Natural Value (1889)

by Friedrich von Wieser (1851-1926)

Book I: The Elementary Theory of Value

Chapter VI
The Value of Future Satisfactions of Want

NV-I-6.1 If we did not possess the power of providing for future wants, our lives would be but poorly provided for. No new products would be prepared; those we already possessed would be thoughtlessly dissipated; only chance and the goodwill of nature would provide for the morrow. And as it is of importance that we should be sensible in advance of the wants of the future, so is it of importance that the degree of that sensibility should be sufficient. Anxiety about future necessaries should be as powerful as the passion with which we give ourselves away before the urgent feelings of the moment. If future satisfactions of want were represented in present valuation, not at their full future value but at only a small fraction of the same, all economic life must in the end fall to pieces, just as though they were not represented at all; only that the course of economic decay would be less rapid and its end farther off.
NV-I-6.2 It is evident that man possesses the capacity of acting in consideration of future feelings of want, but observation of human nature makes it very obvious that he will act with less energy than when he is under the influence of present feelings. The future want, wherever it comes into the domain of the present, is preceded by a psychical reflection, and this reflection is of a totally different nature from the want itself. It is far finer, more innerlich [Online editor’s note: “internal.” – RTL], and, even in the case of purely bodily wants, is always mental. The hunger of a future day, e.g., does not act as hunger, but as anxiety for sustenance; the object of desire is the same, but the desiring is different. Instead of a want of we have an interest in. Is not, then, some energy lost in this change from the coarser to the finer? Must not the anxiety about a future want always have less weight than the actual appetite that comes after it?
NV-I-6.3 If men in civilised societies do possess the degree of foresight required for a prosperous economic condition, one thing is certain; – they have not always possessed it. It has been gained through the labour of civilisation, just as, in moral conflicts, strength to meet the fires of passion has been gained through the feeling of duty. At bottom the economic conflict between the needs of to-day and those of to-morrow is really of a moral nature; it is a special case of the struggle between impulse and reason. Uncivilised races are only to a small extent capable of considering in advance the wants of the future; – to so small an extent, in fact, that the miserable condition in which they are found can be fully explained by this alone. It is not only the foreknowledge that is wanting, but, quite as much, the previous mental excitation, the uneasiness which the civilised man experiences in the consciousness that wants are coming for which there is no provision. A heavy numb apathy deadens the sense of the savage. He awaits with indifference, or at most with a feeling of helplessness, the misery from which he does not suppose it possible to escape, but which he certainly could escape had he only the energy to will it.
NV-I-6.4 Whether civilised races have reached the high-water mark of development that is desirable, may easily be ascertained by consideration of their economic actions. How do they behave in the majority of cases? Do most people sacrifice their means for the pleasure of the moment, or do they lay by for future needs? – There can be no doubt that, on the whole, the wise householders outnumber the spendthrifts. Certainly there is no one entirely without economical sin; no one who has never consumed too soon some thing which he afterwards bitterly desired and had not. But, on the whole, it is an economic principle which is as well obeyed as any of the fundamental economic principles, that wealth and income should be economised with a view to the future and to old age. Every supply of goods should, so far as possible, be distributed over the wants of the period of time which it is intended to cover, in such a way that, whether the time at which they occur be earlier or later, all the more important sensations may be satisfied, and only the less important – those which it is impossible for the supply to cover – be left out. The exceptions to this rule are so few in number, that a theoretical inquiry which regards the principle as invariable, and asks as to its further effects will help to explain our economy, not only as it ought to be, but also as it actually is.
NV-I-6.5 To avoid misunderstanding I shall try to explain my meaning more exactly. I have no wish to deny that, in general, the futurity of an event has the effect of weakening its impression. As a rule this is also true in economics. It seems to me, however, that, in a civilised state, every good householder, and, in the main, every average one, has learnt to master this weakness of human nature in one respect; – so far, namely, as to distribute a regularly-acquired income among regularly-expected wants, and, in connection with this again, so far as to try to acquire a regular income, and secure the conditions thereof by exercise of labour power, and maintenance of the parent stock of wealth. The call for forethought in this latter connection is peculiarly strong, and it should not excite wonder that it is more active here than in any other direction.
NV-I-6.6 Moreover a well-regulated and prosperous economic condition does not in the least demand that every future sensation be fully realised in the present. Only those require to be considered which have to be provided for, and those again only in so far as they require to be provided for. First in importance are all those wants which must be covered by the present supply of consumption goods, and by the income available at the moment, and which consequently, in economic management, come into conflict with present desires. Alongside of these we may put the far more numerous wants which have to be covered by suitable employment of the present parent wealth. Our conception of both groups of wants, but particularly of the latter, takes a peculiarly simplified form, which easily gives the impression that they are entirely shoved into the background. They are conceived of in the mass, and grouped together in periods of time; and we are generally conscious of them only in so far as they are represented by the goods which are devoted to their satisfaction. Foresight for the wants of a remote future and of later generations, for instance, is seen in the precept which forbids diminishing of the parent stock of wealth, even although this precept only refers to the goods which form the wealth, while the wants themselves appear to retreat more and more into a darkness which the imagination does not seek and need not seek to illuminate.1

NV-I-6.n1.1 1 Many economists would explain interest, particularly the interest on productive capital, by the difference in value between present and future feelings. This seems to me an error. Interest derived from productive capital is a phenomenon of the very best ordered economic transactions, of those managed with the highest possible degree of foresight. It is not in the least a sign of a defective economy. See, however, Book IV.

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