A Side-Paper on Sraffa

I've not been in the proper frame-of-mind to work upon the articles that previously occupied me, so I've instead been working on a paper that I'd been meaning to write for years. Its working title is The Begged Questions in Mr. Sraffa's Theory of Price.

Piero Sraffa is notable for a number of things. He was a formidable critic of Marshallian economic theory. He identified serious problems in the formulation of von Hayek's original presentation of capital theory, at a pivotal juncture during the struggle between the Austrian School and Lord Keynes. Sraffa later identified a significant error in the capital theory of the mainstream of American Keynesianism. He was a behind-the-scenes influence upon the thinking of various economists such as Joan Robinson, and of Wittgenstein. He edited the critical edition of the works of David Ricardo.

He also wrote a short book, Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities; Prelude to a Critique of Economic Theory, that attempted to restore the position of pre-marginalist, anti-subjectivist thinking on political economy. He and his close followers are known as neo-Ricardian because their work has so much of the flavor of Ricardo and of his followers.

Neo-Ricardian thinking heavily influences the so-called Post-Keynesians (one of many different flavors of economic thought that draw upon some interpretation of Keynes's work) and many Marxists look to Sraffa's work as a serious challenge or as a source for revision of Marxian economic theory.

Sraffa's book has been out-of-print in the United Kingdom and in the United States for many years; the most recent printing of which I know was in 1983. However, copies command a significant premium, and new, expensive books about his book or otherwise about Sraffa's economic theories come out fairly often. So, though the size of Sraffa's following doesn't seem to be much growing, it also doesn't seem to be much shrinking.

But, well, his theory of price determination doesn't simply go off the rails; it is never on them. For any decent economist, it would be easy to identify where Sraffa is begging essential questions, or otherwise making unacknowledged assumptions. In particular, he doesn't eliminate the subjective element from his theory of price; instead, he merely hides it, while making presumptions about it (and about production functions) that are bizarre.

Yet I don't think that I've encountered an article that has exposed these problems. The set of decent economists and the set of those who have published articles about Production of Commodities seem not to have intersected.

(I have encountered an article written by a general-equilibrium theorist, who writes like a general-equilibrium theorist. I'll eventually want to return to it to see whether, using the obscure symbolism of his people, he has in fact pointed to any of the essential problems of Sraffa's theory.)

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