Proudon on… the labour theory of value.

How many nails is a pair of shoes worth?

If we can solve this appalling problem, we shall have the key of the social system for which humanity has been searching for six thousand years. In the presence of this problem, the economist recoils confused; the peasant who can neither read nor write replies without hesitation: “As many as can be made in the same time, and with the same expense.”

The absolute value of a thing, then, is its cost in time and expense. How much is a diamond worth which costs only the labor of picking it up? — Nothing; it is not a product of man. How much will it be worth when cut and mounted? — The time and expense which it has cost the laborer. Why, then, is it sold at so high a price? — Because men are not free. Society must regulate the exchange and distribution of the rarest things, as it does that of the most common ones, in such a way that each may share in the enjoyment of them. What, then, is that value which is based upon opinion? — Delusion, injustice, and robbery.

By this rule, it is easy to reconcile every body. If the mean term, which we are searching for, between an infinite value and no value at all is expressed in the case of every product, by the amount of time and expense which the product cost, a poem which has cost its author thirty years of labor and an outlay of ten thousand francs in journeys, books, &c., must be paid for by the ordinary wages received by a laborer during thirty years, plus ten thousand francs indemnity for expense incurred. Suppose the whole amount to be fifty thousand francs; if the society which gets the benefit of the production include a million of men, my share of the debt is five centimes.

This gives rise to a few observations.

1. The same product, at different times and in different places, may cost more or less of time and outlay; in this view, it is true that value is a variable quantity. But this variation is not that of the economists, who place in their list of the causes of the variation of values, not only the means of production, but taste, caprice, fashion, and opinion. In short, the true value of a thing is invariable in its algebraic expression, although it may vary in its monetary expression.

2. The price of every product in demand should be its cost in time and outlay — neither more nor less: every product not in demand is a loss to the producer — a commercial non-value.

3. The ignorance of the principle of evaluation, and the difficulty under many circumstances of applying it, is the source of commercial fraud, and one of the most potent causes of the inequality of fortunes.

4. To reward certain industries and pay for certain products, a society is needed which corresponds in size with the rarity of talents, the costliness of the products, and the variety of the arts and sciences. If, for example, a society of fifty farmers can support a schoolmaster, it requires one hundred for a shoemaker, one hundred and fifty for a blacksmith, two hundred for a tailor, &c. If the number of farmers rises to one thousand, ten thousand, one hundred thousand, &c., as fast as their number increases, that of the functionaries which are earliest required must increase in the same proportion; so that the highest functions become possible only in the most powerful societies. That is the peculiar feature of capacities; the character of genius, the seal of its glory, cannot arise and develop itself, except in the bosom of a great nation. But this physiological condition, necessary to the existence of genius, adds nothing to its social rights: far from that, — the delay in its appearance proves that, in economical and civil affairs, the loftiest intelligence must submit to the equality of possessions; an equality which is anterior to it, and of which it constitutes the crown.

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