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Bastiat on Value, Scarcity, Property
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Bastiat on Value, Scarcity, Property

From Economic Harmonies, ch. 5, “On Value”:

If the reader so desires, he can easily think up for himself other examples of this kind that will convince him that value is not necessarily commensurate with the amount of effort expended. This is a remark that I throw out here in anticipation of later discussion, for I expect to prove that value no more resides in labor than it does in utility.


Nature has seen fit to make me in such a way that I should die if I did not quench my thirst from time to time; and the spring to which I must go for water is two miles from my village. Therefore, every morning I must take the trouble of going after my little supply of water, for I find in water those useful qualities that have the power to assuage that type of suffering known as thirst. Want, effort, satisfaction—they are all there. I am familiar with the utility I derive from this act; I do not yet know its value.


However, suppose my neighbor also goes to the spring, and I say to him, “Spare me the trouble of making this trip; do me the service of bringing me some water. While you are so engaged, I will do something for you; I will teach your child to spell.” It happens that this suits both of us. This is the exchange of two services, and we can say that the one is equal to the other. Note that what is compared here are the two efforts, not the two wants or the two satisfactions; for on what basis can we compare the relative merits of having a drink of water and learning how to spell?


Soon I say to my neighbor, “Teaching your child is becoming a bore; I prefer to do something else for you. You will continue to bring me water, and I will give you five sous.” If the offer is accepted, the economist may say without fear of error: The service is worth five sous.


After a while my neighbor no longer waits for me to ask him. He knows, by experience, that I need to drink every day. He anticipates my want. And while he is at it, he provides water for other villagers. In a word, he becomes a water-seller. Then we begin to put it this way: Water is worth five sous.


But has the water really changed? Has the value, which so recently was in the service, now become a material thing, a new chemical element added to the water? Has a slight change that my neighbor and I made in our arrangements been powerful enough to upset the principle of value and alter its nature? I am not so pedantic as to object to saying that water is worth five sous, any more than to saying that the sun sets. But we must realize that both are examples of metonymy; that metaphors do not alter facts; that scientifically, since, after all, we are dealing with a science, it is no more true that value is contained in water than that the sun sets in the sea.

What’s the relevance? Well IP advocates implicitly or sometimes explicitly claim that human action “creates value”—value, as some disembodied thing, an “ontologically” existent substance or ownable thing, which can have an “owner.” They implicitly accept variants of the Marxian labor theory of value because of the error of accepting the labor theory of property. They conceive of labor as an ownable substance, like jam, which, when spread on unowned bread, makes the bread the property of the jam-owner (nevermind that the bread before having jam spread on it is not unowned; this is analogous to the fact that the production of valuable goods simply involves rearranging them to make them more valuable. Production means rearrangement, not creation ex nihilo; rearrangement requires prior ownership of the raw materials that are transformed; they are owned because they were owned already, prior to the labor and transformation. That is, creation is not a source of ownership, contra the confused views of the labor theory of property proponents).




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