This post is probably not what you think; it's not about Senator Obama's current (or previous) Marxist-friendly remarks, though Marxism is on my mind because of the current discussions about "redistribution of wealth". It is more about whether this country can have a reasoned discussion about Marxism. That may be too much to ask, but I'm still curious whether it's possible.
"From each according to his ability, to each according to his need" was a catch-phrase made very popular by Marx, and it had (and in some circles still has) massive appeal. The reason for its appeal is not likely to be noticed if someone hears "Marx" and automatically sees gulags and mass graves. Marx inspires visceral reactions because of the long series of bloody, tyrannical dictators who have marched under his banner and have justified the unjustifiable with some help from his popular slogan. The Marxists have not yet determined how to make a Marxist utopia without resorting to a totalitarian state.
What I have here is a series of thoughts on both the appeal and dangers of the Marxist slogan. I used it to clarify some of my own thoughts, & would be glad to hear your own, on "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need."
Appeal: Is there any clearer articulation to date of what, exactly, a well-run economy should accomplish?
Danger: Here is a question for democracy to ponder: if you split the population very nearly in two, with the 51% of the people on the lower-producing / lower-earning end in one camp, and the 49% of the people on the higher-producing / higher-earning end in the other camp, is there anything to prevent the 51% from voting to confiscate a certain amount of the money of the 49%? Is there a risk of democracy becoming mob rule by vote, without resorting to violence?
Appeal: Who could argue but that it is both patriotic and humanitarian to help those in need?
Danger: The history of charity (and of charity-based welfare economy) has shown one thing clearly: whenever people are paid for being needy rather than for producing according to their ability, there appear a certain number of scammers, and the scammers if left unchecked tend to take as much as they can. There is an incentive for scammers to multiply until the system breaks as the demand for charity grows beyond the ability to supply it.
Appeal: The system, if followed correctly, sounds like it should work. If all the people capable of producing did produce according to their ability, there should be enough for all. There should be enough extra to redistribute to those few people unable to produce enough for themselves.
Danger: The success of the whole system depends on maximizing the number of people in the "from each according to his ability camp" and minimizing the number of people in the "to each according to his need camp". However, there is no incentive for people to produce according to their ability, if they are not also rewarded according to their productivity.
Appeal: If everyone produced according to his ability, very few would be needy.
Danger: The "from/to" dynamic of the whole slogan makes redistribution the practical application. This is a disincentive for productivity among the people who are productive, and a disincentive for becoming productive among those who are not. The system carries a natural slant towards ever-smaller productive camps and ever-larger needy camps.
Appeal: It sounds like simple justice if each produced what he is able, and each consumed what he needs.
Danger: There is a certain injustice if the one who produces more is not also receiving more, if the one who works the hardest has no appreciable return on his work beyond the same given to one who hardly works, and if the one who hardly works receives material benefits from the produce taken away from the hard worker.
Appeal: There is no starvation if the whole economy is focused on meeting the needs of the people.
Danger: There is no incentive whatsoever to produce beyond the level of need. Gearing an economy to produce at the base level of need creates an economy which is an inch or two above the starvation line.
Appeal: An inch or two above the starvation line is a step forward for a nation that is starving.
Danger: An inch or two above the starvation line is a step backward for a nation where even the welfare recipients are far better off than that.
Appeal: When productivity is harnessed to meet peoples' material needs, there is no reason why anyone's material needs should go unmet.
Danger: When productivity is seen as serving only the goal of meeting material needs, there are abilities not likely to be tapped, such as the ability to innovate.
Appeal: An economy in which everyone consumes only what he needs ensures that everyone has the necessities of life.
Danger: When no one is permitted to consume or produce beyond material needs, there is no incentive for art, joy, creativity, leisure, or enthusiasm. The resulting culture is likely to be unyielding, cold, and Spartan. The necessity-driven economy does not envision breathing space for producing a thing of beauty or gladness for which nobody has a material need. Therefore, it fails the worker badly at his need to excel, to strive, to produce according to his full ability, which exceeds the level of producing at survival/necessity level.
See, I told you it wasn't about Obama. ;)