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Economists are rightfully astonished when people act as if they’ve come up losers in almost every transaction they make. It’s often when they’re on the buying end, but here’s the paradox: almost all transactions are voluntary, a major exception being the coerced payment of taxes. There are few private transactions in which free choice is absent. A truly voluntary choice is an absolute proof of gain. In those trades, buyers reveal that they assign less value to choices not made, and foregone choices almost always exist, including the possibility of doing nothing. By their very nature, voluntary transactions are mutually beneficial. So why do people feel cheated so often?

Free To Lose?

Yes, we are free to choose and free to lose! But this isn’t about cases in which a product proves defective or quickly becomes obsolete. Nor is it about making a purchase only to learn of a discount later. Those are ex post events that might have been impossible to foresee. Here, I refer only to the decision made on the day and hour of the purchase, including any assessment of risk. 

A recent study confirmed a pervasive “loser’s” mentality in transactions: “Win–win denial: The psychological underpinnings of zero-sum thinking”, by Samuel B.G. Johnson, Jiewen Zhang, and Frank C. Keil. They also found that people judge the seller as the “winner” in most transactions. The authors considered a few explanations for these findings discussed in psychological literature, such as socially-ingrained mercantilist attitudes and a tendency to zero-sum thinking.

Roots of “Never-a-Buyer-Be” Phobia

Mercantilism was borne of zero-sum thinking — a belief in a hard limit to total wealth. Under those circumstances, accumulating gold or other hard assets was seen as preferable to spending on imports of goods from other nations. Imports meant gold had to be shipped out, but exports of goods brought it in. 

That uncompromising view led to efforts by government on behalf of domestic industries to stanch imports, and it ultimately led to decline. One nation cannot buy another’s goods indefinitely without corresponding flows of goods in the other direction. Nations gain from trade only by producing things in which they have a comparative advantage and selling them to others. In turn, they must purchase goods from others in which they do NOT have a comparative advantage. It’s cheaper that way! And it’s a win-win prescription for building worldwide wealth.

If You Gotta Have It…

People do have a tendency to regret money spent on things they reluctantly feel they must have. They suffer a kind of advance buyer’s remorse, but it stems from having to part with money, which represents all those other nice things one might have had, covering an infinite range of possibilities. This is the same fallacy inherent in mercantilism. The fact is, we purchase things we must have because they represent greater value than doing without. The phantom satisfaction of opportunities foregone are simply not large enough to keep us from doing the “right” thing in these situations.

The Contest For Surplus

There’s a more basic reason why people feel swindled after having engaged in mutually beneficial trade. The seller collects more revenue than marginal cost, and the buyer pays less than the item’s full “use value”. The latter is the buyer’s reservation price: the most they’d be willing to pay under the circumstances. The seller’s gain (over cost) plus the buyer’s gain (under reservation price) is the total “surplus” earned in the exchange. It’s the surplus that’s up for grabs, and both buyer and seller might view the exchange as a contest over its division. Competitive instincts and thrift being what they are, both sides want a larger share of the spoils!

So there truly is a sort of zero-sum game in play. You can try to bargain to capture more of the surplus, but not every seller will do so, often as a matter of policy or reputation. Or you can spend more time and incur greater personal cost by shopping around. Ultimately, if the offer you face is less than your “reservation price”, you’ll extract an absolute benefit from the exchange. Both you and the seller are better off than without it. You both do it voluntarily, and it’s mutually beneficial. Whatever the division of the surplus, you haven’t really lost anything, even if you have the gnawing feeling you might have been able to find a better bargain and captured more surplus.

Exceptions?

You might think the parties to a stock trade cannot both win. However, buyers and sellers have different reasons for making stock trades, which usually involve other needs and differing expectations. Ex ante, both sides of these trades earn a surplus, unless either the seller or buyer is at the losing end of a previous option trade now forcing them to buy or sell the stock.

There are other cases worthy of debate: buyers in monopolized or captive markets are unlikely to collect much of the surplus. Buyers at an informational disadvantage will gain less surplus as well, and they might incur greater risk to any gain whatsoever. Excise taxes allow government to capture some of the surplus, while government subsidies deliver “fake” surplus to the buyer and seller that comes at the expense of taxpayers. Now I feel cheated!

Beware Marxist Sympathies

Buyers and sellers both benefit by virtue of voluntary exchange. The gains might not be divided equally, but the false perception that buyers always get the “short end of the bargain” is a fundamental misunderstanding about how markets work. It also undermines support for basic freedoms allowing autonomous economic decisions and activity, and it strengthens the hand of statists who would fetter the operation of free markets. Like short-sighted mercantilists, those who would intervene in markets create obstacles to human cooperation and the creation of wealth. In fact, the idea that buyers are always cheated is a classist, Marxist notion. Policies acting upon that bias are rife with unintended consequences: small and large market interventions often strike at property rights, which ultimately inhibits the supply of goods and harms consumers. 

Note: This post also appears at The American Reveille.