Why libertarians should read Marx: Kristian Niemietz says he can’t be bothered to read Marx. Can I try and convince him otherwise?
For one thing, I suspect libertarians like him would be surprised by a lot of Marx. There’s astonishingly little in Marx about a centrally planned economy: if you want an argument for central planning, you should read that hero of the right, Ronald Coase instead (pdf). Marx was admiring of capitalism in some respects. It has, he wrote, given “an immense development to commerce” and has “accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals.” And I think you’d be surprised by just how much attention Marx paid to the facts: once you get past the first few chapters, there’s massive empirical work in Capital volume I*. And there are many differences between Marx and social democrats – not least of them being that Marx was no statist.
What’s more, many of the ideas associated with Marx were largely elaborations of his predecessors: Paul Samuelson called him a “minor post-Ricardian”. The labour theory of value, the interest in the division of income between classes and the idea of a falling rate of profit are all as Ricardian as Marxian. (The falling rate of profit (pdf) might be a good explanation for our recent slow growth and lack of capital spending, but let that pass).
I reckon there are three reasons libertarians should read Marx.
One is that Marx saw economics as a historical process. For him, one of the big questions was: “where did that come from?” ...
A second reason for libertarians to read Marx lies in his view of the relationship between property rights and technical progress...
A third reason to read Marx lies in his attitudes to freedom. ...
In short, then, libertarians should read Marx because he poses them some questions which should sharpen their thinking. How can we defend property rights at the same time as defending a system which came into being by denying those rights? What material conditions are necessary for people to support freedom? How will new technologies shape our beliefs? Do current market structures (which are of course determined by the state) really maximize development? If not, how can they change? Do actually-existing markets merely enhance formal freedom, or are they conducive to the substantive freedom that Marx wanted? Can they be made more conducive? Are markets really a realm of freedom, or a means through which some exploit and oppress others? And so on.
If you look past tribal caricatures, perhaps libertarian thinking will be enriched by a consideration of Marx’s work.
* You should start Capital vol I at chapter 10, and read the first nine chapters last.