Labor and Subjective Value

Shawn Wilbur


Debates about anarchist economics would probably be frustrating and difficult under the best of circumstances, but the truth is that we steer well clear of even relatively good circumstances much of the time, returning again and again to a few debates which, in practice, can’t be resolved because they are merely symptoms of hardened, irreconcilable presuppositions, but which, under those elusive “best of circumstances” might well turn out to be no big deal—and may be at least a very different deal than our disagreements seem to suppose.

Take the standard attack on mutualists for their adherence to the labor theory of value (usually identified as “the discredited labor theory of value.”) Now, there are certainly circumstances in which it might be useful to explore the fine point of a number of Austrian or marginalist theories of price, cost or value, or to engage closely with the niceties of the Marxian notion of “socially necessary abstract labor time,” or to look at the potential in/compatibilities between them. Approached with a sufficiently open mind, and enough patience and rigor, there’s a lot of a certain kind of fun to be had. But let’s be honest: that is not what is going on in the vast majority of cases where “the LTV” and “the STV” are opposed, and subjective valuation is opposed to an “objective” or “inherent” theory of labor valuation.

I would happily go out on a limb and say that most of the time anarchists and libertarians tilt over the questions of “subjective” vs. “labor/objective/inherent” value, the debate is really being driven by almost everything but some basic divide in approaches to valuation. We know, after all, that hour-for-hour, labor-for-labor exchange was theorized, and practiced, on a pretty thoroughly subjectivized model, in Josiah Warren’s experiments in “equitable commerce,” as early as the 1820s. Of course, Warren did not subscribe to a theory in which some “objective” quantity of labor literally “inheres” in a product, and more than he believed that value is just subjective—but this just means that he was like just about every other specific individual who has embraced some fleshed-out theory of value.

Let’s look at the most inflexible form of labor-valuation: a simple hour-for-hour labor exchange, without even any consideration of the “intensity” of a given hour’s labor. Is there no subjective-value defense possible for this sort of system? Surely, our time is a non-renewable resource subject to individual valuation—upon which we are each individually likely to place a fairly high value, however incommensurable our individual valuations may ultimately be, and how little we may value other people’s time. The sort of conclusions this leads us to regarding value in exchange will necessarily depend on other factors, and particularly on where we choose to focus our attention. If we are solely concerned with our “toil and trouble” as producers there is certainly no reason to value others’ time and toil as more valuable than our own. And if we are inclined to think of production primarily as individual expression, rather than as a prelude to exchange, our approach might be radically individualist and thoroughly subjective, and still bring us to a point where, forced by social limitations on that expression-production, we might well still champion a direct exchange of time. Indeed, starting from that basis (and either Stirner or Fourier might well lead us there), the most convincing arguments against hour-for-hour exchange would almost certainly depend on some appeal to the objective inequality of the products of those hours. But that would involve several shifts: a move from an emphasis on production to an emphasis on exchange and consumption, the introduction of objective criteria of comparison, and a shift in emphasis from individual motives and values to function within the market.

If we stick close to the specific question of approaches to valuation, it seems to me that perhaps things look rather different than is generally assumed.

Now, this particular insight only takes us so far, before we are forced to deal with all of the other factors which are really driving the “STV vs. LTV” debates: notions of property, profit, incentive, human nature in general, and, perhaps most importantly, that thorny issue of the “right of increase.” But we’re certainly more likely to do those questions justice if we focus on them directly, instead of by proxy, in debates about valuation which may ultimately obscure more than they illuminate.

The value of STV and LTV often becomes a mess virtue ethics, making a stay on course a hard task.

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