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‘The’ Labor Theory of Value

Summary:
1.0 Introduction This post argues that there is more than one labor theory of value. 2.0 The Labor Theory of Property John Locke argued that what one mixes one labor with, one has a right to own. One could read Marx's Capital as a reductio ad absurdum of this labor theory of property. I disagree with this reading. 3.0 Labor Commanded as a Theory of Welfare Given a unit of money - one dollar or one british pound - the labor commanded by that money is the amount of person-years of labor you can hire with that money. This quantity of the labor is the reciprocal of the wage. The following quotation from Adam Smith, I assert, is NOT a statement of a theory of value: "The real price of everything, what everything really costs to the man who wants to acquire it, is the toil and trouble of

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1.0 Introduction

This post argues that there is more than one labor theory of value.

2.0 The Labor Theory of Property

John Locke argued that what one mixes one labor with, one has a right to own. One could read Marx's Capital as a reductio ad absurdum of this labor theory of property. I disagree with this reading.

3.0 Labor Commanded as a Theory of Welfare

Given a unit of money - one dollar or one british pound - the labor commanded by that money is the amount of person-years of labor you can hire with that money. This quantity of the labor is the reciprocal of the wage. The following quotation from Adam Smith, I assert, is NOT a statement of a theory of value:

"The real price of everything, what everything really costs to the man who wants to acquire it, is the toil and trouble of acquiring it. What everything is really worth to the man who has acquired it, and who wants to dispose of it or exchange it for something else, is the toil and trouble which it can save to himself, and which it can impose upon other people. What is bought with money or with goods is purchased by labour as much as what we acquire by the toil of our own body. That money or those goods indeed save us this toil. They contain the value of a certain quantity of labour which we exchange for what is supposed at the time to contain the value of an equal quantity. Labour was the first price, the original purchase-money that was paid for all things. It was not by gold or by silver, but by labour, that all the wealth of the world was originally purchased; and its value, to those who possess it, and who want to exchange it for some new productions, is precisely equal to the quantity of labour which it can enable them to purchase or command." -- Wealth of Nations, Book 1, Chapter 5: Of the real and nominal price of commodities, or their price in labour, and their price in money.

Smith is interested in a measure of wealth. The money price varies too much for this purpose. I do not recall why Smith rejects the price of corn, that is, the price for the most common food of the people. I think he finds it also quite variable.

4.0 Labor Embodied as Natural Prices

Adam Smith, however, does has a labor theory of value. He states:

"In that early and rude state of society which precedes both the accumulation of stock and the appropriation of land, the proportion between the quantities of labour necessary for acquiring different objects seems to be the only circumstance which can afford any rule for exchanging them for one another. If among a nation of hunters, for example, it usually costs twice the labour to kill a beaver which it does to kill a deer, one beaver should naturally exchange for or be worth two deer. It is natural that what is usually the produce of two days or two hours labour, should be worth double of what is usually the produce of one day's or one hour's labour." -- Wealth of Nations, Book 1, Chapter 6: Of the component parts of the price of commodities.

This labor theory of value only holds for an imaginary pre-historic society with no private property. Under capitalism, the labor commanded by a commodity exceeds the labor embodied in it, the latter being what is most commonly meant by the labor value of a commodity. One can read Smith as asserting that the profits on stock and the rent of land result from the exploitation of workers. Profits and rent are the result of value added by workers not paid out in wages.

5.0 The Ricardian Socialists

John Francis Bray, John Gray, Charles Hall, Thomas Hodgskin, 'Piercy Ravenstone', William Thompson, and others are known as the Ricardian socialists. Thompson (2002) argues that they drew more on Smith than Ricardo. Generally, they read Smith as explaining the returns to capital and land as a matter of exploitation and took the labor theory of value as a normative theory about what prices should be.

Accordingly, they advocated reforms to get rid of parasitical returns to capital and land. Some suggested the founding of banks that would issue labor notes. I think this idea was advocated not only so that the worker would get the full value of their product, but had something to do with abolishing the instability seen in economic crashes and business cycles. Some actually founded banks and volutary communities to implement these ideas. Nearby here, Ithaca has HOURs as labor notes. I have seen stores that say they accept them, but have never seen one.

Karl Marx rejected the claim that workers had a right to the whole product of their labor. This was a point that Marx raised against Ferdinand Lasalle, as well as against the Ricardian socialists.

6.0 Ricardo and a Simple Labor Theory of Value

Ricardo presented a simple labor theory of value as a descriptive theory of prices in a capitalist economy. He takes the distinction between market prices and 'natural' prices from Smith, ultimately, I guess, from William Petty. Market prices tend to and bob around natural prices, also known as prices of production. Suppose the whole distribution over time of the labor inputs used to manufacture two commodities is the same. Then the ratio of their prices of production will, indeed, be the ratio of their labor values.

But Ricardo immediately considers, in later parts of the first chapter of his Principles what happens when, say, the ratio of fixed capital and circulating capital varies among the methods with which commodities are produced. And he realizes that a simple labor theory of value cannot be exactly true. This is why Ricardo is sometimes described as having a 93 percent labor theory of value. He does not think land presents a fatal complication. One can calculate embodied labor values on marginal land that pays no rent. He searches for an 'invariable standard' which he ultimately decides is best approximated by a commodity of average capital intensity.

James Mill, Jane Marcet, John Ramsay McCulloch, Harriet Martineau, Robert Torrens, and J. S. Mill followed, popularized, and built on Ricardo Some have claimed that such followers of Ricardo had a confused understanding of Ricardo's theory of value.

7.0 Marx, a Simple Labor Theory of Value in Volume 1, and the Volume 3 Invariants

Marx was appreciative of Ricardo. But Marx says that Ricardo does not examine the value-form. Ricardo, according to Marx, does not analyze the preconditions of capitalism, for example, how it is that workers are available to be hired for money, how their labor-power is available on the market as a commodity.

Not only did Marx criticize Ricardo for ignoring the distinction between labor-power and labor. The labor value of labor is a meaningless phrase. Marx also argued that Ricardo was not able to abstract interest on money, profits on capital, and rent on land into the generalization of surplus value. Ricardo has a distinction between fixed and circulating capital, but cannot see Marx's distinction between constant and variable capital. So Ricardo has no notion of the organic composition of capital. Ricardo's theory of value and distribution, like Marx's does not need the imposition of Say's law. According to King (1983) precursors for all these notions can be found in the works of the Ricardian socialists.

Marx, in volume 1 of Capital, considers how labor must be distributed among industries to sustain production in a commodity-producing economy. He focuses on how surplus value is generated when labor-power is a commodity bought and sold on a labor market. For these purposes, he adopts a simple labor theory of value. Market prices tend towards ratios in the proportion of embodied labor values.

In volume 3, Marx depicts value as generated as in volume 1, but redistributed among industries. Prices of production are such that the same rate of profits is obtained in all industries. He asserts the rate of profits is the same in the value system and in the system of prices of production. Furthermore, total profits is supposedly equal to total surplus value, and total values are equal to total prices. These invariants hold in the production of a commodity of average organic composition of capital, in some sense.

In later chapters in Volume 3, Marx proceeds to an even lower level of abstraction. He considers different types of rent and financial capital.

8.0 Conclusion

These theories present opportunities for confusion and muddle, for talking past one another. Does Smith have a labor theory of value? Ricardo? Marx? Is a labor theory of value supposed to be a measure of wealth, a descriptive theory for prices in a capitalist economy, or a theory of economic planning in a post-capitalist society? And then, of course, some are ignorant and of bad faith. And those who have their own, but different, interpretations of the transformation problem, can get into honest argument.

References
  • J. E. King. 1983. Utopian or scientific? A reconsideration of the Ricardian Socialists. History of Political Economy 15(3): 345-373.
  • Anton Menger. 1899. The Right to the Whole Produce of Labour: The Origin and Development of the Theory of Labour's Claim to the Whole Product of Industry.
  • Noel W. Thompson. 2002. The People's Science: The Popular Political Economy of Exploitation and Crisis 1816-34. Cambridge University Press.

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