The labor theory of value

Posted: Sep 04, 2006 12:01 AM

The old man had long ago given up fixing shoes and gone into another line of work, buying and selling and making a nice living. But he never found any other work that gave him as much satisfaction as putting new leather soles on a pair of uppers. Or putting a pair of Cat's Paw heels on shoes that still had a lot of wear left, and doing it neatly, surely, carefully - to last.

He loved the feel and aroma of new leather, the grain in the old. He was seldom as happy as when he could hold a pair of weathered shoes in his hands, turn them over and over, feel the tread, admire the workmanship, and sometimes even name the local shoemaker who'd done it.

He might not have used an elevated, latinate word like Labor for his work, but he knew it required patience, craft, concentration and something else. An ineffable quality. Call it self-respect, and a respect for the work.

His boys could remember those rare occasions when the old man lost his temper. Once he threw a poorly repaired pair of shoes against a wall in his fury. What a sloppy waste of good leather! What a waste of time and the customer's money!

In his old age, he was unable to contain his contempt when he would drive by one of those glittery new shoe stores that sold cheap, shiny imports - the cardboard kind sure to come apart in the first rain.

The old man took poor workmanship as a personal affront. Labor wasn't a factor of production to him, it was a calling - and a refuge.

The old man wasn't much on theory, but he understood value received, good will, repeat business, and, above all, the importance of trust between people - customer and merchant, worker and boss, lender and borrower. To him, commerce was friendship, trust, something that wore as well as the shoes he fixed.

All the talk he heard about labor and capital, first from agitators in the old country, and then as the standard fare of politics in this one, seemed textbookish to him - not really useful, like a good solid pair of shoes.

He had a more personal concept of how economics worked. He thought of the economy as a web of personal relationships: with his customers; with the workers he hired and trained and sometimes had to let go; with the banker he depended on to get him started in various new ventures; with the landlord who collected the rent from him; and with his own tenants after he began buying a piece of property here and there, and building some rent houses.

He liked his houses kept up, the lawns mowed, so they would look like something. Like a good pair of shoes.

Like most Americans, the old man was too deeply involved with labor and capital to think in those terms. Instead he thought of the people he dealt with as personalities - and judged them by their work.

There was Henry Johnson, for example, whom he'd hired as a boy, and taught how to fix shoes, and who would stay with him for the next 50 years through his various ventures, mastering one skill after another. The old man's apprentice would grow old with him, and die two weeks before he himself did. The family smiled knowingly. They knew Henry had just gone ahead, as usual, to scout things out.

There wasn't much theoretical about the way the old shoemaker lived and prayed and worked. Yet he would have understood instinctively the theory that a politician named Lincoln once propounded before a convention of farmers:

"(L) abor is prior to, and independent of capital; that, in fact, capital is the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed; that labor can exist without capital, but that capital could never have existed without labor. Hence . . . labor is the superior - greatly the superior - of capital."

On this Labor Day, a great deal will be said in the usual press releases, but none of it will be more eloquent than work done well. To me, two new soles on a pair of well-shined shoes still say more than all the Labor Day speeches ever written.