Related: A New Jersey Star-Ledger editorial commemorating the 50th Anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, the editors correctly pointed out that King originally sought an end to legalized segregation, demanding equality before the law. It was only later, when King turned to politics, that he embraced socialism.
The Star-Ledger, not surprisingly, lauded his politics, failing to recognize that "democratic socialism" clashes with equality before the law. The title of the editorial is The Radical Teachings of Martin Luther King Jr. I left these comments:
When MLK proclaimed his Dream, he reaffirmed the "magnificent words" in the Declaration of Independence—"a promise that all men—yes, black men as well as white men—would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." With these words, MLK was affirming the basic essence of capitalism—egoism. The right to freely pursue one's own life and happiness is what King was upholding.
Under capitalism, each person's inalienable rights are protected by government, so he is free to rise as far as he can, but only through his own productive work and in voluntary trade with others. Since every individual is unique and physically and intellectually autonomous, differing in ability, ambition, interests, upbringing, values, moral character, lifetime goals, and countless other variables, it is both inevitable and just that under conditions of freedom, economic outcomes will vary in line with this human diversity.
But King's professed beliefs in American ideals clashed with his ethics of egalitarian altruism.
Altruism preaches self-sacrifice for the sake of others. It fosters envy and resentment toward the successful, because they have not self-sacrificed or self-sacrificed enough (hence the angst over the "wealth gap"). Altruism fosters the entitlement mentality, because it holds the proper way to satisfy needs is not to earn and keep wealth for oneself—that's selfish—but to prey on others. Altruism is a predatory moral code that enshrines the unearned as the only moral absolute.
Since altruism is the basic essence of socialism, King had to choose one or the other. When he turned to politics, he chose socialism over capitalism, in line with his ethics. (Capitalism, incidentally, didn't exist in America in the 1960s. Like today, we had a mixed economy.)
King's conflict between America's egoistic ideals and altruism is not his alone. The conflict permeates America. What King saw as "wrong with capitalism" is precisely what's great about capitalism.
The choice between socialism and capitalism is really a choice between altruism and egoism—more precisely, rational egoism. One of the few truths Marx ever uttered is that "capitalism legalizes selfishness." Marx meant it as a criticism, and he proceeded to take much of the world away from capitalism, and tens of millions were altruistically sacrificed to his political ideals. But Marx was right; capitalism does embody selfishness. Until selfishness is redeemed and recognized for what it really is—rational, honest, benevolent pursuit of personal happiness—our rights to life and liberty will continue to erode, and capitalism will give way the the tyranny of democratic socialism.
Will we reverse course before it's too late? We will if we reject MLK's politics and instead heed his Dream speech, which revered the radical ideals of the Founding Fathers. We'll know we are heading in the right direction when a Steve Jobs, rather than a Mother Teresa, is at the top of the list of most admired.
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