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Who Do Economic Profits Belong To?

Do we deserve to keep the profits that result from our actions?

Most libertarians would maintain that any economic profit — the residual of revenue over cost — that you earn from voluntary exchange is indeed moral and rightly belongs to you. The puzzling thing is that standard microeconomic theory, which libertarians as well-known as Milton Friedman have used to defend their free-market beliefs, is completely irrelevant in justifying that belief.

I attended a talk recently given by Professor Israel Kirzner in which he addressed the question of whether economics can tell us who does and doesn’t deserve profit. I won’t summarize the entire lecture here, which I expect Professor Kirzner intends to publish, but I will touch on an important and often-neglected point he made.

In a world of sheer ignorance, such as ours, free lunches are everywhere.

Specifically, it’s that because microeconomic theory is utterly useless in morally justifying economic profit, we need to look beyond one of the most cherished slogans of economics: There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch, or TANSTAAFL for short. Indeed, in order even to begin seeing economic profit as moral, you have to set TANSTAAFL aside. (I wrote on a related theme in “But There ARE Free Lunches!” in May 2011.) Now, how does that relate to the question of who, if anyone, deserves economic profit?

The Value of the Marginal Product

Let’s say you want to sell a new kind of musical instrument. You buy or hire every single ingredient you need to produce it: the various kinds of skilled labor and equipment, the working space, management and financial knowhow, and whatever computing and power needs you require. You also contribute to production as the owner of the firm, and your…

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