The recent downturn gave egalitarians precisely what they said they wanted: relative poverty fell

Every single one of Marx's claims turned out to be false.

Would you rather live in a 1000 square foot house where everyone else’s was 800, or a 1200 square foot house where everyone else’s was 1400? I sometimes think it’s the most elemental question in politics. Where we stand on equality versus prosperity depends, more than we usually admit, on personality traits rather than logic. We start with an intuitive feel for what makes sense, and we elevate that instinct into a principle.

It’s a spectrum, not a binary division. Would you rather live in a 605 square foot house when everyone else’s was 600, or a 6000 square foot house when everyone else’s was 6005? Almost everyone, I suspect, would go for relative poverty but absolute riches in that scenario. But how about a 1000 square foot house when everyone else’s was 400 versus a 1005 square-footer when everyone else’s was 4000? In that situation, many would forsake the sliver of extra space for the large dollop of extra status.

Where we draw that line is a pretty good indicator of our political leanings. We range ourselves on one side or the other of it according to our emotional preferences, and then pay attention disproportionately to the facts and figures that bolster that preference. If we’re on the Right, we grab at surveys showing that greater equality can only be bought at the expense of absolute poverty; if we’re on the Left, we tell ourselves that state intervention can create wealth as well as redistributing it.

We seem capable of clinging to our intuitive preferences pretty much regardless of the evidence. Marxism, uniquely among political philosophies, defined itself as a science. To its adherents, its propositions were not speculative but empirical. As a good Hegelian, Karl Marx saw his forecasts as part of an inexorable historical process. Yet every one – every one – of them turned out to be false.

Capitalism was supposed to destroy the middle class, leaving a tiny clique of oligarchs ruling over a vast proletariat. In fact, capitalism has enlarged the bourgeoisie wherever it has been practised. Capitalism was supposed to lower living standards for the majority. In fact, the world is wealthier than would have been conceivable 150 years ago. The whole market system was supposed to be on its last legs when Marx and Engels were writing. In fact, it was entering a golden age, hugely benefiting the poorest. As Schumpeter put it, the princess was always able to wear silk stockings, but it took capitalism to put them within reach of the shop girl.

You’d have thought – I did think – that the collapse of the Warsaw Pact regimes in 1989 would have definitively refuted revolutionary socialism. Yet a new generation comes stumbling back to the same false ideas about capital and labour reheated by Thomas Piketty.

Ideologies, I’m starting to realise, are as much a product of people’s nature as of observed experience. Some people are determined to see every success as a swindling of someone else, every transaction as an exploitation, every exercise in freedom as a violation of some ideal plan, every tradition as a superstition.

I’ve always struggled to understand why I should be upset about other people being richer than me. But I am no doubt subject to the promptings of my own genome, just as everyone else is.


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