The Material and Moral: What Marxism Misconstrues

This article was originally published at on March 21, 2013.

Few economists take Karl Marx seriously. His economics, they say, is riddled with basic fallacies, and his political philosophy is more religious than scientific—the product of irrational conviction more than impartial observation.

But despite this general distaste for Marxist economics, his belief in prosperity as a cure for social and psychological problems has become a central tenet of American public opinion.

In 1859, Marx wrote:

The mode of production of material life determines the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.

In short, Marx believed material deprivation is the source of social, political and intellectual conflict. Instead of viewing a strong moral consciousness as the source of economic prosperity, he blamed the lack of prosperity for moral decline.

In the early twentieth century, the progressive movement gained widespread popularity for advancing a similar belief: They viewed in economic engineering—material enrichment—as a means to engender a more civil society. “To permit the moral ideas to percolate through continually lower strata of the population,” progressive economist Edwin Seligman wrote, “we must have an economic basis to render it possible.”

As the twentieth century progressed, this idea spread—especially among the elite political classes. By finding the source of moral and social ills in material causes, politicians could justify power grabs that gave them more control over the economy.

Such sentiments are even seen in the philosophy of President Obama. Speaking at a fundraiser in 2008, he blamed small-town Americans’ apparent frustration with immigrants and their “clinging to guns or religion” on economic factors—namely, high unemployment. Material causes, he implies, are the underlying source of moral and social decay.

Of course, such beliefs are rarely applied on a micro-scale. For example, when witnessing a robbery at a convenience store, no one immediately blames the poor economy for the crime. The fault lies with the perpetrator, as it would with any other crime in any other place.

But jump to a diagnosis of society as a whole, and such analysis is frequently applied on a macro-scale, in ways that marginalize the importance of good morals and personal responsibility. If only poor people were better off, politicians say, problems of theft, drug use and unplanned pregnancy would simply go away. The proposed solutions are material, but the behavior is a question of morality.

How should we think about this issue? Are economic forces really to blame for moral decay? Of course, poverty can make people desperate. Hunger can make things like theft or deceit seem like reasonable options. But to what extent is material deprivation the source of societal problems?

I’ll explore that question in my next post. In the meantime, I welcome your thoughts and comments.

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Solving Problems Apart from the Law

This article was originally published by on March 7, 2013.

Last year alone, more than 40,000 new laws took effect across the United States. Regulating everything from immigration to happy hours to golf cart traffic, the force of law is quickly becoming Americans’ favorite way to resolve conflicts. And while there are social issues that we should address, even California Gov. Jerry Brown realizes that “Not every human problem deserves a law.”

Of course, some laws—like those forbidding murder and theft—are necessary. But many are the result of frustrated citizens trying to change the behavior of those with whom they disagree. Take the current gun control debate, for example. While there are many market-based solutions to gun violence that everyone should agree with—like boycotting irresponsible sellers, condemning violent films and volunteering with at-risk youth—many Americans simply resort to calling for government to ban guns. By incriminating their ideological enemies, gun-control advocates give up on the notion of peaceful negotiation in favor of locking up those who disagree with them.

The same trends exist with regard to almost any societal problem. Poor educational outcomes? Increase school funding. Rampant drug use? Lock up drug users. High interest rates? Print more money. Name the issue, and chances are that most Americans advocate a government solution. As Isaac Morehouse has written, it is a fiction that changing the law is the solution to social problems.

But why is it that Americans are so quick to abandon peaceful compromise and use the force of law to achieve their ends?

The answer: Big government. For decades, the federal government has intervened into almost every aspect of Americans’ private lives. Whether it be the food we eat, the medicines we take or the cars we buy, bureaucrats in Washington are quick to propose rules and regulations that increase their power over every aspect of the economy.

One cost associated with government’s growth is the American people’s diminished ability to solve problems on their own—without the aid of government. Most Americans today cannot conceive of a world where things like education, food safety and road-building are left to the free market. Instead, they have come to associate societal problems with government failures. Instead of seeking voluntary, peaceful solutions, most believe that the right government policy is the only way to alleviate undesirable features of American life.

But throughout history, the most innovative solutions to societal and economic problems have come not from government, but from entrepreneurial individuals using their skills to meet the needs of those around them. When Henry Ford saw that cars were too expensive, he made the assembly line. When the Wright brothers saw that long-distance travel was expensive and difficult, they made an airplane. When Jim Casey saw that his neighbors had no way to cheaply ship packages, he created UPS.

Of course, these entrepreneurs could have used the force of law to solve these problems. Instead of innovating, they could have lobbied for more money and regulation to meet the needs they saw—price controls on automobiles, government-funded airplane research, and subsidized parcel post. But this would have left their fellow Americans no better off than before. No new products, technology or means of solving problems would be available to forge a better future.

Luckily for us, however, they chose to condemn violent force as a means to solve problems. They sought peaceful, market-based solutions that, while difficult to implement, had lasting benefits for many generations. Their refusal to engage in the battle for power and government influence made winners out of everyone—both them and their customers.

It’s unlikely that today’s trend of big government will reverse any time soon. Americans have become too accustomed to a government big enough to address any problem imaginable. But that only makes the task of those committed to the free market all the more important: Reject government force as a means to solve problems, and embrace the entrepreneurial spirit that creates powerful and lasting change.