In a society in which the products of human labor take the form of commodities, there’s a tendency to think a commodity’s exchange-value is equal to its value to society.
That’s what neoclassical economists do. So, apparently, does Marco Rubio.
Tuesday night, in the fourth Republican debate, Sen. Marco Rubio decided to make a point about the state of wages, education, and employment in America by comparing welders with philosophers. “For the life of me, I don’t know why we have stigmatized vocational education,” Rubio said. “Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers.”
Now, it is true, the labor embodied during the course of producing a commodity is not socially validated unless and until it is exchanged in a market. The same holds for the ability to work (although, to be sure, labor power isn’t actually produced like other commodities). In both cases, within capitalism, private labor is transformed into social labor via the market.
However, as philosopher (and friend) Avery Kolers explains, that doesn’t mean the “social worth of a profession tracks the market price it commands in the current economy.”
It is false for at least two reasons. First, it is false because current market prices are distorted by a wide range of diseconomies that have funneled virtually all gains from the recovery into the pockets of the wealthiest Americans. The US economy shovels massive externalities – costs and risks that fall on those who don’t incur them – onto working people, future generations, and the natural environment, while the wealthy few hoard the benefits. One particularly important case is carbon pollution. Because market prices do not reflect these externalities, all prices in the economy are distorted, including the price of labor and the prices of the machines that replace human labor. So there is no reason to think that the price my labor commands in the current economy is the price my labor would command in an actual market — an economy where costs were internalized, that is, paid by those who produce them. The day I hear Republicans talk about making polluters pay is the day I’ll begin to believe that they care about genuinely free markets.
But even if we made it so that rich people could not offload costs onto poor people, it would still not be the case that the social worth of a profession would be determined by the price its members could command on a market. Market prices reflect supply and demand. If there is a glut of X and a shortage of Y, the price of X goes down and that of Y goes up. It has nothing to do with the social worth of either thing. Worth is a completely different issue; English teachers, social workers, poets, and of course, Republican presidential candidates, are currently in higher supply than demand; this diminishes their wages and employment opportunities in these fields, but it says nothing at all about their social role or value.
To be clear, even if a commodity’s value were equal to its exchange-value (i.e., in the absence of externalities), that doesn’t mean we, as a society, need to make our decisions based on exchange-values alone.
It is only the hubris of neoclassical economists and politicians like Marco Rubio that presumes a commodity’s market price is the sole criterion of its worth to society.