Labour vouchers were advocated by Marx as a form of rationing in lower communism. They are not based on the wages system because, as Marx explained in The Critique of the Gotha Programme, the workers do not exchange their products. There is no commodity production. Wage labour implies the separation of the producers from the means of production, whereas, in lower communism, the means of production are owned by everyone.
The World Socialist Movement does not favour labour vouchers - it is far too cumbersome as a mechanism for rationing. If you are going to have rationing, at least for some goods, there are far more effective and straightforward mechanisms than this. There is now no reason why most goods could not be distributed as free goods as would be the case generally in Marx's higher stage of communism. Marx put forward this proposal somewhat half-heartedly merely as a way of getting to grips with, and responding to, what he called the "unavoidable defects" of the first phase of a communist society where the means of production were not yet fully developed to permit full-blown communism. In other words, labour vouchers were a form of rationing. It is pretty clear that he envisaged them being abandoned as society moved into the higher phase of communism - free access communism - as goods and service became more and more abundantly available. In the Critique of the Gotha Programme, he talked of the principle "from each according to ability to each according to need " coming to apply in higher communism. This expression, which was first coined by Louis Blanc, was deliberately framed in opposition to the doctrine of the followers of Saint-Simon, "Let each be placed according to his capacity and rewarded according to his work" with the clear implication that work should be unremunerated and voluntarily undertaken.
There are numerous problems associated with LTVs and the allied proposal of pricing goods in labour time units. To cite just one, Marx talked of the producer getting back from society "exactly" what he put into it (after various deductions had been made) but how exactly do you determine what someone has contributed? How do you compare the productivity of a dentist and a steel-worker, for example? Do you treat each skill exactly the same and what does that mean in terms of incentives (for which reason advocates of labour vouchers propose such a scheme in the first place - on the grounds that workers need to be "compelled" to work by linking consumption to pay). Not all workers of a given skill level accomplish the same work in an hour
This is just one of many problems. The labour voucher scheme would, in the end, prove to be hugely bureaucratic and wasteful of human labour, notwithstanding all that computer power at our finger-tips will quite likely create conditions that will enable the restoration of petty commodity production and eventually capitalism itself.
Engel's remarks to Schmidt in 1890 reinforces Marx that when the springs of cooperative wealth flow more abundantly, the principle "from each according to ability to each according to need" can be implemented. Meaning none other than free access communism where wealth no longer needs to be rationed and where labour is freely and voluntarily undertaken - the one thing logically implying the other and vice versa. The quote is interesting also in view of the discussion on what was meant by a future "socialist society" i.e. communism:
"There has also been a discussion in the Volks-Tribune about the distribution of products in future society, whether this will take place according to the amount of work done or otherwise. The question has been approached very "materialistically" in opposition to certain idealistic phraseology about justice. But strangely enough, it has not struck anyone that, after all, the method of distribution essentially depends on how much there is to distribute, and that this must surely change with the progress of production and social organization, so that the method of distribution may also change. But everyone who took part in the discussion, "socialist society" appeared not as something undergoing continuous change and progress but as a stable affair fixed once for all, which must, therefore, have a method of distribution fixed once for all. All one can reasonably do, however, is 1) to try and discover the method of distribution to be used at the beginning, and 2) to try and find the general tendency of the further development. But about this I do not find a single word in the whole debate."
Against Labour-Time Vouchers
To summarise our opposition to Labour Time Vouchers:
1) Many advocates of labour vouchers support the idea of differential payments according to labour contribution. This raises the problem of how you measure one person's contribution in relation another's.
2) Any kind of quid pro quo or exchange set up raises motivational issues and fosters egoism. If you pay people differently people will disagree with the pay rate assigned to them. If you pay them the same, a nuclear scientist will contend that her work is of far greater import than a garbage collector and she should be paid much more. Friction and discontent are almost guaranteed. Not only that, you have no way of ensuring that people will not gravitate towards the most congenial work if all work attracts the same rate. This is because quid pro quo set-ups encourage one to think in terms of what is in one's own interest and not the interests of the larger society. It promotes an atomised individualistic perspective. Garbage will remain uncollected. You can, of course, restrict labour mobility and centrally allocate labour but then you are back to the capitalist state and that in itself creates more problems than it solves. Any kind of quid pro quo set - "I give you something in return for you giving me something else" - has a built in conflict of interests that orientates individuals to adopt an egoistic or self-interested approach vis-a-vis others. You are advocating an exchange economy of some type - though I still fail to see any substantive difference between your system and capitalism other than the fact that you want to wave a magic wand and make everyone gets paid the same, despite economic competition. You have already admitted that managers would be held accountable and that there would be incentives for firms to become more efficient. That can only mean they would be differentially remunerated according to their performance. Managers will want to reduce labour costs for example presumably by reducing hours worked or even laying off workers. How else, after all, is "efficiency" to be measured in your system other than by net income - the difference between revenue and costs. In pursuit of net income, managers incentivised by the competitive desire for higher remuneration will soon enough pit themselves against the workers.
3) A labour voucher scheme will require a huge bureaucracy to administer - on the one hand to administer, police and record labour inputs and on the other to administer police and record purchases. Labour vouchers will require labour time accounting across the board which is massively complicated. You might pay people the same but for planning/allocative purposes you certainly cannot treat labour inputs as equal. The stock argument that we can do all this with the super duper computer technology we have is no argument at all. Computerisation certainly helps with calculation but this is much more than a problem of calculation. It’s also one of evaluation and enforcement. What’s to stop people abusing the system. Who is going to monitor the monitors? And so on.
4) To ensure that goods are cleared at the stores at an efficient rate you have to ensure that the sum total of the face value of vouchers issued equals the sum total of labour inputs in the sphere of production. Otherwise, you risk incurring huge structural shortages or surpluses. This applies not only at the macro level but for specific goods too. One proponent, Paul Cockshott, in his book, suggested selling goods at above or below their labour content in order to influence consumer spending habits but already this is a significant departure from the strict labour voucher scheme. Equally, significantly it opens up the path for speculative buying and selling of goods and hence corruption. What happens to goods after they have been purchased from the public stores. It is in this respect that a role for speculative buying and selling of goods on the black market exists as a very real possibility
5) People under a labour voucher scheme are reputedly paid according to their labour contribution but what about those who cannot work. The very old, the very young, the infirm and the disabled. This was the point made by Marx in the Critique of the Gotha Programme - that it is absurd talking about workers getting the full value of their contribution. Necessarily the working population would have to get less than the value of what they produce and the value of their labour vouchers would have to be adjusted according. All this incidentally would add yet another of unproductive bureaucracy to administer this social welfare scheme
6) There is nothing to prevent a black market emerging alongside and undermining a system of labour vouchers ex-post facto Informal commodity transactions can arise making use of goods purchased with vouchers - particularly if , as is the case with most advocates of labour vouchers it is suggested that vouchers are for specific goods. But even if they were not and with your voucher you could buy any good that still does not stop a black market coming into being. What’s to stop you, for example, growing stuff in your backyard and bartering it for other goods. What’s to stop you combining with others to form an agricultural collective to do the same on a much large scale? Eventually, as we know barter will give way to money and in due course this could quite conceivably lead back to capitalism
From the point of view of administration, free access communism would be immeasurably more efficient and streamlined - bureaucracy will be reduced to a bare minimum. The motivational issues will not arise either. People would not be compelled to do just one particular job but would be free to diversify meaning that for any particular job there would be a massive reservoir of labour provided by almost everyone. Social opinion would also play a decisive role in all this. You would no longer acquire status through conspicuous consumption which would be meaningless in a free access realise and is betrayed by their knee-jerk responses. Quite simply they haven’t really given the idea the serious consideration it merits.