Value and price have a very close and important relationship. Value exists entirely in the subjective realm, whereas price provides objective evidence of an economic transaction. The price results from action taken based on value. It does not, as many people believe, provide a measure of value.
As I have laid out in previous posts, value only exists as a subjective inference in the minds of individuals. It has no objective unit of measure — indeed the individual cannot quantify his own measure of value. An individual exposes his value preference only when he makes an exchange. When the individual makes an exchange he exposes his relative value to himself and anyone witnessing the transaction.
When an individual encounters a good (A) that he values more than a good (B) that he owns he will seek to make an exchange. If the owner of good B values good A more than good B, these two individuals will make an exchange. The consummation of this transaction provides the proof that each party values what he gets more than what he gives up. If they don’t make the exchange, the original premise about who values what proves false.
In other words, an exchange amounts to individual actions based on individual values. The result of that transaction provides objective evidence of the relative values of the two individuals. Keep in mind it only indicates relative values — in terms of more or less — and never quantifiable values. That evidence of value results in what we refer to as a price.
The word price refers to the ratio of what a person gives up to what he receives. In other words, if Bill exchanges eight apples for four peaches, we can say the Bill’s per peach price equals two apples.
A price only appears with the consummation of an exchange. If the owner of the peaches offers them at a ratio of three apples per peach, that does not amount to a price. It only amounts to an offer — or, if you will, an offer price. An exchange must occur in order to create a price.
I realize that these examples seem almost ridiculously simple and somewhat unrealistic. Most transactions occur with the use of money and the price stated in terms of dollars and cents. Keep in mind that money simply exists as another good used as a medium of indirect exchange. The interpretation of “price” remains the same whether the transaction consists of a direct exchange — as in the case of Bill and his apples — or an indirect exchange — as with the use of money.
The price resulting from an exchange creates an objective indicator of the relative values for Bill and his exchange partner. After the exchange we can say with certainty that Bill values peaches more than apples. But, we still cannot quantify how much more Bill values peaches.
Objective price information provides the basis for the development of effective and efficient allocation of resources throughout a market. When a price pattern develops in the market that indicates the existence of many buyers willing to trade apples for peaches at roughly the same ratio (price), peach producers who want apples know that a market exists for their produce.
Money prices contain precisely the same information, however it can apply to a multitude of products exchanged indirectly. This information provides the foundation for economic calculation fundamentally important to the operation of free markets.
Knowing that people value goods on a individual subjective preference scale provides the basis for a sound fundamental theory of free exchange. It does not, however, provide us with any useful objective information. For useful information we must have the ratio of goods exchanged—which we refer to as price.
By aggregating price data we can develop definitive statements about the relative values of the players in a particular market. We now know, with certainty, who values one good over another.
Keep in mind that price does not measure value; it simply indicates the range of relative value. The price does, however, provide sufficient information for the effective and efficient allocation of resources in an economy.