Front Page Titles (by Subject) 523.: ricardo to malthus3 - The Works and Correspondence of David Ricardo, Vol. 9 Letters 1821-1823
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523.: ricardo to malthus3 - David Ricardo, The Works and Correspondence of David Ricardo, Vol. 9 Letters 1821-1823 
The Works and Correspondence of David Ricardo, ed. Piero Sraffa with the Collaboration of M.H. Dobb (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2005). Vol. 9 Letters 1821-1823.
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First published by Cambridge University Press in 1951. Copyright 1951, 1952, 1955, 1973 by the Royal Economic Society. This edition of The Works and Correspondence of David Ricardo is published by Liberty Fund, Inc., under license from the Royal Economic Society.
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ricardo to malthus3
London 29 Aprl. 1823
My Dear Malthus
After the most attentive consideration which I can give to your book,4 I cannot agree with you in considering labour, in the sense in which you use it,5 as a good measure of value. Neither can I discover, exactly, what connexion the constant labour necessary to produce the wages and profits on a commodity, has with its value. If it be a good measure for one commodity, it must be for all commodities, and as well as valuing wheat by the constant quantity of labour necessary to produce the particular quantity given to the workman, together with the profit of the farmer on that particular quantity, I might value cloth or any other thing by the same rule.
I know indeed that I might make out a table precisely such as yours,1 in which the only alteration would be the word cloth, instead of the word wheat, and you would probably then ask me whether your principle were not of universal application. I should answer that it contains in it that radical objection, which you make, against the proposed measure of your opponents. You may, if you please, arbitrarily select labour as a measure of value, and explain all the science of Political Economy by it, in the same way as any other man might select gold, or any other commodity, but you can no more connect it with a principle, or shew its invariability, than he could. Let me suppose that cloth could not be made
(Measure of Value, p. 38)
in less than two years, the first line of my table must be altered, and the figures would stand in the following order
150 100 25 pct.. 7½ 2½ 10 10 15.
They would do so because 10 pieces of cloth, would, with the accumulation of profit for 2 years, be of the same value as a commodity, the result of the same quantity of labour, which could be produced in 2 years.—I do not know how you will treat this objection but in my opinion it is fatal to your whole theory.1
I have the same objection to your measure which I have always professed—you chuse a variable measure for an invariable standard. Who can say that a plague which should take off half our people would not alter the value of labour? We might indeed agree to transfer the variation to the commodities, and to say that they had fallen and not that labour had risen, but I can see no advantage in the change.
We might again discover modes by which the necessaries of the labourer might be produced with uncommon facility and in consequence of the stimulus which the good situation of the labourers might give to population, the rewards of labour, in necessaries, might be no higher than before: would it be right in this case, in which nothing had really altered but necessaries and labour, to say that they only had remained steadily at the same value, and because a given quantity of corn, or of labour could exchange only for (perhaps) ¾ of the former quantity of linen, cloth, or money to declare that it was the linen, cloth, or money which had risen in value not labour and corn which had fallen?—
Two countries are equally skilful and industrious, but in one the people live on the cheap food of potatoes, in the other on the dearer food, wheat. You will allow that profits will be higher in the one country than the other. You will allow too that money may be nearly of the same value in both, if we chuse any thing else as a measure of value but labour. You will further agree that there might be an extensive trade between such countries. If a man sent a pipe of wine from the potatoe country, which cost £100, and which might be sold at £110 in the wheat country, you would say that the wine was at a higher value in the country from which it was exported, merely because, in that country, it could command more labour. You would say this altho’ the wine would not only exchange for more money, but for more of every other commodity in the wheat country.—I contend that this is a novelty which cannot be considered an improvement—it would confound all our usual notions, and would impose upon us the necessity of learning a new language. All mankind would say that wine was dearer in the wheat than in the potatoe country, and that labour was of less value in the latter.
In page 31 there is a long passage on the reason for chusing labour as a standard with which I am not satisfied. A piece of cloth is 120 yards in length and is to be divided between A and B, it is obvious that in proportion as much is given to A less will be given to B, and vice versa. This will be true altho’ the value of the whole 120 yards be £100, £50 or £5. Is it not then a begging of the question to assume the constant value because the quantity is constant, and because it is always to be divided between 2 persons.
Allowing you your premises, I see very few instances in which I can quarrel with your conclusions. I agree with all you say concerning the glut of commodities; allow to you your measure and it is impossible to differ in the result.
I hope soon to see you. I have hardly been able to find time to write this letter, I am so busily engaged.—I am serving on a committee.1
[3 ]MS at Albury.—Letters to Malthus, LXXXIII.
[4 ]The Measure of Value Stated and Illustrated with an Application of it to the Alterations in the Value of the English Currency since 1790, London, Murray, 1823.
[5 ]Viz. ‘the labour which commodities will command’; Measure of Value, page v.
[1 ]The following is a portion of Malthus’s ‘Table illustrating the invariable Value of Labour and its Results’:
[1 ]The objection is more fully stated in letter 529.
[1 ]The Select Committee on the powers of the Commissioners of Sewers in the Metropolis; it was appointed on 25 Feb. 1823 and its Report is dated 10 July 1823.