Natural Value (1889)

by Friedrich von Wieser (1851-1926)

Book VI: Value in the Economy of the State

Chapter V
The Fundamental Law of Collective Valuation

NV-VI-5.1 If the burden of taxation is distributed among the citizens in the manner just described, a very remarkable contrast emerges between the law which regulates pubic imposts, and that law of price (under free exchange on a market uncontrolled by the state) which regulates the burden that must be borne by all individuals when they wish to acquire goods produced or offered for sale by private industry. As return for the services of the state, or as contribution towards meeting the costs of these services, each individual gives the maximum which he is able to give, the full equivalent. In free exchange, on the other hand, the (approximate) maximum is paid only by the marginal purchaser; the other purchasers get off more cheaply, as the one price is established for all, and no one requires to pay more than the equivalent of the marginal purchaser, even although his own valuation may be much higher. The state, accordingly, takes advantage of the purchasing power of every one in a much more thorough way; and, more especially, the purchasing power of the wealthier citizens. It does not suffer the rich to pay according to the standard of the poor, but insists that every one shall be taxed in accordance with the full measure of his own personal estimate of the value which the services of the state have for him.
NV-VI-5.2 Hence is derived a peculiar law of national economic valuation – as of collective valuation generally. In every self-contained economy equal quantities of goods have an equal value; similar items, or fractions, or units, of a stock have for their owner the same value. This law holds also in all free economies, and for the economic bodies created by it; similar goods have on the same market the same price, the same exchange value. But it is different in the case of the national economic body, as, generally, in that of every collective economy which binds together several otherwise independent economic subjects to carry out distinct purposes. Here the goods which belong to the individual economic subjects, and from which the taxes are to be drawn, are valued as unequal, – equal taxes have unequal value, the same value is expressed by unequal taxes. The valuation of individual wealth and income on the part of a government agrees exactly with the individual degree of valuation for purposes of taxation; a government estimates the property of each person exactly as he estimates it himself, and in so far the collective economy is not like a self-contained economy. Not until the government comes to the spending of the taxes does it act in accordance with the universal law; not till then do sums, which were valued as unequal so long as the government had to collect them, come to be equal in value.1
NV-VI-5.3 Not only, then, does the levying of taxes rest on valuation, but in the levying of taxes is directly expressed a distinct valuation; a valuation which – as regards the wants of the public housekeeping – estimates every good at a lower figure in proportion to the number of other goods which are bound up with it in one individual’s wealth, or in proportion to the limited character of the private wants to which it is devoted. In other words, the theory of taxation, in its economic foundations, belongs not to the applications of the theory of value, but to the theory of value itself.
NV-VI-5.4 The fact that, when levying taxes, a government, in contrast to the general law of ordinary economic life, rates economic property differently according to the individual circumstances of those who are taxed, has, economically speaking, undoubtedly beneficial results. It allows that the public burdens of the poorer classes be put at a lower figure; it allows the ability of the wealthier to bear taxation to be more fully utilised; and it thus places the taxes where they will cause least injury to the satisfaction of private needs. Were the state to act otherwise; were it to impose equal contributions, like poll taxes, on every citizen; it would inflict on the poorer classes privations in no way compensated by the extended indulgence in luxury that would now be possible to the richer.
NV-VI-5.5 To this extent it might be desirable that the same principle should also apply in free economic life; that there also each should pay according to the amount of his purchasing power. In this way a universal equalisation of satisfaction might be attained; if every person were obliged to pay a dearer price according as he possessed more means, riches would offer no advantage, poverty no privation; all would have in the long run the same satisfactions. It need scarcely be said that, so long as our economy remains free, this cannot be. For so long as it is so, every one will strive to buy as cheaply as possible, and sellers will meet buyers in the same spirit – inasmuch as they will make the slightest advance in price an occasion to give the preference to the buyer who offers it, and will not in the least insist on adapting the objective amounts of price to the subjective purchasing power of the buyers. And just because this law of the free economy is so closely united with the freedom of that economy, it would be useless to condemn it for the undoubted evil effects which it directly has upon the distribution of the satisfaction of wants. In order to judge adequately, one must in any case take into consideration as well the effects of economic freedom – or, to put it differently, of private economies and private property – on all other economic relations, and particularly as regards the formation of productive returns. It may very well be that private property gives rise to great inequalities in the satisfaction of wants, while it, nevertheless, secures, even to those who receive the smallest share in the general distribution, an enormously increased satisfaction of want on the whole – the reason being the enormous increase in productive return which it allows and bring with it. And here, perhaps, may be found a reason for the remarkable phenomenon that one and the same community should contain at the same time two such diverse organisations as a free economy and a collective economy. In the former of these it diverges from the natural measure of value in that it over-estimates the goods reserved for acquisition by the rich, while, in the latter, it diverges from it in that it puts all goods possessed by the rich at a low figure so far as the public housekeeping is concerned. In the former the community is governed by a law which spares the rich, except where they come into competition with each other; while in the latter it lays down a law for itself which utilises their purchasing power to a quite unlimited extent In the former it favours the unequal distribution of satisfactions: in the latter, it helps to equalise them. Such deeply-rooted divergences can only be explained by showing that the two organisations serve different purposes, – purposes in which personal freedom demands different scope.
NV-VI-5.6 We could not follow out this line of thought without leaving the sphere of the theory of value, and trespassing into the wide sphere of economic justice and economic philosophy. The explanation of the social organisation within which the valuations take place, is a task with which the theory of value, with its limited means, is not capable of dealing. And it is not only the theory of value which is unequal to this task; only a theory of society, which took into consideration other than merely economic facts, could adequately undertake it.
NV-VI-5.7 If now, in closing, there is one thing which, more than another, I wish to repeat with special emphasis, it is the intention which has dominated me throughout the whole work, and in every part of it, – the intention to be, in the best sense of the word, empirical. I may perhaps hope that the attainment of this object has not been disturbed by the fiction – undoubtedly unempirical – of a natural value and of the utopian state of communism. So far as I can judge of my own work, I have nowhere pointed to any foreign non-empirical power in the actuality of economic life. The only liberty I have taken has been to leave out of consideration facts of whose activity there could be no doubt: – the actual imperfections of valuation, the individualism of our economy, and, finally, the inequality of wealth. At the same time, however, I have not neglected to indicate, at all events in a general way, the directions in which these circumstances must of necessity cause value, both in the private economy and in the economy of the state, to deviate from the natural standard. I hope that my statement has not by this means become untrue, though I know very well that it must of necessity be imperfect. But what is incompletely stated is certainly not, on that account alone, non-empirical – if it were so, what statement would be empirical, seeing that we are unable ever to do more than investigate mere fragments of the great organic structure of our world? All judgment as regards any attempt at investigation must depend on whether the fragment, with which the inquiry is concerned, be large enough and solid enough to have a coherence of its own, and to deserve consideration by itself. If the imperfect description of the phenomena of value, which I have attempted to give, is justified in this sense, it is empirical.
NV-VI-5.8 The form of the fiction cannot have misled any one. I might, of course, have stated drily that I intended to abstain from the consideration of certain facts. But like one who wishes to look at certain things undisturbed by the impressions of other things, and aids his senses by spreading a veil over the disturbing objects, I thought to aid imagination by making use of the easily comprehended figure of a communistic society, concerned to abolish in actuality all that I wished to disregard in thought. The fiction which I have employed must be regarded in that light alone, and I trust that the veil has been transparent enough to allow the complete body of phenomena to be clearly outlined at every turn under its slight disguise.


NV-VI-5.n1.1 1 A great deal of the history of taxation may be explained by the fact that people only learnt gradually to distinguish between the valuation of goods in national economy and in free economy. In ordinary economic life one feels injured who has to pay a higher price than any one else; and it can be easily understood that in face of this rooted opinion, it was hard to introduce the principle that every person should pay more taxation for the same state services according as he possessed more goods for the satisfaction of his wants – and that not simply but progressively.

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