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Core Problems of Marxist Economics and Philosophy

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Karl Marx - Author of the Communist Manifesto

Far too often in our political discourse, we tend to rely on platitudes and generalizations as our basis for criticism of philosophical opponents.  This approach may save us time, create good one-liners, and inspire loyalty from those who are likewise less-than-informed about the true nuances of the position of our opponent, but it is not an approach likely to make constructive progress or convince anyone not already disposed to agreement.

In the following article I have taken a close examination of what I can best ascertain to be the core premises of Karl Marx‘s theories and identified what I believe to be the problems in Marx’s assertions.

The Labor Theory of Value

The labor theory of value is central to Marx’s economics.  He adopted this theory from Adam Smith (“Wealth of Nations”) which is a fact often pointed out by opponents of the free market, but Smith was hardly a free market purist and his free-market economics was full of flaws.  By borrowing Smith’s theory of value, Marx built his economics and, I maintain, even his central political conclusions on an irreparable error of reasoning.

Under the labor theory of value, the price of a good is a direct derivative of the labor performed in its creation or provision.  Therefore, to Marx, the profits derived from the sale of goods can only come at the expense of the just price deserved by the worker who performed the labor to create it.  Because price is a reflection of the labor involved, any difference between wages and that price paid (profit) is, to Marx, an inherent exploitation.

Most economists, however, no longer take the labor theory of value or Marx’s specific economics seriously… even those who advocate socialistic policies for philosophical reasons.  This is largely due to the work of Austrian school and Neo-classical economists in the late 1800’s who developed the subjective theory of value.  Rather than viewing it as an intrinsic reflection of the amount of labor expended, these economists theorized that value or price is a function of two parties and their determination of value based on subjective personal criteria.  If value were not subjective, no exchange would occur because both parties must believe the exchange to be beneficial.  Therefore “profit” becomes not a disparity between the objective price to which labor is entitled and wages paid, but simply function of voluntary exchange for subjectively determined value.  Under the subjective value theory, the laborer has no inherent entitlement to anything other than the wage voluntarily agreed to be paid which is also itself a function of the subjective theory of value, being the price of labor.

Because the labor theory is a presumption so central to Marx’s conclusions, and not just his economics, the irreparable flaws in the labor theory permeate all of Marx’s theory.

Defining the Bourgeois

Marx’s theory is predicated on the class distinction between the Bourgeois and the Proletariat.  For Marx, the defining characteristic of the Bourgeois is its ownership of capital property, or the “means of production.” and thus the Proletariat are defined by their consequent non-ownership of the means of production and their resulting need to rely on the sale of labor for subsistence.

There are a few easily identifiable logical problems with this distinction which make it difficult to draw, and which make the presumed ever-increasing polarity between these two classes which is foundational to Marx’s theory a very problematic approach.

  1. How is this distinction to be drawn for purposes of deposing the Bourgeois of their means of production and bring it under the control of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat?  Many individuals of a wide range of economic circumstances own property which can be used as a means of production, and even more so who own property that could be rendered capable of such in a situation of incentive or need.  It is hard to see how any property fully falls outside of this distinction, and as a result how the Bourgeois is to be distinguished from property owners in general.
  2. Is not labor itself also a “means of production” in society?  Is this “human resource” of labor also to be brought under collective ownership in the dictatorship of the Proletariat, or is individual ownership of one’s own person to be retained?  The violent and oppressive history of the varied attempts to implement the Dictatorship of the Proletariat would certainly demonstrate at the very least a tendency toward state ownership of even this natural property.
  3. Once separated from their ownership of the means of production, does the group formerly referred to as the Bourgeois retain this label?  Since the defining characteristic of the Bourgeois is its ownership of the means of production, why do the individuals vested with the trust of managing the Dictatorship of the Proletariat not simply become a new Bourgeois, now that they have effective ownership and control of the means of production?
  4. Does not the feasibility of any revolution require participation by at least an element of the Bourgeois?  Military conflict implies, at least to some minimal degree, the employment of capital or productive means in the process.  This would make a Proletarian revolution, at least as a means for forcibly confiscating the productive property of the Bourgeois, a practical impossibility.

It seems the distinctions here are too nebulous to provide a definitive formula for action and policy, and thus would tend instead to simply justify with general rhetoric, revolutionary violence aimed at particular targets.  These would inevitably be those chosen by the revolutionary mob and would-be managers under the new regime, but would not necessarily include the entire Bourgeois as defined by Marx.

It is also important to note that Marx did not formulate a specific plan or picture of the resulting state after the revolution like more idealistic communal thinkers such as Plato and St. Thomas More (Utopia).  He instead viewed the rise in unrest and revolution among the working classes to be a historical inevitability.  To this extent, given the rise of labor-themed revolution worldwide in the generations since his writing, we must acknowledge that he has been vindicated by history.  How much this was a function of accurate prognostication or merely self-fulfilling prophecy is still up for debate.


Written by Spencer Morgan

March 6, 2011 at 8:34 pm

Posted in History, Philosophy

Immigration, Naturalization and Natural Rights.

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by Spencer Morgan

With the recent controversy surrounding Arizona’s new bill to enforce Federal immigration laws, and similar legislative efforts in Utah, there is a lot of talk about the presumed “constitutional” duty for the Federal government to be involved in policing the borders of the union.  There is not very much talk, however, about what Constitutional clause or legitimate principle serves as the basis for such power.  State officials and Attorney generals wash their hands of the issue, accepting the unquestioned presumption that this is a federal problem resulting from a failure of a federal duty.  Rather than join the tired partisan debate about the “rule of law” and the need for safeguards to ensure equal enforcement, I’ve taken a very radical approach instead.  I decided to actually look at the Constitution itself, as well as at other writings and legislation of the era, to see what I could find.

The fact is, there is no clause of the Constitution which grants power or specifies any obligation for the federal government to police the borders of the several states for the purposes of preventing entry by non-citizens.  Our Constitution is unique from other historical governments, or at least was intended to be, in the sense that it did not begin with a presumption of any inherent government power.  Rather, in our tradition and under the ideology and understanding of the founders, all inherent power was presumed to reside with the individual by virtue of natural rights.  This means that the Constitution, if it is be be an enactment of written law at all consistent with the vision intended by the legally acting parties upon its adoption (the States, in their ratifying conventions), should be interpreted as only granting those powers actually identified in the document.

Naturalization vs. Immigration

Naturalization and immigration are two very different things.  Naturalization is the process by which a resident becomes a citizen entitled to the benefits of participation in the body politic.  Immigration is the simple movement of people.  The founders were not operating on the presumption (that is relatively new in our history) that all rights of free movement, trade, employment etc. were dependent on citizenship or naturalized status.  The Constitution did grant Congress the power to write rules for naturalization (citizenship) but it was in no way presumed that the grant of that status was to be viewed as a prerequisite for the use of natural, creator-endowed rights such as the right to form contracts, sell one’s labor for a price, or own property. That is why the 1790 Congress wrote the Naturalization Act (enacted by many of the founders and signed into law by Washington and Adams) which required that candidates for naturalization affirm their residency in the states for at least 2 years prior.  Why would they make the admission of a criminal act or fugitive status a prerequisite for a grant of citizenship?  They didn’t, because they didn’t view mere existence within the borders as a non-citizen to be a “criminal” act.  They knew foreign residents were here and coming in large numbers (a condition which contributed to a near doubling in population during the 11 years after the revolution) and wanted to be able to naturalize them efficiently.  In fact, one of the grievances cited by the colonists in the Declaration of Independence was the King’s efforts to obstruct the speedy naturalization processes that the colonies had set up under their legislatures.

Natural Rights vs. Privileges of Citizenship

It is entirely proper, of course, for government bodies to be determining based on the will and consent of their constituents (citizens) the process and criteria by which to bring new citizens into body politic.  The confusion pervading the modern debate about illegal immigration, however, stems from a misunderstanding of what “rights” a government grants to us and what “rights” it does not and therefore is not free to take away.  Natural Rights are those fundamental entitlements inherent to our condition of humanity, and evident by fact of our creation.  In the Declaration of Independence we read the following clause;

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Because these rights are viewed as inherent to the human condition and granted by a creative entity or process, they are not something which can rightfully be denied by government or made subject to a condition of citizenship.  Citizenship status can only be a prerequisite for the use of those privileges which actually depend on the existence of the state for their existence, such as the right to vote or the right to use court and government processes to sue for relief as a complaining party.  The mindset that mere human existence or the exercise of rights inherent thereto can be decreed to be “criminal” by a statute is fundamentally at odds with the philosophy of liberty itself.

Written by Spencer Morgan

March 6, 2011 at 7:09 pm

Posted in History, Philosophy

The Battle of New Orleans: Individual Liberty, Diversity and the Defense of a Free Republic.

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On January 8th, 1815 America’s new experiment in Republican self-government, barely a generation old, faced the greatest threat thus far in its short history. The campaign by the British against New Orleans was designed to establish British control of the Mississippi, divide the new nation and provide the upper hand to the British in the then-ongoing negotiations to end the war of 1812.   

The unlikely victory of Andrew Jackson’s Tennessee Militia and a motley assortment of volunteers whose ranks included free Blacks, Creoles and even Native Americans over the most powerful standing army of the British Empire inspired a generation of Americans to mark its anniversary as a “second Independence day”.

They understood that the independence of the United States of America was every bit at stake in this conflict as it had been in the Revolutionary war. Below is a short synopsis of the battle from wikipedia:

On December 13, 1814, a British fleet commanded by Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane arrived off the Louisiana coast. In a brief but violent naval battle on Lake Borgne, 53 British rowing boats armed with bow-chasers overwhelmed five American dinghies protecting the waters near New Orleans.

A few days later, the British forces under Major General Sir Edward Michael Pakenham landed along the lower Mississippi River. At first, they met with only minor resistance. The Americans, led by Andrew Jackson (a colonel in the United States Army and a Major-General of the Tennessee militia), set up defensive positions at Chalmette, Louisiana, some five miles (8 km) downriver from New Orleans. Jackson, because he needed time to get his artillery into position, decided to immediately attack the British.

On the night of December 23, Jackson led a three-pronged attack on the British Army camp which lasted until early morning. After capturing some equipment and supplies, the Americans withdrew to New Orleans suffering 24 killed, 115 wounded and 74 missing or captured while the British claimed their losses as 46 killed, 167 wounded, and 64 missing or captured.

This stalled the British advance long enough for the Americans to bring in their heavy artillery and establish earthworks along a portion of the east bank of the Mississippi River. On Christmas Day, Pakenham arrived on the battlefield and ordered a reconnaissance-in-force against the American earthworks protecting the roads to New Orleans. On December 28, groups of British troops made probing attacks against the American earthworks.

When the British withdrew, the Americans began construction of artillery batteries to protect the earthworks which were then christened “Line Jackson”. The Americans installed seven batteries which included one 32-pound gun, three 24-pounders, one 18-pounder, three 12-pounders, three 6-pounders and a 6-inch howitzer. Jackson also sent a detachment of men to the west bank of the Mississippi to man two 24-pounders and two 12-pounders from the grounded warship Louisiana.

The main British army arrived on January 1, 1815, and attacked the earthworks using their artillery. An exchange of artillery fire began which lasted for three hours. Several of the American guns were destroyed or knocked out which included the 32-pounder, a 24-pounder and a 12-pounder, and some damage was done to the earthworks. But the Americans held their ground. The British guns ran out of ammunition, which led Pakenham to cancel the attack. Pakenham decided to wait for his entire force of over 8,000 men

In the early morning of January 8th, the British ordered a two pronged assault on the American position: one attacking the west flank across the Mississippi, and one directly against the main American line.

The attack began under a heavy fog, but as the British neared the main enemy line, the fog suddenly lifted, exposing them to withering artillery fire. The British, armed only with muskets effective at close range, tried to close the gap, but discovered that the ladders needed to cross a canal and scale the earthworks had been forgotten. As a result, most of their senior officers were killed or wounded, and the British infantry could do nothing but stand out in the open and be mown down by a combination of muskets and grapeshot from the Americans.

There were three large, direct assaults on the American positions, but all were repulsed. Pakenham was fatally wounded in the third attack when he was hit by grapeshot on horseback while 500 yards from the earthworks. General John Lambert assumed command upon Pakenham’s death and ordered a withdrawal, despite the fact that Pakenham had ordered Lambert to continue the battle.

The British had suffered a loss of nearly 2,000 dead, wounded or taken prisoner; while the Americans only had 13 dead, with 58 wounded.

Like the rest of the history of the war of 1812, the Battle of New Orleans has fallen into the “memory hole” of history and is known as “the Forgotten war”. Given both the significance of the conflict and the nature of the battle of New Orleans, this would seem to be a complete mystery.  As David B. Kopel has pointed out in his book review of “The Battle of New Orleans” by Robert V. Remini:

If diversity were really highly valued in our schools then the Battle of New Orleans would be known by every student in the nation. The men who fought on January 8, 1815 were a magnificent combination of professional soldiers, militia, irregulars, free Blacks, Creoles, Cajuns, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Germans, Italians, Indians, Anglos, lawyers, privateers, farmers, and shop-keepers.

Andrew Jackson would later explain the basis for this seemingly miraculous victory by an under-equipped and outmanned defending militia against what is generally considered to have been the most dominant military force in world history;

As long as our Government is administered for the good of the people, and is regulated by their will; as long as it secures to us the rights of person and of property, liberty of conscience and of the press, it will be worth defending; ..a million of armed freemen, possessed of the means of war, can never be conquered by a foreign foe.

Perhaps it was an understanding of the necessity to cultivate this ethic defense of individual liberty that prompted Ezra T. Benson, Secretary of Agriculture under Eisenhower, to predict even in the midst of the cold war and constant foreign threats:

If American freedom is lost, if America is destroyed, if ourblood-bought freedom is surrendered, it will be because of Americans…

This mentality of rag-tag, makeshift militia defenses combined with an insurmountable determination and sense of moral justice stands in stark contrast to the rationale used by modern advocates of foreign military intervention.  We are told that our security is in such a frail state despite a massive military capablity and expenditures which exceed the entire military expenses of the other industrial nations combined.  This irrational combination of hysterical fear and overwhelming capability, like with the Roman Empire before, has led the people of the United States to be manipulated into “defending ourselves” preemptively into an empire.   

The founders of the American republican system of government understood well the threat to liberty posed by a professional standing army, and favored a model of militia-based defense similar to the system of Switzerland.  Constitutional law attorney, Dr. Edwin Veiria, has examined the militia system as an approach to national security compatible with individual freedom in a series of detailed articles.  He writes;

The fundamental constitutional institution for “homeland security” is not even the Army or Navy.  America’s Founding Fathers profoundly distrusted standing armed forces under the control of any government as potential enemies of liberty, not least of all because of their own experiences with the British Army’s attempts to suppress freedom in the Colonies and independent States. So, in the Constitution, the Founders refused to adopt any preexisting army or navy, or to create new ones, as permanent establishments for the United States.  …nowhere in the federal system does the supreme law of the land treat an army or navy as an inevitable, indispensable, permanent, or perpetual institution.   Therefore, the fundamental constitutional institution of “homeland security” must be “a well regulated Militia” based upon “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms” [per the 2nd amendment]. 

Perhaps more importantly, the body of the Constitution itself is not silent on this matter, either. To be sure, the Constitution does not create any “well regulated Militia”. It delegates no power to Congress to “raise and support” (as with an army), to “provide and maintain” (as with a navy), or in any other words to fashion from whole cloth any “well regulated Militia”. And it does not even define what constitutes such a Militia.  That is because it did not have to: In the late 1700s, every adult American knew that “well regulated Militia” had existed in the Colonies and independent States from the mid-1600s, and were established in every State of the Union even as the Constitution was being drafted and ratified. For that reason, the Constitution simply acknowledged “the Militia of the several States” as already in existence, adopted and incorporated them according to the historical legal principles by which they had long and even then operated, and thereby perpetuated them in that form.

History has demonstrated the capability of decentralized, defense by individuals acting with moral determination to preserve liberty.  History also shows, most notably in the fall of the Roman Republic, that the influence and power of professional military institutions bent on preemption and aggression is ultimately incompatible with a system of even moderately free republican government, as it will be for us.

Written by Spencer Morgan

September 5, 2010 at 5:21 pm

Posted in History