Nietzsche, Austrianism, Neoclassicalism & Subjectivism

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.

And Menger:

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 is Profit?

In neoclassical macroeconomic models that assume perfect competition, there can in the long run be no such thing as profit — defined as revenue left over after all costs have been subtracted.

Clearly, in the real world where many businesses have lived and died profitably there is no such thing as perfect competition, and therefore the neoclassical models that treat profit as a short-run anomaly are working from an unrealistic assumption.

My definition of profit is that profit is what happens when a business’s input transactions are priced less than its output transactions. That is, the sum of the cost of a business’s inputs from those it buys is transacted for a lower price than the sum of those it sells its goods and services to. Because transactions are assumed to be voluntary — and when they are not voluntary, any residual gain is theft, not profit — and businesses are assumed to try to negotiate the best price in both inputs and outputs, any profit is due to those who purchase the business’s output valuing the output higher than those who sold the business its inputs. That an output or input transactor would accept a profit-creating price could be for any number of perceived reasons: convenience, or expertise, or prestige, or necessity, or even outright trickery. Their decision to accept the price is subject to their own subjective valuation, and it is the difference between prices that creates the profit.

Marx and Lenin represented this idea as surplus value; that businesses make a profit by extracting uncompensated labour value out of their workers. But why not the other transactors? In my view, profit is derived from the sum of the business’s transactions with all of its transactors: consumers, supplies, labour (etc). Workers (etc) cannot extract a greater share of the firm’s revenue than they can negotiate, and at various points in history (including the present day) the working class seems to have had little real leverage for negotiation.

In my view, any model that attempts to represent real world markets should begin from the historical fact of profit and loss, and the historical fact of a disequilibrium between input transactions and output transactions.