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A Study Guide to Murray Rothbard's Man, Economy, and State, with Power and Market, by Robert P. Murphy (Hillsdale College)


Chapter Summary | Chapter Outline | Notable Contributions | Technical Matters | Study Questions


Direct exchange involves trades where the goods received are of direct use to the recipient. These "direct uses" can be for production; i.e. a person can engage in direct exchange of higher-order goods. However, if a person desires a good with the intention to trade it away to someone else, then he is engaged in indirect exchange, the subject of the next chapter.

A voluntary exchange involves a reverse valuation of the goods: each party values what he is giving up less than what he is receiving in exchange. This principle underscores the fact that value is subjective: if goods had an objective, intrinsic value, then there could be no reverse valuation (except through error). If this were the case, then traded goods would be equal in value (and hence there would be no reason to trade them), or one party would necessarily benefit at the expense of the other. But since this is not the case-i.e. since individuals value goods differently-then there are mutual "gains from trade." Both parties (expect to) benefit from a voluntary exchange.

With the possibility of trade, goods are valued not only by their direct use-value but also their exchange-value. An actor will always value a unit of a good at the higher of these two. (For example, even a non-smoker would prefer a box of cigars over a hot dog, if he thought he could trade the former to a smoker.) Trade also fosters specialization and the division of labor. By specializing in those activities in which they are relatively most productive (or have the comparative advantage), actors greatly increase the productivity of their labor and enjoy more consumption goods than would be possible without trade.

The price of one good in terms of another is the number of units of the second good that must be offered in exchange for one unit of the first good. Other things equal, a seller prefers the highest price possible while a buyer prefers the lowest price possible.

Individuals enter a market seeking to exchange goods they value less for goods they value more. There is scope for trade whenever the minimum selling price of the seller is lower than the maximum buying price of the buyer. The market supply relates the quantity of goods that will be offered at various prices, while the market demand relates the quantity of goods that buyers will attempt to purchase at various prices. The equilibrium price is that which equates quantity supplied with quantity demanded. There is a tendency for actual market prices to approach equilibrium, but new changes in the data constantly interrupt this tendency. Speculation (if successful) speeds the move to equilibrium.

In an unhampered market (i.e. one free from violence and theft), all property can be traced back through voluntary exchanges, production, and ultimately to the original appropriation of raw (unowned) land.


1. Types of Interpersonal Action: Violence

The analysis of Chapter 1 was true for all action, but its applications were limited to isolated individuals (i.e. autistic exchange). Praxeology is now used to analyze interpersonal action (i.e. interpersonal exchange).

When one person increases his own satisfaction by using another person as a factor of production against the latter's will, we can say that the former person is exploiting the latter. Such a hegemonic relationship stands in contrast to voluntary arrangements. By definition, a slave does not benefit from his relationship with his master. If the slave agreed that he benefited (in terms of relatively reliable food, shelter, etc. in exchange for labor), then coercion would not be necessary to maintain the relationship.

2. Types of Interpersonal Action: Voluntary Exchange and the Contractual Society

Unless stated otherwise, the remainder of the book assumes that all exchanges are voluntary, i.e. no one violates the property of anyone else. (This includes the property in one's body.) The analysis is therefore of an unhampered market.

Individuals will engage in an exchange only if they have a reverse valuation of the goods and if they are aware of each other. To understand the first condition, suppose that Smith trades one apple to Jones in exchange for one orange. Because the transaction is voluntary, it must be the case that Smith values the orange more highly than the apple, while Jones must value the apple more highly than the orange. Notice that this alone will not lead to a trade; Smith and Jones must be aware of each other's existence.

In general, an individual will be willing to trade away units of some good X in exchange for units of some other good Y, so long as the marginal utility of Y is higher than the marginal utility of X. Notice that as more units are swapped, the marginal utility of X rises while the marginal utility of Y falls.

The possibility of exchange with others means that an actor will now consider not only the direct use-value of a good but also its exchange-value. The marginal utility of a given unit of a good is the higher of these two. I.e. a person will continue to trade away units of a good so long as the exchange-value of the marginal unit is higher than the use-value. Because of diminishing marginal utility, owners of large stocks of goods (such as people producing for a market) usually consider the exchange-value more relevant.

A helpful outline of the types of human action is presented on page 94.

3. Exchange and the Division of Labor

The opportunities for exchange lead to specialization and the division of labor. This allows for more consumption for everyone involved. If we consider that each market participant has an absolute advantage in the production of a certain good, then it is obvious that specialization will allow for higher total output (and hence consumption per capita). However, even if one market participant has an absolute advantage in every line of production, he can still benefit by specializing in the product in which he has the comparative (or relative) advantage.

4. Terms of Exchange

The price of a good in terms of another is simply the number of units of the second good that must be offered in order to receive one unit of the first good in exchange. Although we are used to quoting prices in terms of money, this need not be the case. For example, if a person can trade two cows for 1,000 berries, then the "berry-price" of one cow is 500 berries.

Other things equal, a seller will always prefer a higher price for his goods and a buyer will always prefer a lower price. Apparent counterexamples (such as someone selling a car to an in-law at a lower price than could be gotten from a stranger) are not comparing the same goods.

5. Determination of Price: Equilibrium Price

A sale can occur when the minimum selling price of the seller is lower than the maximum buying price of the buyer. These minimum and maximum prices can be determined from the value scales of the individuals in the market. If there are only two individuals, usually there will be a range of possible prices. Praxeology alone cannot say which particular price will be used; it depends on the relative bargaining skill of the individuals. With the addition of more and more buyers and sellers to the market, the zone of indeterminacy shrinks, so that only a few (or possibly one) price will "clear the market."

The demand for a good indicates the quantity of units that buyers desire at various hypothetical prices. The supply of a good indicates the quantity of units that sellers offer at various hypothetical prices. These can be depicted in a table (or schedule) or plotted as a graph (or curve). One must distinguish between a change in demand (movement of the demand curve) versus a change in quantity demanded (movement along a given demand curve), and the same for supply.

An equilibrium price is one in which quantity supplied equals quantity demanded. Graphically, it occurs at the intersection of the supply and demand curves. The market tends toward equilibrium: If the current price is above the equilibrium price, there is an excess supply ("surplus") and sellers reduce their asking price. If the current price is below the equilibrium price, there is an excess demand ("shortage") and buyers increase their offer price.

There is a tendency for one price to rule over a market. If there weren't, then arbitrage opportunities would exist; a middleman could buy low and sell high.

6. Elasticity of Demand

The elasticity of demand is the ratio of the percentage change in quantity demanded and the percentage change in price (the negative sign is omitted). If the elasticity is greater than one, the demand for the good is "elastic," while if the elasticity is less than one the demand is "inelastic." Note that a higher price will lead to lower total spending on a good if its demand is elastic, while a higher price will lead to higher total spending if the demand is inelastic.

7. Speculation and Supply and Demand Schedules

Supply and demand take into account all factors influencing people's selling and buying decisions. In particular, someone may refuse to sell a good at a certain price, because he speculates that the price of the good will rise in the near future. Or, a buyer may refrain from purchasing a good, because he speculates that the price will soon fall. Such speculation (if correct) "flattens" the supply and demand curves, and speeds the approach towards equilibrium.

8. Stock and the Total Demand to Hold

Rather than analyzing traditional supply and demand, we may also understand price formation using the concepts of total stock and total demand to hold. The stock of a good is the number of units existing at any given time. The total demand to hold consists of the number of units desired by buyers, plus the number of units that current owners refrain from selling (what is called the reservation demand). The equilibrium price equates the stock and the total demand to hold.

One drawback of this approach is that it obscures the volume of exchange in a market; one cannot tell if the people ending up with units of the good are the same as the ones who started out with them. However, the approach is very useful in illustrating that ultimately supply and demand are both determined by utility considerations, rather than "real cost."

9. Continuing Markets and Changes in Price

In the real world, markets are continually upset by changes in the data. Production and consumption can be handled using the appropriate shifts in the supply of a good.

10. Specialization and Production of Stock

With specialization, the use-value of goods to their original owners declines. In practice, a producer's reservation demand is purely speculative, i.e. the producer will only refrain from selling at the current price if he or she believes a higher price will obtain in the future.

11. Types of Exchangeable Goods

The principles of supply and demand explain price formation for any type of good, whether tangible commodities, services, or claims. (A partial outline of the possible exchanges is listed on page 163 and is completed on pages 168-169.)

12. Property: The Appropriation of Raw Land

In an unhampered market, the origin of all property is traceable to voluntary exchanges and ultimately to the appropriation of unowned nature-given factors. An actor legitimately homesteads a piece of previously unowned land by "mixing his labor" with it. Note that a person does not need to continually "use" a piece of land, once he has established ownership.

13. Enforcement Against Invasion of Property

This section analyzes the precise meaning of an "unhampered market" (the major subject of study in the book) by defining what is, and what is not, a violation of property rights.




(10) What is Rothbard's response to Henry George? (pp. 171-172)

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