For most of the 20th century, American libertarians were mostly seen as — and mostly saw themselves as — defenders of capitalism. Was that an accurate view of 20th century libertarians were about? If accurate, is that a good thing about libertarianism, or a defect that should be amended and avoided?

Well, it depends. Specifically, it depends on what you mean by “capitalism.” Now, I’ve had something to say about this before, and my friend Gary Chartier has broached the subject here at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, but I think the ground might be worth covering again in some more detail. (Partly because it may help as an introduction to where I come from on questions of freed markets, economic privilege, social justice, et cetera; and partly because some of the comments on Gary’s earlier post lead me to believe that a closer approach to the definitional question might help clear up communication.) First, though, let’s take a bit of a detour — to New York City.

About a year ago, the Wall Street Journal‘s Metropolis blog ran an item by Aaron Rutkoff on zoning and advertising in Times Square, called “Good Taste in Times Square? It’s Illegal.” As it turns out, the bright lights and “colorful corporate orgy” of Times Square advertising — as paradigmatic a symbol of American capitalism as you could hope for — is the result, not of unfettered free-market commercialism, but of a detailed set of mandates handed down in New York City’s special zoning ordinance for the “Special Midtown District:”

For those with the stomach to navigate the bureaucratic language, the zoning regulations make for interesting reading. What appears totally haphazard to the untrained tourist’s eye is actually planned down to the last square foot, with copious rules about how much of any surface must be covered in signage.

Own a building on Broadway but detest the flashing lights? Too bad. As the code states:

There shall be a minimum of one #illuminated sign# with a #surface area# of not less than 1,000 square feet for each 50 linear feet, or part thereof, of #street# frontage.

There are instructions for precisely which direction Times Square’s signage must face and extraordinarily detailed diagrams for how the brightness of mandatory illuminated displays shall be measured.

Does your building feature a blinking sign? The rules require that the unlit phase not exceed three seconds. When can the bright lights be switched off? No earlier than 1:00 a.m.

–Adam Rutkoff, “Good Taste in Times Square? It’s Illegal,”
Wall Street Journal Metropolis blog, 12 August 2010

The WSJ decided to sum up their findings by saying:

In a way, the zoning code governing the signs is wonderfully ironic. The bright lights of Times Square, one of the most visible and iconic testaments to the city’s hyper-capitalist verve, are maintained not by Adam Smith’s invisible hand but by little-known government regulations.

–Adam Rutkoff, “Good Taste in Times Square? It’s Illegal,”
Wall Street Journal Metropolis blog, 12 August 2010

Well. Whether or not something comes off as “ironic” depends upon your expectations; and on this point, I guess it may not be surprising that my expectations are not the same as those at the Wall Street Journal. In fact, I would say that a story like that of the Times Square zoning code is not only not especially “ironic;” it’s really paradigmatic — a illustratively typical example of how large-scale, in-your-face commerce typically works in these United States, and how it interacts with the corporate economy throughout the world. That’s why I have often referred to myself (following the example of Kevin Carson) a “free market anticapitalist” — because I believe in a really broad and radical version of property rights and market freedom in economic ownership and exchange, but (unlike, say, the Wall Street Journal) I think that the features conventionally associated with American capitalism — large-scale, top-down firms, the predominance of wage labor, corporate domination of economic and social life, the commercialization of social space etc. — are as often as not the products of state intervention, not of market dynamics. And, further, that a genuinely and consistently freed market would tend to undermine the prevalence and significance of these features in everyday life.

But “free market anticapitalism” is a term that raises eyebrows. Mainly because it doesn’t seem to make any sense. The reason I use it is because of the eyebrows it raises — not because I enjoy confusion or confrontation for its own sake, but because I think that existing ideas about the relationships between markets and capitalism are already confused, and that a superficial overlap in language tends to obscure the confusions that already exist. In particular, the term “capitalism” is used by almost all sides in economic debates as if it were obviously the ideal governing libertarian policy proposals, and is debated over both by nominal pro-“capitalists” and by nominal anti-“capitalists” as if it were perfectly obvious to everyone what it means.

But really the term has a lot of different shades of meaning, which are distinct from each other, and some of which are even mutually exclusive.1 And as often as not it seems that debates about “capitalism” involve more than one of them being employed — sometimes because each person is talking about a different thing when she says “capitalism,” but they think that they are fighting about a common subject. And sometimes because one person will make use of the word “capitalism” in two or more different senses from one argumentative move to the next, without noticing the equivocation. At the expense of oversimplifying a very large and tangled literature,2 there are at least four major definitions that have been attached to the term:

  1. Free Enterprise. This is a relatively new usage (coming mainly from libertarian writing in the 1920s-1940s). “Capitalism” has been used by its defenders just to mean a free market or free enterprise system, i.e., an economic order — any economic order — that emerges from voluntary exchanges of property and labor without government intervention (or any other form of systemic coercion). This is the meaning that is almost surely most familiar to those who spend much time reading libertarian economic writing; it is offered as, more or less, a stipulative definition of the term in Friedman, Mises, et al.
  2. Pro-Business Political Economy. “Capitalism” has also been used, sometimes by its opponents, and sometimes by beneficiaries of the system, to mean a corporatist or pro-business economic policy — that is, to active government support for big businesses through instruments such as government-granted monopolies, subsidies, central banking, tax-funded infrastructure, “development” grants and loans, Kelo-style for-profit eminent domain, bail-outs, etc. Thus, when a progressive like Naomi Klein describes government-hired mercenaries, paramilitary torture squads or multigovernment financial institutions like the IMF and World Bank, as examples of the political economy of “disaster capitalism,” capitalism here must mean something other than markets left free of major government intervention. Rather, this is the state intervening, with a very heavy hand, to promote the interests of a particular class of economic players, or promoting a particular form of economic activity, as a matter of policy. This second meaning of capitalism is, of course, mutually exclusive with the first meaning — state-driven corporatism necessarily consists of projects funded by expropriated tax dollars, or regulations enforced from the barrel of a gun, and so to be a “capitalist” in the sense of a free marketeer means being an “anti-capitalist” in the sense of opposing the corporate state, and being “pro-capitalist” in the sense of state “growth” policy means coming out against “capitalism” in the sense of genuinely free markets.
  3. The Wage-Labor System. “Capitalism” has also been used to refer to a specific form of labor market, or a distinctive pattern of conditions facing ordinary working people — one in which the predominant form of economic activity is the production of goods or the performance of services in workplaces that are owned and managed, not by the people doing the work on the line, but by an outside boss. In this third sense, you have capitalism when most workers are working for someone else, in return for a wage, because access to most of the important factors of production is mediated through a business class, with the businessmen and not the workers holding legal titles to the business, the tools and facilities that make the shop run, and the residual profits that accrue to the business.  Workplaces are, as a result, typically organized in hierarchical fashion, with a boss exercising a great deal of discretion over employees, who are generally much more dependent on keeping the job than the boss is on keeping any one worker. (This sense is most commonly seen in Marxian writing, and in older writing from the radical Left — including a great deal of pro-market writing from Anarchists such as Benjamin Tucker and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon.)
  4. Profit-Dominated Society. Finally, the term “capitalism” is very often used (outside of the debating circles of libertarian economists, this is in fact probably the modal use of the term) loosely to mean something like the commercialization of everyday life — that is, a condition in which social interactions are very largely mediated through, or reshaped by, overtly commercial motives, and most or all important social and economic institutions are run primarily on a businesslike, for-profit basis.

It’s important to note, then, that while “capitalism” in the first two senses — that of the freed market, and that of pro-business politics — are mutually exclusive, “capitalism” in the latter two senses are conceptually independent of the political oppositions involved in the first two senses of the term. In concept, a fully free labor market might develop in any number of directions while remaining a free market — you might have a market dominated by big corporations and traditional employer-employee relationships; or you might have worker co-ops, or community workers’ councils, or a diffuse network of shopkeeps and independent contractors; or you might have a pluralistic mish-mash of all these arrangements, without any one of them clearly dominating. (The most likely outcome will depend in part on pre-existing patterns of ownership, the strength and direction of people’s preferences, the direction of entrepreneurial innovation, etc. etc.) Similarly, interventionist states might intervene either against, or in favor of, “capitalism” in the latter two senses — when states adopt heavy-handed “growth” policies and prop up corporate enterprise, they are attacking the free market, but they may very well be entrenching or expanding workplace hierarchy, concentrations of economic ownership, or commercial motives and activities, at the expense of other patterns of ownership, or other forms of peaceful activity, that might be more common were it not for the intervention.

I point all this out, not because I intend to spend a lot of time on semantic bickering about the Real Meaning of the term “capitalism,” or because I think that (say) the disagreements between libertarians and progressives can all be cleared away by showing that one of them is using “capitalism” in the first sense, while the other is really using “capitalism” in the second, third or fourth. Rather, I think the distinction is worth making precisely in order to avoid semantic bickering, and thus to get clear on where the areas of substantive disagreement, and the best topics for productive argument, actually are. A lot of time to get to the real argument you first need to be willing to say, “OK, well, I see that you are complaining about ‘capitalism’ in the sense of the corporate status quo, but that’s not what I mean to defend. What I’m defending is the free market, which is actually radically different from the status quo; no doubt you disagree with that too, but for different reasons; so let’s get on with that.”

And I point it out also — to come back to the bit about “Libertarian Anticapitalism,” with which I began this piece — because it is only once we have disentangled the distinct senses of the term “capitalism” that certain kinds of positions about market economies can begin to make sense. I have a self-interested motive here — for my own position is one that typically gets blanked out when one doesn’t break down this sort of distinction among different meanings of the term. That is, roughly, the position of the mutualist and individualist Anarchists — Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Josiah Warren, Benjamin Tucker, Victor Yarros, Gertrude Kelly, Lysander Spooner, Voltairine de Cleyre, et al. In conventional debates over capitalism, we are usually offered two major positions — the position of the pro-capitalist Right, and the position of the state socialists. But both positions, in spite of their policy-level disagreement, have a very important economic claim in common: they typically take it more or less for granted that free markets, just as such, tend to produce capitalism in our third sense and our fourth. Call this the Capitalist Causal Hypothesis:

(CCH) If you have “capitalism” in sense 1 (an economy without intense, extensive, and ongoing government intervention), then you’ll naturally tend to get “capitalism” in senses 3 and 4 (large-scale concentrations of ownership, a for-profit corporate economy, a wage-labor system, etc.).

The pro-capitalist Right likes the outcome, and the state socialist does not, so the one uses it as a reason to endorse “capitalism” and the other as a reason to reject it. (Conventional liberals typically split the difference by calling for a mix of pro-business regulation and anti-business regulation, in order to get a properly managed form of capitalism, with political forces in place to countervail against its worse tendencies.) But what of those who reject the causal claim asserted by (CCH)? For an individualist like Tucker, “capitalism” in the sense of wage-labor and commercialism has been largely upheld, and sustained by “pro-business” government intervention, not by free market processes — in particular, by the economic structure created by Tucker’s Big Four monopolies and their modern descendents, by the funnelling of resources into the military-industrial complex, by trillion-dollar bail-outs and pervasive, intense hyperregulation of the economic prospects of the poor and marginalized. Thus, the argument goes, the natural tendency of the free market is actually anti-capitalistic, in the sense of knocking out the political privileges that hold up the economic status quo, of dissipating large-scale economic inequalities, undermining rather than entrenching monopolies, cartels, and accumulated fortunes, and freeing up workers to make independent livings through a rich set of non-corporate, grassroots alternatives to the corporate-capitalist economy (e.g. co-ops, worker-owned shops, independent contracting and homesteading, mutual aid associations, etc. etc. etc.). It is only in virtue of “capitalism” in the second sense, state capitalism or business privilege, that actually-existing capitalism, in the latter two senses, flourishes and grows.

Now, whether Tucker’s position (or mine) is the right one or the wrong one is of course a matter for considerable debate, and it will depend on laying out some conceptual issues and a lot of empirical evidence that I haven’t even begun to touch on in this post. But my first interest is that the position should be made intelligible, so that we can begin to discuss what would support the claim, or cut against it. Before you can debate whether or not a claim like (CCH) is true, you first have to establish that there really are two distinct terms on either side of the conditional operator, and that someone might either assert or deny that they are connected just like that. To be able to do that, it will help a lot to make it as clear as possible, in our terminology or at least in the process of our conversations, that “a free market” is not just the same thing as businessmen being left alone to do whatever they please; that it means ownership and economic freedom for everyone, and may well encompass forms that may look nothing like conventional corporate enterprises or business-as-usual today; that it is quite possible that many critics of “capitalism” may be pointing to very real social evils, while misdiagnosing the causes; and that many of the evils most commonly ascribed to “capitalism,” and thus blamed on the free market, really are not the results of market activities, but the results of “capitalism” in quite a different sense — in the sense of government-backed commerce and politically-enforced corporate privilege.

 

Footnotes:

  1. Thus, for example, while we are told by libertarian economists that “capitalism” means a system of purely private ownership and market exchange, without state intervention, a left-leaning journalist like Stephen Kinzer comparing Cuba to its quote-unquote “capitalist” Caribbean neighbors — referring to Haiti, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, and Honduras! — and we see a conventional left opinionator like Michael Moore making a film that he calls, Capitalism: A Love Story. The movie is about the bail-outs. Whatever other disagreements these folks may have — and of course they have many — the overwhelming fact here ought to be that they cannot possibly be arguing about the same thing to begin with. Whatever Moore and Kinzer have picked out to criticize, it’s not a system characterized primarily, or even noticeably, by free market exchange or a lack of government intervention.
  2. The word “capitalism” — or rather, the French cognate from which it is derived, capitalisme — was not used to describe any kind of encompassing social or economic system until the 1840s. It was originally coined by opponents of the system that they identified as “capitalism,” but after it passed into common usage in economic debates — roughly, during the 1880s-1900s — it took on a whole host of other meanings.
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  • http://aaronmclin.blogspot.com/ Aaron

    Good evening, Mr. Johnson. Thanks for this, it was an informative and enjoyable read. A quick note – your first definition of Capitalism appears to end abruptly, as if it were cut off in mid-sentence.

    • http://www.sandiego.edu/~mzwolinski Matt Zwolinski

      Fixed now.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you!  Free-market anti-capitalist libertarian works well.  It’s all well and good for the WSJ to primly sneer at the minutia specified in the Times Square regulations.  But who, exactly, is one to suppose is responsible for all that legislation?  Trial lawyers?  PETCO union demands?  Citizens petitions?  NIMBYS?  How about no?  Instead I’ll give you a nickle if every clause and comma is the result of intense lobbying and/or litigation by local, profit-maximizing real-estate and advertising interests (possibly aided and abetted by an electrical union or two, maybe, but also by lighting vendors, etc.)

    To imagine that capitalism stands in opposition to government (as your average conservatarian passionately asserts) is to miss that instead capitalism generally collaborates with or co-opts government (assuming government doesn’t pre-emptively sell out to it first.)

    There are so many examples it makes one sick, from those Times Square regulations to the grocery-store magnate who unabashedly ran my hometowns political machine almost exclusively for the benefit of his and his crony’s businesses well in to the 1970s (and who’s legacy of policies and legislation meant to avoid to both competition and higher advertising for his businesses still hold the town back.) The one that annoys me personally to no end at all, and which highlights the irritating taketh-and-giveth-away nature of government are the layers of protections for commercial publishers of academic journals, which of course report on research that is almost entirely publically funded.  It’s not the worst excess (obviously, when you look at, say, the astonishing growth in consulting dollars being dumped in the D.C. area) but at least to me it’s the most completely irritating, inefficient, and utterly petty example of regulatory capture I can think of.

    figleaf

  • http://klecu.com klecu

    Figleaf, 

    As one libertarian writer (I don’t recall who) put it, capitalists (or perhaps more exactly, corporatists) don’t like capitalism (in Johnson’s first sense). Competition is bad for businesses. A vibrant, competitive market with low entry barriers and many participants makes business the slave of the people. I find it grotesque that supposedly socialist-leaning politicians are convincing people that a bigger state is good for the individual, for the working man, when in fact it is very bad for the working man. It prevents him from competing by requiring licensure, taxes, and onerous regulatory burdens which established businesses can more easily comply with because those restrictions didn’t exist (at least to the same extent) when they started. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Dan-Kervick/100000673155327 Dan Kervick

    A vibrant, competitive market with low entry barriers and many participants makes business the slave of the people. 

    I doubt that.    But how exactly is it that you see low entry barriers preserved over time?

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Dan-Kervick/100000673155327 Dan Kervick

    I think that the features conventionally associated with
    American capitalism — large-scale, top-down firms, the predominance of wage
    labor, corporate domination of economic and social life, the commercialization
    of social space etc. — are as often as not the products of state intervention,
    not of market dynamics. And, further, that a genuinely and consistently freed
    market would tend to undermine the prevalence and significance of these
    features in everyday life.

    This is an empirical assumption, and I strongly disagree
    with it.  Capitalism more or less as we
    know it – but with its worst features enhanced – emerges naturally from the
    unrestrained, weakly regulated economic liberty that libertarians extol.  A system of equal competing agents, each
    seeking to advance its own self-interest in an environment unchecked by a
    powerful rule of communal law imposing a civilizing order of cooperative norms, is simply
    a struggle for power and domination that amplifies the effects of avarice and ruthlessness.  The natural tendency of such a system is for the
    strongest, most powerful and most ruthless of those competing agents to succeed
    in their quest to dominate, and to use their acquired power at each stage to acquire even more power, and to impose hierarchical systems of control and
    subordination over the vanquished.

    I know Libertarians sincerely hate tyranny.  But because they are so excessively focused
    on the independence and supposed rights of individuals and private economic
    agents, and disparage community needs, organized social choice and mutual obligations, they are
    unwilling to engage in building and sustaining the democratic socialization of power that is necessary
    to prevent tyranny from emerging.

    A lot of individual libertarians might be live-and-let-live
    free spirits or harmless potheads.  But
    the world is also full of assholes.  And
    the world libertarians they would create with their permissive, laissez faire
    rule of laxity is what one would expect when communities drop their organized
    vigilance and give carte blanche to the assholes: you get Assholocracy.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Xavier-Sandal/540969202 Xavier Sandal

      >A system of equal competing agents, each seeking to advance its own self-interest in an environment unchecked by a powerful rule of communal law imposing a civilizing order of cooperative norms, is simply a struggle for power and domination that amplifies the effects of avarice and ruthlessness.

      Dan Kervick, what you call “a powerful rule of communal law imposing civilizing order of cooperative norms” is just political darwinism. The term sounds great, I have to give you that. But at the end, politics is just as competitive as any other human system where the most rethorically or politically skilled destroy and take over the rest.

      The difference of a free market vs a political system is that in a free market the competitive advantage is tunnelled towards fullfiling the needs of others, while in the system your propose the incentives go towards hurting the others.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Dan-Kervick/100000673155327 Dan Kervick

        In the system I propose, people band together as equals to build homes and communities, to form rules and compacts governing the way they will live together, and prevent their homes and communities from being overpowered by others.

        People have actually always done this fairly successfully.  But success requires a willingness to pledge oneself to others, to respect the successful social institutions that have already been created and to regard others and one’s commitments to them as sometimes more important than even one’s own interests.  And these kinds of behaviors – while ordinary and unremarkable throughout most human history – seem alien to the libertarian psychology of radical individualism and self-isolation.

        • http://www.facebook.com/people/Xavier-Sandal/540969202 Xavier Sandal

          Dan, you are contradicting yourself. “Radical” individualism is

          >willingness to pledge oneself to others, to respect the successful
          social institutions that have already been created and to regard others
          and one’s commitments to them

          “Radical” individualism is not self-isolation. On the contrary, individualism is a social doctrine, it does not make sense outside society.

          Also, you can not do anything that is not in self-interest, whether is a selfish or altruist act (and yes, this is semantics).

          Your rethoric is very good, but your concepts are all twisted.

          >In the system I propose, people band together as equals to build homes and communities, to form rules and compacts governing the way they will live together, and prevent their homes and communities from being overpowered by others.

          This is very beautifully written, but in reality what you mean is that all decission have to go through a political process, where the more rethorically and/or sociallyt skillfull get to impose their will over the rest.

          • Jay Baldwin

            Aside from Kervick’s “system”, unwittingly to him apparently, being perfectly consistent with libertarianism, it suggests that he doesn’t know where his fight is…it is with the machinery of the state not libertarians. Libertarians would be content for him to live with whom and in whatever manner he likes, so long as we all don’t have to involuntarily join him.

        • http://insteadofablog.wordpress.com/ Neverfox

          Well, if that’s your solution, how exactly does that conflict with what Charles is talking about?

          Is this just a canned response you leave on all libertarian sites? I suggest you actually read some of Charles’ work before dipping into your copy-paste ammunition.

          • http://www.facebook.com/people/Dan-Kervick/100000673155327 Dan Kervick

            I’m pretty sure this is the only libertarian site I visit.  You guys are special :)

          • http://www.facebook.com/people/Dan-Kervick/100000673155327 Dan Kervick

            But to answer your question, I take it that Johnson, having done some preliminary conceptual clarification,  is going to argue against the CCH, and attribute the negative aspects of capitalism – in senses 3 and 4 – to state-backed privileges and government interventions.  I on the other hand see these negative features as emerging naturally from weakly-regulated free market behavior of the kind extolled by libertarians, and therefore think that in order to prevent or undermine the egregious features of capitalism – most of which I assume Johnson and I both deplore – one must regulate market behavior and private exchange in ways designed to prevent these egregious features from emerging.

          • Anonymous

            How is one to interpret “emerging naturally from weakly-regulated free market behavior of the kind extolled by libertarians”? The way I understand libertarians can be understood to talk about is one of two forms. 

            One, as someone already pointed out is completely consistent with your “powerful rule of communal law” (taking “communal law” to mean law that protects the common interests and persons of each of us — in other words, property rights broadly taken). So here the only argument can be about “communal law” in it’s specifics and not about it’s existence or place in the social order.

            The other interpretation might be that “free market” mean totally unregulated by any laws, so no property rights protections, no tort protection. Fine, people are naturally evil and will always seek to take advantage of one another if the incentive of personal gain outweighs the potential costs. In this vision of mankind where would the rule of law ever come from? Apparently it would have to be given exogenously to us but that merely begs the question: “Given by whom or what?”

        • http://insteadofablog.wordpress.com/ Neverfox

          Well, if that’s your solution, how exactly does that conflict with what Charles is talking about?

          Is this just a canned response you leave on all libertarian sites? I suggest you actually read some of Charles’ work before dipping into your copy-paste ammunition.

        • Stan Parker

          Ah, I see, Dan. So you’re a bleeding heart libertarian. The only way your system would be possible is if people pledged themselves to this greater good out of their own free will, rather than from some government power.Nobody is stopping you from building this community. Please, do it. Start a bog and tell us how it goes. If it’s great, then hopefully others will emulate your model with the framework you’ve laid out for them. Or maybe they’ll make adjustments to suit their own needs. If your society sucks, then people can leave — a major difference between what you’re proposing and what it would look like in a state-initiated system.If you had trouble starting this ideal society, I can guarantee you those problems would come primarily from the government regulations you purportedly defend. Mainly, how are we going to pay property taxes if we don’t have an income?

          • http://www.facebook.com/people/Dan-Kervick/100000673155327 Dan Kervick

            I’m not sure what “state-initiated” means, Stan.   Isn’t a state just a government?  I’m just defending the rule of law under democratic government, hardly a very radical proposal.  Making our existing governing structures more democratic calls for grass roots reform and citizen activism, but we already have constitutional and other governing structures in which it can be.

            The pledging I am talking about isn’t some sort political ur-event that takes place in the state of nature starting with a blank slate, but is something that happens repeatedly as members of communities reform themselves and recommit themselves to one another in response to new threats, challenges and opportunities.

            Nothing in life ever is or ever has been purely voluntary, apart from unusual circumstances of a few dropouts and castaways.  We’re political and social animals and our actions always take place in a social context in which we find ourselves bound and coerced to some extent by the rules of the communities in which we live.

          • Jay Baldwin

            “Isn’t a state just a government?”

            No, “state and “government” are not synonymous.

        • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_RJFVJN3DZT3G3R3S2ERKIRFLKA Jerry

          Not always.  Mutual help organizations go a long ways back in American history. 

      • Fernando Teson

        I disagree: the expression” powerful communal law imposing a civilizing order of cooperative norms” is truly scary.

        • http://www.facebook.com/people/Dan-Kervick/100000673155327 Dan Kervick

          Yeah, I know libertarians are scared by laws, rules and communities Fernando.  I’m a bit more worried these day about the dissolution of civilization and democracy caused by libertarian lassitude and anti-social individualism, and by the emergence of new-style academic “epistocrats” frankly defending rule by a privileged few.

          • Anonymous

            Dan is correct that voluntary communities or organizations that impose discipline and community-style thinking after you join have been successful throughout history.  The Amish, Quakers, French Foreign Legion, the list goes on.  In fact with the Amish, while they raise children in the community, encourage the grown children to see  the outside world and determine if they wish to stay in the community or not.

            Many libertarians, in  addition to emphasizing that everything should be voluntary, can’t seem to understand why anyone would even voluntarily want to be part of a community or receive value from hit.  I believe that’s his point.

          • Anonymous

            Then Dan only wants to argue against the worst regiments for libertarianism and with, what rightly can be called, the vulgar libertarians.

            It would be interesting to have a definition of “many” in this case. The humber 100 might be called many but that would not represent a significant portion of those who claim to be libertarian.

          • biasedmonster

            This is a patently ridiculous statement. I wonder how truly sincere people are when they make these sweeping generalizations about entire political philosophies after reading a page from the Cliffs Notes of Atlas Shrugged.

        • Anonymous

          Fernando, I think this is one of the areas where BHL and the Left have some room to improve their communications. Yes, Dan’s phrase can be taken to mean a lot of things and one can start jumping at shadows. Perhaps you know more about Dan and so are using that background information.

          Why shouldn’t one take the statement to include what libertarians consider property rights and the rule of law — and not necessarily anything more? In the end if property rights and a rule of law doesn’t produce a civil order with cooperation how can our market society function as market libertarians claim?

    • http://twitter.com/radgeek radgeek

      This is an empirical assumption …

      I agree that it’s an empirical claim (that’s why I already said above that “Now, whether Tucker’s position (or mine) is the right one or the wrong
      one is of course a matter for considerable debate, and it will depend on
      laying out some conceptual issues and a lot of empirical evidence that I
      haven’t even begun to touch on in this post.”). But it’s not an “assumption;” it’s the conclusion (not the premise) of an argument, which is adverted to but not detailed here. For a start on what the argument would be, I can only recommend a pile of reading: for example, my  Bits & Pieces on Free Market Anticapitalism (http://radgeek.com/gt/2010/05/05/bits-pieces-on-free-market-anti-capitalism-by-way-of-introduction-or-apology/), Benjamin Tucker’s Instead of a Book, Part II of Kevin Carson’s Studies in Mutualist Political Economy, Gabriel Kolko’s The Triumph of Conservatism, Roy Child’s Big Business and the Rise of American Statism,  etc.

      I strongly disagree with it.  Capitalism more or less as we know it –
      but with its worst features enhanced – emerges naturally from the
      unrestrained, weakly regulated economic liberty that libertarians
      extol.  A system of equal competing agents, each seeking to advance its
      own self-interest in an environment unchecked by a powerful rule of
      communal law imposing a civilizing order of cooperative norms, is simply
      a struggle for power and domination that amplifies the effects of
      avarice and ruthlessness.  The natural tendency of such a system is for
      the strongest, most powerful and most ruthless of those competing agents
      to succeed in their quest to dominate, and to use their acquired power
      at each stage to acquire even more power, and to impose hierarchical
      systems of control and subordination over the vanquished.

      Well, OK; now I know that you believe that. But if this is intended as an empirical claim then I’d need to know what sort of empirical evidence you intend to introduce to justify it. I hope not the outcomes of actually-existing markets (or historical markets, e.g. in the American Gilded Age) — because whatever one might say about those outcomes (and I agree that they were pretty rotten, and characterized by exactly the sort of social domination you mention), they are not outcomes from a free market, or anything even vaguely resembling a free market (during the 19th century, keep in mind, the position of the legal system was that the numerical majority of people in the U.S. had no secure property rights that white males were bound to respect). Now, my empirical argument goes like this: each of the examples that critics of capitalism point to as its worst evils (starvation wages, sweatshop conditions, monopolistic trusts, company towns, etc.) can be shown to have a fairly intense sort of government privilege at its back (Tucker’s Four Monopolies, government by injunction and military strike-breaking, the anticompetitive, wealth-concetrating legislation discussed by Kolko, etc.). These constitute a subsidy to hierarchical capitalism (capitalism in the third and fourth senses discussed above), and when you remove a subsidy, ceteris paribus, you tend to get less of it. Do you have a response to this line of argument (beyond just digging your heels in and insisting that, even without these real-world props, protections, and subsidies, capitalism in an imaginary free market would in fact be even more voracious, and there would be no grassroots community movements capable of checking or resisting it through nonviolent means)? If so, what is it?

      But because they [libertarians] are so excessively focused on the independence and
      supposed rights of individuals and private economic agents, and
      disparage community needs, organized social choice and mutual
      obligations, they are unwilling to engage in building and sustaining the
      democratic socialization of power that is necessary to prevent tyranny
      from emerging.

      Well, whatever you want, man, but this sounds a lot more like you’ve wandered off into a canned complaint you had ready for small-government conservatives or Randians or whatever than it sounds like a response to anything I said. That stuff above about alternatives to corporate capitalism and to “co-ops, worker-owned shops, … mutual aid associations, etc. etc. etc.” was meant seriously, and if you want to know I’ve  written fairly extensively in the past about the need for libertarians to incorporate social organizing and grassroots mutual aid into their understanding of peaceful activity in a free community. But the difference between you and me is that when I say I believe in taking account of “community needs, organized social choice and mutual obligations,” in the interest of the “socialization of power,” what I have in mind really is social relationships of free association within the community — not political relationships mediated by the state, bureaucracy, or government law.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Dan-Kervick/100000673155327 Dan Kervick

        … what I have in mind really is social relationships of free association within the community — not political relationships mediated by the state, bureaucracy, or government law.

        What is the difference, radgeek?   If you and the other members of your community organize your activities and settle on some rules about how things should be run – common ownership rather than concentrated ownership for example – then you are a political community whose embers stand in political relationships.   If you are determined that the rules should really be followed, and determine in advance to resist those who seek to thwart or overturn the rules, then you are a government.  Government is just the natural expression of human beings doing their political thing as political animals, which includes trying to establish settled, rule-governed forms of interaction, and not leaving everything up to spontaneity and the whims of the moment.

        • Anonymous

          “Government is just the natural expression of human beings doing their political thing as political animals”

          Is it? Or is it yet another of the formal social institution that introduces the same concentrations of power, institutional biases and asymmetries and the like?

          Many in this thread are making a big deal about corporations, and I do see a number of issues with them and think it’s high time we get some of the structural problems resolved, however, government shares many of the same problems. 

          It’s interesting, and I think somewhat relevant, that the corporate charter was largely a copy of the municipal one that exists when larger private economic structures were emerging in the economies. It’s also interesting that both seem to owe their existence to a grant from some “higher” authority that enjoys a number or privileges the average citizen doesn’t.  Both municipal and corporate structures tend to enjoy limited liability as well as function along the lines of separation of ownership and control.  

          Last, to me it’s also interesting that the “higher” authority I mention above is typically already protected from most or all harms done by the incorporated entity so granting  limited liability is  of little consequence to that authority. At the same time, in our modern world  that “higher” authority is also correctly defined as an organization in which ownership and control are separated.

        • Jay BAldwin

          What seems to be missing from responses to Kervick is the notion that libertarians are perfectly willing to accept the existence of his preferred political/economic arrangements…for those who voluntarily agree to live accordingly. It’s his universal approach that libertarians object to. Libertarians, at least in my mind, don’t believe that a universal system of governance is necessary for peaceful relations to exist among wildly varying forms of social life. His main concern seems to be over how to deal with the Hobbesians…why not allow local communities to first decide what kinds of behaviors are anti-social and then, secondly, how to deal with aberrant behavior?

    • http://insteadofablog.wordpress.com/ Neverfox

      A few straw men found their way into your response, e.g. “unrestrained” and “unchecked by a powerful rule of communal law imposing a civilizing order of cooperative norms.” Anarchy is neither unrestrained, unchecked by law, uncivilized chaos, or free of cooperative norms. There are natural law ethical commitments that restrain behavior to non-aggression and more. To be an anarchist is to accept those commitments and hope that other accept them as well.

      and to impose hierarchical systems of control and subordination

      And your solution to this is to…impose hierarchical systems of control and subordination?

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Dan-Kervick/100000673155327 Dan Kervick

        Not so hierarchical.  Democratic and openly debated.

        • Anonymous

          Why do you think that gets us anywhere? There are a lot of problems in collective choice processes and no guarantee that we get to a good outcome much less some optimal/first best one.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Dan-Kervick/100000673155327 Dan Kervick

        What do anarchists do when people don’t accept those natural law restraints?

        • http://insteadofablog.wordpress.com/ Neverfox

          I can tell you what they won’t do: blame the cookbook for not making dinner.

        • Anonymous

          They become libertarians.

        • Anonymous

          I suspect banishment, death, forced restitution or, depending on just what rule was being flaunted, bemused toleration are part of the possible responses.

          I don’t think imprisonment is typically one of the preferred options for anarchists.

          Why would you think an anarchistic society would fail to have various sanctions for those disposed to illegitimately interfering with another’s life.

    • http://insteadofablog.wordpress.com/ Neverfox

      A few straw men found their way into your response, e.g. “unrestrained” and “unchecked by a powerful rule of communal law imposing a civilizing order of cooperative norms.” Anarchy is neither unrestrained, unchecked by law, uncivilized chaos, or free of cooperative norms. There are natural law ethical commitments that restrain behavior to non-aggression and more. To be an anarchist is to accept those commitments and hope that other accept them as well.

      and to impose hierarchical systems of control and subordination

      And your solution to this is to…impose hierarchical systems of control and subordination?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Dan-Kervick/100000673155327 Dan Kervick

    Well, OK; now I know that you believe that. But if this is intended as an empirical claim then I’d need to know what sort of empirical evidence you intend to introduce to justify it.
    Part of my evidence consists in the direct observation of human beings in competitive economic environments.  I have worked in the corporate environment for six years.  Given what I have seen of the behavior of intense competitors in an environment in which their behavior is constrained by law, my conclusions about how many of these people would behave in environments that are not constrained by law is a very dark and pessimistic one.  Many people seem driven to rule, abuse and humiliate others, and rise to positions of unchallenged superiority and command.   And they frequently succeed.  The only thing that constrains them is fear of a countervailing power.  And the only thing that prevents that countervailing power from being even worse than what it checks is a system in which that countervailing power is based on institutions and traditions of shared responsibility and democratic mutuality and equality.

    Other evidence is based on history.  Human history contains a lot of fine and noble achievements.  But it also contains a trail of almost unbelievably sadistic carnage.  The chief perpetrators of that carnage, on my reading, are agents with domineering impulses who are not effectively constrained early on by enforced norms, and are as a result able to surpass those normative boundaries and express their malevolent will to power and unsocialized self-absorption on the backs of their fellow humans.  The world is full of little Hitlers who want to become the Fuhrers of the domains .   Decent, civilized and restrained people with an affection for their fellow-human beings and appreciation for the achievements of human community need to band together and make and promulgate rules, and institutional mechanisms for enforcing those rules, to keep the many potential rogues and monsters in check.

    I think it’s naive to think that states are the chief agents responsible for thwarting worker organization.   Ownership and wealth bring power.   The owners of mines command more wealth and resources than the miners.   If the owners of mines can beat their employees with sticks and pipes, and punish them for organizing, that’s what they will do.   In the modern era of industrial and post-industrial capitalism, the drive of the commanders of resources and owners of enterprises to abuse and virtually enslave their workers is manifest.  (In some cases they actually enslave their workers.)  The only thing stopping these behaviors has been popular political resistance and morally outraged communities of decent people using their political power to outlaw the behaviors, and punish those who would violate them.

    The strongest competitors in the economic sphere typically defeat rivals and form oligopolies and monopolies, and as a result come to wield great social power.   So it is certainly true that when economic power grows to large proportions, it often captures many of the instrumentalities of democratic government and perverts them.  The only hope then is that as alarm to spreads through the community, activist members of the community will work organize its latent political power, and regenerate that power in numbers so that they can  seize back the control that has been lost.  They must then revive their lawmaking capacity and determination to cooperate in community self-governance, and exert themselves to establish a sanctioned framework of rules that prevent similar power grabs from occurring in the future.

    The basis for democratic government is a common perception among many people of mutual self-interest in deposing and resisting an actual or would-be tyrannical enemy, or in achieving some great result that can only be achieved by enduring, organized cooperation.   There are also the social bonds forged from compassion, sympathy, love and respect,  but these emotions and bonds grow only in an environment of peaceful coexistence that has been achieved by the civilizing power of government and law, and organized political resistance to despotism.    How have the meek and considerate ever succeeded in defeating the strong and ruthless?  Only by combining themselves by pact into political communities that are capable of exercising in combination the power they lack as individuals.

    Some states suck, and are even worse and more hierarchical and tyrannical than the hierarchies that naturally arise in the “private” world.  The solution isn’t weak and ineffective political communities.  The solution is better political communities organized around democratic principles with internal check and balances.   Once such communities attain power, they need to govern themselves, and regulate their own members’ all-too-human proclivities toward domination, by erecting constraints that prevent the sort of titanic self-assertion that is part of the human condition.

    • http://twitter.com/radgeek radgeek

      “Part of my evidence consists in the direct observation of human beings
      in competitive economic environments.  I have worked in the corporate
      environment for six years.  Given what I have seen of the behavior of
      intense competitors in an environment in which their behavior is constrained by law, my conclusions about how many of these people would behave in environments that are not
      constrained by law is a very dark and pessimistic one….”

      Well, this is not exactly empirical evidence, is it? At least not of any systematic sort. It sounds like anecdote combined with counterfactual speculation. There’s nothing inherently wrong with drawing conclusions from anecdotal experience or from counterfactual speculation (certainly, my ceteris paribus argument involves reasoning through counterfactuals), but you do realize that the incentives presented by “competitive economic environments” might be substantially different in, say, a political economy that isn’t characterized by a multibillion dollar military-industrial complex, trillion-dollar government bail-outs, monopoly concessions, or other factors that systematically concentrate wealth into large, formalized, hierarchical organizations (like, say, your average Fortune 500 company), or which actively reward titanic corporations for financial recklessness, etc.?

      “Many people
      seem driven to rule, abuse and humiliate others, and rise to positions
      of unchallenged superiority and command.  And they frequently succeed.
       The only thing that constrains them is fear of a countervailing power.”

      Well, OK; but do you think that the only possible or effectual constraints on people’s behavior, or countervailing powers that might check recklessness or cruelty, are legal constraints? If so, why? I think that American history offers some compelling reasons to believe that consensually-organized social constraints have often proved more effective, even when legal or political means were available (see for example 1, 2, etc.).

       “And the only thing that prevents that countervailing power from being
      even worse than what it checks is a system in which that countervailing
      power is based on institutions and traditions of shared responsibility
      and democratic mutuality and equality.”

      All that’s fine, but I don’t see what it has to do with government, unless you think that government and electoral politics are the only possible sort of “institutions and traditions” by which people might act in common cause or take up “shared responsibility.”

      I don’t.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Dan-Kervick/100000673155327 Dan Kervick

        Well, OK; but do you think that the only possible or effectual constraints on people’s behavior, or countervailing powers that might check recklessness or cruelty, are legal constraints? If so, why? 
        Because I think there are lots of people who are not very cooperative, and not much moved by the forces of consensus and team play.  If they just stuck to themselves, that wouldn’t be much of a problem.   But many don’t stick to themselves.  Their antisocial individualism is manifested by their constant, scheming efforts to control and dominate others.   Their typical instinctive behavior is thus a threat to most other people, and it can only be deterred by the threat and imposition of sanctions.

        On your earlier point, all corporations are hierarchical and all of them represent concentrated wealth.  Yet most have them are not much involved in the bailouts, military-industrial complex or state-enabled monopolies.

        Corporations have a traditional governance structure that is hierarchical.  The government doesn’t really mandate that structure.  But it permits that structure in the same way that it once permitted slavery.    There is no reason corporations have to be governed that way.   But they will be governed that way so long as that mode of internal government is permitted, and so long as the chief function of a corporation is the extraction of profits by its owners and chief stakeholders.   If we want to change corporations, we need to reform them by legislative action.

        • Anonymous

          Why don’t you and others who agree with your ideas form an egalitarian/socialist/non-hierarchical (or whatever your perferred description) business organization and COMPETE with the nasty, aggressive, domineering, enslaving corporations. By unleashing the creative, innovative, briillance of free men and women liberated from the internal domineering structure of traditional corporations you will surely bankrupt them all, leaving only the lovely, free, pure, etc. sorts of entities you desire. The world will then be a wonderful place.

          • http://www.facebook.com/people/Dan-Kervick/100000673155327 Dan Kervick

            You sound angry.

            Anyway, dropping out of society is more of a libertarian solution.   I prefer politics.

            There are, however, a number of Free Staters in my state of New Hampshire going the alternative utopian route you suggest, and attempting to turn my state into some kind of anarchist paradise.

          • Anonymous

            What you mean by “politics” is the application of force to make other people conform to your vision of what a “just” society should look like. That idea does infuriate me since I think I am entitled as a moral agent to decide these things for myself. You mention New Hampshire: does the phrase “Live Free or Die” ring a bell?

          • http://www.facebook.com/people/Dan-Kervick/100000673155327 Dan Kervick

            You might be entitled to decide for yourself what a just society should look like.  But you are not entitled to actually live in a society that matches your personal vision.  None of us are.  A society by definition is made of of a multitude of people, so the social world we get depends on the decisions of many people besides ourselves.  If you want the social world to look some particular way, you will have to work with others to create such a society.

          • Anonymous

            If you didn’t figure this out already, my above examples were designed to show that our society, whatever its defects, gives you and like-minded people ample opportunity to PERSUADE others to live the kind of life you consider good. You didn’t respond to this argument because you are not interested in persuading others to live the good life but in FORCING them to do so by using the political process as a weapon.

            I do not think (nor did I say) that I am entitled to live in a society that matches my vision of the good, but I do think I am entitled to live the life that I believe is good, without suffering the intervention of those (like you) who think they have some unique insight, based on their infinite wisdom, into what constitutes “social justice.”  History has shown that those folks who think they have some special gift that enables them to determine the “good” for the rest of society are the very worst amongst us.

          • http://www.facebook.com/people/Dan-Kervick/100000673155327 Dan Kervick

            If I am not interested in persuading others, then what was the point of all of these comments I have written?  At least I’m not shouting.

            Unless you are a very unusual kind of person with a very austere and self-contained  conception of the good, you cannot live the life you believe is good without a great deal of assistance from others.   So I don’t know how you can think you are entitled to it.

          • Anonymous

            Sorry, I have no idea what you mean by “austere and self-contained.” I like most libertarians simply want all my associations and relationships to be purely voluntary, and to decide what to do with the resources that I create with my own labor. I want the state to defend me from foreign enemies, domestic criminals, and otherwise get out of the way.  I don’t want the state to do me any favors by way of entitlement programs, paternalistic laws and regulations, picking winners and losers in the economy, etc. Very simple, really.

            I don’t need the “assistance” of others, since I expect to induce their willing cooperation by compensating them for their services, or receiving it as an act of friendship. I don’t see any need to force anybody to do anything. 

          • http://www.facebook.com/people/Dan-Kervick/100000673155327 Dan Kervick

            My point about “austere and self-contained” was just this: my guess is that the life you believe is good includes the enjoyment of many goods and services produced by others, which – on your own account – they have voluntarily exchanged with you.  Since that is the case, I don’t see how anyone can think they are ,entitled to that kind of life, since its very existence depends on other people working in various ways and producing various goods.

          • Anonymous

            Why should a state be involved in the property protection business over and above any other business?  Why should someone who’s trying to survive just like you, but who has nothing to trade since he or she wasn’t around when all the property of the world was divvied up, care about your rules when you say “sorry, all taken?”  Why should he or she care about your property rules?  Why is your life more important than his or hers?

          • Anonymous

            Dan, I suspect some might view your “I prefer politics” to be of a kind with:

            Because I think there are lots of people who are not very cooperative, and not much moved by the forces of consensus and team play.  If they just stuck to themselves, that wouldn’t be much of a problem.   But many don’t stick to themselves.  Their antisocial individualism is manifested by their constant, scheming efforts to control and dominate others.   Their typical instinctive behavior is thus a threat to most other people

            You don’t seem to incline to let other go their own way but rather seem more intent on forcing others to play your game.

        • http://profiles.google.com/entelechy77 Kurt Horner

          And here we have Dan and Mark taking the two sides of the false dichotomy that this article tries to address.

          To  Dan: 
          It’s funny that you use slavery as your point of comparison, since the history of slavery very much implies the necessity of state support. Slave cultures have always required substantial organizations devoted to recapturing escapees, have imposed significant restrictions on emancipation and require complex systems of violent conquest in order to gain new slaves. Moreover, there are plenty of societies that had no formal ban on slavery, yet lacked a slave economy. Even today, the U.S. expends basically zero resources preventing people from owning slaves. What it has done is stopped expending resources on protecting it.

          Johnson’s point is that the corporate economy is actually very much like the institution of slavery — i.e. facilitated by the state in numerous ways.

          To Mark:
          If Johnson is correct that the corporate economy is protected by the legal environment, then challenging people to create competitive co-ops is like asking someone to grow cotton in 1840s Alabama without slaves. They’re not going to do so well . . .

          • Anonymous

            Well, I’m not convinced that is his view, and if so, I disagree. How does the existing legal structure stop someone from forming a corporation where all decisions are put to a majority vote of employes, everyone gets paid the same, no one ever gets fired, etc.  Or, from creating their own little mini-utopia, and trying to get others to copy it? Where is the evidence for this claim? I think the obvious inference is that this type of corporate structure hasn’t succeeded because it is inefficient. And, the country is littered with failed mini-utopias.

          • http://www.facebook.com/people/Dan-Kervick/100000673155327 Dan Kervick

            Mark, you assume that the mark of superiority of some corporate governing structure is whether that corporate governing structure would out-compete alternative corporate governing structures in a free market competition among corporations.   But part of the usual critique of capitalism is that the values that are advanced under and by competition should not be the sole values by which we judge economic arrangements.

            I don’t support exploring democratic worker governance and equality as an alternative model of corporate organization because I am sure it is the most economically efficient way to turn out products.   In fact, I assume you can actually make products more cheaply and efficiently under an autocratic and hierarchical model, just as you can raise cotton more efficiently if your workers are slaves. 

            The appeal of alternative ways of organizing ourselves economically is not the economic efficiency of these alternative arrangements, but the better overall way and quality of life some of us think would be advanced by the alternatives.

          • http://profiles.google.com/entelechy77 Kurt Horner

            Of course, in the same manner that a wage economy is more productive than a slave economy, I suspect a co-op and self-employment economy would be more productive still. The flaw in using efficiency as a standard is confusing a firm’s well being with the well being of everyone in the firm. A slave plantation is very efficient but only a handful of people in that “firm” truly benefit. 

          • Anonymous

            Yep, the 10,000 early stage employees at Microsoft who became millionaires, and I am sure a similar number at Google, are just slaves. Nobody ever voluntarily went to work at such companies for the nice salary, benefits, etc. Yep, Bill Gates wields a nasty bull whip I’m told. Yep.

          • http://profiles.google.com/entelechy77 Kurt Horner

            Those 10,000 people are offset by the many hundreds of thousands who also worked tech jobs in the late 20th century in firms that later collapsed. As Bastiat might put it, you’re looking only at the seen and ignoring the unseen legions of people who didn’t get jobs at the magic handful of tech firms. (I.e. those people who worked at Microsoft aren’t the “slaves” of our economy — the people who worked for Gateway or Compaq are the ones analogous to slaves.)

          • http://profiles.google.com/entelechy77 Kurt Horner

            How does the existing legal structure stop someone from forming a corporation where all decisions are put to a majority vote of employes, everyone gets paid the same, no one ever gets fired, etc.?
            So much to unpack in this sentence . . .

            1) I don’t think getting rid of firings or all differences in pay are the goal, so you need to reign in the caricature.

            2) A market which has a small number of very large firms will mean some degree of monopsony in the labor market. This means overworked, underpaid employees (Econ 101).

            3) We have large firms because all sorts of aspects of the economy (patents, transportation subsidies, the corporate veil, regulatory capture, bank capitalization requirements, etc.) cause growth to be cheap and push the costs of large corporate organization onto the public at large.

            4) In the resulting labor market, accumulation of savings is difficult for those starting on the lower end of the scale, making it difficult to start competing firms. Even when such firms are formed, only a truly spectacular product and obsessive focus will allow a firm to survive competition with the subsidized giants noted above. This both preserves the structure and ensures that the people who do manage to get rich are all fanatic workaholics. (At least in the first generation — their kids usually go into politics).

            Against this massive interlocking system of privilege, you ask people to try to build a firm as if these features weren’t present, paying the full costs of scale while the practitioners of the corporate model do not have to. And when they fail, according to you, it’s their fault.

          • Anonymous

            Sorry, this is just pseudo economics, built on silly assumptions. All great companies begin as start-ups, all face the obstacles you mention, and all overcome them. At one point in the pretty recent past Google was just a dream a couple of guys shared. Ditto Facebook. Even Wal-Mart as a mega corporation is a pretty recent phenomenon (Sorry, Sam didn’t start out rich or come from wealth).

            So, wealth is always being created as other wealth is destroyed (remember Circuit City, Linens and Things, AOL, etc.).  When I was in B-School I had a “Leading Edge” computer–where are they now. Every year Forbes publishes its list of the 400 richest Americans. For 2009, the last year I have the data for, 274 were entirely self-made, while 52 inherited a smaller business and made it huge. Only 74 inherited it, so your facts are wrong.

            Finally, what the heck is wrong with people getting really rich by being as you say “fanatic workaholics.” I thought the liberal complaint againt great fortunes is that they are undeserved. I would say a workaholic deserves every cent. 

          • GaffiGubbi

            You miss Bastiat’s lesson again. The Fortune 500 giants all overcame obstacles – so what? Of course THEY did, but what about the ones who didn’t? Every one of your ancestors got laid as well – doesn’t mean people had better relationship/seduction skills in the past.

            These great companies are great because they are able to externalize so many of their costs and are able to directly or indirectly create new barriers through political means. They don’t always succeed, of course; markets fluctuate and hidden variables can lift newcomers up and destroy old giants, but structurally the game is still rigged. The point isn’t “MegaCorp is big and therefore will always reign over us”, but “The actors on the market will have to meet not only market demands, but also additional, politically created and unnecessary demands”.

            And needless to say, “greatness” doesn’t translate to optimal performance. We’re missing a whole lot of dynamism, creativity and talent from the market because so many potential entrepreneurs are weeded out by unnecessary costs. This, of course, leads to an oligopsony in the labor market, cue standard left-libertarian song & dance about wage labor.

            Here’s a clumsy analogy: if you have a 100 meter dash where some thugs try to stop the runners with baseball bats, the fact that two guys make it to the finish line doesn’t mean the race is fair.

          • http://profiles.google.com/entelechy77 Kurt Horner

            Next, the two guys who finish hear the complaints of those beaten with bats and, say:

            “You should have run faster. I ran very hard to get to the finish line. You must be lazy.”

            Then the guys with bats ask them if they’d like to take a few whacks at the next batch of runners.

          • http://profiles.google.com/entelechy77 Kurt Horner

            Note that I didn’t mention inheritance at all. My point is not that all the wealth stays with certain families, but that the number of people controlling most of the wealth is artificially small. Yes, there is overturn where fortunes are lost and new ones made. The curious thing is that the returns to effort and talent are somewhat random and very skewed.

            There’s nothing wrong with Microsoft employees getting more wealth because they were slightly more productive and talented than other tech workers. What’s skewed is that they got billions of dollars and the next most productive set of employees got nothing at all.

          • http://twitter.com/radgeek radgeek

            Mark:

            How does the existing legal structure stop someone from forming a corporation where all decisions are put to a majority vote of employes, everyone gets paid the same, no one ever gets fired, etc.

            Well, I didn’t say that government forbade doing that. (I also don’t give much of a damn about stupid things like formally requiring equal wages for all the workers in the shop.) What I would say is that government subsidizes the competition, and also imposes regulatory structures that very heavily penalize smallness, and very urgently demand artificially high levels of formality, capitalization, and revenue, which alternative business models (like co-ops, among others) have a much harder time satisfying. In a free market, those legal barriers to entry would be dissipated, and those subsidies to their corporate competitors would no longer exist. Which would, ceteris paribus, tend to get you more co-ops (among other things), and fewer conventionally capitalistic corporations.

            If Egalitarians-R-Us offered a better product or service it could out-compete Google, IBM, Amazon, Apple, etc.

            Sure. In a free and competitive market. But where can you find one of those? Certainly not in this neck of the woods.

            In the current rigged market, large corporations like Apple or IBM (say) certainly perform real and valuable services, but their ongoing survival and their success over competitors also has a great deal to do with their ability to manipulate legal privileges that have nothing to do with consensual market exchange. (Apple and IBM for example, are both massive copyright and patent monopolists. Apple would have been bankrupt decades ago if not for their extraordinary success in raking in tax dollars on big lot sales to government schools. Etc. Just pointing to these guys and saying “Well, if co-ops are so great why haven’t they outcompeted them in the market?” is like pointing at CitiGroup and saying, “Well, if their business model is so unsustainable, why aren’t they out of business?” Well, they would have been, if not for the bail-outs.)

          • Anonymous

            I certainly do not want the state determining how people choose to do business, and I don’t think I ever said otherwise. Let a thousand flowers bloom: corporations, parttnerships, co-ops, LLCs, etc. The less regulation by the state here, and everywhere else, the better. And, who wants state subsidies and bail-outs, libertarians least of all. We may disagree about the results of a free and fair competition between all possible business models, but let the games begin!

            Do you object to IP because it is a creature of the state or for other reasons? As you know, there are private, voluntary means by which authors and inventors can commercialize their work, i.e. by contract. Do you object to such methods?

        • http://twitter.com/radgeek radgeek

          Me:

          Well, OK; but do you think that the only possible or effectual constraints on people’s behavior, or countervailing powers that might check recklessness or cruelty, are legal constraints? If so, why?

          Dan:

          Because I think there are lots of people who are not very cooperative, and not much moved by the forces of consensus and team play.

          OK; but, again, why think that appeals to “consensus” and “team play” are the only alternatives available to (1) not having any checks at all on other people’s conduct; or (2) employing legal force to make people stop?

          I’m all for consensus and team play, but I can think of lots of other means that people have used historically when they weren’t forthcoming — there are positive financial incentives (corporations and government agencies are not the only forms by which people can pool their resources); there’s social pressure; cultural activism; scurrilous verses; protest songs; preaching; boycotts and “pro-cotts;” strikes; pickets; sit-ins; teach-ins; ogle-ins; and a whole host of other non-violent social and economic things that people can and have and will continue to do, all of them perfectly compatible with a free market. (It was, just to pick one example, sit-ins and boycotts, NOT antidiscrimination laws, which desegregated lunch counters and gas station bathrooms in the Jim Crow South. Not because white store owners were just all about “consensus” and “team play” with their Black neighbors; but because Black people got together, organized, and — long before there was any legal sanction for doing so — made it perfectly clear that they were willing to act, socially and nonviolently, in such a way that the stupid racist-ass policies of Woolworth’s et al. would no longer be socially sustainable.)

          Indeed, there’s good reason to think that in free markets they would be far more effective — insofar as the regulatory methods and direct subsidies by which governments insulate big players from market pressure and competition would no longer be in place. When markets are dominated by political decision-making, they have to worry only about pleasing politicians, not about what the neighbors think of them. When there are no big institutional contracts to be had, no legally guaranteed monopolies, no bail-outs, etc., they depend on the neighbors’ consumer spending, and have a lot more reason to care about the social and economic pressure that ordinary people can — without any political action at all — bring to bear on them.

          On your earlier point, all corporations are hierarchical and all of them represent concentrated wealth.  Yet most have them are not much involved in the bailouts, military-industrial complex or state-enabled monopolies.

          No, not “most [of] them;” just the largest and most important ones. (I would maintain that basically every corporation within the top 10-20 of the Fortune 500 is a direct and obvious beneficiary of government bail-outs, major corporate-welfare programs, for-profit eminent domain, the military-industrial complex, or one of the Four Monopolies — the Money Monopoly, the Land Monopoly, the Tariff Monopoly and the Patent Monopoly — outlined by Benjamin Tucker. Indeed many are beneficiaries of several of these at once.) But there are many other forms of government privilege we could discuss beyond the biggest ones that go to the biggest corporations; and most forms of government privilege have ripple effects that go beyond their direct beneficiaries. Corporations typically deal best with other corporations, and where government privileges prop up one, they tend to indirectly nourish a lot of others. 

        • http://twitter.com/radgeek radgeek

          Me:

          Well, OK; but do you think that the only possible or effectual constraints on people’s behavior, or countervailing powers that might check recklessness or cruelty, are legal constraints? If so, why?

          Dan:

          Because I think there are lots of people who are not very cooperative, and not much moved by the forces of consensus and team play.

          OK; but, again, why think that appeals to “consensus” and “team play” are the only alternatives available to (1) not having any checks at all on other people’s conduct; or (2) employing legal force to make people stop?

          I’m all for consensus and team play, but I can think of lots of other means that people have used historically when they weren’t forthcoming — there are positive financial incentives (corporations and government agencies are not the only forms by which people can pool their resources); there’s social pressure; cultural activism; scurrilous verses; protest songs; preaching; boycotts and “pro-cotts;” strikes; pickets; sit-ins; teach-ins; ogle-ins; and a whole host of other non-violent social and economic things that people can and have and will continue to do, all of them perfectly compatible with a free market. (It was, just to pick one example, sit-ins and boycotts, NOT antidiscrimination laws, which desegregated lunch counters and gas station bathrooms in the Jim Crow South. Not because white store owners were just all about “consensus” and “team play” with their Black neighbors; but because Black people got together, organized, and — long before there was any legal sanction for doing so — made it perfectly clear that they were willing to act, socially and nonviolently, in such a way that the stupid racist-ass policies of Woolworth’s et al. would no longer be socially sustainable.)

          Indeed, there’s good reason to think that in free markets they would be far more effective — insofar as the regulatory methods and direct subsidies by which governments insulate big players from market pressure and competition would no longer be in place. When markets are dominated by political decision-making, they have to worry only about pleasing politicians, not about what the neighbors think of them. When there are no big institutional contracts to be had, no legally guaranteed monopolies, no bail-outs, etc., they depend on the neighbors’ consumer spending, and have a lot more reason to care about the social and economic pressure that ordinary people can — without any political action at all — bring to bear on them.

          On your earlier point, all corporations are hierarchical and all of them represent concentrated wealth.  Yet most have them are not much involved in the bailouts, military-industrial complex or state-enabled monopolies.

          No, not “most [of] them;” just the largest and most important ones. (I would maintain that basically every corporation within the top 10-20 of the Fortune 500 is a direct and obvious beneficiary of government bail-outs, major corporate-welfare programs, for-profit eminent domain, the military-industrial complex, or one of the Four Monopolies — the Money Monopoly, the Land Monopoly, the Tariff Monopoly and the Patent Monopoly — outlined by Benjamin Tucker. Indeed many are beneficiaries of several of these at once.) But there are many other forms of government privilege we could discuss beyond the biggest ones that go to the biggest corporations; and most forms of government privilege have ripple effects that go beyond their direct beneficiaries. Corporations typically deal best with other corporations, and where government privileges prop up one, they tend to indirectly nourish a lot of others. 

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Dan-Kervick/100000673155327 Dan Kervick

        And yes, I do think we have government whenever we have systems for making rules, and for establishing mechanisms to make the rules stick.

        • http://twitter.com/radgeek radgeek

          As you please; but I think that’s kind of an idiosyncratic definition of “government.” Churches have rules, unions have rules, theaters have rules, private Universities have rules, the NBA has rules,  the club me and my friends made up in junior high school had rules, and all have established mechanisms for “making the rules stick.” The difference is that the mechanisms weren’t police powers or military force; they were social sanctions, voluntary association and dissociation, contractual arrangements, trade boycotts, etc. If your definition of “government” is such as to include that, as well as the sort of thing you see in courts, legislatures, armies, police forces, etc., then I don’t have any objection to “government” as such, and neither would any other Anarchist or libertarian that I’ve ever known. But that’s because you’ve expanded the definition of “government” to include all sorts of private arrangements and free associations. If that’s what you really intend to do, then let’s say this: I oppose governments that use guns against peaceful economic actors. (Even if what I think those guys are doing peacefully happens to be really shitty — as sometimes it is.) If you think that the YMCA soccer league or the Montgomery Improvement Association or the La Leche League is itself a form of “government” also, well, OK; I don’t have any problem with any of those.

          • http://www.facebook.com/people/Dan-Kervick/100000673155327 Dan Kervick

            Don’t we frequently talk of church’s unions, universities, corporations and theater groups having governing boards and governing committees , engaging in self- governance, etc?   Governance is something people do everywhere, at many different levels, employing many different means, as part of their natural function as political animals organizing and ruling all kinds of groups, communities,  societies, collectivities, companies and commonwealths to pursue various purposes.   And in the process they sometimes employ coercion.   Libertarians are the ones who erect a massive wall of spurious distinction between the ubiquity of governance and the awful Government of libertarian paranoia and nightmares.  The distinctions are only in degree, level and means, which occur in a sliding continuum.

          • Anonymous

            Libertarians are, I think, quite happy with the concept and existence of governance. That’s not the same as government. Government is always a formal structure that assumes special powers and, here is think is the source of libertarians chafing, a character more like Leviathan than some form of self-government.  In short, Government necessarily implies not only governance but formal governance. Governance does not imply government, which is always everywhere a formal structure.

  • Stan Parker

    Thanks for your dissent, Dan. You bring some contours of doubt to the libertarian landscape.

    I think there are some key things we agree on. One of those is that any free society depends on a well-informed citizenry, empowered to defend their own rights when such rights become compromised.

    Another is the importance of that citizenry to organize itself to counter the aims of tyranny when those threats emerge.

    I guess our main difference would be how that citizens coalition defends achieves its aims. Would I be correct in assuming that your philosophy would dictate they pass a law to prohibit the offending behavior?

    I would say that a preferable method would be to organize a boycott. Or else patronize other businesses that exercise more responsible business practices. If the problem is working conditions, well then strike, or quit and find another job. Eventually bad businesses will realize that they have to treat their workers and the world right if they want to turn a profit.

    Of course, that method doesn’t solve the problem as quickly as legislation does, but if it does solve the problem, the average human being triumphs — and your citizens also become more empowered to solve the next crisis that comes along.

    The problem with regulation isn’t so much the regulation itself, it’s the atmosphere that a regulated environment creates. Every time a law rights a wrong in the universe, it perpetuates the idea that laws are the only way to right wrongs. It makes people think: “I don’t like this company, but instead of shopping/working somewhere else, I’m going to vote for the politician that is going to fix the problem.”

    Maybe that politician can solve the problem, or maybe she can’t. But the seed is planted that a change in behavior isn’t required — just a change in government. We need people to embrace Kant’s categorical imperative: “Only engage in actions that you would will to become universal law.”

    Well, one of those things is: only patronize businesses whose business practices you support.

    I think we are both in agreement that the best change comes from the hearts and minds of the people. It requires that people change their behaviors instead of waiting around for the right politicians to run for office.

    I think we both believe in highly idealistic worlds Dan. I just find your world slightly more impossible to achieve, and much more dangerous. Yours could easily slip into totalitarianism. The worst mine could do would be to slip into anarchy (where at least every person would able to be creative in how to survive), or corporate rule (where the people that “dominate” me still depend on my business or my willingness to work for them to survive).

    I also see headway towards my version of the world. Notice how trendy it is for businesses to be “socially responsible”? They advocate “Fair Trade” and “Organic” in huge letters. Farmers’ Markets are becoming more popular. People are liking the idea of “buying local” more and more. Some people say that businesses are just doing that to turn a better profit. I say, “Good! That’s the point!” They are reacting to a shift in the market, and that shift is tending towards being more socially responsible and treating the world right.

  • Anonymous

    Radgeek,
    Thanks for the interesting post. How do your views differ from those of Murray Rothbard and the anarcho–capitalists?

    • http://twitter.com/radgeek radgeek

      Mark.

      Thanks for asking. How much they differ and in what depends on what part of Rothbard’s career you’re looking at, and it also depends on how much you focus on first principles, and how much you focus on consequences. (Because I think that there are many cases where Rothbard was right about a basic principle, but failed to draw the consequences of that principle out to the full logical conclusion.)

      To oversimplify pretty dramatically, I agree with most of what Rothbard has to say about natural rights theory, about inalienability, about property ownership, about contracts, and about some economic issues (e.g. I’m indebted to his discussion of the calculation argument). I am in general much more likely to agree with Rothbard’s economic and social commentary from his “New Left” phase (from ca. 1960-1975, say) than the stuff from his LP days or, worse, his “paleolibertarian” material. Where I disagree with him has to do with a few specific, but I think important, issues. Rothbard for example believes in the legitimacy of copyright restrictions and I do not — I am against all forms of “IP,” including copyright. Which might seem like a small thing around the edges, but it’s actually a pretty big part of some very large corporations’ business models, and increasingly important as control over digital information more and more becomes control over the most important sectors of the economy. In his writing on banking and money, Rothbard has many things to say against government monopoly money and in favor of commodity money that I think are absolutely right-on; but his dismissal of the 19th century mutualists as nothing more than “money cranks” (in, e.g., “The Spooner-Tucker Doctrine”) and the writing on mutual banking as some sort of crackpot hyperinflationary scheme, is just wrong. As a result of his failure to consider other views on credit and commodity money I think a lot of his stuff on money is prone to a great deal of oversimplification and exaggeration. Unlike Rothbard and unlike most anarcho-capitalists, I believe in the legitimacy and importance of non-governmental public property (that is, property owned in common by the actual public — you and me and our neighbors — not property owned by the state; for more on that, see Roderick Long’s “A Plea for Public Property”).

      Moreover, for reasons that are probably best discussed at length elsewhere in the comment thread, I think that Rothbard — especially in his later writing, after he had given up on the New Left — and especially the post-Rothbardian anarcho-capitalists tend to dramatically overestimate the extent to which the kinds of corporate organization, formal business relationships, and commerce are products of free-market processes, and so they tend to dramatically underestimate how much the abolition of pro-business privileges (capitalism-2 in my fourfold distinction above) would change the face of the economy, and reduce the prevalence of extremely large firms, top-down control within firms, large inequalities of wealth, and the commercialization of functions (such as personal security/defense and  insurance/mutual aid, to take a couple of very important example) that might otherwise be provided through face-to-face relationships and “civil society” or other grassroots means. That is — and I know that what I’m about to say is dramatically oversimplified, but a full discussion is way beyond the scope of this comments thread — Rothbard and other anarcho-capitalists like Hans Hoppe or Walter Block tend to write as if there are overwhelming reasons to believe that free markets — capitalism-1, if you like — will naturally tend very strongly towards workplace hierarchies, narrow concentrations of capital ownership, and large-scale commercialization of more or less the kind with which we are familiar — capitalism-3 and capitalism-4 in the above scheme. The view of earlier market Anarchists — the individualists and mutualists like Tucker, de Cleyre, Spooner, et al., was more or less exactly the opposite — that the prevalence of capitalism-3 and capitalism-4 is not due to market dynamics, but to government restrictions on the poor, and to government privileges extended to business interests — that is, capitalism-2. Remove those constraints and you would see all kinds of flourishing economic activity — but economic activity running through quite different channels, usually directed by ordinary workers rather than a professional business elite, through firms or other forms of organization that are smaller but far more numerous, with lower fixed costs, less overhead, far less extreme disparities of wealth and income, etc. etc. On that particular debate I happen to agree with the mutualists, not with the anarcho-capitalists — so what I expect to happen in a free society is to see something very different from actually-existing corporate capitalism, and different because it is much less “capitalistic” (in the sense of much less predominance by wage-labor arrangements, landlords, in-your-face commercialism, etc. than what we see now). My detailed reasons for taking that view are probably better hashed out elsewhere, but suffice it to say for now that I think that existing government policies constitute a very large and powerful subsidy to commercialism, concentration of wealth, financial complexity, and corporate forms of organization; and if that subsidy were removed, ceteris paribus, you’d tend to see relatively less of the subsidized good, and more of the substitute goods that were being crowded out by the subsidy.

      • Anonymous

        Thanks for the explanation!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Dan-Kervick/100000673155327 Dan Kervick

    Would I be correct in assuming that your philosophy would dictate they pass a law to prohibit the offending behavior?
    Not always, Stan.   But yes, I do think law-making is one very important tool.   If people can solve some temporary problem by a spontaneously organized and temporary effort, such as a boycott, that’s great.  But there are, I think, persistent threats, challenges and opportunities that are always in play, and that are best met by rules that are always in force.  And note that making a law doesn’t just mean announcing some law and claiming it is in force.   Making a law requires marshaling actual or potential power to put the law into force.   The questions of politics are always questions of power.

    By the way, I know I easily slide into treating all libertarians as though they were anarchists.  Maybe that’s because this site seems to attract a number of folks with anarchist sentiments.   But most libertarians defend the need for law and defend the legitimacy of law, right?   Their disagreements with non-libertarians are just over the appropriate scope of law.

    I agree any system of political order can slip into totalitarianism.  There is no magic protection against that.  The political world is a constant struggle to achieve various kinds of goods that pull people in contrary directions.    There is always some system of order, and that system of order, no matter how well-balanced, can be tipped out of balance by gradual evolution, sudden crisis or opportunistic power plays.   When that happens, people who wish to preserve freedom and equality need to fight back against the threat, and fighting back usually means attempting to seize the instruments of government onself.

    The political action that is called for in any particular time depends on the arrangements and relationship of power and value at that time.  My personal belief is that the greatest threat right now in the Western world is that the possession of wealth – which always brings power to its possessor – has become very, very unequal; and some of the the possessors of wealth are now consolidating that power to undermine and destroy democratic government; to indenture the holders of debt permanently to their creditors; to eliminate worker security and protection; to unravel socialized systems promoting equality and enjoyment of broad prosperity; to jettison and abandon a large contingent of humanity permanently from the workforce and consign them to permanent unemployment and immiseration; and to use techniques of social division to prevent the less wealthy and less powerful from organizing themselves.   The wealthy in Europe and the United States are fearfully and impulsively – and in a manner that is not even beneficial to their own long-term interests – attempting to cash out of their societies and their societies’ governments, build a gated community around their wealth, and lock others outside it.   This pattern threatens true decline, not to mention the threat of cataclysmic war and disorder.

    If there is one message I would like libertarians to consider, it is this:  Enduring freedom depends on some measure of enduring equality.   And enduring equality is not a natural equilibrium state that will organize itself so long as people refrain from distorting it by applying coercive force, but is instead a permanently fragile and not-easily attained balance, one that must be diligently and constantly maintained by vigilant opposition to disequilibrating forces.   Freedom is not some natural Arcadian Eden that has been destroyed by politics.  It is instead an achievement of politics, law and culture, valuable human arts that have helped us rise out of a much more savage, terrifying and very unfree past.

    • Anonymous

      “If there is one message I would like libertarians to consider, it is
      this:  Enduring freedom depends on some measure of enduring equality.”

      It is good for libertarians to remember, frequently, that while they value theoretical equality before the law as massively important in relation to “mere” material equality, this is hardly an estimation shared by the bulk of most societies. However, I also wanted to point out that the potential for inequality is hugely important to outcomes as well. When inequality is disallowed we have not found the common man to achieve a very enviable level of existence, equal though it may be to his countrymen. I don’t like to make political arguments from history; I say it this way only because there is also a pretty simple story about human nature and motivation that goes along with it and supports it, and because I get the impression from your posts that you won’t be inclined to disagree with the general assertion anyway.

      A utilitarian, then, (which I am not) might conclude that the ideal system would contain some or even significant potential for inequality, though certain limits should exist. And furthermore, that the absolute quality of live achieved by the bulk of society was still hugely important, regardless of equality entirely. The latter perhaps not important within the society, it having no ruler by which to measure itself, but nevertheless important outside the society, which is our vantage point in this conversation. People are not likely to love a theory which tells them they will live badly, but will be happier, however much the utilitarian may lament it.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Dan-Kervick/100000673155327 Dan Kervick

        I basically agree with this, and do not think it would be advisable to aim for an equality that is absolute.  People need to be rewarded for striving and working hard.

  • pjg9g

    The thing I would like to see bloggers here start to address is the utopian problem: this brand of libertarianism (and maybe all brands) appears to require almost moral perfection from its government, the same problem which socialism has. Socialism requires the government to be perfect managers of the economy, but libertarianism requires the government to be perfectly restrained and perfectly consistent in its treatment of individuals. In a democracy, it’s just too tempting to deal out favors to those who help you get elected; and I doubt it would be so different in any regime, since popularity is always required to legitimize a politician’s leadership. Moreover, such “favors” are often not seen as morally corrupt by the public. Indeed, it actually looks rather nice to a lot of people when the government bails out a company to save all its employees from unemployment.

    The point I’m trying to make is that the libertarian expects government to behave in exactly the opposite way as everyone else: individuals in the market are supposed to act in their own limited self-interest, whereas government is supposed to act strictly in accordance with principle.

    And not to sound dismissive of anarchism, which may be popular here, but abolishing government is no solution at all. If government were abolished, what would keep people from forming an even more coercive system? As Hayek was apt to point out, the threat of coercion is necessary to prevent still more coercion.

    • Anonymous

      “This brand of libertarianism (and maybe all brands) appears to require
      almost moral perfection from its government, the same problem which
      socialism has.”

      Is there a system or ideology out there that doesn’t require perfection in government actors in order to enjoy perfection in government outcomes? I’m not sure I see any obvious practical rule or evidence dictating that libertarian outcomes suffer worse from smaller diversions from perfection than other systems. It’s an interesting notion, don’t get me wrong – an argument that libertarianism, communism, etc. create a more precarious justice than some other systems. But on a purely rhetorical level it seems pretty easy to assert the opposite, that the more power government has, the more it can be caused to abuse. When you turn it around and say the same thing about individuals wielding power instead, there is the caveat that at least they are not abusing me under color of law, and not with my own money. This doesn’t lead one to love a system of now law or of utter chaos (which may or may not coincide), but it does lead one to prefer, say, the wild west over an all-powerful and hugely corrupt state. I may get kicked around on occasion, and have to stay indoors when the bad boys pass through town, and I may not be able to cross the Sheriff without regretting it, but by comparison I am quite free and rarely abused, even if I am at the bottom of the totem pole.

      “The point I’m trying to make is that the libertarian expects government
      to behave in exactly the opposite way as everyone else: individuals in
      the market are supposed to act in their own limited self-interest,
      whereas government is supposed to act strictly in accordance with
      principle.”

      We would like that, yes. All political theorists would. But we hardly expect it any more than the rest, as far as I can tell. In fact if anything we are more pessimistic about our ability to hog-tie the state to our principles, which is why we take care to make the state weak: so when it runs wild, it can’t cause as much damage. And I think current, practical libertarian recommendations for the US reflect that methodology. Many see the crumbling of state’s rights as a core problem in the structure of freedom, and would see things rolled back on that front, including the direct election of Senators. Many fault SCOTUS for abandoning originalism (or else just being bad at it) in constitutional interpretation. The founders – not that I am claiming they were libertarians – certainly didn’t expect state actors to behave themselves, and today it is primarily libertarians that want to restore the protections the founders put in place for that very reason. It’s the other ideologies that have torn them down.

      “And not to sound dismissive of anarchism, which may be popular here, but
      abolishing government is no solution at all. If government were
      abolished, what would keep people from forming an even more coercive
      system? As Hayek was apt to point out, the threat of coercion is
      necessary to prevent still more coercion.”

      That may commonly be interpreted around here as a straw man of anarchism. I don’t know of many serious, academic-type political anarchists who believe that freedom and order are likely to spontaneously arise if we would only burn all the laws. Removing the status quo of the modern state is a necessary but insufficient condition for successful anarchism. Successful anarchism would require a society that had itself progressed in many ways, and which had slowly developed the mechanisms necessary for its peaceful functioning. This is captured by the classic line from Thoreau: “That
      government is best which governs not at all; and *when men are prepared
      for it*, that will be the kind of government which they will have.”

      I think serious anarchists, as a result, are more interested in starting the evolution of society and the state together down a path to where anarchism is a possibility. For example, by bringing a majority of the citizenry into an understanding that we can operate multiple systems of private law, as a viable and even superior alternative to what we have now. This is all to say that I think anarchism appreciates the objection you raise and has serious and worthwhile responses to it: that anarchism so formulated is not necessarily or simply a huge  power vacuum waiting to be filled.

      • http://twitter.com/radgeek radgeek

        furball,

        Thanks for the thoughtful comments about anarchism. I do need to mention, though, for the record, that that while there are gradualist anarchists of the sort you describe, there are also anarchists of the immediatist or abolitionist variety — those who believe that, were it possible to bring it off, the state ought to be abolished immediately, completely, and forever. And I am in fact one of them. I certainly believe that there are social, cultural, and economic developments which would make anarchy much more pleasant, prosperous, efficient and stable than it would be under current social, cultural and economic conditions. (That’s one of the ways in which I have a “thick” conception of libertarianism.) And of course I’d like to do what I can to bring those developments about. But even without them, if I had a button that I could press that would make government simply vanish — I would break my finger pressing it. As William Lloyd Garrison said of the abolition of slavery, “Urge immediate abolition as earnestly as we may, it will, alas! be gradual abolition in the end. We have never said that slavery would be overthrown by a single blow; that it ought to be, we shall always contend.”

        The reason that I take the abolitionist stance rather than the gradualist stance is because my understanding of anarchism is, first and foremost, as an ethical, not just a political commitment. It’s not just a theory about how society ought to be organized, but primarily a theory about people ought to treat each other — and, really, first and foremost, how I ought to be treating my friends and neighbors, and what I have a right to expect of them. The stuff about polycentric legal systems and spontaneous social order and all that is really only a downstream consequence of my commitment to the principle that I’ve got no business shoving anyone else around, and, as long as I conduct myself peacefully and respect the person and property of others, nobody else has any business shoving me around, either. While there are all kinds of things I’d like to see happen, I think that the act of governing people against their will (which, inevitably, means robbing, tyrannizing, beating, jailing, torturing, killing, etc.) is always and everywhere wrong. And I think that I have no business ever doing that to anyone else, for even a second, no matter what results I might be able to get from it; nor could I, in good conscience, condone it when someone else does it to other people, even if by doing so I think they might protect something that I think is important.

        I should note that that’s my own take on Anarchism. It’s not at all something that all Anarchists (serious or otherwise) agree with me on.

    • http://twitter.com/radgeek radgeek

      pjg9g:

      The thing I would like to see bloggers here start to address is the utopian problem: this brand of libertarianism (and maybe all brands) appears to require almost moral perfection from its government, the same problem which socialism has. Socialism requires the government to be perfect managers of the economy, but libertarianism requires the
      government to be perfectly restrained and perfectly consistent in its treatment of individuals….

      I agree that if I believed in having a limited government, I’d have a pretty big problem trying to figure out how to keep it limited within the (very narrow) bounds that minimal-statist libertarianism demands, given the ways in which an established government presents an attractive prize for the wealthy and well-connected to try to capture to their ends. Indeed, I think that once you start having governments, the problem of limiting government is more or less impossible to solve. But I don’t believe in having limited governments, or indeed any government at all. So I don’t worry about that problem.

      And not to sound dismissive of anarchism, which may be popular here, but
      abolishing government is no solution at all. If government were abolished, what would keep people from forming an even more coercive system?

      Well, we will. Government is not the only means by which people can act in defense against coercion, aggression or tyranny; “anarchy” means only “without rulers,” not “without security.” People can defend themselves individually; or they can do it cooperatively through non-state (consensual, grassroots, non-territorial and/or non-exclusive) organizations. Maybe you think that those forms of self-defense are sure to be less effective than government. If so, that’s not actually an argument for the legitimacy of government (even if government always triumphs, that’s no guarantee that it actually has the right to do the things that it does to establish and maintain its power). But in any case, you’d have to give some reason to believe that it’s always going to be ineffective. Otherwise, I know only that you do dismiss anarchism; not that you have a response to it.

      • Anonymous

        I’m not sure you are being completely fair to minimal state libertarianism. I could ask you “How do you plan to create anarchism of the sort you favor, since about 98% of the population will oppose it?” And I think a fair answer would be something like, “Well, I am making a moral argument about the evils of government, and implementation is a separate issue.” Implementation will only be possible if you can persuade at least a majority of the population that anarchism is the most desirable social system.

        I think minimal state libertarians are basically making the same sort of claim, although obviously different in content.  We will need widespread societal recognition that the ONLY legitimate functions of the state are x, y, and z.  Now, I agree that minimalists need an argument as to why governmental coercion is defensible for x, y, and z and not a, b, and c, but I think this is a separate issue.

    • Anonymous

      For what it’s worth there was an article back in the mid 1990s (94?) Journal of Political Economy.  I forget the title just now but could probably dig it up. Anyhow, the story line was that representative government did a much better job when trying to establish more constitution or principle level rules than standard legislation. 

      I think your comment hits a topic still worth lots of discussion and inquiry but largely I think libertarians view government as mostly functioning on the former class and prevented from much of the later class, general legislative actions. If so, the article at least lends support to the idea that the libertarian government would tend to put the common interests ahead of the representatives (and their funders) specific interests.

  • Anonymous

     There is another definition of “capitalism” that I was actually surprised to find missing here, and which is a core, fascinating and wide-open topic within libertarianism (as far as I currently understand), and which therefore certainly allows for libertarians to be anti-capitalist in at least one important sense. That definition is the one I perceive as most closely associated with the 19th-century: a preoccupation with capital, in which capital is simply the accumulation of liquid assets which are not spent, but husbanded into the production of a living, or into the production of additional capital. There awoke at that time a widespread and general recognition of the power and desirability of capital, along with the attainability of it, in the common man. Indeed, the difference between the common man and any other sort was just the amount of capital amassed.

    I think this sense is interesting to point out, because it contains the seeds of some of the other definitions and language. I am thinking specifically in this article of the Wage-Labor System. This 19th-century awakening was about money making money, which seems to be closely related to a widespread wage-labor system.

    The reason I call it a core, fascinating, and wide-open topic within libertarianism is due to the close relationship of capital to inheritance. Positions on inheritance generally have their roots planted firmly into the bedrock of a specific property rights model – of a specific fundamental source of property rights, to be precise – and libertarians vary in which of those models they adopt. So it is my perception that, much as with the topic of abortion, you can find hard-core libertarians taking up all sides of this issue. A libertarian that was firmly against any rights of inheritance would be anti-capitalist in this 19th-century, love-of-capital, love-of-capital’s-rewards sense of the word.

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  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_ORMD5SX2NV7N7TXQJIOXQEU5RQ Dianrib

    ‘ Capitalism’  worked pretty  well  until  Reagan/ omics  deregulated Wall ST,   big banks, energy, airlines  Trucking industries & more.  That  policy removed  common sense safe guards we had  in place   prior to 1981  that served to control rampant  greed &  avarice.  Corps  must  be regulated.  People must be protected from mans  intense  greed.    Money is NOT speech    Corps are NOT persons !

    • biasedmonster

      Billionaires love people like you.

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