Labour, Scarcity and Techniques of Production

Value – is of utmost importance to all paradigms in Economics (Neo-classical, Classical Political Economy, Austrian Economics, Marxian Economics, etc) because the theory of value is the fundamental proposition or the foundation on which subsequent theories are built. Therefore, it is crucial to understand the various theories of value.

The problem of value has different features. The aim could be to find the source of value, a standard of value for inter-temporal comparisons between and across countries and determination of exchange values in theoretical problems.

Through an example pertaining to ‘value’, this post tries to bring out the distinction between the Neo-classical and Classical paradigm in terms of the source of value. As students of economics, all of us have come across the Diamond-Water paradox. This paradox is a commonplace in economic literature, even before Adam Smith. This is how Smith refers to the paradox:

The things which have the greatest value in use have frequently little or no value in exchange; and, on the contrary, those which have the greatest value in exchange have frequently little or no value in use. Nothing is more useful than water: but it will purchase scarce anything; scarce anything can be held in exchange for it. A diamond, on the contrary, has scarce any value in use; but a very great quantity of other goods may frequently be had in exchange for it.

For the classical economists, value of a commodity means the value in exchange. And prices of commodities are believed to reflect its ‘value’. Value in exchange is determined by the conditions of reproduction of the economic system. The economic system is one where a number of firms using labour, land and capital (machinery, tools, etc), produce commodities (goods produced with the intention of selling them) by using commodities produced by the economic system (the firms within it). The conditions of reproduction would include the technology available (which would tells us in what proportions the labour and capital need to be mixed; in neo classical terminology, it would give a fixed proportions production function) Moreover, the classical economists did not consider value in use as a measurable quantity.

Before the ‘marginalist revolution’, utility had an objective sense as the capacity of a good to satisfy some need, and not as the subjective evaluation on the part of one or more individuals. It is worth noting that, in a capitalist economy a good or service is produced only because it can be sold. According to Marx, it is commodity production which forms the fundamental tenet of Capitalism. So, any commodity in a capitalistic economy does have utility. To clarify my argument, let me modify the definition of a commodity. A commodity is a good or service which is produced or offered only because it has a use value. Rather, it can be put for sale only if it has utility for someone or the other. The market does not produce commodities which has no demand or that which has no use/utility for any one.

Thus, it is clear that in a capitalistic economy (all economics theories, namely neoclassical, classical and Marxian tried to understand the working of a capitalist mode of production) the proposition that a commodity has a use value is a truism. So, because all commodities had a use value which they believed could not be measured, the value of a commodity was seen as the exchange value of it.

Since, labour was considered to occupy a central position in the economy, Adam Smith put forth the view that ‘labour commanded’ could be used as a standard to measure exchange value. In Marx, it takes the form of ‘labour embodied’ which then gives rise to the labour theory of value. For Marx, it is labour which provides value to the commodity by engaging in the production of that particular commodity.

Thus when the paradox is viewed through the classical and Marxian lens, it seems as if the paradox is only an illusion. The production of diamond is a costly affair and thereby requires a lot of labour (in today’s world, a lot of capital as well) due to which the value (exchange value) of diamond is high and thereby it commands a high price. More the labour needed for producing a commodity, more will be its value. So, because of the higher production costs, diamond is priced high.

For the neoclassical economists, the price of a commodity is determined by its marginal utility. Marginal utility is based on a subjective theory of value. Let me put forth two snippets from neoclassical economics as to how the paradox is resolved.

The more there is of a commodity, the less the relative desirability of its last little unit becomes, even though its total usefulness grows as we get more of the commodity. So, it is obvious why a large amount of water has a low price.” – Paul Samuleson, the first American to receive a Nobel Prize in Economics.

In the blogosphere, I came across this piece from Michael Stastny, who blogs at Mahalnobis.

A better answer to the paradox why diamonds are more expensive than water would be that since water is so plentyful, the marginal utility (= the derivative of U(x) with respect to x, i.e. (approx.) the extra satisfaction of wants and needs obtained from consuming one additional unit of good) of water is is relatively low. An extra liter of water provides very little additional satisfaction. To the contrast, diamonds are very scarce and the marginal utility is therefor relatively high.

The study of economics is aimed at discovering the laws prevailing in the economic sphere. This helps in understanding the inter relationships within an economy. This further helps in policy purposes, by trying to increase investment rates, saving rates, GDP, etc.

The reasons provided for the paradox above assume that prices of commodities arise from their scarcity. Capitalism ensures a constant supply of the commodities which have utility (objective or subjective). It is to understand how prices come about, that economists theorize on values. For neoclassical economics, prices are indices of scarcity.

Let me illustrate the ignorance of neoclassical economics with an example. In a functioning economy, suppose an inventor discovers/invents a new product/commodity – say a vehicle that runs on air. So, at this point of time, there is only one firm supplying this commodity. It is extremely scarce and according to neoclassical theory, it is rational for the producer to sell the first vehicle at any price because it has the highest value by being the sole product in the market.

So, when the first vehicle is on sale, the demand outstrips the supply. According to the neoclassical theories, the capitalist can ask for a higher price in such circumstances. I conclude by asking: is that how commodities are priced? Are such prices ethical? Isn’t it the techniques of production along with the wage rate and profit rate that governs the prices of commodities?

References

1) The Wealth of Ideas: A History of Economic Thought, Alessandro Roncaglia, 2005.

2) Das Kapital, Volume 1, Karl Marx.

3) Economics, 11th edition, Paul A Samuelson, 1980.

2 thoughts on “Labour, Scarcity and Techniques of Production

  1. ‘In a functioning economy, suppose an inventor discovers/invents a new product/commodity – say a vehicle that runs on air.’

    alex,

    a vehicle that runs on air is not a new product. it’s a new line in an old, broad category, i.e., motorized vehicles. the consumer would apply the same old rules to measure its utilty.

    the technology could be useful to industrial buyers who wish to produce more vehicles of the same kind. so, the first buyer would be willing to pay a high price because of the value the technology would command.

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