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Nature of Economic Calculation   Leave a comment

This is part of an ongoing series evaluating an essay by Ludwig von Mises. Click here to follow the rest of the series.

Every economic choice we make is really based on value. When we judge a item as more or less satisfactory, we are making a statement about its quality and its desirability to us. Most of us are quite capable of making these valuations. We all have opinions about what we like. In simple conditions, this valuation is easy, but as affairs become more complex and their interconnections are not so easily discerned, subtler means of valuation must be employed to determine value

Valuation is complicated by the  subjective nature of valuation. In an exchange economy the objective exchange value of commodities is the unit of economic calculation.

It is possible to base the calculation upon the valuations of all participants in trade. The subjective use value of each is not immediately comparable as a purely individual phenomenon with the subjective use value of other men. The exchange value arises out of the interplay of the subjective valuations of all who take part in exchange, but calculation by exchange value furnishes a control over the appropriate employment of goods. Anyone who wishes to make calculations concerning a complicated process of production will immediately notice whether he has worked more economically than others or not; if he finds, from reference to the exchange relations obtaining in the market, that he will not be able to produce profitably, this shows that others understand how to make better use of the goods in question. Calculation by exchange value makes it possible to refer values back to a unit. For this purpose, since goods can be mutually substituted in accordance with the exchange relations obtaining in the market, any possible good can be chosen. In a monetary economy it is money that is so chosen.

Monetary calculation has its limits. Money is not a yardstick of value or price. Value and price are not measured in money because as an economic good, money is not of stable value as has been naïvely, but wrongly, assumed in using it as a “standard of deferred payments.” The exchange-relationship which obtains between money and goods is subjected to constant, though often minor, fluctuations originating not only from the influence of other economic goods, but also from the side of money, but these fluctuations hardly disturb value calculations.

The inadequacy of the monetary calculation of value does not have its mainspring in the fact that value is then calculated in terms of a universal medium of exchange, namely money, but rather in the fact that in this system it is exchange value and not subjective use value on which the calculation is based.

Value calculations that stand outside of exchange transactions are impossible to calculate. If a man were to calculate the profitability of erecting a building or factor, he couldn’t include the loss of beauty in a view as part of his calculation because that is subjective criteria and yet many buildings have not been built because it would ruin a view.

It is customary to term such elements “extra-economic,” but you really can’t call the considerations irrational.

In any place where men regard as significant the beauty of a neighborhood or of a building, the health, happiness and contentment of mankind, the honor of individuals or nations, they are just as much motive forces of rational conduct as are economic factors in the proper sense of the word, even where they are not substitutable against each other on the market and therefore do not enter into exchange relationships.

Monetary calculation cannot embrace these factors, but this doesn’t negate the significance of monetary calculation in our everyday economic life. Humankind values esoteric things like beauty, health, honor and pride, so we should pay regard to them. Sensitive spirits may object to having to balance spiritual goods against material ones, but that is not the fault of monetary calculation. Even where judgments of value can be established directly without computation in value or in money, the necessity of choosing between material and spiritual satisfaction cannot be evaded.

Robinson Crusoe and the socialist state have an equal obligation to make the choice.

Anyone with a genuine sense of moral values experiences no hardship in deciding between honor and livelihood. We all have to eat and you can’t eat honor, but some people do choose to forego bread for honor’s sake, while others value material comfort over spiritual values.

Monetary calculation fulfills all the requirements of economic calculation. It affords us a guide through a complicated economic system. It enables us to extend to all goods of a higher order the judgment of value, as it touches on consumer goods. It renders their value capable of computation and thereby gives us the primary basis for all economic operations. It takes the guesswork out of capitalism.

We use money to keep track of the exchange of production goods, to reduce all exchange-relationships to a common denominator. There are limited circumstances where we can dispense with monetary calculations. Households often use a false economy. There’s relatively limited use of capital, division of labor is rudimentary, consumption goods are handled from beginning to end. So within the narrow confines of a closed household economy, it is possible to judge production without monetary placeholders, but it is increasingly difficult to do so the larger and more complex the economic system becomes.

This is why socialist societies end up perplexed when they try to take money out of the equation. “The human mind cannot orientate itself properly among the bewildering mass of intermediate products and potentialities of production without such aid. It would simply stand perplexed before the problems of management and location.”

It is an illusion to imagine that in a socialist state calculation in natura can take the place of monetary calculation. Calculation in natura, in an economy without exchange, can embrace consumption goods only; it completely fails when it comes to dealing with goods of a higher order. And as soon as one gives up the conception of a freely established monetary price for goods of a higher order, rational production becomes completely impossible. Every step that takes us away from private ownership of the means of production and from the use of money also takes us away from rational economics.

It is easy to overlook this fact when we deal with socialistic processes within a larger free market system. The State undertakes technical improvements in industry because their effect in similar private enterprises is evident and because those private industries which produce the materials for these improvements request it, but it’s easy to miss that these activities operate within a society based on private ownership of the means of production and upon the system of monetary exchange, which provides a means of accounting. This wouldn’t be possible in a purely socialistic environment, because economic calculation would be impossible.

There can be–in our sense of the term–no economy whatsoever. In trivial and secondary matters rational conduct might still be possible, but in general it would be impossible to speak of rational production any more. There would be no means of determining what was rational, and hence it is obvious that production could never be directed by economic considerations. What this means is clear enough, apart from its effects on the supply of commodities. Rational conduct would be divorced from the very ground which is its proper domain. Would there, in fact, be any such thing as rational conduct at all, or, indeed, such a thing as rationality and logic in thought itself? Historically, human rationality is a development of economic life. Could it then obtain when divorced therefrom?

Mises wrote this a long time before the Soviet Union toppled because of irrational policies based on a lack of economic calculation. He could evaluation the difference between a competitive economy and a socialist one and foresee the future.

The supply of goods will no longer proceed anarchically of its own accord; that is true. All transactions which serve the purpose of meeting requirements will be subject to the control of a supreme authority. Yet in place of the economy of the “anarchic” method of production, recourse will be had to the senseless output of an absurd apparatus. The wheels will turn, but will run to no effect.

Mises foresaw a society where many thousands of factories would be producing wares that were not ready for use, because the administration is incapable of testing their bearings. Has that good been on the shelf too long. Was work or material wasted in creating it? Was the method of production profitable? Maybe the administration could evaluation the quality of an item, but they would have no way of calculating the cost of production.

Contrast that with the economic system of private ownership of the means of production. Here the system of computation by value is necessarily employed by each independent member of society. Everybody participates in its emergence in two  ways

  • as a consumer
  • as a producer

As a consumer he chooses what he wants to buy based on quality and price. As a producer, he sets out to create high quality goods by whatever method produces the greatest return. Through the interplay of these two processes of valuation, individuals determine the price they want to pay for consumer goods, thus “harmonized their own requirements with their estimation of economic facts.”

Mises offered a contrasting example. Consider two societies are building railroads. The principle question is, should it be built at all and which route should it follow.  In a competitive and monetary economy, this question would be answered by monetary calculation. The new road will render less expensive the transport of some goods, and it may be possible to calculate whether this reduction of expense transcends that involved in the building and upkeep of the next line.

The socialist society would know how to look after itself. It would issue an edict and decide for or against the projected building and determine the route depending on personal preference. The decision would depend at best upon vague estimates by a central planning authority rather than on an exact calculation of value. The rail would not need to reduce the cost of transport of goods. It needn’t even be used. But it would be built and proclaimed a victory because it no economic appraisal or evaluation is possible. It’s just throwing darts at a board.

“Socialism is the abolition of rational economy.”

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