Thursday 8 May 2014

Gravitation: Mysticism or Metaphor?

Adam Smith (Wealth of Nations, book I, chapter VII, link):
"The natural price, therefore, is, as it were, the central price, to which the [market] prices of all commodities are continually gravitating. Different accidents may sometimes keep them suspended a good deal above it, and sometimes force them down even somewhat below it. But whatever may be the obstacles which hinder them from settling in this centre of repose and continuance, they are constantly tending towards it." (Emphasis added)
Observe the words emphasised. In that passage (and again a little later in that chapter) Smith describes relationships among those words: "market prices" fluctuate around a "natural price", which acts as a "centre of repose and continuance" towards which market prices "gravitate". Smith means that market prices are volatile and sometimes exceed, as if "suspended", these central prices; sometimes, they can fall "below" them; but as long as the central price remains unchanged, market prices tend to be distributed around it.

(Note the word "accidents".)

That doesn't sound particularly mystical, to me; more like a metaphor. More importantly, that seems to be the prevailing view among history of economic thought scholars. Prof. David Andrews (Economics, SUNY Oswego):
"Adam Smith's 'natural price' has long been interpreted as a 'normal price' or 'centre of gravitation price' based on the famous gravitation metaphor of the Wealth of Nations I, VII". (link)


Observe now this second passage:
"All the different kinds of private labour … are continually being reduced to the quantitative proportions in which society requires them. The reason for this reduction is that in the midst of the accidental and ever-fluctuating exchange relations between the products, the labour-time socially necessary to produce them asserts itself as a regulative law of nature. In the same way, the law of gravity asserts itself when a person's house collapses on top of him. The determination of the magnitude of value by labour-time is therefore a secret hidden under the apparent movements in the relative values of commodities." (Emphasis added)
Again, note the words emphasised. Like Smith, the author seems to describe relationships between those words: "labour-time socially necessary" in the second passage plays the same role "natural price" and "central price" played in the first; "different kinds of private labour" and "market prices" are analogous, too: there is a central, more stable magnitude around which a volatile magnitude fluctuates at random.

Both authors speak of accidents and gravity: accidents explain the difference between the "different kinds of private labour" and the "socially necessary labour time", as it explains that between "market prices" and "central prices"; if the former temporarily exceed the latter (if they are "suspended"), gravity forces them "down even somewhat below it", like a "person's house collapses [as if by gravity] on top of him".

(Incidentally, note that neither author uses the term "labour theory of value".)

Although both texts are received very differently, I find them strikingly similar. In fact, the greatest difference among them, the one determining how they are received, is that Karl Marx wrote the second passage.

Therefore it seems logical to conclude that is not the text, but its author's identity, which explains the comment below, where Marx's statement about socially necessary labour times magically transmutates [uh oh, there we go again :-)] into a statement about the labour theory of value:
"To assert that the labour theory of value is a 'regulative law of nature' analogous to the law of gravity makes a bold and astonishing claim: the labour theory is like a universally true natural law that inheres in the nature of the universe itself.
"But, at the same time, some expositors of Marx claim that Marx only intended the labour theory of value to be a historically contingent 'law' of the capitalist mode of production."
Talk about "astonishing claims". 

Anyway, somehow, the author concludes from the above that:
"Why is it a 'secret hidden,' as if only the true believer can recognise it and fathom its profundity?
"One rapidly comes to suspect that the labour theory of value verges on something mystical."
If you, like me, feel perplexed, you will have to ask the author, because for the life of me, I have no idea what this all means.


I've written before about that: here and here. Hopefully I am mistaken, but something tells me this won't be the last time.

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