Capital and Its Structure
By Ludwig M. Lachmann
For a long time now the theory of capital has been under a cloud. Twenty years ago, when Professor Knight launched his attack on the capital theories of Boehm-Bawerk and Wicksell, there opened a controversy which continued for years on both sides of the Atlantic. Today very little is heard of all this. The centre of interest has shifted to other fields.In practice of course problems concerning capital have by no means lost their interest. There can be few economists who do not use the word ‘capital’ almost every day of their working lives. But apart from some notable exceptions, economists have ceased to ask fundamental questions about capital. It is pertinent to enquire why this has happened. It would seem that there are three major reasons to account for this curious neglect…. [From the text]
First Pub. Date
Kansas City: Sheed Andrews and McMeel, Inc.
First published 1956 by Bell and Sons, Ltd., on behalf of the London School of Economics and Political Science 2nd edition.
The text of this edition is copyright ©1977, The Institute for Humane Studies.
An author who, after twenty years of rather heated controversy in what has come to be known as “capital theory,” has a book on capital published unrevised owes his readers a word of explanation.
My first reason is that the problems constituting the subject matter of this book have little to do with what has been going on in the arena of recent controversy. This book deals with the stock of social capital and its structure, not with income accruing to the various classes of its owners. Its main concern, in Professor Hayek’s formulation of thirty-six years ago, “will be to discuss in general terms what type of equipment it will be most profitable to create under various conditions, and how the equipment existing at any moment will be used, rather than to explain the factors which determined the value of a given stock of productive equipment and of the income that will be derived from it.”
*1 Professor Solow in 1963 assigned to capital theory an almost exactly opposite task. “In short, we really want a theory of interest rates, not a theory of capital.”
*2 It may be useful, then, to distinguish between Hayekian
theory of capital and Solovian
capital theory. This book belongs in the former category and is unaffected by the vicissitudes the latter has suffered.
The theory of capital, alas, has made little progress since 1941. This book was written about a dozen years later in an attempt to make economists aware of the existence and urgency of these structural problems. It went out of print fairly soon and was not reprinted.
My second reason for having it reprinted unchanged stems from the fact that it was written in an epoch of economic thought which now appears to be past, the era of unchallenged neoclassical ascendancy. But the neoclassical style of thought does not lend itself readily to a discussion of problems of capital structure. The
book had to be written in a somewhat unorthodox fashion. To revise it now would be like putting steel windows in a baroque building.
In 1956 when the book first appeared, the fortunes of Austrian economics were at a low ebb. Most economists were more interested in econometrics than in subjectivism. Nobody reminded them in those days that the present, in which we stand and judge, is but a thin veneer between an unknowable future and an irrevocable past, from which our knowledge is drawn. Today this is common cause, but some of its methodological implications are as yet not well understood. The 1950s were a bad time for subjectivists. The role of expectations in economic theory, except for Shackle’s pioneering efforts, was hardly appreciated. To some extent the book was a gesture of defiance to the spirit of the age. In the preface I wrote, “Our own approach in this book follows another trend of modern economic thought, not towards the ‘objective’ and quantifiable, but towards the subjective interpretation of phenomena.” I had to review the existing theory of capital from such a perspective.
For some time one particular feature of Austrian economics had puzzled me. Its theory of capital, an essential and perhaps its best known ingredient, did not appear to fit the canon of methodological individualism. Austrians in general accepted that we must start with the individual and proceed by exploring the, often unintended, consequences of its maximizing endeavors. The Austrian theory of capital, on the other hand, from Böhm-Bawerk onward, proceeded along altogether different lines and offered little scope for the effects of individual action.
It was easy to see that this fact had something to do with Böhm-Bawerk’s cast of mind. As much a Ricardian as an Austrian, he asked the old Ricardian question, how it is possible in a competitive market economy for the owners of augmentable capital resources to enjoy a permanent income. It was only in the pursuit of this endeavor that, as a means to his end, he came to construct the rudiments of a theory of capital structure. No wonder, then, that his theory looked so “objectivist” and Ricardian. It seemed to me that the most urgent task was to infuse a dose of subjectivism into this theory of capital and to relate capital phenomena to
It is, of course, true that the “average period of production” reflects the collective time preferences of saver-consumers, but this expression in itself denotes a macroeconomic entity. Moreover, it is measurable only in a classical one-commodity world in which labor is the only factor of production, and we do not live in such a world. In a multicommodity world, on the other hand, the stock of capital is heterogeneous, and we face the task of explaining its composition in terms of individual choice.
It seemed to me that to this end the macroaggregate “capital stock” had to be broken up into smaller entities responsive to microeconomic forces, entities which can be shown to be the results, however indirect, of individual acts of choice. A theory of capital of the type envisaged had to start with the capital combinations of the individual units of production, or “firms,” combinations of buildings, equipment, machines, stocks of working capital, and so forth. In them we find the “natural elements,” the microeconomic roots, of the social capital stock. Within the limits set by technology, each such combination reflects the production plan of its owners and managers. It is certainly not a mere replica of the other combinations in the same “industry.” The divergence of expectations makes for some variety. With product differentiation, the scope for variety is even further enhanced. One of the tasks of a theory of capital devoted to pursuing the implications of the heterogeneity and complementarity of nonpermanent resources is to explain why, even in the most fiercely competitive market, each firm bears the mark of the individuality of its leading minds.
It is to be hoped that the approach to capital followed in this book will find further development in the near future. For this, the climate may be more favorable today than it was twenty-one years ago, since our age of permanent inflation has lent urgency to some problems formerly unduly neglected. In this connection, those of capital replacement and malinvestment call for particular attention.
There was a time when most economists took the maintenance, granted. Failure in this respect would soon drive firms out of repair, and replacement of the existing capital stock very much for
business. Only the bankrupt or near-bankrupt would thus fail to replace their capital resources. In any economy in which capital was normally accumulated every year, we could be sure that its existing capital stock would be duly replaced. The neoclassical notion of “steady growth” evidently rests on this assumption.
Today we have learned to be more skeptical. We now realize that capital replacement, far from being a matter of business routine, is a most problematic activity. It must rest on expectations, subjective and individual, about future income streams and choice among them. There can be no such thing as a “correct” method of depreciation and replacement in a changing world. The possibility of capital erosion in some sectors of the economy at the same time as accumulation is occurring in others is no longer to be dismissed.
That malinvestment and its consequences should have been ignored as long as macroeconomic thinking was dominated by an income-expenditure model, which had no place for capital gains and losses, is perhaps understandable, if not pardonable. It is important to realize, however, that the effects of malinvestment are not confined to the losses of wealth suffered by the capital owners directly concerned and their creditors, but that through the network of structural complementarity they may extend throughout the economic system. The appearance of malinvestment in any kind of capital resource will affect the processes of its maintenance and replacement and thus the output of its means of production, and possibly also maintenance and replacement of the latter in turn.
In our world of permanent inflation many of these problems have come to the fore. Everybody knows that in an inflation the more heavily in debt a firm is, the more profitable it appears to be, because by ordinary accounting rules the capital gains its owners make at the expense of their creditors must appear as profits. Most economists by now know this to be only an extreme case of the ubiquitous difficulty of ascertaining “true profits.” But the implications of this set of problems are often not well understood.
Most contemporaries know the plight of industries with prices controlled by public authorities, usually in such a fashion that in any particular round of inflation their prices are the last to rise, but the implications for capital replacement and its repercussions
mentioned earlier are less readily appreciated. In a world in which what Hicks has called “fixprices” and “flexprices” exist side by side, all industries whose output prices belong to the former, while the major portion of their input prices are of the latter category, are in approximately the same position as industries with controlled output prices.
As it is by no means obvious where current replacement cost information can be obtained, it will not help us to blame the accountants for the apparently irrational character of their rules for the evaluation of profits. These rules, on the other hand, display a tendency to turn into business institutions which decision makers dare not ignore, even where they fully understand the real issues at stake. Moreover, as Solomon Fabricant reminded us,
the situation with regard to plant and other structures is still more difficult. Construction data assembled from a variety of sources and published in the
Survey of Current Business, for example, are of mixed quality. Some relate to the cost of the finished structure—the building—but most relate only to the cost of materials and labor used in construction, with little or no allowance for other inputs or for productivity changes.
The replacement of capital is indeed an economic activity of somewhat problematical character.
The world around us abounds with problems to which a structural theory of capital of the type outlined in this book is germane. It is to be hoped that a number of them will attract the attention of economists.
L. M. Lachmann
Pure Theory of Capital (London, 1941), p. 3.
Capital Theory and the Rate of Return (Amsterdam, 1963,) p. 16.
National Bureau of Economic Research, Report 16 (December 1976), p. 13.
Chapter 1, THE ORDER OF CAPITAL