Books / Digital Text

5. Production: The Structure

9. Pricing and the Theory of Bargaining

We have seen that, for all goods, total receipts to sellers will tend to equal total payments to factors, and this equality will be established in the evenly rotating economy. In the ERE, interest income will be earned at the same uniform rate by capitalists throughout the economy. The remainder of income from production and sale to consumers will be earned by the owners of the original factors: land and labor.

Our next task will be to analyze the determination of the prices of factor services and the determination of the interest rate, as they tend to be approached in the economy and would be reached in the ERE. Until now, discussion has centered on the capital-goods structure, treated as if it were in one composite stage of production. Clearly, there are numerous stages, but we have seen above that earnings in production ultimately resolve themselves, and certainly do so in the ERE, into the earnings of the original factors: land and labor. Later on, we shall expand the analysis to include the case of many stages in the production process, and we shall defend this type of temporal analysis of production against the very fashionable current view that production is “timeless” under modern conditions and that the original-factor analysis might have been useful for the primitive era but not for a modern economy. As a corollary to this, we shall develop further an analysis of the nature of capital and time in the production process.

What will be the process of pricing productive factors in a world of purely specific factors? We have been assuming that only services and not whole goods can be acquired. In the case of labor this is true because of the nature of the free society; in the case of land and capital goods, we are assuming that the capitalist product-owners hire or rent rather than own any of the productive factors outright. In our example above, the 95 ounces went to all the factor-owners jointly. By what principles can we determine how the joint income is allocated to the various individual factor services? If all the factors are purely specific, we can resort to what is usually called the theory of bargaining. We are in a very analogous situation to the two-person barter of chapter 2. For what we have is not relatively determinate prices, or proportions, but exchange ratios with wide zones between the “marginal pairs” of prices. The maximum price of one is widely separated from the minimum price of the other.

In the present case, we have, say, 12 labor and land factors, each of which is indispensable to the production of the good. None of the factors, furthermore, can be used anywhere else, in any other line of production. The question for these factor-owners to solve is the proportionate share of each in the total joint income. Each factor-owner's maximum goal is something slightly less than 100 percent of the income from the consumers. What the final decision will be cannot be indicated by praxeology. There is, for all practical purposes, no theory of bargaining; all that can be said is that since the owner of each factor wants to participate and earn some income, all will most likely arrive at some sort of voluntary contractual arrangement. This will be a formal type of partnership agreement if the factors jointly own the product; or it will be the implicit result if a pure capitalist purchases the services of the factors.

Economists have always been very unhappy about bargaining situations of this kind, since economic analysis is estopped from saying anything more of note. We must not pursue the temptation, however, to condemn such situations as in some way “exploitative” or bad, and thereby convert barrenness for economic analysis into tragedy for the economy. Whatever agreement is arrived at by the various individuals will be beneficial to every one of them; otherwise, he would not have so agreed.27

at least have to receive the minimum, while factors with no minimum, with no reservation price, would work even at an income of only slightly more than zero. Now it should be evident that the owner of every labor factor has some minimum selling price, a price below which he will not work. In our case, where we are assuming (as we shall see, quite unrealistically) that every factor is specific, it is true that no laborer would be able to earn a return in any other type of work. But he could always enjoy leisure, and this sets a minimum supply price for labor service. On the other hand, the use of land sacrifices no leisure. Except in rare cases where the owner enjoys a valuable esthetic pleasure from contemplating a stretch of his own land not in use, there is no revenue that the land can bring him except a monetary return in production. Therefore, land has no reservation price, and the landowner would have to accept a return of almost zero rather than allow his land to be idle. The bargaining power of the owner of labor, therefore, is almost always superior to that of the owner of land.

In the real world, labor, as will be seen below, is uniquely the nonspecific factor, so that the theory of bargaining could never apply to labor incomes.28

Thus, when two or more factors are specific to a given line of production, there is nothing that economic analysis can say further about the allocation of the joint income from their product; it is a matter of voluntary bargaining between them. Bargaining and indeterminate pricing also take place even between two or more nonspecific factors in the rare case where the proportions in which these factors must be used are identical in each employment. In such cases, also, there is no determinate pricing for any of the factors separately, and the result must be settled by mutual bargaining.

Suppose, for example, that a certain machine, containing two necessary parts, can be used in several fields of production. The two parts, however, must always be combined in use in a certain fixed proportion. Suppose that two (or more) individuals owned these two parts, i.e., two different individuals produced the different parts by their labor and land. The combined machine will be sold to, or used in, that line of production where it will yield the highest monetary income. But the price that will be established for that machine will necessarily be a cumulative price so far as the two factors—the two parts—are concerned. The price of each part and the allocation of the income to the two owners must be decided by a process of bargaining. Economics cannot here determine separate prices. This is true because the proportions between the two are always the same, even though the combined product can be used in several different ways.29

Not only is bargaining theory rarely applicable in the real world, but zones of indeterminacy between valuations, and therefore zones of indeterminacy in pricing, tend to dwindle radically in importance as the economy evolves from barter to an advanced monetary economy. The greater the number and variety of goods available, and the greater the number of people with differing valuations, the more negligible will zones of indeterminacy become.30

At this point, we may introduce another rare, explicitly empirical, element into our discussion: that on this earth, labor has been a far scarcer factor than land. As in the case of Crusoe, so in the case of a modern economy, men have been able to choose which land to use in various occupations, and which to leave idle, and have found themselves with idle “no-rent” land, i.e., land yielding no income. Of course, as an economy advances, and population and utilization of resources grow, there is a tendency for this superfluity of land to diminish (barring discoveries of new, fertile lands).


  • 27. Little of value has been said about bargaining since Böhm-Bawerk. See Böhm-Bawerk, Positive Theory of Capital, pp. 198–99. This can be seen in J. Pen's “A General Theory of Bargaining,” American Economic Review, March, 1952, pp. 24 ff. Pen's own theory is of little worth because it rests explicitly on an assumption of the measurability of utility. Ibid., p. 34 n.
  • 28. Contrast the discussion in most textbooks, where bargaining occupies an important place in explanation of market pricing only in the discussion of labor incomes.
  • 29. See Mises, Human Action, p. 336.
  • 30. Any zone of indeterminacy in pricing must consist of the coincidence of an absolutely vertical supply curve with an absolutely vertical market demand curve for the good or service, so that the equilibrium price is in a zone rather than at a point. As Hutt states, “It depends entirely upon the fortuitous coincidence of ... an unusual and highly improbable demand curve with an absolutely rigid supply curve.” W.H. Hutt, The Theory of Collective Bargaining (Glencoe, Ill.: The Free Press, 1954), pp. 90, and 79–109.