Can market exchange create new value?

No misconception is more common among free market proponents than the idea that simple exchange creates new value. I wish to show how this reasoning is flawed.

free lunch
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A very common argument from economists and generally free market proponents is that the only thing that creates value are market interactions.  The basic idea they try to promote is that the Capitalist system is not a zero sum game as one person’s gain does not need to come from another person’s loss. You can see an example of this argument from this latest post on Techdirt.

Too many people, it seems, assume that “there is no free lunch” means that the market is entirely static. That is, they believe it’s a zero sum game. If I do x, then y loses out. So, if I am offered free internet service or a free lunch, then whoever provided that is out the same. But that’s simply not true. Economics is not a zero sum game, but is built around economic growth — where the sum of economic activity can be greater than the parts. If I do a transaction with you, and in the end, we’re both better off (i.e., we both got more value than we gave up), then the amount of overall value in the world increased. It might not be a “free” lunch (the economic transaction cost me something), but new utility is created above and beyond what was there before.

(Emphasis mine)

I will not argue on the liberal use of vague concepts and examples that seem valid (eg Why “Free Internet” and not “Free Apples”? Because the argument sounds more plausible that way) but I will point out the black hole in the end.

What the author is telling us in effect is that when you and I trade commodities, new utility is created. So if I give you an apple and you give me an orange, new utility has been created out of thin air. What this utility is, the author does not deem worthy to mention so your guess is as good as mine.

We can safely assume that the author is rather talking about utility in the economic sense, which can roughly translate as satisfaction. In that case however, new utility has not been created but rather the individual utility of each person has been increased. But this kind of utility does not affect the cumulative value of the world, it only affects the individual. The amount of value in the world remains constant.

It is this kind of fallacious reasoning that leads to events such as the rise and fall of Iceland, where their “value” skyrocketed simple because the traders agreed upon themselves that their stuff was worth more. What they basically did was trade amongst themselves and with each trade, they were creating “new utility”. By the logic above, that is perfectly normal and acceptable. The result of which was that Iceland’s “wealth” ballooned to such an extraordinary degree and then popped at the slightest disturbance.

But the reality is that utility, and by that I mean objective value of any single commodity can only be created through one of two ways. Human Labour and Natural Phenomena. The only way to create a new car is to build it. The only way to create a new microchip is to build it etc. It is funny that the author quotes someone else who goes very close to this but fails to grasp it

A useful metaphor for production in an economy comes from the kitchen. To create valuable final products, we mix inexpensive ingredients together according to a recipe. The cooking one can do is limited by the supply of ingredients, and most cooking in the economy produces undesirable side effects.

But of course the extra value that is created in the kitchen does not come from simply possesing lots of inexpensive ingredients. By this reasoning, the best cooks would be the ones who could trade their material best and get the biggest array of them, or trade for the ones that gives them personally the largest amount of satisfaction. After all it’s the trading that would “create new utility” and thus “value” isn’t it?

But that of course is patently absurd. The extra value that is created in the kitchen does not lie in the ingredients. It lies in the amount of labour the cook will put in his cooking. And if we take into account the skill of the cook, then we can speak about the SNLT to be more accurate. The more labour the cook puts into his cooking, the more value the end result will have.

It is understandable that economists would be avert to recognise where the value comes from, but this dooms them to simply a series of equivocations.

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