Recently, via Ed Driscoll and Stacy McCain, there’s been new attention (in the context of Occupy) to a pair of 5 year old essays by Arnold Kling about “folk Marxism”, that is, the set of working assumptions shared by the general populace that have their roots in the work of Karl Marx. I’ve had a nearly-congruent concept called “bourgeois Marxism”, so named because one needs to have a certain level of education and income to subscribe to it, and because believers in bourgeois Marxism are nice people who totally ignore the violence required to implement even the mildest of Marxist proposals. They’ll deny that they’re Marxists because they don’t believe in the gulag, yet they are perfectly fine with prison for de jure economic crimes. They’ll support income redistribution while visiting the entertainments who advertise in the local so-called “alternative newspaper”, even though those businesses rely on surplus income to survive. “Folk Marxism” is, I think, a broader category in that it deals with fundamental cultural memes more than actions in the world.
Kling mostly focuses on class warfare as a chief manifestation of folk Marxism. But us vs. them has always existed; it’s just that in former times, the nation and the domestic society was always us instead of them, but to the folk Marxist, the United States is them. (to the extent that “the United States” is coterminous with its government, I may share more folk Marxism than I think). But the manifestations reach deeper, into fundamental moral assumptions about fairness, and broader into Marxism, into the points of the Communist Manifesto.
To take one example, consider #2 of the 10 demands of the Manifesto: “A heavy progressive or graduated income tax. ” Most Americans believe that a “fair” tax system involves taking a higher percentage of income from “the rich” than from “the poor” (however we define those terms). Both American political parties accept this; Republicans believe that the tax rate of the rich should not be too high, as it might squelch economic growth, while Democrats believe that economic growth is created by the poor having lots of money from the rich to spend. Even the so-called Fair Tax accepts that the poor get a break. In either case, it’s a pragmatic rather than a moral argument, and pragmatically, if you want power, you have to go where the money is. When asked why it is “fair” that the rich pay more, most people, if they don’t lapse into silence or total incoherence, will argue that it’s because “the rich CAN pay more, and they won’t miss the extra money. ” But values are individual, and you cannot know what another human being will miss.
Further, we don’t normally use capacity as a measure of justice. If I gave the eldest of my granddaughters a bigger piece of cake because she’s bigger, her stomach is bigger, and she could eat more, the others would object. We don’t, in this country, adjust speeding tickets to the driver’s income, as they do in Finland. We do treat the mentally impaired with leniency in criminal proceedings, but that’s an issue of moral competence rather than fiscal capacity.
So why not the same percentage of income? Oh, that would be too tough for the poor. But we could make it a low enough rate so that the poor could pay. The arguments against that are pragmatic, not moral; we’d have to have a much smaller government. For that matter, if government is a service that we purchase, why not charge an absolute dollar amount? We don’t charge the rich more for a steak; that would be totally impractical. Yes, some services are sold on a sliding scale, but it’s not more for the rich, it’s less for the poor, and it’s up to the poor to prove that they’re worth of the break. It’s charity, not an issue of fairness. We’d have to charge even less for government then. But it would be fair.
It seems that whenever I have ever challenged anyone on a basic assumption rooted in Marxism or other forms of collectivism, they slither away without addressing the issue. In this society, I’ve not had that liberty. They shouldn’t either.