Books / Digital Text

Part One: The Nature of Money > Chapter 2. On the Measurement of Value

2. Total Value

If it is impossible to measure subjective use-value, it follows directly that it is impracticable to ascribe "quantity" to it. We may say, the value of this commodity is greater than the value of that; but it is not permissible for us to assert, this commodity is worth so much. Such a way of speaking necessarily implies a definite unit. It really amounts to stating how many times a given unit is contained in the quantity to be defined. But this kind of calculation is quite inapplicable to processes of valuation.

The consistent application of these principles implies a criticism also of Schumpeter's views on the total value of a stock of goods. According to Wieser, the total value of a stock of goods is given by multiplying the number of items or portions constituting the stock by their marginal utility at any given moment. The untenability of this argument is shown by the fact that it would prove that the total stock of a free good must always be worth nothing. Schumpeter therefore suggests a different formula in which each portion is multiplied by an index corresponding to its position on the value scale (which, by the way, is quite arbitrary) and these products are then added together or integrated. This attempt at a solution, like the preceding, has the defect of assuming that it is possible to measure marginal utility and "intensity" of value. The fact that such measurement is impossible renders both suggestions equally useless. Mastery of the problem must be sought in some other way.

Value is always the result of a process of valuation. The process of valuation compares the significance of two complexes of commodities from the point of view of the individual making the valuation. The individual making the valuation and the complexes of goods valued, that is, the subject and the objects of the valuation, must enter as indivisible elements into any given process of valuation. This does not mean that they are necessarily indivisible in other respects as well, whether physically or economically. The subject of an act of valuation may quite well be a group of persons, a state or society or family, so long as it acts in this particular case as a unit, through a representative. And the objects thus valued may be collections of distinct units of commodities so long as they have to be dealt with in this particular case as a whole. There is nothing to prevent either subject or object from being a single unit for the purposes of one valuation even though in another their component parts may be entirely independent of each other The same people who, acting together through a representative as a single agent, such as a state, make a judgment as to the relative values of a battleship and a hospital, are the independent subjects of valuations of other commodities, such as cigars and newspapers. It is just the same with commodities. Modern value theory is based on the fact that it is not the abstract importance of different kinds of need that determines the scales of values, but the intensity of specific desires. Starting from this, the law of marginal utility was developed in a form that referred primarily to the usual sort of case in which the collections of commodities are divisible. But there are also cases in which the total supply must be valued as it stands.

Suppose that an economically isolated individual possesses two cows and three horses and that the relevant part of his scale of values (that item valued highest being placed first) is as follows: 1, a cow; 2, a horse; 3, a horse; 4, a horse; 5, a cow. If this individual has to choose between one cow and one horse he will rather be inclined to sacrifice the cow than the horse. If wild animals attack one of his cows and one of his horses, and it is impossible for him to save both, then he will try to save the horse. But if the whole of his stock of either animal is in danger, his decision will be different. Supposing that his stable and cowshed catch fire and that he can only rescue the occupants of one and must leave the others to their fate, then if he values three horses less than two cows he will attempt to save not the three horses but the two cows. The result of that process of valuation which involves a choice between one cow and one horse is a higher estimation of the horse. The result of the process of valuation which involves a choice between the whole available stock of cows and the whole available stock of horses is a higher estimation of the stock of cows.

Value can rightly be spoken of only with regard to specific acts of appraisal. It exists in such connections only; there is no value outside the process of valuation. There is no such thing as abstract value. Total value can be spoken of only with reference to a particular instance of an individual or other valuing "subject" having to choose between the total available quantities of certain economic goods. Like every other act of valuation, this is complete in itself. The person making the choice does not have to make use of notions about the value of units of the commodity. His process of valuation, like every other, is an immediate inference from considerations of the utilities at stake. When a stock is valued as a whole, its marginal utility, that is to say, the utility of the last available unit of it, coincides with its total utility, since the total supply is one indivisible quantity. This is also true of the total value of free goods, whose separate units are always valueless, that is, are always relegated to a sort of limbo at the very end of the value scale, promiscuously intermingled with the units of all the other free goods.8

  • 8. See also Clark, Essentials of Economic Theory (New York, 1907), p. 41. In the first German edition of the present work, the above argument contained two further sentences that summarized in an inadequate fashion the results of investigation into the problem of total value. In deference to certain criticisms of C. A. Verrijn Stuart (Die Grundlagen der Volkswirtschaft [Jena, 1923], p. 115), they were omitted from the second edition.
Shield icon library