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What Is a Material Good?

By Osmand Vitez
Updated May 16, 2024
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A material good is an item that consumers can purchase, sell, or trade for other items. The study of these goods is common in economic theory or philosophy. Many theories exist that determine the value of a material good. For example, classical economists believe goods have a value placed on them by the use an individual receives from owning them. Marxist economic theory states a good’s value comes from the labor it takes to convert raw materials into a valued item.

Classical economic theory describes goods from the value or use a consumer receives from the item. In historical times, a medium was necessary to purchase or trade different goods in an economy. A consumer with a farm could trade corn to a consumer who grew cotton. In this scenario, each material good has a value to the other, as individually, each individual only grows one item. Trading goods allows each individual the ability to improve their livelihoods without growing the item themselves.

Unfortunately, consistently trading one material good for others eventually weakens their value. When everyone in an economy has corn, the good’s value drops precipitously. Therefore, individuals look for a good that has value that provides a medium of exchange, which constantly has value to all individuals at all times. Historically, gold became this medium. This good was valuable to all individuals, allowing the corn grower to trade corn for gold and then trade the gold for cotton or other items, meeting the individual’s needs.

Under this classic economic theory, each individual has the ability to place a value on each material good in the economy. Trades, purchases, or sales only occur when each individual believes the goods in the transaction are of equal value. Hence, a good’s value is only determinable by an individual consumer. A market for goods will eventually arise, with one individual selling goods at a value deemed by most individuals in the economy. Each material good in the economy falls under this theory until a good has no value or use by individuals in the economy.

Contrary theories place a different value on material goods. Marxist theory attempts to value a good by the labor it takes to produce the item. The corn grower, for example, would price his goods based on his work to produce it in society. While many classical economists believe in a labor theory of value, Marxist theory takes it to a level beyond the personal level. The socially acceptable labor needed to produce goods places a price at the societal level in addition to the personal level of labor to produce a material good.

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Discussion Comments

By browncoat — On Feb 09, 2015

@Ana1234 - I think that's going to lead to the next step in material goods, which will be when 3D printers become ubiquitous in homes and we all get our stuff in the form of designs to print or special materials to use for printing.

I'm hoping this will mean people will be able to recycle more easily as well. I imagine that it would be something like, deciding you want a new lamp, so you just melt down the old one and put it through the printer to give it a new shape.

Of course, if this becomes a reality it's going to mean that our entire current economic system will basically collapse. The social impact will go far beyond just the way we purchase and use products. But I think it could be a very good thing for the world in the long run.

By Ana1234 — On Feb 08, 2015

@clintflint - One thing you might want to try is to ask for virtual presents rather than "real ones". I've done that a couple of times when I was about to move around a holiday and it seems to work well.

That's the nice thing about the internet and computers in general. You can give people music or books or movies or vouchers without even having to get them a piece of paper.

By clintflint — On Feb 08, 2015

I think we all spend too much time and too many resources on material goods. I know that's not exactly a revolutionary thing to say, but it bears repeating. I try to keep my possessions down to a minimum and I still end up with all kinds of junk that I don't need and will never use. A lot of it seems to be the kind of thing that you can't even really give away because no one wants it.

This particularly seems to come from presents, because for some reason my family tends to give ornaments and decorative things as gifts rather than trying for something practical.

And I don't feel like I can give away things that have been given to me as gifts either, even if I don't particularly like them. They end up stuffed in a corner somewhere, growing dusty.

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