When the fullback carrying the ball through the opponent’s line is finally stopped and the referee’s whistle blows, it is often impossible for the onlooker to determine at the moment just what has happened; whether there has been a gain or a loss, whether the offensive side still has the ball or has lost it on a fumble. All that one can see is a confused jumble of players with an arm sticking out of the pile here and a leg protruding there. We cannot tell which, if any, of the players that we see actually have a grasp on the ball and which are merely part of the pile. But the referee moves in and one by one picks out those who are mere trimmings until he finally gets down to the essential participants in the play and is able to determine just where matters stand.
To the casual observer-and to many of the professionals in the field as well-the economic scene presents a very similar appearance of confusion. All that we can see on the surface is a tangle of finance, markets, corporations, labor unions, foreign trade, money, transportation, credit, wages, profits, and so on almost without end. So in order to get a starting point from which to begin an analysis we need to adopt the tactics of the football referee and clear away the nonessentials and collateral matters one by one until we get down to the fundamental economic processes. When we do this, and examine each item from the standpoint of whether or not the business of making a living, the primary objective of all economic activity, could be carried on without it, we find that none of the items that were mentioned is actually essential. In fact, there are only two things that are indispensable features of economic life: production and consumption.
In the dawn era of human existence on earth life had not progressed beyond these fundamentals. The prehistoric people gathered their food by their own unaided efforts and took shelter wherever they could find it. Long before the beginning of recorded history, however, they had discovered that by devoting part of their efforts to the making of tools they could multiply the effectiveness of their direct labor manyfold. Thus the simple economic life took a step toward becoming more complicated. As time went on, the hunter who had met with exceptional success and had more meat than he could use found that this excess could be traded for the surplus fruit or vegetables in the possession of others, to the advantage of all concerned. Barter thus joined the growing list of economic processes.
At some point it was recognized that Willie Dogtooth had an exceptional skill in making arrowheads, and it dawned upon the hunter that there was a substantial gain to be made by trading meat to Willie for the necessary arrowheads and devoting his own time to hunting, a vocation at which he excelled, rather than continuing to make his own clumsy and inferior weapons. Willie was consequently relieved of the necessity to forage for food and was able to concentrate on his own specialty, the making of arrowheads. Here we have the beginning of specialization of effort, another milestone along the way to a more complex economic life.
All down through the ages this process continued. As man’s general knowledge broadened, more and more new devices were invented to facilitate the task of making a living and to enable enjoyment of a greater variety of comforts and conveniences with the expenditure of less and less effort. But all of this increase in complexity merely added external accessories to the machine. It did not alter the basic purpose of economic activity, and it did not alter the fundamental fact that all of this activity is built around the complimentary functions of production and consumption. The end toward which economic action is directed is consumption, and the prerequisite for consumption is production. Thus the important functional division in economics is not between labor and capital, or between government and industry, or between rich and poor, but between producer and consumer.
This distinction is largely academic in the first stage of economic development where each economic unit-individual, family, or tribe-consumes its own products. But just as soon as the second major stage comes into being with the introduction of barter, all products of effort take on a dual aspect. To the consumers, the individuals who expect to receive the benefits of these products, or goods, as we will call them, they are articles to be consumed and enjoyed, but to the producers they have an entirely different significance. From the producers’ viewpoint they are not goods (articles of consumption) but a means whereby such goods can be obtained. In other words, they constitute purchasing power.
A favorite device of the early economists was the “Robinson Crusoe” approach to economic problems, in which the points at issue were first examined from the standpoint of an isolated individual, and the conclusions drawn from this analysis were then extrapolated to the more complex economic situations. This approach has gone out of fashion and is less frequently encountered in current practice, partly because it seems somewhat incongruous in the sophisticated setting of present-day economic theory, but also because there has been great difficulty in reconciling the conclusions drawn from examination of the Crusoe economy with modern economic theories. While this might logically be interpreted as an indication that there is something wrong with the theories, most economists have preferred to question the legitimacy of the extrapolation.
Nevertheless, it can hardly be denied that there is a distinct advantage in studying the simpler situation first, particularly in setting up the basic framework of theory. Frank Knight was emphatic on this point. “The concept of a Crusoe economy seems to me almost indispensable,” he said, “I do not see how we can talk sense about economics without considering the economic behavior of an isolated individual.”35
One of the important advantages of studying simple forms as stepping stones to an understanding of their more complex successors is that many truths that are obscured by a mass of detail in the complex structure are self-evident in the simple situation. It is clear that unless some additional factor has been introduced during the process of development, the relations which are found to exist under the less complicated conditions will still continue to hold good in the more highly developed organization, and this gives us a good working hypothesis concerning the operation of the complex mechanism. On subjecting this hypothesis to the usual scientific tests to determine its validity we will sometimes find that a new element actually has been introduced, altering the original relations. More often, however, these relations are just as valid as ever, but have been so confused and covered up by a profusion of collateral issues that they are difficult to recognize without the help of the clue obtained from a consideration of the simpler situation.
The creation of purchasing power is a good example. It is commonly taken for granted in present-day economic discussions that the production of goods and the creation of purchasing power with which to buy those goods are two separate and distinct things; indeed, some of the debate over national economic policies revolves around the question as to how best to go about providing the consumers with more purchasing power so that they can absorb the potential output of our factories. But when we turn to the primitive second stage economic organization where barter is the most advanced economic process, it is obvious that production of goods (including discovery, which is a form of production) is the only method of creating purchasing power.
When we analyze the status of purchasing power in the present-day economy we find that the basic situation is still the same as it was in the days of barter. There is still no other way of creating purchasing power. We may gain access to purchasing power produced by others through gift, theft, or borrowing, and some devices have been invented that provide purchasing power for certain individuals at the expense of others by what amounts to borrowing by governmental agencies or by the economic community-such devices as money inflation and revaluation of existing assets. These devices do not create anything; they merely redistribute what has been produced.
The limitation on creation of purchasing power is an important feature of economic life. In recognizing it we are already in direct conflict with contemporary economic thought. Paul Samuelson tells us categorically, “In social sciences, there is no law like that of the conservation of energy to prevent the creation of purchasing power.”36 Earlier, Frank H. Knight said essentially the same thing: “There is nothing in economics corresponding to momentum or energy, or their conservation principles in mechanics.”37 But these authors are definitely wrong. There is an economic quantity-purchasing power-that corresponds to energy, and there is a law that prevents the creation of purchasing power in any other manner than by production. Many of the shortcomings of modern economics are due to the failure of the economists to recognize the existence of this limitation and to their persistent advocacy of measures and policies that are doomed from their inception because they are in conflict with this principle.
There are many physical quantities which, under ordinary circumstances, do not change in magnitude, even though they may undergo radical changes in form. Such quantities are said to be conserved, and the expressions of this conservation-the laws of conservation of mass, energy, momentum, electric charge, etc.-are some of the most valuable tools of scientific analysis. These laws are not absolute prohibitions. Mass may be transformed into energy, for instance. For general application they must therefore be stated in terms that provide for transformations under special circumstances. However, they are applicable under a wide enough range of conditions to make them very useful. They are all local manifestations of what we may call the Universal Conservation Law, a far-reaching physical principle that prohibits getting something out of nothing.
For some reason this universal law has never been recognized, or at least never generally accepted, in economics. Indeed, the extent to which economic theory and practice follow policies based on hopes and expectations of getting something for nothing is simply astounding. Time and again in the pages that follow it will be necessary to point out that the result which is anticipated by the proponents of a particular economic action, or by the adherents of a theory that purports to explain the consequences of such an action, is nothing more nor less than an expectation of getting something for nothing. Furthermore, it will be shown that some of the principal “defects” that present-day economists profess to see in the performance of the prevailing economic system are simply the automatic reactions of the mechanism to these “something for nothing” attempts.
Oddly enough, in view of the wide differences of opinion that divide the various schools of economic thought, this defiance, or disregard, of one of the most basic laws of the universe is one thing on which the great majority of economists are united. Some actually do profess to recognize the conservation law, and jocularly express it in the form, “There is no free lunch,” but even the wildest of the ideas and proposals for getting something for nothing have the support of economists of the front rank, while many of those whose true character is somewhat more obscure are part and parcel of the orthodox economic doctrine of the present era. A very substantial proportion of the vast stream of books and articles offering prescriptions for our economic ills that is now pouring forth from our publishing outlets could very appropriately be titled “How to Get Something for Nothing.”
This dream of something for nothing is one of the oldest and most persistent illusions of the human race. The physical fields have had their share of these fantasies. Perpetual motion machines were all the rage at one time, and even today there is no lack of schemes which purport to develop energy out of nothing. But where there is steady progress towards general agreement on basic principles, as there is in the physical sciences, the climate is unfavorable for ideas of this kind, and in our times they rarely get any support from professional scientists or engineers. As a scientific product, this present work must take a firm stand against all such proposals, and against all theoretical ideas that lend support to them, regardless of whether they emanate, as many of them do, from impractical visionaries who draw them out of thin air, or whether they come from some presumably legitimate source and are backed by economic authorities all the way from Adam Smith to J. M. Keynes.
Since purchasing power is something real that cannot be created out of nothing, it likewise cannot be dissolved back into nothing; that is, it is conserved. Like other conserved quantities it has a high degree of permanence. It cannot simply disappear: it must remain intact until it participates in a process whereby it is transformed into something else.
The scientist knows that energy, which is something, does not disappear in any ordinary physical process. The amount of energy coming out of such a process is exactly equal to that which entered. But it is by no means self-evident that this result is inescapable, and the fact that energy is conserved was not discovered until after modern scientific techniques had been perfected and applied to the problem. In the less advanced field of economics the fact that certain economic quantities analogous to energy are also conserved has not heretofore been recognized. But application of the powerful methods of physical science in the investigation whose results are being reported herein has demonstrated that purchasing power is the kind of a persistent economic entity to which we can apply the techniques of factual science. Once purchasing power has been produced, we can follow it from process to process, just as the scientist does with energy, knowing that what was originally produced will remain intact until its existence is terminated by consumption or the equivalent. Thus the clarification of this point is the first in a series of moves which ultimately bring the economic mechanism out of the quagmire of assumption and speculation onto solid ground where we can subject it to exact logical and mathematical analysis.
It was emphasized in the course of the discussion in the preceding pages that application of factual scientific methods to the economic field would not simply rework the territory that has been covered by the economists, but would penetrate into new areas that the less effective methods of the “social sciences” have been unable to reach. The significance of this forecast can now be seen. The main line of development of theory from this point on will take the form of a study and analysis of the various aspects of that which the economists claim does not exist: a stable economic quantity-purchasing power-that is subject to a conservation law in essentially the same manner as energy in the physical field.
Before we can proceed further with our analysis, however, it will be necessary to give some consideration to the question of measurement. Some classes of goods can be measured physically, by counting, weighing, or some such process, but this does not give us an economic measurement. Since payment for goods must be made in other goods, the economic measurement of goods must also be made in terms of goods. We will call the quantity thus measured the value of the goods. The measurement standard may be either some one commodity or the weighted average of a number of goods.
Inasmuch as purchasing decisions are made by individuals, acting for themselves or on behalf of others, the economically significant assessments of the relative value of different goods are those that are made by these individuals. This means that value is subjective. It is value to a specific individual and at a specific time and place. It follows that values vary not only between individuals but also between different times and locations. Furthermore, goods have two values in each case: a value as purchasing power, which we will call seller’s value, and a value as consumption goods, which we will call buyer’s value.
From the very beginning of the systematic study of economics there has been a great deal of controversy over the question as to the meaning which should be assigned to the word “value,” and some of the most important differences between the various schools of economic thought can be traced back to the divergent concepts of value. Knut Wicksell even contended that the concept of value is the essence of an economic doctrine. He asserted that “It is well known that almost every new school of thought in political economy has laid down its own theory of value and from this, as it were, derived its entire character.”38
In fact, no definition has any more claim to validity than another. A definition is simply a description of the concept that is to be associated with the term defined, and as long as this association is rigidly maintained, the logic of the terminology is unassailable, regardless of any exception that may be taken on the grounds that the definition conflicts with prevailing usage, causes confusion, etc. Any relations that may be developed in the subsequent analysis are between concepts, not between words, and if the words clearly indicate the concepts to which they refer, they are performing their proper function. No definition can be wrong, as long as it is only a definition and nothing else. It may be ill-advised, even absurd if it is greatly out of step with accepted usage, but it cannot be wrong if it is self-consistent and consistently used.
Consistent use of a definition is, however, no easy task in a case where there is a pre-existing popular meaning associated with the term defined. In spite of good intentions on the part of those who set up other definitions, it is extremely difficult to avoid slipping into the use of both concepts in the same argument, thereby transferring relations that are valid for one concept over to another for which they may be totally invalid.
Precise definition of all quantities and concepts that are utilized is an essential feature of a sound scientific analysis. The non-scientist usually claims that he, too, defines his terms with as much precision as the subject matter will permit, but even within the non-scientific professional circles the lack of conceptual precision is recognized by careful observers. For instance, in a book entitled Economic Thought and Language, L. M. Fraser views the situation in economics in this light:
Economists have always suffered, as compared with natural scientists, from the inaccuracy of their linguistic equipment. Many of the disagreements which divide them are terminological, rather than genuinely economic in character.39
The first essential for a scientific treatment of the factual aspects of economics-the kind of a scientific treatment that we are describing in this volume-is to begin by identifying the concepts that we are going to use. The economic relations with which we will be dealing are relations between concepts. The names that we apply to them are merely labels by which we identify the concepts. Starting with the term “value” and trying to attach a meaning to it is putting the cart before the horse. What we are doing is setting up and defining our concepts; then looking for appropriate names to apply to them. One of the concepts that we will use in our analysis happens to coincide almost exactly with the layman’s idea of “value” as what the item in question is “worth,” so for this reason, together with the points previously mentioned, we will utilize this term in referring to it. Since the alternate definitions will not be used herein, there is no actual necessity to give them any further consideration here. However, it may be helpful to explain just how the value concept defined and discussed in these pages differs from each of the two most widely accepted alternatives.
Karl Marx theory, the basis of the so-called “Marxist” economic systems, defines the value of goods as equal to the amount of labor expended in their production. His special targets are the “capitalists,” who, in his opinion “exploit” the workers by means of their ownership of production facilities, and divert to themselves a substantial part of the proceeds that should accrue to the workers.
Here we have an illustration of the detrimental effects of mixing sociological concerns with economics. Capitalists are a social class, not an economic class. For efficient production it is necessary to have capital, and suppliers of capital are therefore essential to the economy. But, as noted earlier, these suppliers of capital, an economic class, are not necessarily capitalists. In some types of economic organization they are never capitalists, and it is not essential that they be capitalists in any economic system.
Since capitalists, as such, play no part in economic activity, the use of the terms “capitalist” or “capitalistic” in application to an economic organization, or to economic processes, is definitely out of order. A social organization may be capitalistic, in the sense that it provides for the existence of a class of individuals who obtain their income mainly from invested capital, but the existence of such a class is not dependent on any particular type of economic organization. Today even the most dedicated collectivist governments meet part of their capital requirements by selling bonds or by borrowing from foreign sources.
The inescapable fact is that the required capital must be obtained from individuals, either by borrowing from them, or by using governmental powers to take an additional slice out of their incomes. Obviously, borrowing is not possible unless the lenders are promised compensation. Thus Marx contention that the entire product belongs to the worker is true from the economic standpoint only if the worker is the supplier of capital. His argument is therefore social rather than economic. It is really an argument in favor of a social and political organization in which it is possible to compel the workers to supply the capital needed for production, so that they can reap the benefits of ownership. Whether or not this is desirable is outside the scope of economic science. If it has any connection with economics, that connection is with the sociological branch of the subject. The worker ownership that Marx wanted to achieve is not incompatible with any type of economic organization.
However, from the standpoint of economic science it should be noted that the theory of value that Marx developed to support his social and political objectives is subject to the same logical defect that we have previously mentioned as applying to all of the economists’ theories of value; that is, it changes definitions in the middle of the argument (without admitting this). In order to bolster his contention that the workers should receive the full value of the production in which they participate, he formulated a theory which characterizes the amount of labor applied to the production of economic goods as the value of those goods. But value, as thus defined is a concept that plays no significant part in economic life, so Marx changes horses in midstream. To complete his argument, he shifts to the definition of value as that which goods are “worth,” thus arriving at the conclusion that what goods are worth is the amount of labor that has been expended in producing them.
Obviously, this is not true in the economic sense of “worth.” The purpose of economic goods is to satisfy human wants of an economic nature. These are necessarily the wants of individuals. Economic “worth” is therefore the worth to individual consumers. This worth has no definite relation to the amount of labor that has been expended in their production. Much labor is expended, particularly in those economies that operate on Marxist principles, on the production of goods that are not wanted by the consumers. On the other hand, it is not uncommon for the results of some production operation, such as the drilling of an oil well, or the invention of a labor-saving device, to be worth vastly more than the labor expended.
Sooner or later, in every economic transaction or discussion, it becomes necessary to make use of the concept of economic value as we have defined it, that which anything is worth, in the sense of that which an individual is willing and able to pay for it at a specific place and time. This does not mean that the concept must necessarily be called “value.” The economists are entitled to define their concepts as they see fit, and to call them by whatever names they consider appropriate. But we are justified in demanding that whatever definitions they formulate be adhered to throughout each of their arguments. This they cannot do if they define “value” in terms other than those used in the definition stated herein.
Everywhere in the economic field the concept of the “worth” of goods, the concept to which the layman applies the term “value,” continually arises, and no matter how pure their intentions may be at the outset, the economists eventually lay their own definitions aside and start treating “value” as “worth.” By this process of jumping across a wide conceptual gap and changing definitions in the middle of their arguments they arrive at totally unwarranted conclusions with respect to the special kind of “value” that they have set up. “The disentangling of the various concepts involved,” says Fraser, “is a painful and difficult business.”40
Value, as defined in the foregoing pages, is a difficult quantity to measure. It is not an inherent characteristic of the economic good, but a subjective quantity, an individual’s estimate of the worth to him (or to the group on whose behalf he is acting) at a particular time and place. Bird’s nest soup has a value to the Chinese but not to the American. Ice has a value in Palm Springs but not in Greenland. Today’s newspaper has a value today but not next month, and so on.
The extreme amount of variability in “value” as thus defined makes it hard to work with, which probably accounts for the modern economists’ practice of using another of the alternative definitions of value. The policy now prevailing is to equate “value” in general with “exchange value,” which is merely another name for market price. By means of this expedient the layman’s concept of “value” that is so difficult to handle is discarded, and replaced by a more tractable quantity. But the subjective concept of “worth” cannot be eliminated from economics. It plays a very important part in economic life, and the economists must use it. Consequently, they are doing just what Marx did; they are using the term “value” in both senses in the same arguments.
It would be quite understandable if the economist took the position that value, in the sense of “worth,” being difficult to measure, has only a limited usefulness in economics, and cannot be made the basis of any exact quantitative relations. We are very familiar with physical entities which have this same status. Odors, for example, are extremely difficult to measure, and for this reason no mathematical science of odor comparable to those built around sound and light has ever been developed. But we would never consider for a moment any thought that we might pick out some other quantity that would be easier to measure, call this “odor,” and then substitute it for odor in the development of a theory. Even if measurement is impossible, the substitution of an irrelevant measurable quantity for a relevant immeasurable quantity is indefensible.
The real issue involved in the value controversy is whether or not the consumers should be allowed to make their own choices. The Marxists, and others who see the situation from the sociological viewpoint, take the stand that most consumers are not competent to judge what is “best” for them, and that the decisions should be made by individuals who are better qualified. Furthermore, it is the contention of the Marxists that there are aspects of the production decisions that are the concern of the state, rather than of the consumers, and that these decisions should therefore be made by government agencies. Whether or not these contentions have merit, they are social and political issues, not economic issues, and have no place in economic science.
Thus far we have been looking at value from a goods standpoint. We will now want to recognize that the value concept also applies to labor. The labor unions are vehement in their contention that “labor is not a commodity,” but this is a sociological point of view, not an economic judgment. From the economic standpoint, labor is the equivalent of a commodity, inasmuch as it is bought and sold in the same manner as commodities in general. We may therefore define the value of labor in the same manner as the value of goods.
This definition has to be modified in application to self-employed persons, but we can express essentially the same concept in self-employment terms as follows:
Like goods, labor has both a buyer’s value and a seller’s value. The buyer’s value of labor is determined in the same manner as that of goods, but the seller’s value is subject to some other considerations. An important difference is that labor, as such, has no value to the worker other than that which he can realize from an immediate sale, whereas goods, as such, normally do have a continuing value to their current owner, at least for a time. If a proposed goods transaction fails to materialize, the owner holds the goods for some subsequent transaction with little or no loss in value. But if an expected labor transaction fails to develop, the potential labor, or a portion thereof, is lost, and whatever value it might have had simply disappears. Thus there is an element of urgency about the labor transaction that is usually absent in the case of the goods transactions, and this plays an important part in economic life.
To some extent the loss due to the failure to utilize potential labor may be offset by the leisure that is made available. Free time which can be devoted to consumption, rest, recreation, or any other purposes which the individual has in mind, is a means of satisfying wants, and from an economic standpoint is the equivalent of goods. Leisure thus possesses economic utility. There are no different varieties of leisure, as there are of goods, but the utility of leisure, and the corresponding value, are extremely variable nevertheless. Arbitrary restrictions placed upon the activities of individuals decrease this utility. To the prisoner in solitary confinement free time is merely idleness: leisure of zero value. Restrictions imposed by economic factors have the same effect to a lesser degree. The person who is able to take a vacation at the seashore or go on an ocean trip is usually securing more utility from his leisure than the individual who must spend his vacation at home. In general, the availability of additional income (goods) increases the utility of leisure, while additional leisure facilitates the consumption of goods.
However, in spite of the parallelism between goods and leisure so far as utility is concerned, there is a significant difference in origin that has a major effect on value. Goods are produced by means of effort, whereas leisure, like the ability to exert effort, is a part of man’s original endowment. We cannot create more leisure in the way that we produce more goods. We have a certain amount of potential leisure to start with, representing all of our time except that required for the functional processes of living:-eating, sleeping, etc.-but we sacrifice part of it in order to produce goods. The remainder is the amount available for enjoyment. Since we cannot increase the original allotment of time, the only way by which leisure can be increased is to decrease the amount of time devoted to production. Because productivity is essentially fixed in the short run situation, this means reducing the amount of production.
This is one of the fundamental economic problems facing all individuals and economies: how shall we balance more leisure against more production? Unless all available time is required for production of the bare necessities of life, there must be a choice. One cannot spend all of his time on production and also enjoy it as leisure. It has to be one or the other. If the individual himself makes the choice it is normally based on his appraisal of relative values. If someone else makes the choice for him, it may be purely arbitrary, without regard for the value relationships. In any event, the choice is always there; leisure cannot be increased without forfeiting production. An individual may, of course, obtain both the leisure and the goods if he can shift the productive burden to someone else by one device or another, but this possibility is not open to the community as a whole. All individuals cannot simultaneously transfer this burden to others.
Here we have an illustration of the desirability of studying the simple forms of economic life before passing on to those of a more complicated character. The facts pointed out in the preceding paragraphs are self-evident so far as the isolated individual is concerned, and once we get this picture firmly in mind it takes but little additional consideration to make it apparent that the same principle holds good no matter how large the economic unit may become or how complicated its organization. Additional leisure-shorter working hours, more holidays, longer vacations, etc.-cannot be obtained without cost; it can only be gained by sacrificing the goods which could be enjoyed if this time were devoted to production.
The utility of additional increments of goods decreases as the income of an individual rises, and since utility is one of the determinants of potential value, the potential value of these additional goods likewise decreases. On the other hand, a rising income usually increases the utility and the value of leisure, since it widens the range of pleasurable activities which the individual is in a position to undertake. In general, therefore, the value equilibrium shifts in the direction of more leisure as the income rises.
The value equilibrium between work and leisure is also affected by the nature of the work. Some tasks are difficult; others are easy. Some are so distasteful that they will be undertaken only under the pressure of extreme need; others are agreeable enough to induce carrying them out for their own sake, irrespective of any income that may result therefrom. When we wish to strike a balance with respect to any particular item of production it is necessary to take this situation into account.
The difference between one type of labor and another due to variations of this character may be considered either as an element of cost or an element of value, depending on the point of view. If we take one of the more agreeable tasks as our reference level, the more arduous or more disagreeable work involves an additional cost. If we move our reference level to the other extreme, the more pleasant work represents the addition of a certain amount of value over and above the value of the goods produced. Both methods of treatment are correct and they arrive at equivalent results. The difference between them is merely a matter of where we put the zero point. In this work we will, for convenience, take our zero at the level where the nature of the work has no effect on the values. Any additional effort or other element which makes the work more distasteful we will call a cost. Any satisfactions arising out of the labor, other than its productivity, we will call values. This need to assign an arbitrary position to the zero level is one of the factors which makes it desirable to define cost and value in commensurable terms. By so doing we arrive at the same answers irrespective of the location of the zero.
Where wants are few, the preference for additional leisure manifests itself quickly. Some of the early economists were puzzled by what appeared to be a failure of the usual laws of supply and demand in application to primitive economies. Simon Newcomb, for example, cites the case of an importer who was obtaining certain handicraft items from a South American Indian tribe. Finding a ready sale for the goods, the importer decided to pay a higher price so that he would stimulate production in accordance with the rule that an increase in the price increases the supply. Much to his dismay he found that the higher price actually resulted in reduced production, as the Indians simply quit working after earning enough for their most urgent needs, and at the higher price that point was reached earlier. “Here, then,” says Newcomb, “was a case in which a law of economics was completely reversed.”41
The advance of economic theory has cleared up this situation and it is now recognized that the early-day economists were in error in regarding it as a supply and demand problem. Instead it was a value problem, a question as to the comparative values of additional goods and additional leisure. These particular Indians had never cultivated any strong desire for additional goods, and they chose the leisure. The present-day labor unions who press for a shorter work week and longer vacations are making the same choice, although in this case the economic organization is so complex, and the factors involved are so imperfectly understood, that few of those who demand the additional leisure realize that either they, or some other workers, must pay for that leisure by forfeiting goods that they would otherwise receive.
An equally prevalent misapprehension is that work itself (or employment, which is the aspect of work that is the center of attention in the modern economy) has some inherent economic merit independent of the goods that are produced. Crusoe would never be deceived by any such specious doctrine. In his simple life, where economic relationships are clear and unequivocal, it is obvious that work which does not produce any economic values simply sacrifices leisure to no purpose. But as economic organizations have grown in complexity this direct connection between gain in leisure and loss in production has been covered up by a confusion of detail, and we find that in the modern world much effort is devoted to work which cannot possibly produce sufficient values to justify the accompanying sacrifice of leisure. Even worse, so much confusion has been introduced into the picture that there is actually an influential school of economic thought which contends that employment in itself creates economic gains even though no values at all are produced.
Under some circumstances non-economic benefits may perhaps be derived from work that produces no economic values, particularly if the alternative to employment is idleness rather than active leisure, but the contention of Keynes, Beveridge, Myrdal, et al., is that unproductive employment is economically beneficial, and it is this contention that must be categorically repudiated. All labor comes from individuals, whether or not they work in conjunction with others, and these individuals sacrifice leisure when they devote their time to work. If the sum total of the values placed on the potential leisure by these individuals is greater than the values produced, the employment has decreased economic well-being rather than increasing it. If no values at all are produced, the entire value of the potential leisure has been lost. No shifting of goods between individuals can alter these facts. As long as a loss in values is incurred by the unproductive employment, someone has to bear it. If arrangements are made whereby those engaged on the sub-standard work are compensated in money or goods for their labor, the loss is merely transferred to others.