Reply to Commentaries on ‘The Labour Theory of Property and Marginal Productivity Theory’

David Ellerman


Jamie Morgan’s commentary (Morgan, 2016) on my paper ‘The Labour Theory of Property and Marginal Productivity Theory’ (Ellerman, 2016) and Ted Burczak’s later comments (Burczak, 2016) raise a number of issues that surely will occur to other readers and that need to be addressed. I take the occasion to expand upon the arguments and to explore some related issues. In the narrative that unfolds, Frank H. Knight plays the role of the sophisticated defender of the system of renting, hiring and employing human beings. He was quite clear that the social role of economics is to develop an idealised model, the competitive free enterprise model, and then to frame the normative discussion in terms of that model. Knight would agree with the whole thread of heterodox ‘criticism’ that the actual economy falls far short of the ideal – which is why I largely eschewed the descriptive shortcomings of ideal model as a purported model of the actual economy. Instead my paper focused on developing a critique of the key part of the idealised model, the marginal productivity theory of distribution under competitive conditions. That critique is based on the usual juridical principle of imputing legal responsibility in accordance with factual responsibility – the principle whose property-theoretic application is the modern treatment of the labour theory of property.

Historically, heterodox economics faced a fork in the road in the 19th century: whether to criticise ‘the system’ by developing the inchoate ‘labour theory’ as a theory of value or a theory of property. Marx and much of left-wing economics took the labour-theory-of-value road, whereas my paper is part of a modern attempt – Thomas Hodgskin (1832) being an earlier attempt – to take the labour-theory-of-property road. As we will see, much of the debate still revolves around these two roads.

Read David Ellerman’s original paper “The Labour Theory of Property and Marginal Productivity Theory” ›

Read Jamie Morgan’s commentary on David Ellerman’s paper ›

Published on 27th September, 2016, in Economic Thought Vol 5, No 2, 2016