Natural Value (1889)

by Friedrich von Wieser (1851-1926)

Book III: The Natural Imputation of the Return from Production

Chapter III
The Socialist Reading of the Problem. The Claim of the Labourer to the Entire Return

NV-III-3.1 The socialist theory so greatly limits the circle of those things which may be counted as means of production that the problem of imputation is also sensibly narrowed.
NV-III-3.2 Socialists do not recognise three productive factors, land, capital, and labour: they acknowledge only a single productive power, Labour. Only human labour, they say, is creative; it alone can really produce. Of course, to be effective, it requires land and capital, but these hold a subordinate position to labour, and act merely as auxiliary means of production. But in the existing order of things, landowners and capitalists – as having exclusive possession of the material auxiliary means of production – are placed in a position to force the labourer to give up to them a great part of the product of labour, as it is only on this condition that they will lend their property and allow labour to use it. By reason of this, land and capital have become sources of personal income for the idle classes, but unjustly so; and it would be a great error to infer the fact of productive power from that of income. When the owners refuse to grant to labour the use of these auxiliaries, they place obstacles in the way of labour, as Rodbertus [Online editor’s note: socialist economist Karl Johann Rodbertus, 1805-1875. – RTL] says; when they do grant this use, they do nothing more than merely remove the obstruction they have themselves created; they simply withdraw their own arbitrary fiat. It is always the labourer who must produce. Land and capital are only conditions, not causes of production. All return is exclusively labour-return.
NV-III-3.3 As a matter of fact Rodbertus is perfectly right when he says that no conclusion can be drawn from personal income to material return. The problem of distribution of return must be entirely separated from that of distribution of income, if it is to be judged of correctly. But if the problem is to be entirely separated, it must also be so in its application. Let us then leave the personal quarrel entirely out of consideration. Let us completely disregard the question as to what persons should have the products; and, without regard to consequences, simply apply ourselves to find out which factors are to thank for their production, and to which factors they should be imputed. Let us imagine to ourselves the communistic state as seeking for the natural laws of imputation. Here the entire product falls to the enjoyment of the labouring commonwealth. The question then is: – Does it therefore consider the whole product as a result of its labour, or does it also impute the product to its possession of land and capital?
NV-III-3.4 Clearly this will depend on the standpoint from which the imputation is calculated. If it is the moral imputation that is in question, then certainly no one but the labourer could be named. Land and capital have no merit that they bring forth fruit; they are dead tools in the hand of man; and the man is responsible for the use he makes of them. Evidently all those who, in any sort of way, have assisted in bringing about the result, are counted among the labourers, – those who direct as well as those who carry out. Indeed, there is no possible doubt that the greatest thanks are not due to mechanical exertions, if we are speaking of imputation in the highest sense of the word. Above these must stand the services of those who direct the executant labourer; who not only supply him with ideas, organisation, and energy, but also procure for him the materials for labour, contrive the machinery, and bring together the labourers who are to work with him. Compared with potencies such as these, the executant labourer himself takes the same position as the material means of production do as compared with himself. Morally considered, things are auxiliaries to him, but he himself is the auxiliary of his leader.
NV-III-3.5 This moral imputation may be important for the personal disposition of income; for the material division of return, of which alone we are now speaking, it is of no consequence. The question here is: On what factors are we practically dependent if the return is to be obtained? Every one who knows economic life as it is, will answer quite plainly: Upon labour and productive wealth. Increase of possession raises the return just as surely as does additional industry. No one feels that the return is dependent upon those production goods of nature which are as abundant as the atom of air floating above the field, or the trees in a primeval forest. But every one feels that the return is dependent upon all goods which, however abundant they may be, are yet scarce; those goods which one economises and tries to multiply. Where would not such possessions have value? And if they have value why is it, if not on account of the return, and according to the amount of the return, which they secure? So long as men consider themselves rich in possessing land and capital, so long do they prove that they impute to them a portion of the fruits which they assist in bringing forth, and so long do they attribute to labour only the remainder of the total return. The socialist who wishes to see his state as rich in property as possible, confutes thereby as completely as possible his own theory, that labour alone makes rich.1
NV-III-3.6 All means of production in which value is recognised, are recognized thereby as practically influential causes of production. To these means of production land and capital will belong, so long as they are not available in ever-assured superfluity. No one can seriously doubt this. The only thing that can be doubted is whether it be just and advantageous for society to permit the existence of private and individual property in land and capital, whereby the return from land and capital is transferred exclusively to single individuals. On this question it is not so easy to come to a decision, and so far as we have gone we have not made any, nor even tried to do so. We have only explained the material relation between products and means of production, without in any way anticipating the ranking of personal claims.

NV-III-3.n1.1 1 We shall find further on (Book V. chap. x.), in the socialist theory itself, a much clearer confession that labour is not the only factor in the formation of value. See also Book III. chap. xvii.

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