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10. Monopoly and Competition > 3. The Illusion of Monopoly Price

D. The Illusion of Monopoly Price on the Unhampered Market

Up to this point we have explained the neoclassical theory of monopoly price and have pointed out various misconceptions about its consequences. We have also shown that there is nothing bad about monopoly price and that it constitutes no infringement on any legitimate interpretation of individuals’ sovereignty or even of consumers’ sovereignty. Yet there has been a great deficiency in the economic literature on this whole issue: a failure to realize the illusion in the entire concept of monopoly price.53 If we turn to the definition of monopoly price on page 672 above, or the diagrammatic interpretation in Figure 67, we find that there is assumed to be a “competitive price,” to which a higher “monopoly price”—an outcome of restrictive action—is contrasted. Yet, if we analyze the matter closely, it becomes evident that the entire contrast is an illusion. In the market, there is no discernible, identifiable competitive price, and therefore there is no way of distinguishing, even conceptually, any given price as a “monopoly price.” The alleged “competitive price” can be identified neither by the producer himself nor by the disinterested observer.

Let us take a firm which is considering the production of a certain good. The firm can be a “monopolist” in the sense of producing a unique good, or it can be an “oligopolist” among a few firms. Whatever its position, it is irrelevant, because we are interested only in whether or not it can achieve a monopoly price as compared to a competitive price. This, in turn, depends on the elasticity of the demand curve as it is presented to the firm over a certain range. Let us say that the firm finds itself with a certain demand curve (Figure 68).

The producer must decide how much of the good to produce and sell in a future period, i.e., at the time when this demand curve will become relevant. He will set his output at whatever point is expected to maximize his monetary earnings (other psychic factors being equal), taking into consideration the necessary monetary expenses of production for each quantity, i.e., the amounts that can be produced for each amount of money invested. As an entrepreneur he will attempt to maximize profits, as a labor-owner to maximize his monetary income, as a landowner to maximize his monetary income from that factor.

On the basis of this logic of action, the producer sets his investment to produce a certain stock, or as a factor-owner to sell a certain amount of service, say 0S. Assuming that he has correctly estimated his demand curve, the intersection of the two will establish the market-equilibrium price, 0P or SA.

The critical question is this: Is the market price, 0P, a “competitive price” or a “monopoly price”? The answer is that there is no way of knowing. Contrary to the assumptions of the theory, there is no “competitive price” which is clearly established somewhere, and which we may compare 0P with. Neither does the elasticity of the demand curve establish any criterion. Even if all the difficulties of discovering and identifying the demand curve were waived (and this identifying can be done, of course, only by the producer himself—and only in a tentative fashion), we have seen that the price, if accurately estimated, will always be set by the seller so that the range above the market price will be elastic. How is anyone, including the producer himself, to know whether or not this market price is competitive or monopoly?

Suppose that, after having produced 0S, the producer decides that he will make more money if he produces less of the good in the next period. Is the higher price to be gained from such a cutback necessarily a “monopoly price”? Why could it not just as well be a movement from a subcompetitive price to a competitive price? In the real world, a demand curve is not simply “given” to a producer, but must be estimated and discovered. If a producer has produced too much in one period and, in order to earn more income, produces less in the next period, this is all that can be said about the action. For there is no criterion that will determine whether or not he is moving from a price below the alleged “competitive price” or moving above this price. Thus, we cannot use “restriction of production” as the test of monopoly vs. competitive price. A movement from a subcompetitive to a competitive price also involves a “restriction” of production of this good, coupled, of course, with an expansion of production in other lines by the released factors. There is no way whatever to distinguish such a “restriction” and corollary expansion from the alleged “monopoly-price” situation.

If the “restriction” is accompanied by increased leisure for the owner of a labor factor rather than increased production of some other good on the market, it is still an expansion of the yield of a consumers’ good—leisure. There is still no way of determining whether the “restriction” resulted in a “monopoly” or a “competitive” price or to what extent the motive of increased leisure was involved.

To define a monopoly price as a price attained by selling a smaller quantity of a product at a higher price is therefore meaningless, since the same definition applies to the “competitive price” as compared with a subcompetitive price. There is no way to define “monopoly price” because there is also no way of defining the “competitive price” to which the former must refer.

Many writers have attempted to establish some criterion for distinguishing a monopoly price from a competitive price. Some call the monopoly price that price achieving permanent, long-run “monopoly profits” for a firm. This is contrasted to the “competitive price,” at which, in the evenly rotating economy, profits disappear. Yet, as we have already seen, there are never permanent monopoly profits, but only monopoly gains to owners of land or labor factors. Money costs to the entrepreneur, who must buy factors of production, will tend to equal money revenues in the evenly rotating economy, whether the price is competitive or monopoly. The monopoly gains, however, are secured as income to labor or land factors. There is therefore never any identifiable element that could provide a criterion of the absence of monopoly gain. With a monopoly gain, the factor's income is greater; without it, it is less. But where is the criterion for distinguishing this from a change in the income of a factor for “legitimate” demand and supply reasons? How to distinguish a “monopoly gain” from a simple increase in factor income?

Another theory attempts to define a monopoly gain as income to a factor greater than that received by another, similar factor. Thus, if Mickey Mantle receives a greater monetary income than another outfielder, that difference represents the “monopoly gain” resulting from his natural monopoly of unique ability. The crucial difficulty with this approach is that it implicitly adopts the old classical fallacy of treating all the various labor factors, as well as all the various land factors, as somehow homogeneous. If all the labor factors are somehow one good, then the variations in income accruing to each must be explained by reference to some sort of “monopolistic” or other mysterious element. Yet a good with a homogeneous supply is only a good if all its units are interchangeable, as we saw at the beginning of this work. But the very fact that Mantle and the other outfielder are treated differently in the market signifies that they are selling different, not the same, goods. Just as in tangible commodities, so in personal labor services (whether sold to other producers or to consumers directly): each seller may be selling a unique good, and yet he is “competing” with more or less close substitutability against all the other sellers for the purchases of consumers (or lower-order producers). But since each good or service is unique, we cannot state that the difference between the prices of any two represents any sort of “monopoly price”; monopoly price vis-à-vis competitive price can refer only to alternative prices of the same good. Mickey Mantle may indeed be a person of unique ability and a “monopolist” (as is everyone else) over the disposition of his own talents, but whether or not he is achieving a “monopoly price” (and therefore a monopoly gain) from his service can never be determined.

This analysis is equally applicable to land. It is just as illegitimate to dub the difference between the income of the site of the Empire State Building and that of a rural general store a “monopoly gain” as to apply the same concept to the additional income of Mickey Mantle. The fact that both areas are land makes them no more homogeneous on the market than the fact that Mickey Mantle and Joe Doakes are both baseball players or, in a broader category, both laborers. The fact that each is remunerated at a different price and income signifies that they are considered different on the market. To treat differential gains for different goods as instances of “monopoly gain” is to render the term completely devoid of significance.

Neither is the attempt to establish the existence of idle resources as a criterion of monopolistic “withholding” of factors any more valid. Idle labor resources will always mean increased leisure, and therefore the leisure motive will always be intertwined with any alleged “monopolistic” motive. It therefore becomes impossible to separate them. The existence of idle land may always be due to the fact of the relative scarcity of labor as compared with available land. This relative scarcity makes it more serviceable to consumers, and hence more remunerative, to invest labor in certain areas of land, and not in others. The land areas least productive of potential earnings will be forced to lie idle, the amount depending on how much labor supply is available. We must stress that all “land” (i.e., every nature-given resource) is involved here, including urban sites and natural resources as well as agricultural areas. The allocation of labor to land is comparable to Crusoe's having to decide on which plot of ground to build his shelter or in which stream to fish. Because of the natural, as well as voluntary, limitations on his labor effort, that area of land on which he produces the highest utility will be cultivated, and the rest will be left idle. This element also cannot be separated from any alleged monopolistic element. For if someone objects that the “withheld” land is of the same quality as the land in use and therefore that monopolistic restriction is afoot, it may always be answered that the two pieces of land necessarily differ—in location if in no other attribute—and that the very fact that the two are treated differently on the market tends to confirm this difference. By what mystical criterion, then, does some outsider assert that the two lands are economically identical? In the case of capital goods it is also true that the limitations of available labor supply will often make idle those goods which are expected to yield a lesser return as compared with other capital that can be employed by labor. The difference here is that idle capital goods are always the result of previous error by producers, since no such idleness would be necessary if the present events—demands, prices, supplies—had all been forecast correctly by all the producers. But though error is always unfortunate, the keeping idle of unremunerative capital is the best course to follow; it is making the best of the existing situation, not of the situation that would have obtained if foresight had been perfect. In the evenly rotating economy, of course, there would never be idle capital goods; there would be only idle land and idle labor (to the extent that leisure is voluntarily preferred to money income). In no case is it possible to establish an identification of purely “monopolistic” withholding action.

A similar proposed criterion for distinguishing a monopoly price from a competitive price runs as follows: In the competitive case, the marginal factor produces no rent; in the monopoly-price case, however, use of the monopolized factor is restricted, so that its marginal use does yield a rent. We may answer, in the first place, that there is no reason to say that every factor will, in the competitive case, always be worked until it yields no rent. On the contrary, every factor is worked in a region of diminishing but positive marginal product, not zero product. Indeed, as we have shown above, if the value product of a unit of a factor is zero, it will not be used at all. Every unit of a factor is used because it yields a value product; otherwise, it would not be used in production. And if it yields a value product, it will earn its discounted value product in income.

It is clear, further, that this criterion could never be applied to a monopolized labor factor. What labor factor earns a zero wage in a competitive market? Yet many monopolized (definition 1) factors are labor factors—such as brand names, unique services, decision-making ability in business, etc. Land is more abundant than labor, and therefore some lands will be idle and receive zero rent. Even here, however, it is only the submarginal lands that receive no rent; the marginal lands in use receive some rent, however small.

Furthermore, even if it were true that marginal lands received zero rent, this would be irrelevant for our discussion. It would apply only to “poorer” or “inferior,” as compared with more productive, lands. But a criterion of monopoly or competitive price must apply, not to factors of different quality, but to homogeneous factors. The monopoly-price problem is one of a supply of units of one homogeneous factor, not of various different factors within the one broad category, land. In this case, as we have stated, every factor will earn some value product in a diminishing zone, and not zero.54

Since, in the “competitive” case, all factors in use will earn some rent, there is still no basis for distinguishing a “competitive” from a “monopoly” price.

Another very common attempt to distinguish between a competitive and a monopoly price rests on the alleged ideal of “marginal-cost pricing.” Failure to set prices equal to marginal cost is considered an example of “monopoly” behavior. There are several fatal errors in this analysis. In the first place, as we shall see further below, there can be no such thing as “pure competition,” that hypothetical state in which the demand curve for the output of a firm is infinitely elastic. Only in this never-never land does price equal marginal cost in equilibrium. Otherwise, marginal cost equals “marginal revenue” in the ERE, i.e., the revenue that a given increment of cost will yield to the firm. (Only if the demand curve were perfectly elastic would marginal revenue boil down to “average revenue,” or price.) There is now no way of distinguishing “competitive” from “monopolistic” situations, since marginal cost will in all cases tend to equal marginal revenue.

Secondly, this equality is only a tendency that results from competition; it is not a precondition of competition. It is a property of the equilibrium of the ERE that the market economy always tends toward, but never can reach. To uphold it as a “welfare ideal” for the real world, an ideal with which to gauge existing conditions, as so many economists have done, is to misconceive completely the nature of the market and of economics itself.

Thirdly, there is no reason why firms should ever deliberately balk at being guided by marginal-cost considerations. Their aiming at maximum net revenue will see to that. But there is no one simple, determinate “marginal cost,” because, as we have seen above, there is no one identifiable “short-run” period, such as is assumed by current theory. The firm faces a gamut of variable periods of time for the investment and use of factors, and its pricing and output decisions depend on the future period of time which it is considering. Is it buying a new machine, or is it selling old output piled up in inventory? The marginal cost considerations will differ in the two cases.

It is clear that it is impossible to distinguish competitive or monopolistic behavior on the part of a firm. It is no more possible to speak of monopoly price in the case of a cartel. In the first place, a cartel, when it sets the amount of its production in advance for the next period, is in exactly the same position as the single firm: it sets the amount of its production at that point which it believes will maximize its monetary earnings. There is still no way of distinguishing a monopoly from a competitive or a subcompetitive price.

Furthermore, we have seen that there is no essential difference between a cartel and a merger, or between a merger of producers with money assets and a merger of producers with previously existing capital assets to form a partnership or corporation. As a result of the tradition, still in evidence in the literature, of identifying a firm with a single individual entrepreneur or producer, we tend to overlook the fact that most existing firms are constituted through the voluntary merging of monetary assets. To pursue the similarity further, suppose that firm A wishes to expand its production. Is there an essential difference between its buying new land and building a new plant, and its purchasing an old plant owned by another firm? Yet the latter case, if the plant constitutes all the assets of firm B, will involve, in fact, a merger of the two firms. The degree of merger or the degree of independence in the various parts of the productive system will depend entirely upon the most remunerative method for the producers concerned. This will also be the method most serviceable to the consumers. And there is no way of distinguishing between a cartel, a merger, and one larger firm.

It might be objected at this point that there are many useful, indeed indispensable, theoretical concepts which cannot be practically isolated in their pure form in the real world. Thus, the interest rate, in practice, is not strictly separable from profits, and the various components of the interest rate are not separable in practice, but they can be separated in analysis. But these concepts are each definable in terms independent of one another and of the complex reality being investigated. Thus, the “pure” interest rate may never exist in practice, but the market interest rate is theoretically analyzable into its components: pure interest rate, price-expectation component, risk component. They are so analyzable because each of these components is definable independently of the complex market-interest rate and, moreover, is independently deducible from the axioms of praxeology. The existence and determination of the pure interest rate is strictly deducible from the principles of human action, time preference, etc. Each of these components, then, is arrived at a priori in relation to the concrete market interest rate itself and is deduced from previously established truths about human action. In all such cases, the components are definable through independently established theoretical criteria. In this case, however, there is, as we have seen, no independent way by which we can define and distinguish a “monopoly price” from a “competitive price.” There is no prior rule available to guide us in framing the distinction. To say that the monopoly price is formed when the configuration of demand is inelastic above the competitive price tells us nothing because we have no way of independently defining the “competitive price.”

To reiterate, the seemingly unidentifiable elements in other areas of economic theory are independently deducible from the axioms of human action. Time preference, uncertainty, changes in purchasing power, etc., can all be independently established by prior reasoning, and their interrelations analyzed through the method of mental constructions. The evenly rotating economy can be seen as the ever-moving goal of the market, through our analysis of the direction of action. But here, all that we know from prior analysis of human action is that individuals co-operate on the market to sell and purchase factors, transform them into products, and expect to sell the products to others—eventually to final consumers; and that the factors are sold, and entrepreneurs undertake the production, in order to obtain monetary income from the sale of their product. How much any given person will produce of any given good or service is determined by his expectations of greatest monetary income, other psychic considerations being equal. But nowhere in the analysis of such action is it possible to separate conceptually an alleged “restrictive” from a nonrestrictive act, and nowhere is it possible to define “competitive price” in any way that would differ from the free-market price. Similarly, there is no way of conceptually distinguishing “monopoly price” from free-market price. But if a concept has no possible grounding in reality, then it is an empty and illusory, and not a meaningful, concept. On the free market there is no way of distinguishing a “monopoly price” from a “competitive price” or a “subcompetitive price” or of establishing any changes as movements from one to the other. No criteria can be found for making such distinctions. The concept of monopoly price as distinguished from competitive price is therefore untenable. We can speak only of the free-market price.

Thus, we conclude not only that there is nothing “wrong” with “monopoly price,” but also that the entire concept is meaningless. There is a great deal of “monopoly” in the sense of a single owner of a unique commodity or service (definition 1). But we have seen that this is an inappropriate term and, further, that it has no catallactic significance. A “monopoly” would be of importance only if it led to a monopoly price, and we have seen that there is no such thing as a monopoly price or a competitive price on the market. There is only the “free-market price.”

  • 53. We have found in the literature only one hint of the discovery of this illusion: Scoville and Sargent, Fact and Fancy in the T.N.E.C. Monographs, p. 302. See also Bradford B. Smith, “Monopoly and Competition,” Ideas on Liberty, No. 3, November, 1955, pp. 66 ff.
  • 54. In the case of depletable natural resources, any allocation of use necessarily involves the use of some of the resource in the present (even considering the resource as homogeneous) and the “withholding” of the remainder for allocation to future use. But there is no way of conceptually distinguishing such withholding from “monopolistic” withholding and therefore of discussing a “monopoly price.”