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Part Four: Catallactics or Economics of the... > Chapter XV. The Market

8. Entrepreneurial Profit and Loss

Profit, in a broader sense, is the gain derived from action; it is the increase in satisfaction (decrease in uneasiness) brought about; it is the difference between the higher value attached to the result attained and the lower value attached to the sacrifices made for its attainment; it, in other words, yield minus costs. To make profit is invariably the aim sought by any action. If an action fails to attain the ends sought, yield either does not exceed costs or lags behind costs. In the latter case the outcome means a loss, a decrease in satisfaction.

Profit and loss in this original sense are psychic phenomena and as such not open to measurement and a mode of expression which could convey to other people precise information concerning their intensity. A man can tell a fellow man that a suits him better than b; but he cannot communicate to another man, except in vague and indistinct terms, how much the satisfaction derived from a exceeds that derived from b.

In the market economy all those things that are bought and sold against money are marked with money prices. In the monetary calculus profit appears as a surplus of money received over money expended and loss as a surplus of money expended over money received. Profit and loss can be expressed in definite amounts of money. It is possible to ascertain in terms of money how much an individual has profited or lost. However, this is not a statement about a social phenomenon, about the individual's contribution to the societal effort as it is appraised by the other members of society. It does not tell us anything about the individual's increase or decrease in satisfaction or happiness. It merely reflects his fellow men's evaluation of his contribution to social cooperation. This evaluation is ultimately determined by the efforts of every member of society to attain the highest possible psychic profit. It is the resultant of the composite effect of all these people's subjective [p. 290] and personal value judgments as manifested in their conduct on the market. But it must not be confused with these value judgments as such.

We cannot even think of a state of affairs in which people act without the intention of attaining psychic profit and in which their actions result neither in psychic profit nor in psychic loss19. In the imaginary construction of an evenly rotating economy there are neither money profits nor money losses. But every individual derives a psychic profit from his actions, or else he would not act at all. The farmer feeds and milks his cows and sells the milk because he values the things he can buy against the money thus earned more highly than the costs expended. The absence of money profits or losses in such an evenly rotating system is due to the fact that, if we disregard the differences brought about by the higher valuation of present goods as compared with future goods, the sum of the prices of all complementary factors needed for production precisely equals the price of the product.

In the changing world of reality differences between the sum of the prices of the complementary factors of production and the prices of the products emerge again and again. It is these differences that bring about money profits and money losses. As far as such changes affect the sellers of labor and those of the original nature-given factors of production and of the capitalists as moneylenders, we will deal with them later. At this point we are dealing with the promoters' entrepreneurial profit and loss. It is this problem that people have in mind when employing the terms profit and loss in mundane speech.

Like every acting man, the entrepreneur is always a speculator. He deals with the uncertain conditions of the future. His success or failure depends on the correctness of his anticipation of uncertain events. If he fails in his understanding of things to come, he is doomed. The only source from which an entrepreneur's profits stem is his ability to anticipate better than other people the future demand of the consumers. If everybody is correct in anticipating the future state of the market of a certain commodity, its price and the prices of the complementary factors of production concerned would already today be adjusted to this future state. Neither profit nor loss can emerge for those embarking upon this line of business.

The specific entrepreneurial function consists in determining the [p. 291] employment of the factors of production. The entrepreneur is the man who dedicates them to special purposes. In doing so he is driven solely by the selfish interest in making profits and in acquiring wealth. But he cannot evade the law of the market. He can succeed only by best serving the consumers. His profit depends on the approval of his conduct by the consumers.

One must not confuse entrepreneurial profit and loss with other factors affecting the entrepreneur's proceeds.

The entrepreneur's technological ability does not affect the specific entrepreneurial profit or loss. As far as his own technological activities contribute to the returns earned and increase his net income, we are confronted with a compensation for work rendered. It is wages paid to the entrepreneur for his labor. Neither does the fact that not every process of production succeeds technologically in bringing about the product expected, influence the specific entrepreneurial profit or loss. Such failures are either avoidable or unavoidable. In the first case they are due to the technologically inefficient conduct of affairs. then the losses resulting are to be debited to the entrepreneur's personal insufficiency, i.e., either to his lack of technological ability or to his lack of the ability to hire adequate helpers. In the second case the failures are due to the fact that the present state of technological knowledge prevents us from fully controlling the conditions on which success depends. This deficiency may be caused either by incomplete knowledge concerning the conditions of success or by ignorance of methods for controlling fully some of the known conditions. The price of the factors of production takes into account this unsatisfactory state of our knowledge and technological power. The price of arable land, for instance, takes into full account the fact that there are bad harvests, as it is determined by the anticipated average yield. The fact that the bursting of bottles reduces the output of champagne does not affect entrepreneurial profit and loss. It is merely one of the factors determining the cost of production and the price of champagne20.

Accidents affecting the process of production, the means of production, or the products while they are still in the hands of the entrepreneur are an item in the bill of production costs. Experience, which conveys to the businessman all other technological knowledge, provides [p. 292] him also with information about the average reduction in the quantity of physical output which such accidents are likely to bring about. By opening contingency reserves, he converts their effects into regular costs of production. With regard to contingencies the expected incidence of which is too rare and too irregular to be dealt with in this way by individual firms of normal size, concerted action on the part of sufficiently large groups of firms take care of the matter. The individual firms cooperate under the principle of insurance against damage caused by fire, flood, or other similar contingencies. Then an insurance premium is substituted for an appropriation to a contingency reserve. At any rate, the risks incurred by accidents do not introduce uncertainty into the conduct of the technological processes21. If an entrepreneur neglects to deal with them duly, he gives proof of his technical insufficiency. The losses thus incurred are to be debited to bad techniques applied, not to his entrepreneurial function.

The elimination of those entrepreneurs who fail to give to their enterprises the adequate degree of technological efficiency or whose technological ignorance vitiates their cost calculation is effected on the market in the same way in which those deficient in the performance of the specific entrepreneurial functions are eliminated. It may happen that an entrepreneur is so successful in his specific entrepreneurial function that he can compensate losses caused by his technological failure. It may also happen that an entrepreneur can counterbalance losses due to failure in his entrepreneurial function by the advantages derived from his technological superiority or from the differential rent yielded by the higher productivity of the factors of production he employs. But one must not confuse the various functions which are combined in the conduct of a business unit. The technologically more efficient entrepreneur earns higher wage rates or quasi-wage rates than the less efficient in the same way in which the more efficient worker earns more than the less efficient. The more efficient machine and the more fertile soil produce higher physical returns per unit of costs expended; they yield a differential rent when compared with the less efficient machine and the less fertile soil. The higher wage rates and the higher rent are, ceteris paribus, the corollary of higher physical output. But the specific entrepreneurial profits and loses are not produced by the quantity of physical output. The depend on the adjustment of output to the most urgent wants of the consumers. What produces them is the extent to which [p. 293] the entrepreneur has succeeded or failed in anticipating the future--necessarily uncertain--state of the market.

The entrepreneur is also jeopardized by political dangers. Government policies, revolutions, and wars can damage or annihilate his enterprise. Such events do not affect him alone; they affect the market economy as such and all individuals, although not all of them to the same extent. For the individual entrepreneur they are data which he cannot alter. If he is efficient, he will anticipate them in time. But it is not always possible for him to adjust his operations in such a way as to avoid damage. If the dangers expected concern only a part of the territory which is accessible to his entrepreneurial activities, he can avoid operating in the menaced areas and can prefer countries in which the danger is less imminent. But if he cannot emigrate, he must stay where he is. If all entrepreneurs were fully convinced that the total victory of Bolshevism was impending, they would nevertheless not abandon their entrepreneurial activities. The expectation of imminent expropriation will impel the capitalists to consume their funds. The entrepreneurs will be forced to adjust their plans to the market situation created by such capital consumption and the threatened nationalization of their shops and plants. But they will not stop operating. If some entrepreneurs go out of business, others will take their place--newcomers or old entrepreneurs expanding the size of their enterprises. In the market economy there will always be entrepreneurs. Policies hostile to capitalism may deprive the consumers of the greater part of the benefits they would have reaped from unhampered entrepreneurial activities. But they cannot eliminate the entrepreneurs as such if they do not entirely destroy the market economy.

The ultimate source from which entrepreneurial profit and loss are derived is the uncertainty of the future constellation of demand and supply.

If all entrepreneurs were to anticipate correctly the future state of the market, there would be neither profits nor losses. The prices of all the factors of production would already today be fully adjusted to tomorrow's prices of the products. In buying the factors of production the entrepreneur would have to expend (with due allowance for the difference between the prices of present goods and future goods) no less an amount than the buyers will pay him later for the product. An entrepreneur can make a profit only if he anticipates future conditions more correctly than other entrepreneurs. Then he buys the complementary factors of production at prices the sum of [p. 294] which, including allowance for the time difference, is smaller than the price at which he sells the product.

If we want to construct the image of changing economic conditions in which there are neither profits nor losses, we must resort to an unrealizable assumption: perfect foresight of all future events on the part of all individuals. If those primitive hunters and fishermen to whom it is customary to ascribe the first accumulation of produced factors of production had known in advance all the future vicissitudes of human affairs, and if they and all their descendants until the last day of judgment, equipped with the same omniscience, had appraised all factors of production accordingly, entrepreneurial profits and losses would never have emerged. Entrepreneurial profits and losses are created through the discrepancy between the expected prices and the prices later really fixed on the markets. It is possible to confiscate profits and to transfer them from the individuals to whom they have accrued to other people. But neither profits nor losses can ever disappear from a changing world not populated solely with omniscient people.

  • 19. If an action neither improves nor impairs the state of satisfaction, it still involves a psychic loss because of the uselessness of the expended psychic effort. The individual concerned would have been better off if he had inertly enjoyed life.
  • 20. Cf. Mangoldt, Die Lehre vom Unternehmergewinn (Leipzig, 1855), p. 82. The fact that out of 100 liters of plain wine one cannot produce 100 liters of champagne, but a smaller quantity, has the same significance as the fact that 100 kilograms of sugar beet do not yield 100 kilograms of sugar but a smaller quantity.
  • 21. Cf. Knight, Risk, Uncertainty and Profit (Boston, 1921), pp. 211-213.