Finally, we arrive at the revolutionary moment when Carl Menger changed economics forever.

Editor’s Note

Anthony Comegna, PhD

Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

In our next portion from Menger, our author expands upon the concept of marginal utility—the idea that separates the classical economists like Marx and Smith from modern economists. Of course, as we have seen, marginal utility itself arises from the very idea of subjective value. Because all economic value originates in the minds of various subjects, and because those subjects act in order to fulfil their perceived needs, certain implications follow about the way people actually make their economic decisions. For one thing, people act on their most urgently felt needs first. And because all economic goods are scarce, economic actors must ration resources to satisfy as many needs as possible. When confronted with a series of goods with the same character, people must establish how much they value each particular unit of that good. Because additional units cannot continue to fulfil the same level of need, the value of any particular unit corresponds to the most urgent but as yet unmet need we may use that additional unit of the good to satisfy. In Menger’s revolutionary terminology, we may find the secret to value theory at the margins.

Water is normally so abundant that we have virtually innumerable units available at our command, but lost in the desert we might find ourselves in very short supply. Our normal needs for water are met so easily that we value each additional unit of water at a very low level—but in the Atacama Desert (the driest place on Earth), an additional jug of water may make the difference between life and death. In either case, the individual values the water based on the uses they could put the next bit of water toward. If in reality–the actual circumstances of real people’s real lives–a bit of extra water will neither increase your chances of survival nor even quench a thirst, then it is worthless.

Diamonds have no bearing on human survival, though, and yet they command high prices for exchange. You can’t eat them, you can’t drink them if you’re burning up in the desert, and many of us don’t even find them attractive. The marginal value of each additional diamond in the middle of the desert is extraordinarily low precisely because more important concerns press down upon the economic actor in question. They must revaluate goods based on the real conditions of their life and cause events to unfold such that their needs are met. If you are on the streets of London, New York, or Antwerp, you’ll find it quite easy to quench your thirst and indeed, extra water is usually a burden rather than a blessing. Diamonds, though—those rest at the margins of the goods available to most people; and the more base needs we have met, the higher we are able to value goods unrelated to survival. High market prices, then, do not correspond to the relative importance of a good to human survival. Rather, prices represent the very edges of what we want in life, the constant interchange between producers and consumers, and they will tend to flatten out as time goes on, needs are met, and production expands.

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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

2. The Original Measure of Value

B. The dependence of separate satisfactions on particular goods (objective factor).

We have seen that the efforts of men are directed toward fully satisfying their needs, and where this is impossible, toward satisfying them as completely as possible. If a quantity of goods stands opposite needs of varying importance to men, they will first satisfy, or provide for, those needs whose satisfaction has the greatest importance to them. If there are any goods remaining, they will direct them to the satisfaction of needs that are next in degree of importance to those already satisfied. Any further remainder will be applied consecutively to the satisfaction of needs that come next in degree of importance.

If a good can be used for the satisfaction of several different kinds of needs, and if, with respect to each kind of need, successive single acts of satisfaction each have diminishing importance according to the degree of completeness with which the need in question has already been satisfied, economizing men will first employ the quantities of the good that are available to them to secure those acts of satisfaction, without regard to the kind of need, which have the highest importance for them. They will employ any remaining quantities to secure satisfactions of concrete needs that are next in importance, and any further remainder to secure successively less important satisfactions. The end result of this procedure is that the most important of the satisfactions that cannot be achieved have the same importance for every kind of need, and hence that all needs are being satisfied up to an equal degree of importance of the separate acts of satisfaction.

We have been asking what value a given unit of a quantity of goods possessed by an economizing individual has for him. Our question can be more precisely stated with respect to the nature of value if it is stated in this form: which satisfaction would not be attained if the economizing individual did not have the given unit at his disposal—that is, if he were to have command of a total amount smaller by that one unit? The answer, which follows from the previous exposition of the nature of human economy, is that every economizing individual would in this case, with the quantity of goods yet remaining to him, by all means satisfy his more important needs and forgo satisfaction of the less important ones. Thus, of all the satisfactions previously obtained, only the one that has the smallest importance to him would now be unattained.

Accordingly, in every concrete case, of all the satisfactions secured by means of the whole quantity of a good at the disposal of an economizing individual, only those that have the least importance to him are dependent on the availability of a given portion of the whole quantity. Hence the value to this person of any portion of the whole available quantity of the good is equal to the importance to him of the satisfactions of least importance among those assured by the whole quantity and achieved with an equal portion.

Suppose that an individual needs 10 discrete units (or 10 measures) of a good for the full satisfaction of all his needs for that good, that these needs vary in importance from 10 to 1, but that he has only 7 units (or only 7 measures) of the good at his command. From what has been said about the nature of human economy it is directly evident that this individual will satisfy only those of his needs for the good that range in importance from 10 to 4 with the quantity at his command (7 units), and that the other needs, ranging in importance from 3 to 1, will remain unsatisfied. What is the value to the economizing individual in question of one of his 7 units (or measures) in this case? According to what we have learned about the nature of the value of goods, this question is equivalent to the question: what is the importance of the satisfactions that would be unattained if the individual concerned were to have only 6 instead of 7 units (or measures) at his command. If some accident were to deprive him of one of his seven goods (or measures), it is clear that the person in question would use the remaining 6 units to satisfy the more important needs and would neglect the least important one. Hence the result of losing one good (or one measure) would be that only the least of all the satisfactions assured by the whole available quantity of seven units (i.e., the satisfaction whose importance was designated as 4) would be lost, while those satisfactions (or acts of satisfying needs) whose importance ranges from 10 to 5 would take place as before. In this case, therefore, only a satisfaction whose importance was designated by 4 will depend on command of a single unit (or measure), and as long as the individual in question continues to have command of 7 units (or measures) of the good, the value of each unit (or measure) will be equal to the importance of this satisfaction. For it is only this satisfaction with an importance of 4 that depends on one unit (or measure) of the available quantity of the good. Other things being equal, if only 5 units (or measures) of the good were available to the economizing individual in question, it is evident that—as long as this economic situation persisted—each discrete unit or partial quantity of the good would have an importance to him expressed numerically by the figure 6. If he had 3 units, each one would have an importance to him expressed numerically by the figure 8. Finally, if he had but a single good, its importance would be equal to 10.

Examination of a number of particular cases will fully elucidate the principles here set forth, and I do not wish to shirk this important task, even though I know that I shall appear tiresome to some readers. Following in the path of Adam Smith, I will risk some tediousness to gain clarity of exposition.

To begin with the simplest case, suppose that an isolated economizing individual inhabits a rocky island in the sea, that he finds only a single spring on the island, and that he is exclusively dependent upon it for satisfaction of his need for fresh water. Assume that this isolated individual needs: (a) one unit of water daily for the maintenance of his life, (b) nineteen units for the animals whose milk and meat provide him with the most necessary means of subsistence, (c) forty units, partly so that he may consume the fully quantity necessary to the maintenance not only of his life but also his health and general well‐​being, to clean his body, his clothes, and his implements; and partly for the support of some additional animals whose milk and meat he finds needful, and finally (d) forty additional units of water daily, partly for his flower garden, and partly for some animals, which he keeps, not for the maintenance of his life and health, but simply for the purpose of a more varied diet, or for mere companionship. Assume too that he does not know how to employ more than this total of one hundred units of water.

As long as the spring provides water so copiously that he can not only satisfy all his needs for water but let several thousand pails flow into the sea every day, and thus as long as the satisfaction of none of his needs depends upon whether he has one unit more or one unit less (e.g., one pail full) at his disposal, a unit of water will, as we have seen, have neither economic character nor value to him, and thus there can be no question of the magnitude of its value. But if some natural event should now suddenly cause the spring to become partially exhausted, and if our island dweller should, as a result, have only 90 units of water at his disposal while he continues to require 100 units for the full satisfaction of his needs, it is clear that some satisfaction would then be dependent on the availability of each portion of the whole supply of water, and hence that each particular unit of water would attain that significance for him that we call value.

If we now, however, ask which of his satisfactions is, in this case, dependent on a given portion of the 90 units of water available to him, on 10 units for instance, our question takes the following form: which satisfactions of our isolated individual would not be attained if he did not have this given portion of the supply at his disposal—that is, if he should have only 80 instead of 90 units?

Nothing is more certain than that our economizing individual would continue, even if he had only 80 units of water available daily, to consume the quantity necessary for the preservation of his life, and as much more as will maintain as many animals as are indispensable for keeping him alive. Since these purposes require only 20 units of water daily, he would apply the remaining 60 units first to the satisfaction of all the needs on which his health and his continuing general well‐​being depend. Since for this purpose he requires a total of only 40 pails of water daily, he would have 20 units left, which could be employed for purposes of mere enjoyment. The last 20 units culd thus maintain either his flower garden or the animals he owns purely for pleasure. He would certainly choose, from the two satisfactions, the one appearing to him to be the more important, and would neglect the less important one.

When our Crusoe has 90 units of water available to him daily, the question whether he will continue to have this quantity or 10 units less at his disposal is, for him, equivalent to the question whether or not he will be in a position to continue to satisfy the least important needs that are being satisfied with 10 units of water daily. As long, therefore, as a total quantity of 90 units continues at his disposal, 10 units of water will have only the importance of these least important satisfactions—that is, only the importance of relatively insignificant enjoyments.

Suppose now that the spring supplying the individual of the isolated economy with water is even further exhausted, to such an extent indeed, that only forty units of water are available to him daily. Now again, just as before, the maintenance of his life and well‐​being will depend on the availability of this whole quantity of water. But the situation has changed in an important respect. If earlier some one of his pleasures or comforts depended on the availability of each, in any way practically significant, part of the whole supply (one unit, for instance), now the question of a unit more or a unit less of water being available per day is, for our Crusoe, already a question of the more or less complete maintenance of his health or general well‐​being. In other words, if he should lose one unit, the effect would be that he could no longer satisfy one of the needs on whose satisfaction the preservation of his health and his continuing general well‐​being depend. If a single pail of water had no value whatsoever to our Crusoe as long as he had several hundred pails at his disposal daily, and if later, when he had only 90 units daily, each unit had only the importance of some particular enjoyment dependent upon it, now each part of the forty units still available has the importance to him of much more important satisfactions. For now the satisfaction of needs whose non‐​satisfaction impairs his health and continuing well‐​being depends on each one of the forty units. But the value of each quantity of goods is equal to the importance of the satisfactions that depend on it. If the value of one unit of water to our Crusoe was at first equal to zero, and in the second case equal to one, it would now already be expressed numerically by something like the figure six.

Suppose, with continued drought, the spring should become more and more exhausted, and finally yield just the amount of water daily that is required barely to support the life of this isolated individual (hence in our case approximately 20 units, since he requires that much for himself and for those animals of his herd without whose milk and meat he cannot keep alive). In such a case, it is clear that each practically significant quantity of water available to him would have the full importance of the maintenance of his life. Hence a unit of water would have a still higher value than before, a value expressed numerically by the figure 10.

Thus, in the first of our cases, we saw that as long as the individual had several thousand pails of water at his disposal daily, a small portion of this quantity, one pail for instance, had no value to him at all because no kind of satisfaction depended on any single pail. In the second case, we saw that a concrete unit of the 90 units available to him already had the importance of certain minor enjoyments, since the least important satisfactions that depended on 90 units were these enjoyments. In the third case, when only 40 units of water a day were at his disposal, we saw that more important satisfactions were dependent on each concrete unit. In the fourth case, still more important satisfactions became dependent on each concrete unit. In each succeeding case, we saw the value of the remaining units rising successively as more important satisfactions became dependent on them.

To pass on to more complicated (social) relationships, suppose that a sailing ship still has 20 days of sailing to reach land, that by some accident its stores of food are almost completely lost, and that only such a quantity of some one variety of food, biscuits for instance, is left for each of the shipmates as is just sufficient for the preservation of his life for the 20 days. This is a case in which given needs of the persons on the sailing ship stand opposite command of the just the precise quantity of a given good that makes the satisfaction of these needs wholly dependent on the available quantity of the good. If it is assumed that the lives of the voyagers can be maintained only if each of them consumes a half pound of biscuits daily, and that each voyager has actual possession of 10 pounds of biscuits, then this quantity of food will have for each voyager the full importance of maintaining his life. Under such conditions, no one who prizes his own life at all could be prevailed upon to surrender this quantity of goods, or even any appreciable part of it, for any goods other than foodstuffs, even for the most valuable good of ordinary life. If, for example, a rich man travelling on the boat should offer a pound of gold for the same weight of biscuits to alleviate the pangs of hunger inevitable with such scant rations, he would find none of his shipmates ready to accept such a bargain.

Suppose next that the voyagers on the ship have command of another five pounds of ship’s biscuits each, in addition to the 10 pounds already mentioned. In this case their lives would no longer depend on their command of a single pound of biscuits, since one pound could be withdrawn from their control, or exchanged by them for goods other than foodstuffs, without endangering their lives. Even though their very lives would no longer depend on one pound of the food, a pound of it would nevertheless constitute a protection against the pangs of hunger, as well as a means to the preservation of their health, since such scanty nourishment, continued for twenty days, as would be the fare of all persons having only ten pounds of biscuits at their disposal, would unquestionably have an injurious effect on their well‐​being. Under such circumstances, although a single pound of biscuits would no longer have the importance to them of maintaining their lives, it would nevertheless have the importance everyone attaches to the preservation of his health and well‐​being, insofar as these depend on a single pound of biscuits.

Let us assume, finally, that the galley of the ship has been completely denuded of all its food stores; that the voyagers are also without any food of their own; that the ship is laden with a cargo of several thousand hundred‐​weight of biscuits; and that the captain of the ship, in consideration of the unfortunate situation of the voyagers as a result of this calamity, authorizes everyone to nourish himself at will with biscuits. The voyagers will, of course, take the biscuits to still their hunger. But no one will doubt that a palatable piece of meat would, in such a case, have considerable value to a voyager whose entire fare for twenty days would otherwise consist of biscuits alone, while a pound of biscuits would have an extraordinarily small value, and perhaps no value at all.

Why did command of a pound of biscuits have the full importance of maintaining his life to each voyager in the first of these cases, still a very great importance in the second case, but no importance whatsoever, or at any rate only an exceedingly slight importance, in the third case?

The needs of the voyages remained the same in all three cases, since neither their personalities nor their requirements changed. What did change, however, was the quantity of food standing opposite these requirements in each case. Opposite identical requirements for food on the part of the voyagers, there were ten pounds of food per person in the first case, a larger quantity in the second case, and a still larger quantity in the third case. Hence, from one case to the next, the importance of the satisfactions that were dependent on single units of the food declined progressively.

But what we have been able to observe here, at first with an isolated individual, and then in a small group temporarily isolated from the rest of humanity, is equally valid for the more complex interrelationships of a people and of human society in general. The situation of the inhabitants of a country after a crop failure, after an average crop, and finally, in a year following a bumper crop, presents relationships analogous in nature to those described above. Here also, opposite certain definite requirements, there is a smaller available quantity of food in the first case than in the second, and a smaller one in the second case than in the third. Hence, in these cases also, the importance of the satisfactions that depend on single units of the whole supply varies considerably.

If an elevator with 100,000 bushels of wheat burns down in a country that has just had a bumper crop, the effect of the calamity will at most be that less alcohol will be produced, or that the poorer part of the population will at worst be fed somewhat more scantily, without suffering deprivation; if the calamity occurs after an average crop, many people will already have to forgo more important satisfactions; and if the misfortune coincides with a famine, a great many people will die of hunger. In each of the three cases, satisfactions of very different degrees of importance depend on each concrete unit of the grain available to the people concerned, and for this reason the value of a unit of grain varies greatly in the three cases.

If we summarize what has been said, we obtain the following principles as the result of our investigation thus far:

  1. The importance that goods have for us and which we call value is merely imputed. Basically, only satisfactions have importance for us, because the maintenance of our lives and well‐​being depend on them. But we logically impute this importance to the goods on whose availability we are conscious of being dependent for these satisfactions.
  2. The magnitudes of importance that different satisfactions of concrete needs (the separate acts of satisfaction that can be realized by means of individual goods) have for us are unequal, and their measure lies in the degree of their importance for the maintenance of our lives and welfare.
  3. The magnitudes of the importance of our satisfactions that are imputed to goods—that is, the magnitudes of their values—are therefore also unequal, and their measure lies in the degree of importance that the satisfactions dependent on the goods in question have for us.
  4. In each particular case, of all the satisfactions assured by the whole available quantity of a good, only those that have the least importance to an economizing individual are dependent on command of a given portion of the whole quantity.
  5. The value of a particular good or of a given portion of the whole quantity of a good at the disposal of an economizing individual is thus for him equal to the importance of the least important of the satisfactions assured by the whole available quantity and achieved with any equal portion. For it is with respect to these least important satisfactions that the economizing individual concerned is dependent on the availability of the particular good, or given quantity of a good.

Thus, in our investigation to this point, we have traced the differences in the value of goods back to their ultimate causes, and have also, at the same time, found the ultimate, and original, measure by which the values of all goods are judged by men.

If what has been said is correctly understood, there can be no difficulty in solving any problem involving the explanation of the causes determining the differences between the values of two or more concrete goods or quantities of goods.

If we ask, for example, why a pound of drinking water has no value whatsoever to us under ordinary circumstances, while a minute fraction of a pound of gold or diamonds generally exhibits a very high value, the answer is as follows: Diamonds and gold are so rare that all the diamonds available to mankind could be kept in a chest and all the gold in a single large room, as a simple calculation will show. Drinking water, on the other hand, is found in such large quantities on the earth that a reservoir can hardly be imagined large enough to hold it all. Accordingly, men are able to satisfy only the most important needs that gold and diamonds serve to satisfy, while they are usually in a position not only to satisfy their needs for drinking water fully but, in addition, also to let large quantities of it escape unused, since they are unable to use up the whole available quantity. Under ordinary circumstances, therefore, no human need would have to remain unsatisfied if men were unable to command some particular quantity of drinking water. With gold and diamonds, on the other hand, even the least significant satisfactions assured by the total quantity available still have a relatively high importance to economizing men. Thus concrete quantities of drinking water usually have no value to economizing men but concrete quantities of gold and diamonds a high value.

All this holds only for the ordinary circumstances of life, when drinking water is available to us in copious quantities and gold and diamonds in very small quantities. In the desert, however, where the life of a traveler is often dependent on a drink of water, it can by all means be imagined that more important satisfactions depend, for an individual, on a pound of water than on even a pound of gold. In such a case, the value of a pound of water would consequently be greater, for the individual concerned, than the value of a pound of gold. And experience teaches us that such a relationship, or one that is similar actually develops where the economic situation is as I have just described.