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Ricardo's and Malthus's common error in their conflicting theories of the value of labour

Meacci, Ferdinando (2014): Ricardo's and Malthus's common error in their conflicting theories of the value of labour.

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ABSTRACT The controversies between Ricardo and Malthus reached a new peak when Malthus published his pamphlet The Measure of Value Stated and Illustrated and Ricardo responded by his critical Notes on Malthus’s ‘Measure of Value’ (1823 [1992]) and by a further round of correspondence with Malthus (Works, IX). The new (and final) stage of these controversies was concerned with the two authors’ conflicting theories of value and, within these theories, with the excruciating issue of the invariable measure of value. Starting from some insights provided by Malthus and Ricardo in their major or final contributions, this paper deals with a rather neglected component of their controversies, i.e. with the theory of the value of labour as distinct from the value of its products. This will be done by highlighting two sets of ambiguities which affect both Ricardo’s and Malthus’s arguments. One of these hinges on the ambiguity conveyed by the word labour in so far as this reflects the three different concepts of labour power, living labour and dead labour. The other set hinges on the different ambiguity conveyed by the word value especially when it comes to the value of labour. For this word was used in those controversies (as well as in other parts of classical theory) to convey not only the two elementary concepts of use-value and exchangeable-value but also, within the former concept, the two further concepts of the (positive) use-value of labour from the standpoint of its employer, and of the (negative) use-value (disutility) of labour from the standpoint of the labourer. The latter is the sense in which Smith’s ambiguous notion of the “value of labour to the labourer” and his related corollary of the constant “price” of labour (WN, I,V,7-8) must be understood if his system of thought (including its crucial notion of value as labour command) is to stand against Malthus’s misleading attempt to protect it from Ricardo’s criticisms. In this sense, Malthus’s attempt and Ricardo’s criticisms may be jointly regarded as a result of their common error of understanding the value of labour exclusively in the sense of its exchangeable value (which is rightly regarded by Ricardo as –normally- varying and wrongly assumed in Malthus’s Measure of Value as –strangely- constant).

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