Exploitation and Fact-Value Distinction

Justin Schwartz jschwart at freenet.columbus.oh.us
Mon Oct 31 21:06:01 MST 1994

On Mon, 31 Oct 1994, Hans Ehrbar wrote:

> I argued that a labor theory of value, according to which money is
> labor and not a symbol for past contributions in terms of use value,
> makes it easier to see exploitation than neoclassical theory because,
> and now I quote my earlier posting,
> >   from a neoclassical point of view, those with lots of money
> >   have this money because they have increased the level of utility
> >   of many other people;  they deserve therefore what they have,
> >   their income is society's reward for their services.
> Justin replied (typo corrected):

A small point, but it wasn't a typo. I meant "desert," the property of

> > "Deserve" is not a term of economics but of moral theory and about
> > it economists as such have nothing to say.
> In part I agree with you.  It is not a matter of who deserves what.
> It is a matter of understanding how this society ticks.  Perhaps I was
> not careful enough with my formulations, I was in a hurry.  it is my
> view that it will be easier to for people to see what is going on in
> this society if academic economists like myself would finally be able
> to debunk the myth that exploitation through market forces is a
> logical impossibility

But exploitation is also a moral term, implying some sort of wrongfulness.

 and could come up, say, with econometric proof
> that money represents labor.

Such a proof would not have the requisite moral implications.

> But I want to take issue with your appeal to the fact-value
> distinction.  Roy Bhaskar, in his Possibility of Naturalism, 2nd
> edition, p. 59, cites what he calls a "famous example" of Isaiah
> Berlin's.  Now I am quoting Bhaskar:

I'm not invoking any general fact-value distinction, although I think a
rough-and-ready one is necessary for clear thinking. My point was just
that the economist's notion of return to factors of contribution is not
itself morally loaded in a way that would support a claim that a
capitalist is morally entitled to profit because he owns productive assets
which, in the technical sense "contribute" to production. We need not
maintain that facts and values never meet, much less that (as seems to be
the point of the Bhashkar example, typically confused, I might add, that
we cannot make true statements about values) to say that the economists'
notion of contribution does not imply ethical deserving.

I would add, likewise, that a labor theory of value, even if true--I mean
even if a proof were forthcoming that money were labor, etc.--does not
itself have moral implications. It does not follow, for example, that
labor deserves or is entitled to all value even if labor created all value
and determined all prices. To get such a theory off the ground you need a
labor theory of _property entitlements_ of the sort defended by G.A. Cohen,
Locke, and Nozick.

The point: the way economics is morally loaded is very tricky and subtle.

> Compare the following accounts of what happened in Germany under Nazi
> rule: (alpha) `the country was depopulated'; (beta) `millions of
> people died'; (gamma) `millions of people were killed'; (delta)
> `millions of people were massacred'.  All four statements are true.
> But (delta) is not only the most evaluative, it is also the best (that
> is, the most precise and accurate) description of what actually
> happened.  And note that, in virtue of this, all but (delta) generate
> the wrong perlocutionary force.  For to say of someone that he died
> normally carries the presumption that he was NOT killed by human
> agency.  And to say that millions were killed does not imply that
> their deaths were part of a single organized campaign of brutal
> killing, as those under Nazi rule were.  ...  Now I want to argue
> that, even abstracting from perlocutionary considerations, criteria
> for the scientific adequacy of descriptions are such that in this kind
> of case only description (delta) is acceptable.
> In analogy with Bhaskar's example I want to argue here that the
> statement: `there are many rich people and many poor people in the
> United States' is misleading because it does not imply that the wealth
> of the rich comes from the exploitation of the working poor,
> exploitation in the sense that there is a very real transfer of
> something very real from that minority of the population who are
> productive laborers to that minority who control the means of
> production.  Everybody else in society suffers under this transfer,
> which by the way has not been instituted by the greed of the rich

So far so good.

> is a consequence of the inherent drive of value to expand itself,

To be shown, eh?

> i.e., it is the consequence of a social relation having obtained its
> own life and running amok.


  The agenda for socialism is to get control
> over our own social relations.

Yes, as far as possible and desirable.

--Justin Schwartz


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