Let’s Stay Together: On Direct Exchange and the Social Order
[This article is excerpted from chapter 4 of Economics for Real People. Rich, whom we meet in the introduction, is the book's equivalent of Robinson Crusoe; Helena Bonham-Carter is his Friday.]
The Law of Association
Rich has worked out the details of his solitary economy and has a somewhat comfortable existence. Then, one day he is walking along the beach, and who should he see approaching him but … Helena Bonham-Carter. (Stranded, perhaps, during the filming of the latest Merchant-Ivory production.)
His solitude broken, what does Rich decide to do? More generally, what factors would lead man to choose between an isolated existence and life in society?
One possibility is that Rich might react like a bear does when another bear enters its territory. He could, through the threat of or actual use of force, attempt to drive the intruder away. Now, he might refrain from doing so due to moral constraints or benevolent feelings. But there is another reason for him not to drive Helena off — as long as there are sufficient unused resources on the island, it will materially benefit both of them to cooperate rather than fight. They can initiate the vastly enriching processes of the division of labor and voluntary exchange.
Adam Smith pointed out the enormous increases in material production that came about through the division of labor. The example with which Smith opens The Wealth of Nations is pin manufacturing. A lone workman could "scarce, perhaps, with his utmost industry, make one pin in a day." But even 225 years ago, when Smith was writing, a small pin shop, dividing the manufacture into eighteen distinct tasks, allowed a ten-man shop to produce 48,000 pins in a day, or 4,800 per man.
The division of labor produces greater material output for three reasons. The first is that people live in parts of the world that differ from each other in many respects. Someone living in Florida is in much better circumstances to grow oranges than I am in New England. On the other hand, I'm in a better position to produce maple syrup.
The second benefit of the division of labor is that not everyone comes to the table with the same capabilities. A book on economics is not the place to attempt to resolve the nature/nurture debate, so we will simply say that, for whatever reasons, people enter the labor market with different aptitudes. I'm five feet nine inches tall and have trouble jumping over the Sunday New York Times, so I'm hardly suitable, even with "the right training," to fill in for Kobe Bryant should he need some time off from playing basketball.
Training is, however, the third benefit. The division of labor allows people to focus their efforts on building up certain skills and to ignore a vast array of other skills that are unnecessary to their jobs. The people who design personal computers usually have little knowledge of the aspects of the system for which they are not responsible. At the lowest levels of the system, chip designers employ their knowledge of quantum physics to achieve higher-speed components. Several levels above that, operating system programmers use their knowledge of the logical structure of the machine to create efficient code for writing disk files and displaying graphics. Another several levels of abstraction up, we find user-interface designers who specialize in creating a "look-and-feel" for a program that allows ease of learning and of use. None of these workers could accomplish their tasks if they also had to concern themselves with all of the other levels of the system. And lest you think that it is only an extremely complex device like a PC for which this is true, I recommend Leonard Read's famous essay, "I, Pencil," where he demonstrates that no individual in the world is capable of creating something as simple as a pencil on his own.
Some of the critics of modern industrial society bemoan just that specialization. People, they complain, become narrow-minded, mere cogs in a machine, and find their work boring and repetitive under a system of ever increasing division of labor. Economics cannot answer such complaints. As I've pointed out, it doesn't attempt to recommend one set of values over another. It can't say that those who chose a more interesting and varied life over greater material prosperity have chosen badly. However, economics can inform anyone who wishes to impose such a choice on all of society that without the division of labor the Earth could support only a tiny fraction of its current population. Perhaps those who survive the transition period will find their world more satisfactory than ours, but the billions who die during the transition might be forgiven for dissenting.
Smith recognized these various advantages of the division of labor, but left unsolved an interesting problem, which arose in discussions of international trade. The solution has implications far beyond that field, however, and it is worth our time to examine the problem.
Smith pointed out that it made no sense, for example, for Scotland to try to manufacture wine, although through the use of greenhouses it undoubtedly could do so. If Scotland produces wool and Spain makes wine, and the citizens of the two countries trade for the goods not available from domestic industry, both countries' inhabitants will be better off. But what of the case where one country, perhaps due to geographical disadvantage and an uneducated populace, is worse at producing everything than some other country is? Shouldn't the more backward nation erect trade barriers, allowing domestic industry to develop? How can it possibly offer the more advanced nation anything in trade?
The answer to this problem is Ricardo's law of comparative advantage, named after English economist David Ricardo. Although the initial application of the law was to trade, it is a universal law applying to all human cooperation. Because of the broad applicability of the law, Mises felt it was better named the law of association. In fact, it is easiest to understand this law at a personal level, after which its implications for trade become clear.
Let's use as an example a great athlete: Michael Jordan. Jordan's physical skills are truly extraordinary. There is little doubt that should he choose to apply them to, for instance, house painting, that he could be one of the best house painters in the world.
Yet it's doubtful that Jordan paints his own house. Although he could probably, with a little practice, do so far better than anyone he can hire, he still finds someone else to paint it for him. How can we explain that fact?
The law of comparative advantage is the answer. Although Jordan is better than his painter at both basketball and house painting, Jordan has a comparative advantage in basketball, while his painter has a comparative advantage in house painting. It's easiest to comprehend that arithmetically, by using wage rates as a basis for the comparison.
Let's say that Jordan can hire a house painter for $20 per hour. With a little practice, Jordan could be twice as efficient a painter as the man he has hired. We will imagine that he could market his own house-painting services for $40 per hour.
However, by playing basketball, we will suppose that Jordan can earn $10,000 per hour. Meanwhile, Joe, his painter, who can hardly sink a free throw, couldn't make more than $1 an hour playing basketball. (Perhaps some people will find his play amusing!) Jordan has a 2-to-1 advantage as a house painter, but a 10,000-to-1 advantage as a hoop star.
Perhaps Jordan plans on working twenty hours in a particular week. If he divides his time equally between painting his own house and playing basketball, his total output for the week can be valued at:
10 hours painting x $40 per hour = $400
10 hours basketball x $10,000 per hour = $100,000
Total output: $100,400
If Joe divides his time the same way we could value his production as follows:
10 hours painting x $20 per hour = $200
10 hours basketball x $1 per hour = $10
Total output: $210
Between them, Michael and Joe have produced $100,610 worth of output. Now let's examine the situation if, as we expect, Jordan hires Joe. Jordan's production can now be valued at:
20 hours basketball x $10,000 per hour = $200,000
Total output: $200,000
And Joe's at:
20 hours painting x $20 per hour = $400
Total output: $400
Their total output has risen to $200,400. But, more importantly for an understanding of the law of association, both of them are better off, at least in dollar terms. The painter, who was worse at both jobs, was still able to nearly double the value of his output by concentrating on painting, in which he had a comparative advantage, then by exchanging with Jordan. The law of association demonstrates that, even putting aside moral considerations, it is to everyone's material advantage to cooperate through the division of labor and voluntary exchange. It is the basis of the extended social order.
The application of this law to international trade is a straightforward extension of our analysis above. Even if a country is worse at producing everything than is some other country, it can still net a material gain by specializing in the areas where it has a comparative advantage and trading for other goods. It is only in the obviously unrealistic scenario where everyone is exactly the "same amount" better or worse than everyone else at every job that the law of association would find no application.
This law only shows that a material gain is available through specialization. It doesn't take into account any personal preferences other than material gain. It could well be the case that Jordan simply loves house painting, and would not for the world consider hiring someone else to paint for him, harking back to our discussion in Chapter 1 of the person who decides to do his own roofing. If people believe they are saving money doing their own home repairs, they are often mistaken. However, if they love doing the work, perhaps finding it a nice break from their regular job, they may be getting a psychic profit that outweighs their monetary loss.
Let's return to the beach, and the fateful meeting of Rich and Helena. Each of them realizes that his or her prospects for survival will be enhanced if they can develop a system of cooperative effort. Rather than producing for a general demand, Rich and Helena will find it best to agree in advance on a particular division of labor. Yet the basic principles of exchange will still apply to them. Following Carl Menger's directive to "reduce the complex phenomena of human economic activity to the simplest elements," we will first attempt to comprehend exchange in a simple setting, such as our little island economy.
Given that they have decided to cooperate, our two castaways next must decide how to cooperate. They come to an agreement that Rich, the more dexterous of the two, will make traps, while Helena, the more cunning, will do the hunting. Still, what is the best amount of each activity for them to perform? How can each of them be sure that he or she is getting a fair deal from the other?
Simply relying on goodwill does not work. The history of the Soviet Union illustrates the problems inherent in separating the performance of labor from the self-interest of the laborer. But even if the Soviet Union had succeeded in creating the New Socialist Man, only interested in the well-being of his fellows, there would have remained an insurmountable obstacle to efficient production. How can these altruistic fellows know exactly what should be produced, in what quantities, and employing what resources? I might spend my time creating finger paintings, in the belief that these will produce tremendous happiness for those around me. But if no one else likes them, I've not only wasted my time, I've also wasted the resources — paper, pigment, and so on — that went into the paintings. In the interest of pleasing those around me, I've actually caused them to suffer a loss in satisfaction, even compared to a situation in which I had merely loafed around. The same holds true even if folks love my paintings but are deeply unhappy that I've given up writing to indulge my artistic ambitions. In the balance, and given available resources, people want my writing more than they want my art. Absent a market price system, there is no way for consumers to inform producers of their relative values.
The route past that difficulty is interpersonal exchange. To ensure that they are actually benefiting each other, Rich and Helena must recognize that the other has a right to the goods he or she has acquired through his or her own efforts. As a corollary to that recognition, the exchanges they make must be voluntary. For every so many rats that Helena captures and gives to him, Rich agrees to trade a certain number of traps. If Helena threatens Rich with a club to get rats, we can bet the exchange is benefiting, in their own view, only one of them.
The law of diminishing marginal utility explains the exchange ratio that they will work out. Rich will trade traps for rats until the cost, as subjectively perceived by him, of producing one more trap exceeds the benefit, again as he subjectively perceives it, of the number of rats Helena will give him for that next trap. On the other side of the trade, Helena will trade rats until the subjective cost of the next rat she must give up exceeds the benefit she expects from having one more trap. The next trap that Rich considers trading and the next rat that Helena considers trading are the marginal units. It is the perceived benefits and costs of those units that determine the exchange ratio.
Let's imagine what is likely to happen in our island's rat and trap market. We begin with no rats caught and no traps made. At that point, the value to Rich of the first rat with which Helena can provide him is relatively high — after all, he may starve to death without it. Similarly, the value to Helena of the first trap is large. The first trap will increase her catch tremendously, as she can use that one on the most popular rat trail on the island.
We'll postulate that Rich is willing to give up his first trap for as few as three rats, while Helena is willing to trade as many as five rats to acquire that trap. We'll assume that they meet in the middle, and trade one trap for four rats.
The value to our traders of each succeeding unit acquired will be lower than that of the first one. As Rich's supply of rats increases, he will use each new rat in a way that is less important to him than the previous rat. Once he has had his fill for the day, he may begin to smoke the critters to preserve them for later. But he will not consider it as important that he have smoked rats as he considers it to have the rats that will keep him from starvation. And on the other side of the trade, Helena won't consider the second trap as valuable as the first — after all, she can only deploy it on the second most-frequented trail.
Each trap thereafter will be put to a use that she considers less important than the previous trap.
Similarly, each additional item given up by one of our traders will be more valuable to him or her than the previous unit surrendered. That is because they will first give up what are the least important uses, in their own valuation. It is not the traps or rats that are different when we consider subsequent trades: it is the fact that acting humans will first give up the least valued use of the good in question, then the next least valued, and so on. Each additional trap Rich builds requires him to sacrifice additional leisure time. With each sacrifice, his remaining amount of leisure is smaller. The initial units he gives up were nice to have, but soon he is cutting into rest he needs to stay healthy.
Therefore, after the first trade has been made and Rich has four rats, he is no longer as desperate for them. Similarly, having one trap, the next trap Helena could acquire will be less valuable to her. Let's imagine our traders' value scales for trading rats and traps are these:
We're assuming that Rich will require at least four rats for giving up a second trap (up from three for the first one), while Helena will give up at most four rats (down from five). Even though the value of the next units they can acquire has gone down for both Rich and Helena, they still have a trade from which each of them can profit. They will make the second trade, exchanging four more rats for a trap.
However, our traders' valuations do not support a third exchange. Helena is only willing to trade three rats for a third trap, while Rich will not trade the third trap unless he gets at least five more rats. Trading will cease in this market. It has reached what we will call the plain state of rest (examined further in Chapter 6).
It is important to note that the fact that an exchange took place does not mean that the values of the goods traded were equivalent to the two participants. It is only the fact that they valued the goods in question differently that caused them to trade at all. Helena valued the two traps more than she valued eight rats, while Rich valued eight rats more than he valued two traps.
Carl Menger pointed out that to regard an exchange as occurring at a point of equal valuation leads to absurdities. If two people exchange when they consider the value of what they are getting to be equal to the value of what they are giving up, there is no reason that they shouldn't simply reverse the trade a moment later. If you sell your house for $200,000, then you valued $200,000 more highly than you did your house. Conversely, the buyer valued your house more highly than he did $200,000. Otherwise (ignoring transaction costs), there is no reason that, as soon as the exchange is made, you wouldn't immediately take the house back and give up the $200,000. In fact, if the exchange took place at a point of equal valuation, there is no reason you and the other party shouldn't swap the house back and forth any number of times.
However, if we contemplate exchange from the point of view of human action, we see that people do not exchange simply to have the pleasure of contemplating goods changing hands. Exchange does not arise from a "propensity to trade." In order for an exchange to take place, both parties must feel that they will be better off after the exchange. That is the prerequisite for all action — the actor must feel that the action will improve his state of satisfaction when compared to not acting. He is attempting to move from what is to what ought to be.
The above sheds light on a phrase that is in common use when discussing exchange. Who hasn't heard someone say, after purchasing some item, that the price he paid for it was a "rip-off"? Let's set aside the case where the speaker was deceived as to the quality or nature of the good — that is fraud, and really is a "rip-off." We'll take the good in question to be something of known and consistent quality — say, bottled, brand name beer. At work Monday morning, your friend says, "We went to a ball game over the weekend. Paid five dollars for a beer — what a rip-off!"
What does he mean? As long as he wasn't tricked or forced into buying the beer, and he really did go through with the purchase, he valued the beer more highly than the five dollars. Otherwise, why would he have gone ahead and bought it? If his five dollars meant more to him than the beer, all he had to do was put it back in his pocket and walk away. Given that your friend voluntarily gave up something he valued less than the beer, the vendor might make the exact same complaint — he was ripped-off as well! What your friend really means is, "I wish the beer had been cheaper." However, we all wish to give up less in order to gain more, in other words, to increase our profit. That is the universal basis of all human action. As we try to improve our own condition, we have no reason to expect that others, such as the vendor, are not doing the same.
There's Something Lacking
As of yet, our human actors have no way to employ economic calculation in our little economy. Rich and Helena can compare specific quantities of specific goods and decide which bundle of goods they find more valuable. They can't, however, calculate how much they profited or lost in any exchange, either before or after the fact. We can say that Rich preferred eight rats to two traps, but there is no way to answer the question "How much did he prefer it?" The preference is something he feels. There is no measuring rod we can dip into his psyche to determine the "size" of that feeling. Certainly, he may perceive some satisfactions as more desirable than others. But, as we have pointed out, a phrase such as "I like that trap twice as much as the other" is simply a figure of speech. If someone tries to take it literally, we ask Rothbard's question: "Twice as much of what?"
Trying to calculate in terms of rats and traps will not work either. There is no arithmetical meaning to expressions such as "eight rats minus two traps," or "one trap plus three rats."
The attempt to use labor as the common unit of value, as did Marx and the British classical economists, doesn't succeed. The cost of Rich's labor is his subjective evaluation of what he had to give up in order to perform the work in question. The value to Helena of Rich's labor is her subjective valuation of the fruits of his efforts. To attempt to calculate profit and loss in terms of the ticking of a clock or the expenditure of energy is to miss entirely the economic aspect of what is occurring. Rich might expend just as much time and effort grinding existing traps into sawdust as building new traps, but, in our scenario, Helena certainly will not pay him to grind up traps! The fact that creating traps is valuable and destroying them isn't depends entirely on the valuation of those involved in exchanging them, and can't be determined by physical measurement. In fact, we can easily imagine a situation where the exact same physical activities have their valuations reversed. If our castaways found themselves in a situation where the rats had been hunted to extinction, but the island was littered with useless traps, building traps would have no value, while destroying them, in order to tidy up, would have value.
The lack of economic calculation does not hamper our little economy significantly. Only two people are trading all goods. Since a trader is the creator of his own value scale, he only has to get a sense of his partner's values in order to trade sensibly. But as an economy grows larger the absence of calculation will become a roadblock.
Two's Company, Four's a Mini-Market
Now, we must fast-forward the history of our island — let's christen it "Richland" — economy. We will move forward several generations. (We can imagine that Rich and Helena found yet another way to cooperate for their mutual benefit.) For some strange reason, the island has remained isolated from the global economy. But the population has grown, a village has been built, fields tilled, shops opened, and professions begun. A flourishing trade exists among the inhabitants.
The basics of exchange have not altered from our two-person economy. The addition of other people who might want to exchange complicates our picture, but does not alter it in any basic respect. It will behoove us to take a little time and study the multiperson situation, in order to be prepared for the further complications to come.
We'll imagine that goats were domesticated on the island, and that the cultivation of corn is now practiced. We have two goat herders, Kyle and Stephen, and two corn farmers, Emma and Rachel. For people living in a modern economy, there is an inherent difficulty in studying such a situation — we are not used to dealing with exchanges where goats and corn are traded directly for each other. Since we haven't yet brought money into the picture, we must think of the price of goats as their price in terms of corn, and the price of corn as its price in terms of goats. This type of exchange is called barter, or direct exchange. It takes some getting used to, but it is worth the effort in order to gain a better comprehension of how market prices are established.
Let us imagine that Rachel will pay up to four bushels of corn for her first goat, up to three for her second, and as many as two for her third. Emma will pay up to three bushels for her first goat, up to two for her second, and no more than one for her third.
On the other side of the market, Kyle will accept as few as two bushels of corn for his first goat, as few as three for his second, and as few as four for his third. Stephen will accept as few as three bushels of corn for his first goat, as few as four for his second, and as few as five for his third. So, we have
We can picture the market progressing as follows: First, Rachel trades three bushels of corn for Kyle's first goat offered — clearly, as Rachel prefers to surrender up to four bushels for that goat, and Kyle will accept as few as two, the trade is mutually beneficial. In this "round" of trading, another trade also takes place: Emma trades three bushels of corn for Stephen's first goat offered.
Now, the possibility of another round of trading is considered. Emma will pay at most two more bushels for another goat. But neither Kyle nor Stephen is prepared to supply a goat at that price — Kyle demands at least three bushels for the next goat, while Stephen demands four.
Similarly, Stephen will supply another goat for a minimum of four bushels, but no one in the market is willing to bid four bushels for that second goat — Rachel will bid at most three, while Emma will bid at most two.
Therefore, Emma and Stephen drop out of the market. But Rachel and Kyle have one more mutually profitable trade to make — the trade where Kyle gives up his second goat for three more bushels of corn, and Rachel gives up three more bushels for a second goat.
In this scenario, Kyle's goat-demand for corn is greater than Stephen's — perhaps Stephen really loves goat meat, and so is more reluctant to give up goats. Kyle sells a second goat for only three bushels of corn, while Stephen would have sold a second goat only if he could have gotten at least four bushels. Similarly, Rachel's demand for goats is greater than Emma's — she pays three bushels of corn for her second goat, while Emma would only pay two bushels.
In any market, it is the buyers such as Kyle and Rachel — called the most capable buyers — who will acquire more of the goods in question. Because, for whatever reason, those buyers are willing to pay more, they will use this willingness to outbid the less capable buyers. Similarly, the most capable sellers, those who are the most anxious to move the goods they are selling, will move more of their stock than the less capable sellers.
It is the very nature of human action, the desire to improve our situation as much as possible, that propels the market process. Traders will exchange as long as they feel their trades are improving their situation, and no longer.
The principles of human action only guarantee that people will attempt to find all profitable exchanges. There may be trades available where the cost of finding the trading partner is simply too high, and would turn what otherwise might have been a profitable trade into a losing trade. There are other cases where potential traders simply fail to discover one another. Just over the next hill, there might be a corn farmer who would pay four bushels for a goat, if only he knew that goats were available. The market process does not guarantee that all traders who might be able to make profitable exchanges will always discover one another. But the human drive to better our circumstances implies that people will always be on the lookout for such opportunities. The search for potential profit opportunities that are not being taken advantage of is the role of the entrepreneur, which we will discuss at length in Chapter 7.
So the goat-corn market will establish a price of three bushels of corn per goat. At that price, Emma's demand is for one goat, and Rachel's is for two. From the perspective of the corn buyers, the market price is one-third goat per bushel. At that price, Kyle demands six bushels and Stephen demands three bushels. The market process will tend to establish a price that clears the market: all sellers willing to sell at the market price will be able to do so, and all buyers willing to buy at that price will also be able to do so. At the market price, Stephen and Kyle between them attempt to sell three goats, while Emma and Rachel, between them, attempt to buy three goats. And Emma and Rachel will attempt to sell nine bushels of corn, while Stephen and Kyle will attempt to buy nine bushels.
If these dynamics of supply and demand change, the market process will adjust the price to the new realities. Let's say that Stephen and Kyle get sick of eating corn. What's more, a farmer down the road has started growing squash, which they can eat instead. Their demand for corn will drop, and they will not be willing to offer as much goat per bushel as before — they find it better to spend some of their goats on squash. If Emma and Rachel still want goats, they will have to bid more for them. A new market price will emerge — let's say, four bushels per goat — and the market will clear at that new price. If Emma's and Rachel's value scales have not changed, then Rachel will buy one goat for four bushels, and Emma will not buy any. No one had to decree a higher price for goats in order to bring one about.
It is this seemingly magical property of markets that led Adam Smith to speak of the "invisible hand" guiding market participants. Without any central authority directing them, their own plans and desires tend to create a situation in which all those exchanges take place that both parties believe will benefit them. (As we have mentioned, human action, directed toward an uncertain future, always contains the possibility of error. After the fact, any trader might decide that he or she had made a mistake.)
Because market exchange is voluntary, it allows every participant to express the urgency with which he demands particular goods. It allows humans to cope with the scarcity of means through cooperation, rather than through violence and plunder.
Scarcity is a necessary condition of something being an economic good. Air is not scarce, and, therefore, it is free, and outside the scope of economics. We must not take "scarce" in an absolute sense, but instead consider scarcity relative to demand. There are few videotapes of me rapping — only one that I'm aware of — but they are not scarce in the economic sense, as the supply of one is infinitely greater than the demand of zero. No price will be paid for such a tape, or at least no price greater than the going rate for used tapes sold for retaping.
In the above scenario, Stephen would have been happy to buy more bushels of corn, if the price were lower. If corn were so abundant that it littered the ground everywhere in Richland, Stephen might use far more than the three bushels he actually purchased. But, given that corn is scarce, the market process sends it to whoever demands it most urgently. Kyle, for whatever reason — perhaps he likes corn more than Stephen does, or he has a plan for a new food product made from corn, which he feels will be a big hit — is willing to pay more for corn than is Stephen. Because of this, he acquires six bushels while Stephen only acquires three.
The demand we are speaking of is effective demand. In order to take part in voluntary exchange, we must offer others something that they value — we have to bring something to the table. Demand at the point of a knife and demand that is simply a wish for some good are altogether different from demand in the market.
Although we will take up the topic of intervention in the market process in Part 3 it will be instructive now to see if the Richland town council could improve upon the market outcome. Let's say that the goat lobby persuades the council that the corn price of goats is too low and is hampering the goat industry. The council passes a law setting the price of goats at four bushels of corn. The goat lobby is thrilled — now their profits will soar! Stephen, who was only willing to sell one goat at the previous price of three bushels, now is willing to sell two for four bushels. Kyle, who was only willing to sell two goats at the previous price, now is willing to sell three.
But if we consider Emma's and Rachel's demand for goats, we see that the goat herders will be sorely disappointed, because at the new, higher price, they will only want one goat! Rachel, who in an unhampered market would have bought two goats, only values the first goat more than four bushels of corn. Emma, who would have bought one goat in the unhampered market, now will not buy any. Kyle and Stephen bring five goats to market, planning on "cleaning up," but instead go back home with four. There is now a glut of goats and a shortage of corn: gluts and shortages are the result of price-fixing.
In the regulated market, we can't even be sure whether Stephen or Kyle will get the corn. Although Kyle demands corn more urgently than does Stephen, the new regulation prevents him from outbidding Stephen. What's more, in the unhampered market there would be three exchanges, each of which both sides consider to be beneficial. In the regulated market only one exchange will take place. Although there is no way to calculate how much worse off the market participants are in our regulated market than they would have been in the unhampered market, we can use understanding to surmise that they are worse off.
Winners, Losers, and the Market Process
People often use words from the arenas of games and war to describe the market. We hear that international competition will result in some nations being "winners" and others "losers." We read a headline that some company has "crushed" its competition, or that the U.S. is at "economic war" with Japan or OPEC.
Employed as loose metaphors, such terms are useful. But the analogy does not extend very far. The key difference between a game and the market process is that, in the market, all participants gain from voluntary exchange. Kyle, Stephen, Rachel, and Emma were all better off after completing their trades than they had been beforehand.
Imagine that you and I open competing software companies. Over time, it becomes apparent that consumers prefer your product. I close my business down, and you wind up hiring me as your lead programmer. Now, in one sense, I lost and you won. But in a much more important sense, everyone won. I now have a role in fulfilling the needs of the consumers to which I am better suited than previously, you have a new lead programmer, and the consumers have a better software company. This stands in sharp contrast to sports, where the winner gets a "1" in the standings, the loser a "0," and everyone goes home. It is also very different from war, where the winners may do what they want with the losers, including annihilate them.
To take the metaphors of games and war too literally in describing the market process is a misapprehension of its nature. Market competition is different than sports and war in crucial ways. It doesn't exist to pick "winners" and "losers": it exists to allow everyone to find a place in the scheme of production in which they can best satisfy the wishes of consumers.
It is just as mistaken to view international markets as pitting one nation against another as it is to view the domestic market as pitting employees against employers, or producers against consumers. In a market economy, whether it is domestic or international in scope, everyone's standard of living can rise at once. America has not lost if Japan or China should become wealthier than the U.S. An increase in the standard of living anywhere benefits all people who are economically integrated with the area in question.
The discovery of the law of association was a great achievement of the classical economists. It points the way toward social harmony, showing that the powerful and the weak have a better way to relate to each other than through exploitation. The nature of the market as a network of voluntary exchanges means that each participant must feel he is benefiting from a trade, or he would not enter into it.