Natural Value (1889)

by Friedrich von Wieser (1851-1926)

Book I: The Elementary Theory of Value

Chapter VII
The Value of Goods

NV-I-7.1 Originally only the human has importance for man. Thought for One’s self, interest in one’s self, comes by nature. Towards things, on the other hand, man is originally indifferent, and his interest in them only awakens in so far as he finds them connected with human interests and destinies. This takes various forms; such as pity, when the lower animals are seen to suffer just as man does, or religious or poetic emotion, when observation of the living in nature awakens suspicion of the connection of all life, or, finally, economic valuation, when things are conceived of as instruments to and conditions of human well-being. This is the coldest form that our interest takes, as it regards things simply as means to human ends; it is, however, at the same time, the most far-reaching, as it embraces most things, and claims not only existence, but property.
NV-I-7.2 Our natural indifference towards things is nevertheless so great that it requires a special compulsion, a peremptory challenge, to make us look upon them as objects of importance, objects possessing value. Nor does the mere observation that things are “of use” to us, and that the use has for us importance or value exert this compulsion. Where we employ goods for our own uses, but where at the same time these goods are at our disposal in absolutely assured superfluity, we use them, but concern ourselves no more about them than about the sands of the sea. Whether they increase or decrease – always supposing that the superfluity remains – we merely think, “What does it matter? we have always enough and more than enough of them!” In Paradise nothing would have value but satisfactions – neither things nor goods. Because there one could have everything, one would not be dependent on anything.
NV-I-7.3 On the other hand, where there is not an assured superfluity, interest awakens in the train of self-seeking calculation, and communicates itself to such goods as we notice ourselves using and not caring to lose. Men in general thus lay their account with things, as the egoist with persons. And here we are not speaking only of cases of real need, of extremest want, where the little that one has is guarded with an Argus eye; nor of objects of great scarceness or rarity, such as a work of art which is quite unique, and whose loss it would be impossible to replace. We refer also to cases where people are fairly prosperous, but nevertheless require to economise; and even to cases of extreme wealth – always supposing it is not assured natural superfluity -- where, in many respects, a man has everything, but where, all the same, the “everything” requires continual guarding, administration, and renewal. In these circumstances there is not a single change in a man’s possessions which is entirely indifferent. Every addition brings some addition of enjoyment; every loss, even the slightest, disturbs, makes some gap, and breaks the expected line of enjoyments. Happiness and sorrow are dependent on our possessions; the destinies of goods mean the destinies of men. There is an intimate association of ideas between human interests and goods. Goods, indifferent in themselves, receive value from that value which their employments have.
NV-I-7.4 Goods which are to be had in an assured and natural superfluity are called Free goods; all others are Economic goods. Thus only economic goods can possess value. The value of goods, according to Menger’s definition, is “the importance which concrete goods, or quantities of goods, receive for us from the fact that we are conscious of being dependent on our disposal over them for the satisfaction of our wants.”
NV-I-7.5 It should be noticed that no part of free goods receives value; neither that part which is superfluous, and cannot therefore be used, nor yet that part which is used. Of the water which flows abundantly from some spring, neither that portion which fills the jar, nor that which overflows has value. The value of goods, although it has its origin in use, does not all the same reflect the utility: there are cases in which great use is obtained, where nevertheless no value – i.e. no value of goods – is created. The theorist, therefore, who would explain value must not content himself with explaining the change in amounts of utility; he must go further and examine those laws by which amounts of utility are changed into amounts of value. It may be suspected – and we shall find this suspicion confirmed in what follows – that value, owing in many cases so little of its origin to utility, is, even where it has so originated, equally far from always containing the full amount of utility. If the use of a good in the individual case be so far removed from its general usefulness, its value, if our suspicion is indeed confirmed, must be even further removed from that general usefulness – and here is opened up to us a second point of view from which we may explain and make intelligible the contradictions which experience points out between value and usefulness.

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