An Encounter with a Marxist

A post by David Henderson at EconLog reminds me of an exchange I had with a former neighbor, who is among a circle of acquaintances whom my wife and I occasionally join for dinner. In the post, Henderson quotes Robert Heilbroner:

Indeed, the creation of socialism as a new mode of production can properly be compared to the moral equivalent of war–war against the old order, in this case–and will need to amass and apply the power commensurate with the requirements of a massive war. This need not entail the exercise of command in an arbitrary or dictatorial fashion, but certainly it requires the curtailment of the central economic freedom of bourgeois society, namely the right of individuals to own, and therefore to withhold if they wish, the means of production, including their own labor. [Italics added]

The former neighbor, who acquired a Ph.D. in economics in the early 1960s, is a Marxist who views the world through the lens of class conflict. His world is a world in which the “bad guys” — rich capitalists and their cronies in government — victimize the rest of us, often with the aid of duped victims.

Because, in the former neighbor’s view, everything is rigged by the “bad guys,” he is unable to acknowledge  that competition and mutually beneficial voluntary exchange, fueled by the continuous emergence of innovations and entrepreneurs,  prevents the very kind of rigged game that he rightly abhors. It is not free markets but state action — taxation and regulation — that stands in the way of economic progress and widespread prosperity

The former neighbor see the solution to the non-problem through his Marxist lens. That solution is to use the power of the state to do the right thing — as long as he is judge of what is right, of course.

I understand that point of view, even though I abhor and disrespect it. But my tolerance for Marxist rhetoric drops to zero when I am told — as the former neighbor told me — that state action to redistribute income (through Social Security, for example) is a matter of “sharing” within “the community.”

I pointed out, rather heatedly, that when government — which enjoys a monopoly of force — effectively puts a gun to my head and says “share,” that isn’t sharing. Nor does government represent a “community,” for a community — to be worthy of the name — must be a voluntary association, not a group of citizens bound by the power of government to compel “sharing.”

The discussion ended there. Not because I instantly converted a long-standing Marxist to libertarianism, but because he saw the fury in my eyes and the set of my jaw.

The quotation from Heilbroner reminded me of the contretemps with my former neighbor because of their shared attitude: We know what’s good for you, and we’re willing to use the power of the state to make it so. Such individuals can claim, with a straight face, to be on the side of “the people” only because their arrogance allows them to equate force with benevolence.