Utilitarian Arguments for Liberty

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Utilitarianism or some form of consequentialism has underpinned the ethical worldview of many libertarians past and present. Within the “Austrian” School we may cite Ludwig von Mises, F A Hayek and Henry Hazlitt as proponents of this approach, contrasting with the more rule-based or deontological approaches of, say, Murray N Rothbard and Hans Hermann Hoppe, and the objectivism of Ayn Rand.

This essay will seek to examine some utilitarian and consequentialist arguments in favour of liberty. In doing so we must bear in mind two aspects. First, not all utilitarian arguments are of the same ilk and vary from simple approaches of judging outputs resulting from a posited situation with interpersonal utility comparisons, all the way to more general and sophisticated treatments such as that of Mises and that of Rothbard in his noted article “Towards a Reconstruction of Utility and Welfare Economics”1. Here, therefore, we will compare these two utilitarian approaches towards liberty. Second, the adequacy of utilitarianism can be examined from the point of view of providing a moral bulwark for a world of liberty on the one hand and from the point of view of promoting such a world on the other; our treatment of it may be different in each circumstance because that which may be suitable to form the moral foundations of liberty may be not be the key aspect that we can emphasise when persuading the populace of the virtues of a libertarian society. Hence we must examine any utilitarian argument from both points of view.

We will begin, then, with the basic forms of consequentialism that look to measure the output of individual scenarios. Such an approach will often posit an emotive and hypothetical situation where one individual owns property and another individual will succumb to some kind of malady such as hunger, illness and ultimately death unless he gets his hands on that same property. A typical example is of a lost man wandering in the woods, cold, malnourished and in immediate need of food and shelter. He comes across a log cabin, of which someone else is clearly the first user/occupier. By peering through the window our lost man can see that it is full of food. Would it be ethical for him to break in to the cabin, use it as shelter, and/or eat some of the food without the permission of the first user?2

The rule-based approach to libertarianism would state that the lost man does not have a right to break into the cabin, use it as shelter and eat the food without the permission of the cabin’s first user (hereafter, the “owner”) as it is a clear breach of the non-aggression principle. However, a utilitarian or consequentialist may argue that while the cabin owner has a prima facie right to the ownership of the cabin and its contents the question should be answered by taking the approach that avoids the most harmful consequences – or, conversely, promotes the best consequences. In this particular situation, the loss of the food or shelter to the cabin’s owner would, apparently, not be a remarkable cost. Yet the denial of it to the lost man, starving and shivering in the open, would be tremendous, may be even as much as his life. We may warrant, therefore, that the starving man should be able to break into the cabin.

Is it possible for such a view to form a) the moral backbone for libertarianism and b) a persuasive argument in promoting a libertarian society? In answer to the first question, we must decide firmly in the negative. First, all of these scenarios, such as the starving man in the woods, are purely hypothetical situations to which we are expected to give hypothetical responses. However, ethical dilemmas do not arise in hypothetical situations; they arise in real situations where there are genuine conflicts over scarcity. Although such hypothetical situations could one day come about, the danger of entertaining them is that it can be worded in such a way as to provoke the answer most desirable to its proponent. Thus the die is already loaded in favour of the latter’s political philosophy. Walter Block comments on such an example provided by Harold Demsetz of the Law and Economics movement (which is basically a utilitarian approach to legal rights). Demsetz’s scenario is that of “Austrian Pure Snow Trees”, which are owned by a religious sect. An ingredient from these trees happens to be the only cure for cancer, but the religious sect will not allow them to be used for that purpose, reserving them instead for religious worship. Demsetz challenges whether it is really “evil and vicious” to override the private property rights of the religious sect so that cancer sufferers can benefit from the trees’ curative ingredient. Block responds at length:

Given [Demsetz’s] highly emotional example, it is indeed hard to resist the notion that it would be preferable if the trees were used as a cancer cure.

Emotionalism can be a double edged sword, however. As long as our intuitive imagination has been unleashed by Demsetz in this creative way, why not push the envelope a bit? Consider, then, the case where the views of this religious sect are absolutely correct! That is, if the trees are torn down for so idolatrous and unimportant a purpose as curing cancer, then we’ll all be consigned to Hell forever. Wouldn’t it then be “intuitively appealing” to allow the islanders to continue their ownership of these trees?

Demsetz, in taking the opposite position, is acting as if the cult is erroneous in its religious beliefs. But assume for the moment the “cultists” to be correct in their world view. It would then be justified – according to Demsetz – not only to protect them from the onslaught of the cancer victims, but to seize the assets of the latter if this would in any way help the former. Suppose, that is, that there was a cancer cure, owned, now, by the victims of this dread disease, but that for some reason the worshippers determined that this material would help them in their efforts to contact the Deity. Then, according to the logic established by Demsetz, it would be appropriate public policy to forcibly transfer the cure to the control of the religious ”fanatics.” Surely Demsetz knows nothing-for certain that would render such a conclusion invalid.

[…]

Let us extend the Demsetzian argument in yet another dimension. Suppose that it was not the islanders’ trees that could cure cancer, but rather their hearts. That is, the only way to save the sufferers from this disease would be to kill, not the Austrian Pure Snow Trees, but their owners, the members of this religious sect, and then to take their hearts, chop them up, and feed them to cancer victims. Would Demsetz (“emotionally”) support this “modest proposal” to do just that?

[…]

Ultimately, there are only two ways of settling such problems. All others are merely combinations and permutations of these two. On the one hand, there is a provisional or instrumental property rights system. Here, holdings are secure only as long as no one can come up with a plausible reason for taking them away by force. Under this system, either dictators or majorities (or dictatorial majorities) hold the key to property rights. The difficulty is that there are no moral principles which can be adduced to derive any decisions. Presumably, utility or wealth or income maximization is the goal; but due to the utter impossibility of interpersonal comparisons of utility, this criterion reduces to arbitrariness. On the other hand is a thoroughgoing and secure property rights system. Here, one owns one’s possessions “for keeps.” The only problem here is the temptation to overthrow the system in order to achieve some vast gain, such as the cure for cancer. Demsetz’s example is so forceful by virtue of the fact that he expects his readers will consider a cure for cancer to be more valuable than a pagan rite – he knows it is likely they will engage in interpersonal comparisons of utility. But these temptations are easily resisted as they are inevitably imaginary and artificially constructed. We have yet to be presented with a real world example where there is a clear cut case for massive property rights violations.

[…]

Hypothetical arguments have their undoubted philosophical use. [However], the point being made here[…]is that [deontological] libertarian rules are only inconsistent with broad based utilitarian concerns in the imagination, not in reality.

Note how far from reality Demsetz must remove himself in order to manufacture an example that is intuitively consonant with his support for what in any other context would be considered murder (hearts) or theft (trees) or slavery-kidnapping (draft).

[…]

In very sharp contrast indeed, resort need not be made of fanciful examples to defend the libertarian vision.3

Imaginary scenarios, then, are always worded so that the listener is encouraged to empathise emotionally with the economically deprived while completely ignoring the point of view of the property owner, or at least making the latter look frivolous and capricious. Such a rhetorical trick applies not only to specific scenarios but also to entire political treatises. How much, for example, do the imaginary, hypothetical situations of the original position and the veil of ignorance in John Rawls A Theory of Justice – which do not exist in the real world – demand the very answer that the author desires?

Second, the purpose of ethics is to resolve or otherwise avoid conflicts that arise from the result of physical scarcity. Rule-based approaches to liberty that provide physical demarcations to denote property rights permit this to a high degree of certainty in any given situation as the boundaries of permissible action are constructed objectively. Because all valuations through action result in physical changes to physical goods, objective evidence of these changes – i.e. homesteading, production, etc. – give an immediate cue to indicate to a latecomer that the property may not be touched4. Consequentialist approaches, however, cannot rely on objective, physical demarcations to denote property rights; rather, they rely upon the measurement of competing subjective values. This renders the resolution of conflicts and conflict avoidance much more difficult. The question the lost man faces is what am I permitted to do right now? If moral boundaries are based upon hypothetical and changing values and tastes then this question cannot be answered. He may assume that the cabin owner values the cabin and its stock of food less than he does, but he has neither evidence nor proof of this. Indeed the cabin owner isn’t even there to ask. And whether the cabin owner values it less may change from day to day. Yesterday, the cabin owner might not have valued these resources very highly at all; today, however, what if the cabin owner has himself suffered an accident and requires the shelter and food, which he believes to be in secure possession, and is now under threat from the wanton consumption by the lost man? What if the cabin owner’s life is threatened by the loss of food and shelter? Indeed, what if he had purchased the cabin as insurance against that very possibility? There is, therefore, no way of making a rational decision ex ante.

Third, if ethical determinations cannot be made ex ante then it follows that a decision must be made ex post. In other words, the lost man could take a chance by breaking into the shelter and then battle out the question of whether he was right to have done so later through litigation or a settlement process. It is for this reason that utilitarian forms of libertarianism tend to be minarchical rather than anarchical. Hence, this basic form of utilitarianism provokes the very monolithic state apparatus that libertarians should be opposing, and puts in its hands a tool – interpersonal utility comparisons – with which to make its decisions, a tool that is ridiculously uncertain and malleable5. To be sure, it might be possible for individuals to form an empathetic judgment based on interpersonal utility comparisons in an individual situation. But it does not follow from that possibility that a government or a court could make a rigorous determination when passing legislation or enunciating judgments that affect the lives of millions of people in multitudes of different situations6.

Fourth, at the heart of many consequentialist approaches is a fundamental misunderstanding as to what the concepts of “liberty” and “freedom” actually mean. If one views them as meaning freedom from want, from hunger, from the elements and so on then one is naturally led to a consequentialist approach. However, properly considered, liberty is a sociological concept that applies to the relationship between each individual human being. A person is free if he can live his life without the physical interference of his person and property by others. Whether he is hungry, cold, or naked, on the other hand, concerns his relationship not with other human beings but, rather, with nature. This can only resolved not by extending his “freedom” forcibly into the territory of others but by gaining power over nature – in short, by productivity. Any number of theoreticians can spill oceans of ink in trying to determine whether or how the wealth of the cabin owner should be distributed to the lost man in the woods. Yet wouldn’t it be so much better if society was so wealthy that the lost man possessed the wherewithal to prevent himself from being in such a wandering state in the first place? What if the man had an inexpensive GPS system; compacted supplies of food in pill/tablet form that could sustain him for weeks or months; emergency communication devices that would alert a private protection agency to his whereabouts? Yet it is precisely such productivity that is threatened by consequentialist determinations of property rights. Strong private property rights that remain certain following original appropriation or voluntary transfer promote economic growth by encouraging saving, long term planning and low time preference. Uncertain or vague private property rights do the exact opposite. If it is possible that your property will be snaffled in an instant by someone who allegedly “values” it more than you do then the attractiveness of using the good for saving and investment is lowered. You will be willing to take fewer risks and will work less hard with the good if you know that the fruit of your efforts might be confiscated in the blinking of an eye. At worst, such weak property rights encourage immediate consumption as soon as you get your hands on any good at all. That way, in most cases it will no longer exist for someone to take it away again at a later date.

Turning now to our next question, would such basic consequentialism serve in any way to persuade people of the virtues of a libertarian society? Again we have to answer firmly in the negative. We must remember that the primary preoccupation of libertarianism is with the evil and oppressive monolith known as the state. This is the entity that truly destroys freedom; it confiscates our income to fund its profligate spending; forces us to use its worthless paper money that it prints incessantly to fuel its endless foreign wars; destroys families and fuels poverty and dependency with the massive welfare state; regulates what we can do with our bodies, what we can say with our own mouths, where we can set up business, whom we may employ in that business and on what terms. Government is estimated to have killed approximately 262 million people outside of warfare during the twentieth century; private affronts to liberty – even such horrendous crimes such as murder and rape – pale in comparison to this. The US government’s so-called war on terror, at a cost of several trillion dollars, has killed an estimated 1.3m Iraqis, Afghanistanians and Pakistanis in its first ten years, even though more Americans are killed by falling televisions than by terrorist attacks. The greatest insult has to be that it is this miniscule private crime that supposedly constitutes the very justification for the state and its monopolisation of security and litigation. Although there is no shortage of nobility in striving to apply justice in every individual case, libertarians must fry the biggest fish and not spend their time debating whether a lost man breaking into a cabin is or is not an affront to liberty. When attempting to promote liberty, let us confront the very real ogre of the state rather than dwelling in imaginary scenarios that will make no practical difference to people’s everyday lives. Furthermore, as we mentioned above, if justice depends on interpersonal utility comparisons in individual cases, then it craves for the existence of a compulsory referee in the form of the state, the very thing that destroys liberty entirely. We must conclude then that this basic form of utilitarianism, which seeks to evaluate outputs from specific situations, must fail on all accounts as an argument in favour of liberty.

Let us now turn towards a second conception of utilitarianism, the more sophisticated approach adopted by such eminent theoreticians as Ludwig von Mises. The tenor of this approach is that voluntary exchange under the division of labour – i.e. the market – is essential for the survival and flourishing of every individual human being; every human is so interdependent upon every other that to plump for anything else would result in the rapid disintegration of the standard of living or, at worst, certain death. Hence this form of utilitarianism concentrates on the virtues of the market itself rather than looking to the justice of individual situations. Mises, and others who follow this approach, therefore avoid any complications arising by way of interpersonal utility comparisons.

It is important to realise that this argument is predicated upon a few other important Misesian insights. First is that when pondering the economic organisation of society only two extremes are possible – the free market or total socialism. As Mises so effectively argued, any “interventionist” point or “mixed economy” approach in between these two extremes will cause effects that must either lead to abandonment of the intervention on the one hand or to total control on the other. One must therefore choose between one or the other and cannot favour anything in between. By demonstrating the economic impossibility and the catastrophic consequences of full socialism Mises demonstrates the complete lack of basis for making a choice that favours full government control. The only rational option, therefore, is the unfettered free market. Second, and related to this theme, Mises was of the view that “society” is synonymous with social co-operation under the division of labour. As he says in Human Action:

A society that chooses between capitalism and socialism does not choose between two social systems; it chooses between social cooperation and the disintegration of society. Socialism is not an alternative to capitalism; it is an alternative to any system under which men can live as human beings.7

Following this line of thinking, questions such as “how to organise society” strike one as absurd when society itself is already a form of organisation. We do not have the choice of “picking” from an array of options when it comes to forming a society. Either there is social co-operation under the division of labour and society exists; or there is an atomistic hand-to-mouth existence and society does not exist. Any person, therefore, who genuinely wishes to promote a theory of society cannot rationally opt for any kind of socialism and, a fortiori, any kind of interventionism8.

How useful is this approach for forming a moral backbone for libertarianism? At first, this approach seems remarkably more plausible than the basic form of consequentialism that we just discussed. By looking at the general consequences of the market we do not get caught up in traps such as interpersonal utility comparisons and we have a strong counter-argument against anyone who proposes a collectivist theory of social organisation. Moreover, the fact that the marketplace serves to improve the material wellbeing of every individual human being lends it a heavy degree of moral weight. If the free market was to spread misery and discontent through perpetuating a lower standard of living we would surely be willing to lend it less moral credence. Unfortunately, however, this utilitarian approach lacks the very thing to which the basic form of consequentialism was far too devoted – a rigorous passion for the justice rather than simply for the utility of private property rights.

First, although it provides a rhetorical defence against those who profess their collectivist aspirations to be for the benefit of society, it will never provide a defence against megalomaniacs who are content to milk everyone else for all they are worth. In other words, it will never provide an answer to those who believe society exists to serve them alone and that they are entitled to use other people in any way they see fit. The existence of such megalomania should not be dismissed lightly. Simply because we associate it more with caligulan monarchs and despots of times gone by does not mean to say that our democratic structures are impervious to it. Many libertarians are vocal opponents of what they see as “US exceptionalism” – the idea that the US government can pretty much do whatever it pleases in foreign affairs and standards that apply to a foreign government do not apply to the US. How can this be described as anything except megalomania?

Second, the logical effects of the socialisation of society – the total collapse of the division of labour and the complete decimation of the standard of living – can be gut wrenchingly long run effects. Society currently has plenty of capital that can be consumed and afford a comfortable, even luxurious living to any one individual. The Soviet Union took an agonising seventy years to die, a span of time that exceeds that of most individual’s adult lives. An advocate of socialism and socialisation is therefore not necessarily advocating his own certain death or relegation to poverty. He may be content to live like a king for the duration of his life and not care a whit if society became deeply impoverished long after he has dropped off of his mortal coil. Arguably this was the attitude inherent in Keynes’ oft-quoted quip “in the long run we are all dead”. As Murray Rothbard is supposed to have retorted, “Keynes died and we were left with the long run”. But such an attitude is provoked and enflamed by the fact that democratic government is a revolving door with officeholders required to endure repeated elections, endowing them a very short time in which to accomplish their goals. Every politician yearns for his day in the sun when he is lauded and praised as a great statesman, but he has to achieve this now, in the short run, before he loses an election. As long as he can reap the headlines and rewards during his tenure and, possibly, for the remainder of his life, who cares if his policies are ultimately destructive after he is long gone? It is for this reason that democratic governments are suffering from ever increasing and crippling debt as each generation of politicians seeks to shower its electorate with free goodies that only have to be paid for years after they have left office (or have died) and it is somebody else’s problem9. So too, could we suggest, that endless war has become the norm as each successive leader tries to demonstrate his Churchillian qualities and to elevate himself to the legendary, almost Godlike realms of the great warrior-statesman such as Lincoln and Roosevelt. Never mind that war ultimately is destructive; never mind that it destroys entire cities and societies; never mind that it kills, maims and otherwise ruins the lives of millions of innocent civilians. As long as the commander-in-chief can claim to have vanquished a cherry-picked foe in some distant country then his place as a saviour of civilisation is assured, at least in the meantime. So too do the manufacturers and profiteers of armaments display the same attitude. They know how evil and destructive war ultimately is; there is no shortage of literature espousing this fact. But they get to reap heavy profits now and to enhance their own lifestyles now. Why should they care about what happens in the long run?

Third, by resting its case on the general virtues of the market this kind of utilitarianism suggests that if some form of social organisation, other than the market, however unlikely, becomes feasible then private property rights could be legitimately overridden. In other words if some form of collectivism could sustain the division of labour and a standard of living equal to or exceeding that of the free market would the force behind government taxation, theft, murder then become legitimate? However, surely if such a world was to come about we would still argue that people have the right to self-ownership and the right to the ownership of goods in their possession as first user or through voluntary transfer? Of course, a person might choose to submit to the yoke of government planning if it affords him a higher standard of living than that of the free market, but this is a different kettle of fish as the submission is then purely voluntary. On its own, however, any ability of a system other than the free market to sustain a society is insufficient as a justification to override private property rights.

Fourth, this brand of utilitarianism may convey a sense of prospective justice – that which should happen concerning property rights in the future – but what does it have to say about retrospective justice? In short, how does utilitarianism know whether the existing structure of property rights is just? After all, the existing structure of ownership benefits a lot of thieves and plunderers that would need to be dealt with in the transition from a statist to a libertarian society. A libertarian steeped in natural law and Lockean homesteading theory would answer this question rather straightforwardly. Any current owner would have to demonstrate that his title derives either from original appropriation or through voluntary transfers in title. If it is not and someone who claims such a title comes forward then ownership must be yielded to the latter. A utilitarian, however, has a bit of a problem as his philosophy generally focuses on the benefit changes to the existing array of property titles to the current market participants. He could argue that, like the natural lawyer, all existing titles to property could be examined against competing claims and then either endorsed or rectified accordingly. However, because his theory is based on the efficacy of the market in developing the division of labour his case for requiring this is demonstrably weakened. Certainly theft and plunder disrupted the efficiency of the market in the past. However, wouldn’t a mass of re-appropriations to rectify ancient crimes undermine the efficacy of the market today, at least temporarily? Would it not be easier, from the point of view of efficiency, to just preserve all existing titles then let everyone go forward? Why compound a past disruption to the market with a new one? It is upon this basis that this brand of utilitarianism is criticised for preserving the status quo, for permitting, in the transmission to a libertarian world, the bureaucratic class to keep their hands on the loot, much like the oligarchy did in Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union. To be sure, this argument against utilitarianism is not, in the view of the present author, as strong as some libertarians make it out to be. Nevertheless, utilitarianism does open itself up to the charge that there comes a point where stolen property should remain in the hands of the thieves (or their heirs) simply because the act of unwinding the theft would cause more disruption to the market than to not to do so, particularly if the property is heavily invested in an enterprise that provides substantial employment and is apparently productive. Moreover, while it is straightforward enough to justify voluntary trade in the marketplace as promoting the division of labour and the standard of living, we have to wonder whether the utilitarian can provide much of a justification for original appropriation – that is, for the first user of a good to retain it – with his utilitarian arguments alone. Original appropriation is of course the genesis of voluntary trade – we appropriate virgin goods with the intent to produce with them and trade them away for things we want in exchange, thus helping to overcome the fact that the world’s resources are not evenly distributed amongst different geographic regions. However, such a justification can only stand if one can also demonstrate that the originally appropriated property is previously ownerless and unvalued by other people, and is only recognised as scarce and valuable by the first user. The only possible such demonstration is that the first user was the one to “mix his labour with it”, whereas the actions of everyone else demonstrated no preference for that property. Hence all utilitarian arguments in favour of the free market, fundamentally, collapse into the Lockean homesteading theory anyway.

Having addressed the question of whether this form of utilitarianism can be a useful moral underpinning for libertarianism, let us turn now to whether it is useful as a persuasive tool for espousing the virtues of a free society. In this sphere, utilitarianism certainly fares much better. The heaviest gun in the arsenal of the utilitarian libertarian is the fact that living in an unfettered free society where government exists, at most, as a “night watchman”, limited to protecting private property rights of the individual, will produce manifold increases in the standard of living through a rise in real wage rates. It also has the virtue, in contrast to the basic form of consequentialism, of concentrating its focus on the very institution that is an anathema to freedom – the government – instead of getting bogged down in the minutiae of individual cases. Squarely, it is government that needs to withdraw itself from the marketplace and it is government that needs to stop meddling in economic affairs in order to bring about these wonderful consequences. Furthermore, every government minister promotes his programmes on the basis that they will serve to help at least some sector of society, if not everybody. The utilitarian, however, armed with a thorough understanding of economics, can easily demonstrate why the results must always be the very opposite of those intended and why the government interference will always, necessarily, create more harm than good when examined under the terms of its own justification. While, therefore, a given politician or promoter may have ulterior motives in proposing any programme – such as to benefit lobbyists, donors or other special interests – his public justification for the programme can be shown as shambolic. There may, of course, be some difficulty in disabusing people of the notion that the free market is a “sink-or-swim” society and there is also added problem of those who steadfastly refuse to try their hand in the marketplace for what might seem like a distant reward and prefer instead to yield to the siren song of government redistribution. To this, only a passionate plea for the justice of the market place can provide an answer.

Conclusion

George Reisman explains how an understanding of the consequences of free market economics has “powerful implications for ethics”:

It demonstrates exhaustively that in a division-of-labor, capitalist society, one man’s gain is not another man’s loss, that, indeed, it is actually other men’s gain — especially in the case of the building of great fortunes. In sum, economics demonstrates that the rational self-interests of all men are harmonious. In so doing, economics raises a leading voice against the traditional ethics of altruism and self-sacrifice. It presents society — a division-of-labor, capitalist society — not as an entity over and above the individual, to which he must sacrifice his interests, but as an indispensable means within which the individual can fulfill the ultimate ends of his own personal life and happiness.

A knowledge of economics is indispensable for anyone who seeks to understand his own place in the modern world and that of others. It is a powerful antidote to unfounded feelings of being the victim or perpetrator of “exploitation” and to all feelings of “alienation” based on the belief that the economic world is immoral, purposeless, or chaotic. Such unfounded feelings rest on an ignorance of economics.10

While, therefore, we must conclude that no form of utilitarianism provides an adequate, watertight moral backbone for libertarianism, which can only be furnished by demonstrating the justice inherent in private property rights and free exchange, we must also agree that we can never ignore the manifold benefits to every individual and the harmonious society that they create. Indeed, few people, publically, ever attempt to propose an ethical theory that does not create a society of peace and harmony. Thus a through understanding of the effects of the free market can provide a framework with which to refute competing theories on their own terms. Furthermore, few deontological libertarians omit to pepper their theories with demonstrations of the beneficial consequences of the marketplace. While, therefore, this essay has been generally critical of utilitarianism it is likely that it will always have a central place in libertarian theory.

1Reprinted in “Economic Controversies”, pp. 289-333. Rothbard is, however, keen to note that his reconstruction does not provide any plea for an ethical system, merely “conclusions to the framer of ethical judgments as part of the data for his ethical system”.

2Another example is the so-called runaway train that will hit five people if diverted onto one track or only one if diverted onto the second. Should the signalman switch the points to the second track to ensure that only the one person is killed?

3Walter Block, Ethics, Efficiency, Coasian Property Rights and Psychic Income: A Reply To Demsetz, The Review of Austrian Economics, Vol.8, No. 2 (1995) 61-125, at 76-84 (emphasis added, some footnotes omitted.

4Libertarian jurisprudence does, of course, have to determine precisely which physical acts result in which property rights. However, any difficulty is likely to remain only in borderline cases or cases where evidence of prior ownership is fleeting or difficult to apprehend and, in general, all persons should be able to determine in the majority of situations whether property is subject to a prior right and a third party referee would not be required to determine this.

5As a result it is also the case that consequentialists vary in their particular views concerning the justice of taxation, eminent domain, intellectual property, etc. on to a greater degree than rule-based libertarians.

6Ironically, the same argument based on interpersonal utility comparisons – that the wealthy value what they have less than the poor and that the latter “need” this wealth more than the rich do – is used by proponents of government welfare and redistribution. It is difficult to understand how an argument that can be used against a world of liberty can be used in favour of it.

7Ludwig von Mises, Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, p.676.

8It is upon this foundation that Mises’ examination of concrete economic policies, where he moves from the wertfrei into the world of value judgments – the effectiveness of the policies themselves from the point of view of those who promote them – is  based.

9Because the incessant tendency is now reaching a chronic level the ability to postpone the day of reckoning has become ever more difficult and most of the more recent glory-seekers are now living to reap what they sow. Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan is a pertinent example.

10George Reisman, Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics, p. 17.

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Gifts of Birth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scarce Goods

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

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

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

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

  1. Compensation for Cost
  2. Profit and Loss

This may be illustrated as follows in Figure A.

Figure A

Position A          0A—————————1A

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

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

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

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

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

Figure B

A1—-A2—-A3—-A4—-A5

B1—-B2—-B3—-B4—-B5—-B6—-B7

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

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

Figure C

A1—-A2—-A3—-A4—-A5

C1—-C2—-C3—-C4—-C5

(C4)—(C5)

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

Figure D

A1—-A2—-A3—-A4—-A5

B1—-B2—-B3—-B4—-B5

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

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

Time

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

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

Figure E

Tree A               Five Apples                    Now

Tree B               Seven Apples                 Now

Tree C               Three Apples                 Now

Tree D              Ten Apples                    After One Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Figure F

B1—-B2—-B3—-B4—-B5—-B6—-B7

D1—-D2—-D3—-D4—-D5—-D6—-D7

(D8)—(D9)—-D10

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

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

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

Land Settlement and Capitalisation

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

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

Figure G

Year      Gross Yield        Costs                Gross Gain        Discount                  Net Gain

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

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

Figure H

Year      Gross Yield        Costs                Gross Gain        Discount                  Net Gain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Figure I

Year      Gross Yield        Costs                Gross Gain        Discount                  Net Gain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Figure J

Year      Gross Yield        Costs                Gross Gain        Discount                   Opp. Cost          Net

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Figure K

Year      Gross Yield        Costs                Gross Gain        Discount                        Opp. Cost          Net

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Figure L

Year      Gross Yield        Costs                Gross Gain        Discount                        Opp. Cost          Net

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Figure M

Year      Gross Yield        Costs                Gross Gain        Discount                        Opp. Cost          Net

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Figure N

Year      Gross Yield        Costs                Gross Gain        Discount                        Opp. Cost          Net

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Go to part two.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Scope of Moral Enquiry Part Two – The Ethics of Violence

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In part one of this three-part series of essays the necessary conditions for morality to arise in the universe were outlined. In summary, morality can only arise between agents who use means to derive ends through actions; interpersonal conflict arising from the scarcity of these means is the fertile ground that may begat moral norms that determine precisely how the conflict should be resolved.

Parts two and three will divide the discussion of morals as they arise into the spheres of violence and non-violence. The reason for this treatment will be become clear but suffice it to say for the moment that the scope of the morality of violence is very important in understanding how the moral order unfolds. This scope will be the concentration of this part of the series.

Let us begin with where we left off in part one – two agents have run into a conflict as they wish to devote the same means to their own, respective ends.

The Form of Means

Means in the universe are physical means. They are tangible objects, the tools which an acting being uses to achieve his ends. Even means which immediately appear as intangible are ultimately derived from physical matter. One’s mind, for example, must reside in the brain and its limitations result from its physical capabilities. Likewise, so must its ideas; or, ideas may exist on a piece of paper if they are written down, transferred from the brain to external matter. While thoughts and ideas are therefore not tangible they ultimately derive from tangible matter.

Scarcity therefore arises because of the essential physical limitations of means. The physical properties of matter that acting beings classify as means entail that they cannot be occupied or used simultaneously by more than one being. It must be stressed that this lack of ability is not owing to the physical qualities of the matter per se. Rather it is wholly determined by the minds of the acting agents. It may, in fact, be possible for beings to fulfil their ends by “sharing” matter in different degrees. Air, for example, exists in such abundance that each individual is able to draw enough of it exclusively without ever running into conflict with anyone else. A park bench may be shared by two people. But ultimately, the fulfilment of any end requires an agent to have exclusive use over the means to fulfil that end. People drawing in a lung full of air each can do so independently, but they cannot draw in the same air particles. Two people on the park bench may be sharing the bench but they must exclusively occupy their part of it. Or, to suggest a third example, people swimming in a communal pool may be sharing the pool peacefully and without interference of each other but they cannot each occupy the same particular part of the water simultaneously. If, in the minds of acting individuals, the ends they seek can be fulfilled by dividing matter continually, as we can with air, the park bench or the communal swimming pool, no conflict of scarcity will arise. But at some point the division will progress to a stage when to take it further would no longer support the ends of one or more acting agents. For example, if a third person wants to occupy the park bench then he may not be able to do so in a way that all three of its occupants can use it to satisfy their ends. If the pool gets too crowded then no one would be able to swim anywhere. It is at these points, when ends start to become unfulfilled, that the division of matter can progress no further and scarcity now exists. As it is no longer possible to divide matter any further to achieve the ends of all interested parties, it follows that if the matter is to be used for any end at all then this must be by way of a grant of exclusivity to one set of ends to the detriment of all others. Theoretically we could get to the subatomic level before conflict starts to exist – not, perhaps too outlandish if two scientists, living without conflict hitherto, suddenly find themselves wishing to use the same subatomic particle for their different, experimental ends. But at some point however deeply we go into the physical structure of the matter of which the means consists, if there is a conflict concerning these means then it is a conflict of exclusivity – that the means can only be devoted to fulfilling one set of ends at the total exclusion of an alternative set of ends1.

It is at this point that morality is poised to arise to answer the question whose ends should be fulfilled at the expense of and at the total exclusion of all others with the scarce means under conflict. But why does it arise and, more importantly, will we know what its content is? In answering these questions it is important to stress again that the trumping of one end over another is a distinctly physical contest – if two or more agents attempt to use the same means contemporaneously for their independent ends then their collision is physical. In short, we may say that they are behave violently. If any ends are to be fulfilled at all then all competing agents have to be physically ousted from the means to the benefit of one agent. First and foremost, therefore, morality is concerned with the sphere of violent conduct by one agent against another. It might not be even too outlandish to suggest at this point that morality, if it resolves conflicts over scarcity that are manifest as physical clashes, is an alternative to violence. For violence is the very physical embodiment of the conflict over scarce means and if morality arises to resolve these clashes then we may say that all morality is inherently anti-violent. This, as we shall see below, is indeed the case and what will be proven (in part three) is that any ethic promoting violence is in fact absurd and contradictory.

Conflicts over Individual Bodies

Let us now proceed to examine systematically where conflicts over scarce means will arise and attempt to deduce moral content from these situations.

The most basic form of matter over which conflicts can emerge between agents is their respective bodies. For example, A wishes to use the means of B’s body for his (A’s) ends whereas B wants it for his own ends. They might, of course, resolve the problem by a physical clash – in short, by violence. A takes B’s body violently and puts it to his own use. B may try to struggle to repel A with the conflict ultimately being decided by who is the stronger. But this result is not the action of morality, viz. what should happen. Rather the outcome is determined by what will happen when a stronger being is pitted against a weaker one. If the stronger person gaining control of the weaker’s body is to be considered just then there must be something further than the mere fact of strength that proves this. What, then, is the moral result to this conflict and what will be the outcome? More importantly, how can A and B come to know the content of the moral norm that prescribes their conduct in relation to each other’s bodies?

For a moment we must return to the universe where an acting agent, A, is the sole conscious being. There is only his body to use as means towards his ends through action and there is no other external matter. A therefore uses solely his own body as tools in the fulfilment of his ends. But in order to do this he must assume control over his body or at least the parts of it he uses as means for the moment. However not only does he assume control but he also, in his mind, believes that he can in the sense that it is permissible. In other words, his action reveals that in his own mind he believes he is fully justified in taking complete control over his body when he decides to use it as means in the fulfilment of his ends2. In all likelihood he would never actually ponder the question as to whether he should assume such control over his body and would for his whole life merrily go along using his body for whatever purpose he saw fit. But suppose that he did ponder the question – suppose that he suddenly had an alarming thought that he should not assume full control over his own body. How would he come to know the answer? Is he stuck without any ability whatsoever to determine the resolution to this conundrum that has struck him? Fortunately not, for in merely posing the question in the first place, let alone attempting to answer it, our agent has to take control over his body. The question takes the form of the thought that it is the product of his brain. The brain, in turn, is supported by the other organs, the heart, the liver, the lungs, the nervous system and so on and cannot operate without these organs. In short, he needs to take control of at least the majority of his body in order to even ask the question whether he should take control over his body. His answer is therefore provided immediately by an impossibility-proof. For if he attempts to answer the question in the negative, that he should not take control of his own body, he is immediately caught by a contradiction – for how can he come to the conclusion that he should not control his own body without, in fact, taking control of his own body?3

What is revealed therefore is that a person can justify his control over his own body in one of two ways. First, by taking de facto control over his own body, revealing his belief that he is permitted to do so. Secondly, should he doubt this permissibility, his justification is proven by pondering the very question.

In summary, therefore, in a universe where he is alone A believes that he is justified in assuming control over his own body. If B is introduced into this universe, A suddenly finds himself having matter that is external to him which he may desire to use as means in the fulfilment of his ends. He might not so desire, of course, in which case there would be no conflict. But suppose he did, suppose that A desires to use B’s body for his own ends and B wishes to use the same body for his own ends. What happens? Whereas for the entirety of his life A has not had to ponder his control over matter that can be used for his ends (and if he does he can safely conclude that he should indeed control it), for the first time he now encounters a being which also claims control over this matter. Why does morality arise in this situation and is there a moral outcome, a norm, which can be determined from this situation that will resolve the conflict?

We will recall that A claims control over his own body either by using it or by pondering whether he should have such control. A can therefore approach the matter of B’s body in one of two ways – he can either question, in his own mind, whether he (A) or B should have control; or he can invade B and attempt to take over B’s body. In both cases A is demonstrably justifying control over his own body as he cannot entertain even have such thoughts or carry out such actions without actually controlling his body. If A therefore assumes control over his own body and believes it is justified, what does this say about his potential control of B’s body?

There are only three possible outcomes to this question. First, that A should control B’s body or B should control A’s body; secondly that A and B should control equal shares of each other’s bodies; or that A and B each should control their own bodies exclusively. If A ponders the first possibility then he may declare that he should control B’s body (he already, as we have noted, cannot conclude that B should control A’s body). But how can he know this? In order to pose and answer this question he has had to claim control over the faculties of his own body. But how can he possibly claim control over his own body yet deny it to B? What is the trump card that A possesses? B is not an unthinking, un-desiring, un-choosing piece of matter like a rock or stone or anything else that A has encountered thus far; rather B is just like him, a desiring, choosing and acting human being. What is the difference between A and B that permits A to claim control over his own body yet deny B control over the latter’s body? If A thinks that he can deny B control over B’s body then A is behaving contradictorily by even having that very thought. For if he denies B’s control of B’s own body then A has to justify the control over his own body. But he cannot do this without controlling his own body. Therefore it is not possible to determine that either of A or B should control the other’s body. The same is true if A has no thoughts whatsoever and violently invades B. To carry out this violent invasion A must take control over his body. But he cannot justify doing so without also justifying B’s control of his own body. In short, A’s claim to control his own body renders his claim over B’s body void.

What of the second possibility? Again, to answer this A has to claim control over the faculties of his own body. But if part of his body should be controlled by B then does he not have to ask permission of B before he can ponder this thought? And if B is to give permission, then does B not in turn require the permission of A, the part controller of B’s body? And so and so on in circles until nothing is resolved. It is clear that this possibility is nonsense and must be discarded.

We are left, therefore, with the third possibility, that A and B should each control their individual bodies. Each of A and B can justify this without the problems inherent in the previous two possibilities. Each can claim control without any contradiction and neither has to seek the permission of the other. And by either pondering the question or by attacking the body of the other, each is estopped from claiming control over the other’s body by the necessary control he has taken over his own body.

Morality has therefore arisen as a result of this chain of logic. That A and B each are entitled to control of their own bodies and their attempts to prove control over their bodies renders their claims to the other’s body null and void. But what has been the effect of this morality? It has been to prohibit the physical clash. It has stated that one person may use a collection of matter as means for his ends whereas the other person may not. Morality has granted a right of exclusivity over the disputed matter to one person and denied it to the other. As the physical clash has been prohibited we may say that the moral result is anti-violent. It is this anti-violent result that is at the base of what is known as the non-aggression principle (a principle that, we might say, should even be elevated to an axiom). For any attempt by either A nor B to deny the non-aggression principle is to prove it, for each would, by merely having the very thought, simply prove it.

The claim to the existence of the non-aggression principle, the truth that we have deduced from the circumstances of moral enquiry, becomes stronger if, rather than merely pondering the question of bodily control independently, A and B engage in a debate as to who should be able to control B’s body. Again, there are only three possibilities that they can entertain – that one of A or B should control the body of the other; that they should each control shares of each other’s bodies; or that they should each control their own bodies independently of the other. Let us again consider these possibilities in turn. The first scenario immediately runs into a difficulty because the object of the debate is to determine who should own whose body. But the debate itself requires, as a precondition, that each participant in the debate should have his full ability to contribute to it and he can only do so if he has control over his own body. If A should control the body of B then the latter must seek the permission of A to participate in the debate. But given that we do not know the identity of the controller or the controlled until after the debate then this permission cannot be sought, nor can it be granted. For neither A nor B knows whether he is the grantor or the grantee and neither can act accordingly; and to determine who is who they need to debate, but cannot do so until they know that they have permission to open their mouths! This possibility is therefore an absurdity as the debate could not even occur if one should control the body of the other4.

The second possibility also descends into an absurdity. For again, neither could participate in the debate without the grant of permission from the other. But to grant this permission requires the use of one’s body. So the grantor of permission would have to seek permission to grant this permission! It should be obvious that this could never be done and this possibility is therefore excluded. The third possibility – that A and B should each control their own bodies – is the only one that runs into neither contradiction nor absurdity. Both A and B, with full control of their faculties, can enter and participate in the debate. The fact of debate therefore reveals that each participant should control his own body. If either A or B argues or to attempts to debate otherwise it is immediately revealed to be contradictory because both A and B must, by the very action of debating, prove that they should control their own respective bodies5 6.

Terminology of Rights

Up until now we have talked only of “control”, “controllers” and “controlled”. It is appropriate at this juncture to insert some terminology that distinguishes the types of right and obligation that emerge in the moral order we have been discussing.

Specifically, a person who has, in this instance, the moral right to a piece of matter is said to be the owner of that matter. That matter is then said to be his property, over which he has ownership. Morality therefore grants rights of ownership over matter that exists in the universe, matter that is the subject of conflict arising from the scarcity of this matter in the minds of different moral agents.

All of political philosophy attempts to resolve the problem of scarcity of means within the universe by establishing rights to ownership within the sphere of violence. Fundamentally, therefore, political philosophy is concerned with who should own what and whether they can use violence to enforce this claim. We have established here that each person should own his own body and that violence cannot be used to enforce the claim of anyone else. Each person therefore has a right to self-ownership, and from this right of self-ownership we derive what we termed above as the non-aggression principle. Any moral right that someone has to another person’s body must take effect within the sphere of non-violence and in harmony with the non-aggression principle, which will be the subject of the third part of this series. Any philosophy that advocates anything otherwise is essentially a philosophy of slavery, that one person, a master, may violently enforce his use over another person’s body. In a direct form slavery has officially been discredited in modern political thought. Now political philosophies are concerned with the ownership of external goods, things that are not part of our bodies but part of the outside world. These things are recognised as scarce by individual humans and political philosophy arises to solve this conflict. To this, we shall now turn.

Conflicts over Unconscious Matter – The Justification of Private Property

Individual humans, then, may enter conflicts not only over their own bodies but over external matter that they wish to use as means to bring about their ends. How does morality arise in this type of situation and which rights does it grant?

In just the same way as if the only matter in the universe of a lone human being was his own body, a lone human also would happily pick and choose whatever matter he stumbled across to use towards the fulfilment of his ends without ever considering whether he should indeed do so. When a second person appears, however, what happens?

In the first place, we need to examine the status of physical, unconscious matter that simply exists in the universe. As we established in part one, it has no desire or choice that begat action towards ends. It is dead and inert, subject simply to the laws of physics to which it becomes subject and any one time. It therefore does not control and, hence, own itself, nor does it feel any utility that derives from itself. But neither, at this point, is there any human that owns it either. Ownership can only arise as the outcome when the matter is the subject of a conflict of scarcity. But when there is no conflict any talk of ownership is nonsensical. The typical example is, again, the air we breathe. Because no two humans find themselves competing for this means as an object of their individual actions, no question of ownership arises and no one ever says that they own portions of air. Rights and ownership are meaningless concepts without the condition of a conflict arising from scarcity.

The first thing that is required then is for at least one individual human to recognise a good as scarce. But a human does not recognise a good as scarce simply by sitting and pondering the matter; rather he only recognises something as scarce if he makes it an object of his action. In a state of non-action, a good may be delivering utility to one or more humans but this will be unvalued utility – essentially, that the human does not regard the utility provided by the good as preferable or less preferable to any other. The essence of valuation is the preferring of one end and the setting aside of another because the means are not sufficient to sustain both ends, i.e. the means are scarce as the human feels he has to make a choice between ends. A human acts, then, because the means available, the good, are not furnishing the highest end that he desires when having made his choice. The object of his action is to divert it away from furnishing a less valuable end towards furnishing a more highly valued end. Action in relation to the good must clearly be physical – a person has to physically divert it from one end to another. In the terminology of economics this is to produce one good from another. The resulting good, post-action, is therefore a different good from the one that preceded the action and it is this difference, the later end that has been gained vs. the previous end that has now been discarded, that proves value, the later end being preferred to the earlier end7.

Before any conflict arises from scarcity, therefore, one human must have physically occupied the object at one point in time. The conflict emerges when a second person, B, attempts to do so later in time – B wishes to divert the good from A’s ends towards his own (B’s) ends. If it was already furnishing utility for B in the state in which A had placed it there would be no conflict. B’s ends can only be achieved by a physical diversion of the good. It is, therefore, the physical occupation of objects, making them the subject of one’s action, that prove their scarcity and hence provide the genesis for conflicts with others. Any conflict, therefore, involves a prior user of the good followed by later or potential users of the good.

Knowing this, then, what are the possibilities that can be derived from an instance of a conflict arising from scarcity? There are five:

  • That no one should own the good;
  • That each person in the world owns a part share of the good.
  • That the original occupier should own the good;
  • That a later occupier should own the good;
  • That each successive occupier can demand a part share of the good;

Let us consider each of these in turn.

If no one should own the good then this doesn’t resolve the conflict; rather it pretends that it does not exist. For if no one is able to own it then no one is able to use it; we stated above that conflicts form when a good, a means, is not able to furnish any end at all except by grant of exclusivity. If no one is able to control the matter exclusively then no one can make use of. If no one can make use of it then no one can fight over it. So the effect of this prescription is to simply outlaw conflicts arising from scarcity by stating that you may not make matter the object of your action. Apart from the fact that this would result in no one person being able to make food or water the object of his action and hence is tantamount to stating that each individual human has the moral obligation to wither away and die, the only justification for this outcome is some kind of egalitarianism – that one person may not own a good because no one else can at the same time. But the concept of equality in relation to physical goods can only be measured in one of two ways, either by the quantity of the physical matter to which a person is entitled or by the value that it holds. If no one is not allowed to make physical means the object of his action then, in terms of measurement of the physical amount of matter which each person may own then equality is satisfied. But the effect might be to render a psychic inequality. Given that such a situation will, as we have indicated, necessarily result in death, one person may derive a calming sensation from this thought and enjoy his final days peacefully while another may be fraught with worry at his impending doom. Has the prescription of universal non-ownership had an equal effect upon each individual human? If you ban both a sighted man and a blind man from owning a white stick, has the loss resulting from this prescription been the same for both of them? Alternatively, what if a person feels that he is better off from not having to own any goods? Hasn’t he been privileged while the person who desires to own goods has been penalised and does this not render a situation of intolerable inequality? Or in other words why should the value of avoiding conflict be the same to all parties? Some humans might be happy to be relieved of having ever running into conflicts over scarcity with other humans whereas others may relish the prospect.

The second potential resolution is that everyone in the world owns a part share of the good. But this is nonsensical for two reasons. First, the question of ownership only arises from a situation of conflict and this conflict is only generated when two or more persons recognise the good as valuable. To talk of ownership when there is no conflict (as there clearly is not when a single person recognises an object as valuable) is redundant. Secondly, if everyone owned part shares of every good in the world then each person would be required to ask permission of everyone else in the world before he could use any good at all. Yet how is a person to do this? How is he supposed to know the existence of and communicate with every person in the world in order to extract permission? Even if this could be achieved it could only be done so with physical goods, and so he would have to take ownership of physical resources in order to determine whether he has permission to take ownership of physical goods. Such circular reason reduces this possibility to absurdity. Moreover, if you grant someone else the permission to use a good it must mean that that person may use a good, over which you have part share, exclusively. If a person is to divert a good towards an end it must be to the exclusion of all others, as we noted above. Effectively, therefore, the act of granting permission is to de facto dispose of your share of ownership. Any residual “ownership” that is retained would simply be a meaningless, hollow vessel. The granting of permission is, therefore, akin to a part owner not regarding the good as valuable. But he has already indicated that he does not regard it of value by not making it an object of his action so the whole structure of part ownership and permission granting is superfluous8.

Having disposed of the possibilities of either no one or everyone owning a good, we must turn then to the third to fifth possibilities we outlined above, which consider the claims to ownership of each successive user in time of an object.

The third possibility is that the original occupier should own the good. Looking at his making use of a good in isolation, this action produces no conflict. By being the first user in time of a good, a person necessarily demonstrates that he and he alone recognised this good as valuable. We did, however, demonstrate above that when the good has not been the object of action it is in the state of being a free good, i.e. that it may have utility that is unvalued and this utility may serve many different people. Is it not possible that one person could come along and make a free good the object of his action, depriving everybody else of the utility that has hitherto been provided? It is indeed possible; in particular sights, sounds and smells every day exude from the world around us and if parts of this world are made the objects of other people’s action then we may suddenly find ourselves deprived of something in which we previously found utility. The building of a property on neighbouring land may, for example, exclude adequate sunlight or a view of a landscape that was, until now, enjoyed for free. But the whole point is that if a person has not made something the object of his action then whatever utility it was providing was valueless – i.e. he simply does not prefer one alternative over another. If a person values a view more than not having it then he will take steps through concrete actions to ensure that it renders that service perpetually. By not doing so he indicates that he does not care one iota whether the good continues to furnish the free utility or it does not – that is precisely the nature of value, that one thing is preferred to another, but by not making the good the object of his action there is no value to speak of and he has not “lost” anything at all. There is, therefore, no conflict generated by a person being the first user in time of a good. It is only when a second person attempts to do so a conflict is generated and it is this second person, not the first, who is the “cause” of the conflict. Indeed it is this very reason that the original owner is able to justify his claim of ownership over a good. For in doing so he does not arrogate to himself that which he denies to anyone else – he values and so gains, but no one else has lost anything at all. There is, therefore, nothing contradictory when he says “I should have this but no one else should” as no one else holds any value in the good which he has appropriated. Might one counteract this by saying that, after the original occupier claims ownership over the good, everyone else has then lost the right to become the original owner? Such a view can only derive from a misunderstanding of the nature of rights. Rights only arise as a result of conflict, but between ownerless goods and humans there is no conflict. No one has a “right to become the first owner” in any meaningful sense as against whom would this right be enforced? Who has the corresponding obligation? Does the good have the obligation to become owned by you if you are the first user of it? Or is it every other human? Clearly goods, i.e. dead matter, cannot have obligations for the reasons we explained in part one. We are therefore left with the latter, each other human being. Certainly they cannot interfere with you making use and occupation of hitherto unused goods, but this is not because you have a right to appropriate goods but because they have no right to inflict violence upon your body. If another human blocks you from taking ownership of goods then either he is violating your right to self-ownership or he is the true owner of the goods in question and hence you are invading goods that he owns. There is no other possibility. No one, therefore, loses any “right” or anything at all by the first user-occupier claiming ownership over a good. For this reason, we need to move onto considering whether a later user in time should have a right to ownership that trumps that of the first.

The fourth of our possibilities, then, is that a later user should own the good. While the effect of this possibility is to grant exclusive ownership to a person who recognises the good as valuable, this only applies until someone else recognises it as valuable also. But this second person only enjoys ownership until a third person recognises it as valuable, and so on and so on. It should be clear that this possibility is simply tantamount to legalised theft, each person being able to simply take whatever he wants from another person. That alone suggests, prima facie, that this possibility cannot be defended. Indeed, an immediate practical problem is that, once deprived of a good, the first owner could then qualify as the third owner and would immediately try to take back what he previously owned. People would therefore behave as if the first owner was the true owner, attempting to defend and snatch back their property as soon as it was claimed by a second person. The outcome would therefore be based on de facto possession which can only be decided by violence, i.e. which person is physically able to wrestle the good from another. The result, therefore, is not to resolve conflicts but to actively promote plunder, pillage and war of all against all. However, the main reason why the second person cannot come along and claim ownership of a good is that now the good has been valued. Whereas the first owner was the only person to recognise the good as valuable and hence could claim ownership without inflicting any loss on anybody else, the second owner can only do so by inflicting a loss on the original owner. The act of the second owner would be to divert the good to an end which he prefers and the original owner does not. The second owner faces the problem, therefore, of having to prove why his ends should be preferred to those of the original owner. How can he prove this? Unfortunately for him, he cannot, for value is indicated solely by the act of preferring one end and setting aside another. We can say that one person prefers end X to end Y when, through action, he embraces the former and discards the latter. But we cannot measure this, we cannot say by how much end X is preferred to end Y. There is, therefore, no “measurement” of value that enables us to compare relative values between owners. All that we can conclude from a second owner demanding a good from an original owner is that the second owner prefers his ends to that of the first owner and the first owner prefers his ends to that of the second owner. But even if this was not the case, even if we could say by how much one person values a good more than another, why should this justify a second person taking away the goods from a first owner? The loss is still a loss to that first owner that isn’t offset by any gain to him. Why should, in a world of being able to measure value, the fact that his loss is “small” be outweighed by someone whose gain will be “large”? Why is the “larger” gain of greater import that the “smaller” loss?9 In any case we must reiterate that the second occupier actually doesn’t lose anything at all by the first owner’s enforcement of his right to the good. Not only does the first owner’s original appropriation cause no loss of value to anyone, as we indicated above, neither too does his continuing claim to ownership. When the second person arrives on the scene he does so without possessing the physical good or being able to enjoy its utility. When he leaves empty handed he is in exactly the same position – without possession of the physical good and without being able to enjoy its utility. The first owner’s enforcement of his right has not caused any change to the second person’s condition whereas the second person’s enforcement of his (the second person’s) right would very definitely cause a loss to the first owner. Additionally we might consider the fact that it is often the combination of the good and the original owner’s labour that has produced the good into a final good that renders it more attractive to the second person than it was when it was in its ownerless state. A completed house is likely to be more valuable than a pile of un-quarried stone; a pile of harvested wheat is likely to provide more attractive pickings than seeds and an unploughed field. Indeed plunderers throughout history have seldom taken goods upon which very little labour has been exerted by their original owners – they have always taken final, finished goods that are in a state of ready consumption (or capital goods, i.e. machines and tools that render the act of production less burdensome and laborious). Even where this wasn’t the case which country would be more likely to be suitable for conquest – one where there was rich, fertile soil or one that was mostly covered in desert? People naturally, all else being equal, gravitate towards the goods that will provide them with their ends for a minimum of their own exertions and the effect of an original owner producing goods with his labour is to reduce the necessity of a second person’s labour if the latter can successfully confiscate the good. The result then is that the second owner not only takes the good but also the original owner’s labour – his demands as a later owner in time are not only for the good but for the benefit of the original owner’s effort and toil. Indeed the only reason why anyone ever wants to steal something is because it’s less work for them to do so than going to the effort and expense of acquiring the good through exchange or through production of it oneself. For this reason, then, any claim of the second owner over the first amounts to the enslavement of the first owner that funds the parasitic existence of the second person10.

For all of these reasons, then, there is no support for the claim of a later person in time to the ownership of an already owned good11.

The fifth and final possibility to consider then is where each successive occupier of a good can demand a part share. We needn’t dwell on this for long as it fails for a combination of reasons that the second and fourth possibilities fail. In particular, it should be noted that this solution requires the sharing of the good in question. We’ve already discussed how this does not resolve the conflict but merely prolongs it as none of the prospective owners can fulfil his ends without exclusive ownership over the good

In sum, therefore, the only possibility that is just is that the first owner in time of a good, the first one to subject it to his action, is the owner of the good. All other possibilities lead to absurdity and cannot be defended.

Conclusion – Property, Violence and the Law

In order to contravene the principle that the first owner may not own his good it requires a second person to act physically in relation to the good – in short, he must act with physical aggression, i.e. violently, towards the owner and the good. If he doesn’t then all is left well alone and the first person continues to own his good and the second goes away empty handed. What we have revealed then is an extension of the ­non-aggression principle that we outlined above. That morality arises, in a state of conflict arising from the scarcity of means, to pronounce that every individual human owns not only his own body but also the previously ownerless goods that he physically appropriates and that this ownership can only be sustained by the non-violence of everyone else. Therefore any action by another that contravenes the physical integrity of (i.e. acts violently towards) another person’s body or originally appropriated goods is immoral. The effect of morality, therefore, is to pronounce that violence is inherently immoral.

We shall end this survey with a summary of the above while identifying it with specific terminology that is applied to the norms that we have outlined.

  • Every individual human owns his own body exclusively and has the right to its physical integrity, vesting in him the right to self-ownership;
  • Every individual human, after appropriating previously unowned matter, has the exclusive right to the physical integrity of that matter hence becoming its owner; the matter in question becomes his property. The institution of this method of ownership (coupled with voluntary exchange) is known as private property;
  • These two principles form what is known as the non-aggression principle; although as we have suggested above we may also term it the non-aggression axiom, but the former term is more widely used;
  • To argue to the contrary of these two principles is either contradictory, absurd, or both;
  • Social norms that derive from the non-aggression principle (you should not murder, you should not steal, etc.) are known as laws; the body of these norms together is known as The Law. Laws can be distinguished from other norms such as customs, manners, etc. in that they are concerned with violent action. This will be elaborated in part three.

In part three of this series we shall consider the morality of non-violence. We shall first explore some common objections to the non-aggression principle before providing its ultimate justification. We will also consider the crucial area of defence and enforcement before proceeding to examine the place of other moral norms and moral theories, concluding that these can only ever take effect non-violently. Finally we will speculate upon the content of non-violent norms that may emerge in a world where the non-aggression principle is adhered to.

View the video version of this post.

1These conflicts can arise from one of two sources – either the quantity of means diminishes or the number of acting agents viewing the means as a tool for their ends increases. In both cases the ratio of ends to means increases.

2By this I mean control de jure – that he should be able to take full control even if he does not physically possess it at a particular moment. We are, at this point, trying to avoid the language of rights, obligations, and specifically of ownership which are interpersonal concepts. In effect, however, what our lone agent is claiming over his own body is ownership.

3We will leave aside the question of whether this justification of control over his own body extends to areas of the a person’s body that are not necessary for sustaining the brain such as the arms or legs. Suffice it to say that these are equivalent to external matter which will be dealt with below.

4What if, as may be contested, one of the two, say A, believes himself to be the true controller of B and believes himself to be granting permission to B to engage in the debate? But this would be an absurdity also, for there are only two possible reasons for A to enter this debate – either he wants to determine the truth or he is debating B for some other reason, say mere amusement. The former reason admits the possibility that A should not control B and the circumstances of the debate are as we just outlined. If the reason is the latter, then there is no debate at all and A’s control of B is excluded for the reasons that we explained above.

5Another possibility is that A and B could agree to fight over each other’s bodies, the victor claiming ownership over the loser’s body. But this would mean that the violent outcome is then based on consent and that the prior control of A and B over each other’s bodies is recognised.

6The leading exponent and, indeed, the pioneering expert of this line of thinking is Hans Hermann Hoppe. See his On the Ultimate Justification of the Ethics of Private Property, Ch. 13 in The Economics and Ethics of Private Property, and his The Ethical Justification of Capitalism and Why Socialism Is Morally Indefensible, Ch. 7 in A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism.

7We must emphasise that strictly, the value is in the end that the good provides as compared to a competing end rather than in the good itself; it is merely imputed back to the good and hence we talk of a “valuable” good. When we say that a good is transformed or produced this doesn’t necessarily mean that, from the point of view of atoms and molecules, the good is a different “thing” from what it was before the act of production. Rather, the difference is that in the actor’s appraisal the good, before making it the object of his action, was furnishing a different end from the one after. This act could be as simple as moving an object from one place to another. It is, therefore, a mistake to believe that production involves some kind of “creation” outside of the imagination of the acting human. For no person can create matter as such, merely physically rearrange the form that it takes so that it provides one end as opposed to another. The fact that the value is in the end rather than in the good itself is demonstrated by the furnishing of services as opposed to goods. When we say that goods are traded, it means that the physical object furnishing the valuable end is itself exchanged. With “services” however, the goods that furnish the end are simply hired for a period of time and are not exchanged outright. With a taxi journey, for example, you pay for a space in time to use the labour of the taxi driver and his vehicle, but you do not end up possessing these physical goods. What you paid for was the end that was furnished and not the goods themselves. It should be clear that what economists classify as “services” as opposed to “goods” are most often rendered by labour (incapable of outright trade) and durable goods that can be parcelled out to use by different people in slices of time. But all valuation is of the ends, not of the goods that are used to produce the ends.

8A part share of ownership over every good is the theoretical justification encountered in the rhetoric of “public” ownership of goods – that “we all” own everything or that “the people” own everything. However, because of the problems we outlined this always falls subject to the “iron law of oligarchy” where a select few act as caretakers for the goods in question and devote them to uses on behalf of the populace. No person outside of this elite has any de facto, exercisable ownership over anything and it is clear that the goods can only be devoted to uses desired by some people at the expense of uses desired by others. In short, if everyone owns a good, no one does.

9It is this aspect that provides the first insight into why non-violence, private property and free exchange is the only way that all humans can live in harmony; for the contrary necessarily entails that someone must experience loss when another gains.

10As Bastiat puts it when commenting on Communism: “Community applies to those things we enjoy in common by the destination of Providence; because, exacting no effort in order to adapt them to our use, they give rise to no service, no transaction, no Property. The foundation of property is the right we possess to render services to ourselves, or to others on condition of a return. What Communism wishes to render common is, not the gratuitous gift of God, but human effort – service.” Claude Frédéric Bastiat, Property-Community, No. 8 in Harmonies of Political Economy, Book One, No. VIII in The Bastiat Collection (2nd ed, Ludwig von Mises Institute), p. 687.

11One final consideration – what if we said that a latecomer could simply declare that he owned a good that another person hitherto owned? Could this be defended? No, for this situation would effectively be the same as that in our second scenario, with everyone owning a part share of the good. For if anyone can enforce the right to deprive another person of the good by oral decree then this right is vested in him by virtue of his status as a human being and hence it is extant in all humans across the entire world (i.e. that the right exists in each person prior to any conflict). Indeed, what would happen is that anyone, at birth, would simply, from wherever he stands, declare that he owns the entire world and we would literally end up with everyone claiming ownership over everything. And hence, once again, in order to act in relation to any good at all a person would again have to ask permission of everyone to use the good, with all the absurdities that this entails.

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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Social Utility and Envy

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In a previous essay the present author commented on the role of envy in relation to greed. This short post will seek to comment on the relationship between social utility and envy, elaborating on a position put forward by Murray N Rothbard.

Rothbard treated the problem of envy and societal wealth in the following way:

If A and B trade two goods or services, they each do so because they will be, or rather expect to be, better off as a result of the trade. Surely it is legitimate then to say that A and B are both better off, and “therefore” that “society is better off,” since no one demonstrably loses by the exchange. It is implicit, and even explicit from the use of the value-loaded term “optimal,” that this exchange is therefore a “good thing.” I am sympathetic to the view that this exchange is a good thing, but I do not believe that this can be concluded merely from the fact of exchange, as the Pareto Optimum does. In the first place, there might well be one or    more people in existence who dislike and envy A or B, and who therefore experience pain and psychic loss because the object of their envy has now improved his lot. We cannot therefore conclude from the mere fact of an exchange that “everyone” is better off, and we can therefore not simply leap to the valuation idea of social utility. In order to pronounce this voluntary exchange as “good,” we need another term to our syllogism: we must make the ethical pronouncement that envy is evil, and should not be allowed to cloud our approval of the exchange. But in that case we are back to the need for a coherent ethical system. I believe, as an “ethicist,” that envy is evil, but I see no willingness among economists to admit the need for, much less set forth, any sort of coherent ethical position.1

In an earlier article he provided an elaboration as to why the potential for envy does not prevent us from saying that societal wealth increases from free exchange:

But what about…the envious man who hates the benefits of others? To  the extent that he himself has participated in the market, to that extent he reveals that he likes and benefits from the market. And we are not interested in his opinions about the exchanges made by  others, since his  preferences are not demonstrated through action and are therefore irrelevant. How do we know that this hypothetical envious one loses in utility because of the exchanges of others? Consulting his verbal opinions does not suffice, for his proclaimed envy might be a joke or a literary game or a deliberate lie. We are led inexorably, then, to the conclusion that the processes of the free market always lead to a gain in social utility. And we can say this with absolute validity as economists, without engaging in ethical judgments.2

In other words because of the concept of preference demonstrated through action it is not possible to determine whether a third party is envious:

Actual choice reveals, or demonstrates, a man’s preferences; that is, that his preferences are deducible from what he has chosen in action. Thus, if a man chooses to spend an hour at a concert rather than a movie, we deduce that the former was preferred, or ranked higher on his value scale. Similarly, if a man spends five dollars on a shirt we deduce that he preferred purchasing the shirt to any other uses he could have found for the money. This concept of preference, rooted in real choices, forms the keystone of the logical structure of economic analysis.3

Nevertheless I believe a stronger and more precise elaboration can be made. From the fact of action we are able to deduce that a person acts to bring about a set of circumstances that he prefers to those that exist prior to the action. But this valuation of circumstances is made ex-ante, a fact to which Rothbard alludes but passes over, in the first passage quoted above. It is an assessment of the value of that which is against that which he/she wants to bring about. It is only in this ex-ante sense that we are able to say that if A and B participate in a voluntary exchange that they are “better off”. The envy of a third party, however, can only arise at the ex-post stage, that is after the completion of the action – the envy is of the circumstances that have arisen as a result of the action. In the ex-ante position the action exists only in the mind of the acting individual/s. Any feelings of third parties must necessarily arise because of the state of the world as it is prior to action, not because of it. When we say that societal wealth increases from a voluntary action we mean that this is true only ex-ante.

The situation ex-post is markedly different. At this point we are, in fact, not able to deduce if anyone is better off, even the parties to the exchange let alone potentially envious third parties. So not only may third parties be envious and bitter at what has arisen from A and B’s exchange but A and/or B themselves may feel that they have suffered a psychic loss and, if they could have their time again, would not repeat the exchange. Once the actions are completed and the desires of the minds of the acting individuals have expressed themselves through real actions we move into the ex-post world where nothing more about the action can be said.

Why are we not able to determine this ex-post situation? Precisely because of the concept of demonstrated preference elaborated above. Unless valuations are expressed through action we cannot deduce at all the ex-post position. A person may be profitable, loss-making, envious, hurt or whatever but this is merely hypothetical without the specific evaluation of the individual being deducible through his actions.

It follows that when different methods of economic organisation are being compared, it is only the ex-ante consideration that is relevant as this is the only one that can be deduced through actions. For the actions of all individuals, whether they are of an individual, a corporation, a Government or the Central Planning Board only demonstrate their ex-ante valuations. And it is only with free exchange that both parties to the transactions expect to be better off. All other forms of organisation necessarily involve involuntary actions where at least one party does not expect to benefit (otherwise they would have made the action voluntarily), the impossibility of measuring this loss meaning that we cannot conclude there has been any increase in societal wealth.

In sum, therefore,

  • Under conditions of voluntary action all parties to an action will benefit ex-ante;
  • Ex-ante an action exists only in the mind of the acting individual/s. Third parties can neither gain nor lose ex-ante as nothing has happened in the world for them to assess;
  • It can therefore be said that voluntary action will increase societal wealth ex-ante.
  • Under conditions of involuntary action at least one party will not benefit ex-ante. It cannot be said, as a consequence, that societal wealth increases;
  • Ex-post it is not possible to deduce whether anyone has gained or lost; this can only be evaluated through further, concrete actions which themselves can only be analysed according to the criteria just elaborated.

Nevertheless it must be stressed that this is insufficient to justify free exchange unless we insert ethical norms that state why we should want societal wealth to be increased; indeed, why should we want everyone to be better off? Why not a majority or a minority? There is nothing to stop someone from saying “I accept that free exchange makes everyone better off but I don’t want everyone to be better off. I think that a person should make sure that himself and his friends are better off regardless of the consequences to everyone else.” Rothbard again:

The fact that the free market maximizes social utility, or that State action cannot be considered voluntary, or that the  laissez-faire economists were better welfare analysts than they are given credit for, in itself implies no plea for laissez-faire or for any other social system. What welfare economics does is to present these conclusions to the framer of ethical judgments as part of the data for his ethical system. To the person who  scorns social utility or admires coercion, our analysis might furnish powerful arguments for a policy of thoroughgoing Statism.4

Such a possibility cannot be ruled out from the fact of free exchange alone. They can be ruled out praxeologically but this must be the subject for a later essay.

1Murray N Rothbard, Value Implications of Economic Theory, Ch. 12 in Economic Controversies, p. 243.

2Murray N Rothbard, Towards a Reconstruction of Utility and Welfare Economics, Ch 14 in Economic Controversies, p. 320.

3Ibid., p. 290.

4Ibid., p. 333.

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