It is in regard to a free market that the distinction between an intrinsic, subjective, and objective view of values is particularly important to understand. The market value of a product is not an intrinsic value, not a “value in itself” hanging in a vacuum. A free market never loses sight of the question: Of value to whom? And, within the broad field of objectivity, the market value of a product does not reflect its philosophically objective value, but only its socially objective value.
By “philosophically objective,” I mean a value estimated from the standpoint of the best possible to man, i.e., by the criterion of the most rational mind possessing the greatest knowledge, in a given category, in a given period, and in a defined context (nothing can be estimated in an undefined context). For instance, it can be rationally proved that the airplane is objectively of immeasurably greater value to man (to man at his best) than the bicycle—and that the works of Victor Hugo are objectivelyof immeasurably greater value than true-confession magazines. But if a given man’s intellectual potential can barely manage to enjoy true confessions, there is no reason why his meager earnings, the product of his effort, should be spent on books he cannot read—or on subsidizing the airplane industry, if his own transportation needs do not extend beyond the range of a bicycle. (Nor is there any reason why the rest of mankind should be held down to the level of his literary taste, his engineering capacity, and his income. Values are not determined by fiat nor by majority vote.)
Just as the number of its adherents is not a proof of an idea’s truth or falsehood, of an art work’s merit or demerit, of a product’s efficacy or inefficacy—so the free-market value of goods or services does not necessarily represent their philosophically objective value, but only their socially objective value, i.e., the sum of the individual judgments of all the men involved in trade at a given time, the sum of what they valued, each in the context of his own life.
Thus, a manufacturer of lipstick may well make a greater fortune than a manufacturer of microscopes—even though it can be rationally demonstrated that microscopes are scientifically more valuable than lipstick. But—valuable to whom?
A microscope is of no value to a little stenographer struggling to make a living; a lipstick is; a lipstick, to her, may mean the difference between self-confidence and self-doubt, between glamour and drudgery.
This does not mean, however, that the values ruling a free market are subjective. If the stenographer spends all her money on cosmetics and has none left to pay for the use of a microscope (for a visit to the doctor) when she needs it, she learns a better method of budgeting her income; the free market serves as her teacher: she has no way to penalize others for her mistakes. If she budgets rationally, the microscope is always available to serve her own specific needs and no more, as far as she is concerned: she is not taxed to support an entire hospital, a research laboratory, or a space ship’s journey to the moon. Within her own productive power, she does pay a part of the cost of scientific achievements, when and as she needs them.
Within every category of goods and services offered on a free market, it is the purveyor of the best product at the cheapest price who wins the greatest financial rewards in that field—not automatically nor immediately nor by fiat, but by virtue of the free market, which teaches every participant to look for the objective best within the category of his own competence, and penalizes those who act on irrational considerations.
The “philosophically objective” value of a new product serves as the teacher for those who are willing to exercise their rational faculty, each to the extent of his ability. Those who are unwilling remain unrewarded—as well as those who aspire to more than their ability produces . . . .
A given product may not be appreciated at once, particularly if it is too radical an innovation; but, barring irrelevant accidents, it wins in the long run. It is in this sense that the free market is not ruled by the intellectual criteria of the majority, which prevail only at and for any given moment; the free market is ruled by those who are able to see and plan long-range—and the better the mind, the longer the range.
The economic value of a man’s work is determined, on a free market, by a single principle: by the voluntary consent of those who are willing to trade him their work or products in return.
[An] objection is usually expressed by a question such as: “Why should Elvis Presley make more money than Einstein?” The answer is: Because men work in order to support and enjoy their own lives—and if many men find value in Elvis Presley, they are entitled to spend their money on their own pleasure. Presley’s fortune is not taken from those who do not care for his work (I am one of them) nor from Einstein—nor does he stand in Einstein’s way—nor does Einstein lack proper recognition and support in a free society, on an appropriate intellectual level.