What is the value of a pizza?
If you asked a standard economist, they might—thinking themself quite clever—ask in return, “well, what would you pay for one?” Now, that’s a fine response as far as it goes. But in neoclassical economic theory, that’s not as far as they seem to think.
Standard economists will readily admit that value is subjective, but what they mean by that is not what subjectivists mean by it. See, in philosophy of science, social science divides down strict lines of ‘objectivism’ and ‘subjectivism.’ The objectivist—also realist or positivist (these are distinct terms, but align in the objectivist paradigm)—sees the social world as comprising real things, objective phenomena that are more-or-less stable and causally deterministic and, thus able to be studied as such. In other words, social reality is in principle no different from physical reality, and we can study it the same way. Yes, it’s true that there’s tons of noise and randomness when studying social phenomena, which require statistical methods to find causal relationships, but the same is true of certain natural sciences too, such as climate science (not exactly a ringing endorsement in many libertarian circles).
Applying objectivist philosophy to the value concept, the assumption is that value is real and objective. A pizza has value—it’s there in the pizza. But what’s interesting about this value—which has been defined as ‘marginal utility’ since 1871—is that it’s different for everyone. Utility, of course, is usefulness—how much benefit I would get from the pizza. But utility is different for everyone—we have different tastes, dietary needs, and so forth. What this means is the objectivist economist—which is most of them—understands value as objective but idiosyncratic. ‘Idiosyncratic’ is synonymous with ‘subjective’ if you’re an objectivist.
But philosophical subjectivism, as the Austrian School espouses, sees the social realm very differently. There is no “social reality,” strictly speaking. A job, a marriage, a personality, a reputation—these don’t really exist. ‘Reality’ references the physical realm—what the natural sciences study. The company Google is just a concept—a figment of our imagination. There are real people that ‘belong’ to the Google organization; there are physical structures that comprise Google’s offices (the Googleplex); Google even creates some physical products. But the organization ‘Google’ is just a concept that Sergey Brin and Larry Page conjured and was granted ‘legal status’ (which is just getting another imaginary organization’s imaginary stamp of approval), which solidified the concept ‘Google’ as a ‘legal entity’ into the minds of people that is—for most intents and purposes—for us as if Google were a real ‘thing’. Lots of social constructions are like that: marriages, job titles, fictional characters like Harry Potter, etc. Many more are flimsier: relationships, reputations, scientific knowledge, etc. These have little or no institutional status, and so evolve with the whims of society. Studying social phenomena from this subjectivist perspective, then entails understanding what people think about those phenomena, how they understand them and why.
Value, from a philosophically subjectivist viewpoint, is very different from the objectivist concept of value as objective, idiosyncratic usefulness. Instead, subjective value occurs in the mind.
There are two key aspects of a subjective value concept, which we can distinguish by the form of word (i.e. part of speech) that it takes. As a verb, value (i.e. to value) is a prediction of or reflection on a benefit (depending on the context of the valuing). To say “I value the pizza” means either ‘I expect to benefit from the pizza’ or ‘after eating the pizza, I recognize benefit gained from it.’ As a noun, value is a conscious experience of benefit. This means that there is no value until it’s been experienced. When you understand the experiential nature of value, then we can’t equate predictions of value (value as a verb) with real value (value as a noun).
So when we ask, again, what is the value of a pizza, the right retort, from a subjectivist perspective is not “what would you pay for one,” but “how much benefit did you experience from it?”
To show how and why this matters, consider an example. Let’s say you’re hungry and are in the mood for pizza, enough so that you’re willing to pay up to $20 for one. So you ordered a pizza from Bylund Pizzeria around the corner for $10, who makes the pizza at a cost of $5. You have it delivered and leave $2 for tip, bringing your total outlay to $12.
In the traditional economic analysis, the example stops here. You have all the information that you need to calculate total economic value created. Economists estimate value as willingness-to-pay or WTP—how much you were willing to spend to satisfy your want, $20 in this case. The price P ($10+2) and cost C ($5) are the other two relevant factors. Total economic value creation is calculated as WTP-C, the total new consumer value minus the cost in resources and labor to produce it: $20 – $5 = $15.
But the subjectivist framework doesn’t stop here. Again, value hasn’t emerged yet, since it hasn’t yet been experienced. So let’s keep going. You sit down to the table, open up the pizza box and find a beautiful pizza with a fat cockroach crawling on top of it. You slam the box shut and run it outside to the nearest dumpster.
So let’s redo our economic value analysis now. Value isn’t WTP, it’s the benefit experienced. What was the total value achieved from the pizza? Zero. Probably even negative—you could say that you experienced harm rather than benefit, both in the trauma of the fright and in the fact that now dinner is going to be late. Let’s plug in zero: $0 – $5 = -$5. In other words, economic value was destroyed in the transaction—$5 of resource were expended for absolutely no benefit.
Life is an endless value journey—action and experience are continuous from birth to death. This journey is a learning process. What valuation should we assign goods, services, and activities? How should we prioritize our activities and expenditures to maximize our value experiences and well-being?
The principle of diminishing marginal utility—that consumption of a second unit of a good is not as valuable as the first—is widely known and accepted. But what’s not widely admitted, although we know it intuitively, is that the needs that we must satisfy to maximize well-being are dynamic. We keep getting hungry over and over again. One might break an arm, birth a child, pick up a new hobby, or start a new diet—changes that alter the things we value most. Similarly, changes are going on around us that have similar effects—changes in the weather, new innovations, pandemics, and politics.
Value is a process—one that we’re not just constantly engaged in but also constantly monitoring and learning from. It is in this process—in advancing it forward—that we find the essence of entrepreneurship.