This discussion has a lengthy ancestry. Adam Smith maintained that different lines of production should be regarded as more or less productive according to the greater or smaller amount of labour which they set in motion.
For this he was adversely criticized by Ricardo who pointed out that welfare of the people increased only through an enlargement of the net product and not of the gross product.
For this Ricardo was severely attacked. Even J. B. Say misunderstood him and accused him of an utter disregard for the welfare of so many human beings.
While Sismondi, who was fond of meeting economic arguments by sentimental declamations, thought he could dispose of the problem by witticism: he said that a king who could produce net product by pressing a button would, according to Ricardo, make the nation superfluous.
Bernhardi followed Sismondi on this point.
Proudhon went as far as to epitomize the contrast between socialistic and private enterprise in the formula: that although society must strive for the largest gross product the aim of the entrepreneur is the largest net product.
Marx avoids committing himself on this point, but he fills two chapters of the first book of
Das Kapital with a sentimental exposition in which the transition from intensive to extensive agricultural methods is depicted in the darkest colour as, in the words of Sir Thomas More, a system "where sheep eat up men," and manages in the course of this discussion to confuse the large expropriations achieved by the political power of the nobility, which characterized European agrarian history in the first centuries of modern times, with the changes in the methods of cultivation initiated later on by the landowners.