NOTE: I am not going to go through the different meanings of “value” and the equivocation that STV supporters use when they equate economic value with moral value/subjective value/preference. Go to my earlier entry for more on that topic.
It seems to me like there is a vast gap in knowledge regarding the LTV (labour theory of value) and STV (subjective theory of value) arguments. Many “ancaps” still argue at the most simplistic level, like “well, value is a combination of our subjective evaluations and that’s all it is” or “if LTV was right, then you could spend days making something useless and sell it at a high price.” On the other hand, many libsocs are disinclined to attack STV or don’t understand what is or is not STV.
This is why I have decided to write an entry about the arguments against STV, in order to try to heighten the level of discourse and force “ancaps” to defend at a more sophisticated level (I know, hope springs eternal).
First, I want to address the so-called “hybrids” of STV and LTV which have been proposed by some mutualists, including Kevin Carson. Carson’s own theory, which he describes as such in chapter 2 of Studies in Mutualist Political Economy:
A producer will continue to bring his goods to market only if he receives a price necessary, in his subjective evaluation, to compensate him for the disutility involved in producing them. And he will be unable to charge a price greater than this necessary amount, for a very long time, if market entry is free and supply is elastic, because competitors will enter the field until price equals the disutility of producing the final increment of the commodity.
Such statements require no verification beyond an a priori understanding of human nature.
Whether one agrees or not with Carson’s theory is not the point here. My problem is with people who jump to the conclusion that Carson, the main figure of modern mutualism, supports STV because his theory has the word “subjective” in it. There are plenty of philosophical theories that have the word “subjective” in them, but that doesn’t mean they all support STV! Likewise, the fact that Carson believes that only a freed market can calculate disutility does not make his theory a support of STV either.
If STV is valid, then it is valid regardless of the economic system it is applied within. Because mutualist thought, especially as exemplified by Kevin Carson, explicitly acknowledges the profound injustice in every individual’s starting conditions and the way in which our economic system sets them up, it is not compatible with STV.
At any rate, the word “subjective” is very clumsy and unnecessary, and I prefer to clarify my ideas by using the more specific word “personal.” That being said, the existence of personal preferences (the “subjective” realm) is a trivial truth and does not in itself prove the validity of something as abstract as a theory of value. It is true regardless of what theory of value one adopts.
As I’ve pointed out many times (including in the libsoc FAQ), the concept of personal preference is of no use when evaluating innate worth. The former is tied to the individual, while the latter is tied to the object. Personal preference can tell us nothing about anything outside of the individual’s preferences, and therefore cannot tell us the worth of any product or service, only what the individual thinks it is worth.
Bizarrely, when confronted with this fact, proponents of STV reply that their theory admits of no such distinction, as if any theory could make any sense at all when it fails to make the distinction between one’s preferences and how things really are!
All in all, proponents of STV have the unfortunate tendency to argue like madmen. First they claim that reality is whatever they desire, and that this fact is self-obvious. Then, when pushed, they claim that there is in fact no difference at all between reality and their desires, that they are one and the same thing. Then, when pushed further, they deny the existence of reality altogether. They are far away from sanity.
Since their only arguments are circular arguments (STV is correct because that’s the way things work now, therefore STV is correct), it’s no wonder that many of them don’t even try to argue. Here is a somewhat extreme case, from one of Kevin Carson’s blog posts:
The economic value of a good or service is what someone thinks it is (people often put different values on the the same object). This is true BY DEFINITION (it is not a matter that needs to be “proved”).
A strange statement. If it’s true “by definition,” then why has it not been true for centuries? A definition that doesn’t apply most of the time is not a very good definition. Once again, it’s merely a circular argument formulated as a fact: economic value is based on desires because that’s what actually happens in our world, which is based on the premise that economic value is based on desires. There is no conclusion to be reached from such pablum.
It also highlights the fantasy nature of STV. Reality is not “what someone thinks it is.” In fact, economic value is not even determined by “what someone thinks it is” even in our own system. It’s determined by what corporations think they are, and what corporations indoctrinate us to believe that they are. There is both an asymmetry of power which prevents “fair subjectivity” (i.e. the economic value is not actually the equal confluence of desires) and an indoctrination process (marketing) which prevents “true subjectivity” (i.e. the economic value is not actually about what people desire, but what other agents condition them to desire).
The natural consequence of this belief in fantasy is that our economic reality is full of contradictions and absurdities: the exact same product varying wildly in price from one location to the next (and even in the same location, as in “brand name” products compared to “store brand” products), “luxury” items that cost ten times more than their counterparts despite being made of the same materials and requiring roughly as much labor, one hour’s work being worth 100 times someone else’s hour of work… we intuitively know that all these things are absurd, and it requires a lot of schooling and indoctrination to defeat such common sense.