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Malthus v. Bailey on the Measure of Value: A Lesson in "Methodological Humility"

Listed author(s):
  • Glenn Hueckel

    (Pomona College)

That Malthus was guilty of egregious error in his claim to have established the labor-commanded magnitude as an "invariable" unit of value is well-known. Even his modern biographer could appeal only to a "kink or a crotchet, some kind of cerebral block" to excuse Malthus's persistent failure to recognize the manifestly tautological character of his position. Yet the familiar form of Malthus's argument, as it appeared in his later work, differed in several respects from its earliest statement in the first edition of his Principles. In this essay we trace out the several changes made to Malthus's argument, often in response to his many critics; and we find in the midst of those alterations a common characteristic that serves to reveal the character of that "kink or crotchet": an obsession with mathematical operations producing a unit outcome. We draw two lessons from this sorry episode in our history. First, the sterility of the debate between Malthus and his critics serves to highlight the central importance of a precise and commonly understood vocabulary of scientific expression. This was, it is true, no more than a dispute over words; but as they are the vessels of our thoughts, words-of precise and commonly understood meaning-are critical to the progress of a science. Second, the heat of that debate highlights the insidious capacity of practitioners to mistake for scientific principles what are no more than "intricate series of definitions," a lesson which, when taken seriously, cannot fail but to impart a salutary "methodological humility."

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Paper provided by Claremont Colleges in its series Claremont Colleges Working Papers with number 2002-17.

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Date of creation:
Handle: RePEc:clm:clmeco:2002-17
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  1. Blaug,Mark, 1997. "Economic Theory in Retrospect," Cambridge Books, Cambridge University Press, number 9780521577014, October.
  2. Zinke, George William, 1942. "Six Letters from Malthus to Pierre Prévost," The Journal of Economic History, Cambridge University Press, vol. 2(02), pages 174-189, November.
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