Sunday, August 10, 2008

Wicksteed Versus Marx

As far as I know, Philip Wicksteed was the first economist to oppose Marx's theory of value on the basis of the neoclassical or marginal theory. Does his essay, "The Marxian Theory of Value: Das Kapital: A Critique" even predate Böhm-Bawerk on this topic? Wicksteed's essay was published in the October 1884 issue of To-Day. Wicksteed, by the way, considered himself a socialist.

I find curious George Bernard Shaw's answer in the January issue. Shaw presented himself as calling for somebody better trained in mathematical economics to answer Wicksteed, not as answering Wicksteed himself:
"I have not the slightest intention here of defending Karl Marx against Mr. Wicksteed... I write partly to draw further attention to a controversy which seems to me of great interest because it is one on which Socialists, without at all ceasing to be Socialists, are sure to divide very soon; and partly because I wish to have a word with Mr. Wicksteed as to my own perplexities concerning 'final utility' before some more competent hand deals him the coup de grâce to which I have already alluded. Even were I economist enough to do that myself, I am not mathematician enough to confute Mr. Wicksteed by the Jevonian method. I somewhat mistrust mathematical symbols. I remember at school a plausible boy who used to prove to me by algebra that one equals two. He always began by saying, 'Let x equal a.' I saw no great harm in admitting that; and the proof followed with rigorous exactness. The effect was not to make me proceed habitually on the assumption that one equals two, but to impress upon me that there was a screw loose somewhere in the algebraic art, and a chance for me to set it right some day when I had time to look into the subject. And I feel bound to make the perhaps puerile confession that when I read Jevons's Theory of Political Economy, I no sooner glanced at the words 'let x signify the quantity of commodity,' than I thought of the plausible boy, and prepared myself for a theory of value based on algebraic proof that two and two make five." -- George Bernard Shaw
I fear many may react like this to mathematical arguments on practical matters.

(Wicksteed's critique, Shaw's response, and Wicksteed's rejoinder are all republished as an appendix to the second volume of the 1933 London School of Economics re-issue of Wicksteed's The Common Sense of Political Economy.)


Anonymous said...

Hi Robert,

I remember reading somewhere that Wicksteed 'converted' Shaw to marginalism. Not sure where I read this.

As for whether it predated Bohm-Bawerk: Since Vol III of Capital wasn't published until the 1890s I don't think Wicksteed could have predicted Marx's theory of price. Whereas B-B's critique was post-vol III. Haven't read Wicksteed but I imagine he assumes 'value' means 'relative price' for Marx?

Robert Vienneau said...

Yes, Wicksteed assumes Marx's theory of value is a theory of relative prices. Both Shaw and Wicksteed indicate that future publications of Marx's notes could cause a change in interpretation of the first volume of Capital.