Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Medieval Misconceptions

Ah, the Medieval Ages....birds sang, women had long flowing hair and rode naked on horseback, and Robin Hood gave money to the poor.

Right. So we all know that that's probably not the way it was.

But for all of those who say that the world is in worse shape than it ever has been before, consider these facts:

By the thirteenth century, England had cut down ALL ITS TREES to forge iron and was burning coal and importing timber from Scandinavia. By the fourteenth century, London lay under fogs, and "sea coal"-- the dirtiest kind-- was illegal.

Water was so dirty because of the whole excrement problem that everyone drank wine or ale.

And then there are the sumptuary laws. Ah, how I love the sumptuary laws.
No matter how much money you have, you could only wear expensive clothes if you were highclass enough. Needless to say, this didn't work, as sumptuary laws got passed all the time, ever since the nobles lost their strangehold over the peasants after 1348 (the Black Death).

Other fun laws? Remember Crecy, where the English longbow carried the day against the sun-blinded French? The English fell so in love with bows that they forbade anyone, anywhere to play any kind of game, such as kicking a ball around, except archery. Only sport allowed, by decree of the King.

That one didn't work either.

But here's a bone:

Europe shifted from subsistence to capitalism during these centuries, and the change was more...difficult then you might imagine. People were really, actually worried that MAKING A PROFIT was immoral. Not robbing the other person blind. Just making a profit. Some people, like Aquinas I think, came up with some kind of percentage, like it's okay to make x amount of profit, but y amount is just being a greedy pig.

Ah, those were the days. Them polluted, boozy days.


JRL said...

The notion that making a profit might be immoral seems very curious to me. I can understand if people consider making money from interest as immoral by reason of authority (though Boethius correctly points out that this is the weakest form of argument), for example Exodus 20:25 and Deuteronomy 23:19.

However, I have great difficulty understanding how they could consider profit as generally immoral. Perhaps my difficulty lies in the fact that I do not consider the economy to be a zero-sum. If one assumes this, then it would be easy to argue that profit is immoral, as any one person’s gain would of course mean another person’s loss. But if this is so, then nearly everyone would have to be considered immoral, since no one provides entirely for his own subsistence. Even the clergy would be subject to this dilemma (e.g., they could be considered immoral, because the church owned land, which they had worked by peasants, and so benefited from the peasants’ labor). Perhaps it was easy for people to accept this, if they also accepted that man is by his nature immoral (or that every man is a sinner, one way or another). How can people accept these notions without wondering if it’s their notion of morality that is flawed? I don’t understand.

But then again, millions of people believe an eternal, omnipotent, incorporeal being created the entire universe out of nothing. I never understood that either.

Anonymous said...

oh john, the limitations of your understanding have yet to convince you? More time then, I suppose.

Immorality of profit does not rely on a fixed amount of wealth, constantly being re-distributed. If we grant that work = increase in value, then people-kind, working constantly (though not universally) will always expand its wealth. As a group.

The immorality of profit comes from a forced mis-distribution of that new wealth, inflating a particular products value, simply because of the demand for it.

If this year only one one vineyard survives a blight, the owner has two options. Get as much out of their crop as possible, or maintain a fair price, the same price that has allowed them to live comfortably in the past.

Of course now you wonder why such opportunity would be passed up, because you do not trust that any fellow worker would ever forego the potential profit increase. But think back to the first person who jacked prices. He thought no farther ahead than one season, and shot himself and every other person in the foot. Because in taking advantage of the situation, license was given to every other laborer to charge whatever they could.

Had this person opted otherwise, the collection of people-kind would have progressed as a unit. As it stands now, we have poverty and obscene wealth, on individual and national levels.


Maybe, given peope's nature, no other choice could have been made. But that does not negate the other choice's existence.


JRL said...


You say my understanding is limited. I readily grant you this. However, I would like to point out that making grand, sweeping assumptions is not a cure for ignorance.

I’m glad you agree that the economy is not a zero-sum. I’m not sure how many medieval people would agree with that, but let’s leave that aside for now.

The question of the morality of profit really centers on the determination of value. In your pervious posting, you suggest that the value of a thing is independent of market forces (i.e., supply and demand). However, I can detect nothing in your discourse to support this claim. In fact, you simply assume that the value of a thing is predetermined, and conclude that any subsequent change in the value is due to some immoral action. So, in order for this discussion to move forward, we need to establish what determines value.

You already mentioned that work creates (or increases) value. This may be generally true, but it is not necessarily true. Otherwise, all things would have value, simply because they exist. Moreover, everything would have equal value, since all things exist equally (i.e., existence does not admit of degree). Clearly, something more is needed for something to have value. Now, the very term value implies subjectivity; a thing can only have value to someone (i.e., nothing is intrinsically valuable). This is because something has value only when it fulfills some purpose, when it is useful. I therefore contend that value is really proxy for utility. Now, a thing can be useful in many senses. It may serve some basic purpose (such as food, which provides sustenance), or some higher purpose (such as literature, which provides intellectual pleasure). Naturally, there is great variance in what people find useful, and in what degree. So, if value it actually utility, how are we to know how useful a thing is to someone? By what the person is willing to do to get it (i.e., the greater the need, the greater the lengths one will be willing to go to, to satisfy the need). Put another way, the utility of a thing in relation to a person can be determined by what that person is willing to pay for it (in one way or another). In the case where supply is limited, those who have both the greater need, and the greater ability to pay, will get the object. In short, the market determines the value.

That isn’t to say immoral actions play no role here (for instance, those with no need artificially increasing demand out of avarice), only that the market itself is not immoral.

I’ll await your riposte in repose.


Anonymous said...

I'm glad that second posting was a duplicate. There's much to be said in reply to the first.

Always striving to have a common definition of the terms. Not a bad place to start.

I will not grant you the transition from labor to utility in the definition of value. An Aristotilian twist that may have importance when speaking of being, but not when it comes to the products of labor.

I would assert, perhaps in Hobbes' wake, that labor-simple is what contributes to value. (Complications arise from chance later in the process, such as the previously used example of 'blight')

If it takes three hours of time to produce a bushel of corn (the following examples in no way represent realistic measures, by the way) and it also takes three hours to dig up an ounce of gold, why would the grain be worth less??

Diamonds to shoes, or construction to shepharding.

If I can spend my three hours farming, or mining, then I choose either what I'm better at, or what I'm more interested in the product of. If I want diamonds, then I should be able to get three hours worth of diamonds in exchange for three hours worth of any other labor.

This is where the immorality of profit comes in. If something is harder to come by, ie requires more labor to produce, then what is required in exchange will go up, but only equally. If it takes ten hours to produce the same amount of diamonds it used to take only three hours to produce, then it will take ten hours worth of corn. (Relativity, to body strength, life-span, etc will complicate it, but not contradict the principle.)

Which brings us to a very interesting point. When 'immoality of profit' is considered, the negative connotations generally fall to the individual who makes the profit. But if the populace at large refused to pay the unreasonable price, and was instead willing to universally pay the labor-time to produce it for themselves, then the price would necessarily be fixed.

As you rightly point out, the demand allows for the price increase. And the demand comes from the consumer.

And the consumer instigates competition.

But, where you begin your social observance is at a point when one individual can surpass another's ability to bid. Not in terms of labor-hours, which should all have equal value, but incorporating previously amassed 'profits'. This argument presumes the status that were are currently discussing.

I say, if we look at an as-of-yet uncorrupted (pardon the negative term) system, the competitive bidding would have no place. For the value would be the equivalent time it might take for either bidder to produce it themselves, which would be a constant. And the seller would not consider a trade of something of lesser-labor. That doesn't leave much room for price-shifting.

you're it. :)


JRL said...

Oh Kagan, Kagan. Has no one ever told you that example are meant to illustrate argumets, not to make them?

Let me ask you a simple question. If someone expends some amount of labor producing something that has no use of any kind, does it have value? If so, why?

Anonymous said...

I cannot imagine anyone producing anything that does not fulfil one of these two parameters:

They want it for themselves.
They will us it to get something they want for themselves.

Can you think of a third category?

You can lean on no-utility, but I have one word for you: Art.

OR another. Hummel.

JRL said...

Thank you for proving my point. You’re quite correct, no one would produce something they didn’t want for themselves, or something no one else wanted. Why not? Because something that has no purpose (i.e., no use), has no value, no matter how much labor is expended upon it.
If you think art (or Hummel, whatever the hell that is) contradicts this, then you take too narrow a view of the terms ‘use’ and ‘purpose’.

Anonymous said...

It does not follow that the utility, rather than the time-labor invested, sets the value of an item.

If I say that all time-labor is invested in on of the two categories, desired first person, or desired by others, that in no way effects the value of said item. It is still labor-time that should set value.

A more pertinent example you raised: That of an individual with a unique talent. Where the second party could not equal in labor-time the product of the uniquely gifted. Your assertion was that the rare product of this individual would be far more valueable.

To this I say: You are once again assuming the profit-mongering, of both the unique producer, and the slew of traders that are willing to compete with each other.

Take this example of unique producer, and universalize it to a producer trading with anyone who could not produce the product they are trading for.

A farmer, with big, strong stubby hands has three labor-hours worth of corn. A nibble-fingered seamstress has three labor-hours worth of finely-stitched warm clothing.

In truth there is no equivalent trade here, by your measure. Neither party could produce the other's product, and by your example, each product is priceless to the other.

To call on a neighboring farmer, and the competition in the trade that he/she might force, is to call on pre-existing competition, the 'shooting in one's own foot' for emmediate profit that I say is NOT the first stage of trade. It is a corrupt by-product of greed.

Again, perhaps a necessary product, given the constitution of people-kind, but still, a consequence of that constitution, not of the markets themselves.

JRL said...

I think we are actually dealing with two issues here. First, what gives a thing the quality of value? Second, if a thing has value, how does one measure the its quantity?

I still contend that the question of whether or not a thing has value is the same question as whether or not the thing serves some purpose. Let us take the simplest case of an individual working for himself. What will he spend his time on? If simply putting his labor into something gave it value, then it wouldn’t matter what he put his labor into, for it would all equally posses the quality of having value. However, this would clearly not be the case. The man would spend his time and labor on things in order of decreasing priority. For example, first he would secure sustenance, second, shelter, and so on. What is this order based on? Utility. Feeding himself will always be most import, for since it is the greatest and most immediate need, satisfying that need has the greatest utility. Having shelter comes second, as this is less immediate a need (generally), and so on.

Now, the determination of the quantity of value a thing posses must be directly related to that which gives it the quality of value. Again, I contend that this is measured by the amount of utility the object posses. Again, let us consider an individual working for himself. Greater specificity will help illustrate this, so let us further suppose that this individual lives in a climate that is moderate throughout the year (perhaps near the equator), where the soil is rich. Now let us imagine that this individual can spend some amount of time making implements to cultivate the earth; or, he can spend an equal amount of time making fur clothing, such as the Eskimos wear. Do the clothing and the implements have the same value? I think not, but by your definition, they do.

I have more comments about determination of value when multiple people are involved, but I think it might be better if we restrain ourselves to the simplest possible case for now.

JRL said...

One quick follow up.
I'd like to reverse the previous example. Suppose an individual possesses something that has value, and adds his labor to it, but that this labor is destructive (e.g., the farmer changes the metal blade of the plow for one made of paper, so that it no longer functions). What happens to the value of the object?

Anonymous said...

that example falls outside of the two categories that we have agreed must follow from an investment of labor.

JRL said...

I’m not sure why you merely dismissed my second example, and then didn’t bother to respond to any of my other points, so I guess I’ll try again.

Yes, the second example does indeed violate the notion you cited above that no one makes something no one wants. However, I meant that to help illustrate my point. I don’t want to take this notion as an axiom. Rather, I think it follows from some prior notion (this is because such a claim begs the question, ‘why not?’. So, why don’t people make things neither they nor anyone else wants? I say that’s because people don’t make things that have no purpose; put another way, things must have a final cause (I mean this in the Aristotelian sense). I’d be very interested to know if you think there’s some other reason.

I have another thought I’d like to add to the discussion. By your definition, natural resources would have no value, because no labor has been expended on them. Do you think this is true? I don’t. I think a spring in the middle of the desert would be extremely valuable to one wandering the desert.