Saturday, November 22, 2008

Ricardo On Profits

Sraffa started a controversy on the interpretation of Ricardo's theory of value and distribution. Or perhaps Hollander did in his reaction against Sraffa.

In Sraffa's view, important developments in Ricardo's understanding happened the year before Ricardo's 1815 publication of "An Essay on the Influence of a low Price of Corn on the Profits of Stock". A fortiori, these developments precede the 1817 first edition of On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation.

Hutches Trower, in his 2 March 1814 letter to Ricardo, states he is returning Ricardo's now lost "papers on the profits of Capital". Ricardo's response is important evidence for Sraffa's interpretation. Here is Ricardo's letter in full:
Upper Brook Street
8th March 1814

Dear Trower

I called at your house yesterday; I wished to tell you that though well disposed to enter into the defence of my opinions, I was now so much occupied by business, that I could not devote the necessary time to it. Not having found you at home I must tell you so by “these present”. At the same time I must observe that what I feared, I believe, has happened. To one not aware of the whole difference between Mr. Malthus and me, the papers you read were not clear, and I think you have not entirely made out the subject in dispute.

Without entering further into the question I will endeavor to state the question itself. When Capital increases in a country, and the means of employing Capital already exists, or increases, in the same proportion, the rate of interest and of profits will not fall.

Interest rises only when the means of employment for Capital bears a greater proportion than before to the Capital itself, and falls when the Capital bears a greater proportion to the arena, as Mr. Malthus has called it, for its employment. On these points I believe we are all agreed, but I contend that the arena for the employment of new Capital cannot increase in any country in the same or greater proportion than the Capital itself, [footnote:] the following to be inserted: unless Capital be withdrawn from the land [end footnote] unless there be improvements in husbandry, - or new facilities be offered for the introduction of food from foreign countries; - that in short it is the profits of the farmer which regulate the profits of all other trades, - and as the profits of the farmer must necessarily decrease with every augmentation of Capital employed on the land, provided no improvements be at the same time made in husbandry, all other profits must diminish and therefore the rate of interest must fall. To this proposition Mr. Malthus does not agree. He thinks that the arena for the employment of Capital may increase, and consequently profits and interest may rise, altho' there should be no new facilities, either by importation, or improved tillage, for the production of food; - that the profits of the farmer no more regulate the profits of other trades, than the profits of other trades regulate the profits of the farmer, and consequently if new markets are discovered, in which we can obtain a greater quantity of foreign commodities in exchange for our commodities, than before the discovery of such markets, profits will increase and interest will rise.

In such a state of things the rate of interest would rise as well as the profits of the farmer, he thinks even if more Capital were employed on the land. Do you understand?

Nothing, I say, can increase the profits permanently on trade, with the same or an increased Capital, but a really cheaper mode of obtaining food. A cheaper mode of obtaining food will undoubtedly increase profits says Mr. Malthus but there are many other circumstances which may also increase profits with an increase of Capital. The discovery of a new market where there will be a great demand for our manufactures is one.

Believe me
Yrs very faithfully
David Ricardo

I have written this in great haste after devoting the necessary time to my accounts. You must excuse the scrawl, and corrections.

For Sraffa, Ricardo can be understood as claiming that wages are spent entirely on corn and that corn is the only basic commodity in the system. Sraffa defines "basic commodities" in his book. According to this interpretation, the rate of profits is a physical ratio in agriculture. The prices of manufactured commodities adjust, under the Classical understanding of supply and demand, until this same rate of profit prevails, both in agriculture and in manufacturing.

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