The Austrian Economists Who Refuted Marx (and Obama)

The Austrian Economists Who Refuted Marx (and Obama)
March 13, 2014

Richard Ebeling

Richard Ebeling is a professor of economics at Northwood University in Midland, Michigan. (read full bio)

Left unspoken in Obama’s assertion of knowing what a minimum “fair” or “just” wage should be in America is the ghost of a thinker long thought to have been relegated to the dustbin of history: Karl Marx (1818-1883).

Marx’s Labor Theory of a Worker’s Value

Marx’s conception of the unjust “wage slavery” that businessmen imposed on their workers became the premise and the rallying cry that resulted in the communist revolutions of the twentieth century, with all their destruction and terror.

Marx insisted that the “real value” of anything produced was by determined by the quantity of labor that had gone into its manufacture.  If it takes four hours of labor time to produce a pair of shoes and two hours of labor time to prepare and bake a cake, then the just ratio of exchange between the two commodities should be one pair of shoes in trade for two cakes. Thus the quantities of the two goods would exchange at a ratio representing comparable amounts of labor time to produce them.

If a worker’s labor produced, say, three pairs of shoes during a twelve-hour workday, then the worker had a just right to the ownership of the three pairs of shoes his labor had produced, so he might exchange it for the productions of other workers from whom he wanted to buy.

But, Marx insisted, the businessman who hired the worker did not pay him a wage equal to the value of the three pairs of shoes the laborer had produced.  Simply because the businessman owned the factory and machines as private property with which the worker produced those shoes, and without access to which the worker would be left out in the cold to starve, the employer demanded a portion of the worker’s output.

The employer paid him a wage only equal to, say, two of the pairs of shoes, thus “stealing” a part of the worker’s labor. Hence, in Marx’s mind, the market value of the third pair of shoes that the businessman kept for himself out of the worker’s work was the source of his profit, or the net gain over the costs of hiring the worker.

Here is the origin of the notion of “unearned income,” the idea of income not from working and producing, but from, well, simply owning a private business in which the workers who really did all the work were employed.

The businessman, you see, does nothing. He lives off the labor of others, while sitting up in his office, with his feet on the desk, smoking a cigar (when it was still “politically correct” to do so). It is not surprising that given this reasoning about work, wages and profit that a president of the United States then says to businessmen “You really did not make it.”

Carl Menger and the Personal Value of Things

Karl Marx died in 1883, at the age of sixty-four.  A decade before his death, in the early 1870s, his labor theory of value had been overturned by a number of economists. The most important of them was the Austrian economist, Carl Menger (1840-1921), in his 1871 book, "Principles of Economics."

Menger explained that the value of something was not derived from the quantity of labor that had been devoted to its manufacture. A man might spend hundreds of hours making mud pies on the seashore, but if no one has any use for mud pies, and therefore does not value them enough to pay anything for them, then those mud pies are worthless.

Value like beauty, as the old adage says, is in the eyes of the beholder. It is based on the personal, or “subjective,” use and degree of importance that someone has for a commodity or service to serve some end or purpose that he would like to satisfy.

Goods do not have value because of the amount of labor devoted to their production. Rather, a certain type of labor skill and ability may have value because it is considered useful as a productive means to achieve a goal that someone has in mind.

And furthermore, the value of things decreases as our supply of them increases, because we apply each additional quantity of a good at our disposal to a purpose less important than the purpose for which previously acquired units of that good were used.

As I am adding shirts to my wardrobe, each extra shirt generally serves a use for that type of clothing less important to me than the shirts I had purchased earlier. Economists call this the “diminishing marginal utility of goods.”

Nobody Pays More for Anything Than They Think its Worth

So there is no “objective” minimum value that labor is inherently worth. An employer hires workers because they have value to him in assisting to produce a product that he thinks he can sell to potential buyers. As he hires workers of a particular type and skill, each of these workers is assigned to a task less important than the one the previous worker was hired to do.

As a result, no employer can or does pay more for any worker than he thinks his labor services are worth in contributing value to his production activities. The value of the worker to the employer is an assigned reflection of what that employer thinks the product is worth to the buying public who may purchase what the worker helps to produce.

Suppose that he thinks that some of the people in his work force contribute no more than, say, $6.00 an hour to the making of a product he hopes to sell to consumers. It should not be surprising that when the government tells him that he is legally obligated to pay each one of them a minimum wage no less than $7.40 an hour or $10.10 an hour, he lets go those that he considers now to be more costly to employ than they are worth. In addition, other jobs that he might have made available at that $6.00 an hour will never come into existence.

All that a government-mandated minimum wage succeeds in doing is pricing out of the labor market those workers whose valued contribution in the eyes of the employer in making a product is less than what the government dictates must be paid to them.

But what, exactly, does the employer do? What does he contribute to the production process, over and above the work down by the hired employees? Marx, as we saw, argued that the businessman’s “profit” was the value of that portion of the worker’s output that he appropriated for himself simply because he owned the business in which the worker was employed.

Böhm-Bawerk and the Importance of Savings for Job Creation

Another Austrian economist, Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk (1851-1914), who developed many of the ideas that originated with Carl Menger, gave the answer to Marx. In an important three-volume work on "Capital and Interest" (1914), and in several essays, the most important of which were, “Unresolved Contraction in the Marxian Economic System” (1896) and “Control or Economic Law” (1914) Böhm-Bawerk asked: Where does the business come from in which the worker is employed? And from where comes the funds with which the worker is paid his salary?

How has the factory been built? From where comes the capital – the machinery, tools, equipment – in the factory with which the hired workers do their work to produce the products that eventually are available for consumers to buy?

Böhm-Bawerk’s answer was that someone had to do the necessary savings out of income earned in the past so resources could be devoted to building the enterprise and housing it with the capital equipment without which any worker’s labor would be far less productive, far smaller in output, and far more crude in its quality.

The businessman who undertakes an enterprise must either have saved the necessary funds to cover his own investment expenses to do all of this, or he must have borrowed if from others who had done the necessary savings. Someone had to sacrifice, forego, the desirable consumption uses in the present that that savings could have been used for if it had not been invested in starting up and maintaining the operations of the business that may generate a financial payoff in the future when a product has been produced and can be sold at some point in that future.

No one sacrifices the uses and enjoyments that their income could provide them with today unless they are sufficiently compensated with a gain in the future that makes it worthwhile to forego those consumption uses and pleasures of the present.

That is why interest is paid, as the price for trading the use of resources across time, between the present and the future. It is the price that savers receive in the future for sacrificing satisfactions closer to the present until the borrowed sums are paid back. And the borrower pays that interest because he values more highly the uses he has for the money and resources he borrows today than the interest premium that he pays over the principle on the loan when it is repaid in the future.

Businessmen Save the Workers from Having to Wait for Their Wages

The fact that the businessman has such savings at his disposal, either from his own savings out of income earned in the past or from the borrowed savings of others, means that those that he employs do not have to wait until the product is finished and actually sold to receive their wages for the work they perform over the period of production.

The employer, in other words, “advances” to the workers the discounted value of what their labor services are worth while the production process is ongoing, precisely to relieve those whom he is employing from having to wait until revenues are received in the future from the sale of the product to consumers.

Indeed, this is why it is correct to say that the businessman really did “make it,” because without his willingness and ability to organize, fund, and direct the enterprise those whom he employs would have no jobs and would have no wages to live on before a marketable product was made and successfully sold.

This last point is also crucially important to appreciate. The businessman is not only the organizer of the enterprise and the investor of savings to “make it” happen, he is also the entrepreneur, the one who may or may not earn a profit from his enterprising efforts.

Businessmen Bear the Uncertainty of Planning for the Future

The workers and all others who supply businessman with the useful services and resources to undertake a production process receive their pay while the work is on going and being done. But the entrepreneur bears the uncertainty of whether or not he will earn enough from selling the product to cover all the expenses he has incurred when the product is finally ready for sale and actually offered on the market.

By paying those he employs the agreed upon and contracted for wages, he relieves his employees from the uncertainty as to whether or not, at the end of the day, a profit is earned, a loss is suffered, or the enterprise barely breaks even.

It is the businessman who has to make the creative speculative judgments about what to produce and at what price his product might sell. The correctness of that entrepreneurial judgment, in better anticipating than his competitors what it is consumers may want to buy in the future and the price they might pay for it, is what determines the success or failure of his enterprise.

Thus, Karl Marx had it all wrong in misunderstanding what determined the value of goods, the worth of workers in the production process, and the vital and essential role of the enterprising entrepreneurial businessman who really does “make it” all happen.

The Harm That Comes from Marxian-Based Polices

It matters little whether the president of the United States and others who share his views about work, wages and businessmen are consciously aware of how much their conception of capitalism and the labor market is implicitly derived from and influenced by the obsolete ruminations of a long-dead socialist revolutionary from the middle of the nineteenth century.

What does matter is that economic policies based on such Marxian misconceptions of the nature and workings of the free market economy can only lead to harm and disaster for multitudes of the very people it is claimed they wish to help.

And such misplaced policies will further undermine the essential foundations of the free market system that over the last two hundred years has given man more personal freedom and material prosperity than has ever known in all of human history.  They are policies that erode away at people’s liberty to work and freely associate in the ways they find most advantageous, and therefore move society down a road that leads to potential ruin.



[Originally posted at EpicTimes]

Richard Ebeling

Richard Ebeling is a professor of economics at Northwood University in Midland, Michigan. (read full bio)