Sunday, June 01, 2008

Marx Was Partly Right

Tibor R. Machan

Most literate people know that first on the list in Karl Marx & Frederick Engels' Communist Manifesto of what needed changing to achieve socialism is the abolition of the right to private property. This follows, of course, from the very idea of socialism, which sees humanity or society as an organic body, akin to a termite colony. Individuals no longer exist in such a system, so privacy and private property must go, too.

Marx also made a prediction that in modern democracies there wouldn’t be a need for violent revolutions because the citizenry will get rid of the legal protection of private property through the electoral process. Too many people will get fed up with the volatility of freedom, including the free market place, and gradually achieve socialism by voting in politicians who will eliminate the obstacle of legally protected private property rights to central planning.

Marx thought that central planning would serve society well but he based this idea on his confidence that human nature will change. Instead of people wanting to achieve various goals of their own, they will in time come to aim only for the public good. He believed that once matured, “the human essence is the true collectivity of man.” The new man, then, will not be like you and me or anyone today.

This is an important element of socialism and central planning because only if it is true will the theory of public choice, which completely undermines confidence in central planning, be avoided. Public choice theory addresses human being as they are now, not as they would turn out to be in Marx’s vision of a socialist society. If Marx is wrong and human nature will not change, then public choice theory shows that central planners will make a mess of things, not help out at all. Central planners, being ordinary humans, will aim at fulfilling their own agendas, not some vague public purpose.

A unified, one-size-fits-all public purpose makes sense within the context of the Marxian idea of the new man, one who cares nothing for himself or herself, only for the whole society. This is like people in a team or orchestra who are not focused on their own private agendas but that of the group. It works fine in small organizations which human beings join voluntarily because they do in fact promise to fulfill their own goals, only with the aid of other people. But in Karl Marx’s picture no need for voluntary joining exists. People will be born as socialists, by their very nature.

Because the Marxian idea is a myth--history is not driving us toward socialism and the new man--the socialism aimed for by Marx and his followers has to be brought about coercively, by brute force--see Stalin or Hugo Chavez, as examples. This is even so when people elect politicians whom they entrust with public service because those people, of course, haven’t a clue how to achieve some mythical comprehensive public good. So even when elected by majorities, as Max thought they would be in democracies, promoters of socialism will be thoroughly stymied by their own unavoidable ignorance of what really benefits us. We are not all the same; indeed humanity as it actually is consists of a huge variety of individuals with an equally huge variety of different ways of attaining their best interests. No central planners can achieve this, ever.

But Marx did have it right that in their impatience and frustration with the free market, people will attempt the impossible. (Marx, of course, didn’t think socialism is impossible.) Consider, for example, environmental issues. Many are panicked about how well protected private property rights leave much of the environment uncared for--e. g., rain forests, the polar bear, etc., etc. So they then wish to entrust the care to politicians and planners. They envision some kind of supreme plan that will bring about a healthy ecosystem. But no one really knows what that is and planners are just as prone to mismanage it all as individuals, only the scope of their mismanagement is far greater, so the damage they do is huge. (In fact most of the current environmental mess is due to government central planners who built ridiculously huge projects using government's power to violate private property rights, as in the case of the TVA and the many humongous dams around the globe.)

Impatience is what produces all this. It is true that with a regime of legally protected private property rights no grand scheme is in the offing. Yet that impossible dream motivates too many people, however futile it is from the start. The only real prospect is the piecemeal, strict private property approach and that is what encourages--though it does not guarantee--the responsible use of the environment.

Just as the perfect is the enemy of the good, so the myth of guaranteed environmental health is the enemy of a reasonably healthy one. Too bad, but Marx did have a point about people’s impatience. Yet certainly it isn’t going to lead to any socialist utopia.

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