Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Fascist Octopus Has Taken The White House!

Bryan Caplan has urged "grateful bloggers" to "dance on the grave of Marxism" this May Day [please also see update at the bottom of this post]. It seems to me to be a very appropriate dance floor. Caplan offers his own contribution in a counter-factual history of what could have happened if Lenin had his fatal stroke in 1917. I raise some issues with the counter-factual he poses (fifth comment down), but all in all it's interesting.

I was going to offer insights from my favorite anti-Marxist, John Maynard Keynes. But then I saw an Atlantic post on accusations of Obama's Marxism, and I decided that I needed to stamp that out instead. I think Keynes would have approved. He spent much of his career critiquing both laissez-faire and Marxism, and in pointing out to people how Marxism was anti-thetical to his own ideas and threatened the cause of liberty. Back to Obama. On his tour of the Midwest, Obama said something that agitated the hyper-sensitive, hyperbolic, and self-righteous Right. He said: "I do think that at a certain point you've made enough money." Mark Levin said that the sentiment has "strong shades of Marxism". Seems like a pretty reasonable interpretation...

Except that I've misquoted Obama. I added a period, where he had a comma. What Obama actually said was:

"We're not trying to push financial reform because we begrudge success that's fairly earned. I do think that at a certain point you've made enough money, [<-- COMMA!!!!!!!] but you know part of the American way is that you can just keep on making it if you're providing a good product or you're providing a good service. We don't want people to stop fulfilling the core responsibilities of the financial system to help grow the economy."

Yes, when you start switching around commas and periods, and when you don't restate the entire sentence you can make it sound like just about anything. What's sadder, though, is that you know this is going to get traction.

It's like that infamous Chicago radio interview where Obama explicitly said that the courts were not the right place to pursue economic justice, and yet somehow the message that came out of that was that we should pursue economic justice in the courts. It's the same thing here with this "enough money" statement. He explicitly said in the sentence quoted above that people should continue to earn money - more money than they even need - if they're providing a good or service that people want. That's the epitome of market capitalism. How the hell does that get turned into Marxism? It's bizarre to see people do these mental gymnastics to take a grammatically simple sentence and turn it into what they wanted him to say.

At least in the Chicago radio interview, Obama elaborated his idea over the course of several sentences. He spent quite a bit of time explaining why the courts failed to achieve all the aims of the Civil Rights movement, why they weren't the right place to achieve all the aims of the Civil Rights movement, and for that reason why the leaders of the Civil Rights movement were wrong to put so much emphasis on the court process when they should have put more emphasis on community organizing. It took him a while to lay that thesis out - it's a complicated thesis after all! But this point about "enough money" is just one sentence. Can't people read all the way to the period at the end of the sentence? A couple years ago I would have said "can't people listen to the end of a radio interview before forming your full opinion?". Since then I've realized we really don't have that much attention span - but I would have thought we could at least finish the end of a sentence. Apparently not.

In the Chicago radio interview, Obama laid out a strong case for (1.) negative rights, and (2.) a limited role for legislating from the bench. Willful misreading or involuntary ignorance twisted that into a case for (1.) positive rights, and (2.) an expansive role for the courts. By the same token, Obama is here making an explicit case for market capitalism, where people can continue to earn money beyond what they could possibly need if they're providing a useful product. But willful misreading or involuntary ignorance is turning it into precisely the opposite message. What's most striking is that they're twisting his words where they have common ground with him! They presumably agree with him on this point. So why not agree with him on this point and then disagree with him on the details of the finance reform where you legitimately disagree with him? The answer, of course, is simple. Claiming that Obama doesn't want you to make any more money after you've "made enough" plays better in a campaign ad than detailed disagreements on the financial reform bill. And these people - like all politicians - are all about winning power. They're all about the next election. So they choose to do and say what is most advantageous for winning power.

If the Lincoln-Douglas debates were held today, Douglas would have won hands down. People simply don't have the attention span to listen to an entire point. They form their opinion ahead of time and hear only the snippets that buttress that opinion. That is not a good sign for free society.

UPDATE: When I had read Bryan's initial post, I got the impression that this was just an opportunity for a bunch of people to discredit Marxism and celebrate the (relative) lack of Marxism that we've enjoyed as a planet since 1989. The Distributed Republic, which is aggregating many of these posts, has something more specific in mind - remembering the victims of Marxism. This is also an important thing to do today. I'm not sure what exactly to say on the matter - the facts speak for themselves. Millions died at the hands of this ideology. But why was the ideology so powerful? Ultimately, I think it was powerful because of human hubris. We place a high premium on our own intelligence and ability to figure things out. We are pretty smart creatures - it's not an entirely inexplicable hubris. But ultimately it's fallacious. We make mistakes. And our failures can be especially damaging when we get too wrapped up in extended, logically deduced megaprojects like Marxism. Logical deduction is very enticing. In theory, it's air-tight. It's a fantastic way to discover truths. But deductive logic is contingent on two pillars: accurate axioms or assumptions, and a valid chain of deductions. Human frailty often misleads us on both those points. However impressive logical deduction is on paper, we always manage to mess it up. Marxism emerged from this supreme confidence in man's ability to figure things out. When the early Marxists first devised their socialist framework, they relied on their ability to figure out the determinist contours of human society. That was hubris. The practitioners of Marxism added to that initial hubris the mistake of assuming that they could actually plan something as complicated as the economy. The Marxists were so confident in their deductive reasoning and so unwilling to test their ideas against experience that they felt justified in immolating countless innocent human beings. Hubris breeds confidence in our own logic, and confidence in our own logic leads us to violently defend logically deduced megaprojects that we've convinced ourselves can solve all the problems of the world. This hubris is the underlying failure of all megaprojects based on deductive logic: from Communism to libertarianism. Human reasoning is a powerful tool, but it has to be tempered and tested with experience. Anyone who tells you that they've figured everything out and by their logic Communism works is a fool. You can't figure out in your head some silver bullet form of social organization. By the same token, anyone who tells you that they've eschewed empirical testing and through their deductive logic they have concluded that libertarianism is a fool-proof silver bullet for social organization is also a fool. I'm bringing libertarianism into this, because I think the debate over Marxism is often skewed and distorted. Superficially, many ideologies are stark opposites - but unless we see their common underlying fallacies we inevitably threaten life and liberty. Verification, falsification, and empiricism dictate that people square their understanding of the social and political world with the understanding and experience of others. With these priorities, you cannot have the mass death that we experienced at the hands of Marxism. That sort of thing is only possible if you close your mind to experience and rely only on your own logical abilities (or, I suppose, if you are both an empiricist and a sociopath). The crimes of Marxism originated in the hubris of its deductive reasoning, which was cantilevered out to undergird an alien ideology.

1 comment:

  1. This is actually the real problem with Obama's statement:


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