When I was a child I had a little book that purported to list and describe one hundred “books that changed the world.” I forget what most of them were, but I am virtually certain that the Bible and Marx’s Das Kapital were prominent among them.
The current ecstasy on the left about Thomas Piketty’s new book on economics and income inequality titled Capital in the Twenty-First Century is more than mere admiration. The acclamation appears to reflect the left’s hope that it will be another of those books. To the left, Picketty’s arguments are so clearly brilliant (and/or so potentially seductive to the have-nots and the guilty haves), and the problem of income inequality so vast, that their hope is that the book will finally be the ticket to convincing the reluctant of the benefits of the left’s economic proposals.
Just for the sake of argument, let’s imagine that Piketty’s thesis is correct. The question then would remain as to whether Piketty is merely preaching to the choir, or whether it is likely that a significant number of people who are not already convinced of the truth of what he says would be persuaded by what he writes. In other words, would the American people accept his “remedies,” such as an 80% tax on the rich (defined as 500K to 1 million in income) and a 50%-60% tax on the sort-of-rich-but-not-all-that-rich (defined as an income of 200K) and think those are actions they should support politically?
I can’t see that happening in the foreseeable future, although I can see taxes on the rich being raised somewhat, as they have under Obama, and then millimeter by millimeter inching upwards over time. But if such taxes do end up rising to astronomical levels, it probably won’t be because of Piketty and his attempt to use history and statistics to convince us that they should. It will be because politicians on the left have been successful in using rhetorical appeals to the envy that is ever-present in the makeup of human beings. They’ve been doing that more and more lately already, without Piketty’s help.
Karl Marx’s highly influential book — the one that “changed the world” — was titled Das Kapital: Kritik der politischen Ökonomie (Capital: Critique of Political Economy). Why did it catch on so? Probably because it was an idea whose time had come. Capitalism, and the industrial revolution that really got the capitalism engine going, were still relatively new and unregulated, and socialism/Communism on anything but a micro level had remained relatively untried. Back then it was easier to hope and even to think that it might work as Marx said it would. And it’s important to note that America was always one of the less fertile grounds for Marx’s theories as compared to Europe, in part because Marxism derives a great deal of its appeal from the “class struggle” in societies where the classes are more rigid than they are here.