The Doomed Moralists, Part 1

I recently had the opportunity to sample The Partially Examined Life’s Robert Nozick episode and IQsquared’s Karl Marx discussion. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become less and less amenable to both Nozick’s libertarianism and Marx’s, well, Marxism. It might just be early onset curmudgeon, perhaps blind prejudice but I’m going to at least try to rationalize these feelings.

I don’t think it’s a secret I’m hostile to Marxism. It’s not because I think Marxism is morally bad in the conventional sense. I don’t think it is an ideology of slavery, I don’t think it is an ideology of hatred, I don’t think “bad people”* have much to do with it at all. I dislike the ideology for the far greater sin of putting a moral ideal above the imperative for existence.

Karl Marx wrote his manifestos and essays because he saw widespread injustice in capitalism. He waxed poetic (mostly not poetic, actually, more awkward and stilted) on the way capitalists squeeze the labor and value from their employees, seeking always to achieve greater exploitation. He saw capital as a spreading fungus, subsuming all the variety and diversity from life, sucking the individuality and humanity from the oppressed masses and making every human being into little more than units of consumption and production.

Moral sentiment cannot survive in capitalism, Marx said, if it does not bend to the all-consuming will of the market. The craftsman tending his vines in time-honored ways cannot compete with the impersonal colossus building “wine” from reconstituted corn extracts. McDonald’s crushes the local burger joints, forces everyone into minimum wage jobs and reduces the populace to starvation wages.  Everything is an icy calculation, nothing is genuinely human.

Blessed are the proletariat for they shall inherit the means of production. A rich man may pass into the party only with more difficulty than a camel may pass through the eye of a needle. Amen. 

Minus the hysterical adjectives, I’d basically agree. Capitalism, if it’s rigid and libertarian and monolithic, does crush everything under a blanket of competition-suppressing monopolies. Let that go on long enough and labor monopolies can reduce everyone to starvation wages. We called this time the Guilded Age and it was not pleasant.

So yes, Mr. Marx, I understand your moral problems with capitalism. I would even go so far as to say you were right about many of capitalism’s evils. If all we care about is right and wrong, you’ve got a pretty good case.


Lesson number 1, continuing to exist is really hard. 

Then we move onto Robert Nozick. From and ideology standpoint, Nozick seems like Marx’s polar opposite, especially if you accept the common modern notion that freedom and equality are essentially opposed.*

“Human beings are ends and not means,” Nozick passionately plagiarized from Kant. “The individual is inviolable. Natural rights are beautiful, glorious.”

It’s hard to disagree with these sentiments. Like Marx, Nozick gets queezy when he sees people being dehumanized, reduced to cogs in a system. Of course, his comic book villain is the government and Marx’s comic book villain is the industrialist, but as someone who doesn’t take villains or heroes very seriously, I’m not convinced this is a significant difference.

Nozick goes on to explain that we, as good Kantians, can never justify infringing on the glorious, John Locke-style natural rights.* We need to be perfectly just in all times and we don’t get to violate an individual’s rights for the sake of the community. After all, if the ends justify the means, there’s really no limitations to the state’s infinite appetite for oppression. This is why taxation is wrong. You see, taxation is hijacking somebody else’s body and stealing the fruits of their labor and if we don’t allow people to own themselves, that’s naked slavery.

It doesn’t matter how necessary that slavery is, we can’t take short cuts. This is because the right to self-determination is absolute and nobody can put a restriction on your self-determination.

If all we care about is right and wrong, Mr. Nozick, you’ve got a pretty good case.


The inevitable spread of freedom in Syria. 

But I don’t just care about right and wrong. In fact, I would argue that a society shouldn’t even consider right and wrong until it’s very certain it will continue to exist. If slavery – whether imposed by the government or capitalist doesn’t matter – is the way to continue existing, a society should institute slavery. If human sacrifice is a big enough advantage to a society’s continued existence, human sacrifice will absolutely arise.

That said, I’m not advocating slavery or human sacrifice. Not because they are naturally wrong but because of the way they became wrong. Namely, I’d argue that human sacrifice and slavery became wrong by not being able to compete with different systems. This evolution of wrongness, I hope, will contain enough evidence we can leave the moralists, whether Marxist or libertarian, behind.


They don’t look like they’re faking it to me. 

In 1935 fascism was very popular. Hundreds of millions of perfectly nice people all across Europe thought, sincerely, that it was a morally good program. They pointed to the amazing resurgence in Germany, the unification and strengthening of Italy and the meteoric rise of Japan, although Japanese fascism was admittedly a different animal. And yet by 1955 calling someone a fascist was a slur. What happened?

I’m sure that if you asked Marx he would talk about people coming to recognize the emptiness and destructiveness of bourgeoisie exploitation. He would talk about the fall of fascism as a demonstration of  rising class consciousness and he’d probably predict the imminent rise of the proletariat because he always predicted the imminent rise of the proletariat.

If you asked Nozick, I’m sure he’d tell you how freedom triumphed over oppression. He’d certainly make moral points about how terrible the inevitable oppression of the state had been. He would point to victims and explain that the lack of freedom put these people into concentration camps. He would predict that we could all learn from this and put into place the truly just nightwatchmen states we really need.


The Japanese learning to embrace freedom and democracy.

If you asked me, I would simply say that the western democracies and communist authoritarians were really, really good at killing fascists. Better than the fascists had been at killing their enemies. The lure of freedom was little discussed in Japan of 1945, in clear contrast with the topic of total annihilation. The Hitler youth joined their mothers in weeping when they heard of their Fuhrer’s death. The Spanish fled into the protective embrace of Francisco Franco. These people do not appear to have been experiencing moral revelation. They appear to have been experiencing the much earthier revelation that their way of life was ending and that they could do nothing to prevent it.

Authoritarian socialism likewise died in the 1980s not from moral enlightenment but from the simple fact that the mixed market economies of the United States, western Europe and Japan could make a lot more stuff a lot more efficiently. Tribal societies are disappearing today not because tribal societies are wrong but because they can’t keep their young people from drinking Coca Cola.

In other words, the might of a society is the source of its rightness. We tack justifications for goodness on later – freedom, equality, whatever makes you hot and bothered – but these “good” systems are good first and foremost because they are capable of surviving in a competitive, dynamic world.

Thankfully, being powerful is usually congruent with human flourishing, so this isn’t usually a problem. However, being powerful and surviving is the first contingent, in my sincerely held opinion.

For ideologues like Marx and Nozick (or Kant if I’m being uncharitable), justice comes first and survival comes second, or third, or not at all. This is a wonderful way to avoid messy compromises, I’m sure. I’d assume that thinking thus is very comforting when it’s bedtime. However, putting morals before might is also the surest path I know to extinction.

*The more I think of it, the less inclined I am to  believe in the importance of “bad people” in world events. I’m getting close to discounting them entirely.

*Just for the record, freedom is such a problematic concept for me that I really can’t say if it conflicts with equality or not.

*Well, quasi-Lockean. Locke had things to say about taking resources only if you left enough for everybody else. Nozick, not so much.

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