Menger’s Principles of Economics: Land, Labor, and Capital
Menger makes one more stab at reforming Classical economics: Land, labor, and capital values are established just the same as any good.
Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
As we near the end of our series, Menger has moved us from the very foundations of economic experience—the perception of dissatisfaction or needs—to the peaks of microeconomics—the production and accumulation of capital. He has explained that capital goods have value to the extent that they produce greater amounts or qualities of consumer goods than otherwise would be the case without capital investment. We have found, further, that investors and entrepreneurs play critical roles in economic activity by shouldering the risk that an investment may not produce as much as expected. Continuing on, then, Menger explains that capital, too, is valuable according to the marginal amounts of consumer goods it can produce. Importantly, though, capital goods tend to be flexible—they can be employed to produce a variety of goods, increase the quality of different goods, or increase the productivity of labor during many parts of the production process. Capital is rarely deployed solely for the production of a single good, and as quickly as values shifts, capitalists may move their machines into other production lines or sell them off to other businesses. Once again, capital is employed on the change‐filled margins of economic life, producing marginal units of goods, and with each additional investment of capital, an economic actor’s marginal valuations of the good may change.
But wait—What about land? Land is certainly not a consumer good (as any child who has eaten large amounts of dirt might tell you), but neither is it really a higher order or capital good. Like labor services, land seems to be a different sort of economic input. Or, at least, that’s what the Classical economists thought. Menger rejects the divisions drawn here and argues instead that land is a good like any other, subject to the exact same marginal process of valuation. Labor, too, commands its price according to the marginal productivity it contributes. As a rule, investment in capital is more valuable than investment in labor because labor‐saving machines can often produce higher‐quality and greater quantities than corresponding investments in labor, but this is not always so. Nor is it the case that all labor contributes value. Plenty of activities that constitute work are useless or even harmful—once again, all economic value depends upon the satisfaction of demand. Labor services that contribute the most overall economic value will therefore tend to command higher prices. This is not to say, of course, that incomes have to be set strictly according to each laborer’s contribution to the marginal value of particular goods; rather, Menger is careful to note that individuals may well choose to order socio‐economic or political life in wildly different ways. It is not the economist’s job to discourse at length on the moral propriety of certain actions. Economists are here merely to explain the process through which people value whatever they value, and to sort out the implications made when actors set the scales wherever they will. Social revolutions are always possible—perhaps rarely valuable, but always possible.
By Carl Menger
Principles of Economics
Trans. James Dingwall and Bert F. Hoselitz. Institute for Humane Studies. 1976. Originally Published: 1871.
Chapter III. The Theory of Value
3. The Laws Governing the Value of Goods of Higher Order
D. The value of individual goods of higher order.
We have seen that the value of a particular good (or of a given quantity of goods) to the economizing individual who has it at his command is equal to the importance he attaches to the satisfactions he would have to forgo if he did not have command of it. From this we could infer, without difficulty, that the value of each unit of goods of higher order is likewise equal to the importance of the satisfactions assured by command of a unit if we were not impeded by the fact that a good of higher order cannot be employed for the satisfaction of human needs by itself but only in combination with other (the complementary) goods of higher order. Because of this, however, the opinion could arise that we are dependent, for the satisfaction of concrete needs, not on command of an individual concrete good (or concrete quantity of some one kind of good) of higher order, but rather on command of complementary quantities of goods of higher order, and that therefore only aggregates of complementary goods of higher order can independently attain value for an economizing individual.
It is, of course, true that we can obtain quantities of goods of lower order only by means of complementary quantities of goods of higher order. But it is equally certain that the various goods of higher order need not always be combined in the production process in fixed proportions (in the manner, perhaps, that is to be observed in the case of chemical reactions, where only a certain weight of one substance combines with an equally fixed weight of another substance to yield a given chemical compound). The most ordinary experience teaches us rather that a given quantity of some one good of lower order can be produced from goods of higher order that stand in very different quantitative relationships with one another. In fact, one or several goods of higher order that are complementary to a group of certain other goods of higher order may often be omitted altogether without destroying the capacity of the remaining complementary goods to produce the good of lower order. The services of land, seed, labor services, fertilizer, the services of agricultural implements, etc., are used to produce grain. But no one will be able to deny that a given quantity of grain can also be produced without the use of fertilizer and without, employing a large part of the usual agricultural implements, provided only that the other goods of higher order used for the production of grain are available in correspondingly larger quantities.
If experience thus teaches us that some complementary goods of higher order can often be omitted entirely in the production of goods of lower order, we can much more frequently observe, not only that given products can be produced by varying quantities of goods of higher order, but also that there is generally a very wide range within which the proportions of goods applied to their production can be, and actually are, varied. Everyone knows that, even on land of homogeneous quality, a given quantity of grain can be produced on fields of very different sizes if more or less intensively tilled—that is, if larger or smaller quantities of the other complementary goods of higher order are applied to them. In particular, an insufficiency of fertilizer can be compensated for by the employment of a larger amount of land or better machines, or by the more intensive application of agricultural labor services. Similarly, a diminished quantity of almost every good of higher order can be compensated for by a correspondingly greater application of the other complementary goods.
But even where particular goods of higher order cannot be replaced by quantities of other complementary goods, and a diminution of the available quantity of some particular good of higher order causes a corresponding diminution of the product (in the production of some chemical, for instance), the corresponding quantities of the other means of production don not necessarily become valueless when this one production good is lacking. The other means of production can, as a rule, still be applied to the production of other consumption goods, and so in the last analysis to the satisfaction of human needs, even if these needs are usually less important than the needs that could have been satisfied if the missing quantity of the complementary good under consideration had been available.
As a rule, therefore, what depends on a given quantity of a good of higher order is not command of an exactly corresponding quantity of product, but only a portion of the product and often only its higher quality. Accordingly, the value of a given quantity of a particular good of higher order is not equal to the importance of the satisfactions that depend on the whole product it helps to produce, but its equal merely to the importance of the satisfactions provided for by the portion of the product that would remain unproduced if we were not in a position to command the given quantity of the good of higher order. Where the result of a diminution of the available quantity of a good of higher order is not a decrease in the quantity of product but a worsening of its quality, the value of a given quantity of a good of higher order is equal to the difference in importance between the satisfactions that can be achieved with the more highly qualified product and those that can be achieved with the less qualified product. In both cases, therefore, it is not satisfactions provided by the whole product that a given quantity of a particular good of higher order helps to produce that are dependent on command of it, but only satisfactions of the importance here explained.
Even where a diminution of the available quantity of a particular good of higher order causes the product (some chemical compound, for example) to diminish proportionately, the other complementary quantities of goods of higher order do not become valueless. Although their complementary factor of production is now missing, they can still be applied to the production of other goods of lower order, and thus directed to the satisfaction of human needs, even if these needs are, perhaps, somewhat less important than would otherwise have been the case. Thus in this case too, the full value of the product that would be lost to us for lack of a particular good of higher order is not the determining factor in its value. Its value is equal only to the difference in importance between the satisfactions that are assured if we have command of the good of higher order whose value we wish to determine and the satisfactions that would be achieved if we did not have it at our command.
If we summarize these three cases, we obtain a general law of the determination of the value of a concrete quantity of a good of higher order. Assuming in each instance that all available goods of higher order are employed in the most economic fashion, the value of a concrete quantity of a good of higher order in equal to the difference in importance between the satisfactions that can be attained when we have command of the given quantity of the good of higher order whose value we wish to determine and the satisfactions that would be attained if we did not have this quantity at our command.
This law corresponds exactly to the general law of value determination, since the difference referred to in the law of the preceding paragraph represents the importance of the satisfactions that depend on our command of a given good of higher order.
If we examine this law with respect to what was said earlier about the value of the complementary quantities of goods of higher order required for the production of a consumption good, we obtain a corollary principle: the value of a good of higher order will be greater (1) the greater the prospective value of the product if the value of the other complementary goods necessary for its production remains equal, and (2) the lower, other things being equal, the value of the complementary goods.
E. The value of the services of land, capital, and labor, in particular.
Land occupies no exceptional place among goods. If it is used for consumption purposes (ornamental gardens, hunting grounds, etc.), it is a good of first order. If it is used for the production of other goods, it is, like many others, a good of higher order. Whenever there is a question, therefore, of determining the value of land or the value of the services of land, they are subject to the general laws of the determination of value. If certain pieces of land have the character of goods of higher order, their value is subject also to the laws of value determination of goods of higher order that I have explained in the preceding section.
A widespread school of economists has recognized correctly that the value of land cannot validly be traced back to labor or to the services of capital. From this, however, they have deduced the legitimacy of assigning land an exceptional position among goods. But the methodological blunder involved in this procedure is easily recognized. That a large and important group of phenomena cannot be fitted into the general laws of a science dealing with these phenomena is telling evidence of the need for reforming the science. It does not, however, constitute an argument that would justify the most questionable methodological procedure of separating a group of phenomena from all other objects of observation exactly similar in general nature, and elaborating special highest principles for each of the two groups.
Recognition of this mistake has led, therefore, in more recent times to numerous attempts to fit land and the services of land into the framework of a system of economic theory with all other goods, and to trace their values and the prices they fetch back to human labor or to the services of capital, in conformity with the accepted principles.
But the violence done to goods in general, and to land in particular, by such an attempt is obvious. A piece of land may have been wrested from the sea with the greatest expenditure of human labor, or it may be the alluvial deposit of some river and thus have been acquired without any labor at all. It may have been originally overgrown with jungle, covered with stones, and reclaimed later with great effort and economic sacrifice; or it may have been free of trees and fertile from the beginning. Such items of its past history are of interest in judging its natural fertility, and certainly also for the question of whether the application of economic goods to this piece of land (improvements) were appropriate and economic. But its history is of no relevance when its general economic relationships, and especially its value, are at issue. For these have to do with the importance goods attain for us solely because they assure us future satisfactions. From these considerations, it also follows that whenever I refer to the services of land I mean the services, measured over time, of pieces of land as we actually find them in the economy of men, and not the use of the “original powers” of land. For only the former are objects of human economizing, while the latter, in concrete cases, are merely at most the objects of a hopeless historical investigation, and in any case irrelevant for economizing men. When a farmer rents a piece of land for one or several years, he cares little whether its soil derives its fertility from capital investments of all kinds or was fertile from the very beginning. These circumstances have no influence on the price he pays for the use of the soil. A buyer of a piece of land attempts to reckon the “future” but never the “past” of the land he is purchasing.
Thus the newer attempts to explain the value of land or the services of land by reducing them to labor services or to the services of capital must be regarded only as an outcome of the effort to make the accepted theory of ground‐rent (a part of our science that stands, relatively, in the least contradiction with the phenomena of real life) consistent with prevalent misconceptions of the highest principles of our science. It must further be protested against the accepted theory of rent, especially in the form in which it was expressed by [David] Ricardo, that it brought to light merely an isolated factor having to do with differences in the value of land but not a principle explaining the value of the services of land to economizing men, and that the isolated factor was mistakenly advanced as the principle.
Differences in the fertility and situation of pieces of land are doubtless among the most important causes of differences in the value of the services of land and of land itself. But beyond these there exist still other causes of differences in the value of these goods. Differences in fertility and situation are not even responsible for these other causes, much less a general principle explaining the value of land and services of land. If all pieces of land had the same fertility and equally favorable locations, they would yield no rent at all, according to Ricardo. But although a single factor accounting for differences between the rents they yield may then indeed be absent, it is quite certain that neither all the differences between the rents nor rent itself would, of necessity, disappear. It is evident rather that even the most unfavorably situated and least fertile pieces of land in a country where land is scarce would yield a rent, a rent that could find no explanation in the Ricardian theory.
Land and the services of land, in the concrete forms in which we observe them, are objects of our value appraisement like all other goods. Like other goods, they attain value only to the extent that we depend on command of them for the satisfaction of our needs. And the factors determining their value are the same as those we encountered earlier in our investigation of the value of goods in general. A deeper understanding of the differences in their value can, therefore, also only be attained by approaching land and the services of land from the general points of view of our science and, insofar as they are goods of higher order, relating them to the corresponding goods of lower order and especially to their complementary goods.
In the preceding section we obtained the result that the aggregate value of the goods of higher order necessary for the production of a consumption good (including the services of capital and entrepreneurial activity) is equal to the prospective value of the product. Where services of land are applied to the production of goods of lower order, the value of these services, together with the value of the other complementary goods, will be equal to the prospective value of the good of lower or first order to whose production they have been applied. As this prospective value is higher or lower, other things remaining equal, the aggregate value of the complementary goods will be higher or lower. As for the separate value of actual pieces of land or services of land, it is regulated, like the value of other goods of higher order, in accordance with the principle that the value of a good of higher order will, other things being equal, be greater (1) the greater the value of the prospective product, and (2) the smaller the value of the complementary goods of higher order.
The value of services of land is therefore not subject to different laws than the value of the services of machines, tools, houses, factories, or any other kind of economic good.
The existence of the special characteristics that land and the services of land, as well as many other kinds of goods, exhibit is by no means denied. In any country, land is usually available only in quantities that cannot be easily increased; it is fixed as to situation; and it has an extraordinary variety of grades. All the peculiarities of value phenomena we are able to observe in the case of land and the services of land can be traced back to these three factors. Since these factors have bearing only upon the quantities and qualities of land available to economizing men in general and to the inhabitants of certain territories in particular, the peculiarities in question are factors in the determination of value that influence not just the value of land and the services of land but, as we saw, the value of all goods. The value of land thus has no exceptional character.
The fact that the prices of labor services, like the prices of the services of land, cannot without the greatest violence be traced back to the prices of their costs of production has led to the establishment of special principles for this class of prices as well. It is said that the most common labor must support the laborer and his family, since his labor services could not otherwise be contributed permanently to society; and that his labor cannot provide him with much more than the minimum of subsistence, since otherwise an increase of laborers would take place which would reduce the price of labor services to the former low level. The minimum of subsistence is therefore, in this theory, the principle that governs the price of the most common labor, while the higher prices of other labor services are explained by reducing them to capital investment or to rents for special talents.
But experience teaches us that there are labor services that are completely useless, and even injurious, to economizing men. They are there not goods. There are other labor services that have goods‐character but not economic character, and hence no value. (In this second category belong all labor services that are available to society, for some reason or other, in such large quantities that they attain non‐economic character—the labor services connected with some unpaid office, for example.) Hence too (as we shall see later) labor services of these categories cannot have prices. Labor services are therefore not always goods or economic goods simply because they are labor services; they do not have value as a matter of necessity. It is thus not always true that every labor service fetches a price, and still less always a particular price.
Experience also informs us that many labor services cannot be exchanged by the laborer even for the most necessary means of subsistence, while a quantity of goods ten, twenty, or even a hundred, times that required for the subsistence of a single person can easily be had for other labor services. Wherever the labor services of a man actually exchange for his bae means of subsistence, it can only be the result of some fortuitous circumstance that his labor services are exchanged, in conformity with the general principles of price formation, for that particular price and no other. Neither the means of subsistence nor the minimum of subsistence of a laborer, therefore, can be the direct cause or determining principle of the price of labor services.
In reality, as we shall see, the prices of actual labor services are governed, like the prices of all other goods, by their values. But their values are governed, as was shown, by the magnitude of importance of the satisfactions that would have to remain unsatisfied if we were unable to command the labor services. Where labor services are goods of higher order, their values are governed (proximately and directly) in accordance with the principle that the value of a good of higher order to economizing men is greater (1) the greater the prospective value of the product, provided the value of the complementary goods of higher order is constant, and (2) the lower, other things being equal, the value of the complementary goods.
A special characteristic of labor services that affects their value consists in the fact that some varieties of labor services have unpleasant associations for the laborer, with the result that these services will be forthcoming only for compensating economic advantages. Labor services of this kind cannot, therefore, easily attain a non‐economic character for society. But the value of inactivity to most laborers is much less than is generally believed. The occupations of by far the great majority of men afford enjoyment, are thus themselves true satisfactions of needs, and would, be practiced, although perhaps in smaller measure or in a modified manner, even if men were not forced by lack of means to exert their powers. The exercising of his powers is a need for every normal human being. That only a few persons nevertheless work without expecting economic compensation is due not so much to the unpleasantness of labor as such but rather to the fact that the opportunities to engage in remunerative labor are fully ample.
Entrepreneurial activity must definitely be counted as a category of labor services. It is an economic good as a rule, and as such has value to economizing men. Labor services in this category have two peculiarities: (a) they are by nature not commodities (not intended for exchange) and for this reason have no prices. (b) they have command of the services of capital as a necessary prerequisite since they cannot otherwise be performed. This second factor limits the amount of entrepreneurial activity in general that is available to a people. It especially limits to relatively very small quantities entrepreneurial activity that can only be performed if the economizing individuals in question have at their disposal the services of large amounts of capital. Credit increases, and legal uncertainties diminish, these quantities.
The inadequacy of the theory that explained the prices of goods by the prices of the goods of higher order that served to produce them naturally also made itself felt wherever the price of the services of capital came in question. I explained the ultimate causes of the economic character and value of goods of this kind earlier in the present chapter, and pointed out the error in the theory that represents the price of the services of capital as a compensation for the abstinence of the owners of capital. In truth, the price that can be obtained for the services of capital is, as we have seen, no less a consequence of their economic character and of their value, than is the case with the prices of other goods. The determining principle of the value of the services of capital is the same as the principle determining the value of goods in general.
The fact that the prices of the services of land, capital, and labor, or, in other words, rent, interest, and wages, cannot be reduced without the greatest violence (as we shall see later) to quantities of labor or costs of production; has made it necessary for the proponents of these theories to develop principles of price formation for these three kinds of goods that are entirely different from the principles that are valid for all other goods. In the preceding sections, I have shown with respect to goods of all kinds that all phenomena of value are the same in nature and origin, and that the magnitude of value is always governed according to the same principles. Moreover, as we shall see in the next two chapters, the price of a good is a consequence of its value to economizing men, and the magnitude of its price is always determined by the magnitude of its value. It is also evident, therefore, that rent, interest, and wages are all regulated according to the same general principles. In the present section, however, I have dealt merely with the value of the services of land, capital, and labor. On the basis of the results obtained here I shall state the principles according to which the prices of these goods are governed after I have explained the general theory of price.
One of the strangest questions ever made the subject of scientific debate is whether rent and interest are justified from an ethical point of view or whether they are “immoral.” Among other things, our science has the task of exploring why and under what conditions the services of land and of capital display economic character, attain value, and can be exchanged for quantities of other economic goods (prices). But it seems to me that the question of the legal or moral character of these facts is beyond the sphere of our science. Wherever the services of land and of capital bear a price, it is always as a consequence of their value, and their value to men is not the result of arbitrary judgments, but a necessary consequence of their economic character. The prices of these goods (the services of land and of capital) are therefore the necessary products of the economic situation under which they arise, and will be more certainly obtained the more developed the legal system of a people and the more upright its public morals.
It may well appear deplorable to a lover of mankind that possession of capital or a piece of land often provides the owner a higher income for a given period of time than the income received by a laborer for the most strenuous activity during the same period. Yet the cause of this is not immoral, but simply that the satisfaction of more important human needs depends upon the services of the given amount of capital or piece of land than upon the services of the laborer. The agitation of those who would like to see society allot a larger share of the available consumption goods to laborers than at present really constitutes, therefore, a demand for nothing else than paying labor above its value. For if the demand for higher wages is not coupled with a program for the more thorough training of workers, or if it is not confined to advocacy of freer competition, it requires that workers be paid not in accordance with the value of their services to society, but rather with a view to providing them with a more comfortable standard of living, and achieving a more equal distribution of consumption goods and of the burdens of life. A solution of the problem on this basis, however, would undoubtedly require a complete transformation of our social order.