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Adam Smith, Karl Marx and the Vagaries of Terminology | davelovell.net
Aug 102010

I was look­ing at some pho­tos from the ran­dom AP shots of a recent Tea-Party event – one of them caught my eye: It was a poster with Hitler super­im­posed over the image of Pres­i­dent Obama, some part of the cap­tion also decried the evils of Social­ism…  Holy mixed metaphor Batman!

I’m try­ing to fig­ure the logic behind the poster (other than someone’s desire to make a quick buck pan­der­ing to the tea-partying hordes).  I sup­pose that they per­ceive Obama as being dic­ta­to­r­ial, so that must be the asso­ci­a­tion with Hitler, but the addi­tion of Social­ism is just wrong.  Hitler was a lot of things, but he clearly was no Social­ist, and the ones that he found he tended to house at Dachau.  So call­ing Obama Hitleresque is at least log­i­cally defend­able (if you for­get all that elected, sep­a­ra­tion of pow­ers, non­sense). But adding in Social­ism breaks apart the whole metaphor.

I think we need a quick tuto­r­ial in political/economic ter­mi­nol­ogy.  Don’t worry – I will refrain from any Greek or Latin etymologies…

First off, I would like every­one to stop say­ing that we live in a Democ­racy, the term is far too vague, and vagary is the soul of igno­rance.  In a Democ­racy, the peo­ple vote directly on the deci­sions to be made, and out­side of the occa­sional ref­er­en­dum, we do not.  Amer­ica is a Fed­eral Repub­lic – we do not vote on issues, we vote for rep­re­sen­ta­tives, who then vote on the issues.

Social­ism is the other term that we will touch on in our ser­mon today.  The rants against many of Obama’s plans as being social­ist are sadly famil­iar, but again, the term is being used with­out ade­quate delin­eation.  Far too many peo­ple equate Social­ism with their remem­bered para­noia of Com­mu­nism, and few of them could coher­ently talk of any dis­tinc­tion between the two terms.  Lets just state that one of them is an eco­nomic term and one is polit­i­cal, and leave the rest for another day.

Peo­ple seem to be think­ing of two dif­fer­ent very dif­fer­ent ideas when they apply the word Social­ism.  Some tend to equate it with the afore­men­tioned com­mu­nism, com­plete with all the Stal­in­ish, gulagy hor­rors that come with the loss of pri­vate own­er­ship of the means of pro­duc­tion.  Oth­ers, more cor­rectly, use the term in ref­er­ence to gov­ern­ment spon­sored wel­fare pro­grams.  I espe­cially enjoy the peo­ple who rage against social­ism while scream­ing for Obama to keep his hands off their Social Security.

Adam Smith

To finally get to some­thing of the title of this post – every year in my AP Euro­pean his­to­rycourses, we cover the devel­op­ment of mod­ern eco­nomic the­o­ries and pay due homage to Adam and Karl, Smith and Marx respec­tively.  I like to boil things down to their sim­plest form: Mr. Smith said that an econ­omy works best when it’s every­one for them­selves and the gov­ern­ment stays out.  Uncle Karl coun­tered with the idea that every­thing should be shared equally by those who do the work (one of the Lenin boys later added that maybe the gov­ern­ment would assist in the whole shar­ing thingy…).

Any­way, by the mid 19th cen­tury most of West­ern Europe had jumped onboard the Adam Smith train and for a time seemed to be hap­pily guided by his invis­i­ble hand.  Even­tu­ally the major­ity of the peo­ple, the ones who tended to do most of the actual work, began to feel that most of the fruits of their labors were end­ing up in the fruit bowls of the rich and bet­ter smelling.  These teem­ing masses started to see the appeal of Mr. Marx (Karl, not Grou­cho).  Uh Oh!

Yes, I may finally be approach­ing my point…

Ben­jamin Dis­raeli in Britain and Otto Von Bis­marck in Ger­many (nei­ther of who could ever be cas­ti­gated as weak-kneed left­ies…), both headed pro-Adam Smith, con­ser­v­a­tive gov­ern­ments – and both faced an ever increas­ingly dis­grun­tled pro­le­tariat (oops, I meant groups of worker-people…).  Both these paragons of con­ser­v­a­tive gov­er­nance had gen­uine fear that the grow­ing gap between the haves and have-not might lead the nots into the evils of Uncle Karl and all that awful shar­ing.  To hedge their bets, they both devel­oped a ver­sion of what we know as the Wel­fare State, or, as Bis­marck called it – “State Socialism.”

Otto Bis­marck, aka Wacky Socialist

In this light it may be a lit­tle eas­ier to see that Social­ism really devel­oped as a stop­gap against Marx­ism.  State spon­sored wel­fare and enti­tle­ments were devel­oped by Adam Smith con­ser­v­a­tives as a way to keep the work­ing classes from becom­ing so des­per­ate that they might be attracted to Marx, rev­o­lu­tion, or even worse…Unions!

So if you hap­pen to own some ginor­mous multi-national and you live within a Fed­eral Repub­lic that pro­motes Free-Markets via the Key­ne­sian cri­tique of Adam Smith, you really should be a big fan of state-welfare –it may be the only thing keep­ing your work­ers in your fac­to­ries and not walk­ing up your gated dri­ve­way – armed with pitch­forks and their 2nd Amend­ment guar­an­teed side arms.

Bon Chance, Mon Ami!

 Posted by at 1:33 pm

  5 Responses to “Adam Smith, Karl Marx and the Vagaries of Terminology”

  1. Just won­der­ing if you’ve changed your beliefs about this piece nearly three years in.

    You pre­sume “Hitler was no social­ist” against reams of evi­dence, don’t estab­lish this claim suc­cess­fully, and then pro­ceed to assert that lip ser­vice to Adam Smith some­how val­i­dates the Amer­i­can econ­omy being an absolute free market…

    I find that this indi­vid­ual has a far clearer grasp of the TEA Party beliefs, even though I hope he over­states the num­bers of hyp­ocrites: http://americanvision.org/2362/tea-party-hypocrisy-how-much-socialism-is-acceptable/

    The rea­son the TEA asser­tion of Obama’s social­ism is valid is sim­ply that even Bismark’s Staatssozial­is­mus remains social­ism ordered by the State. TEA party believ­ers are at least crit­i­cal of expan­sion of State control.

  2. Thanks for the com­ment…
    My point was more metahis­toric in nature, in that Social­ism as used in a mod­ern west­ern state devel­oped as a bul­wark against Marx­ism, not as a path towards it.

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