Notes on Menger

Five Big Questions I have been prompted to consider:

  1. What school(s) of thoughts, theories, etc. provide the historical foundation for the current school?
  2. What are the major tenets of the school?
  3. Whom does the school benefit or seek to benefit?
  4. How is the school valid, useful, or correct in its time? What current problems is the school addressing?
  5. Which tenets of the school are likely to become lasting contributions? What contributions of the current school do you believe will be part of the History of Economic Thought in future?0

Historical and Political Context

‘If the Austrian intellectual tradition was not receptive to a German historicism that denied the validity of an abstract-generalizing social science, this tradition gained powerful support form the political circumstances that attended Menger’s work in Vienna, then the capital of a multinational empire which was rent by centrifugal pressures and on which the impending dissolution had already cast its shadow. The meticulous attention to and glorification of the national past, as cultivated by the historical economists, might have been conducive to national unity in Germany, where a single nationality aspired to nationhood. In Austria, where a multiplicity of nationalities pressed for emancipation, the pursuit of historical economics, which underlined national diversity, would have been divisive. Much more in line with the logic of the situation was the development of an economics that purported to stress the element common to all humanity and proceeded on a level of abstraction high enough to make national diversities appear immaterial.’ (p. 532) [1]

Subjective Value: Scarcity and Opportunity Cost

Definition of an economic good: ‘Goods are economic goods when “requirements” – the amouint that a person must have to satisfy his needs – exceed the available quantity. Although Menger did not use this term, the implication is that economic goods are scarce’ (p. 533) [1].

However, ‘Menger did not refer to diminishing utility but to the declining importance of needs and their satisfaction. He established the principle that people will first provide for those needs whose satisfaction has the greatest importance for them and will then make provisions for needs of lesser importance until all needs are satisfied up to an equal degree of importance’ (p. 534) [1]. Menger’s subjective theory of value derives from this principle. rather than Benthamite utils of pleasure and pain (as we see in Jevons). The reader may also recognize the beginnings of the concept of opportunity cost. Menger’s principle is illustrated in the table below:

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 0
8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 0
7 6 5 4 3 2 1 0
6 5 4 3 2 1 0
5 4 3 2 1
4 3 2 1 0
3 2 1 0
2 1 0
1 0

(p. 534) [1]

Menger’s Theory of Imputation: ‘Value is not an inherent quality of goods but is imputed to them. Although, strictly speaking, only satisfactions have value because man’s life and well-being depend on them, man nevertheless imputes value to the goods whose availability makes satisfactions possible’ (p. 534) [1].

Subsequently, the writer discusses Menger’s approach to the valuation of ‘goods of higher order’, whose ‘value is determined by the anticipated value of the goods of lower order’ (p. 534) [1]. The marginal expression of the value of the higher-order good is in terms of satisfaction from lower-order goods lost because of the withdrawal of a unit of the higher-order good.

Theory of Money

Menger’s Theory of Money is that it arises independent of design or concerted action, because it is in the interest of economizing individuals to exchange their goods for more saleable goods. Money is therefore the most marketable or saleable good. (p. 535).


[1] Spiegel, Henry W. The Growth of Economic Thought. 1971.

‘A Retrograde Political Economy’

Very imperfect translation from the French, aided by Google Translate:

According to you, my dear critic, there remains in my political economy actions without reasons, facts without explanation, a string of reports whose extremities are lacking and whose most important rings are broken. I share Adam Smith’s misfortune, one of our critics said he had retrograde political economy.

( J.B. Say to Tanneguy du Châtel, quoted in Friedrich List’s The National System of Political Economy, 1841.)

Not quite a smackdown – the rest are worse.

K for Kapital

From one of my readings for ‘History of Economic Ideas’:

The consumption of labour-power by capital is, besides, so rapid that the labourer, half-way through his life, has already more or less completely lived himself out. He falls into the ranks of the supernumeraries, or is thrust down from a higher to a lower step in the scale. It is precisely among the work people of modern industry that we meet with the shortest duration of life. Dr Lee, Medical Officer of Health for Manchester, stated “that the average age at death of the Manchester… upper middle class was 38 years, while the average age at death of the labouring class was 17; while at Liverpool those figures were represented as 35 against 15. It thus appeared that the well-to-do classes had a lease of life which was more than double the value of that which fell to the lot of the less favoured citizens.”

In my proper reading summary for class, this passage probably won’t come up for comment at all. Some famous names stuck out, though.

Also, if we think those life-expectancy figures are grim, they’re not at all unthinkable in the present day, though our thoughts about labour and labourers are often quickly redirected.