Front Page Titles (by Subject) Money, Wealth, and Exchanges - The Economic Point of View
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Money, Wealth, and Exchanges - Israel M. Kirzner, The Economic Point of View 
The Economic Point of View: An Essay in the History of Economic Thought, ed. with an Introduction by Laurence S. Moss (Kansas City: Sheed Andrews McMeel, 1976).
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Money, Wealth, and Exchanges
The most obvious form in which money presents itself as relevant to a definition of economics is in its relationship to wealth. For the most general and powerful form in which wealth appears is in that of ready cash. Money, as the medium of exchange possessing the property of being able to command goods when and where they are needed, is, in general, one of the most desirable forms in which to store wealth. And, of course, the emergence of certain metals as popularly accepted media of exchange was in part the consequence of their suitability for being stored over periods of time without loss of general appeal.
Adam Smith, in his exposition of the nature and causes of the wealth of nations, had found it necessary to point out that the accumulation of a national stock of gold does not, of itself, secure national prosperity. There has, of course, been controversy about whether or not Smith was unjust to the mercantilists in ascribing to them this identification of national wealth with gold.1 it is, in any event true that the early definitions of political economy in terms of wealth were not confined to, and did not even particularly stress, the monetary form of wealth. On the contrary, writers tended rather to emphasize that money in itself lacks many of the characteristics of wealth. The problems of production and distribution in which the classical writers were interested pertained to the goods that directly satisfied human wants or to the productive factors for such goods. The pronounced disregard for the purely monetary effects on the economy, which is a characteristic of classical economics, helped to keep interest from focusing on the medium of exchange.
Nevertheless, there were soon several economists who wrote in terms that made wealth tantamount to money. “Political Economy,” wrote the French Dupuit in 1844, “being concerned only with wealth, can take account of the intensity of a wish only through its monetary expression.”2 Bagehot, who defined political economy as the “science of business,” wrote that “as far as people are what we now always call ‘men of business,’ money, the thing they look for and the thing they want, is their sole object...”3 The passage by Robert Lowe (Viscount Sherbrooke) in which he justifies the possibility of a science of economics is famous: “In love or war or politics, or religion, or morals it is impossible to foretell how mankind will act...But once place a man’s ear within the ring of pounds, shillings, and pence, and his conduct can be counted on to the greatest nicety.”4 When Cliffe Leslie wished to attack the notion of a single wealth-seeking motive in human beings, he did so, as we have seen, in an essay entitled The Love of Money (1862) and quite obviously assumes that by exposing the nonexistence of such a homogeneous love of money he is demolishing the economic man, in whose breast nothing is implanted but the desire for wealth.
In itself there is perhaps not much significance to be attached to this identification of wealth with money. In the earlier formulations in which an objective wealth was the focus of attention, we have seen this identification to have been lacking. The stress on the monetary form of wealth appears in the writings of those who give paramount importance to an economic man, intent on the accumulation of wealth. Since in a market economy the drive for wealth is most easily fulfilled by translation into a drive for money, there is little difference whether one describes economic man by reference to a passion for wealth or to a passion for money.
What these citations do suggest, however, is a tacit assumption that exchange is essential to actual economic affairs. And this circumstance suggests a fresh link between definitions of economics in terms of exchange and the endowment of economic man with an exclusively pecuniary self-interest. Bagehot’s definition of economics as the “science of business” shows the connection quite clearly.5 Bagehot had been impressed by the criticisms of classical political economy made by the historically-minded economists. He acknowledged the “relativity” of economics with respect to time and place and wished to salvage economic theory by restricting its scope to the “business world,” where its assumptions of self-interest, rationality, and the like were reasonably fulfilled. The degree to which the self-interest assumed by the economist is actually at work in the business world, and certainly the treating of this assumption as the unifying thread of economic theory, postulated the introduction of a sharp division into the whole of human action separating the activities of men in their capacity as consumers, on the one hand, from their activities in the capacity of business-type producers, on the other. Of course, what motivates the earning of income is hope of the pleasures to be purchased by spending it, but it was believed that only in their capacity as “men of business,” as income-earners, does the behavior of men admit of economic “laws.” Only in this sphere of activity could it be seriously maintained that pecuniary self-interest is the exclusive passion. In this context the desire for wealth becomes crystallized very definitely into a desire for money, the form in which men of business earn income.
This obviously arbitrary and artificial division is made possible only by the existence of indirect exchange. The fact that the division of labor in a modern economy is made feasible solely by the intervention of a medium of exchange between producer and consumer is responsible for the conception of a distinct area of activity in which men do act as businessmen. From this point of view, exchange, or even more accurately exchange for money, becomes a criterion of economic activity in an entirely novel sense. Economic analysis must be confined to activity revolving around monetary exchange, because only in such activity can an exclusively pecuniary self-interest be reasonably postulated. When men act in spending their income, economic analysis is admittedly baffled by the multiplicity of motives actuating their spending habits. But in so far as men do engage in a separate kind of activity in securing a money income, their actions are susceptible of analysis. Because men do not directly secure the innumerable and heterogeneous goods they desire, but first channel their demand for these goods into a demand for a single good, money, economics can proceed to analyze man’s business behavior in terms of a single motive, viz., the desire for money, or in terms of the maximization of this single good.6
No doubt this conception of economic activity involves some circularity. We must confine economic analysis to human action only in so far as it has a single object in view, the maximization of money income, and we proceed to postulate an “economic” area of “business” defined in terms of such a single object of desire. The justification for such a procedure is the sharp distinction made possible, as we have seen, by the existence of a monetary bridge that both accentuates and spans the gulf between earning income and buying goods. There is, in fact, a twofold aspect to men’s lives. Men do mark off part of their time for the earning of income and part for the enjoyment of income, however hazy the line of demarcation may be. And it is a fact that economic analysis has historically dealt predominantly with the first of these areas. Definitions of economics in terms of money are thus different from definitions of it in terms of wealth. The criterion of money fences off the area of income-earning and makes it a field fruitful for economic analysis.
The long-range trend in the conception of economic activity has consistently been to broaden its scope to cover all human action. Not a part of human activity, but an aspect of its entire range is selected as relevant to economics. The definition in terms of money in the sense here outlined is a special case of the older type of definition that marked off a part of the activity of men for economic analysis, postulating in the area so circumscribed a homogeneous mass of phenomena that did not occur elsewhere. It is of interest that even with the more recent “broad” definitions of economics, which recognize the essential homogeneity of all human action, the applicability of economic analysis is still over-whelmingly to be seen in the “business” or “money” sector of action. For this reason it is apparently still tempting to suppose that there is a clear-cut division between man’s money-making activities and the rest.7
[]See, e.g., E. Cannan, A History of the Theories of Production and Distribution in English Political Economy from 1776–1848, ch. I.
[]J. Dupuit, “On the Measurement of Utility of Public Works” (translated in International Economic Papers, No. 2, p. 89).
[]W. Bagehot, Works (Hartford, 1889), V, 324.
[]R. Lowe, “Recent Attacks on Political Economy,” Nineteenth Century, November, 1878, p. 864.
[]For passages in which Bagehot consistently refers to economics as the “science of business,” see his Works (Hartford, 1889), III, 269; V, 243, 259, 324. See III, 44 for a passage in which Bagehot writes of Cairnes that he defined “the exact sort of science which political economy is” better than any previous writer.
[]The use of money as the criterion for defining the nature of economic activity, on the grounds that human action directed towards consumer goods is first channeled into a search for general purchasing power in the form of money, bears a close similarity to a distinction used later by Robbins and Hayek. In the following chapter we shall notice the identification by these writers of the economic motive with the desire for general opportunity, the ability to achieve unspecified ends. On this point see also L. Robbins, Nature and Significance (2nd ed.), pp. 30–31.
[]For examples of writers who have fairly recently sought for a defining criterion in this division between man's money-getting actions and his other actions, see K. Rivett, “The Definition of Economics,” Economic Record, November, 1955, pp. 221, 229; E. Heimann, “Comparative Economic Systems,” in Goals of Economic Life, ed. A. D. Ward (New York, 1953), pp. 122 f.