Seth McKelvey, “‘But one kind’ of Life: Thoreau’s Subjective Theory of Value in Walden” (pp. 448–472)

Literary scholars generally take for granted Henry David Thoreau’s hostility to market exchange in Walden (1854). I argue, however, that Thoreau anticipates the subjective theory of value and the related concept of diminishing marginal utility, offering glimpses of ideas that would not be formalized in economics until after his death but that should nevertheless align him with a long lineage of free market thinkers. Thoreau does not reject the marketplace as a means to achieve his own best interests, but rather challenges his society’s definition of what those interests should be, attacking the misguided desire to accumulate excessive material wealth and the burdensome labor that attends such aspirations. I juxtapose the economics put forth in Walden with the work of Austrian free market economist Carl Menger in order to illustrate how Thoreau can so vehemently oppose the materialistic obsessions of capitalism while simultaneously remaining amenable to the principles of free exchange.

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