There is a resurgence of the acceptability of socialism in American economic discourse. Where is this coming from? Surely the history of Socialism has demonstrated that it results in disastrous economic outcomes, and it has been associated with massive death and destruction.
One source of fashionable thinking is our elite universities and their cloud of intellectuals. F. A. Hayek described intellectuals as dealers in second hand ideas, and there is no idea more second hand than Marxist Socialism. Yet, in a recent edition of MIT Technology Review, there were three overt recommendations for a contemporary lurch back to this discredited nineteenth century theory.
How To Create A Kind Of Capitalism Marx Would Warm To.
The first was the most overt of the three, with the headline “A digital capitalism Marx might enjoy“. The theme, as is appropriate for a Marxist proposition, is the supposed conflict between capital and labor. The author betrays his prejudices by describing capital before the digital age as “looms and furnaces and other machines you could see and smell and fall into”. He also betrays antediluvian thinking by asserting that capitalists put “maximizing of these factories’ output above all else”. Deirdre McCloskey debunked the “Max U” error in The Bourgeois Virtues, where she sheds light on the role of the seven virtues (Hope, Faith, Love, Justice, Courage, Temperance and Prudence) in entrepreneurial economic behavior that underpins what she calls “the great betterment” – the 3000% improvement in living standards in the last 200 years.
Now, according to MIT’s Marxist writer, things are getting worse, not better. Labor is being weakened; technology squeezes workers’ bargaining powers because the “quasi-labor” of A.I. replaces true labor. There is more scope to alienate and outsource jobs. Is this fair? Of course not, states our Marxist. After all, A.I. “learns from” labor in order to replace it, but doesn’t compensate labor in return. The answer: pay individuals for the data they generate, even if they don’t work. Data generators of the world must unite and form a new union. Even better, take a collectivist approach. Make data a public resource. Any A.I. that uses the public data must pay the government for access to it, and the government can pay the labor that generated the data.
Heck, let’s go all the way. Let’s have the government own the means of production, as Marx would have wanted. The author suggests that the government take ownership of the companies that gather data and pay a dividend to the public as “just rewards for their contribution”. From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs! This is, as the author puts it, a form of capitalism that Marx could warm to.
If Government Can’t Own The Means Of Production, It Can Aggressively Regulate.
Later in the same edition of the magazine, a headline in stark black capital letters repeats 11 times (in case we didn’t get it the first time): REIN IN THE DATA BARONS. The theme is similar, although more oriented towards government regulation and control of free market exchanges than quite so overtly Marxist. The author asserts that Facebook, Amazon and Google have too much “control over what we see, read and buy”. Why are our MIT superiors so pessimistic about human reason, about our mental processing power, about choice, and self-editing and self-reliance? What about basic economic principles like consumer sovereignty. If we want to, we can consult with Bob Murphy the leading expert on consumer sovereignty. We can read about it on Wikipedia or at mises.org. But no, MIT has declared that Facebook, Amazon and Google – referred to as data barons to bring up the spooky specter of the old oil barons, another staple of the intellectuals’ monopolist fiction – have all the control, and the rest of us are simply deluded.
The anti-trust laws are too tolerant. This is a problem attributed to Chicago School economists and nothing to do with Massachusetts brainiacs, because the economists don’t understand network effects whereas MIT does. So there. The solution to the monopoly control problem is the 20th century one of breaking up the dominant companies. The article claims this idea to be radical. Wow! These radicals require some kind of a software update to catch up with the world. If we can’t break them up, then regulate them more, and emulate the EU with its draconian privacy laws. Block acquisitions! Act progressively! If any company has more than 10% share of data (share of what is undefined – all the data in the world?) they must share it freely with everyone else. It seems like, while the scientific part of the MIT brain has been inventing new ways to analyze data, its social and political part has reverted backwards to the French Revolution.
You Didn’t Build That.
The third article returns unabashedly to Marxism. Let’s Make Private Data Into A Public Good. This is simply government ownership of the means of production re-expressed for the digital age. The author’s argument is the Obama riff of ‘You didn’t build that.” Giant companies like Google and Amazon are making huge profits from technologies originally created with taxpayer money. They are taking advantage of the habits and private information of the taxpayers who funded the technologies in the first place. And then, the most tired cliche of the digital era: with Google, we are the product.
Like all Marxists, the writer has a markedly dystopian view of the human condition, revealed in the accusation that, under Google’s influence, we are “transforming our friendships into sellable propositions”. Really? Are people so shallow and trivial? In MIT’s eyes, yes they are.
There is one further leap of Marxist faith in this article: that platforms are not even real businesses, they are just a way for companies that operate them to avoid responsibility. The Uber platform exists so that the company can avoid responsibility for crass behavior on the part of its drivers. The AirBnB platform exists so that the company can avoid responsibility for its users defacing the property of its other users. MIT makes no concession to creativity, to liberating digital disruption or to consumer choice. These companies are just self-perpetuating monopolists. They must be heavily regulated. The public must be protected against their abuses.
Technology and data were created by all of us and therefore should belong to all of us. The underlying infrastructure was created collectively. Data should be owned in a public repository and sold to the tech companies. Platforms are collective creations and should be driven by public purpose. We must all submit our individual instincts to this public purpose. How Marxist can you get?
We Need Better Intellectuals.
What are we to make of all this? MIT Technology Review is just a magazine. It uses the MIT brand name and the school’s aura of credibility and authority. Are MIT’s professors teaching Marxism to our kids? It is reasonable to assume that they are. In The Intellectuals And Socialism, F.A. Hayek conceded that our society rests on the intellectuals’ services. They tend to prefer and promote socialism because they have no experience of the workings of the economic system, they have a set of general preconceptions into which they fit all ideas, and one of those preconceptions is material equality, which Hayek describes as an abstract concept of doubtful meaning and no practical application in particular instances.
He exhorts the rest of us to make the building of a free society once more an intellectual adventure, and a deed of courage. Freedom and the free enterprise economy need to find their own intellectuals who can take the battlefield through more persuasive presentation of their stronger ideas.