Corey Robin has an enormous, sprawling treatise at The Nation on the influence that Nietzsche may have had first on marginalist economics (Jevons, Walras, Menger) and second on modern free market economics:
The contributions of Jevons and Menger were multiple, yet each of them took aim at a central postulate of economics shared by everyone from Adam Smith to the socialist left: the notion that labor is a — if not the — source of value. Though adumbrated in the idiom of prices and exchange, the labor theory of value evinced an almost primitive faith in the metaphysical objectivity of the economic sphere — a faith made all the more surprising by the fact that the objectivity of the rest of the social world (politics, religion and morals) had been subject to increasing scrutiny since the Renaissance. Commodities may have come wrapped in the pretty paper of the market, but inside, many believed, were the brute facts of nature: raw materials from the earth and the physical labor that turned those materials into goods. Because those materials were made useful, hence valuable, only by labor, labor was the source of value. That, and the fact that labor could be measured in some way (usually time), lent the world of work a kind of ontological status—and political authority—that had been increasingly denied to the world of courts and kings, lands and lords, parishes and priests. As the rest of the world melted into air, labor was crystallizing as the one true solid.
There are, of course, great parallels between the Nietzschean subjectivism, and the subjectivism of Menger in particular.
Whatever has value in our world now does not have value in itself, according to its nature — nature is always value-less, but has been given value at some time, as a present — and it was we who gave and bestowed it.
Value is therefore nothing inherent in goods, no property of them, but merely the importance that we first attribute to the satisfaction of our needs, that is, to our lives and well-being.
Robin sees these theories as being anti-Marxist, anti-socialist, and anti-labour-theory-of-value in their origins as well as in their modern implications:
By the time the marginalists came on the scene, the most politically threatening version of the labor theory of value was associated with the left. Though Marx would significantly revise and recast it in his mature writings, the simple notion that labor produces value remained associated with his name—and even more so with that of his competitor Ferdinand Lasalle, about whom Nietzsche read a fair amount—as well as with the larger socialist and trade union movements of which he was a part. That association helped set the stage for the marginalists’ critique.
Admittedly, the relationship between marginalism and anti-socialism is complex. On the one hand, there is little evidence to suggest that the first-generation marginalists had heard of, much less read, Marx, at least not at this early stage of their careers. Much more than the threat of socialism underpinned the emergence of marginalist economics, which was as opposed to traditional defenses of the market as it was to the market’s critics. By the twentieth century, moreover, many marginalists were on the left and used their ideas to help construct the institutions of social democracy; even Walras and Alfred Marshall, another early marginalist, were sympathetic to the claims of the left. And on some readings, the mature Marx shares more with the constructivist thrusts of marginalism than he does with the objectivism of the labor theory of value.
On the other hand, Jevons was a tireless polemicist against trade unions, which he identified as “the best example…of the evils and disasters” attending the democratic age. Jevons saw marginalism as a critical antidote to the labor movement and insisted that its teachings be widely transmitted to the working classes. “To avoid such a disaster,” he argued, “we must diffuse knowledge” to the workers—empowered as they were by the vote and the strike—“and the kind of knowledge required is mainly that comprehended in the science of political economy.”
Menger interrupted his abstract reflections on value to make the point that while it may “appear deplorable to a lover of mankind that possession of capital or a piece of land often provides the owner a higher income…than the income received by a laborer,” the “cause of this is not immoral.” It was “simply that the satisfaction of more important human needs depends upon the services of the given amount of capital or piece of land than upon the services of the laborer.” Any attempt to get around that truth, he warned, “would undoubtedly require a complete transformation of our social order.”
Finally, there is no doubt that the marginalists of the Austrian school, who would later prove so influential on the American right, saw their project as primarily anti-Marxist and anti-socialist. “The most momentous consequence of the theory,” declared Wieser in 1891, “is, I take it, that it is false, with the socialists, to impute to labor alone the entire productive return.”
Whatever the originators and developers of the subjective theory of value — whether we mean Nietzschean cultural value, or Mengerian economic value — thought of the politics of the idea is rather irrelevant to me. The basic idea is correct and explanatory — that is, value is entirely in the eye of the beholder, and price is a function of a negotiation process fuelled by the conceptions of value — and any and all political conclusions are secondary to this fact. There were great political and social implications to the heliocentric model of the solar system — after all, that was just as controversial and politically divisive idea in its origins — but those political and social impllications have no bearing on whether the Earth travels around the Sun or vice versa. The same is true for the subjective theory of value and its ideological and political context.
But with great intellectual upheavals comes great resistance. Many so-called disciples of subjectivism have attempted to resurrect more objective approaches to value. That is, subjectivism’s greatest enemies may not have been advocates of the labour theory of value so much as self-described subjectivists who were repulsed by the supposed nihilism of subjectivism.
The neoclassical descendants of Walras and Jevons like Samuelson developed toybox mathematical models based around unrealistic (or semi-realistic) assumptions — rational preferences, utility maximisation, perfect competition, informationally efficient markets, etc. These act as an framework to objectify and rationalise human behaviour ruled not by static rationality but by fleeting, inconsistent subjectivity.
Equally the Austrian descendants of Menger like Mises and Hayek sought to depict the market as a framework as much for organising human morality — rewarding what they conceived of as good behaviour, and punishing what they conceived of as bad behaviour — as for allocating resources. As Hayek noted:
Until 130 or 150 years ago, everybody in what is now the industrialized part of the Western world grew up acquainted with the rules and necessities of what are called commercial or mercantile morals, because everyone worked in a small enterprise where he was equally concerned with, and exposed to, the conduct of others. Whether as master or servant or member of the family, everybody accepted the unavoidable necessity of having to adapt himself to changes in demand, supply, and prices in the marketplace. A change began to happen in the middle of the last century. Where previously perhaps only the aristocracy and its servants were strangers to the rules of the market, the growth of large organizations in business, commerce, finance, and ultimately in government, increased the number of people who grew up without being taught the morals of the market which had been developed in the course of the preceding 2,000 years.
For probably the first time since classical antiquity, an ever-increasing part of the population of the modern industrial state grew up without learning in childhood that it was indispensable to respond as both producer and consumer to all the unpleasant things which the changing market required. This development coincided with the spreading of a new philosophy, which taught people that they ought not to submit to any principle of morals which could not be rationally justified.
To a Nietzschean — or any subjectivist — notions of good behaviour and bad behaviour are as much in the eye of the beholder as the values of commodities. Indeed, that is their crux — humans act in the human spheres of morality and commerce because humans are value-creating! Living out our subjective desires, painting or judging the world with our subjective morals and ethics, and meeting our subjective goals is not a matter of hedonism, but the inevitable consequence of humanity.
These two groups of prescriptive counter-revolutionaries — the Samuelsonian neoclassicals and their objectifying assumptions, and the Misesian Austrians and their moral absolutism — may have turned back the subjectivist revolution to a great degree, but their victory has not been absolute. Some neoclassical economists like Hal Varian seem to have reversed Samuelsonian optimisation into “doing whatever an agent wants”, which is entirely compatible with a subjectivist conception of value. And some Austrians and Post-Keynesians like Ludwig Lachmann and George Shackle have explored subjective economics deeply, looking at the role of discordant expectations and imaginations as a fuel for disequilibrium.
Most importantly, behavioural economics — which is largely descriptive — seeks to understand economics not from the basis of preordained theory and assumptions, but in terms of how agents and systems actually behave in various situations. Ultimately, through the nonjudgmental study of human action we may finally arrive at an economics that reflects value as it really is, and how it was understood by Nietzsche and Menger — as a product of the minds, eyes and hearts of humans.
What moral absolutism? Mises was a utilitarian, but he believed there exists a plurality of ethics. Maybe you have in mind Rothbard, but Rothbardian Austrians represent, I’d argue, a small, but very vocal, subset of the Austrian School. Regarding Hayek, I think you misunderstand his point with regards to rules. “Rules” aren’t just aspects of morality, but are what define institutions, and institutions are necessary to improve societal coordination. Morality/ethics informs institutions, but Hayek believed in political institutions, like Mises, that represent a plurality of opinion.
I think ABCT has a strong moral component, at least the versions of ABCT I have argued over with various advocates of it. Government intervention debases currency and lowers rates, and results in malinvestment that must eventually be purged, and without government intervention we would have something much closer to an evenly rotating economy or an equilibrium where markets would clear and all unemployment would be effectively voluntary.
So Mises and Hayek and their descendants (and to a much greater degree the Hoppe and Rothbard and more controversially the North and DiLorenzo strands of Austrian economics, which get into the spheres of personal morality that Mises tended not to touch) are moral absolutists in the sense that they believe that government intervention and central banking necessarily creates malinvestment that needs to be purged. Specifically, they define malinvestment objectively, while I think what is and isn’t malinvestment is a matter of opinion and circumstance.
While I agree that ill-informed government intervention can create what I would also define as distortions that can be very damaging to the economy and while I generally favour floating input prices and markets, as a radical subjectivist I see these distortions not as inherent to central banking or government intervention but as an outcome of human subjectivity; if the government wasn’t creating booms and busts, something else would be. Maybe the booms and busts would be less severe without a central bank. Generally, I think the evidence suggests they would be more frequent but less severe, but in some cases, they could be more severe! And I don’t think that all rottenness has to necessarily be purged and liquidated. Sometimes technology shocks (etc) can provide organic growth to lift an economy and overcome a context of widespread problems.
Furthermore while I favour markets and competition whenever possible, I recognise that that is just my subjective judgment, and not an absolute moral truth as Mises seemed to believe.
“Furthermore while I favour markets and competition whenever possible, I recognize that that is just my subjective judgment, and not an absolute moral truth as Mises seemed to believe.”
You know John, it’s like every day life, it’s a hell of a lot easier to go through the door then to climb through the window. But, for those who aspire to economics as they believe it should exist, markets and competition are an ideal, and one that has fought a noble, albeit, losing battle throughout history.
Is it not the purpose of all groups to distort these same markets and destroy competition where- and whenever possible?
If we must accede to all the parasitic institutions that take such a large percentage of mankind’s labor value earned, then, don’t we [in the same breath] give up our right to expect any kind of rational behavior from the institutions that are expelled from the loins of these depraved socio-pathic [socio-patheitic] hierarchies?
Garbage in, garbage out, applies just as accurately to the human mind as it does to the mechanical calculator. Simplify to find the truth.
Do you also include monopolists, crony capitalisms and the like under “parasitic institutions” or do you think that short term thinking, corruption, cheating, value distortions and disregard for the common good are an exclusive prerogative of governments (or that markets somehow neutralize all “deviations” from the real value)? Garbage comes in everywhere, it’s human psychology. Governments are just a scapegoat for not adressing the issue at a fundamental and global level.
Unless one counts Somalia as a market success, sure.
How is the the usual answer to price dumping btw? How about price dumping via government subsidies vs third party “investment”?
Say you’ve been four days in a desert without drinking and are approaching my tent near a well: you have some gold which I ask in exchange for a little water, and you have no choice. The “market” will agree on a price, and surely certain people will defend that as the “right” measure of value, but I find that a bit circular and pretestuous, and after the exchange you might regain enough strength to kill me while asleep, which I deserved. Still part of value exchange, just an “externality”. And that is not a thought experiment, it´s reality in many countries nowadays, except for the last part.
“Say you’ve been four days in a desert without drinking and are approaching my tent near a well: you have some gold which I ask in exchange for a little water, and you have no choice.”
Not all interactions between people need be economic. It seems likely that in your example, the water might be supplied free of charge.
In any case, extreme situations portend extreme outcomes and should not be used as examples for economic transactions.
[ABCT posits that] without government intervention we would have something much closer to an evenly rotating economy or an equilibrium where markets would clear and all unemployment would be effectively voluntary.
Austrians regard the ERE as death (something like Groundhog Day, but with the added requirement that Bill Murray forget everything anew). Fortunately, the ERE can never occur b/c of ever-fluctuating economic conditions–changes in consumer tastes, technology, demographics, natural resources.
Equilibrium can also never be reached due to these changing variables. It is precisely b/c the economy is always in disequilibrium that new business opportunities are generated. The protagonist of Austrian economics is the Kirznerian entrepreneur engaging in intertemporal arbitrage by gathering inputs now in the hope of selling them above cost in the future.
I agree with all this, but I’m not sure those who believe the business cycle is 100% caused by the central bank agree with it!
Actually, the above is straight from Steve Horwitz, a Free Banker who definitely believes that central banking exacerbates the biz cycle, since he wrote a book on it: Microfoundations and Macroeconomics, An Austrian Perspective.
Fwiw, I don’t think anybody, save a rabid misguided few, think the biz cycle can be completely eliminated by Free Banking. Real shocks and speculative bubbles will occur. The key to Free Banking is that, through the interbank clearing mechanism, feedback from the market is much swifter than meetings of the FOMC, and proper responses–i.e. expansion or tightening of credit–are more decentralized and motivated by profit/loss considerations. Central banks have no such incentives. Another point is that interest rates will be determined by the public’s time/liquidity preference (not the FOMC), i.e. the natural rate. In the Austrian view, this would lead to the consumption/investment balance and the time structure of production being determined by consumer preferences, not FOMC interest rate targeting.
Anyway, the zombie that needs to be killed is TBTF. I’m sure on this point, you and I are united (though I’ve seen you qualify this recently on Twitter). The prime advantage of an NGDP rule for me is that it will allow bad banks to be wound up w/o leading to a catastrophic decrease in the money supply. Ultimately, market discipline must be established in finance.
Horwitz recently wrote a pretty good summary of his views here: http://mercatus.org/sites/default/files/Horwitz_MonetaryPolicy_v1.pdf
“Maybe the booms and busts would be less severe without a central bank. Generally, I think the evidence suggests they would be more frequent but less severe, but in some cases, they could be more severe!”
May I ask to which evidence you are referring? If it’s Australia in the 1890s, I don’t see how central banking would have restrained overinvestment in the commodities boom (which fed into the property boom) from 1850 to the late 1880s.
“through the interbank clearing mechanism” –> should add here: “through competitive note issue and the interbank clearing mechanism”
You can fill a library the size of, The Grand Canyon, with volumes of rationalizations [of every stripe and -ism] on why it is not only OK, but prudent, for institutions to steal from individuals, that is, the study of academic economics and governance.
Value should not be such a difficult concept to grasp, as you will find that its increasing complexity [in definition] is proportional to the layers of bullshit added to divert you from the truth, the very purpose of institutional economics.
Since real economics is the relationship between a single producer and a single consumer, it would seem to this observer that it is labor added by the producer [or antecedent producers] that would give value to his commodity.
Therefore, it is not value that has changed its meaning, but instead, economics, and this has allowed value to morph into something else altogether, something that describes the process, whereby, what is yours mysteriously becomes mine, courtesy of theories, formulas, algorithms and all kinds of alchemy developed by the brightest minds among us.
This institutional sleight of hand is apparent in all institutions, and goes by a bevy of names, but it all comes down to the same thing, that is, how do those at the top of the food chain continue to get something for nothing, mankind’s ultimate scam, and ultimate folly, one that leads to all things immoral, and, inevitably, all things Hellish [war].
Why is a one-producer one-consumer economy any more real than a real world economy with billions of people acting both as producers and consumers?
Because, Absolute Simplicity equals Absolute Truth.
The same thing happens in economics as it does in medicine when the doctor/patient relationship is morphed into the corporate-government/patient relationship. And this applies to all relationships where intermediaries are placed between producer and consumer.
“Because, Absolute Simplicity equals Absolute Truth.”
Empty assertion alert. You’ll have to do better than that to justify such a strong form of reductionism.
“The same thing happens in economics as it does in medicine when the doctor/patient relationship is morphed into the corporate-government/patient relationship. And this applies to all relationships where intermediaries are placed between producer and consumer.”
So I guess this would apply to many capitalist firms, where the person who has direct contact with the customer is almost certainly not the same person who produced the good?
Empty assertion? Explain why you feel this way.
And, yes, it applies to all situations where there are intermediaries. Why wouldn’t it?
Perhaps that was unreasonable to assume you know what I am referring to, so, allow me to explain.
The more complex something becomes, the further it moves from the [its]truth. In its simplest form, no matter the example, its truth is [more evident]. This applies to not only physical things, but to ideas, as well.
Therefore, in the Absolute, Simplicity = Truth. Now, to actually understand this would involve knowing the difference between relative and absolute truth [which I will assume in your case].
Let’s take it beyond the above where the limit of simplicity equals emptiness. Since emptiness IS truth, Absolute Simplicity [emptiness] = Truth.
The Truth, although inaccessible to the human intellect, is available otherwise.
OK so while simplicity may be truth that does not mean it is relevant. A model of our solar system with one planet and one sun is simple and easier to model but it is almost irrelevant to our understanding.
“OK so while simplicity may be truth that does not mean it is relevant.”
I am not sure what might be MORE relevant. Having said that, I believe you are being confused by going back and forth between the absolute and the relative in this conversation. Let’s use your example to show this.
“A model of our solar system with one planet and one sun is simple and easier to model but it is almost irrelevant to our understanding.”
Perhaps, your understanding of simple is at issue here. The “fact” that the accepted number of planets in our solar system is greater than one does not not define something as being more simple.
I can prove to you that there is no such thing as more than one, that is, that all things, by definition, are unique. Would that kind of make you go back and re-think things a bit, if this were the case?
One must leave assumptions behind if you desire to seek the truth. Relevance is not important, as this is always tied to a previous supposition that can ALWAYS be dis-proved.
Tell me something that you feel is true, and I will dis-prove it to you. It is only when you area able to see the emptiness that truly defines the intellectual process will you give up the notion of relevance, and all the other constructs that divert us from the Truth.
“I can prove to you that there is no such thing as more than one, that is, that all things, by definition, are unique. Would that kind of make you go back and re-think things a bit, if this were the case?”
Not really, as two or more ‘unique’ phenomena can interact to produce another ‘unique’ phenomenon that cannot be derived from the initial phenomenology alone. Or, to put it another way: it is well known that in science things are more than simply the sum of their parts.
“Not really, as two or more ‘unique’ phenomena can interact to produce another ‘unique’ phenomenon that cannot be derived from the initial phenomenology alone.”
What does this mean?
Behavioural Finance, Economics, Marketing etc is pivotal for the future intellectual advancement of man. Psychology is key. Who knows why people buy or act the way they do. Early psychological issues, cultural issues, fads etc. I think Hayek’s quote above: “growth of large organizations in business, commerce, finance, and ultimately in government, increased the number of people who grew up without being taught the morals of the market which had been developed in the course of the preceding 2,000 years” Hits the nail on the head. How many children grew up in Unionist households? How do they react, vote, consume? How many Children grow up in Welfare households? How do they react, vote, consume?
Politics today, relies on the Two Party system, increasing welfare, and deals with Union movements. This dictates Economic Policy, and Big Business.
With 3D printing, Globalisation and online selling, do we have enough people with the entrepreneurial spirit to actually drive the economy?
I see 3 brands of product, all made in the same factory in China. Reminds me of Communism. Even on Grocery Shelves we are seeing more “House” brands. Choices are limited. Perhaps it reflects the Consumers “simpler” tastes.
“There is an old saw about markets being “efficient.” That’s nonsense. By definition markets are inefficient; were they not it would be impossible to make money as a trader. Trading is a negative-sum game for everyone except the banksters. It has to be. With the exception of IPOs (and other “new issues”) every dollar you make as a trader someone else either loses or misses the opportunity to make, and then both of you give up some more to the people who handle and clear your trades. If you trade “break-even” you wind up broke due to the overhead of fees and costs. It’s that simple.
We pass laws banning insider trading for the precise reason that without them people would concoct schemes to make the inefficiency of market a means of systematically looting people. We then let certain people exploit loopholes in them so as to provide a means of stealing the wealth of the majority who come to play in the Casino, thereby giving the house it’s “edge” (and “The House” are all the nice big banksters, of course.) Thus we had SOES in the 1990s and now we have HFT; both are nothing more, observed dispassionately, than a mockery of laws that allegedly “prohibit” front-running customer orders.
The bottom line is that one group of people is given explicit permission to loot while everyone else is told the markets are “fair” and “clean.” That this is a lie is one of the first things that anyone who manages to remain in this game for more than a few years learns.”
Fear or happy propaganda to steer the herd, rigging to loot the herd – planned culling. There’s the only psychology you need.
I feel like the subjectivist and LTV adherents are constantly talking past one another and agree with Richard Wolff, who argues that “say[ing] that marginalism has destroyed Marx’s labor theory of value is a little like saying that knives and forks destroyed chopsticks as ways of eating”.
The real issue for Marx and the classical economists was how such incommensurable things as jelly, a cleaner and scaffolding could be exchanged under the same yardstick. Use-value was always deemed to be subjective and unquantifiable, while exchange value was quantifiable, commensurable and contained price information.
I don’t believe the LTV but I have many issues with the idea that prices only reflect subjective valuations. The first is incommensurability: how can such disparate valuations be collapsed into one metric like price? The second is that prices must exist before consumption decisions take place, so there is circularity in the subjective valuation arguments. The third is that in most cases individuals don’t actually have control over prices: if anything, prices aggregate any number of valuations, rather than reflecting one individual’s. The fourth is that surely price contains information about production and supply, not just demand (related to number two).
It seems to me that subjective valuation only really acts as a check on prices, whereas the LTV, believe it or not, attempts to explain where these prices originate from in the first place.
“whereas the LTV, believe it or not, attempts to explain where these prices originate from in the first place.”
From my experience in business objects are built to a price point. Hence why things are built like rubbish today.
Note my explanation in the piece — “value is entirely in the eye of the beholder, and price is a function of a negotiation process fuelled by the conceptions of value”.
If we’re talking about price, as opposed to value, then it is a negotiation process not just between a buyer and a seller but a negotiation process between a buyer and a seller in the context of whatever other activity is going on in the marketplace.
Where the labour theory of value originated is that it is simply uneconomical for a producer to subjectively value their output at less than they put in. So for most producers, the input costs, chiefly labour serves as a kind of price floor both in their own subjective valuation and in the negotiation process. Of course, treating the labour cost as a price floor means that any price above labour costs that becomes profit can be treated as surplus value hacked off by a capitalist, and effectively stolen from the workers who are being compensated at a lower price than their wares achieve in the market. In reality, there are two negotiation processes — the pricing process between capitalists and labourers, and the pricing process between capitalists and buyers in the marketplace. That there tends to be a discrepancy reflects the different subjective priorities (and time preferences as von Bohm-Bawerk noted) and negotiating strengths of the various parties.
IB is the closest thing to a modern Hitler we now have in the public sphere
Maybe Bremmer is right… Bitcoin is not the end of history for virtual currencies. Eventually, it will be improved upon and the market will onto something else.
Worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubblegum
“Worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubblegum.”
I would like to suggest that chewing bubblegum is a wonderful way to solve even the most complex algebraic equations.
x = y – 0, where x does not equal y
Although we like to think that we are more sophisticated then were Ork and Bjod back at the cave, economics hasn’t changed at all. If Ork is interested in purchasing one of Bjod’s arrowheads, does it seem reasonable that he would be willing to pay anything over and above the amount of labor-time it took Bjod to fashion the stone?
In other words, is Bjod going to get away with charging Ork time plus materials if Ork can simply bend over and present Bjod with the materials necessary?
Now, what is the difference between the above and what we experience today? Well, you have inserted an aggregate of non-productive middlemen who’s job it is to take the labor-value earned by the producers and transform it into the fuel that warms middle-management and their masters, raising and lowering the curtain, while employing the brightest among us to manipulate the strings.
Freedom is not the ability to vote for your master’s lackeys, but instead, it is the ability to carry our your life’s work free of interference from the omnipresent parasitic monsters that somehow feel they are no different than the kings and queen of ages past, those who, by birth, or by, “education,” can convince the rest that they deserve something for nothing, and will go to every extreme to make it so.
Here’s an interesting link. I don’t usually have much nice to say about the Mises Institute’s anti-frac. reserve banking guys, but surprisingly here’s (a very reasonable sounding) Joe Salerno endorsing a version of “QE for the people.” I’ve had similar thoughts myself lately that, if we must have a central bank, this would be the best way to enact an NGDPLT rule.
FRL has to be the greatest scam every thought up by the human mind.
It seems it’s true that great minds think alike: you reply to Robin’s article on NIetzsche and the marginalists and exactly the same day (13.05.2013) another author also replies to Robin with the exact same ideas (down to the same misunderstandings) in Naked Capitalism:
Interestingly, nobody credits nobody for the ideas.
But don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting anything. In fact, if you ask me, I actually I like your version better.