Brad DeLong on Marxism and Exploitation of Workers

This is a Brad Delong recently received this email:

From: "XXXX"
To: delong@econ.Berkeley.EDU
Subject: Communism
Date: Mon, 4 Apr 2005 14:22:30 -0700
Thread-Index: AcU5XGg0e/rUmG6pRfqAi7kFYayhrA==

I was wondering if I could borrow some of your insights on Economics.... I have taken Transitional Economics and have a healthy background (for an undergrad) of the “Economics of Shortage” and decision making under socialist constraints.

However, reading Das Kapital and other things, I am seeing a different interpretation of how an item is valued, and the value of labor verses what I have been taught in traditional classes and I need more understanding. What is the “value” of a product, or of labor? Marx argues that exploitation in capitalism is structural, because the basis of making a “good deal” is paying someone four dollars for something worth five. To be a capitalist means you have to exploit the true value of their labor for what you’re willing to pay them for it.

I was hoping to get your insights into how products and labor are valued, and what you think of exploitation in capitalism. Any help you can provide would be greatly appreciated, even if it is a referral to other books or anything. Thank you in advance.


He answers the email by way of this example (click on the link for the whole thing). He concludes:

...Marx's labor-theory-of-value-schema makes no distinctions between profits on capital that have their origins in luck, theft, and choosing the right parents on the one hand; and profits on capital that have their origins in sacrifice, industriousness, or flashes of genius on the other. They are all, to Marx, "exploitation," "unjust enrichment," "extraction of surplus value." They are all, to Marx, signs of evil. But in this particular example the proprietors are, in reality, not evil. The proprietors are, in reality, public benefactors. The effect of their savings and investment is to raise not just their own incomes (after an extended period of sacrifice) but everyone else's incomes as well.

Thus the labor theory of value category of "exploitation" does not map onto what either ordinary language or our moral intuitions call "exploitation."
definitely worth a read.