One Man’s Profit is Another’s Loss

There is this fixed quantity of whatever it is and if you get more, I get less. One man’s profit is another’s loss.

This dogma was already advanced by some ancient authors. Among modern writers Montaigne was the first to restate it; we may fairly call it the Montaigne dogma. It was the quintessence of the doctrines of Mercantilism, old and new. — Ludwig von Mises

Add “the Montaigne dogma” to the collection of pejorative phantoms: mercantilism and Malthusianisme, image of limited good, zero-sum fallacy, Luddite fallacy, fixed Work-fund and the theory of the lump of (labor, labour, work, jobs, output).

Except… it really ought to be the Seneca dogma since Seneca was the ancient author whose de Beneficiis Montaigne faithfully borrowed from for ‘his’ essay (find “Demades“). Even Seneca was elaborating on an older maxim by Publilius.

Is it ever true that one man’s profit is another’s loss? You bet! I just gave an example — gambling and other contests of skill or luck are typically zero sum. Your loss is my gain. Our loss is the house’s gain.

But there is a more historically-pertinent operation of the zero-sum game: bills of exchange. As I remarked in that earlier post, one of the prime motivations for early modern merchant bankers to adopt the novel and challenging technique of double-entry bookkeeping was to “prove an alibi” against suspicions of usury. The way that bills of exchange were accounted for made them one of the favorite financial instruments for avoiding an appearance of usury. Raymond de Roover explained:

As a result of the usury prohibition, bills [of exchange] were never discounted but were bought at a rate of exchange which fluctuated up and down according to the conditions prevailing in the money market. There is no doubt that interest was received by the banker who invested his money in the purchase of bills, for a hidden interest was included in the rate of exchange. Because of this subterfuge, the structure of the money market was such that exchange fluctuations were caused either by a change in the rate of interest or by a change in the terms of international trade.

Interest was thus concealed in the exchange rate charged by the banker. As a consequence, the profit on any given transaction was uncertain. A banker, however, could rely on his long-run observation of the fluctuations in the terms of international trade to achieve a high degree of predictability covering a large number of transactions.

By the middle of the 16th century, the use of bills of exchange had become common enough in trade between England and the Low Countries to raise suspicions about manipulation of exchange rates by bankers. This suspicion was articulated in the memorandum prepared for the 1564 Royal Commission on the Exchange, “For the Understanding of the Exchange,” which first noted the ‘usurious’ undercurrents of different exchange rates prevailing simultaneously in London and Antwerp:

…when the English pound is paid for a month before hand [in London], then the price thereof in reason ought to be the less; and when the English pound is not paid for in Flemish money until a month after hand [in Antwerp], then the price in reason ought to be the more. But here you may perceive that this necessary and fair name Exchange might be truly termed by the odious name of buying and selling of money for time, otherwise called usury.

The memorandum then went on to describe “how private gains may be made when the Exchange goeth too low” and “how the bankers do cunningly fall [or raise] the exchange at Antwerp.” Among the remedies proposed for such manipulation of exchange rates was to “govern this realm by good policy” such that would “temper and forbear the superfluous delicacies” of imported goods and cause English exports “to be wrought to the best value before they are vented.” The resulting trade surplus would raise and maintain the value of the English pound.

Of course not every country can run a trade surplus all the time. For the world as a whole, the balance of trade is indeed a zero-sum game.

There are, however, not one but three issues bound up together in the memorandum on exchange. The first is usury and its concealment in the exchange instrument. The second is the effect of exchange fluctuations on the profits and losses of bankers and merchants. And the third is the manipulation of exchange rates, either by bankers for the private gain or by government to counter the cunning tricks of bankers.

Nowadays, we no longer have to worry about fraud by bankers. The old superstitious prejudices against usury have been supplanted by an enlightened embrace of the unequivocal blessings of credit and debt. Comparative advantage has proven that it is economically illiterate to question the universal benefit of globalization.

Verily, we can embrace the von Mise-erly wisdom that “There are in the market economy no conflicts between the interests of the buyers and sellers.” One man’s gain is clearly the alleviation of another’s pain.