In Human Action, Mises says:
If one sees in the wage earner merely a chattel and believes that he plays no other role in society, if one assumes that he aims at no other satisfaction than feeding and proliferation and does not know of any employment for his earnings other than the procurement of those animal satisfactions, one may consider the iron law as a theory of the determination of wage rates. In fact the classical economists, frustrated by their abortive value theory, could not think of any other solution of the problem involved. For Torrens and Ricardo the theorem that the natural price of labor is the price which enables the wage earners to subsist and to perpetuate their race, without any increase or diminution, was the logically inescapable inference from their untenable value theory. But when their epigones saw that they could no longer satisfy themselves with this manifestly preposterous law, they resorted to a modification of it which was tantamount [p. 605] to a complete abandonment of any attempt to provide an economic explanation of the determination of wage rates. They tried to preserve the cherished notion of the minimum of subsistence by substituting the concept of a “social” minimum for the concept of a physiological minimum. They no longer spoke of the minimum required for the necessary subsistence of the laborer and for the preservation of an undiminished supply of labor. They spoke instead of the minimum required for the preservation of a standard of living sanctified by historical tradition and inherited customs and habits. While daily experience taught impressively that under capitalism real wage rates and the wage earners’ standard of living were steadily rising, while it became from day to day more obvious that the traditional walls separating the various strata of the population could no longer be preserved because the social improvement in the conditions of the industrial workers demolished the vested ideas of social rank and dignity, these doctrinaires announced that old customs and social convention determine the height of wage rates.
An epigone is a follower of someone. So as I read this, Mises is saying that the followers of Torrens and Ricardo are the ones who “tried to preserve the cherished notion of the minimum of subsistence by substituting the concept of a ‘social’ minimum for the concept of a physiological minimum” and “announced that old customs and social convention determine the height of wage rates.” This implies to me that Ricardo and Torrens believed in a “physiological minimum” notion of subsistence and it was their later followers who tried to keep the notion of subsistence alive by changing it.
But here is Ricardo himself, as quoted on Wikipedia:
It is not to be understood that the natural price of labor, estimated even in food and necessaries, is absolutely fixed and constant. It varies at different times in the same country, and very materially differs in different countries. It essentially depends on the habits and customs of the people. An English laborer would consider his wages under their natural rate, and too scanty to support a family, if they enabled him to purchase no other food than potatoes, and to live in no better habitation than a mud cabin; yet these moderate demands of nature are often deemed sufficient in countries where ‘man’s life is cheap’, and his wants easily satisfied. Many of the conveniences now enjoyed in an English cottage, would have been thought luxuries in an earlier period of our history.
The bit about the natural price of labor estimated in food and necessaries not being fixed and constant but instead depending ” on the habits and customs of the people” does not sound like a reference to a physiological minimum to me. It sounds very much like the idea that “old customs and social convention determine the height of wage rates.”
I noticed this because in his book Capitalism, George Reisman says:
Marx repeats some of the qualifications of Ricardo about the meaning of “subsistence.” He says:
. . . the number and extent of his [the wage earner’s] so-called necessary wants, as also the modes of satisfying them, are themselves the product of historical development, and depend therefore to a great extent on the degree of civilisation of a country, more particularly on the conditions under which, and consequently on the habits and degree of comfort in which, the class of free labourers has been formed. In contradistinction therefore to the case of other commodities, there enters into the determination of the value of labour-power a historical and moral element. Nevertheless, in a given country, at a given period, the average quantity of the means of subsistence necessary for the labourer is practically known.23
The bit about Marx repeating some of the qualifications of Ricardo surprised me a bit, cuz I didn’t know Ricardo thought along those lines. But then I looked up the quote, and I thought Reisman’s characterization of Marx as repeating some of Ricardo’s ideas was right. Then I looked up the Human Action quote, and it seemed like Mises had gotten his characterization of Ricardo wrong.
It is quite possible that I am misreading or missing some necessary context, particularly with Ricardo, who I am not really familiar with at all first-hand. Thoughts? Criticisms?