There are plenty of contemporary economic concepts that make no sense—or, worse, serve only to obscure legitimate concepts. “Externalities” is one, an illegitimate concept that serves only to delegitimize a necessary one, in this case: property rights. (Other equally illegitimate cousins of this anti-concept include “stakeholder theory”—the idea that that a business owes its community, rather then the other way around, and whether anyone in the community has contributed to the business’s success or not—and the phony “free-rider problem” are other related examples of equally shoddy package deals.)
“Opportunity cost” is equally nonsensical.
One of the most common notions in economics, “opportunity cost” is [in Larry Sechrest’s formulation]
the idea that the cost one must bear when making choices is appropriately measured by the value to the actor of what he or she gives up. If A and B are ranked first and second, respectively, on one’s value scale, then the cost of choosing A is said to be B, the next best alternative.
But once one observes that this is a ‘B’ one hasn’t even got, one realises that this is a cost that hasn’t, and won’t, be paid—and we end up treating what is not even a potential loss as a real one. Which leads to the realisation that “opportunity costs” are an exercise in unreality.
To see how foolish this anti-concept is, just imagine I’m evaluating my year’s share trading. In January, let’s imagine I considered plunging heavily on two hypothetical stocks, one of which rose to $20 and one of which rose to $30. If I had bought the first and remained uninformed about “opportunity costs,” I would be under the “illusion” I had made a profit. Yet if I had read the latest textbooks, I would be made “aware” that instead I’d made a dreadful loss, and rather than uncorking champagne I should instead contemplate throwing myself off the nearest tall building!
The absurdity is real. The”loss” is not. Neither is the concept of “opportunity cost.” Says Reisman, those who insist that the doctrine of opportunity cost is valid
confuse the alternative opportunities whose competition in bidding gives rise to the money costs with the phenomenon of cost itself, and thereafter ignore the necessity of a money outlay actually being present. In other words, they....confuse the cause with the effect.
And the potential with the actual.
So stop worrying about a non-existent cost, or “you can wind up needlessly worrying about money that you never made.”