"the moral authority of parents who bury children killed in Iraq is absolute"
-- Maureen Dowd, the New York Times
Maureen Dowd's statement is Marxist. No, she did not advocate revolution by the proletariat. She did not say that we ought to have a Communist state. But her famous remark that someone in a particular class of victims has "absolute" moral authority is derived from "folk Marxism," as will be explained below.
In my previous essay, I talked about the process by which the views of important thinkers become distilled into folk beliefs. I argued that it is these folk beliefs that shape our societies. I suggested that John Locke and Karl Marx are two thinkers whose enormous influence can be described using this model. In this essay, I want to elaborate on the folk beliefs that followed Locke and Marx.
Seventeenth-century philosopher John Locke's theory of government influenced America's founders. It has become deeply embedded in our culture. Beliefs that Locke helped to encourage include:
-- individuals have inalienable rights
-- those who govern have obligations to the governed (and not just vice-versa)
-- government's rightful powers are limited, not absolute
At the level of folk beliefs, Locke's views have been distilled into a jaunty defiance of tyrants, whether they are actual, potential, or imagined. This can be seen in expressions such as Give me liberty or give me death! or Well there are certain sections of New York, Major, that I wouldn't advise you to try to invade. or "You'll have to pry this gun from my cold, dead fingers."
As Americans, we cannot conceive of ourselves submitting meekly to tyranny. We cannot picture a regime like that of North Korea or Saddam Hussein's Iraq taking root in our soil.
By maintaining our Lockean tradition, we have built a vibrant society and a prosperous economy. Limited government has allowed innovation to flourish in a peaceful, gradual, evolutionary way.
Folk Marxism looks at political economy as a struggle pitting the oppressors against the oppressed. Of course, for Marx, the oppressors were the owners of capital and the oppressed were the workers. But folk Marxism is not limited by this economic classification scheme. All sorts of other issues are viewed through the lens of oppressors and oppressed. Folk Marxists see Israelis as oppressors and Palestinians as oppressed. They see white males as oppressors and minorities and females as oppressed. They see corporations as oppressors and individuals as oppressed. They see America as on oppressor and other countries as oppressed.
I believe that folk Marxism helps to explain the pride and joy that many people felt when Maryland passed its anti-Walmart law. They think of Walmart as an oppressor, and they think of other businesses and Walmart workers as the oppressed. The mainstream media share this folk Marxism, as they reported the Maryland law as a "victory for labor."
The folk Marxist view of Iraq is that the United States is the oppressor, and the groups fighting the United States are the oppressed. At the extreme, Michael Moore and Ted Rall have made explicit statements to this effect. However, even reporters in the mainstream media who are not openly supporting the enemy take this folk Marxist view when they refer to "the insurgency."
If you think about it, the forces fighting America in Iraq consist of former oppressors and would-be future oppressors. But because America is a rich, powerful country, the folk Marxist instinct is to romanticize ("insurgency") the real oppressors and to demonize ("occupation") the real liberators.
I am not saying that only a folk Marxist would oppose the way we went to war in Iraq or the way that the war has been conducted. However, I would say that it is striking that the basic narrative of the war coming through the mainstream media is folk Marxist. This is particularly true in Europe, where the folk Marxist view of America's presence in Iraq appears to be broadly and deeply held.
The rationale for tax cuts -- "It's your money" -- makes sense to folk-Locke-ism. It drives folk Marxists crazy. Folk Marxists ask What's the Matter with Kansas?. They cannot understand why the oppressed do not see the advantages of higher taxes on their "rich" oppressors.
Folk Marxism can explain why some environmentalists do not like using taxes to control pollution. If you think of polluters as the oppressors and everyone else as the oppressed, then merely taxing pollution is not morally satisfying.
The Consequences of Locke and Marx
The contrast between the results of following Locke and those of following Marx could not be sharper. Marxist countries have murdered millions, imposed a regime of fear and repression on their citizens, and impeded economic development. Where the "natural experiment" was performed of splitting one culture into Communist and non-Communist regions (North and South Korea, East and West Germany), well-being in the non-Communist country ended up several times higher than in the Communist country. People fled Communist countries by the millions, while barely a trickle of individuals chose to emigrate in the other direction.
The differing consequences of Locke and Marx are not an accident. Under folk Locke-ism, each individual has moral standing. We all are endowed with rights, and we all are obligated to follow the law. It should be no surprise that the principle of equality before the law would lead individuals to focus on mutually advantageous interactions. It should be no surprise that inequality before the law, such as the Jim Crow South of 50 years ago, would come to be regarded as a blot and a national disgrace.
Under folk Marxism, the oppressed class has inherent moral superiority to the oppressor class -- recall the quote which opens this essay. Class membership trumps individual character in determining moral standing. It should be no surprise that this belief could lead to tyranny and wanton murder by government. It should be no surprise that this belief has failed to improve the lot of those regarded as "oppressed." It inverts Martin Luther King's call to judge people by the content of their character.
Even when Marxism does not lead to tyranny, it retards economic growth, as the stagnation of continental Europe indicates. If you believe that the poor are oppressed and the rich are oppressors, then your impulse is to penalize work, risk-taking, innovation, and saving -- the engines of economic progress. As entrepreneur Paul Graham put it,
"So let's be clear what reducing economic inequality means. It is identical with taking money from the rich...It sounds benevolent to say we ought to reduce economic inequality. When you phrase it that way, who can argue with you? Inequality has to be bad, right? It sounds a good deal less benevolent to say we ought to reduce the rate at which new companies are founded. And yet the one implies the other."
Marx and the Academy
The vast majority of college professors are folk Marxists, even though they do not advocate for Communism. Their folk Marxism is dangerous because they do not even realize the extent to which it colors their world view. Although the academy is also the last bastion of avowed Marxists, it is not the overt Marxists who trouble me. They are not winning converts.
Every day, in big and small ways, academic speech reinforces the view that the world consists of oppressor classes and oppressed classes. In a way, the controversy over Lawrence Summers as President of Harvard reflects his defiance of folk Marxist orthodoxy. Folk Marxism is so automatic and so pervasive that it effectively goes unnoticed.
I would consider it a great step forward for liberals in the academic community to acknowledge the existence of folk Locke-ism and folk Marxism. If my liberal friends want to express support for folk Marxism, that is fine. If they want to criticize folk Locke-ism, that is all right, too. If they would like to give a less loaded name than "folk Marxism" to the oppressed/oppressor paradigm, I have no problem using a different label.
My concern with what I call folk Marxism is substantive, not rhetorical. To me, the danger of folk Marxism in the academy today is that it is implicit and unrecognized -- and therefore unquestioned.
Arnold Kling is author of Learning Economics.
(Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series on the effects of ideas on the popular mindset. You can read Part One here.)