1. Skip to navigation
  2. Skip to content
  3. Skip to sidebar

The Ludwig von Mises Institute

Advancing Austrian Economics, Liberty, and Peace

Advancing the scholarship of liberty in the tradition of the Austrian School

Search Mises.org

  Previous SectionNext Section
  Table of Contents

Chapter 1—Fundamentals of Human Action

      Labor and Land, in one form or another, enter into each stage of production. Labor helps to transform seeds into wheat, wheat into flour, pigs into ham, flour into bread, etc. Not only is Labor present at every stage of production, but so also is Nature. Land must be available to provide room at every stage of the process, and time, as has been stated above, is required for each stage. Further­more, if we wish to trace each stage of production far enough back to original sources, we must arrive at a point where only labor and nature existed and there were no capital goods. This must be true by logical implication, since all capital goods must have been produced at earlier stages with the aid of labor. If we could trace each production process far enough back in time, we must be able to arrive at the point—the earliest stage—where man combined his forces with nature unaided by produced factors of production. Fortunately, it is not necessary for human actors to perform this task, since action uses materials available in the pres­ent to arrive at desired goals in the future, and there is no need to be concerned with development in the past.

      There is another unique type of factor of production that is indispensable in every stage of every production process. This is the “technological idea” of how to proceed from one stage to an­other and finally to arrive at the desired consumers’ good. This is but an application of the analysis above, namely, that for any action, there must be some plan or idea of the actor about how to use things as means, as definite pathways, to desired ends. Without such plans or ideas, there would be no action. These plans may be called recipes; they are ideas of recipes that the actor uses to arrive at his goal. A recipe must be present at each stage of each produc­tion process from which the actor proceeds to a later stage. The actor must have a recipe for transforming iron into steel, wheat into flour, bread and ham into sandwiches, etc.

      The distinguishing feature of a recipe is that, once learned, it generally does not have to be learned again. It can be noted and remembered. Remembered, it no longer has to be produced; it re­mains with the actor as an unlimited factor of production that never wears out or needs to be economized by human action. It becomes a general condition of human welfare in the same way as air.[12]

      It should be clear that the end of the production process—the consumers’ good—is valued because it is a direct means of satisfy­ing man’s ends. The consumers’ good is consumed, and this act of consumption constitutes the satisfying of human wants. This consumers’ good may be a material object like bread or an im­material one like friendship. Its important quality is not whether it is material or not, but whether it is valued by man as a means of satisfying his wants. This function of a consumers’ good is called its service in ministering to human wants. Thus, the material bread is valued not for itself, but for its service in satisfying wants; just as an immaterial thing, such as music or medical care, is obviously valued for such service. All these services are “con­sumed” to satisfy wants. “Economic” is by no means equivalent to “material.”

      It is also clear that the factors of production—the various higher-­order producers’ goods—are valued solely because of their antici­pated usefulness in helping to produce future consumers’ goods or to produce lower-order producers’ goods that will help to bring about consumers’ goods. The valuation of factors of production is derived from actors’ evaluation of their products (lower stages), all of which eventually derive their valuation from the end result—the consumers’ good.[13]

      Furthermore, the omnipresent fact of the scarcity of consumers’ goods must be reflected back in the sphere of the factors of produc­tion. The scarcity of consumers’ goods must imply a scarcity of their factors. If the factors were unlimited, then the consumers’ goods would also be unlimited, which cannot be the case. This does not exclude the possibility that some factors, such as recipes, may be unlimited and therefore general conditions of welfare rather than scarce indirect means. But other factors at each stage of production must be in scarce supply, and this must account for the scarcity of the end product. Man’s endless search for ways to satisfy his wants—i.e., to increase his production of consumers’ goods—takes two forms: increasing his available supply of factors of production and improving his recipes.

      Although it has seemed evident that there are several co-operat­ing factors at each stage of production, it is important to realize that for each consumers’ good there must always be more than one scarce factor of production. This is implied in the very existence of human action. It is impossible to conceive of a situation where only one factor of production produces a consumers’ good or even advances a consumers’ good from its previous stage of production. Thus, if the sandwich in the armchair did not require the co-operating factors at the previous stage (labor of preparation, carry­ing, bread, ham, time, etc.), then it would always be in the status of a consumers’ good—sandwich-in-the-armchair. To simplify the example, let us suppose the sandwich already is prepared and in the kitchen. Then, to produce a consumers’ good from this stage forward requires the following factors: (1) the sandwich; (2) carry­ing it to the armchair; (3) time; (4) the land available. If we as­sume that it required only one factor—the sandwich—then we would have to assume that the sandwich was magically and in­stantaneously moved from kitchen to armchair without effort. But in this case, the consumers’ good would not have to be produced at all, and we would be in the impossible assumption of Paradise. Similarly, at each stage of the productive process, the good must have been produced by at least more than one (higher-order) scarce co-operating factor; otherwise this stage of production could not exist at all.

4. Further Implications: Time

 is omnipresent in human action as a means that must be economized. Every action is related to time as follows:

     . . . A is the period before the beginning of the action; A is the point in time at which the action begins; AB is the period during which the action occurs; B is the point at which the action ends; and B . . . is the period after the end of the action.

      AB is defined as the period of production—the period from the beginning of the action to the time when the consumers’ good is available. This period may be divided into various stages, each itself taking a period of time. The time expended during the period of production consists of the time during which labor energy is expended (or working time) and maturing time, i.e., time required without the necessity of concurrent expenditure of labor. An obvious example is the case of agriculture. There might be six months between the time the soil is tilled and the time the harvest is reaped. The total time during which labor must be expended may be three weeks, while the remaining time of over five months consists of the time during which the crop must mature and ripen by the processes of nature. Another example of a lengthy maturing time is the aging of wine to improve its quality.

      Clearly, each consumers’ good has its own period of production. The differences between the time involved in the periods of production of the various goods may be, and are, innumerable.

      One important point that must be emphasized when consider­ing action and the period of production is that acting man does not trace back past production processes to their original sources. In the previous section, we traced back consumers’ goods and producers’ goods to their original sources, demonstrating that all capital goods were originally produced solely by labor and nature. Acting man, however, is not interested in past processes, but only in using presently available means to achieve anticipated future ends. At any point in time, when he begins the action (say A), he has available to him: labor, nature-given elements, and previously produced capital goods. He begins the action at A expecting to reach his end at B. For him, the period of production is AB, since he is not concerned with the amount of time spent in past production of his capital goods or in the methods by which they were produced.[14] Thus, the farmer about to use his soil to grow crops for the coming season does not worry about whether or to what extent his soil is an original, nature-given factor or is the result of the improvements of previous land-clearers and farmers. He is not concerned about the previous time spent by these past improvers. He is concerned only with the capital (and other) goods in the present and the future. This is the necessary result of the fact that action occurs in the present and is aimed at the future. Thus, acting man considers and values the factors of production available in the present in accordance with their anticipated serv­ices in the future production of consumers’ goods, and never in accordance with what has happened to the factors in the past.

     A fundamental and constant truth about human action is that man prefers his end to be achieved in the shortest possible time. Given the specific satisfaction, the sooner it arrives, the better. This results from the fact that time is always scarce, and a means to be economized. The sooner any end is attained, the better. Thus, with any given end to be attained, the shorter the period of action, i.e., production, the more preferable for the actor. This is the universal fact of time preference. At any point of time, and for any action, the actor most prefers to have his end attained in the immediate present. Next best for him is the immediate future, and the further in the future the attainment of the end appears to be, the less preferable it is. The less waiting time, the more preferable it is for him.[15]

      Time enters into human action not only in relation to the wait­ing time in production, but also in the length of time in which the consumers’ good will satisfy the wants of the consumer. Some consumers’ goods will satisfy his wants, i.e., attain his ends, for a short period of time, others for a longer period. They can be con­sumed for shorter or longer periods. This may be included in the diagram of any action, as shown in Figure 2. This length of time, BC, is the duration of serviceableness of the consumers’ good. It is the length of the time the end served by the consumers’ good con­tinues to be attained. This duration of serviceableness differs for each consumers’ good. It may be four hours for the ham sand­wich, after which period of time the actor desires other food or another sandwich. The builder of a house may expect to use it to serve his wants for 10 years. Obviously, the expected durative power of the consumers’ good to serve his end will enter into the actor’s plans.[16]


      Clearly, all other things being equal, the actor will prefer a consumers’ good of greater durability to one of lesser, since the former will render more total service. On the other hand, if the actor values the total service rendered by two consumers’ goods equally, he will, because of time preference, choose the less durable good since he will acquire its total services sooner than the other. He will have to wait less for the total services of the less durable good.

      The concepts of period of production and duration of service­ableness are present in all human action. There is also a third time-period that enters into action. Each person has a general time-horizon, stretching from the present into the future, for which he plans various types of action. Whereas period of produc­tion and duration of serviceableness refer to specific consumers’ goods and differ with each consumers’ good, the period of provision (the time-horizon) is the length of future time for which each actor plans to satisfy his wants. The period of provision, there­fore, includes planned action for a considerable variety of con­sumers’ goods, each with its own period of production and dura­tion. This period of provision differs from actor to actor in ac­cordance with his choice. Some people live from day to day, taking no heed of later periods of time; others plan not only for the duration of their own lives, but for their children as well.

5. Further Implications


      All action involves the employment of scarce means to attain the most valued ends. Man has the choice of using the scarce means for various alternative ends, and the ends that he chooses are the ones he values most highly. The less urgent wants are those that remain unsatisfied. Actors can be interpreted as ranking their ends along a scale of values, or scale of preferences. These scales differ for each person, both in their content and in their orders of preference. Furthermore, they differ for the same individual at different times. Thus, at some other point in time, the actor mentioned in section 2 above might choose to go for a drive, or to go for a drive and then to play bridge, rather than to continue watching the game. In that case, the ranking on his preference scale shifts to this order:

(First)     1. Going for a drive
(Second) 2. Playing bridge
(Third)    3. Continuing to watch baseball game

Moreover, a new end might have been introduced in the mean­time, so that the actor might enjoy going to a concert, and this may change his value scale to the following:

(First)     1. Going for a drive
(Second) 2. Going to a concert
(Third)    3. Playing bridge
(Fourth)  4. Continuing to watch baseball game

The choice of which ends to include in the actor’s value scale and the assignment of rank to the various ends constitute the process of value judgment. Each time the actor ranks and chooses between various ends, he is making a judgment of their value to him.

      It is highly useful to assign a name to this value scale held by all human actors. We are not at all concerned with the specific content of men’s ends, but only with the fact that various ends are ranked in the order of their importance. These scales of preference may be called happiness or welfare or utility or satis­faction or contentment. Which name we choose for value scales is not important. At any rate, it permits us to say, whenever an actor has attained a certain end, that he has increased his state of satis­faction, or his contentment, happiness, etc. Conversely, when some­one considers himself worse off, and fewer of his ends are being attained, his satisfaction, happiness, welfare, etc., have decreased.

      It is important to realize that there is never any possibility of measuring increases or decreases in happiness or satisfaction. Not only is it impossible to measure or compare changes in the satis­faction of different people; it is not possible to measure changes in the happiness of any given person. In order for any measure­ment to be possible, there must be an eternally fixed and objec­tively given unit with which other units may be compared. There is no such objective unit in the field of human valuation. The in­dividual must determine subjectively for himself whether he is better or worse off as a result of any change. His preference can only be expressed in terms of simple choice, or rank. Thus, he can say, “I am better off” or “I am happier” because he went to a concert instead of playing bridge (or “I will be better off” for going to the concert), but it would be completely meaningless for him to try to assign units to his preference and say, “I am two and a half times happier because of this choice than I would have been play­ing bridge.” Two and a half times what? There is no possible unit of happiness that can be used for purposes of comparison and, hence, of addition or multiplication. Thus, values cannot be measured; values or utilities cannot be added, subtracted, or mul­tiplied. They can only be ranked as better or worse. A man may know that he is or will be happier or less happy, but not by “how much,” not by a measurable quantity.[17]

      All action is an attempt to exchange a less satisfactory state of affairs for a more satisfactory one. The actor finds himself (or ex­pects to find himself) in a nonperfect state, and, by attempting to attain his most urgently desired ends, expects to be in a better state. He cannot measure the gain in satisfaction, but he does know which of his wants are more urgent than others, and he does know when his condition has improved. Therefore, all action in­volves exchange—an exchange of one state of affairs, X, for Y, which the actor anticipates will be a more satisfactory one (and therefore higher on his value scale). If his expectation turns out to be correct, the value of Y on his preference scale will be higher than the value of X, and he has made a net gain in his state of satisfaction or utility. If he has been in error, and the value of the state that he has given up—X—is higher than the value of Y, he has suffered a net loss. This psychic gain (or profit) and loss can­not be measured in terms of units, but the actor always knows whether he has experienced psychic profit or psychic loss as a result of an action-exchange.[18]

      Human actors value means strictly in accordance with their valuation of the ends that they believe the means can serve. Obviously, consumers’ goods are graded in value in accordance with the ends that men expect them to satisfy. Thus, the value placed on the enjoyment contributed by a ham sandwich or a house will determine the value a man will place on the ham sandwich or the house themselves. Similarly, producers’ goods are valued in accordance with their expected contribution in produc­ing consumers’ goods. Higher-order producers’ goods are valued in accordance with their anticipated service in forming lower-order producers’ goods. Hence, those consumers’ goods serving to attain more highly valued ends will be valued more highly than those serving less highly valued ends, and those producers’ goods serving to produce more highly valued consumers’ goods will themselves be valued more highly than other producers’ goods. Thus, the process of imputing values to goods takes place in the opposite direction to that of the process of production. Value proceeds from the ends to the consumers’ good to the various first-order producers’ goods, to the second-order producers’ goods, etc.[19] The original source of value is the ranking of ends by human actors, who then impute value to consumers’ goods, and so on to the orders of producers’ goods, in accordance with their expected ability to contribute toward serving the various ends.[20]


      It is evident that things are valued as means in accordance with their ability to attain ends valued as more or less urgent. Each physical unit of a means (direct or indirect) that enters into human action is valued separately. Thus, the actor is interested in evaluating only those units of means that enter, or that he con­siders will enter, into his concrete action. Actors choose between, and evaluate, not “coal” or “butter” in general, but specific units of coal or butter. In choosing between acquiring cows or horses, the actor does not choose between the class of cows and the class of horses, but between specific units of them—e.g., two cows versus three horses. Each unit that enters into concrete action is graded and evaluated separately. Only when several units together enter into human action are all of them evaluated together.

      The processes that enter into valuation of specific units of different goods may be illustrated in this example:[21] An individual possessing two cows and three horses might have to choose between giving up one cow or one horse. He may decide in this case to keep the horse, indicating that in this state of his stock, a horse is more valuable to him than a cow. On the other hand, he might be pre­sented with the choice of keeping either his entire stock of cows or his stock of horses. Thus, his stable and cowshed might catch fire, and he is presented with the choice of saving the inhabitants of one or of the other building. In this case, two cows might be more valuable to him than three horses, so that he will prefer to save the cows. When deciding between units of his stock, the actor may therefore prefer good X to good Y, while he may choose good Y if he must act upon his whole stock of each good.

      This process of valuation according to the specific units involved provides the solution for the famous “value paradox” which puzzled writers for centuries. The question was: How can men value bread less than platinum, when “bread” is obviously more useful than “platinum”? The answer is that acting man does not evaluate the goods open to him by abstract classes, but in terms of the specific units available. He does not wonder whether “bread-­in-general” is more or less valuable to him than “platinum-in-gen­eral,” but whether, given the present available stock of bread and platinum, a “loaf of bread” is more or less valuable to him than “an ounce of platinum.” That, in most cases, men prefer the latter is no longer surprising.[22]

      As has been explained above, value, or utility, cannot be meas­ured, and therefore cannot be added, subtracted, or multiplied. This holds for specific units of the same good in the same way as it holds for all other comparisons of value. Thus, if butter is an object serving human ends, we know that two pounds of butter will be valued more highly than one pound. This will be true until a point is reached when the butter is available in unlimited quantities to satisfy human wants and will then be transferred from the status of a means to that of a general condition of human welfare. However, we cannot say that two pounds of butter are “twice as useful or valuable” as one pound.

      What has been involved in this key concept of “specific units of a good”? In these examples, the units of the good have been interchangeable from the point of view of the actor. Thus, any concrete pound of butter was evaluated in this case perfectly equally with any other pound of butter. Cow A and cow B were valued equally by the individual, and it made no difference to him which cow he was faced with the choice of saving. Similarly, horse A was valued equally with horse B and with horse C, and the actor was not concerned which particular horse he had to choose. When a com­modity is in such a way available in specific homogeneous units equally capable of rendering the same service to the actor, this available stock is called a supply. A supply of a good is available in specific units each perfectly substitutable for every other. The individual above had an available supply of two cows and three horses, and a supply of pounds of butter.

      What if one pound of butter was considered by the actor as of better quality than another pound of butter? In that case, the two “butters” are really different goods from the point of view of the actor and will be evaluated differently. The two pounds of butter are now two different goods and are no longer two units of a supply of one good. Similarly, the actor must have valued each horse or each cow identically. If he preferred one horse to each of the others, or one cow to the other, then they are no longer units of the supply of the same good. No longer are his horses inter­changeable for one another. If he grades horse A above the others and regards horses B and C indifferently, then he has supplies of two different goods (omitting the cows): say, “Grade A horses—one unit”; and “Grade B horses—two units.” If a specific unit is differ­ently evaluated from all other units, then the supply of that good is only one unit.

      Here again, it is very important to recognize that what is signifi­cant for human action is not the physical property of a good, but the evaluation of the good by the actor. Thus, physically there may be no discernible difference between one pound of butter and an­other, or one cow and another. But if the actor chooses to evaluate them differently, they are no longer part of the supply of the same good.

      The interchangeability of units in the supply of a good does not mean that the concrete units are actually valued equally. They may and will be valued differently whenever their position in the supply is different. Thus, suppose that the isolated individual suc­cessively finds one horse, then a second, then a third. Each horse may be identical and interchangeable with the others. The first horse will fulfill the most urgent wants that a horse can serve; this follows from the universal fact that action uses scarce means to satisfy the most urgent of the not yet satisfied wants. When the second horse is found, he will be put to work satisfying the most urgent of the wants remaining. These wants, however, must be ranked lower than the wants that the previous horse has satis­fied. Similarly, the third horse acquired might be capable of per­forming the same service as the others, but he will be put to work fulfilling the highest of the remaining wants—which, however, will yet be lower in value than the others.

      The important consideration is the relation between the unit to be acquired or given up and the quantity of supply (stock) already available to the actor. Thus, if no units of a good (whatever the good may be) are available, the first unit will satisfy the most urgent wants that such a good is capable of satisfying. If to this supply of one unit is added a second unit, the latter will fulfill the most urgent wants remaining, but these will be less urgent than the ones the first fulfilled. Therefore, the value of the second unit to the actor will be less than the value of the first unit. Simi­larly, the value of the third unit of the supply (added to a stock of two units) will be less than the value of the second unit. It may not matter to the individual which horse is chosen first and which second, or which pounds of butter he consumes, but those units which he does use first will be the ones that he values more highly. Thus, for all human actions, as the quantity of the supply (stock) of a good increases, the utility (value) of each additional unit decreases.

      Let us now consider a supply from the point of view of a pos­sible decrease, rather than an increase. Assume that a man has a supply of six (interchangeable) horses. They are engaged in ful­filling his wants. Suppose that he is now faced with the necessity of giving up one horse. It now follows that this smaller stock of means is not capable of rendering as much service to him as the larger supply. This stems from the very existence of the good as a means.[23] Therefore, the utility of X units of a good is always greater than the utility of X – 1 units. Because of the impossibility of measurement, it is impossible to determine by how much greater one value is than the other. Now, the question arises: Which utility, which end, does the actor give up because he is deprived of one unit? Obviously, he gives up the least urgent of the wants which the larger stock would have satisfied. Thus, if the individual was using one horse for pleasure riding, and he considers this the least important of his wants that were fulfilled by the six horses, the loss of a horse will cause him to give up pleasure riding.

      The principles involved in the utility of a supply may be il­lustrated in the following value-scale diagram (Figure 3). We are considering any given means, which is divisible into homo­geneous units of a supply, each interchangeable and capable of giving service equal to that of the other units. The supply must be scarce in relation to the ends that it is capable of fulfilling; otherwise it would not be a good, but a condition of human wel­fare. We assume for simplicity that there are 10 ends which the means could fulfill, and that each unit of means is capable of serving one of the ends. If the supply of the good is 6 units, then the first six ends, ranked in order of importance by the valuing individual, are the ones that are being satisfied. Ends ranked 7–10 remain unsatisfied. If we assume that the stock arrived in succes­sive units, then the first unit went to satisfy end 1, the second unit was used to serve end 2, etc. The sixth unit was used to serve end 6. The dots indicate how the units were used for the different ends, and the arrow indicates the direction the process took, i.e., that the most important ends were served first; the next, second, etc. The diagram illustrates the aforementioned laws that the utility (value) of more units is greater than the utility of fewer units and that the utility of each successive unit is less as the quantity of the supply increases.

     Now, suppose the actor is faced with the necessity of giving up one unit of his stock. His total will be 5 instead of 6 units. Obviously, he gives up satisfying the end ranked sixth, and con­tinues to satisfy the more important ends 1–5. As a result of the in­terchangeability of units, it does not matter to him which of the six units he must lose; the point is that he will give up serving this sixth end. Since action considers only the present and the future not the past, it does not matter to him which units he acquired first in the past. He deals only with his presently avail­able stock. In other words, suppose that the sixth horse that he had previously acquired (named “Seabiscuit”) he had placed in the service of pleasure riding. Suppose that he now must lose an­other horse (“Man o’ War”) which had arrived earlier, and which was engaged in the more important duty (to him) of leading a wagon. He will still give up end 6 by simply transferring Sea­biscuit from this function to the wagon-leading end. This conse­quence follows from the defined interchangeability of units and from disregard of past events which are of no consequence for the present and the future.

      Thus, the actor gives up the lowest-ranking want that the origi­nal stock (in this case, six units) was capable of satisfying. This one unit that he must consider giving up is called the marginal unit. It is the unit “at the margin.” This least important end ful­filled by the stock is known as the satisfaction provided by the marginal unit, or the utility of the marginal unit—in short: the marginal satisfaction, or marginal utility. If the marginal unit is one unit, then the marginal utility of the supply is the end that must be given up as the result of a loss of the unit. In Figure 3, the marginal utility is ranked sixth among the ends. If the supply consisted of four units, and the actor were faced with the necessity of giving up one unit, then the value of the marginal unit, or the marginal utility, would have a rank of four. If the stock consisted of one unit, and this had to be given up, the value of the marginal unit would be one—the value of the highest-ranked end.

      We are now in a position to complete an important law in­dicated above, but with different phraseology: The greater the supply of a good, the lower the marginal utility; the smaller the supply, the higher the marginal utility. This fundamental law of economics has been derived from the fundamental axiom of human action; it is the law of marginal utility, sometimes known as the law of diminishing marginal utility. Here again, it must be emphasized that “utility” is not a cardinal quantity subject to the processes of measurement, such as addition, multiplication, etc. It is a ranked number expressible only in terms of higher or lower order in the preferences of men.

      This law of marginal utility holds for all goods, regardless of the size of the unit considered. The size of the unit will be the one that enters into concrete human action, but whatever it is, the same principle applies. Thus, if in certain situations, the actor must consider only pairs of horses as the units to add or subtract from his stock, instead of the individual horses, he will construct a new and shorter scale of ends with fewer units of supply to consider. He will then go through a similar process of assigning means to serve ends and will give up the least valued end should he lose a unit of supply. The ends will simply be ranked in terms of the alternative uses of pairs of horses, instead of single horses.

      What if a good cannot be divided into homogeneous units for purposes of action? There are cases where the good must be treated as a whole in human action. Does the law of marginal utility apply in such a case? The law does apply, since we then treat the supply as consisting of one unit. In this case, the marginal unit is equal in size to the total supply possessed or desired by the actor. The value of the marginal unit is equal to the first rank of the ends which the total good could serve. Thus, if an individual must dispose of his whole stock of six horses, or acquire a stock of six horses together, the six horses are treated as one unit. The marginal utility of his supply would then be equal to the first-­ranking end that the unit of six horses could supply.

      If, as above, we consider the case of additions instead of de­creases to stock, we recall that the law derived for this situation was that as the quantity of supply increases, the utility of each ad­ditional unit decreases. Yet this additional unit is precisely the marginal unit. Thus, if instead of decreasing the supply from six to five horses, we increase it from five to six, the value of the ad­ditional horse is equal to the value of the sixth-ranking end—say, pleasure riding. This is the same marginal unit, with the same utility, as in the case of decreasing the stock from six to five. Thus, the law derived previously was simply another form of the law of marginal utility. The greater the supply of a good, the lower the marginal utility; the smaller the supply, the higher the marginal utility. This is true whether or not the marginal unit is the unit of decrease of stock or the unit of addition to stock, when these are considered by the actor. If a man’s supply of a good equals X units, and he is considering the addition of one unit, this is the marginal unit. If his supply is X + 1 units, and he is considering the loss of one unit, this too is his marginal unit, and its value is identical with the former (provided that his ends and their ranking are the same in both cases).

      We have dealt with the laws of utility as they apply to each good treated in human action. Now we must indicate the relation­ship among various goods. It is obvious that more than one good exists in human action. This has already been definitely proven, since it was demonstrated that more than one factor of production, hence more than one good, must exist. Figure 4 below demonstrates the relationship between the various goods in human action. Here the value scales of two goods are considered—X and Y. For each good, the law of marginal utility holds, and the relation between supply and value is revealed in the diagram for each good. For simplicity, let us assume that X is horses and Y cows, and that the value scales representing those held by the individual are as fol­lows (horizontal lines are drawn through each end to demonstrate the relationship in the ranking of the ends of the two goods): End Y-1 is ranked highest (say, cow one); then ends X-1, X-2, and X-3 (horses one, two, and three); Y-2; Y-3; X-4; Y-4; X-5; Y-5; X-6; X-7; Y-6; Y-7.

      Now, the man’s value scales will reveal his choices involving al­ternatives of action in regard to these two goods. Suppose that his stock is: 3Y (cows) and 4X (horses). He is faced with the alterna­tive of giving up either one cow or one horse. He will choose the alternative that will deprive him of the least valued end possible. Since the marginal utility of each good is equal to the value of the least important end of which he would be deprived, he compares the marginal utility of X with the marginal utility of Y. In this case, the marginal unit of X has a rank of X-4, and the marginal unit of Y has a rank of Y-3. But the end Y-3 is ranked higher on his value scale than X-4. Hence, the marginal utility of Y is in this case higher than (or greater than) the marginal utility of X. Since he will give up the lowest possible utility, he will give up one unit of X. Thus, presented with a choice of units of goods to give up, he will give up the good with units of lowest marginal utility on his value scale. Suppose another example: that his stock is three horses and two cows. He has the alternative of giving up 1X or 1Y. In this case, the marginal utility of Y is ranked at Y-2, and that of X is ranked at X-3. But X-3 occupies a higher position on his value scale than Y-2, and therefore the marginal utility of Y is at this point lower than the marginal utility of X. He gives up a unit of Y.

      The converse occurs if the man must choose between the alterna­tive of increasing his stock by either one unit of X or one unit of Y. Thus, suppose that his stock is four units of X and four units of Y. He must choose between adding one horse or one cow. He then com­pares the marginal utility of increase, i.e., the value of the most important of the not yet satisfied wants. The marginal utility of X is then ranked at X-5; of Y at Y-5. But X-5 ranks higher than Y-5 on his value scale, and he will therefore choose the former. Thus, faced with the choice of adding units of goods, he will choose the unit of highest marginal utility on his value scale.

      Another example: Previously, we saw that the man in a posi­tion of (4X, 3Y) would, if faced with the choice of giving up one unit of either X or Y, give up the unit of X, with a lower marginal utility. In other words, he would prefer a position of (3X, 3Y) to (4X, 2Y). Now suppose he is in a position of (3X, 3Y) and faced with the choice of adding one unit of X or one unit of Y. Since the marginal utility of the increased X is greater than that of Y, he will choose to add the unit of X and to arrive at a position of (4X, 3Y) rather than (3X, 4Y). The reader can work out the hypotheti­cal choices for all the possible combinations of the actor’s stock.

      It is evident that in the act of choosing between giving up or adding units of either X or Y, the actor must have, in effect, placed both goods on a single, unitary value scale. Unless he could place X and Y on one value scale for comparison, he could not have determined that the marginal utility of the fourth unit of X was higher than that of the fourth unit of Y. The very fact of action in choosing between more than one good implies that the units of these goods must have been ranked for comparison on one value scale of the actor. The actor may not and cannot measure differences in utility, but he must be engaged in ranking all the goods considered on one value scale. Thus, we should actually consider the ends served by the two means as ranked on one value scale as follows:

Ends (Ranked)
1 — Y-1
2 — X-1
3 — X-2
4 — X-3
5 — Y-2
6 — Y-3
7 — X-4
8 — Y-4
9 — X-5
10 — Y-5
11 — X-6
12 — X-7
13 — Y-6
14 — Y-7

      These principles permit of being extended from two to any number of goods. Regardless of the number of goods, any man will always have a certain combination of units of them in his stock. He may be faced with the choice of giving up one unit of any good that he might choose. By ranking the various goods and the ends served by the relevant units, the actor will give up the unit of that good of which the marginal utility to him is the lowest. Similarly, with any given combination of goods in his stock, and faced with the choice of adding one unit of any of the goods available, the actor will choose that good whose marginal utility of increase will be highest. In other words, all the goods are ranked on one value scale in accordance with the ends they serve.

      If the actor has no units of some goods in his possession, this does not affect the principle. Thus, if he has no units of X or Y in his possession, and he must choose between adding a unit of X or one unit of Y, he will choose the marginal unit of greatest utility, in this case, Y. The principle is easily extended to the case of n goods.

      It must be reiterated here that value scales do not exist in a void apart from the concrete choices of action. Thus, if the actor has a stock of (3X, 4Y, 2Z, etc.), his choices for adding and subtracting from stock take place in this region, and there is no need for him to formulate hypothetical value scales to determine what his choices would have been if his stock were (6X, 8Y, 5Z, etc.). No one can predict with certainty the course of his choices except that they will follow the law of marginal utility, which was deduced from the axiom of action.

      The solution of the value paradox mentioned above is now fully clear. If a man prefers one ounce of platinum to five loaves of bread, he is choosing between units of the two goods based on the supply available. On the basis of the available supply of platinum and of bread, the marginal utility of a unit of platinum is greater than the marginal utility of a unit of bread.[24]

[12]We shall not deal at this point with the complications involved in the original learning of any recipe by the actor, which is the object of human action.

[13]Cf. Carl Menger, Principles of Economics (Glencoe, Ill.: The Free Press, 1950), pp. 51–67.

[14]For each actor, then, the period of production is equivalent to his waiting time—the time that he must expect to wait for his end after the com­mencement of his action.

[15]Time preference may be called the preference for present satisfaction over future satisfaction or present good over future good, provided it is remembered that it is the same satisfaction (or “good”) that is being compared over the periods of time. Thus, a common type of objection to the assertion of universal time preference is that, in the wintertime, a man will prefer the delivery of ice the next summer (future) to delivery of ice in the present. This, however, confuses the concept “good” with the material properties of a thing, whereas it actually refers to subjective satisfactions. Since ice-in-the-summer provides different (and greater) satisfactions than ice-in-the-winter, they are not the same, but different goods. In this case, it is different satisfactions that are being compared, despite the fact that the physical property of the thing may be the same.

[16]It has become the custom to designate consumer goods with a longer duration of serviceableness as durable goods, and those of shorter duration as nondurable goods. Obviously, however, there are innumerable degrees of durability, and such a separation can only be unscientific and arbitrary.

[17]Accordingly, the numbers by which ends are ranked on value scales are ordinal, not cardinal, numbers. Ordinal numbers are only ranked; they cannot be subject to the processes of measurement. Thus, in the above example, all we can say is that going to a concert is valued more than playing bridge, and either of these is valued more than watching the game. We cannot say that going to a concert is valued “twice as much” as watching the game; the numbers two and four cannot be subject to processes of addition, multiplication, etc.

[18]An example of suffering a loss as a result of an erroneous action would be going to the concert and finding that it was not at all enjoyable. The actor then realizes that he would have been much happier continuing to watch the game or playing bridge.

[19]A large part of this book is occupied with the problem of how this process of value imputation can be accomplished in a modern, complex economy.

[20]This is the solution of a problem that plagued writers in the economic field for many years: the source of the value of goods.

[21]Cf. Ludwig von Mises, The Theory of Money and Credit (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1953), p. 46.

[22]Also cf. T.N. Carver, The Distribution of Wealth (New York: Macmillan & Co., 1904), pp. 4–12. See below for a further discussion of the influences on man’s valuation of specific units resulting from the size of the avail­able stock.

[23]This would not be true only if the “good” were not a means, but a general condition of human welfare, in which case one less unit of supply would make no difference for human action. But in that case it would not be a good, subject to the economizing of human action.

[24]On the whole subject of marginal utility, see Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk, The Positive Theory of Capital (New York: G.E. Stechert, 1930), pp. 138–65, especially pp. 146–55.

Previous Section * Next Section
Table of Contents