Freedom, Free Markets, and Thoughts on Marx

“We Communists have been reproached with the desire of abolishing the right of personally acquiring property as the fruit of a man’s own labour, which property is alleged to be the groundwork of all personal freedom, activity and independence. Hard-won, self-acquired, self-earned property! Do you mean the property of petty artisan and of the small peasant, a form of property that preceded the bourgeois form? There is no need to abolish that; the development of industry has to a great extent already destroyed it, and is still destroying it daily. Or do you mean the modern bourgeois private property? But does wage-labour create any property for the labourer? Not a bit. It creates capital, i.e., that kind of property which exploits wage-labour, and which cannot increase except upon condition of begetting a new supply of wage-labour for fresh exploitation. Property, in its present form, is based on the antagonism of capital and wage labour.” – Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto

I feel for Marx sometimes. He really did make some decent arguments based on what he saw in the world around him. He just took a “throw the baby out with the bath water” approach to the problem.

Of course, you also have to feel for him on the bases of the outcome of his work. He and Darwin laid the academic and propaganda framework for the destruction of more human lives than any other two thinkers I can imagine. Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and others using Marx; and Hitler, Margaret Sanger,  and a number of other “eugenists” using Darwin and attempting to help the human race evolve a bit faster by wiping out the undesirables. But that is another post …

We hear from socialists, marxists, and progressives that men are not truly free unless they have sufficient means to make use of or enjoy their freedom. Arguing this on principle seems ludicrous. We who believe in freedom as a gift from God recognize that it has nothing at all to do with wealth, but rather self-determination. You always have a choice, even if they are not as numerous or joyful as the choices available to wealthy men.

If we are to address the marxist view on this, we must consider it beyond strict definitions – we obviously and simply disagree. Even still, let us consider in what sense the inequity of wealth could possibly imply injustice, and therefore something like unequal freedom.

Is it inequality of talents and abilities? Here we have nowhere to turn and no means to resolve the conflict. “You turn things upside down! Shall the potter be regarded as the clay,that the thing made should say of its maker, ‘He did not make me’; or the thing formed say of him who formed it, ‘He has no understanding’?” – Isaiah 29:16. People are not uniformly equal in height, weight, hair color, beauty, or natural ability – there’s nothing for it.

Suppose though that what Marx really opposed, really railed against, was inequity in reaping the benefits of exercise of freedom. Recall that economy is efficient use of resources, including the time and skills of men. It is the productive efforts of men that build wealth. When Marx saw men laboring more, producing more, and benefiting less from their productivity, he saw injustice. In an age of industrial growth it was the wealthy who had the necessary means to cross the “start up threshold” for entry into industrial production. They also kept most of the proceeds.

We know how the story turns out though. Eventually the industrial revolution comes and goes, and men become more valuable again. Yes, there was some help along the way from collective bargaining – a practice I fully support as part of freedom of association. But, men did not ultimately become slaves to a few wealthy robber barons – we made it out with our freedom still intact (for the most part).

Even with this, is there still a systemic fault in the free market that allows the rich to keep the poor in “their place”? Many of the socialist ideologues who love Marx so much strongly oppose any sort of “wealth inertia”. Thus, we see things like the “death tax” to make sure the rich don’t simply transfer accrued wealth to their children. They see an inequity in the system where the rich stay rich and the poor continue to suffer.

I’d like to point out though that in a truly free market, inertia is all on the side of the worker, not the wealthy. Barriers to entry are coming down. It is the people who still hold the key to productivity. Free men, exercising their freedom to produce goods and services desired by other people, to be used in trade – this is what drives economy. Those free men can easily choose to trade their productive means with each other (and they often do) – we are in no wise slaves to the wealthy.

Of course, we are not ultimately free in our free market. The government provides all manner of intrusion into our free interaction with one another. Most often, the government intervenes to prevent freedom in the market when prevention of that freedom is in the interest of the wealthy … who have bribed the government.

One wonders where the great Marxists are on this issue? Marx, as with right-wing theologians, when the route of greater government control. While the theocrats want to use the power of government to enforce proper moral behavior, the marxists want to use government enforce equality of stuff; no more rich-stay-rich and poor-stay-poor. The rest of us are stuck here in the middle, simply wanting to be free, and wanting both sides to leave us alone.

I feel for Marx; I do. I have doubts as to whether he really intended to oppress mankind in the process of ending oppression in the working class of his day. They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions though. It would certainly seem so.

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6 Responses to Freedom, Free Markets, and Thoughts on Marx

  1. “[Marx] and Darwin laid the academic and propaganda framework for the destruction of more human lives than any other two thinkers I can imagine.”

    I admit I am less interested in Marx, which seems to be the main subject of the post. And you mention in passing that Darwin would be the subject of a later post, so perhaps I am simply impatient. I would be interested in learning more about this suggested “propaganda framework,” particularly that involving Darwin personally or the theory of evolution generally. Do I understand correctly that the implication appears to be that Darwin published propaganda, information or misinformation that he, by definition, deliberately spread to help or harm a group, nation, etc.? Can you provide any references that suggest this?

    I hope there is another post coming with more detailed information about this. And it is possible that the language in the OP was simply misleading, that you refer not to the theory or its originator, but instead to the abuses or misguided mis-applications of that theory. And perhaps such a future post will point out to readers the many examples of such misguided abuses, such as the Crusades… or the Inquisition… or the witch trials at Salem, none of which should be treated as cause for blaming the beliefs of Christianity on “destruction of more human lives than … I can imagine.”

    • nomasir says:

      I think there are slight distinctions one could draw with regards to the witch trials and inquisitions in terms of a group governing itself … but these are only slight. (The crusades happened with some additional contextual framework that put them as not purely based on religion as one might think.) Other than that, I think they do fit the mold I was going for.

      We know that Marx was unsettled by some of the revolutionary nature of the French communist party, leading to his famous “I am not a Marxist” quip. Darwin died well before Hitler had his day, or Margaret Sanger rose to prominence. I presume though that he too would have been unsettled by the practices of the Eugenists – perhaps even appalled that they would take his theoretical framework and use it as justification for all manner of atrocities.

      There is at least one distinction between these two classes though. Most external observers of the non-practitioner sort would look at the Salem witch trials or the Inquisition and say “that is at odds with my understanding of Christianity” (an understanding that is not totally uniformed for those living in America). They would be right in their unease and modern Christians would gladly point back to original words of Jesus that contradicted the practices in Salem or Spain. Can we say the same of Marx and Darwin?

      Marx operated from an intentionally non-moralistic view. He didn’t want to be co-opted by the moral framework of any religion. When we see people using his words for nefarious purposes it is not so simple to find his own words to contradict them. (Other than the earlier quip that we noted.) Similarly for Darwin. His views were expressly atheistic. As such, they struggle to find a moral framework for right and wrong (not that folks haven’t made an honest effort to find one). What doctrines of Darwin would we use to discuss how Hitler and Sanger were at odds with his principles? Perhaps they are out there, but I do not know them. If one supports the theory of evolution, genocide would seem to be a disagreement over the form of the optimization algorithm, not a moral quandry.

      Even still, I gladly give Marx and Darwin the benefit of the doubt on the issue. Their theories were used to massively destructive ends – ends with which they may have disapproved; ends that may well have sickened them. But, were any of these outcomes their intent or desire? I seriously doubt it.

  2. I think your question about “doctrines of Darwin” gets to the heart of the matter: you ask if can we find anything in the theory of evolution that provides some moral guidance on how humans should or should not interact? I don’t think so… but why should we? I would be suspicious of any scientific theory that did. As I think Feynman put it, a scientist wants to describe how things work; why they work that way is a question for the philosophers.

    “If one supports the theory of evolution, genocide would seem to be a disagreement over the form of the optimization algorithm, not a moral quandry.”

    This is an extremely common misunderstanding of the theory of evolution. Indeed, it is one that I addressed just a few weeks ago (see here). Following is my poor attempt at clarification:

    “In the natural world, however, there is no pre-specified optimal behavior. Organisms interact, some reproduce, some don’t, some are killed, some starve. What evolves is simply whatever persists and propagates, not necessarily what might be ‘best’ according to some explicit fitness function.”

    This is what the eugenics crowd (and the similar utility-based arguments against homosexuality made on this blog, for that matter) miss, and would do well to understand. The theory of evolution has nothing whatever to say about the “utility” of one person relative to another. Genocide as an attempt to improve some sort of overall utility “from within the system” is misguided… but so is distrust of scientific theory because of its mis-application.

    • nomasir says:

      I did read the “god as a fitness function” post back when it was written – well written and consistent.

      As per your comment, I’d say first that I have general blanket agreement – but some responses nonetheless.

      I’d hardly call what I have as “distrust of a scientific theory because of mis-application.” I don’t believe Darwin. I don’t believe in evolution. Mis-application of his theory by Hitler, Sanger, and the rest comes after-the-fact for me. (The two are different creatures too. Sanger was a believer in her Eugenics. She believed in evolutionary progress as a means to fix the brokenness of humans; that our destination was perfection and she wanted to get us there sooner. This is the mis-application you speak of. Hitler on the other hand certainly believed in the superiority of the Arians, but would have gladly found another means justifying genocide if need be.)

      I certainly agree with Feynman on the description of a scientist – but disagree that Darwin falls into that class. I hold that Darwin was far less interested in understanding the nature of things than he was in finding a way to explain things that allowed him to disbelieve God. It is a subtle but key distinction. He was decidedly not agnostic. He cast about with nonsense looking for a way we could possibly be here without a creator, and this is what he came up with. That he was a bright guy I will not dispute, nor do I feel any need to. But Charles Darwin was no trained scientist – he was a theologian. (Yes, I know, scientific training wasn’t the same in the 1800s.)

      He was not the first theologian to find himself devoid of faith and needing some mechanism to justify existence. A problem for the Church? to be sure – but a bigger problem for the scientific community. The machinations of such a person must surely be discounted for a clear lack of detachment. Darwin should have recused himself from the discussion. When issues of religion drift into the science things get a little tricky – but this is not a one way street. You’ve noted in the past that “creationists” look for scientifically defensible reasons to justify belief in God – and that this really isn’t a good basis for science. Yet so much of the foundation and basis of the theory of evolution is the desire to justify disbelief in God. It cuts both ways.

      Having said that, none of this was really the intent of the post. I was merely trying to express condolences for Marx and Darwin – two men with whom I disagree on fundamental levels and yet, two men who I sincerely doubt would have supported the use of their words in pursuit of genocide.

  3. Jessee says:

    I’m certainly not an expert on Darwin, but your statements that “he was decidedly not agnostic” and that “his views were expressly atheistic,” run contrary to my understanding of Darwin beliefs. Fortunately we have Darwin’s own words on the matter:

    “It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent Theist and an evolutionist… I think that generally (and more and more so as I grow older) but not always, that an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind.”

    • nomasir says:

      Good quote – here are a few others that I think also shed light on Darwin’s “agnosticism”, whether detached or otherwise…

      “It appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against christianity and theism produce hardly any effect on the public; and freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men’s minds which follows from the advance of science.”

      “I can hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so, the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother, and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine.”

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