An individual's actions and choices are based upon a unique value scale known only to that individual. It is this subjective valuation of goods that creates economic value. Like other economists, the Austrian does not judge or criticize these subjective values but instead takes them as given data.
For obvious reasons, Rand did not like this theory. In her essay on capitalism, she provided an “objective” theory of economic value to take its place. The difficulty with all such “objective” theories is that they tend to equate objective value with success in the market. Hence popular music, headed by Elvis Presley and the Beatles, is objectively superior to classical music, because it has sold a lot more recordings and grossed far more profits. The Bible is objectively more valuable than Atlas Shrugged because it has sold more copies and, presumably, netted a greater profit.
To get around this difficulty, Rand introduces a distinction between what she calls “philosophical” and “social” value. The free market value of goods and services, she grants, “does necessarily represent their philosophically objective value, but only their socially objective value, i.e., the sum of the individual judgments of all the men involved in trade at a given time, the sum of what they valued, in the context of their own life.”
If Rand’s “socially objective” value sounds suspiciously like the the subjective value theory, well, that’s because there is very little difference between the two. So in order to draw a larger contrast between the two theories of value, Rand introduces another distinction. She claims that what makes her “socially objective” value truly objective is the discipline of the market:
Within every category of goods and services offered on a free market, it is the purveyor of the best product at the cheapest price who wins the greatest financial rewards in that field—not automatically nor immediately nor by fiat, but by virtue of the free market, which teaches every participant to look for the objective best within the category of his own competence, and penalizes those who act on irrational considerations. [CUI, 24-25]
As with many of this Rand’s theories, this one only remains plausible if we ignore the many facts that fail to accord with it. One of the long lasting criticisms of capitalism is that, under its regimen, business are often forced to appeal to the lowest common denominator to survive. The tacky, the tasteless, the vulgar, the obscene often triumphs over products that, from an “objective” point of view, appear more useful and “edifying.”
As an example of this, consider the most popular non-free iphone application, a piece of software appropriately entitled “iFart mobile.” According to the iFart website, their application is “Ranked #1 in overall sales of all applications in the world.” The video below goes into greater detail:
As amusing as all this may be, one still wonders what sort of “objective” value, even of the “social” type, a product like iFart can possibly have. Obviously, it is little more than an “entertainment” product and shouldn’t be taken too seriously. But where is the “objective” value in such a thing, beyond the obviously subjective humor that some people find in it? Can we really say that iFart, within its category of goods and services offered on the free market, is the “best product and the cheapest price”? How can this be? Is it because it's the best flatulence imitating application for the iphone? Even if this were so, it still doesn’t answer the question why flatulence imitating iphone apps have more objective value than other iphone apps. Beyond mere success in the market, what objective value, established by human “reason,” can be attributed to iFart?
The iFart application merely skims the surface of what is wrong with any objective theory of economic value. One can think of many worse examples: e.g., what about all those astrology books that are sold every year? or the billions of dollars spent on internet porn? or “gangsta” rap? Where is the objective value in these horrors? Yet they all thrive in the market. It simply will not do to mix economics with morality. Economic value—that is, the values people actually pursue in the market (rather than the values they “ought” to pursue) cannot in any meaningful sense be regarded as “objective.” The Austrians show good sense in regarding economic value as subjective.