Interest and the True Free Market

Often, questions about things we take for granted, things that are institutionalized, don’t go far enough. We commonly question whether interest rates are too high or too low, but never really get to the heart of the matter: is interest a normal function of a truly free market or a result of outside force in a controlled marketplace?

We need an understanding of what interest actually is to even begin to question its validity. There are many definitions. The most widely accepted probably is the Austrian view that interest is a time preference choice made subjectively. The problem with this overly simplistic view is that it “assumes” the validity of interest and then proceeds to explain why it is valid. Austrian logic states in a circular manner that because interest is based on a “subjective” choice, that necessarily eliminates any need to challenge this choice. Choice signifies only that more than one option exists, not that the chooser is acting completely free and without the influences of force.

Interest is also justified based on laws of supply and demand. What must be justified is not the supply and demand of anything, but whether the supply and demand freely exists or is a result of force. Again, supply and demand can also exist within a framework of force and coercion.

Interest is truly a question of “possession”. The ownership or title to capital, to the exclusion of others, allows the owner to ask and receive a payment in return for a temporary transfer of title to the capital. Where does this “right” to ownership originate?

If it is inseparably linked to capital, then it must originate alongside capital. Capital can only be created through production. And, capital can only be “drawn” from the surplus of production. Without a surplus, that which is above and beyond the immediate needs from either the demand side of production or the immediate needs of the production process itself, there is NO capital. Capital is left over, the remains.

But, this definition itself is a bit confusing. What is it that can be “left over”, not possess any neither immediate use nor value to its owner and yet have immediate use and value to others? But, it is fundamentally this condition, surplus value that has no use to its owner that allows it to be available to others.

Getting back to the origin of capital, the production process, what exactly is this “surplus”? In a true free market, not what is out there and referred to as a “free market”, the surplus can never represent itself in the product. Surplus product in a pure market would always lower demand and price, creating a point of equilibrium. In other words, as long as product has any use value to people, it can never be surplus. It will simply find its proper price and be utilized.

Same goes for labor in a true free market; if the production process produces surplus labor, the cost of wage declines, which also lowers product price and demand until equilibrium is reached. So, while capital must originate within the production process by definition, it does not originate, at least in a free market, from either overproduction or surplus labor. Marx’s observations were not observations of a true free market. Surplus labor value cannot exist in a free market, only in a market controlled by force.

If this surplus that becomes capital is actually fact rather than fiction, then it must occur during the production process, yet it must have its origin somewhere other than the product or labor. The “value” of the product must somehow become greater than the sum of its parts. This “extra value” must materialize into the surplus we refer to as capital.

But, is this possible? To be possible, those that “value” the product at a level exceeding its cost must be willing to give extra value to that product. But, that extra value must also come from the production process, as there is no other “real” place for value to be created. Another area of the production process must be “devalued” in order for surplus value to be devoted to one area and capital to be created and subsequently owned.

While this might seem to fly in the face of conventional economic logic that as the production process grows more and more value is created, it doesn’t at all. What it challenges is the assumption that more and more “surplus” value is created which in turn justifies the existence and ownership of capital and the phenomenon of interest. Surplus value is a completely different breed of animal than value. It must exist above and beyond the value and the cost of our standard measure of value.

Even if we assume that this extra added surplus value can be possible, it would extremely fleeting in a free market. Would there be any reason other than force that competitors wouldn’t flock to areas of the economy producing surplus value and quickly drive down returns back to cost? Production of capital and surplus value certainly could exist at times, but competition would surely drive the surplus value back down to the level of actual value or cost.

So, the real question becomes why would anyone engage in any action that would produce excess value and allow that excess value to be collected by someone else if we completely remove force from the equation?

The Austrians have claimed time preference might be a reason, but does time preference even exist in free exchange? It can only exist if we believe that it is somehow more valuable to all of us for some of us to receive payment for their goods or service in the future rather than now and to receive a greater payment than we would in the present. If this isn’t the case, then time preference has little to do with anything other than freedom of choice and doesn’t hold any substantial reward for those who wait.

Even if time preference is a factor, we have again forgotten free competition. If greater value is rewarded to those who wait, wouldn’t enough of us wait in order to receive the greater return, which would result in driving the rewards of waiting back down very close to actual cost, again resulting in equilibrium? After all, if economic laws are true, they must have the ability to be applied equally to all situations, regardless of what it tells us about the outcome and regardless of who ends up at the top of the pile.

The existence of interest other than to cover the actual cost of the transfer of capital, seems to be founded more upon outside force and fictional economics than true free exchange. Even capital, at least as we know it, would seem to be threatened by a truly free market. This shouldn’t be that surprising. Imaging a free world takes just that: imagination.

Gene DeNardo is a freelance writer and jazz musician living in the Pacific Northwest. Read other articles by Gene, or visit Gene's website.

17 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozh said on October 15th, 2010 at 7:55am #

    In short, and fit for a toddler, money or shovel, being mere inanimate tools, can be used as such or as weapons– weapons that don’t open wounds, but lots of feelings; most of them cranky! tnx

  2. hayate said on October 15th, 2010 at 12:30pm #

    Interest is getting something for nothing.


  3. hayate said on October 15th, 2010 at 12:35pm #

    Quick explanation of above. Private banking does nothing that the people could not do better for themselves through their guv. Interest is how private banking makes one of their profits (there are others, similarly exploitative). With the guv handling these services, there is no need for that profit. Therefore no need for the usury. The costs could be handled through realistic and fair fees, tax or something similar.

  4. Deadbeat said on October 15th, 2010 at 3:04pm #

    Get rid of money and there would be no need to engage in is behavior whatsoever.

    I also disagree with the author spending so much time describing an oxymoron “free market”. Markets by definition are not “free”. “F[r]ee Market” is more appropriate.

  5. kalidas said on October 15th, 2010 at 6:36pm #

    “When you have usury, who needs alchemy.”

  6. siamdave said on October 16th, 2010 at 12:03am #

    Still missing the most basic point of all. There may be some justification for some interest if actual existing ‘capital’ is used for investment. But – most ‘interest’ is charged by banks on money they create out of thin air – and there is no justification for this whatsoever. When you get a mortgage, or the gov sells bonds to a bank – they just bang some numbers into a computer, and create new (electronic) money. And then charge interest on that money they have created out of thin air. Complete fraud and scam – they, and the politicians and pseudo-economists and academics who allow this, and the media who conspire to keep this basic knowledge from the public and allow the scam to continue, should all be jailed. Of course, regaining control of any of these gangs would first require understanding that in reality our countries are not democracies, and thus that is actually our first fight. More about this from a Canadian context here – What Happened? .

  7. gene said on October 16th, 2010 at 9:33am #

    Hi Siamdave,

    The article is based, and I clarified this several times, on a “true” free market. A true free market, miles removed from what conservatives and liberals refer to as “the free market” {what is out there now} would necessarily have to be conducted completely without force or coercion.

    The process of “money creation” that you describe is obviously fraudulent and uses force {legal tender laws} in order to insure their monopoly. The interest it collects is only due to that combination. Neither are principles of a real free market. These are the actions of thugs {you referred to them correctly as gangs}, not free market participants.

    True free market advocates agree that any form of money or capital or any arrangement of exchange is permissable as long as the exchange is completely consenual, doesn’t involve force, fraud, deception, etc. and doesn’t restrict the freedom of others to do likewise.

    Obviously, our present fiat currency only serves the interests of the few, those who have control over its production and it would die a quick death.

  8. ZapRowsdower_ said on October 16th, 2010 at 11:42am #

    “The Austrians have claimed time preference might be a reason, but does time preference even exist in free exchange? It can only exist if we believe that it is somehow more valuable to all of us for some of us to receive payment for their goods or service in the future rather than now and to receive a greater payment than we would in the present. If this isn’t the case, then time preference has little to do with anything other than freedom of choice and doesn’t hold any substantial reward for those who wait.”

    I think you have it backwards. Interest is applied to loans to compensate for the lost income that could’ve been earned by using the money in the immediate present, as opposed to having to wait until X time in the future to have it available again.

    For example, say I have $100,000. I can either loan it to you, Gene, so you can start up your software company, or I could use it myself to fund my own company. If I give you a 5 year loan, then I will lose 5 years worth of profits and development that I would’ve earned by instead using the money to fund my own business venture. Since humans have a finite lifespan, and the marketplace is a competitive one that requires capital investment in the right time and place, it is always better from a competitive standpoint to have capital at your disposal than tied up in investments over which you have no control. Interest is applied to loans and investments to reflect this fact. I don’t see how any restrictions on “freedom of exchange” exist here.

  9. bozh said on October 16th, 2010 at 11:50am #

    I think that what we can understand about money is ignored. We know money is a tool and having only a symbolic value.
    So far a toddler might understand this fact. All tools are useful and probably all invented because they are utile.

    What none of us can ever know, is how is this very useful tool is being abused.
    Since people make oodles of money and not much by using a shovel, we can conclude that it is being abused.
    In order to hide the fact that theft goes on, an endless number of theories arise.
    The more the better, so that serfs wld think: Who are we to know what goes on when we have thousands of expert; graduating from harvard and economic schools, who are there to study it and give us an honest explanation.

    Before money was invented [people say by hittites ca 3.5 k yrs ago, people traded and exchanged, say three geese for piglet. Or hundred knives for a horse.
    However, if u wanted to trade 1 k sheep for a house and house seller; trader rather, cld only wanted only one ewe or lamb, the trade cld not be accomplished.

    Well, money solved the problem the sheep owner got his house and the house man got the money by which he cld by one goose, two sheep, bread, eggs, meat etc.

    But if only money is abused it wldn’t be so bad. Army, schooling, information, lawmaking, etc. is also massively abused by the same people who abuse money.

    In short, we live in lawlessness. And 99.99% of americans like it, as long as US is da boss.
    Let china become da boss and u’d hear screams and even demand US nuke those bastards that wld best america. tnx

  10. ZapRowsdower_ said on October 16th, 2010 at 11:57am #

    “If greater value is rewarded to those who wait, wouldn’t enough of us wait in order to receive the greater return, which would result in driving the rewards of waiting back down very close to actual cost, again resulting in equilibrium? After all, if economic laws are true, they must have the ability to be applied equally to all situations, regardless of what it tells us about the outcome and regardless of who ends up at the top of the pile.”

    The poor obviously won’t be investing much of their money because they use a much greater percentage of their income on daily survival. That’s the logic behind calling the sales tax regressive. They are much more likely to need to borrow money, thereby fueling demand for loans, and driving interest rates back up (see: payday loans).

    Above I also forgot to mention that interest/fees are applied to account for the inherent risk in loans/capital transfers that the recipient will default.

  11. gene said on October 16th, 2010 at 12:24pm #


    but, if it is better to have the capital at your own command, then why loan it out?

    all you have done is to “justify” interest, you haven’t made any point to prove “time preference”.

  12. ZapRowsdower_ said on October 16th, 2010 at 12:52pm #

    I have proved “time preference”, in showing why it is preferable to have money at your disposal now rather than loaned out to another party.

    As for why you would loan it out, there are manifold reasons. Perhaps you don’t see any opportunities to use the money for your own ventures in the immediate present. But that doesn’t mean that over the course of the loan that an opportunity won’t present itself, or that something won’t go wrong and the borrower will default. These risks manifest themselves as interest.

    Indeed, if interest did not exist, there would be no incentive to loan money because of the principle of “time preference” which I have already explained. Thus your question shows your intrinsic acceptance of the concept and grasp of the reason for interest.

    Further generalizing this using your free market principle, the supply and demand forces that you claim determine interest rates may be seen by the lender as presenting a better opportunity for profit than other uses of his capital. Of course interest rates are not entirely determined by the market due to government intervention, the role of large financial institutions, and laws against usury.

  13. ZapRowsdower_ said on October 16th, 2010 at 1:14pm #

    To drive home the point, think of the number of time sensitive payments you must make as a consumer. Bills, rent checks, etc. All require that you have enough money at a given time, and it doesn’t do you much if any good to have it at a date in the future when your power has been cut off or you’ve been evicted. Free transactions taking place there- if you don’t pay, the service stops being provided.

    Or consider emergency debts such as medical bills. Again, having money at your disposal in the present is crucial, as having it only after your possessions have been repossessed to pay the bill is obviously suboptimal.

  14. gene said on October 16th, 2010 at 2:40pm #

    yeah, I think we are agreeing, but here is where I am diverging.

    capital is loaned out because the interest that one might receive is a better alternative than holding on to the capital OR using the capital yourself. In other words, you come to the conclusion that you will be better off letting someone else have use of capital.

    capital is borrowed {in a truly free market} because the borrowing believes he can put that capital to a use that has a greater return than the interest charged.

    so, both parties have come to same conclusion about the same capital, that right now, it is best to either borrow or loan the same capital. one borrows, one loans. both in the present tense, although the contract will extend to the future.

    I am arguing that there can be no time preference, when both parties to a transaction are consenually doing exactly what they want in the present. no one is “putting off” anything. no one is “giving up” anything. they are both taking the “preferred” action now, not holding off for the future.

    I think the idea of time preference comes from the fixation on the “capital” side of the equation. really, the work is done by the borrower {or he is in big trouble down the road}. the borrower creates the “return”. if the return isn’t productive, interest siezes to exist {in a free market}. The creditor gives up capital trusting that he will be better off down the road than he would be if he kept the capital.

  15. gene said on October 16th, 2010 at 2:46pm #

    I am arguing that free market interest would be solely based on the ability of capital to produce a return for both parties and have nothing to do with the “time preference” logic which I don’t think is logical.

    The creditor is doing what “he prefers” right now, loaning capital. he has no better use for it or he would do that. His preference is for the present, just like the debtor.

  16. Deadbeat said on October 16th, 2010 at 5:21pm #

    gene writes …

    capital is borrowed {in a truly free market} because the borrow[er] believes he can put that capital to a use that has a greater return than the interest charged.

    I have to say that the conversation here is limited to the commodity fetish of money and the elevation on one particular human interaction — monetary exchange. These ideas are anachronistic and see humans are mere objects. There seems to be is no other parts of humanity that matters to both gene and Zap.

    Also gene ASSUME in the blurb sited, that the borrower and lender are equal parties when clearly they are not. The ability to charge interest itself is a form of power. In a HUMANE society there would be NO INTEREST whatsoever. Someone with surplus wouldn’t have a need for it and would gladly give back the surplus to the community.

    For example, if someone needs shelter and thus needed “capital” (resources) to build shelter. Once that’s done the borrower can now live in an abode free from the elements. What’s the point of having to pay that capital back with interest. The lender should be thrilled that he was able to help a fellow human being obtain shelter from the elements. In gratitude said “borrower” may assist his benefactor in other ways. However neither party is under any obligation to the other.

    And Zap argues that the borrower has a “right” to charge interest because he could have kept his capital for a “rainy” day. Such as paying for a health care emergency. Zap and gene are examples of the Capitalist indoctrination and coercion that they cannot think out side of the limitations of the money fetish.

    So on the one hand gene speaks idyllically of “free markets” and then introduces how and unequal relationship — interest — would work in this “free market” model. Like I said — there AIN’T no such thing as “free” market. There is however f[r]ee markets. And in gene’s scenario you can bet that the borrower will use whatever coercion available to get his money back with interest.

    What is obvious is that Capitalism is in a severe crisis and what is needed is to expose the flaws and contradictions of the Capitalist system. Trying to put lipstick on the pig of the discredited notion of “free” market just doesn’t cut it any more. What’s next, a return to Say’s Law?

    There is so much productive capacity that money interferes with human abilities to produce and distribute what is needed by everyone for everyone. The first step to freedom is getting rid of the idea of the commodity fetish — that money must be the means of exchange rather than people themselves being directly engaged.

  17. gene said on October 16th, 2010 at 7:24pm #


    If we have for our example, defined a “true” free market as free exchange that exists without force, what is the force or coercion you mention that the creditor would use to “get” his interest or to get his capital back?

    What is this “unequal” relationship that exists in a consenual exchange of capital without the use or threat of force, in which both parties partake of the exchange to better their situation?

    remember, both parties must refrain from any use of force or they are no longer operating within the parameters of a TRUE free market.