Prices and Cost of Production

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A major field of study in the science of economics is the pricing of consumer goods and their antecedent factors of production. The history of this area of thought provides an almost textbook example of the falsehood of the “Whig theory” of historiography – the idea that the knowledge of humanity progresses in an ever upward direction and that what we know now is better and more enlightened than what we knew before. For this area of study in particular is marked by progression, retrogression and progression once more, often with disastrous consequences.

The most serious case of retrogression in this regard was of, course the Marxian labour theory of value that stipulated that the exchange ratio of goods depended upon the quantity of labour time inherent in their production. This theory, together with its corollaries and associates such as the iron law of wages and the exploitation theory, was derived, so it was believed, directly from the largely pre-capitalist classical economics of Smith and Ricardo.

A basic “Austrian” response to this is to reject Marxism and its supposed classical parent by pointing out, of course, that costs are also prices. To explain prices in reference to prices, therefore, would appear to be a case of circular reasoning. Rather, the prices of the factors of production were derived from the value of the final good. Capitalists would bid up the factors of production according to the valuation of the final product. Thus the value of every factor was explained not according to the effort expended but, rather, according to its value in producing consumer goods.

Unfortunately, however, this basic understanding of the “Austrian” approach towards prices ignores the much richer theoretical tapestry inherent in the “Austrian” approach (especially that of Böhm-Bawerk) which, in fact, does not contradict many of the tenets of price theory in classical economics but, rather, armed with the law of marginal utility, provides a more powerful explanatory basis for them. Thus, one need not throw out the classical economics baby with the Marxist bath water and risk losing many of the important and true conclusions that were abused and distorted by Marx.

An immediate problem with the basic “Austrian” view is that the sequence of valuations from consumer good through the stages of production to the ultimate land and labour factors is the reverse of the temporal sequence of events. A product has to have been produced through all of its stages of production before a consumer can bid a price for it. Thus, the prices of the factors of production pre-date those of the consumer goods upon which the former are supposedly based. It is difficult to understand, therefore, how something can be derived from something else that does not yet exist. The more accurate view is, of course, that the prices of the factors of production are based upon the estimated selling prices of the future consumer goods. In a static equilibrium such as the evenly rotating economy the prices of the final goods are known in advance and hence the pricing of the factors of production will accurately reflect the value of the final consumer goods. But as helpful as this model may be in conceptualising the structure of production, it is woefully easy to draw from it the conclusion, so beloved of mainstream economists, that a boost in the value of consumption must necessarily result in a subsequent boost of the value of the factors of production. In other words that consumption feeds production. This, of course, is patently untrue. As John Stuart Mill said, “demand for commodities is not demand for labour”. Rather, to produce a commodity for purchase, labour (and all of the factors of production) must already have been demanded by capitalist-entrepreneurs. In other words, it is production that feeds consumption not vice-versa.

Second, if the prices of the factors of production of a good are based upon the valuations of consumers this does not explain the individual pricing of the factors. If, for example, a consumer will buy a loaf of bread for £1.00, why does the flour that went into it cost, say, 40p, the labour 50p and the hire of the oven to bake it 10p? Why doesn’t flour cost 50p, labour 30p and the oven 20p? Or any other possible combination of prices? One possible answer to this problem is that each factor earns its marginal revenue product – that is, the portion of the value of the increased product that it is attributable to an incremental increase of that particular factor. So for example, if I have a patch of land and a given number of seeds and apply increasing units of fertiliser then each additional unit of fertiliser will be priced according to the additional revenue earned by the additional physical product that results. The problem with this view is that it ignores the fact that no additional product is the result of a single factor alone and that the value of the additional product need not be imputed solely to the additional fertiliser. What if, for example, the purchase price of the land and the seeds already accounted for the fact that additional fertiliser could be applied to it to produce a larger physical product? Moreover, even if, say, the land and seeds were purchased at a price that reflected the fact that only a limited quantity of fertiliser was available and thus only a reduced physical product could be yielded from them, any unexpected increase in the available quantity of fertiliser and thus increased physical product and increased revenue would also cause an increase in the capitalised value of the land and the price of seeds. In other words, there is no reason to assume that the marginal revenue product should be imputed to only a single factor. We are therefore no closer to solving our problem – what is it that causes the particular array of prices between the factors? As we shall see, each factor does, in fact, earn its marginal revenue product, but not in a partial equilibrium where we examine only a particular end or use for a factor. Rather we have to consider the entire assortment of uses to which a good can be directed.

A further problem with the basic “Austrian” approach is revealed when we consider large consumer goods such as cars and computers. It is patently obvious that the value of a car is zero unless it has a steering wheel. Indeed, the demand for steering wheels is likely to be extremely inelastic, stretching all the way up to the height of the value of the entire car. However, in reality, the full value of the car does not result in the imputation of that full value to the steering wheel but rather to all of the other factors as well. Similarly, a computer is useless without the monitor; a television without a plug; glasses without lenses. In fact, it is clear that the utility of thousands of goods is dependent upon the unity of all of their individual components and if any one of them is missing the utility of a particular good drops to zero. Yet in many cases we never have to pay more than a few pounds for the “essential ingredient” to be produced.

How then do we arrive at the prices of all of the individual factors? The answer to this question lies in a deeper understanding of the law of marginal utility. As we know, this law states that the value of a unit of a good is equal to the value attached to the least valuable use to which that unit can be directed. So if, for example, I have five bottles of water, I might use the first for my most important end which is drinking, the second for the next most important end which is washing, the third for cleaning laundry, the fourth for watering plants, and the fifth to make into ice cubes. As each bottle is interchangeable, if one bottle was to be lost it would be the least valuable use – making ice cubes – that would be foregone. Thus, the value of any one unit will equate to the value of the least valuable end of making ice cubes, in spite of the fact that some of those units will be directed to ends with far greater value.

What we can see, however, is that if the value of any one unit of a good equates to the value of the least valuable use to which that unit can be directed then this value must also be imputed to the factors of production. If a portion of those factors was to be lost, the resulting reduced supply of goods would result in the loss of the least valuable ends. Thus, each unit of the factors of production that created the five bottles of water must themselves be valued at the lowest valuable use of a good that those factors will produce.

However, this law will also apply when the factors of production are not specific and can be used to produce any range of goods that satisfy a number of different ends. Let’s say, for example, that a given quantity of factors of production can be used to produce the following consumer goods in descending order of value:

  1. A bottle of water;
  2. A loaf of bread;
  3. A bar of soap;
  4. A pair of socks;
  5. A box of tissues.

If the same factors of production can be used to produce my most valuable good, a bottle of water, as my least valuable good, a box of tissues, then it follows that the factors of production will be valued according to the value attached to the box of tissues. The loss of any portion of those factors of production will result in the cessation of the production of tissues while all of my other goods are still produced. Here, then, is the key to understanding the different prices of the factors of production. The value of a factor is based not upon the utility attached to the specific good to which that factor is directed but, rather, upon the least valuable good to which a portion of its supply is directed. Only highly specific factors of production which can be devoted only to a single end will derive their value fully from that specific end.

In real life, of course, it is never the case that whole combinations of factors of production can be exchanged between different ends. Rather factors have to take their place in different combinations of specific and non-specific factors. It is these various arrays that produce, at any one time, the individual prices of the factors of production. Thus the breakdown of prices of factors used to produce a particular good is derived from the lowest valued uses to which portions of the supply of those individual factors are directed.

We are now, therefore, in a position to see what we mean when we say that a factor of production earns its marginal revenue product. If we gain an additional unit of a particular factor, that unit will be directed towards the next most valuable end that is currently unfulfilled in the economy as a whole. All of the most valuable uses for the factor will already be fulfilled. Yet all units of this particular factor will now be priced according to the value of the marginal unit which will be derived from the least valuable end.

However, the pricing of the factors of production according to their marginal uses is not the only effect of the application of the law of marginal utility. It also affects the value of the supra-marginal products whose direct marginal utility is above that of the marginal product. These products too will be priced according to the combination of prices involved in their factors of production as the loss of any given portion of a factor will not result in the loss of this product but in the loss of the marginal product. Thus, the prices of most goods in the economy are priced according to the least valuable goods that are produced out by the marginal units of their shared factors of production. As George Reisman explains:

Allow me to illustrate Böhm-Bawerk’s point here by means of a modification of his famous example of the pioneer farmer with five sacks of grain. As will be recalled, the five sacks serve wants in descending order of importance. One sack is necessary for the farmer to get through the winter without dying of starvation. The second enables him to survive in good health. The third enables him to eat to the point of feeling contented. The fourth enables him to make a supply of brandy. The fifth enables him to feed pet parrots.

[…]

Now let us slightly modify the example. Let us imagine that the first sack of grain has been used to make a supply of flour, which in turn has been used to make a supply of biscuits, and that it is this resulting supply of biscuits by means of which the first sack of grain performs its service of preserving the farmer’s life […] We can imagine a little tag attached, this time saying, “Biscuits Required for Survival.” As before, our farmer still has four remaining sacks of grain, any of which can be used to make a fresh supply of flour and then a fresh supply of biscuits. And now, just as before, we may imagine rats or other vermin destroying the supply of biscuits. Will the answer to the question concerning the magnitude of the farmer’s loss be materially different? Certainly, his life does not depend on the supply of biscuits any more than it did on the sack of grain. For he can replace that supply of biscuits at the expense of the marginal employment of the remaining sacks of grain, which, of course, is the feeding of the pet parrots. To be sure, additional labor will have to be applied as well, but the magnitude of value lost here is that of the marginal product of that labor, which might be  something such as the construction of a sun shade or an additional sun shade or even the feeding of the parrots. The point is that the value of the biscuits will not be determined by the importance of the wants directly served by the biscuits but by the importance of the marginal wants served by the means of production used to produce biscuits and from which a replacement supply of biscuits can be produced at will.1

Thus, we can conclude, that for the majority of products that are available for sale today, their selling prices are based not upon their direct marginal utilities but, rather, upon their costs of production which is derived from the marginal utilities of the least valuable products to which factors of production are directed. There are several noteworthy effects of this analysis.

The first is that this does not nullify the operation of supply and demand in determining the price of any supra-marginal good. Rather, it results in a shifting of the supply curve to the right so that it intersects the demand curve at a level where price equals the cost of production, plus the going rate of profit. Changes in the availability of the factors of production which either increase or decrease their marginal utility will cause similar shifts of the supply curve to the left or right which will have the corresponding effect of raising or lowering the price of the specific consumer good. This is possible without any change in the quantity that is bought and sold if, for example, the shift of the supply curve takes place on a highly inelastic stretch of the demand curve. The same quantity will be bought and sold simply at a higher or lower price.

The second observation, derived from the first, is that this obliterates the standard economic analysis behind monopoly pricing. The basis of this analysis is that suppliers can exploit inelastic demand curves to reduce supply, raise their prices and thus rein in an artificially expanded profit at the expense of the consumer. However, our theory here reveals that the opportunities for doing this are minimal. For the raising of prices and consequent swollen profit margins will cause competitors to shift factors of production away from the production of marginal goods towards an increase in production of the goods whose prices have been raised, thus restoring an increase in supply and the reduction of prices back to near their costs of production. Thus, for any businessman, the primary tool for estimating his selling price is not elasticity of demand of the particular good that he is selling; rather, it is the cost of production of any potential competitor. It is for this reason why very basic goods such as bread, milk, eggs, salt etc. which have an inelastic demand curve are priced very low; and it is for this reason why sole suppliers in particular industries will earn only the going rate of profit; any attempt to raise prices will simply attract competition.

The third important observation is the impact of this analysis on wages. For labour too is, of course, a factor of production and thus will only draw income in line with the marginal use to which it can be devoted. What results, therefore, is that labour is paid a rate of wages that is far below the direct marginal utilities of the goods that the very vast majority of labourers will be producing. Yet it is also clear that, because the value of marginal products is imputed, via their factors of production, to the supra-marginal products, it is clear that the resulting lower prices means that labour can buy all of this produce. Thus increases in the supply of labour, resulting in the direction of the latter to further marginal uses and thus a lowering of the nominal wage rate, will have no bearing upon the ability of labourers, in their capacity as consumers, to buy its produce and, indeed, will serve to increase the real wage rate. Thus the argument that increases in the supply of labour through, say, immigration are largely unfounded.

What we can see therefore is that the “Austrian” understanding of the prices of goods and their costs of production, although complex, provides a strong bulwark against false theories in many important areas such as stimulus spending, wages, and competition law. Every individual who wishes to offer powerful affronts to the falsehoods that abound in these areas should study it avidly.

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1George Reisman, Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk’s “Value, Cost and Marginal Utility”: Notes on the Translation, QJAE, Vol. 5, No.3: 25-35.

The Myth of Overpopulation

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Overpopulation, either locally or globally, is often blamed on a number of apparent problems from the shortage of particular (usually “essential”) resources all the way up to the outright poverty of entire continents. Although few governments, most notably the Chinese, have enacted any strict policies in order to control their populations (except with regards to immigration), factoids such as the allegation that, if every single human wanted to enjoy a Western lifestyle we would need something like a dozen earths, attempt to create an unwarranted degree of hysteria.

The myth of overpopulation rests on the belief that humanity is akin to some kind of cancer which, as it grows exponentially, devours a fixed or arithmetically growing pool of resources that must be shared between everyone who has been unfortunate enough to have been born. This would have been the case in a hand-to-mouth society that preceded capitalism and the division of labour. There was effectively no production and the birth of each individual person constituted merely another mouth to feed. In other words, an increase in population led to an increase in demand for consumption without any corresponding increase in production, thus putting pressure on the existing stock of resources that had to be shared by everyone. Nevertheless, when it comes to shortages of goods in local markets today we can surmise that even if there was a fixed or otherwise relatively limited pool of resources that everyone had to share we couldn’t pin the blame for shortages on such a fact. In a free society, a particular good might be very expensive but it should never be the case that we cannot find anything. As the population increases the price of resources would rise and thus choke off demand for the least valuable uses. Shortages, rather, are always the result of government price controls that try to create the illusion of abundance without the reality, decimating the current supply and obliterating any incentive to produce more. That aside, however, the blatant reality for a capitalist society marked by the division of labour is that there is not a fixed or arithmetically growing pool of wealth and resources, and that the whole purpose of such a society is to grow, exponentially, the amount of wealth that is available. Indeed, as we shall see, humanity has succeeded in this endeavour to only a fraction of its capacity.

When the first human being trod the virgin soil of the earth, he found himself in a situation of almost unrelenting poverty. Mother Nature, as anyone trapped for an extended period of time in the wilderness has discovered, is far from a kind host, providing very little (except air to breathe and fruit on wild trees) by way of resources that can be consumed immediately for very little effort. Yet all of the matter contained in every resource that we enjoy today – buildings, cars, refrigerators, televisions, computers, clothing, medicines, and so – was, give or take a little, right there at the beginning of the world’s existence. Strictly speaking, no human being has ever created anything – rather he has merely transformed matter from one thing into another. So why, if all this matter was there from the very start, weren’t these wonderful things available to our first human? The reason is, of course, that a human must apply his labour in order to change the matter available in the world into useful resources that fulfil his ends. Yet the work of one man with his unaided body alone was not sufficient to create all of the wonderful things that we enjoy today. Indeed, it might take a single human being an entire day to hunt or catch enough fish for just one meal before the process must be repeated the following day. How can this be limitation be overcome?

The first answer is quite simply the very bugbear that is complained about – an increased population. A greater number of humans can together lift and carry a far greater amount than one man alone. Several or many men building a house would accomplish the task in a far shorter time than one man alone. More importantly, however, the widening of the division of labour as the population grows ensures that production stays ahead of population growth. Additional humans constitute an additional demand for consumption – ten humans may require ten houses whereas one human would require only one. But the fact that these men are also producers means that each can now fill his day by specialising in a particular task. One man, devoid of the ability to specialise, may take a year to build one house and he would have to undertake every single activity related to the building work on his own. With ten men, however, two may specialise in lumber felling, another two in transport, some in building, and the task of one the men may be solely to produce food and other supplies for the men doing direct work on the houses. The result of this is a greater degree and concentration of knowledge and an increased perfection of technique and expertise in each task. The resulting time saving means that, whereas one man would take one year to build one house, ten men would less than one year to build ten houses. Thus the rate of house building overtakes the rate of the increase in population. We therefore see that the quantity of labour has a marked effect on the accumulation of wealth and the transformation of matter into useful economic resources, provided that a society is distinguished by capitalism and the division of labour. To further emphasise this point, it is the twin effect of the consumption demand of the additional people coupled with the fact that these people are also producers that makes an ever increasing widening of the division of labour possible. If ten houses have to be produced then it might not be possible for one man to concentrate on any single task in order to fill his day; he might have to work in installing the wiring, the plumbing and the wallpaper. If one hundred houses have to be built then he might be able to concentrate on plumbing alone. If one thousand houses are built then he might be able to specialise on plumbing just bathrooms whereas someone else works on plumbing kitchens, for instance. The ever increasing volume of demand from an increasing population therefore begats an ever increasing division of labour when that population is put to work, and with it come all the benefits of specialisation and expertise.

Second, although it is flexible, the human body is a relatively weak and feeble creature, capable of moving and lifting only a tiny amount of matter at any one time. Regardless, therefore, of the quantity of labour available we can see that fifty men carrying sacks on their back would fail to transport as many goods in as short a space of time as, say, a railway locomotive hauling some wagons. The power of labour is therefore a further limiting factor on the number of resources that can be enjoyed. This power can only be increased by accumulating ever greater amounts of capital. All such goods – machines, tools, vehicles, and so on – are, fundamentally, merely extensions of the human body that enable its labour to accomplish more than it otherwise would. A man with an axe can fell a greater a number of trees than a man whose body is unaided by this implement. For centuries, humans could not labour to extract oil from the ground and refine it into petroleum. Yet with the capital available to construct drilling apparatus, oil rigs and refineries this is no longer the case. Indeed, most direct labour today is not concerned with the production of consumption goods at all. Rather, it is devoted to the production, augmentation and improvement of capital goods. In short, it is directed towards increasing the power of labour.

What we begin to see, therefore, is that it is not necessarily the scarcity of resources burdened by an ever increasing population that is the real obstacle to the growth of wealth and economic progress; rather, it is the scarcity of labour and the power of that labour as represented by the stock of capital goods which serve to enhance it. Goods are, to be sure, the original source of scarcity. We apply our labour only because the available quantity of a given resource exists in insufficient supply relative to the ends to which it could be devoted. Yet the power of our labour is a significant compounding factor on the degree of scarcity that we must endure. My body may only have enough capability in order to fetch a few buckets of water from a nearby stream – yet more than three quarters of the globe is covered in water. It is because the power of my labour is relatively weak that most of this water is either too far away or of insufficient quality to serve me any practical end. Only be improving the power of my labour – by being able to move greater distances, lift heavier volumes and develop processes of purification – could I hope to enjoy more water.

Such a circumstance is not limited to such a clearly abundant resource such as water. The entire world, right from the depths of the core of the Earth all the way up to the stratosphere is densely packed with matter. Our labour has only ever been able to harness a mere fraction of these resources, mostly skimmed from the Earth’s crust. As time goes on however, as population increases and with it capital accumulation and the widening of the division of labour, we harness the ability to tap into more and more of these resources. Hence, mines and oil fields that were once too costly to drill are now drilled (and, indeed, are more productive than the most productive fields of yesteryear); such mines could eventually reach depths of miles rather feet; and valuable elements can now be extracted from more complex ores. There is no reason to believe that this process cannot continue. Even today, the sea contains traces of elements such as gold which, in their totality, amount to a far greater quantity than all of that ever mined from beneath the land – 20 million tons compared to 175,000 tons respectively. Yet our labour is insufficient to take advantage of this fact. Indeed the sea remains one of the greatest untapped resources available to us. Unlike private land settlement which led to a prosperous agriculture and exploitation of the land, government has pretty much closed off areas of the sea to the possibility of settlement, preventing the development of a full-fledged aquaculture and robbing us of the ability to exploit this wonderful gift of nature.

It is for this reason – the increasing power of labour – that all predictions of resource depletion as a result of overpopulation (not to mention the ridiculousness of disingenuous “facts” such as the allegation that twelve earths are required to give everyone a Western lifestyle) – have failed. In the well known Ehrlich-Simon wager, for instance, economist Julian Simon made a bet in 1980 with biologist Paul Ehrlich that the price of five metals of Ehrlich’s choosing would have declined in price ten years later – indicating increasing availability of resources rather than increasing scarcity. Simon won the bet outright, in spite of a population increase of 800 million during that decade. Other peddlers of the overpopulation thesis, such as Albert Allen Bartlett, have labelled the views presented here as “cornucopian” or “the new flat earth” – mythical, whimsical and not based on any serious scientific understanding. What these people share in common is that they simply do not account for the future economic viability of production from what are currently viewed as uneconomic resources. For the clear result is that as population has increased we have been able to apply more labour with a greater power of that labour to a greater number of the world’s resources in ways that we were not able to do before. The ultimate goal, needless to say, would be something akin to molecular engineering – the ability to transform worthless matter such as dirt, trash or even air – into valuable resources. The futuristic “replicators” on TV shows such as Star Trek can apparently conjure goods such as a fully cooked meal out of thin air; yet the science behind would not be too difficult to imagine. We have already harnessed the ability to transform matter into energy through processes such as combustion. We can envisage that one day we could do the reverse and transform energy into matter. An inedible sack of coal could end up as a fabulous meal on your dining table.

Overpopulation does, however, give the appearance of being a problem as a result of government interference. Above we noted above, additional consumption demand represented by an increasing population serves in increase wealth provided that the additional population are also producers and therefore will act so as to widen the division of labour and the accumulation of capital. Yet the actions of government serve to swell consumption while choking off production. Pressure on resources and industries therefore arises from government control of these things. Britain’s decrepit healthcare, energy and transport systems are bursting at the seams as a result of demand and increasing costs, a direct result of inefficiency combined with prices that are too low which serve to swell consumption demand in these industries. Government pays its citizens to produce babies and thus increase the population, while an increasing immigrant population today is induced not by the freedom to pursue one’s own goals and to better one’s own life for oneself through hard work and productivity, but, rather, by generous welfare states. All of this causes a rising population that contributes to consumption but very little by way of production. In other words, if you set up the economic system to make consumption as care free as possible and production as costly as it could be then the excess of consumption and a deficit of production will give the illusion of overpopulation. Government therefore begins to look on its citizens as pests and parasites, wanton consumers of precious resources that are desperately running out. Yet the problem is not with resources; rather the problem is with the ability of the government to swell the ranks of consumers and its inability to increase the power of labour, together with its incessant stifling of anyone else who tries to do so. Every additional person who is born in the world is another mouth to feed, another person who will demand the consumption of resources. Yet that person could also be a producer who will widen the division of labour and help to grow the capital stock. Government succeeds only in breeding the consumer in a man while totally destroying in him the producer.

Turning to a related aspect, the fact that whole continents, such as Africa, are mired in poverty has nothing to do with the allegation that the richer countries refuse to “share” their wealth. If the richer countries did not have their wealth, it would not mean that poorer countries would have more – the wealth simply would not have been produced, period. Indeed, whatever wealth that does exist in poor places is often the result of Western enterprise or outright gift. These places do not lack resources; rather, they lack the institutions of private property and voluntary exchange that enable capitalism and the division of labour to flourish, and with them a greater command of labour over resources. Indeed, many of these countries are proceeding down the wrong path by setting up welfare states, trade unions and Keynesian economic (mis)management overseen by democratic institutions which are, of course, the very things that are destroying the standard of living in the West. The West achieved its greatest accomplishments in a pre-democratic, pre-welfare state and pre-union age before Marxism and socialism succeeded in leading the onslaught against capitalism and private property.

What we can see, therefore, is that overpopulation is not a fundamental economic problem. It is only an apparent problem in a society that is hampered by government intervention and the stifling of private property rights, the division of labour and capital accumulation. However, even if population started to put pressure on resources when, in a capitalist society, we reached the (unlikely) point where we were regularly turning over all of the matter in existence to meet our ends – we would still conclude that this would not be a problem worthy of any serious attention. Or at the very least, it would certainly not be a problem that merited any centralised, government control. For as population increases relative to the supply of resources, the latter become more expensive. The cost of raising a child therefore itself becomes prohibitively more expense and people would need to choose between devoting ever more valuable resources to themselves or to their children. Indeed one of the first of such resources to exert this pressure may well be land, assuming we have not, by then, invented the ability to produce more of it artificially. We could, of course, build upwards and end up living in skyscrapers but people may prefer to breed less and have more land available to themselves rather than to their children. Such choices may serve to relieve, naturally, any exponential growth in population figures. Even if, though, people desired to keep on having more children it would only indicate that they prefer the company of children to enjoying more resources for themselves. There is no objective standard by which to complain about the result of such a choice. Nevertheless, even when it comes to the question of land, humanity is currently so far from this point that we hardly need to bother mentioning it, except to try and concede to the overpopulation thesis its best possible case.

The illusion of overpopulation is exacerbated today by a fundamentally antagonistic attitude from what Murray Rothbard called the “professional foes of humanity”, the environmentalist movement1. Apart from this movement’s interference in one the most crucial markets for capital accumulation – the production of energy – the fundamentals of their philosophy view the earth as inherently beautiful and sacred, and any of humanity’s attempts to exploit it as sacrilege. Such a view is radically anti-human and can only hold that the problem with the Earth is that there are too many of these stupid, dirty, polluting, and wantonly consuming human beings. Given the influence that this movement holds it is no small wonder that such thinking permeates into more mainstream views. That aside, however, we can conclude from what we have learnt here that humans need not fear increases in population. What they should fear, however, is their government turning additional people into spoon fed eaters with shackled hands – consumers who cannot produce. It is this fact that puts a very real pressure of resources. It is therefore not overpopulation that is the real problem but, rather, “over-government”.

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1Murray N Rothbard, Government and Hurricane Hugo: A Deadly Combination, Llewellyn H Rockwell Jr, (ed.), The Economics of Liberty, pp 136-40.

Economic Myths #3 – We Need More Jobs!

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During the economic malaise one of the most frequently watched figures in the economy is the number of jobs that are either created or destroyed. Government makes “job creation” a central plank of its economic policy to put people back to work and the impression that more people are being hired and fewer are being fired buoys their hubristic impression that we must be on the road to recovery.

Unfortunately this obsession with jobs is another example of the error of looking at an isolated aspect of economic achievement rather than at the entire picture – much like trying to boost consumption in order to further growth which we explored in myth #2. Jobs (or work, or labour) are simply what we have to do in order to achieve our valuable ends with the scarce resources available. It is the toil and suffering that we have to undertake in order to get to what we want because we do not live in the Garden of Eden. Our ideal situation is to have everything we want without having to have any jobs at all and economic growth fuelled by greater capital investment permits us to have more and more of what we desire for less effort. Our focus, therefore, is not on jobs per se but, rather, on what these jobs produce – the outcome of our labour and not that labour itself.

The most oft-cited example of useless job creation is government paying people to dig holes in the ground and then fill them up again. The unemployment figures would go down; the stock market would probably rally; the currency would strengthen. And yet these “jobs” have produced absolutely nothing whatsoever. All of the time and effort put into administering and fuelling them simply depleted the world of resources rather than added to it. In the real world, what this looks like is government providing artificial stimulus or subsidies to industries that are not otherwise economically viable; government “job creation” programmes; and not to mention, of course, the endless ream of bureaucrats that the government employs directly. Creating artificial jobs that do nothing funded by a government payroll simply papers over the cracks of an unsound economy. Yes, more people feel better as they have dollars in their hands and are probably not worrying about where the next meal will come from; but all that has happened is that those who were already working are now being forced to subsidise those whose employment creates no productivity.

A related fallacy is that if somebody somewhere is carrying out some kind of economic activity and the more of that activity there is then, so it is concluded, the better the economy is doing. To the central planners it doesn’t matter whether there is a housing boom, a construction boom, a tech boom or a stock market boom as long as there is lots of stuff going on, regardless of whether people actually want the products that are churned out by those enterprises. It is for this reason why we have the business cycle in the first place. Obsessed by creating some kind of “output” the artificial stimulus of credit expansion pushes the economy onto a path which, while brimming with activity, is ultimately not in harmony with the desires of consumers.

Job quality is more important than job quantity. The correct focus of any economic policy should be to ensure that we are labouring to direct the scarce resources available to the ends that we desire – and not simply on wasting those resources by doing some kind of fundamentally useless activity just to make government look good. “Full production” and not “full employment” should be our mantle.

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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.

Capital – The Lifeblood of the Economy

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It is the gravest deficiency of mainstream economics that it fails to understand the necessity, role and structure of capital in the economy, a failure that permeates through to lay debates concerning production, income, wealth and redistribution. This essay will explain why this deficiency will lead to economic ruin unless its errors are comprehended and corrected.

Production

It is self-evident that everything desired by humans that is not the free gift of nature at the immediate point of consumption must, in some way, be worked for. By “worked for” we mean that the human consciously strives to devote means to bringing about an end that would not otherwise exist. The benefits of air, for example, must be “worked for” in the sense that the body has to contract the diaphragm to inhale. But to the extent that this is not a conscious process, that the human does not knowingly have to divert resources to meet this end means that air is, to all intents and purposes, a free good. Very few, if any, other goods meet this criteria and the environment of the first human that walked on the Earth was one of unrelenting scarcity, a complete and utter dearth of anything necessary, enjoyable or desirable for that human being’s existence.

An isolated human, therefore, has to work to produce his goods. The extent of his success determines his productivity or, to put it more starkly, his income. If, at the start of the day, he has nothing and he labours to produce three loaves of bread then by sunset we may say that his productivity, or his income, is three loaves of bread per day. Productivity does not rise proportionally with effort. It may be possible to achieve a high level of productivity with relatively little effort or, conversely, to waste ones efforts on boondoggles that turn out to be a complete failure. While it is generally true, therefore, that harder work will begat a greater level of productivity it is not necessarily true – humans must direct their efforts in the most appropriate way to enable the greatest productivity, not necessarily in the hardest way.

Let us take, then, the first human on Earth who has nothing except air to breathe and nature’s gift of his body which empowers him with the ability to labour. Let us say that, at this point, his wealth, his accumulated stock of produced goods, is zero. It will be the task of his existence to increase this level of wealth. How does and how should he go about this?1 Let us say that his first desire is to find firewood to burn and keep warm. So on the morning of day one of his existence he has no logs to burn and his wealth is zero. Off he goes on a brief expedition and, using only the body that nature has given him, he returns in the evening with three logs. His productivity, or his income for the day, is therefore three logs. We may also say that his wealth has increased from zero to three logs. However, he then makes the decision to burn all of the three logs to keep him warm for the night. His act of burning the logs is his consumption. He has used the three logs as consumer goods to directly yield him a satisfaction in his mind. However, with the arrival of morning, he is in exactly the same position that he was in on the previous morning – his stock of wealth is once again zero. So off he goes on another expedition and returns again, with three logs. Once again his income is three logs and his wealth has expanded by three logs. But again he burns them overnight, meaning that yet again his stock of wealth on day three is back to zero.

It is therefore the case that one’s stock of wealth is directly related to the amount of it that is consumed. The more of one’s produced product (income) that is consumed, the less overall wealth one has.

Let us say that, within a week, our human grows weary of collecting three logs every single day only to see them vanish again overnight. He wants to increase his wealth. What can he do? It should be self evident that the only thing he can do is to reduce his consumption; if, he wants to be wealthier at the start of tomorrow than he was at the start of today he needs to reduce his level of consumption by abstaining from burning one or more logs. Let us say that he decides to burn only two logs and sets aside one. The following morning, therefore, his wealth is now one log, whereas the previous morning it was zero logs. He is now wealthier today than he was twenty four hours ago, this increase of wealth being owed to the fact that our human he has engaged in an act of saving2. With his saved wealth he can do one of two things. The first possibility is that he can hoard it. If he hoards it then all this means is that, while his wealth will increase as his act of hoarding continues, the human’s consumption of the wealth that he is accumulating daily is merely delayed. This method of saving does not, in and of itself, permit wealth to grow and from this perspective serves little purpose. If all else is equal, he might as well burn the third log today and enjoy the extra warmth rather than leave it lying around for a future date3. However, the second thing that he can do is to take his saved logs and invest them. To invest means rather than consuming his wealth directly the human takes it and uses it as a tool of production of further goods. This must be the result of a transformation of the goods into such a tool. Let us say that the human saves enough logs to invest in the production of a wheelbarrow and that, for one week, he labours to construct the wheelbarrow. The finished wheelbarrow is now a capital good – a good used in the production of further goods. The aim, in this case, is for the wheelbarrow to be used to transport logs that will then, in turn, be burnt as firewood. Let us say that with the aid of the completed wheelbarrow he is now able to bring home six logs per day rather than the initial three. By aid of the capital good he is therefore able to increase his production of other goods. His wealth therefore increases by more than it would have done so without the aid of the capital good.

What, therefore, are the inherent qualities of this act of saving and investment? What, in particular, will induce the human to engage in it? There are several aspects to note:

  • It requires abstinence from direct consumption of the good that will be transformed into a capital good;
  • The abstinence is for a period of time, that is the time taken to transform the goods into capital goods that yield further goods for consumption;
  • In order to justify the period of abstinence, the yield of goods from the capital goods must be higher than it would have been without the capital good.

This final point is of crucial importance. For what will determine the human’s propensity to save/invest on the one hand and his propensity to consume now on the other? The answer will be his willingness to trade the period of waiting in which the capital good will be constructed against the increased quantity of goods that will result. He will start to save at a point when the increased quantity of goods yielded is more valuable to him than the utility gained from direct consumption now of the capital good. He will stop saving when consuming now will yield him more utility than waiting for an increased quantity of goods in the future. This propensity to wait is called his time preference. If time is relatively more valuable to him than an increased quantity of goods then he has a high time preference. If the increased quantity of goods is relatively more valuable than the waiting time then he has a low time preference.

Increasing Capital – the Structure of Production

The consequences of the increased yield of consumer goods – in this, case, from three logs per day to six logs per day – and the resulting increase in wealth means that our human yet again has to face the same choice as he did with his original stock of wealth – to consume or save (hoard/invest). Only now, however, he has to make this choice with an increased quantity of goods. What will be the possibilities?

  • He could choose to consume and save at the same rate as he did previously, that is one saved log per two consumed. Out of a total of six logs he will, therefore save two logs per day and consume four;
  • He could choose to consume at an increased rate and save at a reduced rate. One day of doing this would be to save the same quantity of logs as he was before (one) and consume the remainder (five); however, he could also increase the quantity he saves while decreasing the rate, for example by saving one and a half logs and consuming four and a half.
  • He could choose to save at an increased rate and consume at a reduced rate, for example by consuming the same quantity of logs as he did before (two) and saving the remainder (four); however, he could also increase the quantity he consumes while decreasing the rate, for example by consuming three logs and saving three.

The precise consequences of each choice are unimportant, merely that each will occur at a different rate depending on what is chosen. It should be self-evident that more saving will begat more capital goods and more consumption but only after the period of waiting; more consumption will mean more goods can be enjoyed today at the expense of relatively fewer in the future. But in practice, we might add, it tends to be the case that the wealthier a person becomes the more he tends to follow the third scenario, specifically by increasing the quantity he consumes while decreasing the rate. The rich, for example, consume a much greater quantity of goods than poorer people do but as a proportion of their wealth they consume less. This will have important consequences as we shall see when we consider the effects of taxation and redistribution below.

However, let us assume that, whatever choice the human makes, there will be a rate of saving that permits investment to continue. What will happen now?

As the level of production is now dependent upon a capital good, the rate of saving must, at the very least be able to maintain this capital good. Capital goods are not consumed directly but they are consumed in the process of production through wearing down. While no new wheelbarrow will need to be produced, of course, a level of saving that permits its parts to be repaired or replaced will be necessary. If the human is not able to maintain his capital goods what happens? It means that he is using it for the purposes of production the results of which are consumed to the detriment of repairing and replacing the capital stock; in short he is engaging in capital consumption. It should be self evident that if the capital is lost, production must decline and so too will the standard of living. The dangers of capital consumption will become clearer when we discuss it below4.

However, let us assume that our lone human is able to maintain the existing capital stock and also has enough further saving that does not need to be used for this purpose. What will happen? He will, of course, invest in further capital goods to increase his production of consumer goods. Let us say that, satisfied with the utility gained from and his ability to maintain his wheelbarrow, he decides instead to invest his logs in the production of tools. Let us say that he fashions from a log directly an axe handle. But the axe head cannot be made out of wood. He must acquire and fashion metal in order to complete the axe. Aren’t the saved logs useless for this purpose? Not at all; for while the saved logs cannot be used directly in the production of the axe head, they can be used indirectly in order to sustain our human during the production of the axe head. In short, let’s say he goes on an expedition far from home in order to acquire the material to fashion the axe head. He takes the saved logs with him and burns them at night to keep him warm. To the extent that the venture is successful and he returns from the expedition with the material to fashion the axe head, then the consumption of the logs has been compensated by the acquisition of the axe head. The axe head can then be used to fell entire branches or even trees which can then be transported in the wheelbarrow for our human to consume. Let us say that, once again, his output doubles as a result of the introduction of the axe, meaning that he now takes home twelve logs each day.

What does this addition of another capital good – the axe – demonstrate? In the first place, it once again demonstrates the requirement of waiting during the production of the additional capital good, waiting that must be sufficiently offset (in the valuations of the human) by the resulting increased level of production. But there are two more crucial aspects:

  • That, in terms of providing for the human’s needs, it is relatively less important to stress the amount of capital he possesses as compared to its precise structure. The new capital structure is intricately woven and the stages are dependent upon each other. For example, if he had two axes and no wheelbarrow, he could fell a lot of trees but would lack the means to transport them. If he had two wheelbarrows and no trees then he could transport a lot of logs but he wouldn’t be able to fell enough trees to fill and use two wheelbarrows. As we can see therefore, capital growth manifests itself as increasing the stages of an intricate production structure through the passage of time. Any interference with the precise structure of capital would be as detrimental as capital consumption; in the complex economy a corollary would be all of the world’s factories, tools and machines, consisting only of tractors. It would not be hard to see that, in spite of the overall level of capital being very high, the specific glut of tractors and corresponding shortage of absolutely anything else would lead to a very severe degree of impoverishment;
  • That the logs used in discovery and fashioning of the axe head, by not being used directly as a capital goods, were used as a fund to produce a capital good. The majority of capital investment is, in fact, the use of a fund of saved products that are consumed in the production of other products and these latter products are the capital goods. In the complex economy we can see how wages, for instance, which are consumed by workers are paid out of saved funds in return for their production of goods which are either sold or used as capital goods (or both if the buyer uses them as capital goods), just in the same way that the logs were consumed in production of the axe head.

This method of saving and investment in capital goods is frequently termed in “Austrian” literature as “roundabout” methods of production; that an increase in capital leads to a longer production structure with multiple stages (in our case hacking of logs off the trees with tools, collection of logs in the wheel barrow, followed by consumption). However a more appropriate description would be that increased saving and investment in capital goods results in a process of production that takes more time for a greater quantity of produced products.

Further Increases in the Structure of Production – The Source of Wealth

This outline of a simple economy consisting of our lone human and two stages of production should illustrate how that human can further increase his wealth. Assuming he continues to save at a rate above that which permits him to maintain the existing capital goods (the wheelbarrow and the axe) he can continue to expand the stages of production of logs or begin to invest in the lower stages of production of other goods. He might, for example, use one log to build a fishing net to catch fish, thus increasing his quantity of fish to add to his wealth. He then might be able to use quantity of saved fish and saved logs to sustain him in building a boat which permit him to catch and even greater quantity of fish. It is this process of capital accumulation, its maintenance and its regulation into a particular structure that is the cause of the increase of wealth. Relatively speaking, the more capital that our human has, the more tools, equipment, machines, etc. that he fashions by abstaining from the consumption of the goods that make them (and by waiting for them to be completed), the wealthier he is.

It should not be difficult to abstract from this simple illustration the workings of a complex economy. The only substantial differences are the existence of the division of labour and the resulting necessity of trade which serve as the most complicating factor in trying to visualise the complex, growing economy. For in such an economy people, on the whole, do not produce goods for their own consumption but rather they concentrate on the production of a specific good (or service) which they then trade in return for other goods. The other goods, of course, are never traded directly but with the aid of a medium of exchange, money, so that you sell the goods that you produce for money and then take money to buy the goods and services that you want to consume5. Each and every single day, then, any person who goes to work engages in production of a produced product. If you are a baker you produce bread, if you are a butcher you produce meat, if you are a fishmonger you produce fish. But no one butcher, baker or fishmonger directly consumes his own product, rather he trades it for money which he then uses to buy the goods he wants. So the baker, for example, may sell bread to the fishmonger who will pay for it with money. The baker may then use the money he receives to buy meat from the butcher. From the point of view of the economy as a whole, the situation is no different from that of the economy with the lone individual. We will remember that, in the latter situation, if our loner produced three logs per day and burnt (consumed) three logs per day then on the morning of the following day he is in exactly in the same position regarding his personal wealth as he was the previous morning. If, in our complex economy, the butcher, baker and fishmonger produce, respectively, on one day three cuts of meat, three loaves of bread and three fish, then if after trade these are all consumed by somebody at the end of the day, then tomorrow the economy as whole will be in exactly the same position as it was at the start of the previous day. If, however, some of these products are saved then tomorrow the economy as a whole will be wealthier than it was at the start of the previous day6.

Saving and investment in the complex economy will not, of course, take place in the form of hoarding the physical products like it did in the simple economy. Rather, let’s say that that the baker sells three loaves of bread to the butcher and receives in exchange for them money. His saving takes place in the form of saving money rather than goods directly. His investment will come in the form of spending this money on goods that are used for investment – i.e. are transformed into capital goods – rather than for consumption. For example, let’s say that he takes his saved money (we shall call it £100) and buys fish from the fishmonger. In exactly the same way as the logs sustained the lone human in constructing the axe head, the fish provide sustenance for the baker while he increases his capital at his bakery – let’s say he invests in a new oven. The fish, therefore, provided a fund which was used to construct a new capital good, the oven which will produce more consumer goods. In his own mind, however, the baker will not reckon in terms of fish, ovens, or the extra amount of bread that is produced as a result of the oven’s construction. Rather, he will say that he has an investment of £100, an investment whose return will be measured not by the physical quantity of extra bread produced but by the increased money he will receive from being able to sell the extra bread. It is this extra money that, in his own mind, compensates him for the waiting time in constructing the capital good. If we say, for example, that he invested his £100 at the start of the year and by the end of the year his sales had increased by £10 then we may that the return is 10% per year. This return is known as interest, the compensation for the waiting time between the point of saving and the point that the increased quantity of consumer goods is available for consumption (and in this case, when the baker has the money from the increased sales).

Another possibility is that rather than expanding his existing business the baker creates a new one; or he could lend the saved funds to somebody else to invest in their business. Let’s say that he lends the money to a new entrepreneur, the candlestick maker. The candlestick maker has himself also saved £100. for his new business and so, together with his own saving and the money lent to him by the baker, he has a total investment in his firm of £2007. The candlestick maker will then take that money and spend it on the fish (or other goods) that will sustain him in producing the capital goods needed for his new candlestick business. Let us say that this business is successful and, at the end of the year, the resulting sales means that the value of the business has increased from the initial £200 to £220 – the original £200 capital and £20 return on that capital as a result of increased sales. This £20 will be divided between the baker and the candlestick maker depending on the terms of their investment, but overall the firm has received interest of 10% per annum.

We have, of course, left out of this simplistic calculation the fact of depreciation – the wearing down of the capital goods during their use in production. Suffice it to say here that at the end of the year the original amount of saving reckoned in money terms will be less than £200 owing to the depreciation of the capital goods in the venture. More on this can be read here].

Another aspect we have deliberately ignored is entrepreneurial profit and loss. The rate of return that any one person needs to receive to induce him to save and invest is the interest return – the compensation for waiting. We have assumed in all of the illustrations above that any saving and investment will for sure result in the return that is expected. But this is never the case in real life – the actual return may be greater than, less than, or equal to what was expected. In all cases, then, the actual return will consist of:

Interest + Profit/Loss8

Going back to our original lone human, he may find that his wheelbarrow actually is only enough to bring him an extra two logs per day whereas he originally wanted three. His return will therefore consist of an interest return of three logs and a profit/loss of negative one log. Or, he may be delightfully surprised to find that his wheelbarrow is enough to bring in four logs per day in which case he will earn interest of three logs and profit/loss of one log. Or, the most disastrous of all outcomes would be that he finds the wheelbarrow is a complete hindrance and, in fact, means that he is able to harvest fewer logs than he was with his bare hands! Let’s say he can only bring home two. In that what is earned is interest of three logs and profit and loss of negative four logs. The real loss that he experiences is much higher than the nominal loss of logs – four and one respectively – as, at the time he decided to save and invest, he needed a return of three logs to justify the waiting time. Although he only appears to lose one log by erroneous construction of the wheelbarrow his actual loss is much greater because of the waiting time he endured. In our complex economy, profit and loss takes the form of having to anticipate that other people will want to purchase the additional produce that is enabled by the capital good. If the actual selling price of the final goods is more than what was needed to induce an entrepreneur to save and invest then this represents an entrepreneurial profit. If it is less than he suffers an entrepreneurial loss9.

It is not necessary for the reader to dwell too much on the intricacies of profit and loss in order to understand the role of capital in increasing wealth. An elaboration is offered here merely for the sake of a degree of completion. Interest, however, is vital in understanding the role of capital. It must be emphasised again that people will begin to save and invest in capital goods when the resulting outlay of consumer goods is higher than what could be produced without the capital goods, and this outlay must be sufficient to compensate for the waiting time in which the capital goods are constructed. In short, people must make a choice between having fewer goods to consume today or more goods to consume at a future date. The number of additional goods that a person wants to appear at the future date to induce saving is his interest return. Whether this return actually appears or not and to what degree determines his profit and loss. But it is this desire to consume more in the future, to abstain from consumption today for a lot more of it tomorrow, that enables the economy to grow and for wealth to expand. There is no other way than by saving and investment in capital goods.

In the complex economy, of course, everyone can be savers and investors and we do so in a multitude of different ways and through different channels. Anyone who earns a wage and then spends a portion of it on his monthly outgoings (i.e. consumption) and uses the remainder to, say, deposit in a savings account, or to buy bonds or shares is investing in capital goods and increasing the capital stock of the economy. If it is saved in a savings account, the bank will lend that money to companies who will use it to invest in the capital goods, the return on which will enable the bank to pay interest to the depositor. If stocks or bonds are bought then money is advanced to a company directly. The crucial aspect is that by saving money, you are not consuming. By investing it you are turning those goods that could have been consumed today into capital goods that will produce more goods to be consumed in the future.

Having therefore examined in some detail the role of capital in wealth accumulation and raising the standard of living, let us proceed to analyse some aspects of Government interference that will affect the rate of saving and investment.

Taxation

Taxation is the deliberate confiscation by the Government of that which has been produced. It must be emphasised that all taxation, whatever name it is given, however one may attempt to justify it, must be a taxation of produce. There must be something that has been produced that the Government can come along and take. In our example of the lone human, the Government would have come along and taken some of his logs, i.e. confiscated his produce directly. In the complex economy the Government tends not to confiscate produce directly but rather money which it then spends on produce, i.e. the produce that the taxed individual could have bought is diverted, by way of money, to the Government.

From our analysis of saving and investment above we also know that there are only two types of produce that can be taxed – that which is produced today (income) and that which was saved and invested (capital, or wealth). There is nothing else that can be taxed and all taxes are either taxes on income or on wealth. What are the implications and results of each? Let us deal with the material effects first of all. If the Government taxes income, that is, the presently produced product, we know from our analysis above that it can do so up to a point which still permits enough saving to maintain the existing capital stock. If it does this, the present level of production can continue as the capital goods will keep functioning. However, for the remainder of the produce that is confiscated, there will be less saved in the hands of private individuals and entrepreneurs to invest and increase the capital stock. Capital growth, therefore, will be retarded. And even if the private individuals would not have saved this income but would have consumed it, it is still the case that they have suffered a loss from the fact that the produce is directed towards Government ends rather than their own. The important point is, however, that taxation retards the ability of private individuals to grow capital and increase production and, hence, the standard of living must either stagnate or improve less quickly.

It is no answer to this charge to assert that Government might take this money and spend it on allegedly “important” capital projects such as roads, schools, hospitals, and other spending on what they like to call “infrastructure”. As we noted above it is not the capital stock that is so important but rather the capital structure. For the invested capital must take a form in which it meshes cleanly with the rest of the existing capital and its produce supports the production of goods further down the chain of production. It would, for example, be useless to bring a fishing net to a cattle ranch. The only way to determine whether capital contributes to the capital structure is through the pricing, profit and loss system – that capital that is successfully producing generally needed products to create further products will turn a profit for the enterprise. But how does Government, devoid of the need for profit and loss, know that, say, a factory or a road must be built? What if it diverts its taxed resources to building a grand factory but there are no machines to put in this factory? How does it know how large the factory should be, what it should produce, etc.? No Government has any method of gauging these criteria. Our lone human, we noted, needed in his capital structure an axe to fell trees and a wheelbarrow to transport the logs. Having instead two axes or two wheelbarrows would have been of no use to him. Precisely the same is encountered when Government produces roads when there are no cars, hospitals but no operating equipment, tractors but no plough, railway locomotives but no wagons. Such was frequently the case in the former Soviet Union where buildings and machinery frequently were lying incomplete because a crucial part had received underinvestment and hence was simply missing. It is true, of course, that the capital structure that remains in private hands will adapt to the capital that Government has forced upon it. If a Government produces a road, for example, it becomes more economical to increase the production of cars in order to fill it. But all this means is that private investment has been forced to adapt to what the Government has produced whereas these Government projects are frequently sold to the public as being necessary to “boost the economy” etc. Instead the capital structure has been twisted and distorted from the form that it would have taken had it been left alone and the structure that is in fact produced is serving ends that are relatively less valuable than those that would have been served in the absence of the Government interference. As Bastiat would put it, the Government may be able to point to its wonderful roads that are full of cars (that which is seen), but what is not seen is all that was not produced as a result of this diversion of funds10. It is for this reason that, economically, all Government spending must be regarded as waste spending.

However, what if the Government initiates an even higher level of income taxation, a level that does not permit enough saving to main the existing capital stock? Then, disaster will strike. For now the existing capital stock will start to wear down and cannot be replaced. As the capital structure collapses, production will decline and so too will the standard of living. Production processes will become shorter and less roundabout as the produce that could have maintained them is siphoned off into Government consumption. The situation is exactly the same as if the lone human consumed the logs that should have been diverted to maintaining his wheelbarrow. He enjoys, for the moment, the additional consumption of the log but at the expense of a severely reduced level of consumption in the future. But when the Government taxes income at such a level the private citizens do not even get to enjoy this temporary upswing of consumption, merely the bureaucrats and politicians whose lifestyles it is supporting.

Within this category of taxation of income we may place all of the everyday taxes from which people suffer – income taxes, sales taxes, excise taxes, corporation taxes, capital gains taxes, dividend taxes, VAT, etc. Anything that is a tax on productivity or newly produced good is a tax on income.

Finally, we consider the horror of horrors – when Government doesn’t tax the presently produced product but instead directly taxes the existing stock of capital. Within this category fall inheritance taxes, property taxes and wealth taxes. The results of such action should be obvious as it deliberately sets about consuming the capital stock. It dismantles the factories, machines and tools and diverts them towards Government consumption and even if the Government diverts them to “investment” then this will simply be of the same kind of Government “investment” that we just outlined with regard to income taxes. Wealth taxes are the most ruinous and destructive, attacking the very means of production and leading to a rapid decline in output and the standard of living. The situation is precisely analogous to our lone human chopping up his wheelbarrow and using it as firewood – there is a temporary increase in enjoyment today that must be offset by a very rapid decrease tomorrow.

It is at this point that we should consider all “soak the rich” taxation rhetoric and practice. For it is usually the point of view of politicians and the non-rich that the wealthy provide an inexhaustible slush fund that can be plundered and pillaged to serve whatever “needs” might be desired. Earlier we noted that there is a tendency (although not strictly a necessity) that as income increases the proportion of that income that a person devotes to consumption decreases and the proportion that is devoted to saving and investment increases. Therefore, while the rich consume more in terms of quantity than a poorer person, as a percentage of their overall income they consume far less. A person earning an income of £1 000 per month might consume £800 worth and save £200, a consumption rate of 80% and a saving rate of 20%. However a person earning £10 000 per month might consume £3 000 and save £7 000 – a consumption rate of 30% and a saving rate of 70%. So while the rich person is visibly consuming more in terms of quantity he is saving and investing a very great deal more. This saving and investment is obviously channelled into capital goods, goods which are used in the production of consumer goods that other people can buy. By increasing the supply of consumer goods the prices of these items drop and so they become more affordable to everyone else and the general standard of living increases. To the extent that the “rich become richer” through this process it is only because they invest in those capital goods that produce the wares that are most eagerly sought for by the masses. Indeed the only way to really become rich under conditions of free exchange is to abstain from consumption and divert your savings to that which people most want to buy11.

If the Government therefore sets about taxing the rich to what extent can it do so? It should be clear from our analysis that it can tax the proportion of the rich person’s assets that comprise his consumption spending. If this is done then what the rich man would have spent on fine dining, chauffeurs, exotic holidays etc. is simply diverted to Government spending. The capital structure remains untouched. But the amount of consumption spending by the rich is extremely limited; indeed if all of it was to be confiscated and distributed to the world’s poor there would barely be enough to give everyone a handful of pennies. Therefore, if taxes on the rich are to be increased then they must start attacking the saved wealth of the rich, that is the capital structure. In short, factories, machines, and tools – the very things that were churning out affordable products that the masses wanted to buy – are liquidated and diverted to Government uses, either to Government consumption or to a form of investment that, as we noted above, must necessarily be less valuable than that which existed before. The very worst thing that can be done is to tax the capital stock and distribute it in welfare for then the saved wealth of society is quite literally transferred from those who saved and invested it to those who consume and destroy it. With fewer machines and tools there will be less production, with less production there will be fewer goods, with fewer goods there are higher prices and with higher prices there is less that everyone is able to buy.

We might conclude this section, therefore, by saying that from the point of view of the standard of living, all taxation will retard its level or growth. However, that form of taxation which decays the existing capital stock is the most destructive. Wealth taxes, inheritance taxes, property taxes and their ilk should be firmly resisted.

It is not sufficient, however, to merely consider the material effects of a policy of taxation, wherever it may fall. We also need to consider the psychic effects. It is self-evident that all taxation is a confiscation from one set of persons and a distribution to another set of persons. Those who have had their goods confiscated must be producers; those who receive in distribution must be (relative) non-producers. Indeed, usually some kind of non-productive status is what qualifies a person as a recipient of welfare spending – poverty, illness, disability, etc. It is an axiom of human action that all humans devote their energies to that which has the most benefit for the smallest cost. We endure the toil of labour because the loss experienced in doing so we deem to be worthwhile for the value that is gained as a result. The same is true of consumption and investment. Each has its own benefits and costs. The benefit of consumption is the enjoyment that it provides to the mental faculties; its cost is the labour expended in production of the article to be consumed and that, once it is consumed, it is gone forever and cannot be devoted to an alternative or additional use and further needs must be met by increased production. The benefit of investment is an increased yield of consumer goods in the future; its cost is the pain of having to deny oneself the consumption today of the goods that will be added to the capital stock.

If there is any change in the relative proportions of these benefits and costs it follows that certain activities will become more attractive (i.e. more valuable) and others will become less attractive. Yet this is precisely what the effects of taxation are, effects that fall heavily upon the impetus to produce, consume, or invest. We noted earlier that a person will start to invest at the point that the increased quantity of goods that results from the investment is sufficient to compensate him for the waiting time necessary to produce the capital good. Yet if the fruits of this productivity are taxed it means that the yield is reduced. To the individual saver and investor, the benefit of saving and investment has declined, but the costs remain the same – he must still expend the same amount of labour and must endure the same amount of waiting time but only now for a smaller yield. The value, therefore, of investing will, to him, decline and consumption will become relatively more attractive. There will therefore be less investment and more consumption, lower output and the standard of living will decline. It gets worse, however, when we look to the recipients of taxed income or wealth. For in a world where there is no tax, the enjoyment of consumption must be outweighed by the costs of production and the incentive to invest. Only if the value of consumption is higher than the toil of production and the yield from investment will consumption be carried on. But if one now receives an income free of the necessity to produce, both of these costs are removed. For now, why should one labour to produce when he can simply receive the benefit – the enjoyment – for free? And why should he invest when he can simply demand another article from the Government once he has consumed the first? And even if he did invest his income from other people’s taxes, this will simply be taxed away anyway. Why bother?

In short, therefore, taxation reduces the relative value of production and investment. It increases the relative value of consumption. There will therefore be less production and investment and more consumption, the stock of capital will decline, output will decline and the standard of living will lower also.

Regulation

Regulation is, in common social democratic discourse, deemed to be a necessary tempering (or tampering, one might say) of the otherwise capitalist economy, the wise overlords stepping in and ensuring that people do not compromise “safety”, “quality” or whatever in their supposedly lustful pursuit of profits. We will leave to one side any discussion of the fact that regulation is itself a service that consumes scarce resources and that the benefits of a regulation must be offset by its cost – hence it is a market activity just the same as any other. Rather, we shall focus exclusively on the effects of Government (i.e. forced) regulation upon saving and investment in the capital stock.

The effect of a regulation is to ban a certain activity from being carried on by otherwise free individuals; an example would be a restriction on to whom a certain product can be sold, perhaps by age or income. Or, it can take the effect of a requirement to do so something, usually before something else can be done. For example, it may be required to provide a list of ingredients or a nutritional breakdown on an item of food before it can be sold. However sensible they may seem the effect of regulations is to limit the ends to which capital may be devoted.

Let us first of all consider regulations that take the form of bans. As we noted above the incentive to save is dependent upon the fruits of production that are the result of the investment. In a free market a person can invest in whatever he thinks people will want to buy. By advancing goods and services to meet people’s ends he earns a return. The public could, for example, in the saver’s estimation be demanding more of goods X, Y and Z. He will invest in the line of production that he believes will yield the highest return. But what happens if the Government then intercedes with a regulation? It is effectively saying to the investor “you may invest in goods X or Y, but not in good Z”. In other words, an entire avenue of investment opportunity is closed off even though both the public and the investor may wish to trade the good Z. What then happens if Z was the most profitable investment? Then, by having to invest in the relatively less profitable X or Y, the value of saving and investing to the investor will reduce. Therefore, there will be less saving and less investment. Indeed he might even decide that the profit opportunities afforded by X or Y to be insufficient to reward him for the waiting time between the act of saving and the receipt of returns. He may just decide to consume entirely that which he would have invested. The amount of capital investment therefore decreases and so too does the standard of living. But even if he does invest in X or Y this is not what the buying public are demanding – they want Z and no extra amount of X or Y will compensate for this loss.

However, the more common type of regulation is of the second kind – that a product may be invested in but there are regulatory requirements that must be met before one can do so. Let us take the typical type of regulation on which the Government feels itself qualified to pronounce judgment and that is health and safety. If the public demands food, for example, it may be perfectly happy to buy food that comes without any detail of ingredients or nutritional breakdown. The Government then decides that people aren’t giving enough thought to their health (probably as a result of them being able to get free healthcare, which has been dealt with in detail here). So the Government then steps in and says to the investor “OK, you can invest in food but to do so you must provide a list of ingredients, a nutritional breakdown and, with every sale, you must provide a free fact sheet of how to live healthily.” The effects of such an edict should be clear – for every article that is now sold, the investor must spend additional money on analysing every article of food for its ingredients and nutritional content and must spend even more money further on producing the factsheet. Yet the public are not demanding these things so they will not be willing to pay any more for the articles that are purchased. The effect of this regulation, then, is to increase the amount of capital that is needed to produce the same return. Or, to put it another way, the same amount of capital produces a lower return. So once again, then, the value of investing to the investor is lowered and there will be less of it. By heaping on to production artificial, deadweight costs that serve no one capital is simply consumed purposelessly. It is conceivable that regulation may cripple an industry so much that it deters all investment and investors will simply stop producing the regulated products altogether. In practice what tends to happen is that regulation forces out the smaller investors, the upstart companies, while the big players are able to absorb the added costs. The economy is then left with a few key providers in each sector who are able to raise prices and lower quality as a result of this insulation from competition.

Regulation is therefore one of the most powerful ways in which capital investment can be restricted, possibly even more so than taxation.

Uncertainty

The final aspect of Government intervention into saving and investment we will consider is that of uncertainty. Whereas before we were analysing the effects of known Government policies on taxation or regulation, here we will look at what happens when someone simply doesn’t know, or cannot be sure of, precisely what the Government will do.

Rothbard describes succinctly the role of uncertainty in human action:

[A] fundamental implication derived from the existence of human action is the uncertainty of the future. This must be true because the contrary would completely negate the possibility of action. If man knew future events completely, he would never act, since no act of his could change the situation. Thus, the fact of action signifies that the future is uncertain to the actors. This uncertainty about future events stems from two basic sources: the unpredictability of human acts of choice, and insufficient knowledge about natural phenomena. Man does not know enough about natural phenomena to predict all their future developments, and he cannot know the content of future human choices. All human choices are continually changing as a result of changing valuations and changing ideas about the most appropriate means of arriving at ends. This does not mean, of course, that people do not try their best to estimate future developments. Indeed, any actor, when employing means, estimates that he will thus arrive at his desired goal. But he never has certain knowledge of the future. All his actions are of necessity speculations based on his judgment of the course of future events. The omnipresence of uncertainty introduces the ever-present possibility of error in human action. The actor may find, after he has completed his action, that the means have been inappropriate to the attainment of his end.12

It follows from this excerpt that an increased degree of uncertainty leads to an increased possibility of error – that there is an increased likelihood that the scarce goods used in attainment of the end will, in fact, not attain the end and will be wasted. And, as Rothbard highlights, part of the composition of this uncertainty stems from future human choice, in our case the choices of the Government actors.

We noted above that the effect of Government taxation and regulation is to render less valuable the act of saving and investment to the individual. If he knows that he will be taxed and regulated to nth degree then he can, at least, factor this in to his calculations and act accordingly. If, however, the Government creates an aura of uncertainty – that an individual investor may find his fruits taxed or regulated not necessarily to the nth degree but may be to the n + 1st degree, or the n – 1st degree, or to a whole other range of possible degrees, then this weighs heavily on his mind in deciding whether to save and invest. Indeed heaping on uncertainty effectively increases the psychic costs of an action. The greater the degree of uncertainty and the more likely it is that his decision to invest will result in error (the error in this case being that he will suffer a more crippling degree of taxation or regulation than he would prefer) the more costly it becomes. Hence, the relative attractiveness of consumption increases. Indeed, consumption renders neutral this uncertainty – if something is consumed then the Government, for sure, can’t come along later and attempt to tax it away. There will, therefore, be more consumption and less saving and investment. The capital stock will not grow as fast and neither also will the standard of living.

Uncertainty, often labelled “regime uncertainty”, has been an important factor following the 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent malaise. Precisely because nobody knows precisely what the Government will try next, whether it be stimulus, taxes, regulations, capital controls, inflation or whatever, nobody is willing to take the risk to save and invest. Indeed, in the US, the huge increase of excess bank reserves – i.e. banks simply holding onto cash – following the expansion of the monetary base is at least partly explained by the phenomenon of increased uncertainty.

Conclusion

What we have realised through our analysis, therefore, is that capital accumulation is the source of increased wealth and an increased standard of living. Where there are strong private property rights to this capital and its fruits then capital accumulation will, all else being equal, be encouraged. Where these rights are compromised by taxation and regulation, they will be discouraged. Further, as our discussion of uncertainty entails, it is not sufficient that these rights are left uncompromised today but there must also be an expectation that they will not be compromised in the future.

We have not said much about Government-induced credit expansion that leads to business cycles. The effect of credit expansion is to divert goods away from consumption and to invest them in more roundabout production processes. This looks, on the face of it, as if the Government is doing a benevolent thing – it is causing us to increase the capital stock! But as we noted above, the return on capital must be sufficient to justify the waiting time. If people are not willing to endure this waiting time then investment cannot occur. Indeed credit expansion is forced saving and investment in an increased capital stock. When the credit expansion halts it is not possible to continue this diversion of goods into building and maintaining this capital structure; rather the latter now becomes fully dependent upon the consumption/saving preferences of consumers. But these preferences are not sufficient to carry out the level of investment required. The capital structure is revealed as malinvestment and must be unwound. Tragically, the Government, in ignorance of what we have learnt here about waiting times and the necessity for a precise capital structure that meets the needs of consumers, responds to this series of events by trying to boost consumption, even though it is not consumption that needs a shot in the arm. If anything, there needs to be more saving and investing so that at least some of the projects that were embarked upon during the credit expansion can be justified.

All in all the effects of Government upon capital accumulation and the creation of wealth are a disaster. All that is needed for these things to occur is private property and free exchange and Government, if we are to endure at all, should concentrate on guaranteeing these institutions.

1Strictly it is a necessity of human action that it seeks improvement to the current condition. Therefore, simply moving an object out of one’s way or to where one would prefer it to be is an act of “production” and an increase in “wealth” from the acting human’s point of view. But for the sake of simplicity we will discuss production, income and wealth as alluding to driving towards an increase in the number of material, tangible goods that the human can enjoy.

2Here we may briefly consider what the purpose of increasing wealth is. Excluding the possibility that someone gains utility simply from owning a lot of stuff, it can only be to consume in the future. The ultimate aim of all production is consumption, if not by yourself then by your heirs. Production that does not eventually result in consumption gains nothing. This is important for understanding what the human does with his saved wealth.

3We must add emphatically that hoarding is not unproductive and typically takes place in times of uncertainty – when one does not know whether he might suddenly need to call upon extra resources – or to cater for a known period of un-productivity, such as storing food for the Winter.

4Technically speaking if the level of “saving” is insufficient to maintain capital then there is a net dis-saving. As Mises puts it: “The immediate end of acquisitive action is to increase or, at least, to preserve the capital. That amount which can be consumed within a definite period without lowering the capital is called income. If consumption exceeds the income available, the difference is called capital consumption. If the income available is greater than the amount consumed, the difference is called saving. Among the main tasks of economic calculation are those of establishing the magnitudes of income, saving, and capital consumption.” Ludwig von Mises, Human Action, Scholar’s Edition, p. 261. However for the purposes of this essay we shall define income as the produced product and saving as the portion of the income that is not consumed, regardless of whether the rate of saving is sufficient to maintain the capital stock.

5Money as well as being the medium of exchange is also is the facilitator of economic calculation without which a complex economy could not exist. Money is also a good in its own right but there is not space here to dwell on the fascinating reasons how and why it comes into existence. Interested readers should consult Ludwig von Mises, The Theory of Money and Credit.

6A word of extreme caution in necessary when discussing the economy in the aggregate. Simply because we say that x amount of produce is consumed or y amount of produce is invested does not mean that it does not matter precisely who is consuming and who is investing. For it matters very much to the particular individuals concerned. If, for example, the baker purchases three cuts of steak from the butcher with the intent to consume all of them but the fishmonger steals them and consumes two but saves one, even though the fishmonger has “saved” one steak that would have been consumed by the baker we can in no way say that the economy is “better off”. The loss of utility of steak consumption to the baker cannot be compared or measured against the gain of utility to the fishmonger who consumes two steaks and saves one. Similarly if a slave is forced to labour to produce bread in the bakery and he gets nothing in return we cannot say that the economy is better as a result for there has been a very real loss to the slave in spite of the bread produced. We can only assume that there are gains in utility when there is voluntary exchange and any analysis of the economy as a whole which results in conclusions of one state of affairs being “better” or “wealthier” than the other must be made under the assumption of voluntary production and exchange.

7Whether someone is a stockholder or a lender to a firm or enterprise is a legal difference, not an economic one. They are both advancing saved funds to further the firm’s ventures but on different terms.

8There is also the possibility of additional compositions of return that we will ignore here. See Murray N Rothbard, Man, Economy, and State, Scholar’s Edition, pp 601-5, although it remains doubtful whether some of these can be distinguished conceptually from existing categories of return.

9Calculated profit and loss in the complex economy is measured against the societal rate of interest which is determined by the societal time preference rate. The societal interest rate is the price at which all willing borrowers can borrow money and all willing lenders can lend it and the success of failure of an enterprise will, by and large, be judged against this rate.

10Claude Frédéric Bastiat, That Which Is Seen and That Which Is Not Seen.

11Capitalism, in contrast to socialist and Marxist myths, has always been a system of production for the masses, of increasing the outlay of basic, everyday items that are sold inexpensively to everyone. Very little of capitalist production is devoted to luxury production for the rich.

12Rothbard, p.7, (italics in original).

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Poverty and the Pope

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The newly elected Pope Francis has celebrated his inaugural mass by placing the poor at the centre of his papacy, presaged earlier by the inspiration of St Francis of Assisi when choosing his regnal name and the urging of a fellow cardinal to “remember the poor” immediately upon his “victory” in the Sistine Chapel.

There are three questions one is tempted to ask any public person who bleats on incessantly about the poor:

1. What is the definition of poverty?

2. What is its cause?

3. What can be done about it?

Let us be charitable and ignore the fact that many measures of poverty are determined relatively (and hence are really a disguised measurement of “inequality” rather than of poverty) and proceed to answer the second two questions firmly and starkly. Poverty, to the extent that it exists, only does so because of a relative lack of production per capita of the population that is poor. This, in turn, is because there is a low amount of capital invested per person. The only way to resolve poverty is to encourage private saving, private investment in capital and an increase in production per head of the population, all of which must in turn be based upon strong rights to private property. There is absolutely no other way. Taxation, redistribution, borrowing, wasting, Government boondoggles will in no way help the poor. And yet precisely what is it that is always called for? Always the latter. Nor will the poor be helped by “showing loving concern for each and every person, especially children, the elderly, those in need, who are often the last we think about”, to quote the Pope’s inaugural homily. As economics teaches us you do not need to love your fellow human in order to increase his well-being, merely to serve him and engage in trade with him.

It would be an inspiration indeed if the Pope was to call for private property, free trade and free enterprise to lift the poor out of the slums. But I, for one, do not remain particularly hopeful that he will follow this path.

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Capitalism – The Law of the Jungle?

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It is frequently asserted that a system of free market capitalism reduces everyone to the level of animals, subject to the “law of the jungle”. Similar emotive epithets are those such as capitalism being “dog eat dog” or “winner takes all”. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Under a capitalist system all property is privately owned. Therefore, all exchanges are voluntary and not coerced (except, obviously, for acknowledged criminal acts of theft and violence). But for a voluntary exchange to occur then both parties must expect to benefit from the exchange. The exchange has therefore been productive as it has left both parties with something better than what they had before. If they did not expect to be better off then neither would have made the exchange.

Contrast this, however, with Government intervention. Such interventions, such as taxation, are ­non-voluntary, i.e. the taxed individual has no choice as to whether the exchange occurs. But if he would not have made the exchange voluntarily then it follows that he does not regard the post-exchange results as being to his benefit in comparison. Hence while the recipient – Government, or whoever Government distributes the money to – benefits, the forced giver manifestly does not. And as it is not possible to measure utilities between individuals we cannot say that the recipient gains “more” than the tax-payer loses.

Indeed the very essence of capitalism and its ability to lift whole populations out of the slum of poverty is because people produce goods that other people want which they then trade for what they themselves want in return. There is production of new goods that are voluntarily traded to make everyone’s lives better off. It is a plus-sum operation. Taxation and other forms of coerced exchange, however, are fights over existing goods – goods that already have been produced but the Government wades in and decides that someone other than the productive party should have them. This is manifestly a zero-sum game, one party reaping what another loses. And what could be closer to the law of the jungle than this? Animals in the jungle are not productive, they fight with other animals for the restricted goods that nature has offered them so that they may survive. What one animal gains another animal loses. “Dog eat dog” is therefore a more appropriate description of political fights for taxpayers’ money rather than for free exchange.

Finally, “winner takes all” would be a more apt description for democracy than for capitalism. With private property and free exchange the minority does not have to be restricted to the products and services that the majority wants. Most people might decide to shop at the mall but that does not force others to do so and does not stop the latter from spending their pounds or dollars at a boutique. In a Government election, however, the minority – the losers – have to put up with the successful candidate even though they didn’t want him and might find his policies odious. Such a system benefits only the majority – the winners, who take all – at the expense of the hapless losers.

Indeed such epithets as these we have been discussing are usually applied to capitalism by those who do not believe that they have benefited enough from free exchange and to remedy this they want to start taking what other people have, usually in the name of “fairness” and “equality”. Such charlatans should be exposed for what they are honestly trying to do – reduce human civilisation to a very real law of the jungle.

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