“Statistics Aren’t Enough to Discredit Piketty’s Failed, Blood-Soaked Ideas”
— Which, I think I made a similar argument when Jim Pethokoukis took Piketty’s — and, by extension we now know, this entire Administration’s — economic modeling seriously, and offered a sober rejoinder, correcting certain of Piketty’s mistaken assumptions or lapses in rigor. And I did so because the academic work done by the left begins with the conclusion and tries to reason backward from that conclusion, looking for clever ways to hide fallacies, manipulate statistics, problematize counter-assertions, and so on. That is, it is not intended as science or even argument in the traditional sense: it is meant instead to appear that way, to create a perception of science, of rigor, of academic gravitas. Which is why so much of it is larded down with argot and becomes, to the layman, difficult to negotiate.
Nowhere has this been more successful — my year’s long battle against it notwithstanding — then in the field of hermeneutics, where even many on the right will back a consensus-driven model of meaning, textualism (given full voice early on by the New Critics), whose goal it is to provide political power for those motivated enough to marshal it: by “democratizing” meaning, what they’ve done is collectivize what once belonged to the individual and individual or (specific and defined) corporate agency. And so we have arguments about what we can “reasonably” make of marks, which opens the path for those with a particular agenda and a facility with language to rewrite laws, create emanations and penumbras, and otherwise bastardize the speech act in order to take control over it, either to advance a cause or to use as a weapon against their interrogators .
Once we understand this — that leftism, insofar as it really does adopt anti-foundationalism and is based upon an ends-justifies-the-means strategy, freeing it up from the problem of logical consistency and turning the sophistry it relies upon into a high virtue — we begin to see that the goal of the left’s agenda is to deconstruct the Enlightenment and relegate its premises to the ash heap of history. This is why the Constitution, which is secured under the social compact by the fundamental principle of natural rights, so confounds them; they hate it precisely because it is unambiguous about how much power man (in the form of government) can legitimately claim over other men.
Piketty is a socialist. A collectivist. Experience and history have shown us that the ideology and economic models behind socialism and communism, in all of its various iterations, leads to some sort of totalitarianism. It turns the “masses” into subjects and undercuts the Enlightenment’s ascension of the individual and individual autonomy as a precondition of government. It seeks to destroy a dispersed and organic market based on contractual agreement with a command and control economy lorded over by a bureaucratic ruling class who, surprisingly!, never feel that they themselves should have to live under the plans they devise (cf., Congress not subject to ObamaCare; the First Lady’s kids fed a completely different diet in their private school than she’s demanding the masses in public school consume, etc.). In short, it is, as history has repeatedly shown us, a blueprint for liberal fascism and a permanent ruling elite — and on that basis alone it should be dismissed out of hand. And in his piece for RealClearMarkets, Harry Binswanger does just that:
A roar of applause for Thomas Piketty’s book is echoing through the cognitive void of today’s culture.
“Capital in the Twenty-First Century” offers up the same failed, blood-soaked doctrines as its forbearer, “Das Kapital.” But in our Twitterized culture, yesterday’s disgraced notions, now forgotten, can be re-Tweeted as revelations.
Piketty himself has full cognizance of the history, as he demonstrates in the book’s Introduction, which plays the coy game of “socialist criticism” with Marxism. Though acknowledging Marx’s “limitations,” Piketty concludes that “Marx’s analysis remains relevant in every respect.”
Yes, it remains “relevant”–to the surviving relatives of the 100 million people exterminated by Marxist regimes. It remains relevant as the grimmest possible warning of the unspeakable horrors to which these evil ideas lead.
Evil cannot be combated by offering counter-statistics, as many conservatives are doing. No one is concerned with the statistics, only with the moral narrative. And the book’s opening epigraph gives us that, via a quote from France’s 1789 “Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen”:
“Social distinctions can be based only on common utility.”
In quiet, understated language, that statement lays down the formula for total collectivism. It cuts the ground out from under individual rights, substituting “common utility” as the standard for state action. It demands the yoking of the individual to the group.
M. Piketty doesn’t mention that four years after that ill-named Declaration of Rights came the Reign of Terror. The sequence is logical: the Declaration appealed to the raw envy of the mob, whose instrument became the guillotine.
“Social distinctions”? There is no such thing. There is only individual judgment–or its enemy: government-imposed dogma. There are the distinctions among people that you make, the distinctions I make, and those Thomas Piketty makes–there are no distinctions made by society.
There are legal distinctions, enforced by the state. In Nazi Germany, Jews were legally defined as inferior or non-humans. In the Ancien Regime, the monarchy handed out titles elevating court favorites above the rest of the population. In contemporary America, if you earn more than average, you are legally discriminated against by being compelled to pay a higher tax rate. Legally enforced distinctions, whether to elevate or to squash, consist in forbidding individuals to act on their independent judgments.
The “social distinction” Piketty is concerned with is inequality of wealth. But this is not a *social* distinction. Bill Gates’ immense fortune was earned in free trade with individuals. His wealth came from the “dollar votes” cast by every *individual* who bought a Microsoft product.
Even more collectivist is the idea of “common utility” as the standard of morality. It means that you have no right to your own life, you are merely a cell on the body of society, and if your existence is not deemed to serve “the common good,” you are to be liquidated–which is exactly what happened in the Reign of Terror.
Edmund Burke supported the US revolution; he rejected the French revolution. For the colonists breaking from England, self-determination and the primacy of the individual were at the core of their cry for independence. Whereas France was drawn to the very idea of radical egalitarianism that we have seen from every collectivist culture, with the end result always the same: a rich ruling class oppressing the masses in a police state, with those masses nearly uniform in their misery.
But hey, they’re equal, at least, right?
We believe in equality before the law. Inequality of outcome is a product of liberty itself and must necessarily be: a different set of choices and strategies is going to yield different results, and we are to learn from those results. There is no moral high ground to be had from enforced conformity, particularly when those enforcing it pay themselves well for doing so.
Which is precisely why there is no reason at all to pretend Piketty’s book is anything other than what it is: socialist propaganda repackaged for the New Left’s newest acolytes, economic illiterates who are long on ignorance and esteem and short on historical perspective and awareness of the gifts of birth they have been given as citizens of a country built on free market capitalism.
Rather than reading it, conservatives and classical liberals already familiar with how collectivism works should be using it to beat its fans over the head with.
(h/t geoff B and John B)
update: a pro-tip: just because you call yourself a “patriotic millionaire” doesn’t make you one, just as calling yourself “progressive” doesn’t mean the “progress” you advocate for is necessarily good. In fact, it’s mostly regressive. That certain crony corporatist millionaires are either too stupid to see it (useful idiots) or think we’re too stupid to know what they are up to (the cynics), doesn’t mean the theater is any less absurd.
Point and laugh, is my advice.