O N   T H E   M E A S U R E   O F   V A L U E   P R O P O S E D   B Y  

MR.   M A L T H U S .


AFTER the conclusions established in the preceding chapter, it would be a superfluous task to examine the various measures of value which may have been imagined or proposed by different economists. As that, nevertheless, which has been recently advocated by Mr. Malthus, and which was originally brought forward by Adam Smith, has attracted some attention, it may deserve a cursory notice.

This measure is labour, considered as an exchangeable commodity, or, in other words, the labour which commodities command: and proceeding on the false principle, that a measure of value must be itself immutable in [140] value, Mr. Malthus maintains that the value of labour is invariable.

The discussions in which we have already been engaged, furnish a variety of methods in which the errors of this doctrine may be exposed.

It has been shown, for example, that the value of labour, like that of any other exchangeable article, is denoted by the quantity of some other commodity for which a definite portion of it will exchange, and must rise or fall as that quantity becomes greater or smaller, these phrases being in truth only different expressions of the same event. Hence, unless labour always exchanges for the same quantity of other things, its value cannot be invariable; and consequently, the very supposition of its being at one and the same time invariable, and capable of measuring the variations of other commodities, involves a direct contradiction.

It has also been shown, that to term any thing immutable in value, amidst the fluctuations, of other things, implies that its value at [141] another time, without reference to any other commodity; which is absurd, value denoting a relation between two things at the same time: and it has likewise been shown, that in no sense could an object of invariable value, if attainable, be of any peculiar service in the capacity of a measure.

These considerations are quite sufficient to overturn the claims of the proposed measure, as maintained by its advocate, but it may be inquired, bow far would it be useful in the sense of a medium of comparison. In order to satisfy this inquiry, let us suppose a simple case. I wish to know, for instance, the mutual value of corn and cloth in the year 1600 ; and in the ordinary way I find, that corn was 6s. a bushel and cloth 12s. a yard, and I thence perceive, that a bushel of corn was worth half a yard of cloth. This appears to be the only information wanted; but this is using money as the medium of comparison; and to apply Mr. Malthus's measure, we must find the value of corn and cloth in relation to labour. Of this, however, I probably shall find no record, and there-[142]fore the measure proposed cannot be used. I may find, it is true, the prices of labour, corn, and cloth : I then may proceed to calculate the value of a yard of cloth and a bushel of corn in labour; and their separate relations to labour will show their relation to each other : but this I have already learned from their prices or separate relations to money. Their value in labour, therefore, is perfectly superfluous towards ascertaining their mutual relation, consequently labour in this case is perfectly useless as a measure of value.

The way in which Mr. Malthus attempts to establish the invariable value of labour is remarkable enough, and his table, drawn up with that view, is certainly one of the most curious productions in the whole range of political economy*.

In the first column he supposes certain quantities of corn to be produced by ten men, [143] according to the varying fertility of the soil. In the second column he states the yearly corn wages of each labourer, determined by the demand and supply. The first case supposes the yearly wages of a labourer to be 12 quarters, the last only 8 quarters ; in other words, the value of labour in relation to corn is in the first case 12 quarters, and in the last 8. Hence it is obvious, that to prove the invariable value of labour, he begins by supposing it to be variable; singular premises, certainly, from which to deduce such a conclusion. And the process of deduction is no less singular. Taking the first case, he proceeds thus: If 1 man obtain 12 quarters per annum for wages, 10 men will obtain 120 quarters, and as the whole product of these 10 men is 150 quarters, profits will be 25 per cent. Now as 150 quarters are the product of 10 men, 120 quarters must be produced by 8 men, and the profits being equal to the labour of 2 men, the value of the whole 120 quarters is 10. But 10 what? Evidently 10 men's labour : that is, in other words, the quantity of corn [144] given to 10 men for their labour, is equal in value to the labour of ten men, which is just equivalent to saying, that the number of shillings which any one gives for a yard of cloth, is equal in value to the yard of cloth for which the shillings are exchanged! In a word, Mr. Malthus sets out from the premises, that 120 quarters of corn are given as wages to 10 men, and, after journeying through two columns of figures, be arrives at the conclusion, that the said 120 quarters are worth the labour for which they are given. In the same manner he goes through all the other cases, and as whatever quantity of corn is given to 10 men as their wages must be equal in value to that for which it is exchanged, that is, to the labour of 10 men, he constantly succeeds in alighting at the point from which he set out. Having accomplished thus much, he appears to proceed as follows: “If I give a commodity, which is as valuable at one time as at another, for another commodity at each of these periods, that other commodity must be equally constant in value. Now the wages of [145] 10 men having been proved to be as valuable at one time as at another, the value of the labour for which they are exchanged must be also constant.” By wages he means the aggregate quantity of corn; and howhas he shown these wages to be of invariable value? He has shown them to be invariable, estimated in labour: his argument consequently is, that because the wages of ten men are always of the same value, estimated in labour, therefore the labour for which they are exchanged must be of invariable value.

In the same way any article might be proved to be of invariable value; for instance, 10 yards of cloth. For whether we gave 5 or 10 for the 10 yards, the sum given would always be equal in value to the cloth for which it was paid, or, in other words, of invariable value in relation to cloth. But that which is given for a thing of invariable value, must itself be invariable, whence the 10 yards of cloth must be of invariable value.

It is scarcely necessary to expose the futility [146] of reasoning like this. Instead of proving labour to be of immutable value, it proves the reverse. An alteration in the mutual value of two articles means, that the quantities in which they are exchanged for each other are altered: a definite quantity of one is exchanged for a greater or smaller portion of the other than before. Now the only commodities in question, in Mr. Malthus's table, are corn and labour; and if, as he supposes, the labour of 10 men is at one time rewarded with 120 quarters of corn, and at another time with only 80 quarters, the only condition required for an alteration of value is fulfilled, and labour, instead of being invariable, has fallen one-third.

The fallacy lies in virtually considering or speaking of wages, as if they were a commodity; while, as the term is used by Mr. Malthus, it really implies an aggregate quantity of corn, in the same way as the term sum implies an aggregate quantity of money; and it is just the same kind of futility to call wages invariable in value, because though variable in quantity [147] they command the same portion of labour, as to call the sum given for a hat, of invariable value, because, although sometimes more and sometimes less, it always purchases the hat. In speaking of the rise and fall in value of commodities, we have nothing to do with aggregate quantities which really vary in amount, and have no identity but in name; our business is with definite portions: and the precise reason why the labour in one case, and the hat in the other, are not of invariable value, is, that the quantities of corn and of money given for them have varied, although these quantities under every variation continue to be designated by the terms “wages,” and “sum.”

It is true enough, that if a commodity exchanges at one time for 10 men's labour, and at another time for the same, it has not altered in value to labour : both the commodity and the labour have been constant in value to each other; but as wages are not a commodity, as in Mr. Malthus's nomenclature they signify an aggregate quantity of corn, if this aggregate [148] quantity, given for a definite portion of labour, is sometimes larger and sometimes smaller, the corn of which the aggregate is composed varies accordingly in value in relation to the labour for which it is given, and the labour varies in value in relation to the corn.

From these remarks the reader will perceive, that Mr. Malthus's “Table illustrating the invariable value of labour,” absolutely proves nothing. It exhibits merely the results of a few simple operations in arithmetic, as a slight inspection of the annexed copy will show. Column 1 contains the quantities of corn produced, according to the varying fertility of the soil, by the yearly labour of 10 men, which quantities are assumed, and not deduced from other data. The second column exhibits the quantities of corn given yearly to each labourer, and these quantities are also assumed, not deduced. Column 3 contains the quantities of corn given yearly to 10 men, obtained by multiplying the quantities in column 2 by the number 10. Column 4 shows the rate of profit, or how much [149] per cent. the quantities of corn in column I exceed the corresponding quantities in column 3 ; or, in other words, how much per cent. the quantities of coin produced by 10 men exceed the quantities given to 10 men for their labour. Column 5 exhibits the quantities of labour, or number of men required to produce the quantities of corn in the third column, obtained by a simple operation in the rule of three: if 10 men produce 150 quarters, how many will be required to produce 120?

Column 6 shows the profits estimated in labour, after the rate in the fourth column; or, what is the same thing, it shows the quantities of labour which the quantities of corn in column 3 will command, over and above what produced them. Column 7 contains the quantities of labour commanded by the corn in column 3, and is nothing but a repetition of what was before told us in the third column: for we are there informed, that the quantities of corn enumerated, severally commanded the yearly labour of 10 men, and in this seventh column there [150] are fourteen distinct reiterations of the same piece of information. Column 8 is merely another enumeration of results obtained by simple operations in the rule of three. It shows the quantities of labour which 100 quarters of corn would command, at the different rates according to which labour is rewarded in the third column.

Column 9 is a similar enumeration of results, obtained in the same manner, and exhibits the quantity of labour which the products of the labour of 10 men in column 1 would respectively command, or the value of those aggregate quantities estimated in labour.

This cursory review evinces, that the formidable array of figures in the table yields not a single new or important truth; and that the seventh column, which was intended to afford the grand result of this tabular argument, exhibits merely a constant repetition of one of the assumptions on which the whole is built*.