Lion of the Blogosphere

The subjective theory of value (libertarianism part 4)

Libertarians believe in the subjective theory of value. “The subjective theory of value is a theory of value which advances the idea that the value of a good is not determined by any inherent property of the good, nor by the amount of labor required to produce the good, but instead value is determined by the importance an acting individual places on a good for the achievement of their desired ends.” In other words, the value of something is subjective, and measured by what someone is willing to pay for it, and not what you think the value should be.

Now certain commenters have insisted that my statement that libertarians believe that what a person makes is exactly equal to the value they create is not what libertarians believe, but it’s simply a tautology of the subjective theory of value. If the “free market” was willing to pay billions of dollars for Bill Gates’ labor, that means the value of his labor was billions of dollars. The subjective theory of value is at the core of Austrian economics which is synonymous with libertarian economics.

Since libertarians believe that value is subjective, this can’t be disproved empirically, it but it’s easily disproved by using common sense. So put on your common-sense thinking caps, people.

In order to explain real-world economics, I’ve created the theory of value transference. Under my theory, value transference is the difference between a thing’s true value (which is indeed hard to objectively measure precisely) and what someone paid for it. (Although it’s a theory that’s still being refined, so I reserve the right to change it.)

In my economic universe, everyone wants to make money, but most people don’t care if they make money by creating value or by transferring value created by other people to themselves. Some people do think that what they do for a living should be socially useful, but they are in the minority. In the modern economy, most people don’t even choose whether they want to make money by creating value or by transferring value. They take whatever job is available to them and their employer directs their labor either towards value creation or value transference. And regardless of whether the employee creates or transfers value, some of that value will be transferred up the corporate ladder to higher level executives and then a residual amount to shareholders.

* * *

It should be further elaborated that libertarians/Austrians believe that there is one exception to the theory of subjective value, and that’s when the government butts into the free market, which allows people to make money by lobbying the government for favorable laws. Libertarians call this “rent-seeking behavior.” If government would only de-regulate everything and allow a completely laissez-faire economy, then all “rent-seeking” would go away and there would be libertarian bliss.

Written by Lion of the Blogosphere

April 19, 2015 at 3:10 PM

55 Responses

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  1. The subjective theory of value takes a thought experiment that is obviously true (I believe the classic example set by Austrians is the man in the desert willing to pay anything for a glass of water that people in other situations wouldn’t give any money for) and extrapolates it wildly reaching the conclusion that no real sense can be made of any economic value or reasons for exchange. The Austrian conclusion has always struck me simply as “anything that happens must be good.” Unless something that happens is one of things they don’t like, wait, then it’s bad.

    For all that they mock the labor theory of value (there seem to be two things Austrians will jump at the chance to mock and disdain above all else: the labor theory of value, and Paul Krugman; why these two particular things above all else, don’t ask me), it seems to hold up surprisingly well empirically:

    Also, Lion, you might be interested in this blog post by a doctor about hospital administrators and what he terms as “value extraction”:


    April 19, 2015 at 3:30 PM

  2. Subjective utility is also a keystone of ordinary economics. For example, it means both parties can benefit (increase their own utility) from a freely chosen mutual exchange of goods. With objective utility, they can both at best come out even, it seems. Otherwise one will exploit the other by gaining utility at the others’ expense.

    I recall reading that writers in the Soviet Union, practitioners of Marx’ labour theory of value, were paid a one-time fee for their work, while the variable costs were paper, printing, etc. Whether anecdotal/BS or not, that sort of reasoning seems to conform with the theory, so the role of intellectual property might be quite different in a system built on the labour theory value. Perhaps for the better?


    April 19, 2015 at 4:19 PM

  3. I’m pretty sure I was the lone commenter to mention the subjective theory of value and thus put to bed any blah blah ‘no true scotsman’ assertions by libertarians.


    April 19, 2015 at 4:24 PM

    • Thank you.

      Lion of the Blogosphere

      April 19, 2015 at 6:56 PM

    • Nah. Swanknasty and some of you are looking at a Chinese teen in a plaid skirt and concluding triumphantly that proves there’re no true Scotsmen, so she must be one. The Libertarians are pretty clear on what they uphold, certainly don’t equate Austrian economics with ‘libertarian economics’…and Lion is simply off.

      I’m no expert on economics, but what I’ve read answers Lion’s mistakes pretty well. I think people are hung up on the use of ‘subjective’ ignoring that in the technical sense they’re using it means people prioritize to their ends, and any explanation not based on that goes in circles. That’s pretty much economics now.

      Lion has some intriguing ideas with this value transfer concept. I would like to read more on that.


      April 20, 2015 at 6:47 AM

    • Sure. Libertarians are “clear” on what they uphold until you hold up any position as one libertarians believe.


      April 20, 2015 at 12:22 PM

  4. Marketing people talking about pricing products to value. But “value” is frequently bases on prices of other goods. If the good you are selling is priced more expensively than alternatives, then there must be some other perceived value, such as prestige or exclusivity. If you are selling products to other manufactures rather than people, you can really only price based on alternate products that perform the same function.

    In a free market with low barriers to entry, if you produce a product that you can sell very profitably because the manufacturing cost is must lower than the perceived value, many other competitors will enter this market and change the market to be priced on manufacturing cost. Whoever can lower their manufacturing cost to be the lowest while keeping quality acceptable will control the largest market share. When competitors offer similar products at much lower price, the perceived value of you products declines.

    If you have a monopoly, then of course you can price to value.


    April 19, 2015 at 4:39 PM

  5. I have a better definition of value transference as used in this blog:

    Value transference is goods or services (usually services) that Lion personally doesn’t need and/or doesn’t understand.

    Hamster of the Blogosphere

    April 19, 2015 at 4:40 PM

  6. Value transference sees exploitative against the employee and the end-user, but it may not be. Facebook users get to use Facebook’s service for free, and many individuals have promoted their brands and uploaded their pictures on Facebook at no direct monetary cost to them. What Facebook gets is the value of an additional node to its social network. Bill and Paul are worth billions for the billions or even trillions of dollars of indirect value they created in founding Microsoft. This is pretty much Neoclassical economics 101. Doesn’t make you an Austrian or Libertarian.

    grey enlightenment

    April 19, 2015 at 4:43 PM

    • The REAL users of Facebook are the advertisers, those are the true customers. That hundreds of millions of people who check out Facebook daily is feature of the product.

      Lion of the Blogosphere

      April 19, 2015 at 6:57 PM

      • Exactly, if you’re not paying for it, you’re NOT the customer. You are the product being sold.

        Isn’t it great, said one pig to another, we have to pay nothing for the barn and even the food is free!


        April 19, 2015 at 7:35 PM

      • Economists have not caught up with the concept in management that we’re all customers.


        April 20, 2015 at 6:48 AM

  7. No, the labor theory of value hasn’t held up well. Not since the 19th century. In fact the subjective theory of value is basically taken for granted by economists who are NOT libertarian too.

    I don’t see the value transference idea putting a dent in STV at all. They complement each other. If SVT doesn’t explain why low paid publishing work is more prestigious than highly paid transport work, then nothing does. Culture informs what we value.

    “Since libertarians believe that value is subjective, this can’t be disproved empirically.” Well kinda. The bigger problem was that the LTV couldn’t be proved empirically, despite all our evo psych instincts saying it must be true.

    “Libertarians/Austrians believe that there is one exception to the theory of subjective value, and that’s when the government butts into the free market.”

    Good point. This is due to natural rights libertarianism being conflated with Austrian economics. Thanks to (probably) the Mises Institute and its outreach efforts, Austrian econ and dogmatic Rothbard style libertarianism have basically merged into one big indestructible ideology.


    April 19, 2015 at 5:28 PM

    • Dogmatic? Rothbard was pretty clear at talks that his views along with those of all social scientists were becoming obsolete because they portray a society without Libertarians.


      April 20, 2015 at 6:51 AM

      • The way he speaks, about what a libertarian must do or not do, always struck me as cult leader-esque. I consider him a moralist and polemicist first, an economist second. From “For a New Liberty”:

        “Even if a society of despotism and systematic invasion of rights could be shown to be more productive than what Adam Smith called ‘the system of natural liberty,’ the libertarian would support this system.”


        April 20, 2015 at 3:12 PM

  8. You have the words “subjective” and “objective” reversed. You say: “the value of something is subjective, and measured by what someone is willing to pay for it, and not what you think the value should be.” If the value were what you think it should be, then that would be subjective. The market value is much more objective.


    April 19, 2015 at 6:08 PM

  9. The subjective theory of value is the best way I know of to give anything a value.

    Communists tried to value things without market pricing and they wound up with disaster: famines on the one hand and massive waste on the other. Scarcity and surplus are incredibly important determinants of price, and so it is just not helpful to speak of a thing’s “true value” aside from demand.

    Fairness or how hard somebody works don’t matter. Meeting demand is what matters.

    If I am dying of dehydration in the desert, a gallon of water is worth perhaps a hundred thousand dollars to me. Suppose I come across the world’s most profitable water seller who sells me that water at that price. That seller could be labeled a value transferer I guess, but that value transferer is nevertheless essential because without that water, I die.

    A Marxist would stop the greedy capitalist water guy, and then I am a goner.


    April 19, 2015 at 6:44 PM

    • Adam Smith believed in the labor theory of value. So why do you bring up Communism?

      Communism = pure Managerialism

      Libertarians depict communism and western capitalism as extremes on a spectrum, when in fact there is very little difference. Most of what sucked about communism also sucks about western capitalism. Communist companies are structured in exactly the same way as western companies. And they produced similar, just crappier products.

      Managers earn more because they are managers, not because their abilities or labor are scarce, or their contribution to output. And they get to be managers because of politics, relationships and self-selection.

      Investors, customers and employees are exploited by management. Just because there is no radically better system available and it was even worse under communism, does not make this exploitation (or value transference) go away.


      April 19, 2015 at 11:01 PM

      • Presumably communists were brought up because they tried to use the theory.


        April 20, 2015 at 2:54 AM

      • “Investors, customers and employees are exploited by management.”

        Thank you, comrade, for pointing out how decadent bourgeoisie exploit proletariat. We must to make make glorious revolution to free the worker! tee-hee


        April 20, 2015 at 11:03 AM

    • The subjective theory of value is the best way I know of to give anything a value

      True believers love love love arguing from lack of imagination.


      April 20, 2015 at 12:36 AM

  10. The subjective theory of value is simply nihilism; solipsism made economic theory.

    The price of goods and services is relative, yes. But so are most things in the universe, and everything in a man’s mind. Words are arbitrary variables with little correspondence to actual reality, international units like the meter and the gram are objectively without basis. But no one, except cranks in lunatic asylums, would deny their practical value.

    The relativity of something is not sufficient to proclaim its worthlessness as a concept. And that is essentially what libertarians, with their snooty teenager attitude, do. “This bottle of water has no fixed price? Therefore it has no price at all, except the price that one is willing to pay for it! There is no such thing as value!” Which is true, perhaps, in some twisted rationalistic way, the same way that can easily demonstrate life has no more objective value than death.

    Since the beginning, men have striven to establish arbitrary but useful standards and institutions on which to solidly anchor civilization. Value is among them. Libertarians are simply lazily giving great kicks in the anthill while pretending they are great thinkers.

    Tldr; Water has “objective” value, just like a cat is an “objective” animal. You can’t define any of these things, but you know them when you see them.


    April 19, 2015 at 7:21 PM

    • OK, I’ll bite. What’s the objective price of the cat expressed as bottles of water? (Or gold if you prefer that.) Please do not refer to any individual preferences or supply and demand or similar concepts.


      April 20, 2015 at 2:40 AM

      • If you buy a water bottle on the street before going into the movie theater it costs $1. But inside the movie theatre they charge $4. This is done because they can stop people from bringing water into the theater, but this is an artificial scarcity. Do you really think that the water becomes “worth” $4 when you cross the invisible line of the theater? People might be willing to pay it because they have no choice, but they are clearly being price gouged by a monopolists that has certainly not created $4 worth of value.

        Power, not intrinsic value, determines price.

        And what upsets people generally when it comes to price gouging is when its clear the the higher price doesn’t stimulate supply increases (as it would in eco 101). The example of a person in the desert paying a lot for water assumes that his demand price might induce someone to provide water to him even if it would be expensive to bring it to him. The high price creates supply. A high price for movie theater water doesn’t increase the supply of water in the theater.


        April 20, 2015 at 11:55 AM

      • “Power, not intrinsic value, determines price.”

        You’re arguing for another form of subjective value then?

        The Econ 101 reply is that a seller can set any price they want, but may in a free market expect to sell fewer items as the price increases. This affects even theater owners, who in spite of artificial scarcity prefer to set their price of water at $4 instead of $40.


        April 21, 2015 at 8:56 AM

      • $4 is still a lot of money for something that comes free out of the tap.

        Lion of the Blogosphere

        April 21, 2015 at 8:58 AM

      • In that case, why not drink a nice pint of free water before you go to the theater?


        April 21, 2015 at 9:22 AM

      • With a little patience you can watch the movie for zero-marginal-cost at home on your smart TV or computer rather than waste money on a theater ticket in the first place.

        Lion of the Blogosphere

        April 21, 2015 at 10:20 AM

    • Thomas, keep up with the conversation. people including me are saying that that is not what Libertarianism teaches. Small-l libertarians don’t count as authorities on Libertarianism, as appliers they only speak for themselves.

      The Austrians are saying that realizing there is no fixed price or it’s subjectively determined DOES NOT mean there is no such thing as value. You yourself get confused, saying there is objective value based on ‘arbitrary but useful standards’…


      April 20, 2015 at 6:56 AM

  11. “Austrian economics which is synonymous with libertarian economics”…this may be true of the way Austrian economics are currently presented by their proponents, but I really doubt the Austrian economists themselves would have thought of themselves a such (especially the earlier ones).

    Graf von Jung

    April 19, 2015 at 7:44 PM

  12. The subjective theory of value assumes perfect competition. So many firms are entering the market that there is always an equilibrium price between buyer and seller, a win-win. But, the assumption is dubious. Prices in most markets are determined by a few firms who ensure that they are extracting the maximum amount of money from buyers. So no the price one pays for a good is not a subjective valuation of the good but the price that one must accept from the lack of competition.


    April 19, 2015 at 8:50 PM

    • In a free market you aren’t forced to buy the goods in the first place. Government can force you to buy things, of course.

      (Also, STV does not assume perfect competition. It just assumes an individual ordering of preferences. Could I ask those who want to hold forth about this topic to at least read up on what it means?)


      April 20, 2015 at 2:48 AM

      • In reality, people have an overwhelming need to buy stuff to fit in with their social class. There are, of course, exceptions like the guy with Asperger’s who lived in the woods for 27 years ( ), but people like that don’t get to pass on their genes.

        Lion of the Blogosphere

        April 20, 2015 at 6:47 AM

      • That’s true. Once can just join a monastery instead of buy a car from a few firms, obtain a mortgage from a few firms, and shop for groceries from a few firms. Gosh why don’t we all just become monks!

        From the wiki on STV, “In a free market, competition between individuals seeking to trade goods they possess and services they can provide for goods they perceive as being of higher value to them results in a market equilibrium set of prices emerging.” In reality, market equilibrium is non-existent. Perfect competition is a central tenet of marginalist economics which STV is a subset of.


        April 20, 2015 at 11:36 AM

      • In reality, people have an overwhelming need to buy stuff to fit in with their social class.

        That’s certainly true of most people. I care what people think of me to an extent. But I’d never piss away money trying to fit in or impress others. It’s more important to me to live by my values of thrift and anti-consumerism than buy things I don’t really want trying to impress people I don’t really like.

        People should realize that buying things to impress others doesn’t make someone liked. It makes people jealous, bitter and resentful. It’s an irony that most want to be wealthy while resenting them at the same time. So much so that studies show many people actually get pleasure from seeing successful people fail or get hurt aka schadenfreude. Attacks on the free market stem from this. They’re geared to prop up ones psychological bias that the rich somehow cheated, didn’t earn it, don’t deserve it, etc. Otherwise, you’d be rich, too. Right? hehe

        I wonder which monkey Leon identifies with? :P”


        April 20, 2015 at 1:06 PM

      • “Otherwise, you’d be rich, too. Right?”

        That drives a lot of anti-tax rhetoric as well. People think they’d be able to afford what their economic betters have if only they had lower tax rates, but that’s an illusion because if everyone’s tax rate goes down, your place in the hierarchy remains exactly the same. And the price of positional goods with fixed quantity, like homes in the Hamptons, will just immediately increase in proportion to the increase in everyone’s after-tax income.

        Lion of the Blogosphere

        April 20, 2015 at 5:45 PM

      • “That drives a lot of anti-tax rhetoric as well.”

        That’s a deflection but, since you’ve repeatedly made that claim in the past, I’ll bite. Dr Haidt’s study (The Righteous Mind, pg 287) shows liberals are horrible at predicting others motives. Since your claim that people want less taxes because they think they’ll be rich at some future date is a typical liberal claim promoting a typical liberal position you may want to reconsider your mind reading abilities on this issue. When I made less money, my objections to taxes were about government inefficiency and misallocation as well as not liking what the money was being spent on. My own tax burden only became a factor in my objections AFTER I was making more money and paying the higher taxes.


        April 20, 2015 at 8:13 PM

      • I’m thinking lion is that guy.


        Few people make CONSCIOUS judgements like, “Your car is cheap. F— you!”

        People AREN’T rational.

        AREN’T rational!

        The merc makes a better IMPRESSION.


        April 21, 2015 at 12:50 AM

      • Why? Because monks can only f@@@ other monks and depend on selling fruit cakes and fudge (get it?).

        Of course monks don’t f@@@ other monks. That’s just Protestant/Confederate fantasy. But they are usually dependent on donations, which is despicable.


        April 21, 2015 at 12:59 AM

      • destructure is proof that cockroaches can type.

        type? yes. make sense? no.


        April 21, 2015 at 1:07 AM

      • “In reality, people have an overwhelming need to buy stuff to fit in with their social class.”

        Not necessarily to a degree that makes life in any way difficult, though perhaps that’s the case in rootless NYC.

        Also, if buying that sort of stuff is a dominant part of your spending, perhaps you’re shooting for a too high social class. Like the glossy overleveraged people who go bankrupt when one of them loses a job. (Though our Lion seems to be a more careful manager of his life.) Why not try the Yakov-style “Millionaire next door” instead.


        April 21, 2015 at 9:17 AM

      • It’s a psychological need, not a real need.

        Lion of the Blogosphere

        April 21, 2015 at 10:19 AM

    • Augustus, it doesn’t, since they start modeling from a person alone, so-called ‘Crusoe Economics’. No competition there.

      It would help to actually read the stuff instead of jumping to conclusions, folks.


      April 20, 2015 at 6:58 AM

  13. Lion, you’re good at explaining various economic theories. You’ve got a way of legitimizing populist economics. You ever think about running for office?


    April 19, 2015 at 9:07 PM

    • People would say I was “racist” and that would end pretty quickly. I am not a politician.

      Lion of the Blogosphere

      April 19, 2015 at 11:48 PM

      • Ever consider expanding your theories to book (ebook?) length? I would happily transfer some value to you in order to read it.


        April 20, 2015 at 6:26 AM

      • Is it racist to care about the working-class people of this county? (Don’t call them proles if you run.) If anything, you’re classist.


        April 20, 2015 at 2:09 PM

  14. The irony of Econ 101 is that most economists know it is bunk. Their theories are as good as their assumptions which are needless to say, unreal. Well how do economists deal with this truth? According to Milton Friedman, theories are not to be judged on how well they describe reality but on how useful they can prove to be. Given most students come out of Econ 101 as anti union, anti government, anti minimum wage, etc., one may deduce who these “theories” are useful for.


    April 19, 2015 at 9:13 PM

  15. I think the relative performance of the free world versus the communist block during the Cold War is empirical proof that basing value on voluntary transactions is better than any other way. The labor theory of value has certainly been debunked.

    It is also worth pointing out that the Austrian School, which eschews quantitative analysis, is only one branch of libertarianism. Milton Friedman was definitely not an Austrian.


    April 19, 2015 at 9:41 PM

  16. Bill Gates is a problematic example. He owned Microsoft and he has retired long ago.

    Lion, you are on to something. But you forgot to mention that Investors transfer value to the company. The job of managers is to make sure that value is transfered back to investors. The initial value transfer by investors justifies the whole process legally and morally. Actually that is how the Austrian economist Eugen Böhm von Bawerk refuted Marx. You just worded the whole process from a perspective that is labor-friendly and critical of managers, rather than friendly to investors and oblivious to the role of managers.

    Your critique does not contradict libertarian economics, but it offends popular libertarian sentimentality.

    Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella makes 84 million. Most pedestrian libertarians will claim that this is for his contribution and ability to make Windows and Office even better and more valuable to customers. In reality he helps himself to this sum, because he can in his role of transfering value to Bill Gates, who got bored at doing the dirty work himself.

    The dispute is therefore not about the subjectivity of value. Rather it is about who does the evaluation and what are their motives. Most Libertarians believe it is primarily the customer and indirectly the investors who evaluate managers and employees, as if the system is free of friction and the social hierarchy within corporations, class, office politics, asymetrical information and the whole complexity of interpersonal relationships don’t exist. The fact is that employee compensation is dominated by the latter phenomena.


    The subjective theory of value is at the core of Austrian economics which is synonymous with libertarian economics.

    The Chicago school is also libertarian, much more influential and at odds with Austrians. Milton Friedman defined himself as a libertarian and is categorized as such on Wikipedia.


    April 19, 2015 at 9:45 PM

    • I don’t think Corporate Abuses like CEO pay have anything to do with Libertarian vs Other Economic systems. There is nothing about the current Corporate Structure and Governance works in America that is particularly “Libertarian” per se. Satya Nadella and other CEO’s make the enormous sums that they do because Corporate Law and Structure in the USA allows executives to enrich themselves using the company coffers. That isn’t due to some “free market” dynamic. Indeed, railing against Corporate Executives enriching themselves at the expense of shareholders was the basis of fictional libertarian hero Gordon Gekko’s famous “Greed is Good” speech. Microsoft could pay a senior engineer with a good head for business $250,000 to be CEO and they’d be in no worse shape than paying Satya 84 million. Corporate CEO scales in America are not about “markets”, they are about rackets.

      Perez HBD

      April 20, 2015 at 3:08 PM

      • Most libertarians enthusiastically defend the status quo. The smarter Ancaps don’t reject corporate law. They argue that it would arise on the market. There is zero agreement among Ancaps about what that law would actually look like. Yet they are confident that it would be either radically better or similar to what we have now. (depending on whether they like the status quo or not)

        Without corporate law, Satya could quickly take over the entire company. He could lie to shareholders about the state of the company, trade shares to himself, etc. Actually CEOs do all these things today, just within the limits of the law.


        April 21, 2015 at 3:29 PM

  17. Your diatribes against libertarianism would be more valid if you weren’t so disingenuous. You simply ignore the fact that your vaunted regulations only serve to increase the ability of corporations to transfer value (which is nearly identical in meaning to rent seeking). If I had an innovation and wanted to capitalize on it, I would likely need to spend big money to hire consultants and lawyers to deal with the regulators of the industry. The consultants’ rent seeking behaviour is a form of value transference. If I wanted to hire 50 people to get my idea off the ground, I’d have to spend more money on HR consultants to ensure compliance there. This makes it more worthwhile to sell the idea to a larger corporation that has full-time a HR department thereby transferring the value to the evil fat cats running the corporation.

    Finally, your definition of value transference is ignoring the value created by corporations. The days of basement dwelling genius inventors is nearly overwith. The last hurrah being the Internet explosion, a space which is now crowded and itself becoming overrun by regulators. Your idea of a value creator being exploited by a value transferrer is simplistic and false. Most of the people actually doing work – engineers, coders, etc are working under the necessary guidance and directions of executives who understand the marketabing and the more general knowledge necessary to bring all of the specialists together. It’s unfortunate that the gap between the big-picture thinkers and the specialists is so large, but as I said earlier, it is only exasperated by government interference.


    April 20, 2015 at 7:37 AM

    • Crowdfunding is a recent development that connects inventors, creators and investors or customers more closely together and bypasses layers of middlemen.

      Only a fool would claim that oversight, coordination, investor relations and marketing are useless and don’t contribute to value creation. I doubt that Lion does, so you attacked a straw man.


      April 21, 2015 at 4:51 PM

  18. The price of any commodity or company etc at a particular time does not reflect its “real” value. People get rich when they Invest on the belief that something is under-valued.


    April 20, 2015 at 3:19 PM

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