Money Not a Measure of Value

Some people argue that money—or a monetary unit e.g. dollars, pounds, lira—plays the role as a measure of value. A money commodity cannot measure the value of economic goods because money commodities are also economic goods. To say that a dollar is worth a dollar becomes a statement of meaningless circularity. You cannot use the item being measured as a unit of measure.

But, why do we say things like, “that car is worth 23,000 dollars” or “that stock is worth 45 dollars”?

I suspect that the idea that a monetary good could represent a unit of value finds its origin in the mistaken idea that exchanges occur at an equilibrium of value.

I remember in my undergraduate economics classes trying to learn the concept of indifference curves. As I recall, if you calculate and plot the quantities at which persons don’t care (have an indifference) whether they have product A or product B you create an “indifference curve.” The curve expressing the indifference for A vs. B might represent the “supply curve” and the curve expressing the indifference for B vs. A might represent the “demand curve.” At the point where the supply curve intersects the demand curve each party values both goods the same—they have an indifferences at to which good they have. For some reason, according to classical theory, at that those quantities, they will want to make an exchange.

Forgive my somewhat confusing explanation, but it never made sense to me in the first place.

Classical economic theory makes this argument: that exchanges occur when the quantities of two goods reach an equilibrium of value. Thus, since we don’t have a unit of measure for value, it might seem fair to say that, when they are exchanged, A has the value of B, or vice versa. Based on that reasoning it would also make sense, when most exchanges involve a commonly accepted medium of indirect exchange (like a dollar), to replace that unknown unit of measure for value with the quantity of dollars exchanged.

This whole chain of reasoning, however, falls apart when we come to realize that exchanges do not occur at an equilibrium of value. When a person trades a dollar for a pack of gum, he makes that trade because he values the pack of gum more than the dollar. If the buyer valued the dollar exactly the same as the gum, he would have no reason to make the exchange. He will make the exchange only when he sees a greater value—no matter how small—in having the gum over having the dollar. Therefore, a dollar cannot represent the value for an item of less value than a dollar.

We should correct the hypothetical statements I made above: “to the buyer that car is worth more than 23,000 dollars” or “to the buyer that stock is worth more than 45 dollars.”

We also need to correct our understanding of widely publicized economic data. GDP for example: “GDP represents the monetary value of all goods and services produced within a nation’s geographic borders over a specified period of time.*” But, it does not.

More precisely GDP represents the total amount of money (in the local currency) spent for goods and services valued more than that amount of money exchanged by the individuals for those goods and services.

Think about it.


Finally, we moved to the only plausible theory of economic value: The Subjective Theory of Value

* From InvestingAnswers:

Cost of Production Value Theory

Probably the most popular concept of value incorporates the cost of production. The idea here is that any economic good, whether a consumer good or production good, has value based on the sum of the costs of resources used to produce it. A loaf of bread, for example, would have the value of the sum of the cost of the labor to produce it, a portion of the cost of the stove used to cook it, all the costs associated with producing the flour, and presumably the cost of the land on which the wheat was grown.


As appealing as the cost of production theory of value may seem, it does not hold up when you trace costs back to their origin. The production of all goods derive ultimately from combinations of land and labor — land provides all the resources used in production, and labor provides the original source of effort. Here we run head-on into the problem of intrinsic value. From where does land derive its value? Also, as mentioned above and in “Labor Theory of Value”, from where does labor derive its value?

This leads us again to the question of how do we measure the cost of production for any good?


It seems reasonable, on the surface, to sum the cost of the factors that contribute to the production of a good—labor, materials, and machinery—and use that as a representation of value. But, yet again, we run into some unresolved questions.

How do you measure the cost to produce the original factors of production—land and labor? I have addressed in “Labor Theory of Value” the difficulty in finding a satisfactory unit of measure for labor. Then, what unit do you use to measure the value of land?

Well, of course, we use the cost to the producers (what’s given up to acquire the land). But, if you work your way back to the original homesteader, what cost did he bear? And, did subsequent buyers and sellers make no profit or suffer no loss as the land got transferred to the present owner?

In addition to the difficulty of coming up with units of measure for land or labor individually, what unit do we use for both land and labor that we can sum to a meaningful total? You cannot add hours of labor and acres of land to arrive at the number of acre-hours as a unit of value. If you will forgive a touch of sarcasm, I simply wish to point out the difficulty of identifying a uniform unit for the measure of value—even for original factors of production.

This problem increases exponentially (I admit that I cannot suggest a unit of measure for the problem—consider it a figure-of-speech) with the introduction of multiple factors of production from different sources. Consider the consistency of establishing a uniform measure for the many parts used in automobile production. Many identical parts come for different parts of the country that have significantly different costs for land, labor, and lower level factors applied to them. Do Chevrolets with different parts, have different values?

You can see that using the cost of production does not provide a uniform source or a uniform measure for value.

Before I move on to discuss the only plausible theory of economic value, I want to take a brief detour to address a question that many people seem to take as obvious: don’t we use money as a measure of value?

Money cannot act as a measure of value and I will give a few of the many reasons in my next post: Money Not a Measure of Value

Labor Theory of Value


Some people believe that, since all economic goods require some amount of labor to produce (even “free” goods require the labor to pick them up off the ground, pluck them off a bush, or capture them with one’s hands,) economic goods get their value from the labor required for their production.

Formal explanations of the labor theory of value frequently refer to the “total amount of socially necessary labor required to produce” the item. The theory also excludes the use or pleasure of the owner. This language, however, uses vague and abstract terms to explain the source of value—an already very abstract term.

But, from where does labor derive its value? The idea that labor puts value into goods implies that labor itself has some sort of intrinsic value that it can transfer to the economic good in the process of production. If labor has an intrinsic value, that would mean it had the same value when used to dig holes with no purpose as it did to plant crops that might feed a family or a village.

Whether labor has intrinsic value or acquires value for some other mysterious source, how does a person measure the value of labor?


What unit of measure do you use to value labor. Some have suggested using time is a measure of labor value. Thus, a product that required two hours to build would have a value twice that of a product that took one hour to build. Using time as a measure of value would mean that two cabinets, identical in every feature, would have different values because one cabinetmaker took twice as long to build his cabinet as the other cabinetmaker did to build his.

Even Karl Marx, the renown advocate of labor value, stumbled on this one.

Labor Theory advocates get around this pesky problem by saying value increases in proportion to labor performed with average skill and average productivity. But, in attempting to account for the inconsistency of time as a measure of value, theorists have injected the difficult task of measuring skill and productivity.

‘Round and ‘round they go.

So I turn the problem over to you, reader. If you believe that labor adds value to economic goods, explain the source and the unit of measure for that value.

Next, I will turn my attention to the “Cost of Production” Theory of Value.

Intrinsic Value

Believing that the value of a thing resides within an object or action seems like an easy approach at the outset. But the idea of intrinsic value falls apart, as do several of the value theories, based on our criteria: source and measure.


The idea of intrinsic value argues that something in an object gives it value. Thus, an apple has a given value; an iPhone has a given value; a bar of gold has a given value; an automobile has a given value. And, somehow, all economic actors know of those values.

Each of those items may have inherent characteristics that separate them from the other items, but does that give them value that has any meaning in economic terms. The advocates of intrinsic value leave us with many unanswered questions. Here are only a few:

  • Does intrinsic value change with use? Does my iPhone have a different value if I use it as a camera, a word processor, or a paperweight?
  • Does intrinsic value change with form? Does the bar of gold have a different value if I have it converted into pieces of jewelry or electronic components?
  • Does intrinsic value change with stages of production? If iron ore has an intrinsic value, does it have the same value as it gets converted progressively into an iron ingot, a sheet of steel, and finally into an automobile body?

I think you can imagine other nagging questions, but each leads to the most troubling question: how do we measure intrinsic value?


The concept of intrinsic value really falls apart when the question of measurement arises. If economic goods get their value from within, how can we compare one economic good to another? What unit of measure do you use to compare the value of a peach with the value of an iPod, each of which gets its value from within.

One cannot compare the value (regardless of measure) of an apple and a shoe, if they have only intrinsic value. If a good has inherent value, what generalized unit of measure represents that value?

Weight, a characteristic of any object, for example, has a uniform measure that a person can use to compare one item to another e.g. 10 pounds of peaches compared to 10 pounds of iPods. You can see this distinction without getting involved in the physics principles of mass and gravity. But, value, unlike weight, has no distinct unit that can be used to compare one item with another.

For purposes of effective, efficient, economic action, value must have a common source and a common method of measure.

Next, I Will Discuss the Labor Theory of Value.

Conflicting Value Theories

In spite of the importance of value to the development of sound economic theory a lot of people disagree about the source and measure of value. I will touch on the more prominent value theories Over the next couple of posts.

But, before I move on to the discussion of the theories of economic value I have one point that I need to emphasize:

Money does not represent a source or measure of value of any sort.

In the future I plan to devote considerable space to discussing the nature and role of money. I may, in those future post, repeat some of these comments, but I need to clear away any doubts that readers might have that I have overlooked money as either a source or a measure of value.

Economic goods of one sort or another play the role of money. Those goods get traded in the same way that any other good gets traded. In their role as money they get traded as mediums of indirect exchange. That money role influences the source and the measure of their own value, but it has no bearing whatsoever on the value of the goods for which people trade them. The real source and measure of the value of money goods abide by the same parameters as all other economic goods—as I will discuss on detail later.

Thus, phrases like “worth 100 dollars” carry no validity in economic logic. When someone pays 100 dollars for an item, that action reveals that the person values the item more than they value the 100 dollars. It reveals nothing about how much more they value the item.

In the next several posts I will address some primary theories of value:

  • Intrinsic Value
  • Labor Value
  • Cost of Production Value
  • Subjective Value

I will show why only subjective value theory holds up to logical scrutiny.

I will begin with a discussion of the concept of Intrinsic Value.

Value: Summary

Before I move on to describe market exchanges in a bit more depth I would like to summarize the previous comments on value—in part because I encountered a bit of delay since my last post.

Understanding value provides a foundation for understanding all other economic concepts. In order to distribute resources effectively and efficiently the system must have a source of value and a way to measure value. Without a consistent source and measure of value the effective, efficient, allocation of resources would prove virtually impossible.

The Source of Value

Individuals provide the only uniformly consistent source of values. We might use gravity as an analogy for values. Although every discrete body in the universe exerts a different force of gravity, this attracting force always exists between bodies of mass throughout the universe. In a similar fashion, although each individual assigns value differently, value always emanates from individuals. As we will discuss later, only the actions of individuals reveal relative values.

No objective value exists apart from the subjective values of individuals. No intrinsic value exists as a part, or characteristic, of any economic good.

The Measurement of Value

Since the individual always assigns value to economic goods, the individual also determines the measure of that value. The method of valuation remains consistent amongst all individuals. They simply assign an ordinal ranking to all economic goods. Of course that ranking generally only applies to the goods with which they engage in exchange.

No definitive measure of value exists apart from the preferences of individuals.

Value Revealed by Exchange

I have included the first part of the discussion of exchange in my discussion of value because it is through exchange that economic actors reveal relative values. Before an exchange occurs economic actors and observers have no real clue as to the relative values of various economic goods. After an exchange occurs, however, we can say with certainty that each party to the exchange values what they got more than what they gave.

We have no way of assigning a unit to the degree with which they value one thing over another, but we do have objective evidence of the relative preferences. That evidence appears in the form of a price, which we will discuss in depth later.

Individuals and Value

Because value lies at the core of economic activity and individuals provide the source and measurement of value, individuals play a central role in all economic activity. It could be said that economics represents the study of exchanges that fulfill the values of individuals.

I will begin to discuss exchanges in a bit more detail in later posts.

Next, I will begin a discussion of the Conflicting Value Theories.

Value: Exchange

In the previous two posts I have explained that the judgments of individuals provide the only source of economic value, and the ordinal preferences of individuals provide the only measure of economic value. So, how can these individual subjective values provide any useful information to those actors and for any outside observer?

The subjective values of individuals become useful to the market when an exchange occurs. Let me demonstrate with a very simple hypothetical example.

Two individuals, John and Charles, have a chance encounter. John happens to have with him an item that I will refer to as “A.” Charles has with him and item that I will refer to as “B.” We cannot hear their conversation but we noticed that when they part John and Charles have exchanged these items. Now Charles has A; and John has B. This exchange gives us as observers — and also John and Charles as participants — some information about how they respectively value these items.

Although prior to this exchange we knew nothing about the preferences of either John or Charles, we can now say with absolute certainty that John prefers B more than A, and Charles prefers A more than B. In general, when an exchange occurs we can always say that each party to the exchange gets what they value more than what they give. We have no way of measuring how much more they value what they get, but we can say with certainty that they do you value it more.

We have confidence in what we know about these relative values simply because the exchange occurred. If John and Charles did not value what they got more than what they gave up, the exchange simply would not have occurred. To add a little clarity let’s look at three other possibilities in which an exchange would not have occurred.

  • John values A more than B and Charles values B more than A. In this case they both consider themselves better off with what they already have.
  • John and Charles both value A more than B. In this case, although Charles would like to make an exchange, John has no desire to do so.
  • John and Charles both value B more than A. In this case, although John would like to make an exchange, Charles has no desire to do so.

The following graphic shows the alternatives possible when John and Charles meet. Notice that, in these possble scenarios, no exchange occurs when either party prefers what they already have—no matter what the other party prefers.

Preference Table
Preference Table

When John and Charles happened to encounter each other they experienced what economists refer to as a double coincidence of wants: each of them wanted what the other had more than what they possessed. In a worldwide economy consisting of billions of participants and billions of products the double coincidence of wants occurs fairly rarely. I will discuss the more complex nature of market exchanges in future posts. This hypothetical example, however, provides a simple demonstration of how the subjective preference scales of individuals become exposed by their actions.

I do want to point out the most important common element in the sources and measure of value and the market exchange: the individual. The values and actions of individuals represent the core of all economic activity.

In my next post I will provide a summary of the source and measure of value, and how exchange reveals value.: Summary of Economic Value