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The Ultimate Guide to Shutting Down Conservative Anti-Piketty Hysteria

"Capital in the 21st Century" has sent conservatives into a rage. Here's how to debunk their favorite attacks.

Thomas Piketty
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons


Thomas Piketty’s wildly popular new book, “ Capital in the 21st Century,” has been subject to more think pieces than the final episode of “Breaking Bad.” Progressives are celebrating the book — and its unexpected popularity — as an important turning point in the fight against global wealth inequality. This, of course, means that conservatives have gone completely ballistic.

Rush Limbaugh, for example, has come out guns a-blazing: “Some French socialist, Marxist, communist economist has published a book, and the left in this country is having orgasms over it,” he exclaimed during a recent broadcast.

When the right drops the C-bomb, the M-bomb and S-bomb all at once, you can be certain a book is having an impact. And “Capital” may well be the “ General Theory” of the first half of the 21st century, redefining the way we think about capitalism, democracy and equality.

This, of course, means that the right-wing attacks have only just begun. That in mind, here is a handy guide to navigating the more absurd responses:

Claim: Piketty is a dirty Marxist

There are two Marxes. One, a scholar of capitalism of repute, put forward testable hypotheses, some of which you may accept, some of which you may reject. The other is a conservative boogeyman, the human representation of all they find evil. If they dislike something, it must be Marxist.

James Pethokoukis, a formidable writer, went full hack for his National Reviewreview,

Thanks to Piketty, the Left is now having a “Galaxy Quest” moment. All that stuff their Marxist economics professors taught them about the “inherent contradictions” of capitalism and about history’s being on the side of the planners — all the theories that the apparent victory of market capitalism in the last decades of the 20th century seemed to invalidate — well, it’s all true after all.

How to respond: Most times someone drops the M-Bomb, he is  intending to be provocative. With enough effort, you can make almost anything Marxist. While Marxists don’t agree on everything, and the term is very nebulous (Marx once said he wouldn’t describe himself as a Marxist), there are some pretty established rules for determining if someone is, indeed, a Marxist. First, he generally doesn’t write things like,

  • “Marxist analysis emphasized the falling rate of profit — a historical prediction that turned out to be quite wrong” (“Capital in the 21st Century,” page 52)
  • “Marx usually adopted a fairly anecdotal and unsystematic approach”. (“Capital in the 21st Century,” page 229)
  • “Marx evidently wrote in great political fervor, which at times lead him to issue hasty pronouncements from which it is difficult to escape. That is why economic theory needs to be rooted in historical sources …” (“Capital in the 21st Century,” page  10)
  • “… Marx totally neglected the possibility of durable technological progress and steadily increasing productivity.” (“Capital in the 21st Century,” page  10)

These are not the words of a Marxist, but rather a reasonable scholar, investigating the truth of the claims written by the greatest political economist who ever lived. The fact that Piketty abstains from the vitriol and misrepresentation that typify most writing on Marx are to his credit.

Piketty certainly does argue that capitalism will not inevitably reduce inequality, as economist Simon Kuznets had famously claimed. As to whether capital will accumulate without end, as Marx believed, he is more nuanced.

Piketty argues that capital will accumulate in the hands of the few when growth is slower than the rate of return on capital and dis-accumulate if not (This is the now famous “r>g” formula). As growth slows, companies can replace workers with machines (written by economists as “substitution between capital and labor”), but only if there is a high elasticity of capital to labor (higher elasticity means easier replacement). This means that the share of income going to the owners of capital will rise, and the distribution of that capital will become more unequal.

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