On Gregory Clark's New, Old Marxism

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on August 9, 2009

I was going to take on this editorial by Gregory Clark, in which he tells us that we are going to have to raise taxes on the rich in order to take care of the helpless and hopeless poor, who are being pushed out of the economy thanks to technological advances which will cause the poor to be redundant in the emerging labor market. I got somewhat riled up to do so thanks to the following passage in Clark’s editorial:

. . . In the end, we may be forced to learn to live in a United States where, by stealth, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” becomes the guiding principle of government — or else confront growing, unattended poverty.

And then, I decided there was little use in writing anything. Anyone who, in 2009, believes that the application of Marxist thought will help alleviate poverty is completely, totally, and entirely out in the Gamma Quadrant. Humanity can no longer reach them.

So, I really didn’t plan on writing this post, but since Will Wilkinson decided to take on Clark’s arguments–such as they are–I decided to change my mind and point you to Wilkinson’s rebuttal, which is excellent and devastating.

Wilkinson is quite right to point out the main problem with Clark’s argument; the contention that the poor are just too stupid to be able to adapt to the changing labor market, and have to be coddled by the rest of society. This is daft; as mentioned in Wilkinson’s post, we have already witnessed a tremendous degree of technological change in the labor market, and human beings of all stripes, classes, and income levels have adapted. There is no reason, after all, why the massive unemployment and significant setbacks to the prospects of the working poor should not have occurred already, thanks to the many ways in which technology has already changed and altered the labor market. And yet, we have not seen massive increases in unemployment, people have adapted, and there is no reason to think that they cannot adapt in the future.

Indeed, if there is anything to learn from human history, it is that human beings have a marvelous and powerful capacity to adapt to changes and challenges, and to overcome those challenges in ingenious ways. The Gregory Clarks of the world would have us ignore human history; preferring to panic us instead into approving higher taxes that would compensate for a supposed newfound inability on the part of human beings to adapt to the economic and social conditions in which they find themselves. This approach represents the worst kind of policymaking. It is also, sadly, all too typical of the rhetoric we hear nowadays from the port side of the political and economic divide.

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