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In Defense of Capitalism

April 10, 2011

Karl Marx believed that the division of labor present in capitalist society stifled the creative parts of human nature that are constitutive to mental health and happiness. Marx expounds his belief in The German Ideology and other works that this division of labor – a salient quality of capitalism – results in the alienation of the individual and the subsequent spiritual and physical degradation and depression of the worker to “the condition of a machine.” In other works, Marx glorified the proletariat’s struggle against being labeled as just a cog in the machine while savagely villanizing the bourgeoisie who owned the means of production as unscrupulous individuals abusing the working class simply for their personal gain. However, argumentative pieces, Marx’s works decline to fully represent the many positive aspects of the capitalist model, as well as the reason why it has succeeded and flourished despite his theories of this supposed alienation of the working class.

Whereas Marx argues that this “assembly-line” division of labor is degrading towards human workers and estranges them from many of the social aspects of their human nature, he spends very little time discussing the significance behind the gains to society that the increased output resulting from division of labor has brought about.

Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises’s research shows that while in a capitalist society, the “bourgeoisie” does indeed benefit from the labor of wage-earners, that this monotonous system that Marx condemns nevertheless brings about greater benefits to society as a whole and not simply to those who own the means of production; research shows that wage-earners being “forced” into this division of labor also live a higher standard of life than they would have otherwise (such as under Marx’s models, for one).

Many economists have taken a look at Marx’s theories and argued that the benefits brought about by this specialization far outweigh the costs, and that humans are mostly content to be working their specialized jobs. After all, who wants “to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, and criticize after dinner” anyway? I suppose what Marx argues for could be likened to him advocating that all individuals be a jack of all trades but a master of none because of his belief that this all-around knowledge would lead to a healthier, more fulfilling lifestyle; however, while the economic gains brought about by specialization are measurable and definite, who is to say that fullness of production is better than specialization? I believe that even in that category, it comes down to individual preference – this supposed alienation is “more a romantic fiction” than anything else.

Marx also points out in support of communism that in a capitalist society, specialization of labor often leads to some being “forced” into performing unpleasant jobs due to technical necessity; whereas under a method of fullness of production, these jobs would be split or rotated among many people, Marx does not address the issue that the market system rewards those willing to do unpleasant jobs. For example, I remember my economics teacher back in high school telling our class an anecdote of the unpleasantness of working as a garbage collector during Houston in the summers of the 1900s before they had modern-day garbage trucks. Imagine for a second a job where you would be working with decomposing trash for an entire day in a sweltering 100+ degree heat. However, my economics teacher went on to note that while the opportunity cost for these individuals was working a more comfortable and pleasant occupation, that the reward that these garbagemen took out of their jobs was extremely luxurious pay for performing a service that nobody else wanted to perform. Was their specialization damning, and did they curse their jobs every day that they worked it? Perhaps. But they decided that what they took out of their job was worth more to them than a more comfortable job would have been, for as many critics point out, there is so much more to life than the work that Marx fixates on.

From lawyers to doctors to workers at automobile factories, specialization leads to increased gains for society as a whole and raises the standard of living at large; any introductory economics class will teach you just as much. I believe that Karl Marx got it wrong: while his ideologies assumed that this very division of labor led to the corruption of the human soul and the suppression of human nature and creativity, he blew the issue out of proportion. What can be quantitatively measured through capitalism are the gains brought about by the many positive aspects of the economic system, uplifting the nation’s economic status as a whole. At the end of the day, one of the many crucial facets of human existence is the happiness of the individual, and as research has shown, the opportunities present in a capitalist society for higher incomes and a higher standard of living contributes more to human happiness and supersedes the negative aspects of the division of labor that Marx so adamantly fought against.

Source 1
, Source 2, Source 3, Source 4, Source 5

Jonathan He
University of Michigan

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