Posts Tagged ‘machinery’


Sunday, June 2nd, 2013

The Gold Spot is a regular feature in which Mark Rogers excerpts a passage from his reading as the Text for the Day and then comments on it.

Extracts from ON THE PRINCIPLES OF POLITICAL ECONOMY AND TAXATION by David Ricardo, from the collected Works and Correspondence edited by Piero Sraffa with the collaboration of M.H. Dobb, published for The Economic Society by Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1951

Adam Smith, after most ably showing the insufficiency of a variable medium, such as gold and silver, for the purpose of determining the varying value of other things, has himself, by fixing on corn or labour, chosen a medium no less variable.

Gold and silver are no doubt subject to fluctuations, from the discovery of new and more abundant mines; but such discoveries are rare, and their effects, though powerful, are limited to periods of comparatively short duration. They are subject also to fluctuation, from improvements in the skill and machinery with which the mines may be worked; as in consequence of such improvements, a greater quantity may be obtained with the same labour. They are further subject to fluctuation from the decreasing produce of the mines, after they have yielded a supply to the world, for a succession of ages. But from which of these sources of fluctuation is corn exempted? [Chapter I On Value, Section I]

It has therefore been justly observed, that however honestly the coin of a country may conform to its standard, money made of gold and silver is still liable to fluctuations in value, not only accidental and temporary, but to permanent and natural variations, the same manner as other commodities.

By the discovery of America and the rich mines in which it abounds, a very great effect was produced on the natural price of the precious metals. This effect is by many supposed not yet to have terminated. It is probable, however, that all the effects on the value of the metals, resulting from the discovery of America, have long ceased; and if any fall has of late years taken place in their value, it is to be attributed to improvements in the mode of working the mines.

From whatever cause it may have proceeded, the effect has been so slow and gradual, that little practical inconvenience has been felt from gold and silver being the general medium in which the value of all other things is estimated. Though undoubtedly a variable measure of value, there is probably no commodity subject to fewer variations. This and the other advantages which these metals possess, such as their hardness, their malleability, their divisibility, and many more, have justly secured the preference every where given to them, as a standard for the money of civilized countries.

If equal quantities of labour, with equal quantities of fixed capital, could at all times obtain, from that mine which paid no rent, equal quantities of gold, gold would be as nearly an invariable measure of value, as we could in the nature of things possess. The quantity indeed would enlarge with the demand, but it value would be invariable, and it would be eminently well calculated to measure the varying value of all other things. I have already in a former part of this work considered gold as endowed with this uniformity […] In speaking therefore of varying price, the variation will be always considered as being in the commodity, and never in the medium in which it is estimated. [Chapter III On the Rent of Mines]

Comment: Apart from the importance Ricardo attached to machines cropping up in this discussion (his famous Chapter XXXI On Machinery), the interesting thing to note in these passages is that the argument with Adam Smith about sources of value devolves on gold as having the least variability when compared to other possible sources. Smith laid so much stress on corn, partly because it is a staple foodstuff and people must eat, and partly because the labour used to plant and harvest it was an easily quantifiable volume of work; Smith’s theory of value ultimately depended on labour, because the fact, the necessity of labour is an everyday constant.

Ricardo took exception to both corn and labour as measures of value, because the fact that both are necessary does not therefore bar them from continual accident and misfortune: exceptionally bad weather before a harvest destroys not only the crop but the need for labour at all, and has almost the same complete effect should bad weather occur during the harvest. The resulting famine may cause seed prices for next year’s crop to go up. That people must work for a living may be a constant, but their ability to work at any given time is contingent. Similarly, improvements in machinery may have a longer term effect on labour even as these improvements increase the harvest in a good year.

Therefore, these cannot be units of measurement of value: they fluctuate, or are capable of fluctuating too wildly.

The subject was to crop up again in Ricardo’s “Notes on Malthus”, where he takes issue with the gloomy Mr Malthus’s misreading of the points Ricardo makes above, in particular Malthus’s overlooking the qualifications about gold being “nearly an invariable measure of value” and his consequent assumption that Ricardo meant that as things stood, here and now, gold was such a measure. Indeed, Ricardo gets so hot under the collar in pointing out to Malthus that he had not been so simple as to claim this that he practically reverses himself as expressed above, almost implying that gold has no such intrinsic virtue! But indeed, he was quite cross with Mr Malthus all round; he did, in correspondence, express himself as being even less pleased with Malthus’s book on his second reading than he had been on first reading it, his further disgruntlement with Malthus leading to the “Notes”.

What is important about Ricardo’s quarrel with Adam Smith is that it is a very early rebuttal of the notion of labour as the source of value, and an equally important claim for precious metals as that source, as being the closest thing we are ever likely to possess for the purpose. That this claim is hedged with qualifications demonstrates two things: a prudent mind, and, secondly, that the major and long term experiments with paper money lay, of course, well in the future, i.e. the Twentieth Century. What Ricardo was doing was to estimate which of all possible sources of value, supposing such a measure to be desirable (and he concludes that it is), would best serve. There are obvious attractions in Adam Smith’s approach: it is practical, deals in vital constants of human action, and is empirical. But in the end it is insufficient. There is a discussion of paper currency in Ricardo’s book but it is fairly narrowly focused, as the experience of it in his day was narrowly focused, primarily on its promissory nature in terms of specie. Nothing like what we have experienced in the Twentieth Century was available to the political economists of the Eighteenth Century.

Nowadays, while accommodating the arguments to prudence as is always desirable, a stronger case for gold as “nearly an invariable measure of value” can and must be made because the realities foisted upon us by the advocates and practitioners of paper have been so dire.

For the raison d’être of these articles on read: GOLDCOIN.ORG: MIXING POLITICS AND NUMISMATICS

For background on the writer: CONFESSIONS OF A LAW AND ORDER ANARCHIST

For a series of articles on the pernicious effects of progressive tax regimes: THE MORAL DILEMMA AT THE HEART OF TAXATION

For a review of one of the most important books on the financial crisis published last year: THE MESS WE’RE IN: WHY POLITICIANS CAN’T FIX FINANCIAL CRISES