August 27, 2003

Fisking the Closet Marxists

On my way home for dinner before I settle down to see how the markets finish. But before I left I figured I’d publish a response to an e-mail I got from an old friend who’s a closet Marxist, but tries to appear reasonable. This is precisely the type of thing I’d never take your time with if I was sending it to you via e-mail, or heaven-forbid, in a 16-page monthly letter. But since we’ve got the space, I thought I’d put it up here. I call it a fisking, which means more than this link suggests. It means exposing a really bad idea for what it is. It began with this email: Folks -- Please see below a particularly provocative excerpt from a rhetoric discussion list. I'm not sure what I think on this subject, but it calls attention to the potency of language and thinking in metaphors. Can words, metaphors take on momentum beyond the control of the speaker? How often do we lazily embrace such "idea packets" into our thinking without making the effort to examine their concepts ourselves? Certainly, an honest skepticism about the wonders attributed to the metaphor of the "invisible hand" seems sound. Here’s the excerpt: "Figures of speech are not mere frills. They think for us. Says Heidegger, 'Die Spracht spricht, nicht der Mensch': The language speaks, not the human speaker. Someone who thinks of a market as an 'invisible hand' and the organization of work as a 'production function' and her coefficients as being 'significant,' as an economist does, is giving the language a lot of responsibility. It seems a good idea to look hard at the language." -- Exordium to McCloskey's _Rhetoric of Economics_, 2nd ed., xix And here’s my response… “Certainly, an honest skepticism about the wonders attributed to the metaphor of the "invisible hand" seems sound.” my friend, who shall remain anonymous (how bout an honest inquiry into what the metaphor means?? does that seem sound…or is there too much of a presumption of intellectual innocence I’m giving to the term?) Tom, You ask good questions. I want to answer them and rephrase them, all in the spirit of "looking hard at the language." You ask: Can words, metaphors take on momentum beyond the control of the speaker? Definitely. Just ask Trent Lott. Or Cruz Bustamante, the Deomcractic leader in California who accidentally used the word “nigger” in a speech he was giving to labor groups…and despite a pro-labor record, got roundly trashed by labor leaders. But in those cases, the speaker neither intended nor desired the response he got. I think we’re probably more interested in cases where the speaker hopes the metaphor takes on a life of its own…and has an idea of what he wants to accomplish by using the metaphor. For example, Howard Dean is always introduced as Dr. Dean now. He’s a Doctor, sure. But isn’t it really designed to make him sound smarter than George Bush, whom everyone “knows” is dumb? Or take the attempted compromising of the term “Weapons of Mass Destruction,” (this was before the war…since then the use of WMD has taken on a whole new used to taunt the Bushies). Before the war, when the idea that Iraq might have (or still has) WMDs, a lot of anti-war folks tried to take the word out of its geopolitical context in order to rob the issue of the urgency the public seemed to be treating it with. You can call it subtraction by addition. The more you make it mean, the less people will remember its original meaning. “Poverty is a weapon of mass destruction.” “Crime is a weapon of mass destruction”. “Hate is a weapon of mass destruction.” “Ignorance is a weapon of mass destruction.” Rhetorically…what’s getting accomplished? You’re trying to rob the metaphor of its original meaning. Sometimes you can compromise an existing phrase. And sometimes you can introduce a new one. But what you’re really competing for is a spot in someone’s brain for your idea…and you want YOUR idea to be the default idea which all others have to challenge. You were doing this, although in a subtle way, by ending your e-mail with an exhortation to an “honest skepticism” of the “wonders” of the invisible hand being “sound.” Who doesn’t want to be honestly skeptical? It’s a sound policy. Isn’t it? And your formulation makes us suspect that even before we’ve even heard what it really means, we OUGHT to be skeptical. That it's something deserving of suspicion. That it's…well… suspect. There's been a crime. An injustice! The invisible hand did it!! I suspect you’re doing this not because you’re honestly skeptical of Adam Smith. I suspect you of wanting to appear reasonable in trashing an idea you’ve already decided you don’t like. You know the idea already occupies a space in OUR mind. And you want that space because you don’t like that idea. In fact, you’re probably a little mad at the phrase “invisible hand.” I’m guessing, but I’m guessing you probably think an unthinking public has been deliberately or at least unjustly deluded into thinking the invisible hand is a GOOD thing when you know, of course, that it’s not. If only we were more honest in our skepticism, we might expose this unjust charade for what it is. That seems sound. Your next question: How often do we lazily embrace such "idea packets" into our thinking without making the effort to examine their concepts ourselves? All the time. Take the word “capitalism,” for example. Marx invented it. Not Adam Smith. Marx invented it satisfy the self-imposed rigors of dialectical materialism which he had just invented. He needed a foil for Marxism. He had a thesis and he had a synthesis all ready to go. What he needed was an antithesis. And lacking one in the real world, he made one up. In fact, Marx was an expert at creating a whole vocabulary which treated ideas as if they were facts, when, in fact, they never were, or have been. To quote from an article by David Pryce-Jones in the New Criterion, Marxist abstractions are based on words like “bourgeoisie and the proletariat and the supposedly pre-ordained class struggle between them, capital and capitalism, empire and imperialism.” These abstractions are “the Marxist organizing principles which reduce human beings and their varied lives to concepts handy to serve a thesis worked up in advance and in the library.” Reducing human beings to classes and abstractions in the context of a great dream of history makes it easier to justify mass murder, by the way. But there’s a lot going on in the Marxist effort to “define” a world into existence. What’s that we say? The first step in characterization is appellation? And what’s the first thing you do in a debate? Define your terms. Make them argue on your terms, not yours. Marxism/Socialism has done this exceedingly well, partly because it appeals to the idea that it’s rational and that those who hold Marxist/Socialist ideas are intellectually superior, not to mention on the right side of history. Basing your argument in an appeal to intellectual authority has some other distinct advantages. First, since it’s so academic and theoretical, it intimidates a lot of people into either not disagreeing because they don’t understand these terms, or giving the terms some kind of authority because they are spoken by someone who pretends to be smarter. If you accomplish either one of these as a rhetorician, you’ve been successful, but only inasmuch as you’ve taken by language-bullying what you couldn’t persuade someone of. That’s how you get people saying all the time, “Marxism is fine in theory. It just breaks down in practice.” Well, in theory, when you want to invent a new man (who by the way doesn't exist and never has, but you would very much like all of us to become), and the old ones aren’t living up to your ideal standard, you round them up in Gulags and kill 20 million of them. Or sometimes you just starve them all to death. In theory, you’re creating a better world. In theory, that’s the course of history. In theory, that’s the sacrifice an individual must make…not just his individuality, but his life. From each according to his ability to each according to his needs... It works just as well, this theoretical crystal palace building, if you’re a member of the master race. Those who aren’t part of the Volk or the Vaterland don’t fit. They can be liquidated. In fact, they probably SHOULD be. Right? That sounds…sound. Doesn’t it? Marx’s understanding of political economy was based on a theory that there was such a class as the proletariat and that the only possession they had (Marx seeing the world purely in material terms) was their labor, which they had to sell to capitalists, who owned “the means of production.” Thus, two classes. Throw in the idea, and only an idea which is both unprovable and unknowable, that history moves in a straight line and ends somewhere, and you have a perfectly rational but totally bogus point of theoretical departure, which justifies nearly any incursion into individual liberty. “History is a system moving toward perfection and because there are two classes, one who is oppressed and one the oppressor. All political action must be dedicated toward overthrowing the oppressor, by any means necessary.” As an aside, even the idea that history is linear and moving toward some predetermined end where our choice doesn’t matter conceals a conceit that the world is a) ordered, and b) has an orderer who is man (because Marx was an atheist) and c) is in need of orderers and d) that the best orderer is he who understands the inevitability of history’s course. Of course, the workers of the world never united. They did not see themselves as “the proletariat.” They saw themselves as Germans, Englishmen, Frenchman, and Russians. And shortly thereafter, they marched off to war to slaughter each other in the millions for “France,” “the Motherland,” or “the Fatherland.” Note, all are abstractions…all metaphors…all horribly abused to inflict massive suffering on people…just as Marxism has. By contrast, Smith’s metaphor is both theoretically and intellectually benign, if not beneficent. It’s based on the idea that for the most part, people naturally cooperate…that there is, to use the Austrian Economist Friedrich Hayek’s term, an “extended order of cooperation” in which people benefit each other without even doing so knowingly. This rankles the intellectual because it suggests there can be order without an orderer. That the hand of Adam Smith isn’t the coercive hand of the State at all but the internal motive, maybe moral, maybe not, which pushes us to find mutually beneficial relationships more often than not. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I like Smith’s metaphor for the degree of choice it imputes to our actions and the goodwill, or at least good effects, that it suggests characterize our action. Wonders, indeed. I like the sound of that. By the way, here’s the full quote from Smith: But the annual revenue of every society is always precisely equal to the exchangeable value of the whole annual produce of its industry, or rather is precisely the same thing with that exchangeable value. As every individual, therefore, endeavours as much as he can both to employ his capital in the support of domestic industry, and so to direct that industry that its produce may be of the greatest value; every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good. It is an affectation, indeed, not very common among merchants, and very few words need be employed in dissuading them from it.


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