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Part Four: Catallactics or Economics of the... > Chapter XVI. Prices

15. The Chimera of Nonmarket Prices

Prices are a market phenomenon. They are generated by the market process and are the pith of the market economy. There is no such thing as prices outside the market. Prices cannot be constructed synthetically, as it were. They are the resultant of a certain constellation of market data, of actions and reactions of the members of a market society. It is vain to meditate what prices would have been if some of their determinants had been different. Such fantastic designs are no more sensible than whimsical speculations about what the course of history would have been if Napoleon had been killed in the battle of Arcole or if Lincoln had ordered Major Anderson to withdraw from Fort Sumter.

It is no less vain to ponder on what prices ought to be. Everybody is pleased if the prices of things he wants to buy drop and the prices of the things he wants to sell rise. In expressing such wishes a man is sincere if he admits that his point of view is personal. It is another question whether, from his personal point of view, he would be well advised to prompt the government to use its power of coercion and oppression to interfere with the market's price structure. It will be shown in the sixth part of this book what the inescapable consequences of such a policy of interventionism must be.

But one deludes oneself or practices deception if one calls such wishes and arbitrary value judgments the voice of objective truth. In human action nothing counts but the various individuals' desires for the attainment of ends. With regard to the choice of these ends there is no question of truth; all that matters is value. Value judgments are necessarily always subjective, whether they are passed by one man [p. 396] only or by many men, by a blockhead, a professor, or a statesman.

Any price determined on a market is the necessary outgrowth of the interplay of the forces operating, that is, demand and supply. Whatever the market situation which generated this price may be, with regard to it the price is always adequate, genuine, and real. It cannot be higher if no bidder ready to offer a higher price turns up, and it cannot be lower if no seller ready to deliver at a lower price turns up. Only the appearance of such people ready to buy or to sell can alter prices.

Economics analyzes the market process which generates commodity prices, wage rates, and interest rates. It does not develop formulas which would enable anybody to compute a "correct" price different from that established on the market by the interaction of buyers and sellers.

At the bottom of many efforts to determine nonmarket prices is the confused and contradictory notion of real costs. If costs were a real thing, i.e., a quantity independent of personal value judgments and objectively discernible and measurable, it would be possible for a disinterested arbiter to determine their height and thus the correct price. There is no need to dwell any longer on the absurdity of this idea. Costs are a phenomenon of valuation. Costs are the value attached to the most valuable want-satisfaction which remains unsatisfied because the means required for its satisfaction are employed for that want-satisfaction the cost of which we are dealing with. The attainment of an excess of the value of the product over the costs, a profit, is the goal of every production effort. Profit is the pay-off of successful action. It cannot be defined without reference to valuation. It is a phenomenon of valuation and has no direct relation to physical and other phenomena of the external world.

Economic analysis cannot help reducing all items of cost to value judgments. The socialists and interventionists call entrepreneurial profit, interest on capital, and rent of land "unearned" because they consider that only the toil and trouble of the worker is real and worthy of being rewarded. However, reality does not reward toil and trouble. If toil and trouble is expended according to well-conceived plans, its outcome increases the means available for want-satisfaction. Whatever some people may consider as just and fair, the only relevant question is always the same. What alone matters is which system of social organization is better suited to attain those ends for which people are ready to expend toil and trouble. The question is: market economy, or socialism? There is no third solution. The notion of a market economy with nonmarket prices is absurd. The very idea of [p. 397] cost prices is unrealizable. Even if the cost price formula is applied only to entrepreneurial profits, it paralyzes the market. If commodities and services are to be sold below the price the market would have determined for them, supply always lags behind demand. Then the market can neither determine what should or should not be produced, nor to whom the commodities and services should go. Chaos results.

This refers also to monopoly prices. It is reasonable to abstain from all policies which could result in the emergence of monopoly prices. But whether monopoly prices are brought about by such promonopoly government policies or in spite of the absence of such policies, no alleged "fact finding" and no armchair speculation can discover another price at which demand and supply would become equal. The failure of all experiments to find a satisfactory solution for the limited-space monopoly of public utilities clearly proves this truth.

It is the very essence of prices that they are the offshoot of the actions of individuals and groups of individuals acting on their own behalf. The catallactic concept of exchange ratios and prices precludes anything that is the effect of actions of a central authority, of people resorting to violence and threats in the name of society or the state or of an armed pressure group. In declaring that it is not the business of the government to determine prices, we do not step beyond the borders of logical thinking. A government can no more determine prices than a goose can lay hen's eggs.

We can think of a social system in which there are no prices at all, and we can think of government decrees which aim at fixing prices at a height different from that which the market would determine. It is one of the tasks of economics to study the problems implied. However, precisely because we want to examine these problems it is necessary clearly to distinguish between prices and government decrees. Prices are by definition determined by peoples' buying and selling or abstention from buying and selling. They must not be confused with fiats issued by governments or other agencies enforcing their orders by an apparatus of coercion and compulsion.p. 398]27

  • 27. In order not to confuse the reader by the introduction of too many new terms, we shall keep to the widespread usage of calling such fiats prices, interest rates, wage rates decreed and enforced by governments or other agencies of compulsion (e.g., labor unions). But one must never lose sight of the fundamental difference between the market phenomena of prices, wages, and interest rates on the one hand, and the legal phenomena of maximum or minimum prices, wages, and interest rates, designed to nullify these market phenomena, on the other hand.