Saturday, August 12, 2006

Wikipedian Edit War Over Labor Theory Of Value

This last week has seen an edit war over the Wikipedia Entry On The Labor Theory Of Value (LTV). The warriors are one "Cplot" and "Economizer". I helped write an earlier entry. It was not me, however, who introduced the link to my LTV FAQ. The ostensive issue in this argument is how the first paragraph of the entry should define the LTV.

I don't have a decided opinion on either side in this controversy. Economizer does cite the first sentence in my FAQ. On the other hand, Economizer cites only published literature almost half a century old. I'm grateful to have Donald Gordon's 1959 AER article, "What Was the Labor Theory of Value?" brought to my attention. Cplot is correct that this article could be cited on either side of the issue. It draws on what was recent work by Stigler at the time. Sraffa only appears in a footnote as an editor of Ricardo's collected works.

Cplot is correct in noting that some use the word value to mean the labor embodied in a commodity, with no claim that this quantity is proportional to prices. And one is incorrect to hold both of the following simultaneously:
  • The LTV is the theory that prices tend to be proportional to quantities of embodied labor
  • Marx and the major classical economists believed in the LTV
Cplot might acknowledge, though, that some thought the LTV was a useful simplification. I can see the point, if you want to argue about how central the LTV is to Marx, not to define the theory as a person of straw that Marx explicitly repudiated.

I think the point of the LTV is not to explain prices. It can be used to emphasize:
  • The division of labor, not only within a factory, but among all industries or sectors of an economy
  • Some of the conditions for smooth reproduction of an economy
  • The claim that the source of the returns to capital and land is value added by labor not paid out to workers.
The technical name for the latter claim, that workers are not fully renumerated for their value-added, is exploitation. Marx seemed to be proud of his introduction of the distinction between "labor" and "labor power" in articulating this theory.

The Wikipedia entry on LTV illustrates an issue with Wikipedia. I have seen how this entry is always being changed, sometimes drastically. It will never approach a steady state.

Update (18 August): For general, mostly negative, comments on Wikipedia, listen to Jason Scott's talk, "The Great Failure of Wikipedia".


Anonymous said...

What happened to Jack Upland? He used to police that entry pretty well and keep all kinds of nonsense out (though he had a strong anti-corn-theory-of-value bias, and was slightly annoying when editing articles on other subjects - like Marginalism - outside his expertise)

Robert Vienneau said...

I never got the feel that Jack Upland understood all the technical details of the transformation problem. As far as I am concerned, almost all of the changes to that entry since Jim Devine’s work are noise.

Highly technical entries are problematic in Wikipedia. Look at the history of the entry on the transformation problem. Contrast this old version with this more recent one. I think the older version doesn’t give enough credit to the “New Interpretation” and the “Temporal Single System” approach, but I’m not the one to write about this recent work.

Another issue arises with hypertext and related entries. “Economizer” just put in a link to Cost of production, which asserts, incorrectly, that most classical economics subscribe to a labor theory of price. If you can get one entry correct, you still have lots of work to get related entries correct.

Related entries seem to allow wikipedians opportunity to put in their own idiosyncratic views, without having to account for others. Why should (not-well) linked entries exist for all of Neoclassical economics, supply and demand, marginalism, and the subjective theoryof value?

I am not a registered Wikipedia user, and my access to the Internet randomizes my IP. I wrote a good portion of the original entry on neoclassical economics. (I did not put in the references to Keen’s views which Radek recently eliminated.) I also rewrote at one point the entry for General Equilibrium. Radek and I have been arguing about this entry for the last year. I do not think he accepts (not only) my view that the theory has reached a cul-de-sac. I think the section headings he has added have much improved the article.

Anonymous said...

You're right about the transformation problem page, but I always thought the LTV page didn't need to be as technical.

And it appears you're RLV, makes sense. Anyway, I don't know if I'd call it an argument. I definetly think the Mandler/indeterminacy stuff belongs in there. I think the Georgescu-Roegen stuff is more obscure but I don't have a problem with it being there (unlike some other folks judging by the talk page). I really wish there was more stuff on more up to date research, incomplete markets etc. but I'm reluctant to do anything about it since it's not really my area of expertise.
Also - and this is a frequent stylistic problem on Wiki - because the article is a hodge podge of contributions from a number of folks it reads really quadrophenic. The tone changes from para to para and sentence to sentence. One of these days need to sit down and rewrite the whole damn thing.

Anonymous said...

Its flattering to see the dispute on Wikipedia's LTV page spill over into your blog. I would certainly acknowledge, as you suggest, that the equating of values to prices is a useful and often used simplification. This has been disucssed on the articles's associated discussion page here. As I said there, I think its similar to when neoclassicals use horizontal demand curves to suggest that a firm is so small it cannot effect the price off a commodity. Clearly the neoclassical economists do not mean to redefine calculus to say that if you take an infinitessimal infinitessimal, the slope of a currve will become zero. Rather they want to simplify things and look at the firm without worrying about how the firm may effects the markeets around it. However, what Economizer is doing would be akin to writing an aritlce that lambastes neoclassical for their invention of a new calculus. Though Economizer may have the support of a majority of readers who have neoclassical leaning thoughts so Economizer somehow looks sane doing something similar with the LTV.

Again thanks for taking notice. (Cplot)

Robert Vienneau said...

Thanks for the comment Cplot. There's so much to object to in that LTV article. Menger and Knight don't have an argument in the criticism section.

But Bortkiewicz did have a criticism, and he does not appear.

Rather than try to modify that entry, I went in and rewrote the cost of production entry.