Menger’s Principles of Economics: Coordinating Stuff and Time
At base, economics is an historical discipline–it is the study of how productivity and material resources, combined over time, satisfy human needs.
Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
For Carl Menger, all of economics was essentially an historical discipline. That is, he saw economic productivity as a process which takes place through time. First come human needs, then comes human knowledge, and when mixed with physical materials and labor, goods and satisfaction are both born. There is no random production, purely in the hope that somewhere consumer demands might arise to consume whatever has been created. Labor and capital are necessarily always employed toward some sort of definite production process, or they are left idle and no longer part of the economy. Each and every genuine good connects, one to another, through an endless chain of economic relationships between different orders of the production process and in service of different human purposes. In our current number, Menger elaborates on the importance of time in his overall theory of the good and economic systems. Human beings must be able to grapple with time if they are ever going to put their physical surroundings to more productive use. We have to be able to coordinate immense amounts of knowledge and material over time to a variety of uses, without shortages or surpluses, but because time is always moving quickly onward and conditions constantly change with it, we cannot plan based purely on the past. We have to be either super‐experts with the ability to perfectly predict the future (either unlikely, far in the future, or impossible), or we have to ensure there is a flexible, responsive, and self‐correcting system of production and distribution (like the free market).
By Carl Menger
Principles of Economics
Trans. James Dingwall and Bert F. Hoselitz. Institute for Humane Studies. 1976. Originally Published: 1871.
Chapter II: Economy and Economic Goods
1. Human Requirements
C. The time limits within which human needs are felt.
In our present investigation, the only topic still remaining to be taken into consideration is the problem of time, and we must demonstrate for what time periods men actually plan their requirements.
On this question, it is clear, in the first place, that our requirements for goods of first order appear to be met, with reference to a given future time period, if, within this time period, we will be in the position of having directly at our disposal the quantities of goods of first order that we require. It is different if we must meet our requirements for goods of first or, in general, of lowest order indirectly (that is, by means of quantities of the corresponding goods of higher order), because of the lapse of time that is inevitable in any production process. Let us designate as Period I the time that begins now and extends to the point in time when a good of first order can be produced from the corresponding goods of second order now at our disposal. Let us call Period II the time period following Period I and extending to the point in time when a good of first order can be produced from the goods of third order now available to us. And similarly, let us designate the following time periods III, IV, and so on. A sequence of time periods is thus defined for each particular kind of good. For each of these time periods we have immediate and direct requirements for the good of first order, and these requirements are actually met since, during these time periods, we come to have direct command of the necessary quantities of the good of first order.
Suppose, however, that we should try to meet our requirements for a good of first order during Period II by means of goods of fourth order. It is clear that this would be physically impossible, and that an actual provision of our requirements for the good of first order within the posited time period could result only from the use of goods of first or second order.
The same observation can be made not only with respect to our requirements for goods of first order, but with respect to our requirements for all goods of lower order in relation to the available goods of higher order. We cannot, for example, provide our requirements for goods of third order during Period V by obtaining command, during that time period, of the corresponding quantities of goods of sixth order. On the contrary, it is clear that for this purpose we would already have had to obtain command of the later goods during Period II.
If the requirements of a people for grain for the current year were not directly covered in late autumn by the then existing stocks of grain, it would be much too late to attempt to employ the available land, agricultural implements, labor services, etc., for that purpose. But autumn would be the proper time to provide for the grain requirements of the following year by utilizing the above‐mentioned goods of higher order. Similarly, to meet our requirements for the labor services of competent teachers a decade from now, we must already, at the present time, educate capable persons for this purpose.
Human requirements for goods of higher order, like those for goods of lower order, are not only magnitudes that are quantitatively determined in strict accordance with definite laws, and that can be estimated beforehand by men where a practical necessity exists, but they are magnitudes also which, within certain time limits, men do calculate with an exactness sufficient for their practical affairs. Moreover, the record of the past demonstrates that, on the basis of production, men continually improve their ability to estimate more exactly the quantities of the various goods that will be needed to satisfy their needs, as well as the particular time periods within which these requirements for the various goods will arise.
2. The Available Quantities
If it is generally correct that clarity about the objective of their endeavors is an essential factor in the success of every activity of men, it is also certain that knowledge of requirements for goods in future time periods is the first prerequisite for the planning of all human activity directed to the satisfaction of needs. Whatever may be the external conditions, therefore, under which this activity of men develops, its success will be dependent principally upon correct foresight of the quantities of goods they will find necessary in future time periods—that is, upon correct advance formulation of their requirements. It is clear also that a complete lack of foresight would make any planning of activity directed to the satisfaction of human needs completely impossible.
The second factor that determines the success of human activity is the knowledge gained by men of the means available to them for the attainment of the desired ends. Wherever, therefore, men may be observed in activities directed to the satisfaction of their needs, they are seen to be seriously concerned to obtain as exact a knowledge as possible of the quantities of goods available to them for this purpose. How they proceed to do so is the subject that will occupy us in this section.
The quantities of goods available, at any time, to the various members of a society are set by existing circumstances, and in determining these quantities the only problems they have are to measure and take inventory of the goods at their disposal. The ideal result of these two varieties of provident human activity is the complete enumeration of the goods available to them at a given point in time, their classification into perfectly homogeneous categories, and the exact determination of the number of items in each category. In practical life, however, far from pursuing this ideal, men customarily do not even attempt to obtain results as fully exact as is possible in the existing state of the arts of measuring and taking inventory, but are satisfied with just the degree of exactness that is necessary for practical purposes. Yet it is significant evidence of the great practical importance that exact knowledge of the existing quantities of goods available to them has for many people that we find a quite exceptional degree of exactness of this knowledge among merchants, industrialists, and such persons generally as have developed a high degree of provident activity. But even at the lowest levels of civilization we encounter a certain amount of knowledge of the available quantities of goods, since it is evident that a complete lack of this knowledge would make impossible any provident activity of men directed to the satisfaction of their needs.
To the degree to which men engage in planning activity directed to the satisfaction of their needs, they endeavor to attain clarity as to the quantities of goods available to them at any time. Wherever a considerable trade in goods already exists, therefore, we will find men attempting to form a judgment about the quantities of goods currently available to the other members of the society with whom they maintain trading connections.
As long as men have no considerable trade with one another, each man obviously has but a small interest in knowing what quantities of goods are in the hands of other persons. As soon, however, as an extensive trade develops, chiefly as a result of division of labor, and men find themselves dependent in large part upon exchange in meeting their requirements, they naturally acquire a very obvious interest in being informed not only about all the goods in their own possession but also about the goods of all the other persons with whom they maintain trading relations, since part of the possessions of these other persons in then accessible to them, if not directly, yet indirectly (by way of trade).
As soon as a society reaches a certain level of civilization, the growing division of labor causes the development of a special professional class which operates as an intermediary in exchanges and performs for the other members of society not only the mechanical part of trading operations (shipping, distribution, the storing of goods, etc.), but also the task of keeping records of the available quantities. Thus we observe that a specific class of people has a special professional interest in compiling data about the quantities of goods, so‐called stocks in the widest sense of the word, currently at the disposal of the various peoples and nations whose trade they mediate. The data they compile cover trading regions that are smaller or larger (single counties, provinces, or even entire countries or continents) according to the position the intermediaries in question occupy in commercial life. They have, moreover, an interest in many other general kinds of information, but we will have occasion to discuss this at a later point.
The keeping of such statistical records, insofar as they relate to the quantities of goods currently at the disposal of sizeable groups of individuals, of even at the disposal of whole nations or groups of nations, meets, however, with not inconsiderable difficulties, since the exact determination of these stocks can be made only by means of a census. The procedure of a census presupposes a complicated apparatus of public officials, covering an entire trading area and equipped with the necessary powers. Such an apparatus can be supplied only by national governments, and by these only within their own territories. Moreover, a census fails to be efficient even within these limits, as is known to every expert, when it deals with goods whose available quantities are not easily accessible to official enumeration.
Censuses, too, can be undertaken conveniently only from time to time. Indeed, it is ordinarily possible to undertake them only at considerable intervals of time. Hence the data obtained at a certain point in time for all goods whose available quantities are subject to severe fluctuations will not infrequently already have lost practical value, even though the figures may lay claim to reliability.
Government activity directed to the determination of the quantities of goods available at any time to a given people or nation is, therefore, naturally confined: (1) to goods whose quantities are subject only to slight changes, as is the case with land, buildings, domestic animals, transportation facilities, etc., since a census of such items, taken at a particular point in time, maintains its validity for later points in time as well, and (2) to goods whose available quantities are subject to such a degree of public control that the correctness of the figures obtained is thereby guaranteed, at least in some degree.
With the signal interest that the business world, under the circumstances just described, has in as exact a knowledge as possible of the quantities of goods available in certain trading areas, it is understandable that it is not satisfied with the incomplete results of this activity of governments, performed, as it is for the most part, with little commercial understanding and always covering only particular countries or parts of countries rather than entire trading areas. On the contrary, the business world itself attempts to provide independently, and not infrequently at considerable financial sacrifice, as inclusive and as exact information as is possible of the quantities in question. This need has produced many organs serving the special interests of the business world, whose task consists, in considerable part, of informing the members of each branch of production about the current state of stocks in the various trading areas.
Among these organs are the correspondents who are maintained by large business houses at the major markets for each of their commodities. One of the chief duties of these correspondents is to keep their employers continuously informed about the condition of commodity stocks. For every important commodity stocks. For every important commodity there is also a considerable number of periodically published business reports that serve the same purpose. Anyone who carefully follows the grain reports of Bell in London or Meyer in Berlin, the sugar reports of Licht in Magdeburg, the cotton reports of Ellison and Haywood in Liverpool, etc., will find reliable information in them about the current state of commodity stocks (and many other data of importance to the business world, which I will discuss later) based on investigations of various kinds and on ingenious calculation where investigation is not feasible. These estimates of commodity stocks have a very definite influence, as we shall see, on economic phenomena, notably price formations. The cotton reports of Ellison and Haywood, for example, contain periodical information about current stocks of the different grades of cotton in Liverpool, in England in general, on the continent, and in America, India, Egypt, and the other producing regions; they inform us regularly about the quantities of cotton in process of shipment on the high seas (floating cargo), about the ports to which they are consigned, and whether the quantities in England are still in the hands of the wholesalers, already in the warehouses of spinners or other buyers, or assigned for exports, etc.
These reports are based on public censuses of all kinds, which the business world immediately strives to make serviceable if they prove at all trustworthy, on information gathered by expert correspondents in various places, and in part also on the estimates of experienced businessmen of proven reliability. They cover not only the stocks available at any given time but also the quantities of goods expected to be at the disposal of men in future time periods. In the above‐mentioned reports of Licht, for example, one finds not only news of the fluctuations of sugar stocks in all the trading areas in contact with Germany, but also a comprehensive collection of facts concerning raw material and manufacturing production. In particular, one finds current reports on the area of land planted in sugar cane and sugar beets, on the present condition of the cane and beet crops, on the expected influence of the weather on the time and quantitative and qualitative results of the harvest, on the harvest itself, on the capacities of sugar factories and refineries, on the number of these plants that are active and the number that are idle, on the amount of foreign and domestic output that is expected to reach the German market and the times of expected arrival, on technical progress in methods of sugar production, on disturbances in the distributive apparatus, etc. Similar data on other commodities are contained in the other business reports mentioned in the previous paragraph.
Such reports are usually sufficient to inform the business world about the available quantities of certain commodities in the more or less extensive trading areas relevant to each commodity, and to provide it with a basis for judging prospective changes in stocks. Where actual uncertainties exist, the reports serve to draw attention to this circumstance, so that, in all cases where the outcome of a particular transaction depends upon the larger or smaller available quantity of a good, its risky character is brought to the attention of the business world.