This article was originally published at ValuesandCapitalism.com 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.