Basic Economics Part 5 – The Problems with Voluntary Transactions

This is the fifth part in a series on Basic Economics, inspired by the work of Thomas Sowell.

As a note, my frequent use of he/she I decided is quite clumsy.  From now on I will arbitrarily alternate between he or she.  Unless gender is the subject of discussion, the actual gender I use has no consequence.

In my last segment, I argued that when a person becomes richer through entirely voluntary transactions, she makes others richer as well.  The premise for this is that she does not enter into a voluntary transaction unless she believes the transaction will make her better off.  She does not buy a cup of coffee unless she believes she is better off with the coffee than with the money required to buy the coffee.

The giant hole in this argument is the assumption that if a person believes a transaction will make her better off, it doesn’t mean it will actually make her better off.  There are many reasons that her perception of the value may greatly differ from the actual value of the transaction.

  • She may not have sufficient information.  She may not know that the coffee will taste horrible or that the coffee shop is not sanitary.
  • She may be defrauded.  The coffee shop might advertise that they use an expensive premium coffee but actually are using a cheap substitute.
  • She might have pre-purchased a card good for ten coffees but the coffee shop decides to discontinue the pre-purchase program and refuses to honor her card.
  • She might make a poor decision such as choosing short-term impulse gratification over long term goals.  Anybody who has ever tried to lose weight and eaten a whole bag of potato chips can understand that.
  • She might be mentally incompetent to determine what makes her better off.

With all of these potential problems in voluntary transactions, can we truly say that a capitalist system that relies on the premise that people make decisions that better themselves is a good idea?  Would it better to have a centrally planned economy where enlightened experts make decisions for the betterment of everybody?

That will be the focus of the next segment.

Basic Economics – Part 4 – Creating Wealth

This is the fourth post in a series inspired by Thomas Sowell

I would postulate that most people look at the wealth of the world as a giant pie of which everybody has a slice, large or small. If one person has a larger slice, , that means he or she is taking pie from others, forcing others to have less pie. When one person gets richer that means somebody else must get poorer. This assumption is the underlying argument in the whole income inequality debate.

This assumption is also totally false. Wealth is not a fixed size pie. For example, lets say a sculptor takes a plain rock worth nothing and carves it into a beautiful statue and sells it for $1000. The sculptor now is wealthier, but has she made anybody else poorer? Obviously, she hasn’t. She has increased the wealth of the world by the value of the statue over the rock. She has created wealth.

Wealth is the total value of all of the goods and services. Money is not wealth. Money is the total claim against wealth. If you own one one trillionth of the money in the world, you can claim one trillionth of the wealth. Let’s say tomorrow the United States government implemented a new policy where for every dollar a person owned, he or she would receive an additional dollar. If you owned $10,000 before, you now own $20,000. This would not double wealth. It would not create any new wealth. This creates no new goods or services. It just doubles the claim against existing wealth so each dollar would now be worth half of what it was before. If something cost $10 before, it would cost $20 after.

I once had an economics professor burn a dollar bill in front of the class. He stated that in doing so he did not destroy any wealth. By removing his claim of $1 worth of wealth, he made everybody else an infinitesimally tiny amount richer.

If a person becomes richer without creating any value in exchange, this means he or she is taking a larger slice of the same sized pie and is in fact making somebody else poorer. On the other hand, if the person becomes richer by creating additional value, he or she is making the pie bigger. Not only is this person not making anybody else poorer, but if this person takes less pie than he or she creates, the person is making other people richer as well. So how can we say if value is created? We can say value is created when someone voluntarily pays for it. If our sculptor creates an ugly statue that nobody will pay for, she has created no economic value. If she creates a masterpiece that she sells for one million dollars, she has created a lot of economic value.

In our previous example, we know the coffee shop has created value, created wealth when someone is voluntarily willing to pay for the coffee. When someone works for an hour and someone voluntarily pays for the work, there is value. If on the other hand someone works for an hour and the government says the boss has to pay the person, then we really have no idea if the person created value. The person could have done just what the boss wanted or the person could have done absolutely nothing. When a transaction stops being voluntary on both sides, we no longer have any way to measure value, to determine if wealth is created.

People only participate in a voluntary transaction if they perceive the value of what they receive is greater than the value of what they pay. If the boss has to pay you $10/hour and the boss perceives that in doing so he can’t generate at least $10 an hour in additional income, then the boss isn’t going to hire you. There is no reason for the boss to hire you. If, however, the boss thinks he can make an additional $20 by hiring you, then the boss hires you. You make $10 and the boss makes $10 and both of you are better off.

Steve Jobs made billions of dollars through his innovations with Apple. In making his billions, did he make the rest of the world richer or poorer? The answer here is obvious.

At the beginning I stated that most people have the false assumption that when somebody makes more money, he makes other people poorer. I am showing here that the reverse is true.

If someone makes more money, he makes other people richer!

Now I know this is not always true. There are holes in this argument. I will address these holes in the next segment.

Basic Economics, Part 3 – Voluntary vs. Non-Voluntary Transactions

This is the third post in a series explaining the fundamentals of economics inspired by the work of Thomas Sowell.  In the last post I showed how in a voluntary transaction both sides feel they are better off.  This in essence, creates wealth as both parties feel wealthier after the transaction than before.  This wealth creation effect can only be surmised in a voluntary transaction.  If either party is forced to make the transaction, the total wealth may be greater, unchanged, or lessened.

For example, lets say that government perceives we have a coffee shop problem.  New coffee shops are opening and forcing old coffee shops out of business.  Some coffee shops have long lines while others are empty.  To make things fair, a government official decided that each coffee shop has a territory.  If you live in that territory, you can only buy coffee from that coffee shop.  The coffee shop cannot sell to people outside of the territory.  Since there is no price competition, the government decides what it considers to be a fair price for coffee.  To level out demand, the government also says that each person must buy one and only one cup of coffee per day.

Now when someone buys a cup of coffee, each side may not think they are better off.  You might not want coffee but you need to buy it anyhow.  You might love coffee but you don’t like the coffee at this coffee shop.  The coffee shop might not want to sell you coffee because they can’t make money selling you coffee at this price.  Since the transaction is not voluntary, we can’t assume that each party considers themselves better off for the transaction.  Therefore the transaction may or may not create wealth.

Even if the government decision maker is the world’s leading expert on coffee shops, it doesn’t make a difference.  If a transaction is not voluntary, it also may not be wealth-creating.

The next topic in this series will discuss the creation of wealth and how one views this is the most fundamental of assumptions.


Basic Economics, Part 2 – Maximizing Total Wealth

This is a second in a series of posts based on the concepts from the book “Basic Economics” by Thomas Sowell.

In my last post I explained how there are many different ways of allocating resources.  As an example I talked about many different ways of allocating beachfront real estate.  The next question is how we can evaluate whether one allocation method is superior to other allocation methods.  Fundamentally, there are two different ways we can evaluate allocation methods.

  • Practically;  Which method maximizes total wealth?
  • Morally:  Which method is the fairest?

Today I will only start to address the practical question.  I will address the moral question later.

What do I mean by maximizing total wealth?  Isn’t total wealth fixed and the only question is how we allocate it?  After all, we can’t create any more beachfront real estate no matter how we allocate it.

Let’s say you visit a coffee shop and buy a coffee.  As you take your coffee, you thank the clerk and the clerk thanks you.  Why do you both thank each other?  Each of you believe you are better off with this transaction.  At the time you want the coffee more than you want the money.  The coffee shop wants the money more than it wants the coffee.  Both sides of this transaction think they are better off due to this transaction.

Total wealth produced is the sum of all goods and services.  Whenever there is a transaction the extra value that each party perceives from the transaction increases the wealth.  When you buy your coffee, the total wealth increases because each side is better off for the transaction.

The best way to assure that both sides are better off from a transaction is for the transaction to be voluntary.  When you buy your coffee, nobody is forcing you to buy it and nobody is forcing the coffee shop to sell you the coffee.  Whenever there is a voluntary transaction then, at the moment at least, each party feels they are better off, that their wealth is increased.  Of course, this momentary perception can be wrong and in the long run, one or the other party is not better off.  I will address this later in this series.  For the moment, assume that the momentary perception is correct and each party actually is better off.

Of all of the allocation systems discussed in my last post, the only system that is totally voluntary is the free market priced based system.  If buyer and seller can agree on a price, there is a transaction where both parties believe they are better off.  When we have this voluntary transaction, wealth is increased.

In a central planning economy, a government official could either decide who buys or sells the coffee or the government official might set the price.

In the next post I will continue this discussion by contrasting the  central planning approach to the free market approach.


Tolerance and Hypocrisy – The Brendan Eich Story

I had planned to make my next few posts about fundamental economics.  I also did not plan on addressing current issues until I had better laid the philosophical basis for my views more thoroughly.  Last night, however, I learned that Brendan Eich was forced to resign as CEO of Mozilla, the company that develops the FireFox browser and  a leading pioneer of the Internet.  Brendan Eich was the inventor of JavaScript.  Prior to Javascript, web sites count only be displayed and linked.  Almost all other user interaction with the website involves the programming language JavaScript.  Eich therefore is one of the most important people in the development of the Internet.

Eich was forced out because of the uproar about his views on gay marriage.  Eich did not discriminate against gays at Mozilla.  Eich was not an activist speaking out against gays.  Eich’s sin was that in 2008 he made a private $1000 donation in support of California Proposition 8 against gay marriage.  In 2008, this was also the stated position of then senator Barack Obama.

I posted previously that I do not think anything is immoral unless there is a victim.  Therefore, I see nothing immoral in homosexuality and I am personally a supporter of gay rights and gay marriage.  I do understand though that good people may have opposing views and that these views are often driven not by hatred but by sincere religious conviction and/or the belief that society is better off when marriage is defined as a union of a man and a woman.

Last night I participated in a discussion of a proposed law in Missouri supporting gay rights and marriage.   Everybody present supported this new law.   Key principles supporting this law were tolerance and inclusion.  In fact, a primary message of the gay rights agenda is the importance of tolerance.

I therefore find it incredibly hypocritical that in the supposed furtherance of tolerance, people can be so intolerant of people holding opposing views.  The dating website OKCupid went as far as blocking FireFox users from their site, saying that Eich was a hatemonger.

On Will Oremus wrote:

The notion that your political views shouldn’t affect your employment is a persuasive one. Where would we be as a democracy if Republicans were barred from jobs at Democrat-led companies, or vice versa?  But this is different. Opposing gay marriage in America today is not akin to opposing tax hikes or even the war in Afghanistan. It’s more akin to opposing interracial marriage: It bespeaks a conviction that some people do not deserve the same basic rights as others. An organization like Mozilla might tolerate that in an underling, and it might even tolerate it in a CTO. But in a CEO—the ultimate decision-maker and public face of an organization—it sends an awful message. That’s doubly so for an organization devoted to openness and freedom on the Web—not to mention one with numerous gay employees.

Think for a second: If you knew your boss rated you undeserving of the same rights as everyone else based solely on your sexual orientation, would you feel good about going to work for him every day?


I am not gay so I tried to think of a comparable situation that would affect me and how I would react to it.  I am Jewish.  Let’s say that I learned that my CEO six years ago gave a $1000 contribution to a group that opposes Israel.  I know that often anti-Israel opinions are often a thinly disguised form of antisemitism.   I also know that there are good people who oppose the actions of Israel who aren’t antisemitic.  I would not call for the resignation of my CEO and I would not have problems working for him.

I stated in a previous post that the way to judge if your position is moral or hypocritical is whether it would be the same if the circumstances were reversed.  Would the people who condemned Eich  agree with someone who stated this, “The CEO gave to the ACLU.  I am a religious Christian and the ACLU opposes the rights of my children to pray silently while at school so he must be fired.”  I don’t think so.

The gay rights movements has made great progress by preaching tolerance.  It should not undermine itself by practicing intolerance.

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