Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Scarcity - Correctly Understood

All economic goods are scarce

All economic goods are scarce. This simply means that the supply of the good is less than infinite. There is a chance that all of the good will be consumed, making further consumption impossible.

Nothing is ever created or destroyed

The total quantity of matter and energy in the universe is fixed.  Matter can be transformed into energy, energy into matter. All the different chemical elements and compounds, and all forms of energy, are simply different arrangements of atoms (or sub-atomic particles, or disturbances in the Higgs field, or whatever nature's fundamental building blocks turn out to be).  For our purposes here, "atoms" means the fundamental building blocks of nature, and "matter" means any arrangement of atoms, including energy.

In all of history, human activity has never created or destroyed anything. All we do is transform matter as we find it into an arrangement we find more useful. The name given to this act of transforming matter into usefulness is "homesteading", while the useful thing is called a "good".

Elements of a Good 


All goods are comprised of two factors:

1. Matter 
2. Human effort

For example, imagine an arrangement of matter called "iron ore" laying inside a larger arrangement of matter called "a hillside". We know that iron can be very useful, because it can be fashioned into a cast-iron skillet, and a zillion other things.  However, this particular batch of iron is not an economic good, because laying undiscovered and dormant in a hillside, the iron is not in position to do us any good at all. So long as the iron lies in the hillside, it might just as well be at the bottom of the ocean, or on Mars, or a distant galaxy. It might just as well not exist at all. In terms of being an economic good, iron in the hillside does not exist. 

To transform iron ore into an economic good, somebody must first discover it, then go dig it up, bring it out, refine the ore, and do all the other things necessary to transform it into something that a person finds useful.

The same pattern - matter + human effort -  holds true for all goods. There is some arrangement of atoms that occurs in nature, and some human effort in transforming the atoms into a different arrangement.

What Causes Scarcity? 


Here is the key insight to understanding scarcity:

Matter is infinite, human effort is limited. 

The scarcity of economic goods is completely related to the limitations on human effort, and has nothing whatsoever to do with the quantity of matter.

Consider the organic compound known as petroleum. Petroleum is useful for making gasoline and hundreds of other products. Like any other economic good, petroleum is scarce, and seemingly becoming more scarce all the time. After all, once petroleum is pumped out of the ground, refined into gasoline, and burned up, it is gone forever, right? It's only a matter of time before it is all used up, right? It's tempting to think that the scarcity of petroleum has to do with the limited quantity that exists. But it isn't so.

What we call "petroleum" is just another arrangement of atoms. Burning it up transforms the arrangement, but destroys nothing. Even if we pumped out and burned up every last drop of naturally occurring petroleum, if we wanted more of it, all we would have to do is figure out how synthesize more petroleum from the matter at hand. Doing so may be prohibitively expensive, or even  technologically impossible to accomplish. But all that means is that there is insufficient human effort available to solve the problem. The scarcity of petroleum is not a function of its quantity, even if the quantity goes down to zero. Human effort is always the limiting factor creating scarcity. This is true of iron, petroleum, and every other economic good, without exception.

What About So-Called "Free Goods"?

Atmospheric air is widely cited as the quintessential example of a "free good", meaning that atmospheric air is supposedly non-scarce. But we can see that atmospheric air follows the same pattern. Atmospheric air blanketing planet Earth is not immediately useful. In order to make use of air, a person must bring it under control by inhaling, i.e. flexing the diaphragm muscles, drawing air into the depths of the lung tissue, where the precious oxygen can be extracted and exchanged for carbon dioxide, and exhaled as a waste product.
Every breath you take is an act of homesteading. 

Baker's First Postulate:


Every economic good is comprised of two factors - matter and human effort.

Baker's Second Postulate:


The supply of matter is infinite and literally inexhaustible, while the supply of human effort is limited.

Baker's Third Postulate:


Economic scarcity derives entirely from the limitation on human effort, and has nothing to do with the quantity of matter.



  1. When do you think you'll finally figure this stuff out? Let me tell you--never. You are doing what I tried to do from about 1990 to 1994--I tried to find a good argument for IP. I kept stumbling. Finally, after having read and thought enough, I realized why I was unable to do this. Because, you know, IP is totally and utterly unjustified. I was young enough to admit my previous error and to change course. I fear you are too old now and determined to argue for IP no matter what. This is tendentious, and sad.

    1. Your comment is vacuous. Do you agree or disagree that economic scarcity is entirely related to the limitation on human effort, and that the supply of atoms is infinity? Why or why not?

    2. I'm not really sure why it matters whether or not the supply of atoms is infinite. After listening to the debate and interview with Kinsella, you seem to think that you are actually rearranging intellectual matter when you think up a song or some artistic work. I have no idea what this intellectual matter is, the only matter that is rearranged when you think of a song is the inside of your brain.

      Air does not exist in an unlimited supply on the earth but in most cases for us in the atmosphere it is not rivalrous, my breathing does not impact your breathing. There are however scenarios where conflict can occur over the use of air, like in a sinking ship or on mars.

      Only something that is scarce can be rivalrous. An idea, a concept or patterns of information do not really exist, there is not some thing called "marginal utility". If you have property rights to something intangible then what you in reality gain is property rights to something tangible, like my body, computer or whatever else. If I sing a song that you think you have rights to and want me to stop singing the song, and actually try to stop me from singing it then we are not coming into conflict over the song, but in reality my body. There is no way you can come into conflict over something intangible. I think you agreed with Hoppe in the debate that the reason for having property rules and property rights is the possibility of conflict.

  2. "We know that iron can be very useful, because of all the different things that can be made from it. However, this iron is not an economic good, because laying dormant in a hillside, the iron is not in position to do us any good at all. So long as the iron lies in the hillside, it might just as well be at the bottom of the ocean, or on Mars, or a distant galaxy. It might just as well not exist at all."

    I'm sorry, but this is silly. Unextracted iron in the hillside has use and value, although less than extracted iron. If the iron didn't exist in the hillside, there would be no potential to extract it, no matter what.
    Because extracted iron has use/value, and unextracted iron is the input to the extraction process to make extracted iron, therefore the unextracted iron has value.

    PS: If you don't see the difference between a hillside with or without iron, I may have a hillside to sell to you ;-)

    1. Of course I see a difference between a hillside with iron and one without. The only way for anyone to know whether or not a hillside contains iron is to perform the action known as "prospecting". The supply of human action is limited, the supply of atoms is infinity. Next.

    2. I'm puzzled that you embrace your lack of rigor with such glibness, not pausing a second to acknowledge the mistake in what I had quoted and criticized.

      I hesitate to disquiet you further by pointing the absurd conclusion that comes from your argument comment: natural resources have no value by themselves.
      So, I'll make you another business proposition: I'd be happy to rent a hillside from you (at zero price of course). That seems fair since the unextracted resource I find and the trees I cut are not economic goods and my prospecting, extracting and chopping are the limiting factor in making anything of value.

      Hopefully, this should clarify that hillsides (even unprospected ones) are economic goods with value prior to human effort (contradicting your first postulate).