Economic Myths #8 – Capitalism is Exploitative

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The myth that capitalism is exploitative – or rather, that capitalists, the private owners of the means of production, and entrepreneurs – exploit both workers and consumers is as old as the history of this political-economic system itself and has been a primary driving force behind the growth of the state and, indeed, of outright socialist and communist revolution. Although much watered down from those early days, the idea that there is some kind of antagonism between the capitalist “class” and the rest of us persists.

As “Austrian” economists we know, of course, that it is absolutely and undeniably true that any free and voluntary exchange, upon which capitalism and private property must rely, only takes place because each party expects to benefit from the transaction. This alone is sufficient scientific proof to dismiss any idea that capitalism exploits one party for the benefit of another. Nevertheless we should, of course, tackle directly the specific incarnations of this myth as they appear today.

The myth has its roots in the Marxian confusion of political castes with economic classes – the idea that the relationship between capitalists and workers, which is free and voluntary, was akin to that of king and subject, or landed aristocracy and peasant – relationships that were involuntary and subjected the masses to servitude. Caste systems were static and designed to keep people in their place; under conditions of free exchange, however, economic classes have a continually changing membership based upon one’s ability to serve consumers. This ability varies from person to person, of course, but nobody is legally prevented from becoming an entrepreneur and nobody, once they are a successful entrepreneur, has their wealth and status legally protected. A wealthy capitalist might find his fortune decimated when he loses this crucial ability to serve consumers and the latter turn to other suppliers for their wares; he may have to re-join the ranks of salaried employees if he is to make ends meet. On the other hand, an ordinary worker may see a gap in the market unnoticed by the current entrepreneurs of the day and set up a successful business accordingly. This does not mean say, of course, that political castes do not exist today. We can see quite clearly from bank bailouts that there are a distinct upper caste that is protected from its mistakes and is able to retain its wealth and status at the expense of the rest of us. Indeed all the similar injustices that did occur during the early history of capitalism were not owing to the capitalists’ reliance upon genuine private property and free exchange – rather, they used the power of the state to enforce their illegitimate property interests. The mercantilist corn laws, for instance, which artificially propped up the price of corn for the benefit of cereal producers are a good example from the early nineteenth century. Capitalism itself, however, does not produce these injustices.

Moving on to some more contemporary arguments, do businesses exploit the “needs” of consumers for whatever it is that the latter want? Do they withhold “vital” and “necessary” wares releasing them only at extortionate prices thinking only of their selfish greed for profits? The argument is ridiculous because all trade and exchange relies upon the desires of the trading parties – whether it is for food, housing, cars, computers, or trips to the cinema. The entrepreneurs in business exist to fulfil and satisfy, not exploit these needs. If they are able to charge high prices it is only because the supply, relative to demand, is low and has to be rationed to those who value the goods the most. This argument regarding exploitation usually surfaces today in one of two situations. The first is during sudden supply shocks or demand spikes that send prices soaring and allows suppliers to book large profits as they obviously paid for the inputs at much lower, wholesale prices. As these usually occur during times of emergency or crisis, aren’t the businesses exploiting the dire need of the consumers for such staples as water, canned food and fuel? Such an argument ignores the fact that it is not the businesses driving the demand – it is the other people who are willing to pay more to get their hands on the suddenly scarce items. The only options are to allow other entrants into the marketplace to bring more resources into the production of scarce goods and lower their price, which would satisfy everyone with more supply of those goods that are most needed in these crisis situations; or, to fix the prices of the wares below their market clearing level which would lead to guaranteed shortages. Needless to say, government always opts for the latter. The second situation that attracts criticism is when the entrepreneur is in the business of providing something “essential” such as energy or healthcare. Yet these businesses are almost always cripplingly regulated and interfered with by government that it is impossible to define them as anything approaching free markets. Britain’s Energy market is a case in point. Apart from the vast government bureaucracy that oversees the industry, idiosyncratic interferences such as the announcement by the leader of the opposition Labour Party, Ed Miliband, that his government would freeze energy prices if his party wins the 2015 general election also take their toll upon consumers. Firms are not passing on the reduction of wholesale Energy prices to consumers and are booking profits now for fear that they will be locked into furnishing energy at low tariffs in a period when wholesale prices are rising, should Miliband make good his threat. In contrast if you look to any industry that government tends to leave alone you do not find the same criticisms hurled at the dominant suppliers. Up until now we have seen that supermarkets, although subjected to food standards regulations that no doubt have raised prices, have benefitted from relatively less government interference and, apart from a few murmurings from food purists and local activists, inexpensive food has ensured that they have never been a serious political issue. However, now that food prices are starting to rise can we expect government to start poking its nose increasingly into the food industry and blaming the resulting shortages and disarray on the “exploitation” of the big supermarkets? Furthermore, given that trade is always a two-way process we could also say that the consumers “exploit” the need of businesses for money. These entities have suppliers and employees to pay and they are often desperate to get their hands on your cash – if someone else offers a lower price they could be left high and dry by your decision to shop elsewhere, threatening the employment and livelihoods of all of those people that work in the business you shun simply because you have the guile to want to pay less! It is partly for that reason that the supply curve for consumer goods is generally vertical, with merchants selling goods for any price they can get simply to shift them and have at least some cash to meet their future outgoings.

In a genuine free market businesses can never exploit anyone or hold anyone to ransom. A consumer would have the power to take his custom elsewhere if the business failed to meet his needs at an agreeable price. Although businesses as a whole set prices for consumer products and wages, no one individual business can do so and each one must be prepared to sell goods for, at most, as much as the next business, and to pay wages at least as high. These boundaries can be crippling if the selling prices are lower or insubstantially higher than the prices the business must pay out. Businesses, unprotected by government privilege, therefore have to be on their toes constantly in case someone comes along with a better offer. The beneficiary of this process is the consumer-employee, who always knows he is paying the lowest price for what he buys and receives the highest wage for his work that can ever be paid.

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Talent in Society

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Extremely talented individuals are often lauded for their achievements in apparently furthering human endeavour and accomplishment. While effort and hard work is a vital component of any great achievement so too must we recognise that particular individuals are especially gifted by nature in one way or another and that lesser beings such as ourselves have little hope of matching the achievements of these people, however hard we might work.

However, the precise talents that we are wont to recognise and celebrate today all appear to be concentrated in highly specific areas. The artistic and sporting talents of actors, directors, football players and so on – and the often very lucrative salaries that professionals in those areas can attract – receive not only a (sometimes obsessive) degree of praise and attention but also an overwhelming amount of encouragement and nourishment. Television shows such as The X-Factor and Britain’s Got Talent attempt to attract hidden singers and artists amongst the general public; children at school are persuaded to “express themselves” and find their “artistic personality” and to “aspire” to “creative” achievements.

There is nothing basically wrong with any of this, of course, and talent should be encouraged where it is found – although with children one might to wish to ensure that they are literate and numerate before attempting to find their “inner selves” and deceiving them too much into thinking that they are likely to emerge as anything other than normal, regular taxpayers. The problem is that when you strip out any highbrow rhetoric all of these talents – even great art, stirring music and record-breaking sporting achievements – basically achieve little more than provide entertainment; they are luxuries that must be funded out of more basic, material productive accomplishments. One very vital talent, the one talent that both provides all of the resources that maintain our standard of living and provides the wherewithal for us to enjoy art and sport is ignored. This is the ability to serve the needs of consumers as the head of a productive enterprise – in short, entrepreneurial talent.

The role of the typical leader of a multinational business, far from being lauded as a pinnacle of accomplishment and receiving praise and adulation for directing scarce resources to the ends that consumers most desire, is usually painted as a greedy, overpaid “fat cat” who exploits his workers and customers. Although it is true, of course, that many of these large firms are in bed with government and do not necessarily achieve their riches through voluntary trade, somehow one does not sense that this is the consciously acknowledged reason for the zealous lambasting thrown in the ir direction and that this attitude exists in spite of, rather than because of, any government ties. So-called “public service” – in other words, becoming a bureaucrat who leeches off productivity rather than creates it – is seen, for its alleged selflessness and altruism, to be a more noble pursuit that stooping into the grubby gutters of business. In reality the contrast between entrepreneurial talent and political talent is completely the other way round. Entrepreneurs have to be able to direct the scarce goods available to their most highly valued ends in order to bake a bigger pie; politicians, on the other hand, do nothing more than persuade everyone else why you and your sponsors should have a larger slice of that pie without adding anything to it.

Our inability to recognise and nurture this very vital talent upon which our lives depend is nothing short of tragic. Even television programmes that highlight the entrepreneurial spirit paint aspiring entrepreneurs as either whimsical and unrealistic day dreamers to be laughed at (such as in The Dragon’s Den), or as hard-hearted, self-centred and antagonistic (such as in The Apprentice). Popular entrepreneurs such as Richard Branson have had to mould their image as an underdog, portraying the mainstream, established business community as greedy and exploitative of the consumer.

Of course it is hard to believe that the entrepreneurial spirit will ever be entirely killed as there will always be people hot on the heels of any profit opportunity. But when we are doing all we can to kill or ridicule the entrepreneurial spirit and when we create more “profit” opportunities through fleecing the public rather than serving them we have to begin to wonder how our standard or living will be maintained in years to come. At the very least, the great entrepreneurs of the future – the John Rockefellers, the Henry Fords, the Andrew Carnegies, the Bill Gates– are unlikely to be from the West, and Asia will take over as the productive power house of the world. We in the West will simply become lazy and dependent, expecting our mouths to be filled with goodies by someone else’s spoon. Although all of this might seem like a relatively minor issue compared to what else is going on in the collapsing Western Empire – debasement, debt, war, and so on – it is all part of the same calamitous catalogue of problems that we face. By recognising the true origin of productivity and encouraging the genuine virtue in entrepreneurship then we can, at least, begin to pull some of the nails out of not the West’s coffin and bring us on a path towards resurrection.

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Economic Myths #4 – Profits are Evil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Labourers, Capitalists and Entrepreneurs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Choice Illusion

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In the mainstream debate both for and against a free market, one argument that appears continuously is that the free market is predicated upon choice and the ability of the individual to choose. Those in favour will argue that more choice promotes competition and increases the freedom of the individual to meet his ends, and so the increasing of choice and stifling of monopoly wherever it appears is a good thing. Opponents will counter that choice can be wasteful, costly, inefficient and overwhelming particularly when it concerns supply of provisions as basic as water, and, furthermore, that often the appearance of choice is merely an illusion conjured up by private companies that basically operate in a profit-maximising cartel.

Wading into this debate as a libertarian we can see that the basic statements on each side are not incorrect. However they either overlook or misunderstand the true nature of choice in a free society. The kernel of truth in the pro-choice argument is that voluntary behaviour, expressed through choice, leads to market outcomes that provide the most benefit to the consumer. But such an advocacy is formal only – people choose voluntarily not only which suppliers they are willing to patronise, but also the extent of choice itself in a particular industry is the outcome of voluntary action. In some industries, for example, particularly those that are growing and innovative, consumers are willing to support multiple suppliers with a large range of different products and all of these may be viable. We might say that smartphone manufacturing is representative of this kind of industry. In other industries, however, which are perhaps maturing or consolidating and reaching the end of their innovative stage, the benefits to be gained from economies of scale and simple and straightforward products with little differentiation might be what consumers desire. This is particularly true of the supply of commodities where the only differentiation is price and the only benefit to consumer can be reduced costs. This kind of supply naturally lends itself to one or only a bare handful of suppliers and choice in such an environment may be reduced to minor differences in customer service but is otherwise likely to be stressful, wasteful and unnecessary.

However, pro-choice advocates often are not arguing in favour of this formal meaning of choice, but rather they assume and press ahead for a choice that is substantive. In other words, for every single industry there must, necessarily, be several suppliers from which a consumer can choose, however basic the product and however costly the splintered operations. We have already examined the economic fallacies of this belief from the point of view of competition law and the shibboleth that increasing competition is always a boon to the consumer. However, it is also a dangerous ruse that can be used to create nominal or illusive choice while preserving an overarching government monopoly or control that allows government favoured private companies to line their pockets, at the same time allowing all of the blame for the waste and inefficiency to be directed not to the governmental element but to the “free market” vestige of the particular industry. In the UK the privatisation frenzy of the Thatcher and Major governments was often justified by the need to give “choice” and “competition” to the consumer. Britain’s railways for example, are now “privatised” and whenever you board a train there will be a private company’s logo emblazoned on the carriage and you will see front line members of staff wearing uniforms that indicate their representation of these private companies. But the track, stations and signalling are wholly owned by Network Rail, a statutory company that has no shareholders and is under the de facto control of the government. The train operations themselves are not subject to the forces of natural competition but are parcelled out by the government into geographical monopoly franchises to private companies chosen by the government and who, with the government’s blessing, are allowed to operate the franchise for a set number of years before they must retender. This cauldron of public and private activity blended together led to the UK’s railways being judged the worst in Europe from the point of view of cost and efficiency in early 2012. Yet it is “privatisation” and “competition”, those fancy public-facing corporate logos on the timetables and uniforms, that are lumbered with the blame, rather than the government string-pulling. The energy industry is just as bad, if not worse. The electricity infrastructure is owned by National Grid, with six dominant, government-licensed suppliers sending their product through the same wires in what is a ridiculously regulated and cost-heavy sector that is not only seeing rising prices for consumers and talk of fuel poverty but is also on the verge of collapse. Indeed the Soviet-style description of the regulatory framework by Energy UK, the industry’s trade association, only scratches the surface but it is a succinct summary:

The electricity and gas markets are regulated by the Gas and Electricity Markets Authority, operating through the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets (Ofgem). Ofgem’s role is to protect the interest of consumers by promoting competition where appropriate. Ofgem issues companies with licences to carry out activities in the electricity and gas sectors, sets the levels of return which the monopoly networks companies can make, and decides on changes to market rules.1

All of this is before we even go near the odious and destructive high street banking cartel.

Given all of this is, is it any surprise that people lay the blame for poor service, for high costs, for inefficiency, for waste, and for private companies lining their pockets at the door of free marketers’ obsession with choice and competition? Is it any surprise that, not realising that it is the underlying control and forcing of substantive choice to the benefit of its favoured friends in “private” industry, that there are calls for renationalisation of public communications networks and utilities? There is a strong case to be argued, not only from the point of view of its danger to the reputation of the free market but also from that of the level of service offered to consumers, that private companies operating government controlled services is often worse than explicit and outright nationalisation.

As libertarians who cherish the free market our devotion to choice is encapsulated by our commitment to voluntary behaviour and interaction and is only a subset of this wider concept. We do not mean a controlled and enforced, substantive choice in every industry, nor do we mean the illusion of choice created by the government that rips off the consumer and leaves the free market to bear the brunt of their ire. Leave the consumers alone entirely to express their preferences through voluntary action. Leave them alone to determine how much choice they want. Only then will we see industries that are genuinely able to meet the needs of consumers with ranges of products that are suitable to their ends at prices that they are able to afford.

View the video version of this post.

1http://www.energy-uk.org.uk/energy-industry/the-energy-market.html. Emphasis added.

Land and Natural Resources Part Two – Trade and Exchange

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

Land Settlement in the Complex Economy

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

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

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

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

Figure A

Year      Gross Yield        Costs                Gross Gain        (Discount)          Net

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Figure B

Year      Gross Yield        Costs                Gross Gain        (Discount)          Net

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Figure C

Year      Gross Yield        Costs                Gross Gain        (Discount)          Net

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trade of Land

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

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

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

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

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

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

To this we may add one more:

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

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

A        £450K

B        £350K

C        £250K

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A        £450K

B        £550K

C        £350K

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

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

A        £450K

B        £350K

C        £250K

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

A        £450K

B        £550K

C        £350K

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

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

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

A        £450K

B        £350K

C        £250K

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

A        £450K (same as before)

B        £550K

C        £250K (same as before)

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

A        £450K (same as before)

B        £550K (same as before)

C        £600K

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

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

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

Speculation and Hoarding

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

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

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

A        5 years         £600K

B        4 years         £500K

C        3 years         £450K

D        2 years         £210K

E        1 year           £130K

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

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

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

Taxation of Land

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

View the video version of this essay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Gifts of Birth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scarce Goods

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

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

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

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

  1. Compensation for Cost
  2. Profit and Loss

This may be illustrated as follows in Figure A.

Figure A

Position A          0A—————————1A

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

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

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

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

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

Figure B

A1—-A2—-A3—-A4—-A5

B1—-B2—-B3—-B4—-B5—-B6—-B7

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

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

Figure C

A1—-A2—-A3—-A4—-A5

C1—-C2—-C3—-C4—-C5

(C4)—(C5)

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

Figure D

A1—-A2—-A3—-A4—-A5

B1—-B2—-B3—-B4—-B5

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

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

Time

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

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

Figure E

Tree A               Five Apples                    Now

Tree B               Seven Apples                 Now

Tree C               Three Apples                 Now

Tree D              Ten Apples                    After One Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Figure F

B1—-B2—-B3—-B4—-B5—-B6—-B7

D1—-D2—-D3—-D4—-D5—-D6—-D7

(D8)—(D9)—-D10

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

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

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

Land Settlement and Capitalisation

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

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

Figure G

Year      Gross Yield        Costs                Gross Gain        Discount                  Net Gain

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

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

Figure H

Year      Gross Yield        Costs                Gross Gain        Discount                  Net Gain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Figure I

Year      Gross Yield        Costs                Gross Gain        Discount                  Net Gain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Figure J

Year      Gross Yield        Costs                Gross Gain        Discount                   Opp. Cost          Net

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Figure K

Year      Gross Yield        Costs                Gross Gain        Discount                        Opp. Cost          Net

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Figure L

Year      Gross Yield        Costs                Gross Gain        Discount                        Opp. Cost          Net

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Figure M

Year      Gross Yield        Costs                Gross Gain        Discount                        Opp. Cost          Net

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Figure N

Year      Gross Yield        Costs                Gross Gain        Discount                        Opp. Cost          Net

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Go to part two.

View the video version of this post.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Competition and Antitrust Law – Economic Misunderstandings

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What do Alcoa, AT&T, Standard Oil and Microsoft have in common? That they are (or at least were) all bastions of free market progress and innovation? May be so, but one other interesting aspect is that they have all been subject to prosecution under a body of law known as competition law (or anti-trust law in the US). One of the government’s self-appointed duties is the prevention of so-called “anti-competitive behaviour” – that if a firm comes to “abuse” its dominance on a market or “colludes” with other firms then it is somehow guilty of harming consumers, normally by increased prices. Theoretically this rests on the imaginary construction of “perfect competition”, a situation in which any one supplier of a good is met with a horizontal demand curve – i.e. no given supplier is able to affect the price of a good by reducing or increasing its supply. As soon as any one firm attempts to restrict supply other suppliers will simply reap the sales. Variations from this apparent economic nirvana are viewed as a cause for suspicion. This essay will challenge some of the economic misunderstandings that underpin this body of law.

Defining a Market

Every supplier in the marketplace contributes only a bare handful of the vast array of goods and services that are available for purchase. Competition law views its first task as defining “markets” for particular goods and then identifying the suppliers that participate in that market. For example, there might be a “market” for “apples”, or for “cars”, or for “fizzy drinks”. Suppliers are deemed to be competing if they are in the “market” for the same good. Similarly, a supplier may be said to be a monopolist if he is the sole supplier of a good. Various tests are used to determine whether two goods are in the same market.  Substitutability is one of these tests. If the price of good A rises by a certain increment and people, consequently, flock to good B then good A and good B would be said to be in the same market. However, if the price of good A rises and people do not replace it with good B then goods A and B would reside in distinct markets.

To the praxeological economist, this approach must be viewed instantly as complete nonsense. First, the entire analysis is based on hypotheses of future action rather than action itself; past action provides no firm base on which to judge future action. The entire raison d’être of action is constant and unceasing change. What is desired today may be discarded tomorrow, and vice versa. Secondly, even if this was not the case there is no such thing as separate “mini-markets” of individual goods. Rather, all goods are competing with each other for the contents of a customer’s wallet. Every consumer has only a certain amount of disposable income to which he must allocate the ends that are most valuable to him and these ends are ranked in one, single order. If I earn £1000 in a month I will spend this money on what is most valuable to me first, then on what is next valuable, and so on, until my funds are exhausted1. And it follows, therefore, that every good is “substitutable” for another if the price is right. For example, a person may have only enough disposable income to pay for either an annual holiday or a car. If he chooses the holiday then the car is discarded. The car was, therefore, competing with the holiday even though competition law would not view suppliers of cars and travel agents as being in the same market. However, if the price of holidays skyrockets to a level where the car becomes the preferred option (or even if the person just decides that he doesn’t want to go on holiday in a given year and can, consequently, afford the car) then the holiday will be discarded and the car will be purchased. The car has not really “substituted” the holiday; rather the holiday, owing to its cost, slipped down in the ranking of that person’s ends owing to its heightened price and other, completely different ends, became more pressing as a result. Competition law, in defining markets in the way that it does, effectively attempts to survey the Grand Canyon with a microscope, looking too narrowly at the economic situation in order the appreciate it. Indeed we might say that the problem lies in the confusion of markets with industries, the view being taken that everything that goes on within a certain industry is, somehow, hermetically sealed from anything else. Yet there is also no logical reason to suspend or restrict the categorisation at a certain level. Let’s say, for example, that Whitmore Grocers sells only fruit. Which market am I in? Am I in the general grocery market? Or am I in the fruit market? Or are the separate fruits in their own markets, so I am in the apple market, the banana market, the orange market, etc. simultaneously? Or am I in the Whitmore fruit market, that is, fruits that are provided uniquely by me in my shop? These definitions are important precisely because a definition of a particular market itself will determine who is dominant on that market – for if a market is defined as being for goods and services that are supplied by me only then it is obvious that I am and only ever can be a monopolist2.

The most absurd applicability of these market definitions can be seen in cases of declining industries. Often, when demand for a certain good or service is universally falling, the only way for formerly competing suppliers of that good and service to continue operating and to make the best of a bad situation is to merge. Yet these mergers are often blocked as being an “affront to competition” because they reduce the number of “competitors” for that good or service. Such was the case when Blockbuster attempted to merge with its rival Hollywood Video, the narrow market definition of “video rental stores” obscuring the fact that that entire “market” was suffering an onslaught from supermarkets and online video rental. These types of case will appear even more ridiculous as we now consider the dominance of certain suppliers on the “market” for a particular good or service.

Dominance

Once a market is defined, the situation is, as we have just alluded, viewed favourably from the point of view of competitiveness if there are many suppliers on that market and unfavourably if there is a single or only a handful of suppliers. Consumers are said to be benefited if they are confronted with an array of choice for an article that they may wish to purchase. However, the precise number of competitors and their relative size is itself an outcome of the preferences of consumers. An industry becomes large, thriving and with varied suppliers because consumers are willing to pay for that variety. In other words, industries where the final selling price of a product is far in excess of the costs of production give the most breathing room for actual competition to emerge. Where this is not the case, however, in industries where the difference between revenue and costs is narrow, attention turns to other considerations such as the urgency of cutting costs. Mergers and acquisitions then become viable because the net revenue gained from consolidating operations and achieving economies of scale outweighs that to be gained from deconsolidation. Consequently the costs saved releases productive resources so that they can be devoted to other ends in the economy. Indeed it will sometimes be the case that consumers are only willing to support a single, lone supplier in an industry. This individual supplier may be able to achieve cost savings that permit it to achieve a small profit and keep going, whereas two or more suppliers may struggle, individually, to rake in revenue that outweighs their costs. In short, an endless number of suppliers in each and every industry would be a recipe for losses and waste. In these cases, therefore, the prevention of mergers and acquisitions on grounds of competition concerns simply mean suicide for the entire industry, as we highlighted above in the Blockbuster case.

Monopoly Prices

Dominant players on a “market” for a certain good are often said to “abuse” this dominance by, say, charging “monopoly” prices or, through colluding with a number of other suppliers in the same industry, to “fix” prices. In other words they somehow raise prices higher than what they “should” be, raking in higher profits for their own enrichment at the expense of consumers who have to fork out the highest possible price. The only way that this can be achieved is if the demand curve for a particular good is inelastic, so that supply can, for example, be halved in order to more than double the price. Reducing or “restricting” the supply in such a way is said to be an abuse of a monopolistic position, harming consumers with artificial scarcity and high “monopoly” prices.

There are numerous theoretical problems with this point of view. First, in the absence of artificial government restriction by force that restricts supply to the benefit of a particular supplier, the concept of a “monopoly price” cannot be defined distinctly from that of the free market price. All suppliers in the market place, whether they are competing for the same good or not, estimate production at a level where they think revenue will be maximised, in other words all suppliers will set their quantity supplied at a point above which demand is inelastic (where further production would result in lower revenue) and below which demand is elastic (where reduced production would result in the same)3. Secondly, in the instant when any supplier on whatever market takes advantage of an inelastic demand curve, there can be only one of two responses from everybody else – either the increased price will attract others into the industry to produce more of the good, or it will not. If the first outcome occurs it means that the raised price has increased profits so much that it becomes viable for competitors to divert resources from other uses and direct them to producing more of the good in question. Indeed, one of the very reasons why some “monopolists” do not take advantage of an inelastic demand curve and are content to rake in merely average profits is precisely because they do not wish to rock their boat by attracting competition. In other words, potential competition as well as actual competition is always a factor in a supplier’s mind that disciplines him to keep prices at a moderate level by not “restricting” supply. In the second outcome, however, if no one else bothers to enter the industry following a rise in prices this can only be because it is too costly to divert resources from other uses – in other words, even with the price set so “high”, the profits achieved are not high enough to attract others into the industry. If the competition authorities step in to attempt to cure the “restriction” then it is clear that this can only be at the loss of other some other, more highly valued industry. For in order to increase supply to avert the restriction, resources have to be brought in from other industries. If other suppliers are not willing to do this voluntarily then it means that those resources are better off in the alternative industry and to divert them to solve an alleged “restriction” of another good would be nothing more than a waste4. Indeed, applying a reductio to the logic of “restriction”, why should we not castigate any supplier for not producing more of anything? Aren’t they all restricting supply by only producing and selling a certain amount? And further, why should we not also criticise them for only producing a certain good? Shouldn’t we, for example, criticise Apple for only producing IT products and not bothering to produce, say, beverages? Aren’t they “restricting” their supply of beverages by not abstaining from entry to the beverage market? Any failure to understand the absurdity of these positions is a failure to understand the fact that we do not live in the Garden of Eden and that we have to divert the scarce resources available to producing a “restricted” number of goods as far as possible in line with highest ends valued by consumers.

Finally, as we mentioned above, one of the very reasons why you see merger and acquisition activity in a certain industry is precisely because competitive activity between two suppliers is, in fact, wasteful to the consumer. If profit margins are slim then two competitors can achieve cost savings by realising economies of scale by consolidating their operations, thus releasing resources to be used elsewhere in the economy. Without this the result is that the industry as a whole cannot gain the profits necessary in order to develop and fulfil the demands of consumers but also resources are unnecessarily wasted on maintaining separate, costly operations. And as we again noted above, in declining industries this ability to cut costs could mean the difference between life and death and simply preventing a merger or acquisition because it leaves fewer “competitors” in the same, arbitrarily defined market is economic nonsense.

Predatory Prices

Another “abuse” is so-called “predatory pricing”, whereby a large and dominant supplier attempts to force a newcomer out of the market for its good by temporarily undercutting the latter’s prices, absorbing the temporary losses until the upstart is forced out of business. Surely here we have a clear abuse, an actual targeting of competition in order to completely eliminate them. Shouldn’t the competition authorities step in to try and out a stop to this blatant abuse to the consumer?

Unfortunately, it is not quite as simple as that. In the first place, in the case where suppliers are raising prices one can at least see some kind of prima facie affront to the consumer. But is there not something distinctly odd about criticising the lowering of prices? Isn’t that good for the consumer? Secondly, all suppliers attempt to better their competition in whatever way they can. It is precisely because there is potential or actual competition that suppliers are kept on their toes and there are numerous responses that a supplier can take to its presence – better products, cost savings, and lower prices. If a supplier chooses to lower prices to ward off the competition it is, for some reason, deemed to be “predatory”. But if the response is to develop a sleek, new product shouldn’t we also call that “predatory innovation”? Or couldn’t we also have a “predatory cost saving”? Why is it only prices that attract this wrath of the competition authorities? And finally, if a supplier sets its prices at a level whereby its profitability attracts competitors, then once that competitor has been vanquished through “predatory pricing”, wouldn’t the restoration of prices to the previously high level just create the same situation again and result in yet another upstart (or more) entering the field? And wouldn’t the whole operation of undercutting and loss taking have to be repeated again and again to permanently ward off all competition? Obviously the only sensible response to this would be, as we noted above, to keep prices permanently low, thereby forever warding off any competitors that would enter the field. And low prices can only ever be a boon to consumers.

Collusion

So-called anti-competitive behaviour can, as we have been discussing, be “perpetrated” by a single entity or entities can “collude” to agree in restrictions or setting prices (commonly known as “cartel” arrangements). We will not go into the detail of the fragility of cartel agreements that restrict production to raise prices; suffice it to say that there is always the temptation by one of the players to break the cartel, increase production and undercut its prices. Rather, we shall concentrate on the illogical proscription of collusion in the first place. Partnerships and corporations all involve the co-operation of individual human beings – shareholders, managers, employees, etc. – in running an enterprise to provide goods and services to consumers. Indeed a company is nothing more than a large collection of people coming together to agree and perform a common purpose. Part of this purpose will involve decisions on the level of production and the prices of the goods that are to be sold. It is clear from this arrangement that we do not castigate members of a board for “colluding” with managers, or with each other, when they agree the level of production that the firm is to undertake, nor do we see it as an affront to competition when a chief executive agrees with his divisional manager to raise the price of a certain product. The benefits from this should be obvious for virtually none of the wide scale production that we so take for granted today could exist without the co-operative behaviour between often large numbers of human beings in the same organisation. However, “collusion” between organisation is little more than the same thing – agreements and co-operative behaviour between human beings. The only difference is that the human beings belong to different legal entities. So why is it when one set of agreements and co-operation – with all of its obvious benefits – is permitted while the other is not? Why are agreements within a firm allowed yet between firms they are not? If advantages can be reaped by co-operating within the firm then why can’t they also be reaped by co-operation between firms? Taken to its logical end, anti-collusion would require literally everyone to be a sole-trader, never engaging in any joint enterprise whatsoever. We might also say that collusive activity lies somewhere on a scale between total independence and total merger. The former, we have just noted, is permitted and the latter, as we have analysed above, is better for the consumer if it is sustainable in the marketplace. Why is a point on the scale between these two positions bad?

Government Privilege and Monopoly

All of the economic analysis above refers to the situation on the free market, absent any government interference. As we have shown the several aspects of competition or antitrust law that we have examined have no legitimate basis at all in theory. However, competition law is surely viewed at its most ridiculous (nay, hypocritical) when we consider the wider fact that government itself is the most anti-competitive behemoth on the planet! One of the reasons why competition is said to be so good is that keeps suppliers sleek and nimble, forever reducing costs and innovating the best products to meet the ends of consumers in the most economical way. Monopoly, or a lack of competition, however, encourages only complacency, sloth, shoddy, inferior products and poor, expensive service. However, not only do even the smallest governments “enjoy” a territorial monopoly of law, order and the use of violence, but modern, large governments have either nationalised or have heavily regulated entire industries. This raises an obvious question – if private monopoly is so bad then why is government monopoly so good? If all of the evil results of monopoly are bad enough in the video-rental market to attract legal proscription then why are they not so pressing in the production of, for example, security and healthcare? Indeed it is often stated that certain “key” industries should be in “public” (i.e. government) ownership in order to insulate them from the “greed” of the profit motive, that seem greed and motive that ensures brings about competition. But why, if the industry is so important, is a monopoly provider now so brilliant and wonderful? Is competition only beneficial in trivial industries? Government itself is peopled by human beings who respond to exactly the same incentives as those who populate private industry – won’t the results of a government monopoly be the same as a private monopoly? And these government monopolies aren’t voluntary either – they are absolutely compulsory! At least with private monopolies you have the choice to abstain from purchasing the product but with government you have to fork out the taxes regardless. Even if competing services emerge the advantage that government has from the ability to levy compulsory tax revenue puts everyone else on the back foot. In its fields of interference, therefore, government is the ultimate anti-competitive bully, forever able to price its competitors out of the market or legislate them (i.e. chase them away with a gun) out of existence. But it gets worse than this for government has the ability and, often, the hubris to regulate or interfere with any industry it chooses, privileging favoured lobbyists and political donors with the glittering prize of exclusivity in certain lines of production. Indeed monopoly itself was once considered to be a government-granted privilege, a forced exclusion of everyone else from a certain craft or trade. But even “mere” regulation reduces market competition because the cost of compliance is easily absorbed by larger, more established entities than by smaller and more nimble upstarts. The latter are simply priced out of the market by the artificially created cost burden. Ironically, therefore, the monopolistic corporate ogre is a creature begat of government and not of the free market, with many industries that are nominally privatised – utilities, food, public transport etc. – reduced to a handful of well embedded, government-favoured players.

Conclusion

What has been demonstrated, therefore, is that key concepts utilised by competition or antitrust law are not only embedded on a tissue of economic falsehoods and misunderstandings but also its very promoters and guardians – the government – are themselves the biggest anti-competitive monolith. However, the wider belief in which these economic falsehoods is couched is the belief that competition is an end in itself rather than a process – a process of determining the structure of production that directs the scarce resources available in a manner in which they can best serve the ends of consumers. This may, within a particular industry, result in one, a few, or many players depending upon how consumer demand wishes that industry to be structured. The widely held assumption that the existence of many suppliers and “choice” is good for the consumer is not the case unless that array has arisen through voluntary activity. If it has not then forcing it to appear is a waste of resources. Indeed, the very illogic of competition as the goal is manifest in the fact that it results in a supplier being able to compete but not to win. Yet what is the point of a supplier competing if it is not able to better its competition?

Perhaps the best illustration of the absurdity of competition law, on which we shall end, is two jokes that economist Walter Block stated that he gave in a lecture on this subject to anti-trust lawyers and economists. The first joke is that there are three prisoners in the gulag in the former Soviet Union and they discuss why each of them is there. The first said that he came late to work and was accused of cheating the State out of labour. The second stated that he came early and was accused of brown-nosing. The third guy said that he came to work everyday and exactly on time, and the KGB accused him of owning a Western wristwatch. The second joke is that there are three prisoners in the U.S. They too begin to discuss what they are inside for. The first said that he charged higher prices than anyone else and the government then accused him of price gouging and profiteering. The second prisoner said that he charged lower prices than anyone else and they accused him of predatory and cutthroat pricing. And the third said that he charged the same prices as everyone else and they accused him of collusion and price fixing. Block’s audience apparently laughed heartily at the first joke. The second, needless to say, they found not quite so amusing.

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1This includes putting funds into savings or cash balances – present goods must compete with future goods and all goods and services must also compete with the desire to hold cash, at least if they wish to attract higher nominal revenues.

2And, by logical extension, every labourer becomes a monopolist of labour services provided by him.

3Murray N Rothbard, Man, Economy, and State with Power and Market, Scholar’s Edition, pp. 687-98.

4One of the so-called affronts to competition, “barriers to entry”, is itself a cost and it would still be a waste of resources to overcome it.

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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Money, Inflation and Business Cycles – The Pricing, Profit and Loss System Explained

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Against all of the fallacious forms of “under-consumption” theories of boom and bust Say’s law stands as a charming and simple rebuttal. Wrongly and ignorantly described as “supply creates its own demand”, a better and accurate formulation is “goods are paid for with other goods”. In short, while recognising that money is emphatically not neutral and is itself a good, goods are supplied by an individual (demand) in return for money, the latter of which is then used to buy other goods (supply).

This essay will use Say’s Law to illustrate that what is meant by “under-consumption” is, in fact, not a dissatisfaction with consumption (or rather purchasing) per se, but rather that the precise structure of production is not in harmony with the valuations of consumers; the distortion of this structure at the height of the boom proceeding to a bust is only the most extreme of this type of instance.

Say’s Law

While emphasising again that money is not neutral and its status as a good in its own right does have an effect on the structure of production, money does not in and of itself constitute demand. Rather, your demand is the goods that you have to offer for sale in the first place as it is these real goods that sustain the supplier in producing what you buy from him in turn. How productive you are determines the effectiveness of your demand as revealed in the precise exchange ratio – if the goods with which you demand are highly valued they will be able to buy more; if they are valued lower they will buy less. In reality this exchange ratio takes place not directly but through the money mechanism. For example:

1 apple          sells for         20p

20p              buys             1 orange

The mere possession of money in this scenario does not constitute demand. For in order to gain money to demand oranges a person must first have supplied apples and the amount of money he receives will be determined by his productivity in producing apples – the more productive he is the more money he gets which in turn allows him to demand more oranges. His demand is linked firmly to his original ability to produce and supply apples. It is not therefore that 20p, the money, is the demand for either one apple or one orange. It is, rather, that one apple will demand a supply of one orange1. In other words, the price of a single apple is one orange and the price of a single orange is one apple.

It follows, then, that if changes in the relative valuation occur between goods then this will be reflected in the exchange ratio between these goods. If, for example, oranges decline in value relative to money yet apples maintain their value relative to money a future exchange rate might be as follows:

1 apples        sells for         20p

20p              buys             2 oranges

In other words, whereas before one apple could buy only one orange, the value of oranges has declined so that now one apple can buy two oranges. Any change in valuation of a commodity therefore necessarily takes effect as a change in the exchange ratio between goods.

Supply, Demand and Prices

In the first place we must be somewhat suspicious of any theory that tells us that there is any under-consumption, i.e. that there is a general glut of everything. For it is suggesting that we suddenly find ourselves in the position of having too much stuff. But this is nonsensical even without any analysis for it implies that humans have suddenly stopped desiring; but human wants are insatiable and we are always striving for more. So engrained in our own experience is this fact that it seems pointless to try and prove it – an abundance of goods, all else being equal, is a cause for celebration rather than for alarm.

If we dig deeper what is really meant when there is a “general glut” is that the costs of producing goods cannot be recouped by their selling revenue, in other words that all goods are experiencing losses. But this is nonsensical because the very existence of a cost means that there is an alternative use for the capital goods that produced the final good – if a loss is experienced then it means that some other good was more highly valued than the good that was in fact produced. It is therefore impossible for there to be a general glut of all goods as the very reason for the glut – the existence of costs – presupposes that there is a demand for some other good. But if capital was misdirected and should have been used to produce another good then it follows that there is not a glut of this latter good at all but a relative shortage.

Let us take a hypothetical economy where all the only goods are fruit. Let’s say that there are twenty apples, twenty oranges, twenty bananas and twenty pears. Let us also say that it takes the use of one unit of a piece of fruit to produce a single unit of another piece of fruit and so that, in equilibrium, the exchange ratio of the different fruits will be as follows:

20 apples:20 oranges:20 bananas:20 pears

I.e., that there is a final exchange ratio of 1:1:1:1. When one fruit trades for a single fruit, there are no profits and no losses. If the apple producer, for example, trades ten of his apples for ten oranges, he can use them in production for ten more apples – in short, the cost of ten apples has yielded a revenue of ten apples. The same is true of the orange producer – he has bought ten apples with oranges which he used to produce ten more oranges, a cost of ten oranges netted against a revenue of ten oranges. Total profit and loss is zero and the economy is in a state of equilibrium.

What happens if the above numbers are multiplied – i.e. if there are forty, sixty, one hundred, one thousand or one million of each fruit? Does it make any difference? Not at all as one fruit will still trade for one other fruit which can be used to produce another piece of fruit. No fruit will be able to sell at a loss (or at a profit) and nothing will remain unsold. More of each fruit in the same ratio simply indicates a more prosperous economy than one where there are fewer pieces of each fruit.

What about, however, where the ratio of fruits is altered? Let’s say that, instead of there being twenty of each fruit there are, in fact, 10 apples, 10 oranges, 30 bananas and 30 pears. It still takes one of each fruit to produce one other fruit (i.e. the demand curve has not shifted). So what has happened to our exchange rate? It will be as follows:

10 apples:10 oranges:30 bananas:30 pears

In other words, 1:1:3:3. So now, one apple will still trade for one orange, but for three bananas or three pears. But as the production of one piece of fruit still requires only one piece of another fruit there will now be relative profits and relative losses. The apple producer, for example, can now use one apple to buy three bananas with which he will make three apples – a cost of one apple versus a revenue of three apples. The same is true of the orange producer. The poor banana producer, however, suffers. He has to spend three bananas to purchase one apple with which he can only produce one banana – a cost of three bananas versus a revenue of one banana. The same is true of the pear producer. We therefore have an instance of there being two fruits – bananas and pears – that are unable to sell for enough in order to cover their costs. But this is not a general glut, for we also have two fruits whose revenue more than covers their costs. Resources will flow out of banana and pear production and into apple and orange production, increasing the number of apples and oranges while decreasing the number of bananas and pears. The result of this is that the purchasing power of apples and oranges will fall again and that of bananas and pears will rise again, reducing the profitability of the first two industries and the losses of the latter two. This will continue until an equilibrium is restored with an exchange ratio of 1:1:1:1 and no industry is either profitable or loss making.

The result then is that there can never be a general glut of all goods, but rather specific gluts of particular goods that were not preferred mirrored by specific shortages of other goods. And as we know from our analysis of Say’s Law above these costs are ultimately expressed in terms of other goods relative to each other, i.e. the exchange ratio will widen as their values diverge.

How does this happen on the real market? Obviously gluts and shortages don’t just appear as they did in our example above; but rather, they result from the ever-shifting demand curves of consumers which have to be foreseen by entrepreneurs. For example, if entrepreneurs invest heavily in apples when in fact the public wants oranges, the capital that would have produced oranges is diverted to apples. The resulting glut of apples and relative shortage of oranges may mean that it takes five, ten or twenty apples in order to demand a single orange. If this low selling price for apples is insufficient to pay the costs of production while the high selling price for oranges results in a bumper profit for the foresighted entrepreneurs who stuck to producing oranges, then it follows that resources will flow out of apple production and into orange production until an equilibrium is restored where both apples and oranges will exchange at a ratio where they are both able to cover their costs of production.

However, as the valuations of consumers are always changing the hypothetical state of equilibrium will never be reached and there will always be relative gluts of some goods that have been overproduced and relative shortages of goods that have been under-produced.

Nothing about any of this is a cause for alarm – it is the task of entrepreneurs to adjust the structure of production to the tastes of consumers and in the normal run of the mill, so to speak, nothing about this will cause any great or dire need for concern. What we shall see, however, is when there is monetary intervention in the forms of inflation and credit expansion, very wide dislocations between the goods that are demanded and those are supplied occur, leading to extreme gluts and shortages. The analysis of these instances is no different from simple dislocations, but what will be revealed is that any attempt to “boost demand” merely ends up perpetuating the production structure that is failing to meet the ends of consumers in the favour of those producers who are selling loss-making goods.

Simple Inflation

At any one snapshot of time there is a fixed stock goods in the economy. Let us return to our hypothetical fruit economy with the same stock of goods and the same exchange ratios so that

20 apples will buy 20 oranges, or 20 bananas, or 20 pears.

In other words there is once again exchange ratio of 1:1:1:1. In the economy where money has to be earned, no one can spend without first producing real goods. So if a melon producer now produces sixteen melons and (once again, assume that one melon exchanges for one piece of any other fruit) and decides to purchase with them sixteen apples, the stock of goods in the economy will now be four apples, sixteen melons, twenty oranges, twenty pears and twenty bananas. The exchange ratios will be thus:

4 apples:16 melons:20 oranges:20 bananas:20 pears

While apples have now become more expensive relative to any other fruit (a whole five oranges, for example, is now needed to purchase one apple whereas before only one was needed), melons have become cheaper relative to any other good. Overall, therefore, what has been lost in apples has been gained in melons.

The additional purchasing power of apples caused by the demand of the melon producer spurs the apple producer into producing more. What can he do? As he has sixteen real melons he can use these in the production of sixteen more apples, thus restoring the total stock of goods to twenty apples, twenty oranges, twenty bananas and twenty pears. There has therefore been a productive exchange on the market. What was demanded by the melon producer in apples was supplied by him in melons, permitting the apple producer to fund his subsequent production of more apples. Crucially, however, as the purchasing power of other fruits was not diminished the profitability of these industries did not decline and they could carry on as before.

The fact that all of the exchanges take place in the real economy through the medium of money is of no consequence to this analysis. For in reality, the melon producer would have sold his melons to a third party, X, for money and then used the money to purchase the apples. X might have used the melons to produce pomegranates and then the apple producer uses his money received from the melon producer to buy pomegranates, the latter being used by him to produce more apples. The important point is that goods are trading for other goods and that the production of new goods must be funded by other goods.

What happens, then, when new money is printed? Is it possible for economic prosperity to be delivered by the printing and spending of new money? Let us return to our original array of goods – twenty apples, twenty oranges, twenty bananas and twenty pears. If the Government prints more money it has to spend it on these existing goods. Let’s say that, with the new money, it decides to buy sixteen apples. Does this new money in the pockets of apple producers entice it to spend more, which in turn causes their suppliers to spend more and so on until we reach ever dizzying heights of prosperity? No. For the problem is that no new real good has been supplied by the Government in return for its purchase and consumption of apples. Whereas the melon producer compensated for his consumption of apples by producing melons, all that has happened when the Government has printed more money to spend on apples is that the total of stock of all goods has declined by sixteen apples. As the stock of apples has declined relative to other goods the purchasing power of apples has risen accordingly. Instead of twenty fruits now trading for twenty others we now have:

4 apples:20 oranges:20 bananas:20 pears

What is the result of this? As the purchasing power of apples has now risen it means that this industry has become extremely profitable – with a single apple can be purchased five of any other fruit which can be used in production of five more apples, i.e. a cost of one fruit producing a revenue of five. All of the other industries, however, have now suffered relatively rising costs and lower revenues as they will each have to spend five fruits to gain one apple which will in turn produce only one of their particular fruit. What happens, once again, therefore is that resources will shift out of the orange, banana and pear industries and into the apple industry, reducing the relative surplus of the first three fruits and relieving the relative scarcity of apples. This process will stop when none of the industries can make either a profit or a loss, i.e. when one fruit again exchanges for one fruit. The shortest way for this to occur is for the apple producer to purchase four oranges, four bananas and four pears and to use them in the production of a total of twelve apples. The resulting array of goods will now be as follows:

16 apples:16 oranges:16 bananas:16 pears

What therefore is the result of the inflation? It is simply a reduction of the total number of goods available in the economy. Whereas before there were twenty pieces of each fruit now there are only sixteen. The Government, in failing to compensate for its consumption of apples with a supply of real goods in return, has simply reduced the total stock of goods by sixteen fruits. The earliest receivers of the new money, therefore, have received a benefit – the Government by being able to buy apples it hasn’t paid for in other goods and the apple producer by being the favoured receiver of the Government’s new money is ensured continuous profitability as its selling prices rise before its buying prices do. For everyone else, however, who receives the new money later, buying prices have risen faster than selling prices. They experience losses and a relative degree of impoverishment. Finally when the effects of inflation have worked themselves through the economy the result is a net loss for the economy as a whole.

This would be the effect of a one-shot inflation – the structure of production being left relatively intact but at a lower level. Things are much worse, however, when the inflation is continuous. For now, the Government keeps on buying apples with its newly printed money and not refunding this consumption with any real goods. What will happen, therefore, is that apples will be in continuous short supply relative to other goods and resources will continuously shift out of the production of other fruits and into apple production. The fruits furthest away in the supply chain from apples will suffer the most and eventually go out of business as their fruits remain permanently in high supply relative to the artificially created shortage of apples. There will be a permanent change in the structure of production in favour of the Government and its preferred suppliers at the expense of everybody else, resulting in an overall loss and reduction of total goods.

The Business Cycle

Whereas in our example of simple inflation the dislocation to the structure of production took place between different consumer goods, when it comes to the business cycle the disharmony caused is that between the demand of two classes of goods – consumer goods and capital (producer) goods. The artificial credit expansion fuelled by monetary inflation deludes entrepreneurs into thinking that more resources should be channelled into producing capital goods and fewer resources should be devoted to producing consumer goods, against the real wishes of consumers. Resources flow out of consumer goods and into capital goods. The end of the monetary inflation reveals the illusion – consumers did not have a rate of time preference and consequent rate of saving that makes the investment in capital goods profitable. The resources devoted to the production of capital goods should have been directed towards the production of consumer goods. There is, therefore, a specific glut of capital goods and a specific shortage of consumer goods. From Say’s law what this means is that consumer goods will command a high selling price in terms of capital goods and capital goods will command a low selling price in terms of consumer goods. Resources need to flow out of capital good production and into consumer good production until an equilibrium is restored where both are meeting their costs.

Indeed, economic crises are always crises of capital and not of consumer goods. This fact is often masked by the nominal price inflation of the boom accompanied and the subsequent deflation of the bust as the supply expands and contracts respectively. During the boom it is true that all prices, those of capital and consumer goods, rise and so there is a tendency to think that there is an all round prosperity. But what is really happening is that the prices of capital goods rise faster than those of consumer goods, so that there is a shift in the real price relationship (expressed in terms of goods) between consumer goods and capital goods. Once the bust happens, there is a corresponding deflation of all prices leading to the apparent view that the entire economy is suffering. But the reality is that the prices of capital goods decline faster than those of consumer goods so that, in real terms, the prices of consumer goods rise and those of capital goods fall as resources move out of the latter and into the former.

Indeed it is ironic that under-consumptionists view the alleged “problem” of the bust as a lack of consumption causing economic stagnation. For the reality is that there is no problem with consumption at all and it is in fact the desire for consumption that has been frustrated during the boom. If anything there needs to be less consumption and more saving so that the relative shift of goods out of the capital goods industry is less severe and at least some of the projects that were embarked upon in the boom may have a chance of achieving profitability (hence Government deficit spending – rampant consumption – only makes the bust even more painful). But unless that is desired by consumers it is futile to go on inflating and pumping in more credit as the structure of production that is so out of kilter with the desires of consumers is simply perpetuated as a lifeless zombie.

The Demand for Money

Up until now we have been considering cases where the relative gluts and shortages in the economy are between real goods with money serving only as an intermediary between goods. However money, or more accurately, the desire to hold money is itself a good that serves an end in its own right. Money is the most marketable of all goods and holding it provides a degree of reassurance that holding other goods does not. The desire to hold a larger cash balance, all else being equal, therefore reveals a degree of uncertainty on the part of its owner, an uncertainty that is hedged by the ability to quickly use cash to exchange for whatever goods and services are needed in the period of uncertainty. Holding money therefore in and of itself providers a satisfaction in much the same way as a real good does. So what happens, then, when the relative gluts and shortages involve not surpluses of goods against shortages of other goods, but surpluses of goods against shortages of money? In other words, when the demand to hold cash rises? Surely now our under-consumptionists can hold validly that everything will remain unsold as everyone scrambles to soak up more cash and the whole economy will collapse into a depressing slump?

The simple, and orthodox, “Austrian” answer to this apparent problem is that if the demand for cash suddenly rises then everyone must sell goods. The sudden influx of goods onto the market increases their supply resulting in a reduced price of each good in terms of money. But in terms of the ratio of goods to goods there needn’t be any change at all. For example, if the following exchange ratios existed before the demand for cash rises:

1 apple          sells for         20p

20p              buys             1 orange

The ratio of the apple to the orange is 1:1. But if the demand for cash suddenly rises such that the money prices of all goods declines then the following exchange ratio may result:

1 apple          sells for         10p

10p              buys             1 orange

Whereas the exchange ratio between goods and money is now lower, the exchange ratio between goods is the same. Exactly the same real trade in terms will therefore take place, just at lower money prices.

Indeed it is for this reason that deflation is not a problem for the running of business. For what matters for businesses is neither rising nor falling prices but the differential between their revenues and their costs. If both their revenues and their costs are falling then it is still possible to make a profit and to expand business. Indeed, the period between the dawn of the Industrial Revolution and the eve of the New Deal era was generally one of a long, secular deflation and this was the most productive period in the whole of human history.

However the story is not so straightforward for it is in fact true that a greater demand to hold cash changes the structure of production but not its level. As we noted earlier, cash is it self a good and the demand to hold cash is itself an act of consumption. An increase in the demand for it is, therefore, an increase in consumption and results in a higher societal time preference and a rise in interest rates. Indeed this makes intuitive sense. If the holding of a cash balance is a hedge against uncertainty, a higher degree of security will be accompanied by a willingness to engage in more roundabout methods of production and to exchange present money for assets that promise to pay a greater amount of money in what is, relatively, a certain future. If that certainty disappears, however, people begin to prefer liquidity today rather than liquidity tomorrow, curtailing their investment in future goods and selling them for cash now. Societal time preference and, therefore, the rate of interest rises. The selling price of the monetary commodity – e.g. gold or silver – will rise while its costs of production will fall, so that resources will shift into the gold or silver mining industry in order meet the new demand for money. There is therefore no reduction in production, merely a shifting of production out of lengthier, roundabout production processes and into the production of a) the monetary commodity, and b) lower order producer goods and consumer goods that can quickly be bought with the hoarded money when adverse conditions arise2.

Societal Profits and Societal Losses

The foregoing analysis gives the impression that a profit that appears somewhere in the economy (i.e. a relative scarcity) must be offset by a loss somewhere else in the economy (i.e. a relative glut). Is it true, therefore, that societal profits are always mirrored by societal losses?

Accounting profits are an excess of revenue over cost – that a firm has paid out less money that what it has received. Losses are the opposite, a firm paying out more money than what it receives in revenue. If all cash income was added to a firm’s profits and all cash expenditure added to its losses then it would be true that societal profits would equal societal losses as no firm could receive more in revenue than it paid out in expenditure without somebody, somewhere, paying out more in expenditure than they received in revenue in order to fund this difference. Indeed, the social function of all entrepreneurs is to arrange the structure of production in a way so that it best meets the needs of consumers. The decisions they make have to be made in advance, resulting in an appraisal of what it is that consumers will value tomorrow. They subsequently set about incurring costs by purchasing factors of production that they arrange into a production structure that they think will best meet the needs of consumers. If all of the entrepreneurs managed to arrange, on day one, the production structure exactly as consumers wanted it on day two, come that latter day revenue would exactly equal cost. The entrepreneurs would have utilised just the correct quantity of factors and have produced just the right quantity of specific goods that consumers were willing to pay for. No one entrepreneur would have bought too many producer goods and deprived an alternative end of their use, nor would any entrepreneur have bought too few producer goods and permitted too much of their use to alternative ends3. In reality, however, this state of apparent perfection is never reached and the resulting structure of production is never completely in tune with the valuations of consumers. Every structure of production is begat by a forecast, a prediction, or empathetic understanding of the businessman for his clients. It therefore never quite hits the mark and some goods will be relatively over-produced while others will be relatively under-produced. If a firm overproduces then the revenue it received was insufficient to pay for the factors of production, in other words that there were competing ends that were bidding up the prices of these factors and that the firm starved these ends of their means of production. A loss cannot materialise therefore without a corresponding underproduction elsewhere, meaning that revenue for these latter goods was more than sufficient to pay for the factors of production, in other words that these entrepreneurs did not bid up the factors enough to starve the loss-making ends of superfluous production.

So is it true, then, that every successful, profitable businessman is riding high on the losses of someone else? That for every entrepreneur arriving to work in a chauffeur-driven limousine another has been relegated to taking the bus?

Not at all, for it is entirely possible for societal-wide profits (and societal-wide losses) to emerge. This is owing to the capitalisation of durable producer goods. As a durable good is expected to produce revenue-generating consumer goods not immediately but also into the future, the capitalisation of a producer good is the market value of that asset’s future revenue, discounted to allow for the fact that these revenues are future revenues and not present revenues. At the point of purchase, therefore, the good is not recognised as an expense of the purchaser but as an asset (and correspondingly the cash that paid for it will show up on the asset side of the balance sheet of the vendor). No cost at all is shown in the accounts of anybody. Rather, the cost of the good is recognised incrementally over its lifetime as it depreciates, i.e. its use in furnishing consumer goods renders lower its ability to produce goods in the future. Entrepreneurs therefore face a choice – to increase present production and increase present sales revenue but at the same time incur the cost of heavier depreciation charges; or to reduce production and preserve the capital value of the asset but reducing sales revenue. Once again, the entrepreneur has to appraise how many goods to produce today and how many to leave for production tomorrow. If the revenue received from expanding production is exactly equal to the depreciation charge of the capital good (plus other costs) it means that he has exactly produced the favoured amount of present goods at the expense of future goods. The market was willing to pay in present goods precisely what it lost in future goods. What, though, if there is a profit? This means that the revenue received is greater than the cost of depreciation, in other words, the entrepreneur withheld from production more present goods than the market was willing to pay for. Future production will therefore be higher but at the expense of present production. And correspondingly, if there is a loss it means that revenue was insufficient to pay for the cost of depreciation – the entrepreneur produced too many goods in the present when they were more valuable in the future.

Societal-wide profits and losses therefore emerge when collectively entrepreneurs under and overproduce, respectively, present goods. Profits represent entrepreneurial saving – the deferment of present production for future production – whereas losses represent entrepreneurial dis-saving – the ravaging of future production for the sake of present production. And as we know it is saving that is the hallmark of capital accumulation, the increase in production and ultimately a higher standard of living. Dis-saving, however, results in capital consumption, a decrease in future production and ultimately a lower standard of living4.

Does this mean, then, that “vicious” entrepreneurs can simply withhold from present production increasing numbers of goods, driving the profit rate higher and higher and spreading widespread misery? No, for in the first place this ignores the non-capitalised factors of production. If an entrepreneur reduces production in order to drive up profits then he also has to reduce his demand for these latter factors – including non-durable producer goods but especially labour. The cost of these factors will therefore decrease, leading to competitors to employ them, restore full production and reduce the market share of the abstaining entrepreneur. The same would also be true of a cartel. If entrepreneurs in concert decided to restrict production, swathes of non-capitalised factors would become available and eventually the cartel would break when one of the entrepreneurs takes advantage of the opportunity this affords. But the main effect of societal profits is that they afford the ability to expand production. For if depreciation charges are lower than revenue then it means that comparatively less has to be spent on maintaining the existing stock of capital. Entrepreneurs can therefore do one of two things – either expand the existing capital stock, in which case production of the same consumer goods will be increased, thus lowering their price and capturing market share from competitors; or they can invest in more roundabout production processes that will afford the ability to provide more newly introduced consumer goods that have never appeared before. A variant on the second option is that, as entrepreneurial saving represents a fall in societal time preference rates, the interest rate will also fall and new entrepreneurs whose projects were too costly before will now offer to borrow the saved funds and invest them in their more roundabout processes of production. Hence you get the famous “Hayekian triangle” – a production structure that becomes longer and thinner as resources are directed out of producing and maintaining the existing capital stock into producing new capital.

Indeed entrepreneurial profit is simply the corollary of private saving. In both cases an excess of revenue over cost means that consumption is denied to the present in favour of the future, these funds being diverted to new, higher stages of production that result in a greater outlay of consumer goods. The greater the profit margin in the lower stages then the greater this effect will be.

Obviously the opposite happens when profits are reduced – more has to be devoted to maintaining the existing capital structure with comparatively less being used on expansion. If losses are experienced then capital is actively being consumed as there are no funds at all left over to replace the existing stock once it is fully depreciated. Production therefore declines along with the standard of living.

Conclusion

It is clear then that under-consumptionist theories are nothing but a tissue of falsehoods. In summary:

  • Goods ultimately trade for other goods and the production of one good requires the use of other, real goods;
  • General gluts cannot arise on the market; only specific gluts and specific shortages which will become apparent through the price system and ultimately through the exchange ratio between goods;
  • It is the task of entrepreneurs to ensure that these gluts and shortages do not arise, the pricing, profit and loss system regimenting them in the fulfilment of this important function;
  • The business cycle is a specific glut of capital goods and a specific shortage of consumer goods on a wide scale; that the pricing, profit and loss system has been distorted by credit expansion leading entrepreneurs to believe that the economy can support a larger capital structure than it really can;
  • Increased demand for money does not have any effect on the level of production and is no cause for alarm; it may affect the specific structure of production but this is wholly in line with the valuations of consumers.
  • Profits and losses do not offset each other – societal profits and societal losses are possible. Societal profits indicate a lowering of the societal rate of time preference, leading to capital accumulation and the expansion of production; losses indicate a raising of the societal time preference rate, leading to capital consumption and a decrease in production.

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1We are, of course, ignoring for the purpose of this illustration the issue of constancy. For more on this see Ludwig von Mises, Human Action, pp. 102-4.

2Whether an economy is operating with a fiat money or a commodity money is what makes the difference between whether an increased demand for cash will leave the time-structure of production unchanged (as in our first scenario laid out above where the exchange rate of goods remains equal) or whether the time-structure will be changed. See Jörg Guido Hülsmann, The Demand for Money and the Time-Structure of Production, Ch. 31 in Jörg Guido Hülsmann and Stephan Kinsella (eds.), Property, Freedom and Society, Essays in Honor of Hans-Hermann Hoppe. See p. 322 for an explanation of how the shift in the time-structure of the economy that occurs under commodity money (but does not under fiat money) better serves the needs of consumers than a production structure that is left as it was before. All we need to note here is that with either fiat or a commodity money the level of production does not change and that there is consequently no depression of business brought about by under-spending or under-consumption.

3This is the hypothetical “equilibrium” state that seems to be the shibboleth of mainstream economists.

4It is, therefore, supremely ironic, let alone wildly inaccurate, that opponents of the free-market charge profit-seeking with the depletion and destruction of the Earth and its natural resources. This fallacy stems from always focusing on the fact that entrepreneurs want to maximise revenue while completely ignoring the fact that they also have to minimise costs. Profit indicates a saving of resources, not their depletion – the entrepreneur has advanced fewer goods than the market was willing to pay for. By incurring costs lower than revenue he has saved resources, not decimated them. It is precisely those assets over which full private property rights (and hence, their capitalised value) are available to the capitalist-entrepreneur that are not in short supply or at any risk of being depleted. For the ever present urge to reduce costs means that they cannot be depreciated more quickly than the market is willing to pay for, otherwise losses will be incurred. Those resources over which there are no private property rights, however – in particular forests, fish stocks, “endangered” animals – are precisely the ones where we experience a depletion. With no one able to enjoy the capital value of these assets and to incur the cost of their depletion against their revenue there is no reason to avoid their decimation.

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