Walter Block does his Seymour Martin Lipset impression
April 11, 2008
With this essay on why Jews tend to be anti-capitalist. But Lipset, dreadfully boring and predictable as his work was, at least could arrive at a thesis by the end of one of his pieces. The major problem with this piece, which is still pretty interesting, is that Walter defines socialism and anti-capitalism so broadly as to deprive both terms of any meaning.
Walter’s praxeological analysis, borrowing heavily from the theories of Mises and Hayek about the anti-capitalist tendencies of intellectuals, is well and good as far as it goes. But it takes so much for granted. First and foremost, how fleeting the phenomenon of bourgeois Jewish intellectualism has been, lasting barely a century and certainly no more than a century and a half. This problem is compounded with a number of embarrassingly outdated thesis points like “the attraction to Communism of Jews in Hollywood and Broadway” and “the disadvantaging of Jews by affirmative action”.
With respect to praxeology, Walter declares the following:
Most Human Action can be explained in terms of self-interest. But the Jews, it would appear, offer evidence of being a counter-example to this general rule.
Now this is a very bold and compelling statement which an endless series of books could be written about. Walter dismisses, a bit too conveniently in my judgement, the idea that there is something intrinsic to Judaism that manifests itself in selflessness, for good and ill. His rationale is that the 8th Commandment (Thou Shalt Not Steal) is the indispensable foundation of the existence and veneration of private property. This reminds me of when my father has an all too simple and obnoxiously obvious counter-argument, but as in most of those cases it is still more or less true.
But what all this conveniently ignores is the possibility of a very real fount of ideology in Judaism, and thus the possibility that the crux of the question is not praxeological but ideological. In my previous discussion of the matter on this blog just linked, I neglected to discuss what lies at the heart of the proposition that utopian ideology is normative to Judaism. In short, Judaism is fundamentally premised on the idea that man’s purpose on Earth is to work toward its ultimate perfection.
Furthermore, I have cause to suspect that this was in fact Murray Rothbard’s own position. A source tells me of a correspondence young Rothbard had with an official of FEE who probably had some anti-Semitic leanings, inquiring as to wether there was something inherently Jewish about Communism. Rothbard’s response: “Well, it’s a little more complicated then that . . .”
To his credit, Walter’s Orthodox Jewish associate David Gordon has argued vehemently against this proposition. But I unfortunately remain unconvinced. Supremely ironic, I know, that it is with respect to the principle of Tikkun Olam of all things that I fulfill the line in the mission statement of my very leftist shul that it be a place “where doubt can be an act of faith”.
Speaking of that nice little lefty place in Park Slope, this brings me to my final, and eminently practical, criticism of Walter’s essay. Both points I have already made – a) that Walter takes for granted the temporary nature of so many of the phenomena he cites, and b) that he defines socialism and anti-capitalism so broadly as to deprive both terms of meaning. What the Jews have consistently been throughout modernity, the stubborn exception of Zionism and more broadly of the larger question of utopianism we have been vexing over not withstanding, is bourgeois liberal.
In Germany the Jews consistently occupied this class, voting either Liberal or Social Democratic depending on the time and circumstance. In the 20th century, as throughout the world, liberalism declined and eventually collapsed among the Jews to be conquered by socialism and nationalism respectively. But as the repeal of the 20th century takes place before our eyes, it is even now beginning to happen among us Jews, and the conflict that erupts because of that, including and perhaps especially with respect to the clash of resurging bourgeois liberalism and persistent anti-capitalist values, is the truly interesting phenomenon to study.