It’s a very nice thing to be a businessman who earns a profit through his efficiency in using scarce resources to serve customers. Nice, because profit, in the strict economic sense, is something for which consumers pay without its costing them anything. Profit accrues to the efficient producer who manages to cut costs; it is taken out of costs, not something added to the price. Prices in a free market, with freely competing buyers and sellers, are determined by supply and demand. And a given market price may afford one or more sellers a handsome profit while other sellers may be taking a loss. It depends on the efficiency of the seller as to whether he makes a profit; it doesn’t cost the buyer anything.
So much for the economics of profit. But that isn’t the point of this story. The point is that in today’s mail were two laments that "business must make a profit" — from entirely opposite views.
One was a businessman’s contention that he was entitled to a fair profit in order to acquire the capital to stay in business — so he could continue to pay high taxes, among other things. True, he’s entitled to all the profit the market price will afford him, which means that he will have been more efficient than some of his competitors in that field. If consumers are not willing to pay a price that yields a given supplier a profit, then he’s free to cut his costs or go out of business or whatever; but he’s not entitled to a profit unless he earns it in open competition. And if he earns a profit, it’s no one else’s business whether he uses it to increase his capital investment, or to pay his taxes, or to support his church, or to keep up with the Joneses.
The other lament that "business must make a profit" came from a misguided socialist who seemed to think that meant "the government could do it cheaper." He couldn’t know, of course, unless his so-called government exercised no powers of coercion and behaved as just another competitor in the market. In that case, assuming a strong market demand, any supplier who could "do it cheaper" would thereby earn a profit. So what really perturbs the social planner is that businessmen will not attempt to do things that are unprofitable. In that case, if it’s going to be done at all, the government will have to force someone to do it — which only seems to be cheaper than paying free market prices for the scarce resources used in the process. Another word, more descriptive of that governmental process, is w-a-s-t-e — just plain waste!
And that’s the story. Profit is a fine and honorable reward for efficient service — and no wicked and slothful servant is entitled to it.