TCS Daily


Folk Beliefs Have Consequences

By Arnold Kling - January 23, 2006 12:00 AM

"the moral authority of parents who bury children killed in Iraq is absolute"
-- Maureen Dowd, the New York Times

Maureen Dowd's statement is Marxist. No, she did not advocate revolution by the proletariat. She did not say that we ought to have a Communist state. But her famous remark that someone in a particular class of victims has "absolute" moral authority is derived from "folk Marxism," as will be explained below.

In my previous essay, I talked about the process by which the views of important thinkers become distilled into folk beliefs. I argued that it is these folk beliefs that shape our societies. I suggested that John Locke and Karl Marx are two thinkers whose enormous influence can be described using this model. In this essay, I want to elaborate on the folk beliefs that followed Locke and Marx.

Folk Locke-ism

Seventeenth-century philosopher John Locke's theory of government influenced America's founders. It has become deeply embedded in our culture. Beliefs that Locke helped to encourage include:

-- individuals have inalienable rights
-- those who govern have obligations to the governed (and not just vice-versa)
-- government's rightful powers are limited, not absolute

At the level of folk beliefs, Locke's views have been distilled into a jaunty defiance of tyrants, whether they are actual, potential, or imagined. This can be seen in expressions such as Give me liberty or give me death! or Well there are certain sections of New York, Major, that I wouldn't advise you to try to invade. or "You'll have to pry this gun from my cold, dead fingers."

As Americans, we cannot conceive of ourselves submitting meekly to tyranny. We cannot picture a regime like that of North Korea or Saddam Hussein's Iraq taking root in our soil.

By maintaining our Lockean tradition, we have built a vibrant society and a prosperous economy. Limited government has allowed innovation to flourish in a peaceful, gradual, evolutionary way.

Folk Marxism

Folk Marxism looks at political economy as a struggle pitting the oppressors against the oppressed. Of course, for Marx, the oppressors were the owners of capital and the oppressed were the workers. But folk Marxism is not limited by this economic classification scheme. All sorts of other issues are viewed through the lens of oppressors and oppressed. Folk Marxists see Israelis as oppressors and Palestinians as oppressed. They see white males as oppressors and minorities and females as oppressed. They see corporations as oppressors and individuals as oppressed. They see America as on oppressor and other countries as oppressed.

I believe that folk Marxism helps to explain the pride and joy that many people felt when Maryland passed its anti-Walmart law. They think of Walmart as an oppressor, and they think of other businesses and Walmart workers as the oppressed. The mainstream media share this folk Marxism, as they reported the Maryland law as a "victory for labor."

The folk Marxist view of Iraq is that the United States is the oppressor, and the groups fighting the United States are the oppressed. At the extreme, Michael Moore and Ted Rall have made explicit statements to this effect. However, even reporters in the mainstream media who are not openly supporting the enemy take this folk Marxist view when they refer to "the insurgency."

If you think about it, the forces fighting America in Iraq consist of former oppressors and would-be future oppressors. But because America is a rich, powerful country, the folk Marxist instinct is to romanticize ("insurgency") the real oppressors and to demonize ("occupation") the real liberators.

I am not saying that only a folk Marxist would oppose the way we went to war in Iraq or the way that the war has been conducted. However, I would say that it is striking that the basic narrative of the war coming through the mainstream media is folk Marxist. This is particularly true in Europe, where the folk Marxist view of America's presence in Iraq appears to be broadly and deeply held.

The rationale for tax cuts -- "It's your money" -- makes sense to folk-Locke-ism. It drives folk Marxists crazy. Folk Marxists ask What's the Matter with Kansas?. They cannot understand why the oppressed do not see the advantages of higher taxes on their "rich" oppressors.

Folk Marxism can explain why some environmentalists do not like using taxes to control pollution. If you think of polluters as the oppressors and everyone else as the oppressed, then merely taxing pollution is not morally satisfying.

The Consequences of Locke and Marx

The contrast between the results of following Locke and those of following Marx could not be sharper. Marxist countries have murdered millions, imposed a regime of fear and repression on their citizens, and impeded economic development. Where the "natural experiment" was performed of splitting one culture into Communist and non-Communist regions (North and South Korea, East and West Germany), well-being in the non-Communist country ended up several times higher than in the Communist country. People fled Communist countries by the millions, while barely a trickle of individuals chose to emigrate in the other direction.

The differing consequences of Locke and Marx are not an accident. Under folk Locke-ism, each individual has moral standing. We all are endowed with rights, and we all are obligated to follow the law. It should be no surprise that the principle of equality before the law would lead individuals to focus on mutually advantageous interactions. It should be no surprise that inequality before the law, such as the Jim Crow South of 50 years ago, would come to be regarded as a blot and a national disgrace.

Under folk Marxism, the oppressed class has inherent moral superiority to the oppressor class -- recall the quote which opens this essay. Class membership trumps individual character in determining moral standing. It should be no surprise that this belief could lead to tyranny and wanton murder by government. It should be no surprise that this belief has failed to improve the lot of those regarded as "oppressed." It inverts Martin Luther King's call to judge people by the content of their character.

Even when Marxism does not lead to tyranny, it retards economic growth, as the stagnation of continental Europe indicates. If you believe that the poor are oppressed and the rich are oppressors, then your impulse is to penalize work, risk-taking, innovation, and saving -- the engines of economic progress. As entrepreneur Paul Graham put it,

"So let's be clear what reducing economic inequality means. It is identical with taking money from the rich...It sounds benevolent to say we ought to reduce economic inequality. When you phrase it that way, who can argue with you? Inequality has to be bad, right? It sounds a good deal less benevolent to say we ought to reduce the rate at which new companies are founded. And yet the one implies the other."

Marx and the Academy

The vast majority of college professors are folk Marxists, even though they do not advocate for Communism. Their folk Marxism is dangerous because they do not even realize the extent to which it colors their world view. Although the academy is also the last bastion of avowed Marxists, it is not the overt Marxists who trouble me. They are not winning converts.

Every day, in big and small ways, academic speech reinforces the view that the world consists of oppressor classes and oppressed classes. In a way, the controversy over Lawrence Summers as President of Harvard reflects his defiance of folk Marxist orthodoxy. Folk Marxism is so automatic and so pervasive that it effectively goes unnoticed.

I would consider it a great step forward for liberals in the academic community to acknowledge the existence of folk Locke-ism and folk Marxism. If my liberal friends want to express support for folk Marxism, that is fine. If they want to criticize folk Locke-ism, that is all right, too. If they would like to give a less loaded name than "folk Marxism" to the oppressed/oppressor paradigm, I have no problem using a different label.

My concern with what I call folk Marxism is substantive, not rhetorical. To me, the danger of folk Marxism in the academy today is that it is implicit and unrecognized -- and therefore unquestioned.

Arnold Kling is author of Learning Economics.

(Editor's Note: This article is part of a series on the effects of ideas on the popular mindset. You can read Part One here.)

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33 Comments

Insidious Folk Marxism
Who could rationally argue against the the Locke summary provided in the article?
Marxists, which I include most of today's Democrats and some Republicans, don't attack Locke directly, they attack percieved failures in implementing Locke's philosophy.
So instead of trying to achieve the goals of Locke, "let us oppressed band together and vanquish our oppresors."
This is a pure power play on the part of the folk Marx leaders. When they get into power they will be the oppressors. (Lenin, Mao, Castro, Clinton (ask those people who were audited by his IRS every year)).
Better to focus upon trying to implement Locke's ideas and reduce oppression and increase liberty for all.

Good Characterization
This is a good discussion of the radical divide in philosophies in this country. However, I'm not sure that Locke is the best representative for the "libertarian/conservative" side. The problem is the "God" content in Locke's reasoning. Better to use Kant. At least his philosophy proceeds from better established premises.

ABD

Murtha,Swiftboating, and Folk Marxists
Another way that Folk Marxism shows up is the belief that veterans have greater authority to comment on Iraq than regular people. When the Swiftboat Vets questioned John Murtha's medals, the right yawned and the left went ballistic. Just do a Google News search on Murtha. nearly every story listed for him in the last week is an indignant response to a story that no one covered.

Since Murtha's moral authority to comment on the war came from his Viet Nam service, this upset all of the Folk Marxists.

Moral authority of the rest
Why should Murtha's moral authority be any greater than anoyone else who served in Viet Nam or in Korea or in WWII or in Iraq I?
I don't have any evidence, but I would guess that if a survey was conducted of all those who served in comabt who are still alive, especially the Viet Nam vets, they would not agree with Murtha.
For those advocating immediate or even scheduled redeployment, reexamine the history of SE Asia from 1975 on. How many millions died after the USA abandoned Vietnam and Cambodia?

Vet Voices
How dare you try to silence the voices of veterans who have had the misfortune of dieing before being surveyed.
Don't you know that with modern technology (see Voting Machines in Democratic Districts) we can easily discern the intents of our dearly departed.

What in the world does smearing Murtha have to do with "folk Marxism?"
Murtha is a member of congress who is in no way anti-military. He's repeatedly visited Iraq. He criticizes the administration and all of a sudden loons come out of the woodwork to smear his war record. If objecting to this is "folk marxism," the phrase is even more meaningless than it sounds.

Kerry, Murtha, and McCain
"Class membership trumps individual character in determining moral standing."

These three individuals have used their military records to assert thier position on military issues has more validity than Bush or Cheney.
However, these individuals and the media hype their postitions and ignore and attack their colleagues who disagree, such as the Swift Boat Vets in Kerry's case.
Someone's experience can add to the debate, but should not be the only quality of their argument.
How many soldiers did Eisenhower lead directly into battle? Yet he acheived the highest rank in the US Army.
Murtha's arguements should be taken on their merits, not upon the Murtha's personal history.

Relates to the fundamental conflict between Judeo-Christian culture and Islamist facism
I am not myself a religious person, but I have studied religious and cultural history. I find a resonance between this essay and the larger conflict that we find our civilization embroiled within.

"Under folk Locke-ism, each individual has moral standing. We all are endowed with rights, and we all are obligated to follow the law."

This attribute derives from Judeo-Christian traditions. According to the Old Testament, Abraham and his descendants would have a direct, personal relationship with their Creator. By the time of the New Testament, this relationship is so personalized and internal that they Christian Bible refers to the voice of God as the "small still voice inside". Several passages in the Gospels make reference to each person not just being like Jesus, but actually embodying him.

It is not often referenced these days, but it is at the heart of Western political and moral life. As Locke argued, we believe that each individual person has equal worth, as an individual. It is so much a part of our culture that we treat it as an assumption, not even questioning or discussing whether every person is worthy of the same respect, treatment, dignity.

In contrast, the radical element of Islam that has been building in influence since the fall of the Ottoman Empire interprets Islam as "submission to the will of Allah". The individual is of no consequence, except as an instrument of the divine will. Submission, abnegation of self, is the only way to achieve virtue.

This stands in utter contrast to the worldview that elevates each and every individual life as a person who embodies God. Understanding this fundamental difference in assumptions is vital to understanding the nature of this conflict, and why purely military--or purely diplomatic--solutions are not possible. We must think in terms of rebuilding the foundations of a culture.

Bosh
It doesn't work like that.

""Class membership trumps individual character in determining moral standing."

Kerry, Murtha and McCain's military service demonstrates their character and moral standing. Perhaps you think combat medals are awarded for cowardice. All three are heavily decorate veterans who risked their lives for their country. The people who have attacked them have flat out lied, which says something about _their_ moral character. And these liars came out of the woodwork to lie on cue only after Murtha and McCain came out in opposition to Bush policies.

"Murtha's arguements should be taken on their merits, not upon the Murtha's personal history."

Sure they should. Except as soon as he made his arguments, objections were made to them on the basis of his 'moral character," first by a Republican congresswoman, then by the worms who are now smearing him.

And this has been a pattern with critics of the Bush administation. If anyone of stature makes a criticism, rather than answer the criticism, the reaction has been to try to make the critic into a member of a class: malcontent, failure, hater, nepotist -- anything -- rather than respond to the criticism.

Speaking of loons, eric once again defends the indefensible
Murtha says that the military is broken and living hand to mouth. That is clearly false and clearly anti-military.

More rewritting of history
Kerry's medals were awarded in extremely unusual circumstances. Kerry could clear up the confusion, but refuses to release his military records.
The same goes for Murtha.

The people who have disputed their accounts (not attacked) have not lied. However those defending Kerry and Murtha have repeatedly lied about them.

down to basics
Excellent article. Digging even deeper, it comes down to this; there are two, and only two, ways for people to interact, 1) by persuasion, or 2) by force and coercion. The first way is legitimate and works best, the second is illegitimate and, perhaps fortunately, works poorly in the long run.

Locke, conservatives, and libertarians make the arguments for persuasion. The lefties, and other representatives of the darker side of our nature give in to the all-too-human urge to coercively control, and/or eliminate, his neighbors.

We must strengthen civilization's institutions that defend the individual, and his liberty, against the collectivists' control-freakish instincts.

Then mankind and civilization can advance to achieve even more just and prosperous societies.

Moral Character
Of the military people I know of, they would be the last to tout their medal history.
Of course, if you want to run for public office, or get promoted, you need medals and must brag about them.
So, right off the bat Kerry's medal promotion is highly suspect. (Remember Frank Burns trying to get a Purple Heart for an (egg)shell fragment?
I respect anyone who joined the Corps and served in Viet Nam. I begin to question motives for pushing their medals.
Haven't heard much comment about Sam Johnson's (R, TX)opinion. Surely his carries at least as much weight as Murtha's and McCain's?
http://www.samjohnson.house.gov/Biography/

"And this has been a pattern with critics of the Bush administation. If anyone of stature makes a criticism, rather than answer the criticism, the reaction has been to try to make the critic into a member of a class: malcontent, failure, hater, nepotist -- anything -- rather than respond to the criticism."

And the critics of the Bush Administration have been calm and rational?

There have been cogient, rational oppostion to Murtha and there has been more viscous attacks.
On balance, I think Bush has endured more from his critics than Murtha. Plus he was a Marine, he can take it.

This has been investigated....
And Kerry has released his records. Peddle this slime somewhere else.

"The people who have disputed their accounts (not attacked) have not lied."

That's why you say. Eyewitnesses have disputed their stories.

And, again, what does this have to do with "folk Marxism?"

Meaningless
Murtha was criticized by some fellow democrats for what he said. It was foamy attack rats that came out of the woodwork to attack his credibility.

Regarding Johnson, fine: except nobody is attacking his integrity and his military record. That only happens to non-Republicans.

And, again, none of this has anything remotely to do with "folk Marxism," "folk Lockanism" or anything remotely similar. It's just plain old fashioned mudslinging and character assassination.

Folk you
How do you know Murtha is wrong? Because the Army overfulfilling its recruiting quotas effortlessly? By how efficiently the army in Iraq gets armor it needs for personnel or vehicles?

And how is Murtha's comment "anti-military." It's criticism of the administration, saying it isn't doing right by our troops, that its grinding down the insitution. During the Clinton administration, there was a continuing chorus of how the army was being ruined by use in Kosovo, by this, by that. Was that "anti-military?"

Again: what's the relevance to "folk Marxism"

I fail to see how the Iraq war makes you an under cover Marxist and Vice Versa...
Just because someone thinks the war in Iraq may be a bad idea that does not make them an under cover Marxist. Some extremely Marxists outfits like the Cato Institute, Liberterian Institute and the like have much more negative things to say about the war than a real Marxist like Hillary.

Similarly, just because Bush and his cabal happen to be for a war does not make them freedom loving free-marketeers. Remember Prescription Drugs, Campaign Finance Reform, Agro Subsidies, Steel Tariff, etc.

Meaningless!
"Regarding Johnson, fine: except nobody is attacking his integrity and his military record. That only happens to non-Republicans."

Except for President Bush and his staff.

Until he goes against the White House
Here's a guess: if Senator Johnson, with his record, were to wake up one morning and decide that **** Cheney has gotten Iraq totally wrong, and made his feeling public, within a week Swift Boaters would find something fishy in his military record.

Regarding attacks on Bush: boo-hoo. The President always gets attacked. What's vile is the way that anyone who criticizes the President's policies -- no matter how limited the criticism is to policy -- immediately has his or her character attacked. This is a consistent pattern.

But it's a pattern that has nothing to do with "folk Marxism" or folk anything else. That Murtha would come up in this context is an indication of how Arnold Kling's latest is just another stalking horse for more of his partisan mudslinging.

Liberals behaving badly
"Regarding attacks on Bush: boo-hoo. The President always gets attacked. What's vile is the way that anyone who criticizes the President's policies -- no matter how limited the criticism is to policy -- immediately has his or her character attacked. This is a consistent pattern." ( I guess he learned from the best, Bill Clinton.)

" There were so many personal attacks that the newspaper's staff could not "keep the board clean, there was some pretty filthy stuff," and so the Post shut down comments on the blog, or Web log, said Jim Brady, executive editor of washingtonpost.com."
http://www.breitbart.com/news/2006/01/19/D8F82TA80.html

Liberals can certainly teach the Republicans a thing or two about smearing. They even eat their own. (Post blog)
Maybe I missed it, but I have not heard Murtha called a Nazi nor have I heard conservatives adovcate for his demise. I have seen documented evidence of over zealous tolerant liberals call conservatives of all stripes very vulgar names and wish they would die.
And a popular Democratic blog, Democratic Underground does not want opposing views. Read their registration agreement. I don't believe TCS requires posters to have a single point of view.
If Murtha uses his service record to add credibility to his statements, then his service record is open to examination and critique.

Sure: Republicans always take the high road.
Look, if you want to compare blogs, you'll find all kinds of filth on right and left wing sources. But we're not talking random blogs, we're talking deliberate smearing as a matter of policy orchestrated from or near the White House.

This didn't happen under Clinton, despite what say. It has happened consistently under Bush. It happened to Max Cleland, it happened to Kerry, it happened to McCain. Now it's happening, accidentally or course, to Murtha.

Regarding the Post site, the place got bombarded after the ombudsman posted a partisan untruth about Jack Abramoff. Exactly the same thing (in fact, multiplied by 10) would have happened if she had posted an untruth about **** Cheney.

"And a popular Democratic blog, Democratic Underground does not want opposing views. Read their registration agreement."

Try posting anti-Bush opinions on the Free Republic and see how long before you're blacklisted.

as far as nasty insults: see what Murtha's been called on Free Republic and other rightwing blogs: "You disgusting bag of vomitous pus." "traitor trash" "disgusting traitor," and much worse.

But again, what does this have to do with "folk Marxism"

Interesting stuff
"The individual is of no consequence, except as an instrument of the divine will. Submission, abnegation of self, is the only way to achieve virtue."

This accurately describes how socialism tastes as well. This is why liberation theology shocks me: Personal accountability - the cornerstone of the Christian worldview - is meaningless without both the credit and debit columns.

knowledge
It's something easily gained, but one first has to make an effort to look up, over the top of the lastest DNC handout.

I never heard anyone say that the army was being ruined by being used in Kosovo, as usual eric, your memory is tuned to remember only what you want to remember, regardless of whether or not it ever happened.

The connection to "folk Marxism" is your willingness to believe anything, so long as it fits inside your ideological blinders.

folk you again.
first, who is "eric?"

second, this quote may refresh your memory:

? May 7, 1999 --
“While we may not support the President’s ill-advised war, we do support our troops. ... Without any coherent international blueprint, the White House has bombed its way around the globe while
dropping troops far and wide for ill-defined peacemaking duties. This policy has gutted the American military, which now must be rebuilt.” [Washington Post, 5/7/99]


Elevate the conversation
You certainly have elevated the discussion!

I think I have
I backed up what I said with a completely on-topic citation of DeLay doing what Murtha was scorched for doing. I did that instead of spewing insults. Yes, I made a harmless joke. Live with it.

Islam versus Christianity = a false dichotomy
Islamic radicals do not 'interpret Islam as "submission to the will of Allah".' All Muslims do. That's the definition of Islam: the very word means "submission".

But what you do not understand about Islam that it explicitly contains the notion of free will. Man is free to choose between good and evil acts. In order to pass the test on Judgement Day, a person must have this free will and make the right choices. To achieve virtue one must make a consious choice to follow the teachings of the book. There can be no abnegation of self when one's eternal fate rests upon the choices that the self must make. The most strident Wahhabists merely wish to restrict the opportunity for followers to make bad choices, to choose acts that are "wrong", but in this matter they are little different to Christian fundies.

The more one studies religions, the more one realizes that there are minimal "fundamental" differences between Islam and Christianity. You speak of the descendents of Abraham having a direct personal relationship with God. Of the three Abrahamic monotheistic religions, Moslems have the most direct relationship with god: no popes, no bishops, no priests. No interlocutors. Islam is basically what Christianity was before it got "soiled" by swallowing up other religions and their practices. Indeed, Mohammed said that there was nothing new in his message, that God was using him as a transmitter of God's message to mankind in the same way that God had used Moses and Abraham and Jesus and countless other prophets.

The "larger conflict" you speak of is not one of Moslems versus Christians and Jews, instead it is one of theologism versus secularism, and in that fight the western religionists are on the same side as the moslems. They have to be, because within their own societies, they have long lost the battle with secularism. The fight we are fighting is one to remain free of compulsory religion.

Tolerance
You demand we tolerate your 'jokes' yet your skin is pretty thin when your side is critiqued.

Violates Both Religions
"The most strident Wahhabists merely wish to restrict the opportunity for followers to make bad choices, to choose acts that are "wrong", but in this matter they are little different to Christian fundies."

If God gave us free will, any coercive force used to inhibit free will prevents an individual to freely follow God.
Societies must protect itself from individual's free will choices that harm other individuals, but for choices that only cause harm to one's self, society's only role should be advisory.
It is easy to follow Islam in Saudi Arabia, you have little choice.
But what about in Sweden?

I don't 'demand' anything
My point wasn't the joke, the point was a specific refutation of a specific charge. Tom DeLay was making the same kind of criticisms against a Clinton war that Murtha now is against Bush. Somehow that was fine for DeLay but it's wrong for Murtha. Deal with that instead of whimpering about a play on words.

If you don't like the joke, don't tolerate it: Folk you.

eric's alternate universe
There was no smearing of opponents when Clinton was in office?

Of course eric believes that disagreeing with a Democrat is the equivalent of insulting him.

liberation theology
I've read the Bible through several times, and nowhere in it do I find a commandment to take someone else's property and give it to the poor.

Liberation theology is charity on the cheap. You get to feel good about yourself, yet all you did was vote for someone who promised to raise someone else's taxes and spend it on the poor.

Fundamentalism
The most fundamentalist churches are also those that emphasis the most a personal relationships with God.
They don't have Popes etc. They have a pastor, who's job it is to instruct the "flock".

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