The Subjective Theory of Value Satisfaction and Valuation
An Introduction to Austrian Economics Thomas C. Taylor
4. The Subjective Theory of Value
Satisfaction and Valuation
The explanation of all economic activity that takes place in the market economy ultimately rests on the subjective theory of value. The value of various consumer goods and services does not reside objectively and intrinsically in the things themselves, apart from the individual who is making an evaluation. His valuation is a subjective matter that even he cannot reduce to objective terms or measurement. Valuation consists in preferring a particular increment of a thing over increments of alternative things available; the outcome of valuation is the ranking of definite quantities of various goods and services with which the individual is concerned for purposes of decision and action. Theory resorts to the hypothetical concept of the scale of values in seeking to explain and understand the nature of human valuations. The ranking of alternative ends is determined by the person's expectations of satisfaction from each specific choice faced by him at any moment of decision. He will invariably select the alternative that he believes will yield him the greatest satisfaction.
The subjectiveness of valuation rests in the nature of satisfaction--satisfaction is subjective and not open to numerical measurement. The extent to which a thing gives satisfaction is always personal. People derive satisfaction from different goods and services; that is, all people are not alike in terms of the types of things that please them. Experience also demonstrates that a person's preferences vary from time to time. His ranking of alternative choices may undergo a reshuffling at any given moment. His scale of values may also be altered by deletions or additions.
To relate the matter of valuation to the individual person is not to suggest that each individual is concerned only with the satisfaction of his own appetites and needs. A person may find satisfaction or relief in helping another person. Satisfaction can be and often is derived from the attainment of altruistic as well as "selfish" motives. But the point remains that regardless of the form the satisfaction is to take, each choice arises from subjective valuation on the part of the particular person who is doing the choosing. The uneasiness that he seeks to remove is in his own mind, whether such uneasiness pertains to an immediate problem of his own or to a problem faced by someone else. His choice stems from the preference that he has for the removal of a particular uneasiness over another problem to which he could devote his attention.
The Principle of Marginal Utility
Valuation is always directed toward a definite quantity of a particular good or service. Choices and decisions are not concerned with the whole supply of a certain good or service. This marginal orientation was lacking in the classical economists' groping with the so-called paradox of value. They were unable to resolve the intriguing question of why diamonds had a higher price per unit than water when everyone knew that water was more useful and valuable than diamonds. Only through the principle of diminishing marginal utility could this conceptual dilemma be eliminated. Each additional unit of a particular good is devoted to a use that is less important and urgent than the use to which the preceding unit was applied.
To establish this principle one does not have to resort, as is sometimes done, to explanations of psychological or physiological satiety. The principle that a person will always apply a given unit of a good or service to the most pressing desire or need to which it relates is inherent in the concept of purposive action. Since each person prefers more satisfaction to less satisfaction, each succeeding unit obtained will be devoted to less and less important aims, given his scale of values at that time.
From the principle of diminishing marginal utility is derived an important law relating to the value of a unit of any good possessed in any particular quantity. The value of a unit of a given quantity of a particular good is determined by its usefulness in its least important use. To put the rule another way, the value of any unit of several units held of a given good is equal to the satisfaction that would be sacrificed if one unit were lost. Bohm-Bawerk illustrated the law by imagining a pioneer farmer who has reaped five sacks of grain from his harvest.  In planning carefully the use of this food supply, he first recognizes the essential need for a minimum amount of food to keep him alive until the following harvest. To this purpose he allots one sack of grain. A second sack will contribute to his enjoying full strength and complete health. A third sack will enable him to add some variety to his diet by using it for raising poultry. He decides to assign a fourth sack to the distillation of brandy; and finally, a fifth sack is to be devoted to the feeding of a group of parrots "whose antics give him pleasure."
The example depicts the operation of the principle of diminishing marginal utility. The farmer's plans for the sacks of grain proceed from the more important to the less important uses. The value of each sack of grain equals the satisfaction that the farmer expects to derive from being able to feed and enjoy his parrot friends. This is the satisfaction that he would surrender if he suffered the misfortune of losing one sack of grain. Since his sacks of grain are a homogeneous commodity, he does not have to go without any of the four more important uses because of his loss. He will simply select the least important use in determining which part of his original plan cannot be effected. The value of a unit is determined by its marginal utility or satisfaction.
The principle of diminishing marginal utility and its complementary law of value resolve the paradox of value as exemplified by the discrepancy between the price of diamonds and the price of water. The element of scarcity in controlling the extent to which a particular commodity can be used holds the key. The relative abundance of water as compared with the availability of diamonds means that increments of water can be devoted to less and less important uses than those to which the limited amount of diamonds can be put. No one is ever in the predicament of having to choose between all water and all diamonds; thus there is no meaningful paradox. Prices arise in connection with definite amounts of goods and not in connection with whole categories of various goods.
If the amount of a good with which one is concerned is enlarged to encompass several of the smaller "units," the value theory is no less applicable. In this case, the larger amount becomes the marginal unit, and its valuation equals the sum of the various satisfactions that the larger amount would yield if broken down into incremental usages. For example, if our farmer is faced with giving up in one stroke three sacks of grain, his valuation of this package is not equal to three times the valuation or satisfaction attached to the maintenance of his parrots. He is not in the situation of valuing just one sack of grain. He will sacrifice the three least important uses of his sacks of grain, thereby devoting his remaining two sacks to meeting his essential food needs. The value of a "unit" of three sacks of grain equals the total satisfaction expected to be obtained from raising poultry, distilling brandy, and feeding parrots. This is the marginal satisfaction pertaining to the marginal unit of three sacks.
The size of the unit used is not important for the operation of value theory. It can be seen that if one were in the impossible position of having to rank all water and all diamonds, one would rate the former first and the latter second, disproving the existence of any paradox of value. It also follows that if the supply of a particular good is so large that some units go unused, the marginal utility of the good is zero; in such case, no value would be attached to any particular unit. The good would not belong to the realm of economics and could be expediently termed a "free" good. This is the case with the ordinary air that we breathe (although problems with air pollution have created certain situations that involve costly, not free, clean air).
Value and Exchange
In a modern economy the purpose of production is to yield goods and services to be used by people other than the producers themselves. This is the essence of specialization and division of labor. In a developed society, production for exchange overshadows production for immediate use. As a result, units of goods and services take on exchange value in addition to the use value that they may have for the producer. And with the overwhelming emphasis on production for exchange, the exchange value of produced goods looms as the value that is of real significance and relevance for most producers, while the use value of goods is the meaningful value for consumers.
It may appear that the concept of exchange value introduces a departure from the subjective theory of value, yet this is not the case. A unit of a given good derives its exchange value from the subjective value that is identified with the amount of some other good that can be obtained in exchange for it. This is true whether the good is to be exchanged directly for some other consumable good or for a certain amount of money. People wish to obtain other goods, including money, because they place a subjective valuation on such acquisitions. The value of a good as a means of exchange is based on the greatest satisfaction that the owner expects can be derived by giving up the good in exchange for some other good. The subjective value of the most desirable good or service that can be obtained in exchange is the basis of the value imputed to the possessed good.
Thus any particular good takes on both a use value and an exchange value. Each of these values reflects the satisfaction that can be expected to come by way of employing the good; the good can be employed either for direct use or as a means of obtaining some other good through outright exchange with another person. The controlling valuation for decision and action is always the greater of the two alternative satisfactions. If the good's use value exceeds its exchange value, the good will be put to direct use or held for eventual direct use, and its exchange value will be forgone. On the other hand, if its exchange value exceeds its use value, the good will be utilized for exchange purposes or held for possible exchange at some time in the future.
It should be understood that exchange value here refers to the subjective valuation placed by the owner on the good as a means of exchange. The expression "exchange value" is used frequently in the sense of the money price that can be obtained for a given good through its sale. In the context of the subjectivity of value, however, this objective money value would be evaluated subjectively in the same way that a noncash good obtainable through exchange would be evaluated.