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History of Political Economy 34.1 (2002) 237-240

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Kurz and Salvadori on the Sraffian Interpretation of the Surplus Approach

Mark Blaug

When intelligent historians differ in their interpretation of the past, the principal reason they do so is that they differ in the very purpose of historical explanation or at least of the uses one makes of it. Kurz and Salvadori simply cannot grasp the fundamental distinction between “rational” reconstructions and “historical” reconstructions—or rather they simply conflate them. They join thereby a distinguished group of rational reconstructionists—Samuelson on Adam Smith; Hollander on Ricardo; Morishima on Ricardo, Marx, and Walras; and Lucas on Hume (Blaug 1990, 2001)—all of whom at some stage claim, not just to have reconstructed the ideas of some great economists of the past in the economics concepts and language of today, but also, miraculously, to have captured the very essence of those ideas better than even their inventors themselves understood them. In short, they claim to have eaten their cake and to have had it too.

They practice what is otherwise known as the “Whig history of science” and they do so in all innocence. Since Sraffa has discarded the troublesome labor theory of value, they give us Ricardo and Marx without it because it is not “an indispensable element of classical analysis. It was simply a useful tool at a certain stage of the development of the analysis that could be dispensed with as soon as the role performed by it could be assumed by a more correct theory” (235; emphasis added). Quite true if our only concern is rational reconstruction in the light of [End Page 237] modern economics. Quite false if we want to understand why two generations of some of the best brains in economics advocated a theory that they all knew to be utterly nonoperational and only valid as a crude approximation.

No one believes any longer in the Malthusian theory of population, so let us have Ricardo and Mill after Sraffa without any Malthusian wage-population mechanism. “While there are references to the Malthusian theory of population, Ricardo's works abound with observations questioning its validity,” assert Kurz and Salvadori (emphasis added), and they find two places in Ricardo's works where he expresses some qualifications (236). However, I have found dozens of places where Ricardo endorses the Malthusian theory of population (in his Principles alone [Sraffa and Dobb 1951, 98–108]) and no place where he ever seriously questions it. But apart from counting quotations, the idea of the Ricardian system without the constant pressure of population on the food supply, forcing the application of additional doses of capital and labor to less and less fertile land and thus driving up the price of corn, is simply Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark. It is the sort of interpretation that would never arise unless one were interested in defending Ricardo here and now as a living economist, as if indeed it were a case of Ricardo after Sraffa, to paraphrase the title of Ian Steedman's book on Marx (Steedman 1977). Any attempt, however superficial, to convey the historical meaning of classical economics, both as a set of doctrines and as an influence on economic policy, is simply impossible without placing the Malthusian theory of population at its very center. Besides, the principal textbook of economics in the entire second half of the nineteenth century, John Stuart Mill's Principles of Political Economy, is all about protecting the Ricardian system against its leading detractors and transforming the Malthusian message from a diatribe against the provision of welfare relief into a program of self-reliance for the working class. Leave out Malthus, and the most influential of all the classical economists is rendered meaningless. I am sure that Kurz and Salvadori will reply that Mill was not really a proper classical economist, as evidenced by the fact that he is very difficult to fit into the canonical Sraffian version of classical political economy. If this is not Whiggism, what is?

Over and over again...


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pp. 237-240
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