Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Tangible Disproof of Marxism

In a comment on my last post, Kwik2Jujj provided a link to a site that sells Origami Boulders. I find this particularly interesting, because I have, for years, used a thought experiment employing essentially this very thing as a disproof of the labor theory of value upon which so much of Marx's economic theory is constructed. Simplifying greatly, the labor theory of value says that the value of any commodity is ultimately determined by the labor that went into producing it.

So: Imagine a famous artist. This artist locks himself in his ivory tower for a year, and, at the end of that time, emerges with an Origami Boulder (i.e., a crumpled-up sheet of paper), which he then offers for sale to art collectors. The artist claims that he spent the year in his ivory tower meticulously folding this Origami Boulder into this precise configuration, one painstaking crease at a time.

How do the art collectors place a value on this item? According to the labor theory of value, if the artist is telling the truth about how he produced it, its value would be one person-year of labor. That is, one person expended a year of labor to create it.

But what if the artist is lying? Suppose that upon locking himself in his ivory tower, he took a sheet of paper, crumpled it up randomly, and then spent the next year in his tower playing videogames? By the labor theory of value, this Origami Boulder has virtually no value whatsoever (say, ten person-seconds of labor).

And even worse: Suppose the artist emerges after his year of isolation with two identical, indistinguishable Origami Boulders. One of them, he created on the first day in the ivory tower by randomly crumpling up a sheet of paper. The other one, he created by carefully examining the randomly crumpled sheet, and painstakingly reproducing it fold-by-fold. When it was complete, he put the two Origami Boulders into some sort of opaque rotating-drum apparatus and then pulled them out, so that not even the artist knows which Origami Boulder was randomly crumpled, and which was meticulously folded. Can they now have equal values, even though one required vastly more labor to produce than the other?

Personally, I tend to agree with the more Austrian-school theories about value being subjective, and that in any exchange, each party exchanges something of lesser (subjective) value for something of greater (subjective) value, so that (subjectively) each party to the exchange benefits, or else they would not have carried out the exchange at all. And I recall someone somewhere, discussing the value of "collector's" items, saying that any such item is worth exactly what someone will actually offer to pay you for it, no more, no less, regardless of what an appraiser might say.

Applying that to the Origami Boulder, it should be easy to see that they are worth precisely what people are willing to pay for them, which would depend on variables such as how popular/respected the artist is, how well it is marketed, etc. In the final hypothetical of two identical boulders, they would likely be valued identically by the market, except that both of them together would probably be worth more than twice as much as either by itself, because they are more interesting as a set.

It all sort of makes me want to add an Origami Boulder to my list of things I want for Christmas. Which, of course, by increasing the demand for them, increases the "value" of the things themselves...

1 comment:

Kwik2Jujj said...

Perhaps you will consider emailing the Origami Boulder artist, inquiring after his own opinion vis-a-vis labor theory of value vs. Austrian-school. I suspect his answer would be something along the line of, "Too much talk about Origami Boulder, not enough buy Origami Boulder. You buy, and then you truly understand great value!"