Johann Karl Rodbertus (August 12, 1805, Greifswald, Swedish Pomerania – December 6, 1875, Jagetzow), also known as Karl Rodbertus-Jagetzow, was a German economist and socialist of the scientific or conservative school from Greifswald. He defended the labor theory of value as well as the view, as an inference from that, that interest or profit is theft. He believed that capitalist economies tend toward overproduction.
Rodbertus was also known as "Rodbertus-Jagetzow" from the name of the estate of Jagetzow, in Pomerania, which he bought in 1835. Rodbertus was the son of a professor of law, and himself studied law at Göttingen and Berlin. From these studies he went on to Heidelberg, where he took up philosophy. He travelled extensively in the Netherlands, France, and Switzerland before returning to settle down on his newly purchased estate (Jagetzow).
He served from 1827 to 1832 in the Prussian justiciary. By 1837 he had formulated his social platform, and in that year published Die Forderungen der arbeitenden Klassen. Elected to the National Assembly in 1848, he was Minister of Education in the Auerswald-Hansemann ministry for a fortnight, and in 1849 was a leader of the centre-left. The last twenty years of his life were spent in retirement.
Socialism, as defined by Rodbertus, was to be a gradual evolution, hence his acquiescence in a monarchy, and his break with the Democrats as a political party. He regarded the social question as a purely economic one. His principal doctrines are these: The workman's share of the nation's industrial income tends constantly to decline; land rent and interest are the result of the exploitation of the working classes; the present shares in the distribution of wealth — rent, profits, interest, and wages — are not entirely the result of permanent, universal economic forces, but the result of historical evolution and the prevailing legal system; financial and commercial crises are due to a non-adjustment of production and consumption; the laborer's purchasing power is small and the capitalist and landlord classes, instead of increasing their consumption of luxuries, invest their savings in new factories, and in otherwise increasing the means of production, with the inevitable result that commodities of common consumption are produced in excess.
Rodbertus stated the Labor Theory of Value as three connected propositions. First, only those goods that result from labor may be thought to be economic goods – other goods, like sunlight, which do not result from labor are natural goods and consequently have nothing to do with economics. Second, an economic good is solely the product of the labor – any other view of it is to be left to physicists. No part of the value of grain, for example, is to be attributed to sunshine or soil. Third, economic goods are products of the labor that went into their composition and the labor that created the instruments that enabled that production. The value of grain, for example, is not to be found merely in the ploughman but also in the work of those who manufactured the plough.
Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk thought that Rodbertus' exposition of the exploitation theory was superior to that of Karl Marx in profundity and coherence. Nonetheless, he considered it fallacious, asking whether a nugget of gold that falls to earth embedded in a meteorite would fall outside the purview of economic science. Will someone effortlessly coming across that gold "protect it from the greed of others, prudently dispose of it on the market, in short, husband it with the same economy as he would in the case of gold and silver which he had acquired through the labor of his hands?"
- Die Forderungen der arbeitenden Klassen (The claims of the working classes, 1837)
- Zur Erkenntnis unserer staatswirthschaftlichen Zustände (Toward an appreciation of our economic circumstances, 1842)
- Soziale Briefe, addressed to Julius von Kirchmann (1850–51)
- Der Normalarbeitstag (The standard work day, 1871)
- Beleuchtung der socialen Frage (Some light on social questions, 1875)
The statement of his theory of crises, contained in his Soziale Briefe, has appeared in an English translation under the title of Overproduction and Crises (New York, 1898).