimated by the same. Good decisions and beneficial use of scarce resources therefore yield a reward – a net income, a profit. Bad decisions and the waste of resources are punished with losses. Net income therefore flows to good decision-making ability and it is this ability alone – not any productive power of the land or any virtue of its ownership – that commands a premium in the marketplace5.

Now we shall turn to situations in which A’s decisions make a loss. Let us return to the first set of estimations:

A        £450K

B        £350K

C        £250K

A, obviously, will again choose to hold onto the land. But let’s say that in this scenario the land only yields £300K’s worth of income. It would have been better to have sold to B and made a presently valued profit of £50K rather than hold onto to the land and lose that opportunity. A’s decision was erroneous and this error was met with a loss. What about the second set of valuations?

A        £450K

B        £550K

C        £350K

Again A will sell to B in this scenario. A thinks that B is a fool in this scenario for thinking that he (B) can ever ring out £550K’s worth of productivity from the land and A congratulates himself for having made a handsome profit. But what if the land actually yields a presently valued income of £650K? In this instance, therefore, it would have been better for A to have held onto the land and carried on production. Instead he sold it and the passing up of this opportunity imposes a loss upon him.

What we realise, therefore, is that all present and prospective landowners constantly bear the burden of having to assess the future income from land. Present landowners have to determine whether the future income will outweigh the purchase prices offered by prospective buyers. The latter have to determine whether they can offer a purchase price that is outweighed by the future income. Those that make the most accurate decisions in this challenge are those that devote the scarce resources available to their most highly valued ends. They took the decision to direct their resources in this way in the face of uncertainty while nobody else did. The result is a net profit.

We should also add here that good decisions and good decision-making ability are determined relatively not absolutely – the profitable entrepreneur only has to be more accurate than the next entrepreneur. For example, let’s say that the land would yield a net present income of £650K and the following entrepreneurs estimate it as follows:

A        £450K

B        £350K

C        £250K

In this case it is obvious that A will hold onto the land and earn a net income when the yield of the land turns out to be worth a present value of £650K. But what if the estimations were as follows?

A        £450K (same as before)

B        £550K

C        £250K (same as before)

Here A will make the choice to sell to B. Yet even though his choice was derived from the same estimation as in the previous scenario, he now incurs a loss as it would have been better for him to have held onto the land and earn interest on £650K than to have taken £550K in cash. Looking at that same scenario from the buyer’s perspective, B now earns the profit. But what if there was a third set of valuations as follows?

A        £450K (same as before)

B        £550K (same as before)

C        £600K

Now, the profit maker is C. Therefore, even though the judgments that underpinned the decisions of A and B remained constant, the entry of a more accurate entrepreneur meant that the latter earned the profit and they did not. It is, therefore, the most relatively accurate decision in directing scarce resources to their ends that is rewarded. Clearly the same will also be true from the loss-maker’s point of view – a judgment that once was loss-making will become profitable if other entrepreneurs lose their accurate foresight.

Profit, therefore, can only be made when a person renders a valuable service that no one else is able to do. If entrepreneurial foresight becomes more prevalent and accurate its supply increases and, just like any other good, as supply increases then, all else being equal, the price it can command must diminish. If a piece of land yields £650K per year and the most accurate prospective purchaser bids £450K for it that he will earn a net present income of £200K. If, however, the market is suddenly flooded with entrepreneurial talent then each entrepreneur will bid up the land successively towards its mark of £650K. If an entrepreneur would bid £630K for the land then there is a chance for another, more accurate one, to bid, say, £640K. But the entry of a further, still more accurate entrepreneur could raise the purchase price to £645K with profit diminishing to a mere £5K. The extension of this situation would obviously be where every entrepreneur values the land exactly correctly and everyone would bid precisely £650K for it, with any chance of net income disappearing entirely. The existence of net income is therefore negatively correlated with the prevalence of good decision-making ability and as soon as the latter is abundant it ceases to command a high premium and profit comes close to disappearing.

In part one we questioned whether it was possible for luck to influence a person’s net gain. Could, for example, one buy or sell a piece of land having absolutely no idea whether it will yield a net income ahead of the purchase price? Or, alternatively, could one sell a piece of land without a single clue as to whether he is selling it for more than it is worth? In other words couldn’t someone just yield a profit by gambling rather than through any special entrepreneurial talent? If one makes a net income on these occasions then it states one of two things. First, as we said in part one, to consign one’s fate to luck is itself a decision and to the extent that it is more profitable than a carefully considered decision then it is the best decision. Secondly, if one makes a profit from gambling then it is still the case that resources were directed to an end that was more highly valued by consumers than that estimated by other entrepreneurs. In short, the gambler’s guess was better than anyone else’s decision and in its absence the economy would be worse off. It is the realisation of value that is rewarded, whatever the method through which it is achieved. It is just that in our world luck plays a very minor role in reaching this goal whereas good decision-making ability is most often needed.

Speculation and Hoarding

With all of this in mind let us now turn our attention to the speculation and hoarding of land. Land owners are often accused of sitting on fallow land and earning year on year profits while this land could be used for the fulfilment of vitally needed ends6. Can we square these facts?

The first question we have to address is why does fallow land have any capitalised value at all? If it isn’t being used for anything then how is it generating any value whatsoever? The answer to this can only be that, in the estimations of entrepreneurs, the land will not yield any valuable utility from a stream of production now but will, rather, yield the same from production that is begun in the future. Say, for example, that if entrepreneurs estimate that additional housing capacity is not required now but will be required in, say, ten years then the land’s ability to meet this end at that point in the future will be imputed back to the land itself and it will trade for a capitalised value. Obviously the discount applied to a utility only taking effect at such a far off point will impose a cumulatively heavy toll, but there would still be a capitalised value. Entrepreneurs therefore have to decide not only what to devote land towards but precisely when to do it and it is the differences of these estimations that permit one to earn a net income from the hoarding of land.

Let us say that A purchases a plot of land now with the intention to hold onto it without development and is able to earn a net income on this operation. There are two aspects to the explanation of this outcome. First, if all entrepreneurs are agreed as to when is the most suitable time to develop the land is then A can only make a profit if he more accurately estimates the value of the yields that result once this time is reached and the land is developed. This is essentially no different from what we discussed above – the only difference is that the first act of production will not be now but at some point in the future. But secondly, if entrepreneurs are not in agreement over when the most suitable time to develop the land is then A can make a profit by more accurately estimating this suitable time. Let’s say, for example, that the five entrepreneurs would develop the land after the respective intervals have elapsed following purchase and their estimations of the present value of the yields are as follows. Let us also assume, for simplicity’s sake, that each is correct in the estimation of what the land would yield after these intervals:

A        5 years         £600K

B        4 years         £500K

C        3 years         £450K

D        2 years         £210K

E        1 year           £130K

What this means is that E believes that the most productive use of the land will arrive after only one year and that he won’t, therefore, gain more than a present value of £130K by waiting either longer or shorter. D believes that two years is the correct period to wait and any longer or shorter will never achieve as high an income as £210K, presently valued. And so on for C, B and A. The latter, however, is the most accurate and he is the one who will purchase the land (in this case, offering only slightly more than the discounted value of B’s estimate in order to price B out of the market) and he will earn a profit. The effect of A’s action is to withhold the land from development that would otherwise occur too early and thus its direction to an end that is less valuable to consumers is prevented; rather the land is released for development right at the precise time when it is needed for fulfilling the most pressing end. A of course might be “incorrect” in an absolute sense – perhaps had he waited another year still (so six years in total) the land might have yielded a present value of £700K. But as the relatively most accurate entrepreneur he is the one who yielded the profit. Had another person, F, come along and bid £650K then A would not have earned that profit.

Related to this is the height of the societal time preference rate which determines the interest rate. As we said earlier, all future utility from land is discounted according to the prevailing rate of interest. But this too is subject to fluctuation and must be estimated, a point we noted earlier. If time preference lowers then the discount to be applied to future yields of land will diminish and hence the capitalised value of land will rise. On the other hand if time preference rises then the discount will be increased and the capitalised value of land will fall, its promise of future utility being less valuable to consumers. In practice this phenomenon tends to go hand in hand with the fact that land may yield its most valuable end not now but sometime in the future. For land is the ultimate remote good out of which capital goods must be furnished and increased demand for it is almost synonymous with a lowering of the societal time preference rate and a desire to engage in more roundabout methods of production and the creation of economic growth. The estimation, therefore, by entrepreneurs that land will yield a more valuable use not now but in the future also translates into estimating that the societal rate of time preference will be lower.

The allocation of resources across time is also one of the most difficult activities which must be faced by the present landowner, let alone a prospective purchaser. A failure to estimate how much to produce and when to do so has the potential to cause serious losses. The capitalised value of a copper mine, for example, will, as we know, represent the discounted value of all of the future copper that will be extracted from that mine. The choice of how much copper to mine this year is made not only in the face of current costs such as labour, equipment etc. but also the mine owner must consider the fact that any extraction of copper now will mean that there is less copper to be had in the future. If the mine owner extracts copper now then this will cause a write down in the capitalised value of the land as, the copper having been extracted, a portion of it is no longer there to provide for future utility. Whether or not the mine owner successfully allocates copper to the present or to the future depends on the relationship of the revenue from selling copper now on the one hand to the height of the write down on the other. If, having accounted for all other costs, the revenue he receives from selling a portion of the copper today is higher than the write down then this means that the present value of copper sold has a higher value than the same copper would have done had it been left under the ground. Therefore the quantity of copper that the mine owner brought to market was in line with the preferences of consumers and copper was not wasted by being mined too soon. On the other hand, if the value of the write down is higher than the revenue that is received then this means that the copper that is brought to market would have had a higher present value had it been left under the ground to be preserved for a future use. The copper was brought to market and supplied too early and consumers were not willing to devote it to an end today that is more valuable than an end at some point in the future. In short, the copper has been wasted and the resulting loss will penalise the mine owner for this oversight. It is for this reason why capitalism and free exchange provides the best method of conserving resources as the profit and loss system entices entrepreneurs to deploy them precisely when they can meet their most valuable ends.

Taxation of Land

It follows from the analysis in both parts of this series of essays that any attempt by the government to tax the proceeds from land must fall upon one of the three streams of income:

  1. Costs;
  2. Interest;
  3. Entrepreneurial Profit and Loss.

If costs are the target then clearly this just raises the cost per unit of productivity from the land. Within this category will fall all taxes on labour, direct taxes on the costs such as sales taxes, and the taxes that must be borne by suppliers. If, though, interest is the target then this has the effect of increasing the discount from future yields of land. The relative attractiveness of future goods will therefore decline and so too will any engagement in roundabout methods of production that lead to economic growth. Finally, a tax on entrepreneurial profit and loss will penalise the decision-making ability that directs resources to their most highly valued ends. There will, therefore be relatively less inclination to seek out the most valuable ends coupled with relatively more wasting of land as the lack of scrupulousness means that the land ends up being devoted to less urgent ends7.

All taxation on land will simply magnify the costs and reduce the gains. But it is important to stress its effect on our third category of income above, which relates to the entrepreneurial aspect of land ownership. The purpose of the analysis in these two essays has been to demonstrate that regardless of any natural qualities of the land or resource in question every decision and every action – even just holding onto the land – entails a cost that may outweigh its gain. Net gains from land ownership can only be had by demonstrating a relative entrepreneurial talent. They cannot be gained simply by owning land and sitting on one’s backside – there is no category of “unearned” or free income from land ownership that is ripe for taxation and there is no form of taxation that will be neutral on productivity.

At the beginning of part one, we stated that every action has a cost and a gain, the magnitude of each being uncertain. The only free or unearned “income” that a person ever has is his own body and standing room at the moment that he is born. Not only did we indicate in part one that these cannot be considered as “gains” as such but if one is adamant that unearned income should be taxed away then it follows that the only logical proposal to enact that policy is to tax birth. Is any advocate of the taxation of unearned income expecting to be able to propose such levy and, at the same time, to be taken seriously?

Conclusion

What we have sought to demonstrate in this two part series of essays is how an acting human can realise utility, gains, benefits, profits, losses and value from his actions in relation to land, including its use and its trade. We have concluded that the gross yield is directed to three sources – compensation for costs, interest, and entrepreneurial profit and loss. Finally we concluded that attempt to levy a tax on any one of these must have the effect of raising costs and decreasing gains, leading to a relative wasting of land.

View the video version of this essay.

1Alternatively, if the landowner was locked into the operation and had to suffer the repeated losses, the only way he could escape would be to transfer the land to someone else. But who would want to do this? Who would want to take on the burden of a loss-bearing piece of land? The only way that it could happen is if the current land owner was to compensate the purchaser for the future losses – in other words he would have to pay someone the net present value of each year’s loss, the sum of which is that of the last column in figure C – £450K. The interest earned on this sum will compensate the new landowner for the maturity value of the losses (£100K) as each year comes round. This situation is not unusual if you consider the possibility of an enthusiastic entrepreneur taking on burdensome and lengthy obligations to third parties in relation to the operation on the land.

2In most descriptions of the evenly rotating economy there would still be discounting as the costs are incurred at a period of time before the vending of the final product. Indeed one of the advantages of this imaginary construction is that it is able to explain the phenomenon of interest as being distinct from entrepreneurial profit and loss. If the land yields £200K then, applying a discount rate of 10% per annum, costs that are incurred one year earlier will amount to £180K.

3For the sake of simplicity we will ignore the effects upon price of bartering and assume that each purchaser would pay a purchase price equal to his valuation of the land.

4It might also be the case, of course, that A is simply a more productive labourer than B or C and can farm more produce per acre. But any gain in income from this aspect accrues not to A’s entrepreneurial decision-making ability but rather to the remuneration for his labour and this additional income would be categorised in the “costs” column of an analysis of the gross income from the land rather than in the “net income” column.

5We are not intending the words “good”, “bad”, “reward” and “punishment” to imply any moral evaluation of an entrepreneur’s actions; rather, the terms should be appreciated only to the extent that people prefer making profits to losses.

6The recent accusations of the leader of the UK Labour Party, Ed Miliband, were of precisely that.

7In practice, taxes on interest and profit and loss amount to the same thing as it is not possible to separate them from an accounting point of view.

Land and Natural Resources, Part One – Human Action, Profits and Losses

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NOTE: The tables in this essay will be updated in due course so that they fit onto the page! Apologies for any difficulties in comprehension.

The economics of natural resources can be a complex and often controversial topic. It is not, in the end, a particularly difficult one and this set of two essays will lay out clearly how humans derive utility, value, profits and losses from the Earth around them. Part one will examine this in the “Crusoe” situation of a single, lone human, while part two will explore the implications arising from trade and exchange in a complex economy.

The Gifts of Birth

At birth, a human being is gifted two things by nature1 – his own body; and then a vast array of natural resources that are external to his body. A person does not come into existence without the physical manifestation of his body and this body’s uniqueness is resides in the fact that it is the only gift of nature that is intimately bound to his own will and is directly controllable. The second gift, viz. the remainder of all resources, consists, from the core of the Earth to the top of the atmosphere (and even further if we consider the possibility of space exploration), of densely packed atoms in various configurations as chemical elements and compounds. Here we have the essence of the two ingredients of all economising action – labour, the effort expended in the use of one’s own body, and land, the matter external to the body in the condition upon which a human discovers it. Part of the land will be used by the body after the first moment of birth, for the body cannot exist without three dimensional space; because of the nature of gravity this space will always take effect as a piece of physical land plus the air space above it necessary to accommodate the volume of the body, all of which we will summarise under the term “standing room”. At birth, therefore, the gifts that are immediately utilisable to a person are his body and his standing room.

To the extent that a person prefers being alive to being unborn we can say that the gifts of a person’s body and the land he uses as standing room are “gains” to him, that he has achieved something “better” than what he had before. However, given that a human is not consciously aware of any existence prior to birth means that it is far more convincing to state that his body and standing room are not gains but are, rather, the base line from which he begins. He cannot compare any mode of existence without having his body and standing room as a prior condition. The utility he derives from them, therefore, while being a gift, does not represent any conscious benefit or gain. He is merely at the zero point, the starting line of the remainder of his life.

What about the remainder of the land, that which does not form part of the standing room? In the absence of any human being, all of this “stuff” in the universe is precisely that – just stuff. Regardless of whether it is manifest as iron, oxygen, trees, animals, or as anything else, all matter is basically just a variety of atomic configurations. It yields no utility, no value, no ends, no satisfactions or anything. It is dead and inert, subject only to the physical laws of the universe and any condition in which it finds itself yields no service. When a human being comes along, however, all of the resources of the universe may yield to him utility – that is some kind of service or facility that contributes to his welfare2.

Let us assume that the human being remains in the position of his original standing room. In this situation, another resource will do one of two things; first, it may deliver him utility if it contributes to his general welfare but does not have to be consciously made the subject of his action in order to gain this welfare. The almost clichéd example is air – it is immediately available, served by nature in the form in which its qualities can be utilised by human beings, and this utility is available for all of time. Similarly, we may say the same thing of a beautiful view. The landscape does not have to be worked into a configuration to produce the view and it is, furthermore, everlasting. It is a gift of nature that will yield perpetual utility. Secondly, a resource might deliver him no utility whatsoever. Iron ore buried deep below the ground, for example, or trees on the other side of the world yield no service to our human and his condition or welfare would be the same without their existence3. In both of these two instances a resource is said to be non-scarce. Non-scarcity is determined when the quantity of an available resource exceeds the services (present and future) that it contributes towards human welfare4. With resources that simply produce no welfare whatsoever this is obvious, but this truth is less clear with resources that do provide welfare but nevertheless are so abundant that they still possess a non-scarce quality.

There are three important and directly related aspects to stress when understanding the qualities of the latter type of non-scarce resource. First, the resource must be in a condition in which one’s labour does not have to be directed from one end to another in order to utilise it. This is determined praxeologically and not physically. It is true, for example, that the body has to utilise energy to draw air into the lungs and then to exhale and that this energy could serve another purpose. Or, with the beautiful view, it is true that light waves have to reflect off the landscape into the viewer’s eye and that these waves must, in turn, be processed by the brain. But this physical exertion has no praxeological effect. For in order to qualify as the latter these physical aspects have to be appreciated by a human being. As long as a human inhales and exhales without any conscious thought or appreciation of the physical mechanics involved and as long as the sight of the beautiful view can be enjoyed without conscious knowledge of his body’s physical effort to produce that enjoyment then these purely physical matters are without substance in the realm of economics. Directly related to this is the second aspect which is that while a resource in its entirety may possess the same physical uniformity this does not mean that it is in a condition in which it is immediately utilisable without the intervention of labour. In other words, not all portions of a physically homogenous resource have equal serviceability to a human being. Water that is right next to me, for example, is physically the same resource as water that is twenty miles away, but praxeologically, i.e. in terms of the utility they each provide me, they are not the same resource but different resources as only the former may be enjoyed without my labour. Therefore, in order for a resource to be non-scarce, the portion of the total quantity of it that is physically homogenous and with which labour does not need to be mixed so that the resource’s utility may be received must be in a quantity that exceeds the needs of a human. In order to clarify this we will, hereafter, refer to a “resource” when we mean physical homogeneity (i.e. water), and to a “good” when we mean praxeological homogeneity (water next to me, water twenty miles away, water in the sea, etc.). Different goods, therefore, may have the same physical qualities but what determines their difference is their serviceability to a human being so, praxeologically, this difference makes a good a separate and distinct good from other portions of the same, physically homogenous resource5. Thirdly, the contribution to human welfare of a particular good is made by specific units of that good and not by the whole quantity of the good itself. Humans have no relation to categories of goods in their entirety, such as all of the air in the world or all of the gold, iron, wood, water, and so on, even if this is all available for their immediate use without the need to labour. Rather we only use these things in single, concrete portions to yield a particular service and hence, when we say that a good is non-scarce we mean that any individual unit is not consciously appreciated by a human. A single breath of air, for example, can be easily replaced by another breath, and there are enough units of air to satisfy a human’s need for it immediately and into the future of his life. Similarly, with the beautiful view, we may consider units of this view as being slices of time in which the view can be enjoyed. One unit of this view is just the same as any other and, from the point of view of the individual’s life, further units present themselves perpetually (this would be different, of course, if we knew that the view was going to be destroyed tomorrow). So, summing all this up, as long as the total quantity of units of a good that do not require the intervention of labour outweigh the needs of a human being then any individual unit will be unappreciated by that human and the good can be said to be non-scarce.

What do we mean when we say that being able to utilise a non-scarce unit of a good means that any human appreciation of this particular unit is absent? First of all, it means that the human experiences no gain. For there to be a gain then a previous set of circumstances must be replaced by a better (in his view), following set of circumstances. However, with a unit of a free good the circumstances are continuous – one unit of the good can only replace another unit of the same good. Similarly there is no conscious loss to a human if one unit should disappear as it can be replaced without effort by another. Hence an equally serviceable unit of the good is always available to be utilised – there is no transition from a period of being without to a period of being with. Similarly we can say that there is no benefit from utilising a single unit of a good. For a benefit implies some advantage, something “better”, but there is no benefit from utilising one unit of air – the condition of air’s presence and utility is on-going, so one particular unit provides nothing that was not already available. And finally there is no cost or burden associated with the utility of a unit of air – nothing has to be given up by the human in order to “enjoy” this utility. Crucially, what all of this means is that any single unit of air – and any single unit of all non-scarce goods – has no value. For all of these concepts – gains, costs, benefits, etc. – are all tied to the concept of valuation. For valuation is the comparison of one stream of utility against another – it is to prefer one to the other, i.e. to recognise a gain when one is achieved at the cost of losing another. None of this exists with units of non-scarce goods and so the utilisation of a unit of air, requiring no cost and achieving no gain, has no value. The very circumstances of air’s abundance, i.e. its complete non-scarcity, prevent the necessity of any kind of valuation. Again, without meaning to labour the point, all of these concepts – gains, benefits, costs, etc. – are to be understood praxeologically and not physically. Obviously air gives one a physical benefit and comes at the expense of physical costs but as long as there is no conscious gain and no conscious cost then these physical matters are irrelevant.

A unit of a non-scarce good, therefore, may yield unvalued utility – that the utility from the unit, a stream of service, is present, but it is not valued by the human. For the very essence of valuation is to desire, to prefer, to want or to need a certain stream of utility. But there is nothing about the relation of a human to a unit of a free good that demonstrates this. He reveals nothing about whether he prefers either the utility stream’s continuance or its cessation. Again, we must stress that this is only in relation to any particular unit of the good. We are not facetiously claiming that a person would not care if he was to lose all of his air and would not mind suffocating to death. We are only asserting that he does not care whether the utility rendered by one particular unit of air continues6.

In all cases, therefore, the condition of non-scarcity is dependent upon a quantity of immediately utilisable units of a good being sufficient to outweigh all of a human’s needs that can be serviced by that good. The utility present at a human’s birth, then, derives from his own body, his standing room and from non-scarce goods such as air. As we said above, this condition cannot be said to be “better” than anything else as there is no other condition from which the human has consciously been aware of departing from in order to arrive at it. Let us now, therefore, explore the condition when the human encounters scarcity, viz. when the quantity of an immediately utilisable good is not sufficient to outweigh all of a human’s needs that it can service.

Scarce Goods

Let us begin by positing a change in the condition at the “starting line” of a person’s birth. Let’s say the supply of immediately utilisable air was to diminish drastically to the point where further loss would cause a human to suffocate. The quantity of units of this good is now not sufficient to command all of a human’s needs. Air cannot be enjoyed as it once was as now each individual unit is not replaceable by another unit. The loss of one unit now very much entails a loss of service, a loss that wouldn’t have been experienced when air was available in abundant quantities. The result, therefore, is that the human is now confronted with a choice. With restricted air the choice is between whether to enjoy air now and risk suffocation in the future, or to restrict one’s consumption of it now in order to store it and preserve it for the future. To bring about the substance of his choice the human has to act in relation to the good, i.e. he has to make it the object of his action (or “mix his labour” with it). The result of the action is to divert the good from providing one stream of utility to another. So if I work to capture a unit of air in a glass bottle where it can be stored for the future I have ceased its service to my present respiratory needs and reserved it for my future respiratory needs. The result of this choice brought about through action in relation to the good is, therefore, the demonstration of a value. For I have now valued one stream of utility – present air – against another – future air and this valuation is imputed back to the good in question. My act of preference has been to set aside or to incur a loss or a cost of one stream of utility at the gain or profit of another stream of utility. Value, then, springs from the choice, the decision, of a human to set aside one utility for another, the resulting gain in utility being wholly rewarded to this choice or decision. It is these qualities – value, gains, profits, costs and losses – in relation to natural resources that will be the focus of this essay7.

The realisation of value, then, is to achieve something better than what existed before through human action. What, therefore, are the elements of valuation that occur with a human act? A human, in the condition that he finds himself after birth, must recognise that the potential stream of utility from a unit of a good is preferable to that which exists already. There must, therefore, regardless of the body he has, the standing room on which it is place, and the free goods which contribute to his general welfare, be some kind of uneasiness or dissatisfaction. He believes that the external resources available to him will offer him a stream of utility that is better than what he receives already. Let us posit something simple; his current standing room is position A whereas he would prefer to stand in position B because the ground is firmer and the human believes it will feel more comfortable to stand on. What elements are involved in this choice? First of all, there is the fact that while positions A and B both qualify as the resource of standing room in a physical sense they are different, heterogeneous goods in a praxeological sense. Position A is un-firm ground and position B is firm ground as judged by the human. The quantity of firm ground available for immediate utilisation is outweighed by the needs of a human’s welfare and hence firm ground is a scarce good8. Secondly, we can now say that a human has a conscious end – to derive the utility stream that is offered by firm ground. Thirdly, he has means, the tools he uses to achieve the end – his labour and position B. Fourthly, there is now a definite cost for the human cannot experience the utility of position A and position B at the same time. The achievement of standing in position B therefore requires the foregoing of position A and everything it has to offer for his welfare. Further, it requires him to experience the disutility of labour. Fifthly there is the element of uncertainty, which is pervasive through all action. Uncertainty falls into two categories – the uncertainty of the physical qualities of the resources and the uncertainty of future human desire. The former category is manifest in the fact that the human does not know whether position B will, in fact, deliver him the good of firm ground that he desires; rather it is merely an estimate, a prediction. Also when he gets there he might find that there are other conditions that had not entered his consideration that make position B a more or less desirable place in which to stand than position A. In the second category, the human does not know his future evaluations and choices. He might, for example, no longer desire the end of firm ground upon arriving in position B. Or he might become aware of the even better position C; but that position C was closer to position A than it was to position B and hence the move to the latter was unnecessary. There is, therefore, the element of risk that a utility stream gained through action will not, once it is accomplished, be more highly desired than that foregone. Sixthly, there is the element of profit (or gain) and loss. The human will experience a psychic profit to the extent that the utility stream received through action actually does contribute to his welfare more than the utility stream given up, the extent of the profit being his mental appreciation of the difference between these two. He will experience a psychic loss if the utility stream received through action does not contribute to his welfare more than the utility stream given up. Finally, there is the realisation of value, the “reward” of the profit and loss being derived entirely from the decision to prefer one stream of utility over another.

There is an additional complicating factor that is added to the element of cost. In reality, of course, a human faces a multitude of positions on which to stand. But his labour too is also scarce and he can apply it to only one position at a time. If there were also other positions on which he could stand and, for arguments sake, the labour cost of appropriating each of them was equal, then the human would choose the one with the firmest ground. But psychically, his profit and loss would be evaluated against the opportunity cost and not the actual cost foregone even though the former is not demonstrated through action. So if, for example, he is standing in position A and position C he estimates to be better than position A but worse than position B, in choosing to stand in the latter his profit and loss will be the utility gained from B minus C and not from B minus A.

The gross utility from a good that is achieved through a human’s action can, therefore, be categorised into two elements:

  1. Compensation for Cost
  2. Profit and Loss

This may be illustrated as follows in Figure A.

Figure A

Position A          0A—————————1A

Position B          0B—————————1B——–2B

0A–1A represents the utility derived from position A that is lost through the action (and the cost of labour involved in the move from position A to position B). 0B–2B represents the gross utility that is derived from moving to position B. Out of this gross utility 0B-1B represents compensation for the cost of losing 0A–1A while 1B–2B represents the profit and loss. The net gain in utility, that part that has caused an improvement to the human’s welfare, is therefore represented by 1B-2B and it is this part that represents the achievement, that which is better than that which experienced before. This gain in value, this preference for position B over position A is imputed back to the goods themselves so that we can say that, for this human, position B is more valuable than position A.

In no way, of course, should the length of the lines be taken as a “measurement” of the two utilities involved. The fact that we have illustrated 1B-2B as being smaller than 0B-1B should not be taken to mean that these two elements can be compared in magnitude. For the gain is only psychic and irreducible to a common unit with only the individual human knowing precisely how much more satisfied he is by the move from position A to position B. 1B-2B could be represented smaller or it could be so big that it could not be fitted on the page.

This is, of course, a very simple example which the reader may regard as so trivial as to be hardly worthy of any elaboration at all. But imagine if this is the human’s first ever act on his Earth. The result has been to compensate him for his loss of the original gift of standing room which was provided to him by nature and to give him a gain, something additional that was not there before. He has now, then, moved out of his starting position and onto the course of the rest of his life where he will make further actions after this initial one. Every single action that he undertakes from now will involve these very same elements; they will all undertaken because the human expects them to a) compensate him for the costs of utility foregone and b) to provide an excess of utility above this compensation. The net change in a human’s position, the part that has made him better off, has rewarded him and improved him, is only that part that remains after compensation for costs. This fact, we will see, is very important when we consider the income from land ownership and the ownership of durable natural resources such as land, ore deposits and mining facilities.

Another simple example, but one that involves a more obvious act of production, is where the human is faced with a choice of two apple trees. At the moment he picks apples from tree A, which yields him five apples per day. However, he believes that tree B will yield him more than five apples per day. He therefore decides to stop picking apples from tree A and starts picking them from tree B. Let’s assume that the labour cost from each is equal and that this operation is successful. He is therefore now able to pick seven apples a day from tree B. Figure B illustrates the composition of his gain in utility.

Figure B

A1—-A2—-A3—-A4—-A5

B1—-B2—-B3—-B4—-B5—-B6—-B7

A1-A5 represents the utility gained from the five apples from tree A; B1-B7 the gross utility gained from seven apples gained from tree B. A1-A5 is the utility that is given up by (i.e. the cost of) moving from tree A to tree B. Of the utility gained from tree B, therefore, B1-B5 represents the compensation for cost and B5-B7 represents the gain in utility, the profit and loss. Once more, we should not understand the equal spacing of the lines to mean that each additional apple contributes an equal increase in utility in the human’s mind. We do not know by how much each additional apple contributes to his welfare. All we know is that tree B contributes more to his welfare than tree A. The move from tree A to tree B has, therefore, been a realisation of value, of something better, an improvement, and this is imputed back to the goods themselves so that we can say that tree B is more valuable, more preferred as a result of its contribution to welfare, than tree A.

From where has this gain, this realisation of value, come? What is its source and from where does it spring? Is it from tree B? It is true that the utility itself, B1-B7 as illustrated above, is serviced by tree B. But we must remember that both trees A and B are just a collection of chemicals in the absence of any human. It requires a human being to appreciate the stream of utility provided by tree B as being preferable to the alternative stream of utility that was provided by tree A. Crucially, however, this stream of utility would not be realised or discovered if it was not for the human’s decision to apply his labour in the direction of yielding it. It was the human who decided that it would be worthwhile to give up tree A and move to tree B and therefore, the increase in value, the gain, the improvement, is solely an achievement of this decision-making ability. There are two ways in which we can illustrate this. First, what if, in addition to a choice between tree A yielding five apples and tree B yielding seven apples, there was also the option of tree C that yields three apples? Let’s say, though, that the human erroneously estimates that tree C will yield seven apples and so he gives up tree A in favour of tree C but tree C in fact yields only three apples. We can illustrate this as follows in Figure C:

Figure C

A1—-A2—-A3—-A4—-A5

C1—-C2—-C3—-C4—-C5

(C4)—(C5)

C1-C5 represents the compensation for loss of A1-A5, but (C4)-(C5) represents the loss that was experienced by the move. This loss is not generated by tree C itself; it is merely doing what it is under the order of the laws of physics so to do. The loss is, rather, entirely a derivative of the human’s erroneous decision to move from tree A to tree C. The “punishment” for the loss – the reduction in utility and, consequently, of welfare – is accorded to the bad decision-making ability. In exactly the same way the profit from the move from tree A to tree B was the result of a good decision and the increase in value was entirely a product of good decision-making ability. Bad decisions are therefore punished and good decisions are rewarded and all of these decisions are made in the aura of uncertainty that the result will be as intended. The second illustration is to imagine a world in which there is no gain in utility from any action at all. Let’s say that all trees in the world yield only five apples and that whatever the human does, wherever he goes he will never find a tree that yields anything other than five apples. In this case, therefore, the utilities exchanged in the act of, say, moving from tree A to tree B will be as follows in Figure D:

Figure D

A1—-A2—-A3—-A4—-A5

B1—-B2—-B3—-B4—-B5

In this example, therefore, the utility achieved exactly equals the utility that is lost. What is lost is recouped and what is recouped is what was lost. There is nothing better nor worse that can result from any action. Therefore, there is no need for any decision at all nor any decision-making ability, no reason to decide how to act for all acts will produce the same, uniform result. Any decision will yield an outcome that is exactly the same as its cost and hence there is no reward for good decision-making ability and no punishment for bad decision-making ability. In a complex economy this situation is akin to that of the evenly rotating economy, a world in which there is utility but revenue always equals cost. If the stream of utility given up is equal to that received then there can be no preference and if there is no preference then there can be no questions of there being any realisation of value. We will use this fiction to illustrate the profits from ownership of land and of natural resources. The realisation of value, therefore, can only result from a decision, a decision to withdraw labour from one stream of utility and to direct it towards another. The increase in utility received determines the height of the profit and, consequently, how good the decision was.

Could it be said that a person gains value merely from luck? Could it be that, actually, a person could possess no skill whatsoever and still profit from his actions? Yes, it could, but one must remember two things. First, that to consign one’s fate to luck is itself a decision and to the extent that it is more successful than not doing so then it is a good decision. Indeed such a world where we only had to rely on chance to provide us with every gain in value would be a serious improvement on the existing world. Secondly, as we shall see in more detail when considering profits that are gained from the ownership of natural resources in an exchange economy in part two, net gains from luck can only result if one’s luck is more accurate than someone else’s decision.

Time

What we have said above is true of all human action in relation to simple resources that yield an immediate gain in value. Let us now turn our attention to another aspect that is related to the use of natural resources such as land (including resources under the ground such as ore deposits or coal fields) and the more complex decisions and actions that have to be taken in order to yield value from them. This is the aspect of time, that is, that utility is yielded not immediately but, rather, after the elapse of a period of waiting (such as a long process of production) so that, if one was to start acting in relation to a good now, the utility to be derived would not be received until, for example, another year9. We noted above that physically homogenous resources are not necessarily praxeologically homogenous goods – for example, the differing locations of physically homogenous water can mean that they are, to the acting human, different goods with different degrees of serviceability. Exactly the same is true of time and portions of the same physically homogenous resource that are serviceable at different times may be considered as different goods. Water that is immediately serviceable, or serviceable with only a single action, may be one good, whereas water that is serviceable after only one year may be considered entirely differently, and water after two years forming a third category of good. The necessity of having to wait for serviceability burdens the utility of goods to be received with a degree of remoteness. It therefore follows that goods with serviceability nearer in time will be of higher value than the goods with serviceability further into the future, even if they are the same, physically homogenous resource. Where, therefore, one has to consider in one’s action goods that will yield a utility only in the future one has to discount the utility that is to be derived from the future yield, the effect of the discount being to apply a present value to a future good. The height of the discount will be dependent upon the individual’s preference for present utility over future utility. If he is very present oriented and prefers satisfaction sooner rather than later then the discount he will apply to any future utility will be heavy, perhaps bringing the present value of this future utility to below the value of immediately serviceable goods. If, however, he is not so present oriented the discount he applies may be light, perhaps assigning to a future good a present value that exceeds that of an immediately serviceable good10.

For the sake of simplicity, let us illustrate this with apple trees. We still have the following trees yielding the following numbers of apples as we did above but now let’s also add a fourth tree, tree D:

Figure E

Tree A               Five Apples                    Now

Tree B               Seven Apples                 Now

Tree C               Three Apples                 Now

Tree D              Ten Apples                    After One Year

In figure E, whereas with trees A, B and C the utility is immediate and the yield from the trees was, praxeologically, contemporaneous with the action, this is not so with tree D, where the utility the human will receive will only come after one year. If our human is currently picking apples from tree A, what are his options if he wishes to receive an increase in value, a stream of utility that is better than what he is receiving already? They are as follows:

  1. Lose five apples from tree A now and gain seven apples from tree B now;
  2. Lose five apples from tree A now and gain three apples from tree C now;
  3. Lose five apples from tree A now and gain ten apples from tree D in one year’s time.

It is obvious that, all else being equal, the human will not choose option 2 unless he was acting in error as that would represent a clear loss. The choice, therefore, is between options 1 and 3. We note that if he moves to tree D rather than to tree B he will gain ten apples rather seven, a difference of three apples. But to gain these additional three apples he must wait an entire year. What can we deduce from the choice he makes, or rather, what will determine this choice?

In order to make the valuation he has to discount the future utility to be derived from tree D in order to compare it with tree B. If he is very present-oriented then he may, as we noted above, apply a hefty discount. Let’s say he applies a discount of four apples to tree D. Therefore, in this scenario, the present value of tree B would be seven apples and the present value of tree D would be six apples. He will therefore choose option one, foregoing the greater utility that could be received in one year’s time in favour of a smaller utility that can be enjoyed now. In other words, the additional three apples that he would gain from tree D by waiting a year were not preferable to the additional two apples he would gain from tree B now – he would prefer seven apples now to ten apples in one year’s time. If, however, he is not so present-oriented and he applies a lighter discount to tree D (let’s say two apples), what would be the result? Now, the present value of tree B remains at seven apples but the present value of tree D stands at eight apples. He will therefore choose option three, foregoing an immediate, smaller utility in order to gain a larger utility in the future.

The height of the discount that is applied in order to reach the present value of a good that yields utility in the future is known as interest. If, as we just stated, he applies a discount of two apples to tree D then the height of the interest is two apples. We now have, therefore, not two but three elements that make up the gross utility of a decision to act in relation to a good:

  1. Compensation for costs;
  2. Interest
  3. Profit and Loss.

In the case of this choice of tree D, although his actual cost is the loss of five apples from tree A now he incurs the opportunity cost of foregoing the seven apples that he could have picked from tree B now. The composition of the gross utility from his action can therefore be illustrated as follows in Figure F:

Figure F

B1—-B2—-B3—-B4—-B5—-B6—-B7

D1—-D2—-D3—-D4—-D5—-D6—-D7

(D8)—(D9)—-D10

So D1-D7 (seven apples) represents compensation for the loss of utility from foregoing the gain from tree B; D7-D9 (two apples) represents the discount while D9-D10 (one apple) is his resulting profit and loss. Even though, therefore, physically our human has three more apples than he would have if he had chosen tree B, the fact that he has to wait a year for these apples means that his net gain is reduced by the height of the discount he applies. In this case, therefore, this gross gain of three is reduced by the discount of two apples to a net gain of just one apple11.

A person will therefore, all else being equal, act in relation to a good if he a) believes that it will sufficiently compensate him for his costs, b) believes that it will provide an increase in utility compared to the current stream of utility, and c) prefers a larger gain in utility in the future (or later) to a smaller gain now (or sooner).

In the real world the concept of time is very important when considering natural resources such as land and mineral deposits. For example, a field of wheat must be fertilised in the winter, ploughed and sown in the spring, tended in the summer then finally harvested in the autumn. It is not until this latter act, almost a year after the first, that the human can consume his first bushel of wheat. But more importantly the total benefit to be derived from many natural resources will yield itself not in the first year but across many years to come. Only one harvest’s worth of wheat can only be gained from a field this year; one has to wait until the second year before gaining the second harvest, until the third year for the third, and so on. A copper mine might extract only a small percentage of its total deposit in one year, a similar percentage the next year, etc. Time therefore plays a major role in valuing these streams of utility and in analysing the composition of that utility that is gained as a result. Let us explore this in more detail by considering, again, a lone human who now tries to settle himself on and make use of a durable natural resource.

Land Settlement and Capitalisation

Let us once more put our human in the position of picking apples from tree A. As we stated above he derives an immediate utility of five apples from this tree. However, he now wishes to abandon apples altogether and wants to settle a plot of land in order to grow wheat year after year. Let us assume, for simplicity’s sake, that there is only one plot of land to settle. His costs will again be the loss of utility from tree A, but also the cost of settlement, labour, planning, ploughing, seeds, and so on. His gain will be the additional utility above and beyond the amount of wheat necessary to compensate him for these costs. In addition, however, the field will not only yield a harvest this year, but also next year as well, and in the third year, and so on. His gain in utility, the part that does not compensate him for costs, will stretch across many years and therefore must be discounted accordingly.

Let us say, for argument’s sake, that the land will yield 200 bushels of wheat per year. Of this, 100 bushels will compensate our human for costs leaving the remaining 100 representing a gross gain in utility. Let us also say that he applies a discount of the height of 10% to this gross gain. The gross yield, therefore, of the harvest in the first year can be analysed as follows:

Figure G

Year      Gross Yield        Costs                Gross Gain        Discount                  Net Gain

1          200 bushels       (100 bushels)     100 bushels       (10 bushels)      90 bushels

As a result of having to apply the 10% discount, therefore, the net gain in utility is from 90 bushels of wheat per year and not from 100. We could, therefore, say that the net value of this action, the increase in utility, what has been gained, is 90 bushels. This value, in turn, is imputed back to the land itself so that we would say that the land, having applied the discount at the start of year 1, is, at that time, “worth” 90 bushels. However, as we noted above, the land will not only yield 200 bushels in year 1, but also in years 2, 3, 4, 5 and potentially forever. How is this gain in future utility valued at present, i.e. what is the value of these yields to our human at the start of year 1?  As more time has to elapse for the bushels that appear in year 2 and even longer for those that appear in years 3, 4, 5 and so on, he will apply a heavier discount to the value of the net gain from these successive years so that the present value of this gain diminishes. If we assume, for simplicity’s sake, that the costs remain fixed at 100 bushels per year and that he will continue to discount the gain in future utility at a rate of 10% of per year we can now analyse the gross yields from each year as follows in Figure H:

Figure H

Year      Gross Yield        Costs                Gross Gain        Discount                  Net Gain

1          200 bushels       (100 bushels)     100 bushels       (10 bushels)      90 bushels

2          200 bushels       (100 bushels)     100 bushels       (20 bushels)      80 bushels

3          200 bushels       (100 bushels)     100 bushels       (30 bushels)      70 bushels

4          200 bushels       (100 bushels)     100 bushels       (40 bushels)      60 bushels

5          200 bushels       (100 bushels)     100 bushels       (50 bushels)      50 bushels

6          200 bushels       (100 bushels)     100 bushels       (60 bushels)      40 bushels

7          200 bushels       (100 bushels)     100 bushels       (70 bushels)      30 bushels

8          200 bushels       (100 bushels)     100 bushels       (80 bushels)      20 bushels

9          200 bushels       (100 bushels)     100 bushels       (90 bushels)      10 bushels

10         200 bushels       (100 bushels)     100 bushels       (100 bushels)     0 bushels

What we see is that the more remote in time the gain in utility the heavier the discount that is applied to it. The effect of this is to completely wipe out any gain of utility that appears after ten years or more. In other words, even though the land will go on yielding harvests way after this time they are so far off that they are of no present value. The total present value of the gain in utility from the land is, therefore, the sum of the final column, which is 450 bushels. This will be imputed back to the land itself so that the land will have a capitalised value of 450 bushels of wheat. In other words, the land is “worth” 450 bushels and we could expect the land to fetch that amount if it was sold.

It is very important to realise that this net gain in utility is a one shot affair. The capitalised value of 450 bushels is the value of the land now, having already accounted for the fact that the utility will not be received until a period of time has elapsed and hence, in our human’s mind, is realised now and he does not yield a perpetual net gain in utility year after year. Even though, at the start of year 1, the present value of the first year’s harvest is 90 bushel’s yet after the end of that year the landowner yields a gross gain of 100 bushels and the difference of 10 bushels will obviously form part of his income from which he will derive utility, this income is interest, earned solely because of the elapse of time between these two points and it does not represent any net gain in utility. While, therefore, a landowner can yield a perpetual interest income from the land year after year, he cannot yield a perpetual net income. Once it is known how much the land will yield each year any net gain in utility will be fully discounted to a present value – in this case, 450 bushels – achieving a place in the landowner’s value rankings now and determining his impetus towards future action now. In the real world, however, there are two complicating factors. First, the yields from future harvests are themselves uncertain and must be estimated before they are discounted to a present value. Secondly, our human must weigh the present value of the utility of the land against the utility to be derived from other possible actions. It is these factors that provide the opportunity for further net gain. What, then, are some of these options that he could face and what is their consequence on his gain?

One possibility is that another patch of land may – or may not – be more productive than the one he is settled on currently. Let’s call this new patch of land plot B and the current patch of land plot A. He therefore has to make a choice – to stick with plot A or to move to plot B. There are three possible outcomes regardless of the choice that is made:

  1. Plot B is more productive than plot A;
  2. Plot B is equally as productive as plot A;
  3. Plot A is more productive than plot B.

Which option is true is, of course, unknown before the action is completed. For argument’s sake we will assume that the costs of farming plot A are equal to the costs of farming plot B (although in reality, of course, variable costs will factor into the consideration and will serve to increase or decrease the net gain in utility from land). We will also continue to assume that the yields from each plot are constant year after year and that the same discount rate – 10% per year – will be applied to the net gain in utility. All that is unknown, therefore, at the point a decision has to be made to stick with plot A or move to Plot B is the productivity of Plot B. We will explore each of these outcomes 1-3 under each of the two possible actions that he can take.

First, let us say that our human abandons plot A and moves to plot B. What will be the effect of scenario 1? Let us say that Plot A continues with a gross yield of 200 bushels per year. Plot B, however, yields 300 bushels a year. How now will we analyse the net utility from Plot B? One solution could be as follows in Figure I:

Figure I

Year      Gross Yield        Costs                Gross Gain        Discount                  Net Gain

1          300 bushels       (100 bushels)     200 bushels       (20 bushels)      180 bushels

2          300 bushels       (100 bushels)     200 bushels       (40 bushels)      160 bushels

3          300 bushels       (100 bushels)     200 bushels       (60 bushels)      140 bushels

4          300 bushels       (100 bushels)     200 bushels       (80 bushels)      120 bushels

5          300 bushels       (100 bushels)     200 bushels       (100 bushels)     100 bushels

6          300 bushels       (100 bushels)     200 bushels       (120 bushels)     80 bushels

7          300 bushels       (100 bushels)     200 bushels       (140 bushels)     60 bushels

8          300 bushels       (100 bushels)     200 bushels       (160 bushels)     40 bushels

9          300 bushels       (100 bushels)     200 bushels       (180 bushels)     20 bushels

10         300 bushels       (100 bushels)     200 bushels       (100 bushels)     0 bushels

Figure I points out the fact that plot B is, after direct costs, physically twice as productive as plot A. However, this would not be a true statement of the net gain that is yielded by our human from plot B. This is because he can already, with the same costs, gain a utility from Plot A. By moving to plot B from Plot A he foregoes the utility to be derived from this latter plot and so this becomes an opportunity cost. In other words, the gain in utility from Plot A that could have been made has to be subtracted from the utility gained from plot B. This is illustrated in Figure J:

Figure J

Year      Gross Yield        Costs                Gross Gain        Discount                   Opp. Cost          Net

1          300 bushels       (100 bushels)     200 bushels       (20 bushels)      (90 bushels)      90

2          300 bushels       (100 bushels)     200 bushels       (40 bushels)      (80 bushels)      80

3          300 bushels       (100 bushels)     200 bushels       (60 bushels)      (70 bushels)      70

4          300 bushels       (100 bushels)     200 bushels       (80 bushels)      (60 bushels)      60

5          300 bushels       (100 bushels)     200 bushels       (100 bushels)     (50 bushels)      50

6          300 bushels       (100 bushels)     200 bushels       (120 bushels)     (40 bushels)      40

7          300 bushels       (100 bushels)     200 bushels       (140 bushels)     (30 bushels)      30

8          300 bushels       (100 bushels)     200 bushels       (160 bushels)     (20 bushels)      20

9          300 bushels       (100 bushels)     200 bushels       (180 bushels)     (10 bushels)      10

10         300 bushels       (100 bushels)     200 bushels       (200 bushels)     (0 bushels)        0

As we can see, therefore, our human’s net gain of moving from Plot A to Plot B is equal to his net gain from moving to Plot A in the first place. While, therefore, Plot B produces a gross gain that is double that of plot A, the effect of discounting and of opportunity cost has been to reduce this gross gain to a net gain that is equal to that of the original move to Plot A. There is, however, some net gain and the move from Plot A to Plot B is profitable.

The effect of scenario two should be obvious – if both Plots A and B have a gross yield of 200 bushels a year and we apply the same costs and discounting then there will be no net gain whatsoever. The opportunity cost that is incurred by abandoning plot A will be exactly recouped from plot B. We can illustrate this as follows in Figure K:

Figure K

Year      Gross Yield        Costs                Gross Gain        Discount                        Opp. Cost          Net

1          200 bushels       (100 bushels)     100 bushels       (10 bushels)      (90 bushels)      0

2          200 bushels       (100 bushels)     100 bushels       (20 bushels)      (80 bushels)      0

3          200 bushels       (100 bushels)     100 bushels       (30 bushels)      (70 bushels)      0

4          200 bushels       (100 bushels)     100 bushels       (40 bushels)      (60 bushels)      0

5          200 bushels       (100 bushels)     100 bushels       (50 bushels)      (50 bushels)      0

6          200 bushels       (100 bushels)     100 bushels       (60 bushels)      (40 bushels)      0

7          200 bushels       (100 bushels)     100 bushels       (70 bushels)      (30 bushels)      0

8          200 bushels       (100 bushels)     100 bushels       (80 bushels)      (20 bushels)      0

9          200 bushels       (100 bushels)     100 bushels       (90 bushels)      (10 bushels)      0

10         200 bushels       (100 bushels)     100 bushels       (100 bushels)     (0 bushels)        0

While, therefore, the move has not incurred a loss it was, otherwise, pointless and purposeless12. What about scenario three? Let us assume here that the gross yield from Plot B is only 150 bushels a year, lower than that of Plot A. What happens then?

Figure L

Year      Gross Yield        Costs                Gross Gain        Discount                        Opp. Cost          Net

1          150 bushels       (100 bushels)     50 bushels         (5 bushels)        (90 bushels)      (45)

2          150 bushels       (100 bushels)     50 bushels         (10 bushels)      (80 bushels)      (40)

3          150 bushels       (100 bushels)     50 bushels         (15 bushels)      (70 bushels)      (35)

4          150 bushels       (100 bushels)     50 bushels         (20 bushels)      (60 bushels)      (30)

5          150 bushels       (100 bushels)     50 bushels         (25 bushels)      (50 bushels)      (25)

6          150 bushels       (100 bushels)     50 bushels         (30 bushels)      (40 bushels)      (20)

7          150 bushels       (100 bushels)     50 bushels         (35 bushels)      (30 bushels)      (15)

8          150 bushels       (100 bushels)     50 bushels         (40 bushels)      (20 bushels)      (10)

9          150 bushels       (100 bushels)     50 bushels         (45 bushels)      (10 bushels)      (5)

10         150 bushels       (100 bushels)     50 bushels         (50 bushels)      (0 bushels)        0

As we can see in Figure L the effect of the lower productivity of plot B, after accounting for what he lost from the move from Plot A, has been to impose a loss on our human. Even though he is still producing something it would have been far better for him to have stuck with Plot A where the yield was much higher.

Now let’s examine what happens if he doesn’t move from Plot A to Plot B. What are the results of our three scenarios then? Now, where Plot B is more profitable but he chooses to remain on Plot A, he will continue to derive the same utility from Plot A that he does at the moment however the effect of the foregoing of the more profitable plot B is to impose an opportunity cost upon his gain from Plot A. Applying the same costs and discounting as before his net utility gained will, therefore, be as follows in Figure M:

Figure M

Year      Gross Yield        Costs                Gross Gain        Discount                        Opp. Cost          Net

1          200 bushels       (100 bushels)     100 bushels       (10 bushels)      (180 bushels)     (90)

2          200 bushels       (100 bushels)     100 bushels       (20 bushels)      (160 bushels)     (80)

3          200 bushels       (100 bushels)     100 bushels       (30 bushels)      (140 bushels)     (70)

4          200 bushels       (100 bushels)     100 bushels       (40 bushels)      (120 bushels)     (60)

5          200 bushels       (100 bushels)     100 bushels       (50 bushels)      (100 bushels)     (50)

6          200 bushels       (100 bushels)     100 bushels       (60 bushels)      (80 bushels)      (40)

7          200 bushels       (100 bushels)     100 bushels       (70 bushels)      (60 bushels)      (30)

8          200 bushels       (100 bushels)     100 bushels       (80 bushels)      (40 bushels)      (20)

9          200 bushels       (100 bushels)     100 bushels       (90 bushels)      (20 bushels)      (10)

10         200 bushels       (100 bushels)     100 bushels       (100 bushels)     (0 bushels)        (0)

While, therefore, our human continues to derive utility from Plot A the existence of the opportunity cost of foregoing the utility of Plot B has had the effect of imposing upon him a net loss. In other words, he made the wrong decision in choosing to stay on the less profitable Plot A and this erroneous decision has been penalised by the loss.

In the second scenario, obviously there is, again, no net gain or loss from remaining on Plot B and the composition of utility derived will be as in Figure K, above. What about scenario 3, however? This is where Plot B is less profitable than plot A and our human chooses to remain on Plot A. What is the composition of utility now?

Figure N

Year      Gross Yield        Costs                Gross Gain        Discount                        Opp. Cost          Net

1          200 bushels       (100 bushels)     100 bushels       (10 bushels)      (45 bushels)      45

2          200 bushels       (100 bushels)     100 bushels       (20 bushels)      (40 bushels)      40

3          200 bushels       (100 bushels)     100 bushels       (30 bushels)      (35 bushels)      35

4          200 bushels       (100 bushels)     100 bushels       (40 bushels)      (30 bushels)      30

5          200 bushels       (100 bushels)     100 bushels       (50 bushels)      (25 bushels)      25

6          200 bushels       (100 bushels)     100 bushels       (60 bushels)      (20 bushels)      20

7          200 bushels       (100 bushels)     100 bushels       (70 bushels)      (15 bushels)      15

8          200 bushels       (100 bushels)     100 bushels       (80 bushels)      (10 bushels)      10

9          200 bushels       (100 bushels)     100 bushels       (90 bushels)      (5 bushels)        5

10         200 bushels       (100 bushels)     100 bushels       (100 bushels)     (0 bushels)        0

 

What has happened is that Plot B, although less productive than Plot A, still yields a greater productivity than that which our human was experiencing before his first move to Plot A. Therefore, his net gain in utility from the original move to Plot A (Figure H, above) has been reduced accordingly, although there is still a net gain and the decision to remain on Plot A is profitable.

What we must reiterate from all of this is that our landowner’s gross income all falls into three categories:

  1. Compensation for Costs;
  2. Interest;
  3. Profit and Loss

Category 1 includes compensation for all direct costs associated with producing the land’s yield and also opportunity costs. The more productive, therefore, an alternative action on an alternative piece of land the higher these latter costs will be and category 1 will claim a larger portion of the gross yield than categories 2 and 3. Category 2, interest, is equal to the height of the discount that is applied to each yield and is earned only after the appropriate period of time has elapsed. Category 3, the net yield, can only be earned through an entrepreneurial judgment, a decision that takes place under the condition of uncertainty. Once it is known or realised precisely how much the yield will be this income will be fully discounted to a present value and, thereafter, a landowner can earn only interest on this income. In reality, of course, the decision is much more complex because of a multitude of uncertainties that exist:

a)     Direct costs of farming a plot will change from year after year and must be estimated in advance of their occurrence;

b)     Opportunity costs will change from year after year and, likewise, must be estimated;

c)      The gross yield of a plot of land is not certain in advance; rather, factors such as the weather, seed quality and soil deterioration will intervene;

d)     The discount to be applied to future gains is dependent upon the individual’s time preference rate which is subject to change.

A fuller analysis of these factors will become clearer through the situation not of a lone, individual human being, but through one where there is the trade of land and resources between many human beings. To this task we shall turn in part two.

Go to part two.

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1Alternatively by a deity if that is one’s inclination. The cause of the creation of matter and life in the universe is not under examination in this essay and one is perfectly entitled to substitute “God” for “nature”.

2The neutrality of description of that which is yielded to a human by utility is extremely important to grasp, as we shall see a just below.

3It is actually more often the case that the matter in existence falls into this second category. In spite of a population of approximately 6 billion people on the planet, humanity has only succeeded in tapping into a very small fraction of the matter available in the Earth. Although much of the Earth’s land surface has been utilised to a wide extent, the seas, the sky and below the Earth’s crust remain unexploited territories simply because it is too costly to make use of them.

4Carl Menger, Principles of Economics, pp. 94-8.

5It is also possible for physically heterogeneous resources to be praxeologically homogenous goods – for example, if there are two steaks on sale, one of which weighs 300g and the other of which weighs 300.1g, this physical difference will be irrelevant if the human believes that each of the two resources has equal serviceability and they will, therefore, be two portions of the same good].

6A clear conception of the law of marginal utility may assist any difficulty in the comprehension of what is being said here. Briefly, as the available units of a good increase, the quantity of a human’s ends which become fulfilled by these units increases also. If, therefore, a human loses one unit of a good then he will forego the least urgent end and continue directing the remaining units to the more valuable ends. His appreciation of any one unit of a good, therefore, is the loss of utility that he would experience by leaving the least urgently needed end unfulfilled. However, as the quantity of air exceeds the number of ends towards which a human can direct it the loss of one unit of air entails no loss of utility whatsoever and hence a single unit of air is unappreciated by a human being. For a particularly lucid explanation see Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk, The Positive Theory of Capital, Book III, Chapter IV.

7The valuation between goods again springs not from the utility to be derived from whole classes of goods such as “present air” and “future air” but only from the marginal units of these classes. If all units of air exist as present air, a human will act to direct units towards future air when the stream of utility to be gained from the first unit (i.e. the unit to be gained) of future air is, to him, preferable to the stream of utility to be derived from the last unit (i.e. the unit to be lost) of present air. He will stop acting in such a way when the utility from the last unit of present air is more preferable to him than the utility from the next unit of future air.

8As the human is standing in position A and not position B it should be obvious that the quantity of firm ground available for his immediate use is zero.

9Again, what matters here is not the physical elapse of time but its praxeological significance. All actions, of course, take place through time and their resulting utility can only be received at a point after which a decision has been made to carry them out. For example, I first have to decide that I want to eat a sandwich before I derive the utility from doing so. But unless the elapse of time involved in this process is consciously appreciated by me then it will have no significance in economics.

10One can analogise goods that yield utility at different times to those that yield utility in different locations as both time and distance are factors of remoteness that cause one to apply a discount to the net utility to be derived. All else being equal, goods that are closer are more serviceable than those that are further away. In order to compare the utility from a distant good with a near good, therefore, one has to apply a discount to the distant good. Here, however, the discount is easily calculable as it consists simply of the costs of transporting the distant good. If, therefore, the utility from a distant good minus transportation costs is higher than the utility to be derived from a near good then the distant good is more valuable than the near good and the human will act in relation to it. If, however, the effect of transportation costs brings the utility of a distant good below that of the near good then the distant good is not more valuable than the near good and the former will remain untouched.

11The height of the discount applied will also, of course, account for the fact that apples D1-D7, compensating him for the loss of B1-B7, will also not be received until after a year.

12In reality, also, there would be the transaction cost of moving plots to be accounted for which would result in an overall loss from the move but for simplicity’s sake we have omitted these here.

Means, Ends, Production and Consumption

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One of the apparent weaknesses of economics (of any school of thought) is that as soon as one gets past the “Robinson Crusoe” stage of an isolated individual and proceeds to the elaborate explanations of production, exchange, and the division of labour, it becomes extremely easy to forget that at the start of every economic system, at the bottom of every theory, is the individual acting man, the person who has ends that he achieves with means through actions. There are two, seemingly contradictory (although actually related) dangers from this oversight. First, by separating the categories of production, consumption, saving, investment, entrepreneurship and so forth into separate personae under the division of labour, we forget that these qualities are inherent in the action of all human beings and are simply abstractions from the different categories of action applied to different groups in order to demonstrate their role in the economic system as a whole. What results, therefore, is atomistic appreciation of these different categories, so that, for example, we talk of the needs of “producers” or of the welfare of “employees” or of interests of “borrowers” or of “savers” being punished, and so on. Secondly, we can go to the opposite extreme and only look at the whole economy, concluding erroneously that what is “good” for the economy (if such a thing can be said) is also good for the individual human beings who make up that economy. These two dangers we will explore in turn.

 The Atomised Categories of the Economy

When looking at an individual human being, it is not outrageously difficult to understand how the object of each human being is to achieve his most highly valued ends with the scarce means available to him. We do not need to enter a deep, praxeological analysis to understand how the individual human will, all else being equal, seek to maximise his gains and minimise his costs. He will attempt to inflate the former and deflate the latter as far as it is possible for him so to do. It is also clear that the final object of all of his action is consumption – the enjoyment of the fruits of his toil, the benefit of which he predicts will outweigh the disutility of that toil. If, therefore, in a situation of isolation, a human decides to plough a field, plant seeds and then sow the resulting crop we can readily understand that he will seek to achieve the highest yield of crop possible while ploughing the field and sowing the seeds in a manner that bears him the lightest labour and the lowest cost. If he is able to achieve the same yield with a lower cost or a higher yield with the same cost, he will, all else being equal, proceed to do so. Hence, if he is suddenly gifted a tractor that halves his ploughing time, we can understand easily why he will make use of it. If he can purchase a new type of seed that doubles the crop yield but with no extra work then, again, no one will have any difficulty in appreciating this. The idea that we will always take the shortest route to the same end or the same route to a higher end can be empathetically understood by any human – we are always trying to spend less and have more, cut down on X and increase Y, all to yield the highest benefit for the minimum cost1.

What we can also readily appreciate in this scenario is the different categories of action inherent in the single, lone human. He is a consumer, a producer, an entrepreneur, a saver, an investor, and a capitalist. He must carry out all of these activities with the means available to him on his own behalf. And hence it should be obvious that all of these activities are carried on not for their own sake but for the valuable ends and the improvements to his life that they achieve. If all of the ends could be achieved with no work, production, no saving, no investment and no capital accumulation whatsoever few would doubt that he would be in a far better position. How many of us would turn down the opportunity to purchase anything we wanted without having to go to work each day? Judging by the fact that more than half of the eligible population play the national lottery, it stands to reason that this would be few. It would, therefore, be absolutely absurd for us to say that a person’s life would be made better by loading additional burdens onto the ones that already exist. Who in their right mind would say that our lone human would be better off digging the soil with his bare hands rather than with a tractor and plough? Or that he is better off having to transport water on his shoulders than with the aid of pipes and irrigation? This would only mean that he would endure more work, more hardship but for the same end. No one in his right mind would advocate such a course of action. Additionally, no one would ever say (all else being equal) that a person has “produced too much”. We would not take the fruits of our labour and burn a half of it because the extra productivity means that we might not have to work next week. The result of this would be that a person forces himself to endure the same work for a lesser end. Again, all of this is readily understandable and no person would advocate such courses of action and expect to be taken seriously.

Unfortunately, however, this appears to be the approach that we take as soon as the division of labour comes into play and we examine the economy as a whole. For now, when considering the economy in such a manner, while all persons will still retain their multi-faceted characteristics2, the roles of consumer, producer, saver, investor, entrepreneur and so on are not concentrated in an individual but are split out so as to understand them in the new context of the division of labour and exchange. This is, of course, highly useful as it is only by utilising this approach that we can hope to gain any understanding of economic phenomena in the world in which we live, a world that is certainly not isolated but where each individual relies heavily on the productivity of everyone else. However, there is a danger in compartmentalising these activities and considering them only in isolation. With our lone human, we noted that less work means the same enjoyment for a lower burden of effort. A labour saving device, such as machine to pick fruit, for example, would obviously be of a benefit to him. But in the whole economy where the roles of consumer and producer are split, if such a device is introduced, the relative benefits and burdens appear to be split also. Hence, person X, the purchaser and consumer of fruit, is benefited by the lower cost of the product that the machine has permitted. But person Y, who might have been a fruit picker before the machine was introduced, might now find himself completely out of a job (or he may find that at least the demand for his services is drastically reduced) with apparently no corresponding benefit. The conclusion that is often drawn is that there has been a great harm and that “something must be done” to alleviate the plight of the formerly employed fruit pickers. This becomes manifest in a number of policy considerations such as “make work” rules, subsidies, campaigns against machinery and so on, many of which are instigated under union pressure.

The errors of these conclusions come from looking only at the production element of the economy and ignoring the consumer element. For no one in their right mind would say that an individual human should “make more work” for himself or destroy productive machinery to “give him a job”. It is obvious that such things would be a detriment to his ability to consume the fruits of labour. Nor would he be able to subsidise himself by taking money out of one of his pockets and putting it into the other. The very aim of every individual person is to gain as much as he can while doing less work, not more. Yet this is precisely what we do when looking at the economy as a whole. If productive machinery is allowed to displace jobs then this means that the consumers benefit with lower prices and/or increased product. To ward off the loss of jobs by artificially restricting the saving of labour is simply to “benefit” the production end of the economy but to “burden” the consumer end. But the whole point of production is consumption. These people, being kept in jobs that are unneeded, are in no way contributing towards the benefits of consumption. Their work continues as a deadweight cost and there is neither dignity nor achievement in perpetuating their pointless labour. Furthermore, while it is true that they will suffer unemployment in the meantime, the increased supply of free labour will cause wages to fall temporarily. This means that new lines of employment, those that were not previously economic when the people’s labour was desired to pick fruit, are now suddenly viable. New entrepreneurs will rush in to hire the spare labour and devote it to their new enterprises. One must not forget that there will be a degree of hardship during the transition, particularly if one was in a now redundant job for many decades or if a particular skill or talent has now become obsolete. But by deploying the labour to new lines of work, the array of consumer goods now increases. The labour saving device enables more consumption for lower prices, the final end of production, rather than stifling it in the production of the same goods for the same prices. In his role as a consumer every person will feel this benefit over time as real wages increase as a result of the increased productivity.

All of this goes to show that, far from failing to explain anything noteworthy, the economics of the isolated man – so-called “Robinson Crusoe” economics – must be thoroughly borne in mind if one wishes to avoid these misunderstandings.

The Broad View of the Economy

The second error we outlined above was of the opposite ilk – that, rather than looking at parts of the economy in compartmentalised components, one looks only at the whole economy and only thinks in terms of hermetically sealed aggregates and totals. With the individual, lone human we noted that anything that increases his consumption and reduces the burden of production is of a benefit to him. When he is, in effect, his own “mini-economy” all burdens are felt by him and all benefits are enjoyed by him; the one is weighed against the other in the same mind. If, for example, a person desires more to bake more bread and to achieve this he is going to deliberately curtail his production of meat then there is no problem in saying that the burden of the reduction of meat is offset by the increase in bread, for this individual feels both the burden of less meat and the benefit of more bread. His action demonstrates that he prefers bread to meat. This is not the case in the economy as a whole, where roles are concentrated under the division of labour and burdens and benefits are scattered across many – literally millions of – different people. It is a mistake to assume that there is any one, particular event that will be “good for the economy as a whole”. For the economy is just a number of people trading and co-operating peacefully; it is not an entity in its own right, it does not feel, it does think, it does not desire and feels neither pleasure nor pain. While we can, for example, say that a decline in meat production offset by a rise in steel production is a benefit “for the economy as whole” in the sense that the individual members of this economy have chosen to prefer steel over meat (and that jobs in the meat industry will shift to steel production), it is not the case that some broad measures of “output” and “input” leads to the conclusion that all is well. The most pervasive manifestation of this error is the almost ubiquitous obsession with GDP, a figure that is calculated from numerous aggregates that bear no relationship whatsoever with the underlying desires of the acting humans. A particularly crucial element in this aggregates is that of government spending. If GDP starts to fall, say, from the onset of a recession, then Government can simply prop it up by increasing its share of the GDP pie. But it does not follow from this that there is any benefit from this spending. It can only be concluded that an exchange is beneficial if the parties to exchange are volunteers. They only exchange because their action demonstrates that they desire the good that is gained more than the good that is given up. Government spending, however, is funded by taxation3, a compulsory exchange, not a voluntary one. Because the exchange was compulsory it demonstrates that the tax-paying party would prefer not to have his money in the hands of the government. If he did so prefer he would have paid it across voluntarily. When the government spends this money, therefore, it can only do so in ways that are less valuable to those people who provided the funding. There is no sense in which anyone is “better off”. The big aggregate numbers may look impressive following this expenditure but what has not been realised is that they are completely severed from the preferences of the individual people. The situation is no different from one man holding a gun to another’s head and forcing the latter to devote his productive resources to churn out stuff that he doesn’t want. The effort, the production and the physical results may look impressive but there is no point in producing anything if it does not satisfy someone’s most urgently desired needs. What has been gained, like Bastiat’s famous broken window, has simply been at the expense of something that was more highly desired. The same is true also of so-called “infrastructure” spending, which ignores the intricate web of the capital structure. This has been dealt with in detail here. Suffice it to say for the moment that government spending on capital goods does not help the economy; rather, the effect is to divert the economy from a path on which it was meeting the needs of individual people onto a path where it must adapt itself to the new capital resource. Lines of production that depend upon that resource will become profitable, but only at the expense of other, more highly desired lines that have to be abandoned because their funding was compulsorily diverted to government capital expenditure.

The same fallacy – of viewing the economy only as a whole – is evident in the whole saga of the business cycle and credit expansion.  For while the forced lowering of the rate of interest swells the aggregate numbers – everyone is employed, stock markets climb, skyscrapers start shooting up, etc. – what has been forgotten is the underlying preferences of the individuals in the economy. They are not willing to devote the resources necessary to sustain the new capital structure which is precisely why, when the credit expansion stops, the whole lot comes tumbling down. Indeed, the entire approach of mainstream economists seems to be that the economy is doing well as long as somebody, somewhere, is spending on something, i.e. as long as there is some kind of “activity” then there is no cause for alarm. Their failure to acknowledge the wastefulness of the boom and the necessity of the bust demonstrates their lack of comprehension of the fact that spending the scarce resources at our disposal on stuff that is simply not wanted is emphatically not economising activity – it is just waste. The lesson from the 2008 financial crisis should be that you cannot build houses if people are not prepared to pay for the bricks.

The Praxeological Method

These two errors – of looking at the economy too narrowly and then too broadly – can only be avoided by following the praxeological method. For both errors have their root in the failure to grasp the same basic point – that all economising activity is initiated by humans who desire, choose and act so as to devote the scarce resources available to best meet their most highly valued ends. By understanding this crucial fact one would never focus too narrowly and advocate a programme to help certain producers at the expense of others; but neither also would one look too broadly and conclude that what appears to be some kind of economic activity – expressed through aggregates, totals and figures – is always a good thing. Human choice, actions and ends are the foundation of economic understanding and it is vital that is restored to its rightful place in economic thought.

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1We do not, of course, have to assume that every human wants to “have more” in the sense of material fulfilment; rather that every human wishes to meet his ends for the lowest costs whatever the substance of these ends may be.

2A labourer, for example, must, to a degree, possess entrepreneurial skill in choosing the employer from which his labour will yield the highest return; he will also be a saver and investor if, for example, he saves some of his income in a pension fund. And everyone, whatever their broader role in the economy, is also a consumer.

3Even if it is funded by borrowing not only must these borrowed funds be repaid with tax loot but also government borrowing crowds out private borrowing.

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