Natural Value (1889)

by Friedrich von Wieser (1851-1926)

Book IV: The Natural Value of Land, Capital, and Labour

Chapter X
The Value of Labour

NV-IV-10.1 To his master the slave is a capital, and his value, like that of an animal, a machine, or any piece of fixed capital, is determined by summing up and discounting all the services which may be expected from him, or, as we may say, by capitalising his net return.
NV-IV-10.2 The capital value of free labour, the value of the free labourer, is no object for valuation, any more than his person is an object of economical disposal, or a “good.” On the other hand, the individual acts of labour are always objects of economical disposal, and so objects of value, even in the freest community, – even in a community where the labourer himself governs and makes the laws. No economy could be conducted without men recognising not only which labour, in general, is the best and which the worst, but which, in the circumstances, is the more and which the less important, which must be used sparingly and which may be used with most freedom.
NV-IV-10.3 The method by which labour is valued is exceedingly simple. The ordinary principles of imputation decide what share of the return may be ascribed to each individual service, and the value of this share obtains directly as the value of the service which produces it. Thus every kind and quality of labour shows a different result according to the available supply, the demand, the support revived from complementary goods, and the technical possibilities. At the top of the tree stand the “monopoly” services, when the general economic conditions of the time aid them with technical support and general demand; at the bottom stand the over-congested branches of labour, particularly unskilled manual labour. Wherever labour power is available in great quantity it is valued as a “cost-good,” and suffers from all the disadvantages of this valuation. The marginal employment is always the decisive one, – that employment of the labour in question which brings the smallest result economically permissible.
NV-IV-10.4 The socialists would have us believe that the value of every kind of labour should be estimated simply according to time; that is to say, the duration of the service should alone decide its value relative to other labour, – which assumes, of course, that slovenly labour is reduced to earnest labour, unskilled to skilled labour. This is the extent to which the quality of the labour would be taken into consideration, but no further. Those differences of quality which reside in the task set before the labourer are left quite out of consideration. Common manual labour, higher artisan labour, superior mental labour, are all to be regarded as equal. Does it require any special proof that this is contrary to the natural laws of valuation, and that no economy could last which treated its division of labour in this way?
NV-IV-10.5 The socialists continually overlook the fact – although, indeed, they only follow in the footsteps of most of the economists – that value, in our present condition of society, has two services to perform. The one is to act as title to personal income. In the great round game of income-winning, every one is to receive in the end as much as the value of his stake amounts to; and in the game the stakes may be wealth as well as personal labour. The man who has much wealth to stake receives, as a rule, much income, even without personal labour, and the man who has little wealth to stake, as a rule receives little, even with the most strenuous expenditure of labour.
NV-IV-10.6 The other service of value, – and one usually quite overlooked, – concerns the economical balancing or weighing of goods against goods, and of employment of goods against employment, without regard to distribution among persons, and simply with a view to reach the greatest possible economic results. To this service of value belong e.g. those principles which are absolutely indispensable to any economy; – that every production should be directed so as to obtain the greatest possible return, that no more be spent upon any product than can be made good by its value, that in consumption the good suited to satisfy urgent wants, and therefore the more valuable, should not be spent on a trifling satisfaction, that, generally speaking, the limits of supply and demand, as given in marginal value, should be observed, and so on.
NV-IV-10.7 What would the socialists have? They wish a related economy, in no way worse, and possibly better regulated than that of to-day; but with this peculiarity that labour shall be the only source of personal income. The value of land and capital – or the value of the rents of land and capital – shall no longer be imputed to any individual as his outlay or stake; shall no longer serve any one individual as a title to personal income. Is there in this claim – the justice of which we shall not here discuss – any force which can abrogate the economical service of value as well as the personal service? Because land and capital are no longer to belong to individuals but to the state, must they therefore be regarded by the state as valueless, and be employed in production without regard to the principles of value? Because labour is to be the only basis of personal income – measured possibly by the length of time which each man has worked – is labour alone to be considered in production, and is the only measure of its value to be its duration? Because there is to be a new order in the distribution of goods among persons, must there be a complete disorganisation in the whole industrial conduct of goods?
NV-IV-10.8 Of course socialists are very far from desiring such a result. They wish to have a regulated economy, but they expect at the same time to secure that goods are used and employed according to their usefulness. Does this mean that the usefulness of goods is really the only thing to be considered – not quantity and its changes, not demand with its rise and fall, not the mutual connection of means of production, with all the vicissitudes of favourable and unfavourable coincidence? But if usefulness, supply, demand, complementarity are combined, what is this but to value goods according to the utility imputable to them in the given case, instead of according to their general usefulness – in other words, to estimate them according to their value?
NV-IV-10.9 The natural principles of valuation are indispensable, because they serve indispensable economic purposes. Consequently where these principles are observed, they serve these purposes, and are, in so far, good. In so far as exchange value corresponds with natural value, it is right that it should regulate the economic conduct and disposal of goods, and that in every department, whether as regards land, capital, or even labour. And although the labourer may suffer severely under this law of value, although society generally may suffer with him, although the recompense of the labourer may require to be adjusted, in his own interest and that of society, by a different law; – still labour cannot be valued according to any other law where its employment is concerned. When it comes to employ labour, the communistic state must retain the same law in force, or its economy will become chaos.
NV-IV-10.10 Not only the question of payment, but, beyond that, the question of labour in the future, must be kept distinct from its employment. Wherever common labour power is disproportionally abundant, it can, and must, be employed only in producing returns of very trifling value. None the less will it be regarded as an evil that there should be available labour power of such trifling productive capacity, and all efforts towards increasing the services of labour and thus securing it a higher value, are worthy of praise; all the more so if the small capacity brings a small payment, and thus results, over wide circles of workers, in insufficient satisfactions of wants and wretched conditions.

Previous section         Next section

Up to table of contents

Back to online library