Wednesday, August 25, 2004

What Marx Got Right

Wouldn't you figure that it would take a libertarian like Tyler Cowen to mount the strongest defense yet of what the Marxist vision had to offer?

1. Capitalist systems, especially before reaching contemporary times, can produce less autonomy than small scale production. Standards of living do rise from industrialization. But I look at many of my rural Mexican friends. They could earn somewhat higher wages in factories, but they prefer to paint ceramics at home. It is more fun and they control their time to a large degree. At some point industrialization can undercut the cultures and networks of suppliers that makes such a choice possible. Marx directs our attention to a certain indivisibility of systems.

2. Marxism promotes an alternative idea of freedom, namely freedom from the market. Anyone who has chosen life as a tenured university professor should not claim that such an idea is complete nonsense. Smith thought in terms of marginal tradeoffs. Marx, above all, focused on inframarginal and systematic effects.

3. The benefits of industrialization take a long time to kick in. Reforming postcommunist economies took fifteen years or more. Poland did most things right and people there are still unhappy. So how long should it take to reform feudalism or other preindustrial structures? Forty years? I take seriously the idea that the industrial revolution did not make people better off right away, so did Marx.

4. Being happy at work is one of the most important things in life. Marx saw the importance of this more clearly than did many of the classical economists. And he saw the importance of inframarginal systemic factors.

5. A growing division of labor can make some people unhappier at their jobs.

To sum up, we all know that capitalism brings a "creative destruction," to use the phrase of Schumpeter. This is all for the better, but Marx saw how strong both the positive and negative sides of this process would be. And he knew that the relevant problems went deeper than just looking at whether people make rational tradeoffs at the margin. That being said, he overestimated the negative side of the market and underestimated how well capitalism could solve its problems concerning the distribution of income.
Which goes to show that there are at least a few people who appreciate the wisdom of the refrain "Know thine enemy." Lest anyone think Cowen's "gone native", he closes with the following statements:
Of course marxism, as a political program, remains dangerous nonsense. Marx's blind spots were enormous, and I still cannot understand how generations of the intelligentsia were taken in by the whole thing.
To which I can only give my wholehearted agreement.