Announcements, Libertarianism

Class Act

Karl Marx once wrote:

I do not claim to have discovered either the existence of classes in modern society or the struggle between them. Long before me, bourgeois historians had described the historical development of this struggle between the classes, as had bourgeois economists their economic anatomy. My own contribution was

1. to show that the existence of classes is merely bound up with certain historical phases in the development of production;

2. that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat;

3. that this dictatorship itself constitutes no more than a transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society.

Marx is certainly right that class analysis was a central feature of classical liberalism long before he picked it up. He’s fibbing a bit, though, about (1) and (3); many of his bourgeois predecessors (for example, the Censeur triumvirate of Charles Comte, Charles Dunoyer, and Augustin Thierry) most emphatically thought that class society as they understood it was a temporary phenomenon destined to be displaced. Thierry, for example, announces:

Federations will replace states; the loose but indissoluble chains of interest will replace the despotism of men and of laws; the tendency towards government, the first passion of the human race, will cede to the free community. The era of empire is over, the era of association begins.

The main difference between Marx and the liberals was that Marx took the differentiation between ruling and ruled classes to be grounded in differential access to the means of production, whereas the liberals took the differentiation between ruling and ruled classes to be grounded in differential access to predatory power, and in particular to the power of the state. (To be sure, Marx acknowledged and indeed insisted on the important role of the state in maintaining class division when examining the details of history or current events; but the state quickly receded in importance when he turned to abstract theory.)

All this is by way of noting that I just received in the mail my author’s copy of Social Class and State Power: Exploring an Alternative Radical Tradition, an anthology of libertarian and classical liberal writings on class analysis that I co-edited with David Hart, Gary Chartier, and Ross Kenyon.

The volume includes material by a rather heterogeneous collection of authors:

  • from the 17th century, Richard Overton;
  • from the 18th century, Adam Smith, Thomas Paine, Vicesimus Knox, and William Godwin;
  • from the 19th century, Jeremy Bentham, James Mill, Thomas Hodgskin, John Wade, William Leggett, Richard Cobden, John C. Calhoun, Adolphe Blanqui, Frédéric Bastiat, Charles Renouard, Augustin Thierry, Gustave de Molinari, Herbert Spencer, William Graham Sumner, Lysander Spooner, and Benjamin Tucker;
  • and from the 20th century, Franz Oppenheimer, Albert J. Nock, Ludwig von Mises, Murray Rothbard, Roy Childs, Walter Grinder, John Hagel, Hans Hoppe, and your humble correspondent.

I would urge you to go out and buy a copy; but in light of the book’s $100 pricetag, I’ll just urge you to go out and suggest to your local research library that they buy a copy.

Published on:
Author: Roderick Long
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  • Mark Groeneveld

    Impressive, it appears your book doesn’t include a single contributor who isn’t a white dude. /s

    I could be wrong, I only checked 80% of the listed contributors.

    • HermanStone

      Roderick’s long time plot to silence women and minorities is finally exposed…

    • Jeff R.

      Thanks for checking, white dude.

  • Luis

    I’d love to see a BHL analysis of the various economic/regulatory/institutional factors that cause a book written predominantly by dead people to cost $100.

    • Brooklyn Boricua

      You are quite right! Every student reading this page should know this: This $100 book has barely 300 pages. Of its 35 papers (it is an anthology), only the last seven are not in the public domain; and every single one of these is made freely available online by Mises, Reason, or some other such organization, found by me in a fraction of a second with a google search.

      • Luis

        I mean, selection and editing do bring some value. But yeah… surely seems like a worthwhile thought experiment to discuss if nothing else.

        (And perhaps someone from the anarcholibertarian edge of BHL’s readership could provoke the thought experiment by providing a very-similar-but-not-identical freely-available ebook of the same readings…)

  • Rob Gressis

    “… John C. Calhoun …”

    I knew it!

    • King Goat

      Jokes aside (and yours was funny), is he often included as a ‘libertarian’ thinker?

      • Rob Gressis

        No, I’ve never heard of him described as libertarian.

      • HermanStone

        He’s often described as someone with a lot of libertarian insights. But like a lot of older thinkers with libertarian sympathies, he’s got a rather glaring blind spot or two.

      • stevenjohnson2

        Of course Calhoun is a libertarian thinker. He was profoundly influential in the doctrine of states’ rights, a major root of modern libertarianism. His inclusion only seems problematic if you take libertarian professions about favoring liberty at face value. What’s problematic about Calhoun is the definition of liberty. It is equally problematic in libertarianism.

        • Rob Gressis

          Since, I gather, you don’t take them at their word, how do you think libertarians define liberty?

          • Brooklyn Boricua

            Yeah…this guy is some sort of eccentric Trotskyist who comes here regularly to mock and berate liberals, rather than engage with them. There isn’t really any more seriousness to this argument than meets the eye.

          • A. Alexander Minsky

            I spent quite a bit of time on the left in my younger years. Rarely did I encounter a Trotskyist who wasn’t at least a tad eccentric. Trotskyist sects don’t tend to be havens of well adjusted “normies”.

          • stevenjohnson2

            It’s not so much that I don’t take them at their word, but that I don’t think you should take their words at face value. You should understand the words in the context of individual actions and how the system actually works.

            Therefore I believe Calhoun thought liberty meant the protection of property in flesh. A government that had the power to undermine this property was a tyrannical government. I think this is liberty to own slaves is not a liberty at all, and a government that cannot defend the rights of the enslaved is an instrument of tyranny. I believe he was utterly sincere in finding views of my sort morally abominable.

            And therefore I believe modern libertarians think liberty means property holders should be able to do with their property as they will, that any government that can interfere with their property rights is tyrannical. Some will argue that any government that defends property rights promotes freedom. Most will agree that people can’t be property (though debt slavery, peonage, debtors’ prisons etc. may be options for a few.) And I think this view of liberty is equally problematic. The resemblance to Calhoun’s views that I see i think is historical in origin.

            On a more general level, libertarians are liberals, who see society as a market, and freedom is the ability to buy what you can afford. Liberals like to forget the role of the state in conquering the national market and creating a national currency, and pretend they are just the natural order, even when they see a role for the state in regulating market failures. There is no agreement whatsoever on what constitutes a market failure, as opposed to the normal deplorable workings, which makes for politics.

            This is opposed to a view of a country or society as orders, estates, castes, or tribes, in either layers, like a casserole, or higgledy-piggledy, like a sald. . A lot of libertarians (or limited government theorists, which so many in the two groups think are pretty much the same) may borrow the language of mixed government theorists. But I think true mixed government theories really apply to nations where there are genuinely different classes, like landed aristocracy (and attendant monarchy,) a landed church, the middling bourgeoisie, a peasantry, the landless, etc. Talk about separation of powers, checks, balances, independent judiciary were originally referring to the different orders or classes.

            In my view, though, liberty is the power of equals to settle their affairs by majority, where their affairs includes settling matters such as the rights, duties, nature of property. Instead of property rights being the means that justifies the ends (a class society,) it is correct the other way round: The ends of equality are the justification for rights conducive to the end. This avoids the moral inanity of legalism, where anything goes as long as it’s legal. But since there isn’t really a metaphysical distinction between ends and means, not all problems are solved ahead of troubling with real people in real life.

          • R.Levine

            This is an interesting perspective, but there are a couple points I don’t quite follow and I hope you’ll clarify.

            “Instead of property rights being the means that justify the ends, it is correct the other way around…”

            … but I thought the point of your paragraphs 2-4 was that libertarians/liberals fetishize property rights as an end in themselves, whereas you (by contrast) take rights in general (including property rights, which I presume you have at least some support for) as a means that justify the ends of better equality? Or do I misread you?

            For what it’s worth I think of property rights being primarily justified by their consequences, rather than by natural rights or legalism. I think it’s fair to say that’s not an uncommon libertarian view, though I grant it doesn’t seem like the predominant one in my experience (one reason I don’t actively identify as a capital-L “Libertarian”).

            “In my view, though, liberty is the power of equals to settle their affairs by majority, where their affairs includes settling matters such as the rights, duties, nature of property”

            This seems like a pretty important / foundational point. What/who determines when people are equals, and how far does this majority power extend? I assume you’d object to things like a co-op board evicting a poor tenant by majority vote, or the heterosexual majority deciding that homosexuality should be illegal? I’m sure you see the general issue here: to some extent a political majority will entail power over others, so it’s not immediately obvious how that’s supposed to interact with more obvious forms of power (wealth / property in general, social / cultural influence, etc).

            More semantically, is this idea really “liberty”? “Liberty” is supposed to mean something like “free from constraint”, so I think it could ostensibly include “freedom from being bound by private property laws” (i.e. we could debate whether I should have the liberty to camp out in your yard), but I’m not sure how it could include the power of “settling affairs by majority” (of course, there may be some other label for that thing, and it may be more important than liberty in the first place).

            I’m sure you’ve heard a bunch of similar obvious challenges from people around here; curious what your responses to them are.

          • stevenjohnson2

            Being at liberty means I think being free to go where you want, and do what you want, and say what you want, to the extent of your powers, just as much as someone else. And that would be true of them. So, no I do not agree that it means being free from constraint. I don’t think one person being able to fire thousands of people would be less free if a law constrained them from doing so. Isaiah Berlin may have been able to draw a conceptual distinction between positive and negative liberty. But I think that is just philosophy, meaningless distinctions that cannot be made in real life, posited because they seemingly justify predetermined but satisfactory conclusions.

            I think that people really are basically equal, with the significant exception of children and the disabled. I think the kinds of property rights that are legitimate are those which do no infringe that basic equality. Nobody has a right to your toothbrush, because common access would make it a health hazard, not a toothbrush. And nobody has a right to camp out in your yard because they would interfere with your sleep, if not your security. Why should they get to trash your personal items, but you not theirs?

            But the idea that a person can own a factory or a bank and this is the same kind of property right simply does not follow in my view. And since we have all been children and most of us will be disabled by sickness and/or age at some point, should we agree that our liberties as children, the old, the sick, the permanently disabled should depend upon property rights. The many differences between individuals do not sum up to a cumulative number that permits a valid ranking. And supposed differences in groups that make some better than others is pure superstition, no matter how popular it is in some quarters.

            Maybe if you see life as nothing but a collection of transactions, then all is right with the world if the rules for each transaction are fair. But the rules of the game, so to speak, the rights and duties of individuals separately and collectively have to conform to long term interests. Those are not isolated transactions, but a way of life. If you look at a whole life, I think the question is not how to justify the notion people aren’t basically equal, but how to justify inequality. In transactions, you can make value things in money, which is nicely fungible. Not so lives.

            The arguments against this kind of view (which is socialist I suppose) are first, the same arguments against democracy. It is not at all clear how having the government do what the minority wants is freedom for the majority. Of course there are many kinds of actions states have undertaken that lead to invidious distinctions among people, such as laws against homosexuals. How can homosexuals not have an equal right to make fools of themselves over sex? This kinds of distinctions try to use state power to enforce inequality. Being a majority is not a metaphysical attribute or essence of individuals or groups. But yes, if democracy is impossible, so is socialism.

            I think this kind of objection actually refutes all notions of democracy that accept or promote inequality. I think that libertarians who want economic inequality are advocating an incoherent mockery of democracy that becomes more and more untenable every day economic life becomes more and more collective. Even worse, the notion that someone has t

            The second argument is that majority decisions, which are usually identified with the state, are incapable of regulating a complex industrial society. The thing is, the strongest arguments along this line apply just as well to any industrial society. Historically, most civilizations and cultures have eventually collapsed and it is not at all clear that libertarian economists have established a reasonable case property rights will infallibly save us all. It’s true, if industrial civilization is in the long run impossible, so is socialism.

          • R.Levine

            Thanks for the extended and thoughtful reply; I don’t often receive level-headed, well-reasoned defenses of socialism… and I certainly didn’t expect to here!

            I’m not sure how much interest you have in continuing this tangent, so feel free not to. If you’d care to do so:

            1. Your emphasis / definition for liberty does make sense; I agree I can conceptualize a liberty that isn’t infringed by preventing a boss from having the “freedom” to fire his employees. I suspect this hinges on a conflict theoretical appeal to power differentials, again? Probably the standard libertarian reply to that is that firing people is just exercising freedom of association (in this case, freedom to not associate with others), and so is comparable to divorcing a spouse. I’m guessing you do not find these scenarios (fire employees vs. divorce a spouse) comparable?

            2. I’m not sure what you mean by asserting people are “basically equal”, but I suspect you must mean something like “morally equal”? Surely you accept that there are (sometimes dramatic) differences between individuals in terms of ability, aptitude, character… “capacity” in general? I’m also not sure what you mean by “infringe on basic equality”. Denying the existence of any group differences to begin with also seems untenable to me – would you for example deny that men are generally more violent than women (regardless of the causes of this, or agreement around how we should respond to it)?

            3. Your discussion of property sounds like the “private property vs. personal property” distinction, which I agree is coherent (i.e. that general property rights don’t logically follow from “rights to property that is in active use”). I do think your justification commits you to a consequentialist view of what is permitted to be property. Would you agree that if allowing someone to own a factory produced overall better outcomes for everyone involved, that this would be a good property right to enforce? It seems that if you oppose private factory ownership, you must do so by disputing that it’s overall improvement over the alternative. This seems like the same basic standard you invoked for the toothbrush.

            4. I don’t think “seeing life as a series of transactions” is a particularly charitable characterization of libertarians, though it makes sense that people that do think that way will naturally be drawn to it. This seems like the same strawman as the contention that “capitalism is the pursuit of monetary profit to the exclusion of everything else.” Nonetheless, some nonzero part of life consists of transactions, and absent a utility maximizing supercomputer it doesn’t seem like such an extreme idea to accept value subjectivism and relatively unrestricted transactions. Do you accept this skeletal version of libertarianism, and if not what practical litmus test exists for declaring “no, this apparently consensual market transaction is invalid because some form of exploitation occurred”? Or if I’ve mischaracterized you, how would you propose to regulate transactions?

            5. Agreed re: socialism and democracy. It’s been an interesting feature of the 20th century American zeitgeist that socialism is such a taboo while democracy is such a sacred cow.

            6. Your last paragraph seems to be saying that Hayek’s infamous socialist calculation problem (or something very similar to it) applies just as well as a condemnation of capitalist or market-based economies. I’ve never heard this argument, can you summarize or suggest a reference?

          • stevenjohnson2

            There was an email notice from disqus from you, following up to my response of a couple days ago. As usual I deleted the email itself, thinking to respond here. But there doesn’t seem to be any such message here. You were very polite, so I wanted to make it clear you aren’t being ignored.

          • R.Levine

            Thanks for the heads up – I did write a lengthy response last night, but now I see no trace of it here (not even an indication from Disqus that my comment needs to be moderated or something, which I’ve seen happen in the past). I don’t think I got a confirmation email with the text of the post or anything, so it looks like it may just be gone.

            I’m extremely busy over the next few days, but if the post doesn’t show up and I have the mental wherewithal to try to reconstruct it I’ll do so over the weekend.

  • CJColucci

    Roll Tide!

    • King Goat

      Almost as good as UCF this year 😉

  • jm15xy

    Seems like nowadays this blog is all about book promotion.

    • Indeed, why on earth would a blog written by libertarians be promoting products for sale?!?

    • stevenjohnson2

      All blogs are about promoting sales. That’s what freedom of speech is about in liberalism.

  • stevenjohnson2

    Overton instead of Lilburne? Or, for that matter, no Harrington, Milton, Algernon Sidney, in lieu of Levelers who had no place in liberal theory, much less libertarians? These pieces clearly are not part of a continuous tradition. Nor are they selected for their contributions to the analysis of the titular topic, or other people would have been selected, At first glance it looks as if they were selected to cobble together an illusion of a tradition.

    The Raico link seems to forget that Millar, Ferguson, Maine, Smith, Kames, etc. existed. Even if Raico was concentrating on the French influences on Marx, how ever can he give ignore the French socialist tradition? Lenin I think once described Marxism as French socialism, English political economy and German philosophy. Lenin seems to have liked to bottom line things. There is indeed more than the bottom line, but surely even a Raico should include it?

    As to the general idea that Marxism doesn’t have the kind of analytical structure that a libertarian sitting in a library devising a universal theory a la Mises, quite correct. I do not think this is a flaw, however.

    (By the way, I’m pretty sure that Hayek counts a system-builder too, but his reactionary skepticism and crypto-irrationalism makes this less blatant.)