Capital and Interest: A Critical History of Economical Theory

Eugen v. Böhm-Bawerk, from the Warren J. Samuels Portrait Collection
Böhm-Bawerk, Eugen v.
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William A. Smart, trans.
First Pub. Date
London: Macmillan and Co.
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19 of 33

Book III, Chapter VII

The Independent Use: An Unproved Assumption


Of the prominent representatives of the Use theory, two have taken particular pains to prove the existence of an independent use, Hermann and Knies. I shall therefore make their argument the chief subject of critical examination. Besides these writers, however, the contribution made by Say, the Nestor of the Use theory, and by Schäffle, deserve our consideration. To begin with the last two writers, a few words will show the misunderstanding into which they have fallen.


Say ascribes to capital the rendering of productive services, or, as he often expresses it, the rendering of "labour," and this labour is, according to him, the foundation of interest. The expressions Services and Labour may perhaps be objected to as more applicable to the actions of persons than of impersonal goods. But there is no doubt that Say is substantially right; capital does perform "labour." It appears to me, however, just as much beyond doubt that the labour which capital actually performs consists in what I have called the Material Services of goods, and these form the foundation of gross interest, or, as the case may be, of the capital value of goods. Say appears quietly to assume that capital, besides these, gives off services distinct from what we have defined as the material services, and that such services may be the separate foundation of a net interest, but he does not give the slightest proof of it—possibly because he had never remarked the chameleon-like ambiguity of his conception of the services productifs.


Very much the same is true of Schäffle. I need not speak of the subjective interpretations of his earlier work, which are inconsistent with the character of the Use theory, and which have been quietly withdrawn in the latest edition of his Bau und Leben. In the later work, however, he calls goods "stores of useful energies" (iii. p. 258), and he calls uses "functions of goods," "equivalents of useful materials in living labour" (iii. pp. 258, 259), "living energies of impersonal social substance" (p. 313). This is all quite correct; but the function of goods, the forthputting of useful energies, is nothing else than our Material Services, and these, as we have shown, find their equivalent not in net interest, as Schäffle assumes, but in gross interest, or, in the case of perishable goods, in their capital value. Say and Schäffle, therefore, have misunderstood what it was they had to prove, and their arguments are therefore entirely beside the mark.


The way in which Hermann arrives at his independent "use" (Nutzung) has quite a psychological interest.


His first introduction of the conception occurs when speaking of the use of durable goods. "Land, dwellings, tools, books, money, have durable use value. Their use, for the time that they last, may be conceived of as a good in itself, and may obtain for itself an exchange value which we call interest."*68 Here no special evidence is adduced for the existence of an independent use possessing an independent value, and indeed there is no need to prove it; every one knows that, as a fact, the use of a piece of ground, or the use of a house, can be independently valued and sold. But what must be emphasised is, that the thing which every reader will understand in this connection, and must understand, as use, is the gross use of durable goods; the basis of rent in the case of land, of hire in the case of houses—the same thing, in short, as we have called the material services of goods. Further, the independent existence of this "use" alongside of the good that renders the use, is only explained by the fact that the use in question does not exhaust the good itself. We are forced to admit that the use is something different from the good itself and independent of it, because the good continues to exist alongside it, in the sense that a portion of the use which it is capable of affording remains intact.


The second step that Hermann takes is to draw an analogy between the use of durable and the use of perishable goods, and to try to show that, in the case of the latter also, there is an independent use with independent value existing alongside the value of the good. He finds*69 that perishable goods, through technical change of form, preserve their usefulness, and although in changed shape, "may obtain permanence for their use." If, e.g. iron-ore, coal, and labour are transformed into pig iron, in being so transformed they contribute the chemical and mechanical elements for a new usefulness which emerges from their combination; and if, in such case, the pig iron possesses the exchange value of the three goods of exchange employed in its making, then the former sum of goods persists, qualitatively bound up in the new usefulness, quantitatively added together in the exchange value. "But if in this way goods that are perishable are capable of a lasting use, then," continues Hermann, "it is the same with goods that change their form qualitatively while retaining their exchange value, as it is with durable goods; this use may be conceived of as a good in itself, as a use (Nutzung) which may itself obtain exchange value."


In this Hermann has of course reached the goal he set before him, of proving that, even in perishable goods, there is a use which exists alongside of the good itself. Let us look, however, a little more closely at the basis of his argument.


First of all, it should be noticed that the sole support of this demonstration is a conclusion drawn from analogy. The existence of an independent use in perishable goods can in no way appeal, like the use of durable goods, to the testimony of the senses, and to practical economic experience. No one has seen an independent use detaching itself from a perishable good. If we think that it is to be seen in the case of every loan inasmuch as a loan is nothing else than a transfer of the use of perishable goods, we are wrong; here we do not see an independent use; we only infer that there is one. What we see is simply that the borrower receives £100 at the beginning of the year, to give back at the end of it £105. That in this case £100 is given for the sum that was lent, and £5 for the use of the same, is not an immediate sensuous observation; it is a construction put by us on our observation. At all events, where the existence of an independent use in perishable goods is in question, no appeal can be made to the case of the loan; for so long as the existence of that independent use is questioned, of course the justification of interpreting the loan as a transfer of use must also be questioned, and to try to prove the one by the other is obviously begging the question.


If, therefore, the "independent use of perishable goods" is to be anything more than an unproved assertion, it can only be through the force of the argument from analogy that Hermann has introduced,—not indeed in form but in substance,—in the passage just quoted. The argument there is as follows: Durable goods are capable, as every one knows, of affording a use independent of the goods themselves; if we look closely we can see that perishable goods, like durable goods, allow of a durable use; consequently perishable goods are, and must be, capable of affording a use independent of the goods themselves.


The conclusion thus drawn is false, for, as I shall prove immediately, the analogy fails just at the critical point. I admit at once that perishable goods, through technical change of form, really become capable of durable use. I grant that coal and iron ore are first used in the production of iron. I grant that the use which the iron then affords is nothing but a further result of the powers of those first things; which first things are therefore used in the shape of iron for the second time, and again in the nail that is made out of the iron for the third time, and in the house which the nail helps to hold together for the fourth time; that is to say, are used in a lasting way. Only it must be carefully noted that the durableness in this case rests on quite another ground, and possesses quite another character from that of durable goods properly so called. The durable goods are used over and over again in this way that, in each act of use, only a part of their useful content is exhausted, while another part is left undisturbed for future acts of use. But the perishable goods are used over and over again by exhausting the whole of them over and over again—by exhausting the whole useful content of that form which the goods have at the time; but since this useful content then takes on a new shape, the exhaustive use is repeated in it again. The two kinds of use are as distinct as the continuous outflow of water from a reservoir is distinct from the continuous flow of water from one vessel to another and back again; or, to take an example from the economical world, they are as distinct as the obtaining of successive proceeds from selling land piece by piece is distinct from the obtaining of successive proceeds by spending the price of the whole piece of ground in a new purchase, and selling this new purchase over again.


A few words more will bring out more sharply the halting nature of Hermann's analogy.


Between the "durable use" which Hermann points out in perishable goods, and durable goods proper, there is really a perfect analogy, but Hermann, instead of drawing this parallel, has drawn another. We have here to do with one of those points in which the neglect that our science has been guilty of in regard to the conception of the "use of goods" has revenged itself on the science. If Hermann had more accurately examined the conception of use (Gebrauch) he would have perceived that under that name two very distinct things are coupled together—things which, for want of a better expression, I shall distinguish as the immediate and mediate use of goods. The immediate use (the only one which perhaps has any claim to the name of "use") consists in the receiving of the material services of a good. The mediate use (which perhaps it would be more proper not to call "use" at all) consists in receiving the material services of those other goods that only come into existence through the material services of the first "used" good; then again the services of the goods that proceed from the material services of these latter goods, and so on. In other words, the "mediate use" consists in receiving the more distant members of that chain of causes and effects which takes its beginning in the first immediate use—members that possibly go on evolving to the crack of doom.


Now I should not like to say that it is exactly false to call the use of these distant results of a good a use of the good itself; in any case the two kinds of use have an entirely different character. If any one likes to call my riding on a horse a use of the hay that my horse has eaten, it is manifest, at all events, that this is an entirely different kind of use from the immediate use of the hay, and in some essential respects is subject to totally different conditions.


If we wish therefore to draw an analogy between the use of two goods, or of two kinds of goods, we must evidently confine ourselves strictly to similar kinds of use. We may compare the immediate use of one good with the immediate use of another, or the mediate use of one good with the mediate use of another; but not the immediate use of one good with the mediate use of another,—particularly if we wish to deduce further scientific conclusions from the comparison. It is here that Hermann has gone wrong. Durable goods as well as perishable goods permit of two kinds of use. Coal, a perishable good, has its immediate use in burning; its mediate use, as Hermann has quite correctly pointed out, in the use of the iron which is smelted by its aid. But this is the case also with every durable good. E.g. every spinning frame, besides its immediate use which consists in the production of yarn, has also a mediate use which consists in the use of the yarn for making cloth, in the use of cloth for making clothing, in the use of clothing itself, and so on. Now the proper comparison would obviously be between the immediate use of the durable goods and the momentary use of the perishable goods,*70 or between the durable mediate use of the perishable and the similarly durable mediate use of the durable goods. But Hermann has made a mistake in the parallels; he has drawn his analogy where there is really none—between the immediate use of durable goods and the mediate use of the perishable; misled by the circumstance that both kinds of use are "durable," and overlooking the fact that, in the two cases, this "durableness" rests on grounds that are utterly and entirely distinct.


This much, I trust, has at all events been made clear by the present analysis, that the analogy which Hermann draws between the "durable" use of durable and of perishable goods is not complete. But beyond this it is easy to show that the dissimilarity comes in exactly at the critical point. Why is it that we can see in durable goods an independent use with an independent value by the side of the good itself? Not simply because the use is a durable one, but because the use that has already been made of the good leaves something over of the good, and of the value of the good; because in that portion of the immediate useful content that has been released and in the portion that is not yet released we have two different things that exist beside each other, each of them having simultaneously an economic value of its own. But in the case of perishable goods the exact opposite of all this is the case. Here the use of the moment entirely exhausts the useful content of the form which the good had at the moment, and the value of this use is always identical with the entire value of the good itself. At no one moment have we two valuable things alongside of each other; only one and the same valuable thing two times in succession. When we use coal and iron ore in making iron, we consume them; for this use we pay the entire capital value of these goods, and not one atom of them is saved, or continues to exist and have an independent value beside and after this consumption. And it is just the same when the iron is consumed again for the making of nails. It is consumed; the whole capital value of the iron is paid for it; and not the smallest fragment of it continues to exist alongside. There never are in one single moment the thing and its use beside each other; only the things "coal and iron-ore," "iron," and "nails," after one another, and through their successive use. But such being the case, it can be shown us neither by analogy nor in any other way how the "use" of a perishable article can attain to an existence and to a value independent of the article itself.


The fact is, Hermann's analogical reasoning is no more correct than an argument like the following would be. From a great water tank in an hour's time I can draw off a gallon of water every second. Each of the 3600 gallons thus poured out has an independent existence of itself, and is a perfectly distinct thing; distinct from the water that has been drawn and from the water that remains in the tank. But suppose I have only one gallon of water, and go on pouring this from one vessel in to another; as in the former case, a gallon of water is poured out every second for the space of an hour. Therefore in this case also it must be 3600 independent gallons that are poured out from our vessels!


But, lastly, Hermann takes a third step, and resolves the use of durable goods into two elements; one element that alone deserves the name "use" (Gebrauch or Nutzung) and a second element which he calls "using up" (Abnutzung). I must confess that this last step reminds me very forcibly of the old anecdote of Munchausen, in which Munchausen lets himself down by a rope from the moon by always cutting the rope above his head, and knotting it again below him. Very much in the same way Hermann has at first treated of the whole (gross) use of durable goods as use (Nutzung), till such time as he has based a conclusion from analogy on it, and through it has demonstrated a use in perishable goods also. No sooner has he got this length than he tears his primary conception of use in pieces, nowise disturbed by the fact that with it he destroys the peg to which he has attached his later conception of independent use, and that this conception now hangs in the air.


I shall return later on to the further inconsistencies involved in this. In the meantime I content myself with saying that the contention which looks so fascinating at the first glance proves on closer examination to have no better support than a false analogy.


It would be an obvious omission in my criticism if it were not to include the thorough and conscientious efforts of Knies on this subject. The work of this distinguished thinker has a twofold similarity to Hermann's doctrine; like Hermann, his arguments are remarkably convincing at first sight, and this power they owe to an effective employment of analogies—analogies, however, which, like those of Hermann, I feel bound to declare false.


Knies chances on our subject when discussing the economical nature of the loan. He agrees with the view that the essence of the loan consists in a transfer of the use of the sum lent; and when trying, with his usual carefulness, to find reasons for this conception, he is compelled to go into the question of the existence or non-existence of an independent use in perishable goods.


In some introductory considerations he starts from the idea that there are economical "transfers" which do not coincide with the transfer of the rights of property. The transferences of the simple use of goods seem to be of this sort. He goes on to note the distinction between perishable and non-perishable goods, and then turns to a detailed consideration of the transfer of the uses of non-perishable goods—a consideration which, with him as with Hermann, is made to serve as bridge to explain the delicate phenomena in the use of perishable goods. Here be puts down the distinction that must be drawn between the Nutzung as "that Gebrauch of a good which lasts over a period of time, and is measured by moments of time," and the good itself as the "bearer of the Nutzung." The economical principle of the transfers in question is that the intention is to transfer a Nutzung, but not the bearer of a Nutzung, But the nature of things necessitates that the transfer of the Nutzungen of goods always involves certain concessions in regard to the bearer of the Nutzung. The owner of a leased piece of ground, e.g., must, from physical considerations, deliver it over to the lessee, if the lessee is to get the use of it. The amount of these concessions, and the inevitable risk of loss as well as of deterioration of the good which bears the use, vary just as things vary, and as the particular circumstances of the individual case vary. In hire, for instance, a certain amount of deterioration, and the consent of the owner to this deterioration, are quite necessary.*71


Then, after explaining the meaning of the legal categories of fungible and non-fungible goods, Knies puts the following question p. 71), Is it not then actually possible, must it not, indeed, be understood as the intention of a compact, that the use (Nutzung) of a fungible, and even of a perishable good should be transferred?


In this sentence Knies implicitly asks whether there is not an independent use of perishable goods. He answers the question by putting the following case.


"A cwt. of corn is a fungible and perishable good of this kind. The owner, in certain circumstances, cannot part with this cwt., and is not inclined to exchange it, or sell it,—perhaps because he is obliged to consume (verbrauchen), or wishes to consume it himself at the end of six months. But up till that date he does not need it. This being so he might of course very well allow himself to transfer the use (Gebrauch) of it to some one else for the next six months, if only at the expiry of that time he could get back his good. Say, then, that there is another man who desires the corn, but cannot barter for it or buy it. He will point out that he could not get any use (Nutzung) from the corn, as a perishable good, unless through the consumption (Verbrauch) of the corn itself, say as seed; but that he would be able to replace another cwt. from the harvest obtained by means of this use (Nutzung) transferred to him. The owner may find this perfectly satisfactory for his economical interests, since the transaction here refers to a fungible good.


"In this statement there is not a particle of an idea containing anything at all impossible, far-fetched, or artificial. But such a transaction taken by itself—that is, the transfer of a cwt. of corn under the condition of the borrower giving back a cwt. of corn at the end of six months—belongs undoubtedly to those things that are called loans.... In conformity with this we put the loan in the category of transfers of a Use (Nutzung)—that is, of the use (Nutzung) of fungible goods which pass over into the control and for the use of the owner, and are replaced by a similar quantity. Naturally, in the case of the loan, it is of the greatest consequence to understand clearly that, however liberal the concessions may be as regards the bearer of the use, still it is not in the concessions that the principle of the transaction lies. Rather are these concessions always determined in conformity with the overruling necessity of obtaining the use at the time. And just on this account, in the case of a perishable good, they are extended so far as to give the owner the power of consumption, while all the same there is even here no other principle in the matter than the transfer of a use. In the loan, therefore, the transfer of the right of property is unavoidable, but still only as an accompanying circumstance."


I admit at once that these analyses are calculated to make an entirely convincing impression on one who does not look very closely into them. Not only has Knies shown unusual skill in drawing the analogy which the old opponents of the canonists used to draw, between lease and hire on the one side and the loan on the other, but he has enriched it by a new and effective feature. For by the allusion he makes to the unavoidable concessions, in regard to the "bearer of the use," that are made in the case of all transfers of use, he has managed to change the element that seemed completely to destroy the analogy between the loan and the hire (the complete transfer of the property in the goods lent) into a further support of it.


If, however, we do not allow ourselves to be carried away by these brilliant analogies, but begin to reflect critically on them, we shall easily see that their admissibility, and with it the strength of the proof, depends on an affirmative answer being given to a previous question. The previous question is, Whether in perishable goods there is any independent use to transfer by way of loan? And we shall look more exactly at the kind of evidence that Knies specially brings forward as regards this question—a question that is the key to his whole theory of the loan.


At this point I think we shall make the astonishing discovery that Knies has not said a word in proof of the existence, or even the conceivableness of an independent use, but has evaded the great difficulty of his theory by using the word Nutzung in a double sense.


I shall try to show how he does so. On p. 61 he himself identifies the Nutzung of a good with its Gebrauch. He knows besides (p. 61 again) that in perishable goods there is no other possible Gebrauch but a Verbrauch. He must, therefore, also know that in perishable goods the Nutzung is identical with the Verbrauch. But, on the other hand, he uses the word Nutzung in stating the problem, and then in the concluding sentence—"In conformity with this we put the loan in the category of transfers of a Nutzung"—he evidently uses the word in a sense that is not identical with Verbrauch, but means a durable Nutzung. In the course of the passage quoted he mixes up step by step the Nutzung in the first sense with the Nutzung in the second sense, till he arrives at this concluding sentence, where, from a number of propositions that are only correct if they refer to Nutzung in the first sense, is drawn the conclusion that there is a Nutzung in the second sense.


The first proposition runs: "The owner, in certain circumstances, cannot part with this cwt., and is not inclined to exchange it, or sell it,—perhaps because he is obliged to consume (verbrauchen), or wishes to consume it himself at the end of six months. But up till that date he does not need it."


In this proposition the kind of use that is thought of, and, in the nature of things, the only kind that can be thought of, is quite correctly indicated as the Verbrauch of the good. Then he continues: "He might of course very well allow himself to transfer the Gebrauch of it to some one else for the next six months, if only at the expiry of that time he could get back his good."


Here begins the ambiguity. What is the meaning of Gebrauch here? Does it mean Verbrauch? Or does it mean a kind of Nutzung that lasts over a period of six months? Obviously the Gebrauch is conceivable only as the Verbrauch, but the words "Gebrauch for the next six months" are calculated to suggest a durable Gebrauch, and with this begins the quid pro quo.


Now follows the third proposition: "Say then that there is another man who desires the corn, but cannot barter for it or buy it. He will point out that he could not get any Nutzung from the corn, as a perishable good, unless through the Verbrauch of the corn itself, say as seed; but that he would be able to replace another cwt. from the harvest obtained by means of this Nutzung transferred to him. The owner may find this perfectly satisfactory for his economical interests, since the transaction here refers to a fungible good."


This proposition contains the crowning confusion. Knies makes the suitor for the loan point out distinctly that a Nutzung of perishable goods cannot be anything else than identical with their Verbrauch, but in the same breath he uses and places the words Nutzung and Verbrauch in such a way that the two conceptions are kept separate from one another, and appear not to be identical. He thus smuggles into his argument—and the oftener he does it the less likely is it to be noticed—the suggestion of a durable Nutzung in perishable goods. Thus when it is said that the harvest is "obtained by means of this Nutzung transferred," one might quite well imagine that the Nutzgebrauch of the seed is here again only the same thing as the Nutzverbrauch which obtained the harvest. But, thanks to the agreement of the "Nutzung transferred" with the "transfer of the Nutzung," which we have been constantly hearing about, and which had meant the opposite of the "transfers of the bearer of the Nutzung," we are forced involuntarily to think of a durable Nutzung after the analogy of the Nutzung of durable goods. Any scruple we may have about the conceivableness of such a Nutzung is the more easily silenced that we are told, at the same time, that through it the harvest is obtained—that is, that something very real indeed is accomplished—a proof of the existence of a Nutzung which the reader, once caught in the tangle, naturally puts to the account of the "durable Nutzung."


And now from this confused argument Knies draws his conclusions. After saving that "in this statement there is not a particle of an idea containing anything at all impossible, far-fetched, or artificial"—which, indeed, if we grant his assumptions, is quite correct, but admits of no conclusion in favour of his thesis if, for the words Gebrauch or Nutzung, we substitute in each ambiguous passage the word Nutzverbrauch—he draws the conclusion, Therefore the loan belongs to the class of transfers of a simple Nutzung.


This conclusion is simply fallacious. The thing he had to prove has not been proved. Nay, more; the thing that was to be proved is introduced quietly in the deduction, as something that had been assumed; the Nutzung, in the peculiar sense attached to it, is spoken of as if it were a familiar fact, without one word being said in support of what was to be proved, the existence of such a Nutzung. But the difficulty of discovering this fundamental flaw in the argument is very much aggravated by two circumstances: first, that the false Nutzung sails under the flag of the true Nutzung, and we forget to protest against the existence of the so-called Nutzung, because, thanks to the dialectical skill of the author, we do not keep it separate and distinct from the true Nutzung, which unquestionably does exist; and second, through the very naïveté of the suggestion. That is to say, without in point of fact once entering on the problem whether a durable Nutzung in perishable goods is conceivable or not, Knies represents the owner and the suitor for the loan as negotiating over the transfer of the Nutzung in a tone of certainty, which implies that the existence of the Nutzung is beyond question,—and the reader almost involuntarily shares in the certainty!


If we look back and compare the efforts that the writers of the Say-Hermann school have made to prove their peculiar Use of capital, we shall perceive, among all their difference of detail, a substantial agreement which is very suggestive.


All the authors of that school, from Say to Knies, when they begin to speak of the use of capital, first of all allude to the material services which capital actually renders. Then under cover of this they get the reader to admit that the "use of capital" does really exist; that it exists as an independent economic element, and even possesses an independent economical value. That this independence is not the independence of a second whole beside the good itself, but only that of an independent and separable part of the content of the good, the rendering of the service being always attended by a diminution in the value of the good itself; and that the remuneration of this service is a gross interest—all this is kept in the background.


But no sooner have they got the length of recognising the "independent use of capital" than they substitute, for the true material services of capital (under cover of which they arrived at the independent use), the imaginary use of their own making, impute to it an independent value outside the full value of the good, and end by drawing away the true use that had served as a ladder for the false. This way of working is seen in Say and Schäffle only in a hasty and abbreviated form, in quietly changing what is the substance of gross interest into what is the substance of net interest; but Hermann and Knies work it out in complete detail before our eyes. Blunders like these show us how urgent is the necessity that the "revision of fundamental conceptions," so much desiderated, should even at this late date be applied to the apparently insignificant conception of the Use of goods. I have tried to do my part in giving a first contribution to it, and I believe that in the present chapter I have proved my first proposition,—that in all the reasoning by which the Use theorists of the Say-Hermann school thought they had proved the existence of the asserted use, an error or a misunderstanding has crept in.


Not only, however, is the assumption of that independent use absolutely unproved, but, as I mean to show in the next chapter, it leads necessarily to internal contradictions and untenable conclusions.

Notes for this chapter

Staatswirthschaftliche Untersuchungen, second edition, p. 109.
P. 110, etc. See the quotation above, p. 194. [Book III, Chapter II, par. III.II.23.—Econlib Ed.]
To prove the appropriateness of this analogy we need only picture to ourselves the graduation of transition from the durable goods,—such as land, precious stones,—down through always less durable goods,—as tools, furniture, clothes, linen, tapers, paper collars and so on,—till we come to the entirely perishable goods—matches, food, drink, etc.
Geld, p. 59, etc.

End of Notes

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