Wieser On Competition As Social Conflict

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Hans Mayer ([1932] 1994:58) maintained that Wieser (and Bohm-Bawerk) 'consistently stuck' to genetic-causal theorizing, following the foundations established by Menger.1 Like Menger, Wieser began with processes of exchange and price formation for atomistic, isolated, bilateral arrangements; he then proceeded to account for competition and price formation in more complex structures by using what he called the method of 'decreasing abstraction' (Wieser [1914] 1927:178).2

In Natural Value, Wieser ([1889] 1930) referred to the Mengerian price war in a section on the 'inter-competition' of buyers for one or more goods offered by a single seller. There is a 'competition of prices' on the buyers' side of the market (ibid.: 41). In the market as a whole the bidding process leads to a price for the goods offered that is determined by the 'marginal buyer' (ibid.: 46). There may not be a single price outcome, since a single seller may price-discriminate by 'find[ing] out those among all the buyers who can pay most and.. .drive them.. .to the margin of their purchasing power' (ibid.: 46). If there is more than one seller, the 'inter-competition' among them, coupled with buyers' competition, leads to all buyers 'paying for the same article the same price as is paid by everyone else'. Under 'really free competition', sellers' market power is reduced, supply is augmented, and these factors 'press prices far on the down grade of exchange value' towards a unique market price (ibid.: 55, 56). Wieser mentioned repeatedly the 'struggle of competition' (ibid.: 46) and the 'war of competition' (ibid.: 57). Moreover, the competition which was of interest to him was a 'conflict of price' along Mengerian lines (also Wieser 1891:119). Wieser's expressions connote ongoing conflicts of interest, of rivalrousness as a source of change; they did not describe frictionless equilibrium conditions. There is also a sense in which competition has social selection effects. Buyers with sufficient purchasing power have a greater chance of survival when they enter the competitive battle for a wide range of goods. According to Wieser:

The rich have not only the advantage over the poor of possessing more means wherewith to purchase goods; they have the further advantage of being for the most part in a more favourable position to utilise their means. [in] the battle of price.'

Since the price of bread, for instance, is largely adapted to the valuations of the poorest buyers, those with greater purchasing power pay well 'under their personal valuations' and are thereby able to enter other markets and use their consumer surpluses to compete for a wider range of goods. Wieser developed this elementary insight in his later work.

In Wieser's SocialEconomics ([1914] 1927), at least in the first section, treating the idealized 'simple' or 'natural' economy, the analysis is defined as 'static': here the theory of value and price is 'presented with the assumption of a static economy, showing neither progress or retrogression' ([1914] 1927:13). The simple economy is 'entirely detached from exchange' (ibid.: 49); competition as it was discussed in Natural Value was therefore redundant.3 Lavoie (1985:81) rightly argued that 'Wieser's simple or natural economy abstracts from rivalry'. However, the abstraction referred to is not made with any explicitness or conviction in Natural Value or in the bulk of Social Economics. In the latter the 'social economy' takes up most of the text, and its vital constituents are exchange and rivalry in various market contexts.

When we enter Wieser's 'social economy' the level of abstraction is lowered and the 'social process of acquisition and exchange' ([1914] 1927:149) is a pre-eminent consideration. Individual market participants 'meet from all directions. Indeed they clash with great force' (ibid.: 151); the consequences of such a clash for price formation will be different depending on both the degree of market organization and the nature of the goods traded. Readers of Social Economics first encounter competition defined as 'rivalry in trade' in the context of an 'auction sale' in which buyers have in their minds a 'demand-index' or 'demand-series' much like a Marshallian demand schedule (ibid.: 174, 181, 182, 184). The demanders as bidders in the auction do not wish to pay their valuations (as imagined in their mental experiments which construct demand-series). Instead they 'will endeavour to make their acquisition with the lowest bid. [and] only gradually will they raise their bids to the upper limit as they become convinced that their end cannot be reached otherwise' (ibid.: 182). Knowledge of market conditions is not presumed to be complete in advance of the auction, at least on the demand side. Once the quantity offered in a closed auction is known, exchanges are effected simultaneously, and normally at a price which is uniform for every unit sold. As Wieser insisted: 'No purchaser will pay a higher price, while someone at his elbow pays less.' Formally, the price is regularly fixed between the maximum offer of the lowest demand-series that must still be admitted to trade in order that the entire quantity offered may be sold and the highest offer of the next succeeding demand series, which must be over-bid in order that the higher series may be protected against their competitors.

It is notable that Wieser simplified the auction by assuming fixed supplies which must be sold. Ostensibly the suppliers in Wieser's example do not form supply-series; they merely offer all their goods to the highest bidders. The 'price war' takes place exclusively between buyers who are, in this case, the sole 'vehicles of values' (ibid.: 183). Suppliers in this auction have an entirely passive role; evidently they bring their goods to market in the expectation of receiving a price which at least covers their 'utility value' from the suppliers' standpoint. As Wieser explained, 'we assumed that the consumption wares to be sold have no utility value for the vendor personally.' Otherwise, if the goods have utility value for the vendor, he 'will not be satisfied with anything less than a money-price whose use in exchange still promises a gain over and above the utility value' (ibid.: 185, 186).

In predicting the outcome of competition in terms of price variance, Menger's claim that the characteristics of the goods traded was a vital consideration also found expression in Wieser's example of 'scarcity-commodities' such as antiques, works of art and other luxuries (Wieser [1914] 1927:183-4). The analysis proceeds in terms of the familiar founding Austrian notion of price bounds or price limits:

The limits within which the formation of prices takes place, are frequently far apart in the case of scarcity commodities. A comparatively small number of wealthy individuals constitute the effective demand for costly antiques. The outcome of the price-war between these parties for an ardently desired work of art can hardly be anticipated. The prices here realized, vary in amount from sale to sale by considerable sums The prices which are realized may be called fortuitous prices.

The limits of price formation are wide when the 'whim of the moment', even on the part of a single competitor, moves prices. By comparison, individuals cannot have a significant price influence when competing for mass-produced goods, goods offered in large quantities to a multitude of buyers, and subsistence goods. Price variation is minimized, and demand for these goods becomes 'stratified':

The series of demand are here formed not by individual persons, but by classes of the people whose stratifications are shaded into one another. These series are interwoven into a network of narrowest meshes, leaving to the formation of prices a scarcely perceptible latitude of movement.

In short, the 'struggle of competition' generally confirms the law of one price.

Single-price outcomes of competition are, for Wieser, 'just or equitable' (ibid.: 185).4 In the markets for mass-produced goods price is 'a social institution' that is 'a result of a social contest for the possession of the offered supply'—a contest between individuals with varying appreciation for the goods on offer and with varying powers of demand (ibid.: 189) .5 The maximum offer of the marginal stratum is decisive. Therefore 'price does not take its standard form from the marginal utility but from the stratified marginal utility' (ibid.: 188-9). The formation of a 'just' competitive price is causally connected not to individual trades ('single combats') but to the 'struggle' which is 'fought group to group and class to class' (ibid.: 185). The social law of one price is derived from 'socially controlled egoism', which produces a form of competition unlike that which is forthcoming from 'a conflict of unbridled personal egoism'. Somewhat paradoxically, while the individual still competes in the sense of making bids and offers in interaction with other market participants, the bid-offer process assumes a co-operative function:

The individual, cooperating in the establishment in the market of this [just] price by looking out for his individual interest, protects at the same time the social interest; he fulfils a personal and a social duty; he contributes his share to the establishment of the market [bid-offer] series.

As a consequence, Wieser continued, the nature of competition changes: 'the struggle of price competition will be purged of objectionable elements and will cease to be a struggle at all at the height of social progress'. Supply and demand behaviour will become a cooperative endeavour. Each buying class, for instance, will know its place, having been 'fully educated to social egoism', and classes then co-exist under conditions which are 'morally and legally correct'. Nevertheless prices will not necessarily remain constant, since social competition is a process which may bring about secular price changes. The influence of changes in needs and of changes in income distribution 'may transform the entire system of prices' (ibid.: 192, 195).

Unbridled competition deriving from 'personal egoism' is made the subject of Wieser's obloquy on two grounds. First, competition which leads to 'unheard of prices... for luxuries' is declared 'immoral' because it creates social disruption over income and wealth distribution. Second, in a market that is scattered spatially or temporally, vent can sometimes be given to competition among market participants which is likened to 'panic' and which takes the form of 'the fiercest struggles' on the demand and supply sides (ibid.: 195). Furthermore, in these conditions market 'powers unthought of before' are abused at will (ibid.: 185). In the intense struggle, competition becomes destructive. For example, selling at 'mad prices' may be observed, as may untrammelled monopoly price-discrimination which upsets the 'social judgements' of traders previously accustomed to stable bases for planning to satisfy their needs. In the event, the appropriate marginal offer determined in a stable, stratified market will not be ascertained. That the resulting 'chance prices' would not strictly clear markets (in the Walrasian sense) was not within Wieser's purview. His principal concern was that prices transmitted accurate information to market participants. In 'disorderly' markets, price information was incorrect or insufficient to determine a result which preserved the social status quo. For example, putative 'inter-competition' among those with low purchasing power or weak selling power could produce 'over-excited fear'. Thus, 'the competition of the weak is aroused, not so much by the desire of advancement, as by the apprehension of defeat.. .such competition easily loses all restraint and becomes disorganized super-competition' (ibid.: 208). In Wieser's labour-market illustrations, the price war, if one-sided among large numbers of labourers, would produce 'over-competition' (ibid.: 373) and 'proletarian misery' (ibid.: 381). Labourers would end up not being paid the full value of their marginal products when there was too much competition on one side of the market. In the event just described, inequalities in the distribution of incomes become 'excessive', such that commodity-price stratification becomes 'much too great'; the resulting price structure is 'socially unjustified'. Prices are then deemed to be 'unstable'—in other words, they are an unreliable basis for computation of long-term relative value by market participants. Resource-allocative inefficiencies become inevitable in these conditions (ibid.: 381). Similarly, competition among manufacturers over 'new methods, new territories, new points of departure' may initially take the form of 'friendly rivalry'. It may at any time explode into 'a deadly contest, ending. in ruin and desolation'. Here 'the dangers of competition' become manifest in 'excessive production' (ibid.: 209). Again, we have another illustration of Wieser's notion of 'over-competition'. Competition which leads to over-production and economic and social crises is, for Wieser, perverse, since it renders unreliable the price signals upon which market participants make their calculations.6 The demand-supply mechanism does not operate efficiently when there is significant economic and social dislocation. In summary, there are social limits to competition in Wieser's system.

The degree of competition need not be perfect to attract Wieser's approval. Indeed, what would now be regarded as imperfectly competitive arrangements, far from being treated as exceptions, were regarded as part of the normal course of things in a growing social economy. Competition promoted change. Competition as a state was not dilated upon at length in Social Economics. Wieser maintained that, on the supply side in particular, those 'who have the ability will strive to advance beyond the general ruck and will ever be eager to gain headway against their rivals, [so as] to wrest from them in the commercial conflict increasing sales'. Wieser's version of dynamic competition involved sellers mutually underselling one another until cost prices had been reached (ibid.: 205-6). Precisely what 'cost' price is intended here is unclear, although it would be reasonable to surmise that he meant average cost. According to Wieser:

By the pressure of competition, manufacturers are compelled actually to produce the entire quantity of wares which market conditions allow. Producers will not stop manufacturing until the marginal bid, determined by the receptivity of the demand, coincides with the cost price. Not until this condition of prices has been reached, will an equilibrium have been established in which the cost elements in all their productive combinations are paid for at the same price.

In some social economies merger activity may be rife; 'competitive conflict' is part of the merger process and is potentially unifying rather than destructive (ibid.: 237). In addition, the aggregation of capital, especially creation of large-scale cartels and trusts, may 'obviate the injuries of over-competition' (ibid.: 224), provided that a tendency towards cost price is preserved. Wieser's argument turned on the need to encourage active competitive process on the supply side among cartels, trusts and combines at the technical and managerial level at one remove from price competition. Rivalry between business organizations took place over technical innovations (which resulted in a larger scale of production) and over leadership (including financial and managerial) skills, both of which impacted on the position each business could take in the price conflict with consumers. As for innovations, competitors 'will feel compelled to adopt technical advances in the service of the market demand, when to do otherwise would mean that [they] might be left behind by [their] competitors, and deprived of the advantage [of their] sales' (ibid.: 204-5). Under the influence of Wieser, Schumpeter ([1911] 1934) outlined 'an entrepreneurial kind of leadership' which created positive economic profits and which attracted competitors who attempt to 'reduce and then annihilate' those profits (ibid.: 89). The profit incentive generated a 'competitive struggle' (ibid.: 131) in which the leader-entrepreneur eventually 'perish[ed] in the vortex of the competition' (ibid.: 134). However, unlike Schumpeter's leader-entrepreneur, Wieser's leadership function did not 'perish', since the factors giving rise to competition as a process are always recreated in a progressing social economy. The overall outcome is not single-price monopoly, but 'monopoloidal' competition, because 'the elements of monopoly one finds in them are interspersed with those of competition' (Wieser [1914] 1927:237; also 221, 225). This is the closest any of the founding Austrians come to anticipating the Robinson—Chamberlin concept of monopolistic competition developed in the 1930s.

Wieser's discussion of the institutional aspects of competition as a species of social conflict, with social outcomes, distinguishes his contribution sharply from Menger's. While competition selects which traders will be rewarded, the prices paid will be the result of the use of power on both sides of the market. Power is not simply vanquished by some perfectly competitive process in Wieser's system; it remains ever-present and a perennial influence on market outcomes. On the demand side, 'stratified marginal utility' affects commodity pricing. On the supply side, technical or production innovations and leadership 'decide the competitive conflict' (ibid.: 237). Product innovations and associated product differentiation were not explicitly mentioned by Wieser (Streissler 1986:93). In this respect his discussion paralleled Menger's. Wieser's penchant to personalize competition conceived as a type of behaviour, regardless of the market structure, also had much in common with Menger. Wieser's summary judgement on this matter deserves to be quoted at length:

competition, exercises so great an effect.under modern conditions, [as] to entitle it to be classed among the most important social economic forces. In the strata of laborers and subordinate employees it is more limited. It asserts itself there only for a smaller number of ambitious individuals; but among the independent owners it affects all. Within each of these groups, it performs. the functions of personal selection; peasant against peasant, master-mechanic against master-mechanic, large entrepreneur against large entrepreneur, each is weighed and measured, approved or condemned in the fierce struggle of competitive conflict.

For Wieser, this striving for supremacy, as he so often called it, is the essence of competition as a behavioural phenomenon. The motivation for competitive behaviour is related to the desire for some maximand—'love of ostentation', 'honor', 'material prosperity' (ibid.: 210—11). On a personal level, achievement of one or other of these goals implies victory in the competitive conflict. At the societal level, victory in competition will not necessarily result in anything like 'perfect' competition in the senses that market power will be abolished or that the competitive process will automatically select, in one instant, the most deserving consumers or the ablest business leaders.

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Antique Collecting

Antique Collecting

ABOUT fifty years ago, when the subject of English furniture first began to be studied and to be written about, it was divided conveniently into four distinct types. One writer called his books on the subject The Age of Oak, The Age of Walnut, The Age of Mahogany and The Age of Satinwood. It is not really quite as simple as that, for each of the so-called Ages overlaps the others and it is quite impossible to lagt down strict dates as to when any one timber was introduced or when it finally, if ever, went out of favour.

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