Natural Value (1889)

by Friedrich von Wieser (1851-1926)

Book V: The Natural Cost Value of Products

Chapter XIII
The Service of Individual Economic Value in National Economy1

NV-V-13.1 The supreme principle of economic action being utility, value presents a means by which to grasp the utility of goods in a simplified and comprehensive manner, and so to control the employment of goods. Thus we have described the service of value in economy generally, in doing which we have assumed that value is estimated according to natural laws, and that we are concerned with the valuation of goods in stocks, or marginal valuation.
NV-V-13.2 The return value of production goods and the cost value of products are likewise phenomena of natural marginal value. They afford us a simplified and widely comprehensive estimate of utility in the most complicated circumstances of production. The most heterogeneous kinds of production goods obtain a common measure of valuation through their common products: their return values are multiples of the value of the common marginal products. The most heterogeneous products receive a common measure of valuation through their common elements of cost; their cost values are multiples of the value of the common cost goods. Different return values, or different cost values, bear the same relation to one another as amounts of goods which are multiples of the same unit. In this way it becomes possible to estimate these value relations in figures, although the value and the amounts of value have their origin in the incalculable intensities of want.
NV-V-13.3 And yet, it is not this consideration that attracts our attention at this point. Now when we have pursued the main threads of the much-tangled web of productive combinations, first from the return up to the co-operating production goods, and then back again from the cost goods to the products, another consideration forces itself to the front: namely, that in any larger economy whatever, particularly in such a one as has the compass of a national economy, and is based upon a complicated system of production, it is quite impossible to dispense with value if we wish to have any clear notion of the utility of goods. A Robinson Crusoe does not require the aid of value; he can arrive at a right decision in every instance by simply testing what manner of treatment is likely to secure him the greatest amount of utility on the whole. In a national economy, on the other hand, with a complicated system of production, it is impossible in any way to make the necessary economic decisions by testing the utility of goods on the whole. No one can take in the total result of a community’s production at a glance. There are too many goods, and too many possible employments of goods, to permit of making one survey of the whole, and one comparison on the whole. Things must be gone into individually; utility must be divided up, and every good have measured out to it its share in the total result; then only is it possible to recognise individually which are the poorer, which the more profitable, and which the best. But how otherwise is utility to be measured out to individual goods than by applying to them the methods of marginal valuation, the principle of which is, to give them that utility which is dependent on the smallest quantity of goods that is yet practically taken into consideration?
NV-V-13.4 And, further, the economical employments of goods result from the relations of supply and demand. It appears then that it would be impossible to discover these economical employments if the amounts of supply and demand were not known numerically. But who knows the amounts of supply and demand in the widely-extended economy of a nation, or, indeed, in the world economy, the relations of which make themselves felt everywhere? Wholesale merchants of course try to make themselves acquainted with them, and do as a fact succeed in obtaining certain figures representing what comes from production, which are tolerably exact, especially as regards large production. But, on the other hand, it is almost impossible for them to obtain, with any measure of exactitude, the equally important figures of demand. If, in spite of this, it can be maintained that economy on the whole is capable of adjusting itself to the variations in supply and demand, this is due solely to the aid afforded by marginal valuation. Value, as marginal value, gives expression in the marginal calculation to the effect produced by the existing amounts of supply and demand, even if these amounts have not hitherto been measured. No owner can attempt to get rid of a good, no buyer can be eager to get one, without this circumstance having an effect on the market, and influencing the sensitive medium of value. Although no one is able, and even though no one should attempt, to figure out the amounts of supply and demand, value shows, with numerical exactitude and down to the finest gradations that people usually make in practical life, the relation between supply and demand in so far as these tend to make themselves felt in exchange. Value shows the effect of causes which in themselves are hidden. And through the fact that we adapt ourselves to this effect, this value, it finally becomes possible to adapt ourselves to the causes, the amounts of supply and demand, and thus to regulate an economy with due regard to economic laws. If at any given point of time the value of all goods remains as it has hitherto been, we may be pretty sure of acting economically and according to the standard of economical insight already obtained, if we retain the disposition of all goods in production and consumption unaltered. If value has altered at any point, it is an indication that the present disposition of goods must be changed, and changed in direct accordance with the change of value. Where value has risen there must new goods be directed, be it for production or for consumption: where it has fallen these goods must be withdrawn. and this transferring of goods from one point to another must be continued until all values are brought once more into equilibrium, and for every stock of goods the law of equal valuation of all its units is re-established.
NV-V-13.5 A knowledge of the values of goods, such as has existed in every economy up till now, is consequently, in itself, one of the most valuable of possessions. It is almost as valuable as the possession of the goods themselves, inasmuch as it is the key to their use. The sum of thousands of years of experience concerning the sources of supply of goods, and the suitability or otherwise of the conditions of their production, as well as concerning the amount of demand for them, is represented in the figures of value handed down to us. Were a nation to lose all remembrance of these, it would be an enormous economic misfortune. An almost incalculable period of time, an almost incalculable amount of error and loss, would have to be gone through, before the nation could again obtain mastery over the relations of goods formerly expressed, with numerical clearness, for each individual good by means of value.
NV-V-13.6 By the socialist programme it is proposed to manage the counting of stocks and calculation of demand, in the state of the future, by means of government statistics. Could this plan be sufficiently carried out it would be so far possible to dispense with marginal value. On the other hand, it can never be dispensed with where the finding of an expression for the utility in the individual good is concerned. To dispense with it would be equivalent to giving up the attempt to determine utility in the individual case, and being content with making a general determination as to the direction of production and consumption, leaving out consideration of the quantities which it is desirable to gain or consume.
NV-V-13.7 Here I leave the sphere of conditions of value in private economies. Clearly as I realise the imperfection of what I have tried to do, I yet trust that the reader will have been convinced that exchange value, as expressed in price, is not only governed by price competition, but contains a deeper economic content; that exchange value, although mixed with foreign elements, unites in itself all the essential elements of the natural valuation of goods, the valuation which is indispensable to economic action. If the prices for all similar goods in one and the same market are equal in amount, it is because, in the last resort, the valuations of all similar goods in one and the same economy are equal. If the prices for all goods in one stock are fixed at the marginal point, it is because, in the last resort, the valuations are so fixed. In so far as prices represent natural value, an enormous and arduous mental labour of calculating the exchange value of things is saved. By thousandfold weighing and consideration of the productive and other economical relations, each individual good gets measured out to it that amount of the total return which must be directly imputed to it out of the total amount of the total production, if the goods are to be profitably dealt with. I have chosen the word “Imputation” after much deliberation. It is not only to production goods that return is imputed and distributed; all goods get imputed and distributed out to them the utility which they give only when co-operating with one another. There is no satisfaction that is not prepared for and followed by others; all our satisfactions stand in mutual action and reaction with each other. Every man’s means are thus linked together. Individual economic valuation succeeds, nevertheless, in distributing this whole, and imputing to each separate portion of wealth its share of return, in such a way that, as a rule, every one is well advised who, within the sphere of his own individual economy, takes the amount of value thus ascertained as measure for his economic action.
NV-V-13.8 Where exchange value diverges from natural value, something else must of course obtain, but it is beyond our special task to enter on this consideration.
NV-V-13.9 It still remains to show how far natural laws require that individual economic valuation be complemented by the economical considerations of a community, or, more particularly, of a state.

NV-V-13.n1.1 1 See Ursprung des Werthes, p. 165.

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