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“We All Declare for Liberty, But We Do Not All Mean the Same Thing” by Eugene Volokh

A comment on my freedom and hypocrisy post reminded me of one of my favorite quotes, from Abraham Lincoln, in his Address at a Sanitary Fair, Baltimore, Apr. 18, 1864:

The world has never had a good definition of liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in need of one. We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing.

With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name — liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatible names — liberty and tyranny.

The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one. Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty; and precisely the same difference prevails today among us human creatures, even in the North, and all professing to love liberty. Hence we behold the processes by which thousands are daily passing from under the yoke of bondage, hailed by some as the advance of liberty, and bewailed by others as the destruction of all liberty.

I’ve long found this to be a thought-provoking piece, and a useful reminder that “liberty” in the abstract is not self-defining. Most rhetoric that simply refers to “liberty” — whether in the context of slavery, where Lincoln said this, or abortion rights, or national sovereignty, and so on — rests on the assertion about the proper definition of people’s or institutions’ rights; and it’s that definition that should often be at the heart of the debate.

Of course, this analysis doesn’t itself tell us what the proper result is in any debate (such as the debate about abortion). But it should remind us that many questions can’t be resolved by just talking about “liberty” in the abstract, or “not imposing one’s beliefs on others” in the abstract.

If liberty means freedom to do things that don’t violate the rights of others, the important questions are (1) what constitutes those “rights,” (2) what counts as violation, and (3) in some contexts (e.g., abortion, animal rights, slavery), who counts as “others.”

This post first appeared at the Volokh Conspiracy.

Eugene VolokhEugene Volokh

Eugene Volokh teaches free speech law, religious freedom law, church-state relations law, a First Amendment Amicus Brief Clinic, and tort law, at UCLA School of Law, where he has also often taught copyright law, criminal law, and a seminar on firearms regulation policy.

Who Do Economic Profits Belong To? by Sandy Ikeda

Do we deserve to keep the profits that result from our actions?

Most libertarians would maintain that any economic profit — the residual of revenue over cost — that you earn from voluntary exchange is indeed moral and rightly belongs to you. The puzzling thing is that standard microeconomic theory, which libertarians as well-known as Milton Friedman have used to defend their free-market beliefs, is completely irrelevant in justifying that belief.

I attended a talk recently given by Professor Israel Kirzner in which he addressed the question of whether economics can tell us who does and doesn’t deserve profit. I won’t summarize the entire lecture here, which I expect Professor Kirzner intends to publish, but I will touch on an important and often-neglected point he made.

Specifically, it’s that because microeconomic theory is utterly useless in morally justifying economic profit, we need to look beyond one of the most cherished slogans of economics: There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch, or TANSTAAFL for short. Indeed, in order even to begin seeing economic profit as moral, you have to set TANSTAAFL aside. (I wrote on a related theme in “But There ARE Free Lunches!” in May 2011.) Now, how does that relate to the question of who, if anyone, deserves economic profit?

The Value of the Marginal Product

Let’s say you want to sell a new kind of musical instrument. You buy or hire every single ingredient you need to produce it: the various kinds of skilled labor and equipment, the working space, management and financial knowhow, and whatever computing and power needs you require. You also contribute to production as the owner of the firm, and your contribution includes the risk you take to start the business as well as your industriousness, tenacity, and courage.

You then pay each and every one of these factor owners, including yourself, its “marginal value product,” which is the revenue the business earns from selling what each input produces. You pay wages or rents to everyone and a return to yourself to compensate for the resources you bring. Economists since John Bates Clark have used the marginal value product and continue to do so to explain how income from production is distributed. But there’s a problem.

Suppose, after paying all the input owners including yourself, there’s still something left over. That something, the residual of all actual revenue over all actual costs, is economic profit.

Again, you’ve paid every factor owner all of what each has contributed to the value of the musical instruments produced. That means that the value of the marginal product, the central concept in the modern microeconomic theory of income distribution, cannot explain who deserves to keep the economic profit because it cannot explain profit.

It’s important to keep in mind that economic profit is not “earned” in the same sense that wages and rents are earned. It is what’s left over after all other earned income has been paid out according to the value of its marginal product.

To whom then does economic profit properly belong?

The Concept of Entrepreneurship Offers a Clue

For Kirzner and other economists working in the tradition of Austrian economics, the key to answering that question, though not the complete answer, begins with the concept of discovery.

There is knowledge that we don’t possess because we choose not to know it. If someone asked me for the phone number of a person whose name is drawn randomly out of the New York City telephone directory, the chances are very good that I won’t know it. Although I’m aware of the existence of the directory, I haven’t memorized it, simply because I haven’t deemed it worthwhile. I’ve chosen not to know.

But if I didn’t even know of the existence of such a directory and I needed to call a particular person, my learning about the directory would come as a revelation. Moreover, I would have found out that I didn’t even know what I didn’t know — what Professor Kirzner calls “sheer ignorance.” He then defines entrepreneurship as that aspect of human action that discovers, and thereby removes, sheer ignorance.

What does the discovery of sheer ignorance result in? Economic profit!

Why marshal all the resources to produce a new musical instrument? Because you believe you see what no one else sees. You believe that it offers a better investment for you than what you’re doing now. Why do you think that? Because you’ve realized — made the discovery — that after compensating all the factors of production with the value of their marginal product, there will still be a pure residual left over that you couldn’t have gotten doing anything else. If you’re right, you get that residual, the economic profit; if you’re wrong, you suffer the economic loss.

This means, of course, that TAANSTAFL is wrong. Opportunities to make economic profit do exist. There are free lunches. In fact, in a world of sheer ignorance, such as ours, free lunches are everywhere.

Toward an Answer

I haven’t mentioned how Professor Kirzner addresses the issue of whether economic profit is moral or deserved. To get a good sense of what he says in the remainder of that lecture, have a look at his 1989 book, Discovery, Capitalism, and Distributive Justice.

(Also, see this book review by FEE writer Charles W. Baird.)

A good economist needs to have a firm grasp on standard microeconomic theory: supply-and-demand analysis and all that. At the same time, it’s important for her to appreciate its limits, which are severe indeed on the question of the morality, or even the origin, of economic profit.

Sandy Ikeda
Sandy Ikeda

Sandy Ikeda is a professor of economics at Purchase College, SUNY, and the author of The Dynamics of the Mixed Economy: Toward a Theory of Interventionism. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.