Charles Johnson – Bleeding Heart Libertarians Free Markets and Social Justice Wed, 21 Feb 2018 18:00:11 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Charles Johnson – Bleeding Heart Libertarians 32 32 22756168 The Bold and the Desirable: A Prophecy and a Proposal Fri, 16 Nov 2012 20:08:47 +0000 [Editors Note: This essay is part of BHL’s Symposium on Left-Libertarianism. Click on the link to see the other essays.] Left-libertarians are sometimes known to stick on distinctions and the...

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[Editors Note: This essay is part of BHL’s Symposium on Left-Libertarianism. Click on the link to see the other essays.]

Left-libertarians are sometimes known to stick on distinctions and the definitions of words. We contest commonly understood definitions of political ‘rightism’ and ‘leftism;’ we question the terms used in conventional economic debates over ‘capitalism’ and ‘socialism,’ ‘free trade agreements,’ ‘intellectual property,’ ‘privatization’ and ‘private ownership’ of the means of production. We have been known to do funny things with verb tenses when it comes to ‘freed’ markets; we brandish subscripts and three-way distinctionsat the drop of a hat. Most famously left-wing market anarchists insist that we defend ‘free markets’ but not ‘capitalism’ – insisting that these are not synonyms, and drawing a sharp analytic distinction between the market form of exchange, and conventionally capitalist patterns of economic ownership and social control.

There are some interesting discussions to be had about that distinction; but to-day I’d like to expand on a distinction sometimes left out in discussing distinctions between the “markets” that left-libertarians defend and the “capitalism” that we condemn – two different senses that are often jammed together within the first half of that distinction – within the concept of market relationships. The distinction between the two is crucial, and both advocates and critics of market economics have neglected it much too often: when we talk about “markets,” and “free markets” especially, there are really two different definitions we might be working with – one broad, and one narrow.

What is “a market,” ultimately? It is a set of human relationships. And it is a notion with a certain history and familiar examples. But in modern social and economic debates, “market” has taken on meanings far beyond any concrete marketplace. What has been abstracted away, and what has been held as essential? The kind of relationships we are likely to have in mind varies, depending on which elements of marketplaces we have chosen to focus on – in particular, whether we focus (1) on the elements of individual choice, negotiated contracts and free competition; or (2) on the elements of quid pro quo exchange and commercial relationships.

Focusing on (1) gives us a concept of markets as free exchange. When market anarchists talk about markets, or especially about “the market,” we often mean the sum of all voluntary exchanges – and when we speak of freed markets, we mean the discussion to encompass any economic order based – to the extent that it is based – on respect for individual property, consensual exchange, freedom of association, and entrepreneurial discovery. So to say that something ought to be “left up to the market” is simply to say that it should be handled as a matter of choice and negotiated agreements among free individuals, rather than by coercive government.

Focusing on (2) gives us quite a different concept, markets as the cash nexus. We often use the term “market” to refer to a particular form of acquiring and exchanging property, and the institutions that go along with it – to refer, specifically, to commerce and for-profit business, typically mediated by currency or by financial instruments that are denominated in units of currency. Whereas free exchange is a matter of the background conditions behind economic and social agreements (that it is mutually consensual, not coerced), the cash nexus is a matter of the terms of the agreements themselves – of agreeing to conduct matters on a paying basis, in a relatively impersonal quid-pro-quo exchange.

Now one of the central points of free market economics is that “markets” in these two senses are positively interrelated. When they take place within the context of a system of free exchange, there can be a positive, even essential role for social relationships that are based on the cash nexus – producing, investing, buying and selling at market prices – in the sustaining and flourishing of a free society. But while linked, they are distinct. Markets taken broadly – as free exchange – can include cash-nexus relationships – but also much more. Free exchange may, in fact, include many features that compete with, limit, transform, or even undermine impersonal cash-nexus relationships in particular domains. Family sharing is part of a free market; charity is part of a free market; gifts are part of a free market; informal exchange and barter are part of a free market. In a freed market there would be nothing to outlaw the features of business as usual in our actually-existing economy – wage labor, rent, formalized business organizations, corporate insurance, corporate finance and the like would all be available as theoretically possible market outcomes.

But so would alternative arrangements for making a living – including many arrangements that clearly have nothing to do with business as usual or capitalism as we know it: worker and consumer co-ops, community free clinics and mutual aid medical coverage are examples of voluntary exchange; so are wildcat, voluntary labor unions. So are consensual communes, narrower or broader experiments with gift economies, and other alternatives to prevailing corporate capitalism. This broad definition of markets is so broad that you might suggestively describe a fully free market, in this sense, as the space of maximal consensually-sustained social experimentation.

But while the freedom and growth of spaces for economic and social experimentation is always something to be desired and defended from a libertarian standpoint, the value of a cash nexus, in economic and social relationships, depends entirely on the social context within which it is embedded. Free-market anticapitalists have pointed out the central role that “pro-business” government intervention has played in shaping our daily encounters with bills and business, livelihoods and labor, commodities and consumption. Political privileges to corporate business models, government monopolies and captive markets are deeply entrenched, centrally positioned, pervasive in the actually-existing corporate economy, and overwhelming in scale. Moreover, interlocking government interventions systematically act to restrain, crowd out, bulldoze or simply outlaw less hierarchical, less commercial, grassroots or informal-sector alternatives to corporate-dominated rigged markets for daily needs, whether in making a living, or in housing, or health care, or access to credit, or mutual aid, insurance and crisis relief.

These deep, structural features of the economy shove us into labor, housing and financial markets on artificially desperate terms; they deform the markets we are pushed into through an intense concentration of resources in the hands of the privileged, without the fallback of small-scale enterprise and grassroots alternatives that might otherwise prove far more attractive. Left-libertarians insist on the importance of this point because in discussions of market economics it is so easily missed, mistaken simply as business as usual and everyday life in a market economy. But when it is missed, people who oppose the worst inequities of the rigged-market system too easily blame the inequities on the freedom, or unregulated character, of market institutions; while those who wish to stand up for freed markets find themselves on the defensive, trying to defend indefensible institutions when they should be pointing out that their worst features are the product of market constraints.

When leftists complain about commercialism gone mad, about the looming presence of bosses and landlords and debts in our day-to-day lives, about the crises that workers face every month just to pay the rent or the medical bills, we must realize that they are talking about real social evils, which arise from markets in one sense, but not in another. They are talking, specifically, about what the cash nexus is made into by political privileges and government monopolies, when competing alternatives among businesses, and competing alternatives to conventional business models, have been paralyzed, crowded out, or simply outlawed by the actions of the corporate state. And they are talking about social relationships that libertarians need not, and should not, waste any energy on defending. Whatever positive and liberating roles cash-nexus relationships may have in the context of free exchange – and it is important that they have many – they can just as easily become instruments of alienation and exploitation when forced on unwilling participants, in areas of their life where they don’t need or want them, through the immediate or indirect effects of government force and rigged markets.

* * *

Suppose we grant, for argument’s sake, the modest explanatory claim about the dominant players in the capitalist economy – from the business practices of Fortune 500 corporations, to our daily confrontations with employers, landlords or financial corporations. Their size, competitive dominance, and much of their everyday business practices, are substantially the result of the subsidies they receive, the structural privileges they enjoy, and the political constraints on competing businesses, or more informal, less commercial alternatives to their business just as such – competitors who might check them, unseat them, or simply dissolve the need for them in the first place. In an age of multitrillion-dollar bank bailouts, it is not hard to accept that much of actually-existing fortunes and business as usual in the corporate economy as we know it – specifically including much of the abusive power condemned by critics on the Left – are not the result of serving willing customers or ruthlessness in market competition; they are to a great extent the product of exploiting political constraints forged by the alliance of interests between big government and big business.

Even if you accept this explanatory claim, you may may still wonder why left-libertarians insist as confidently that we do that uncontrolled economic competition will not only alter the position of these incumbents, perhaps with some ceteris paribus tendency towards less concentrated wealth and less corporate or businesslike arrangements in economic life – but will positively and qualitatively transform the economic landscape. Left-libertarians are radicals and typically quite optimistic that from fully liberated market processes will naturally emerge the grassroots, alternative economies that they favor, with qualitative social shifts away from (among other things) wage-labor, landlordism, corporate ownership, large firms and to some significant extent corporate commerce as a whole. This is a strong claim, stronger than the explanatory claim alone – call it the bold predictive claim – not only about ceteris paribus tendencies, but about the prospects for mutualistic economies to arise from freed market processes, and to bring about the greater economic equality, social equality, cultural progress, and ecological sustainability that left-libertarians promise to achieve through libertarian means.

Of course, as I have argued at length, there is a straightforward case for a possibility claim that they might arise. A “market economy” in the broad sense need not be an economy dominated by cash nexus relationships, and people might choose to adopt any number of radical experiments. And as as left-libertarians have repeatedly pointed out, the empirical fact that a qualitatively different economy hasn’t yet arisen cannot be explained simply by the dynamics of free markets – we don’t have a free market, and the actually-existing dominant model is (as we have granted) dominant precisely because of the regressive redistribution of wealth and the political constraints that state capitalism has imposed.

The boldness of the bold predictive claim comes, I’d argue, from the combination of two distinct elements of the left-libertarian position. The first – the economic tendency claim – involves a cluster of empirical observations and theoretical developments in economics. It is, really, not so much a single critical claim or a unified theory, as a sort of research programme for a mutualistic market economics, drawing attention to a number of areas for study and discussion. If the modest explanatory claim demonstrates some ceteris paribus tendency towards a weaker and more unstable position for corporations, and towards greater roles for anti-capitalist, non-commercial, informal-sector or independent alternatives, then the stronger economic tendency claim would draw attention to factors affecting the strength of the tendency, and the strength or weakness of countervailing factors that might keep ceteris from staying paribus after all. Areas it marks out for attention include principal-agent problems and knowledge problems in large organizations or hierarchical relationships; the assumption of risk, time horizons, transaction costs and other factors in conventional corporate forms and also in alternative, non-corporate models of ownership, management and financing; the possible shifts in risk tolerance, consumption spending, or interest in social capital under conditions of greater freedom and less precarious material conditions; and many other questions for detailed empirical research that I can only hint at within the scope of this essay.

But in addition to the empirical research programme the economic tendency claim suggests, left-libertarians also defend a second, normative claim, drawing on the possibility of less hierarchical, less formalized, and less commercialized social relationships, and the desirability of conscious, concerted, campaigns of stateless social activism to bring about the social conditions we value. Left-libertarians do not only suggest that employers, management hierarchies, or conventional commercial enterprises will tend to face certain ready-made economic difficulties and instabilities in a freed market; we aim to make ourselves and our neighborhoods more difficult to deal with, by consciously organizing and becoming the alternatives we hope to see emerge. Our leftism is not a research programme only, but an activist manifesto.

The shape of a free society is formed not only by anonymous economic tendencies and “market forces,” but also by conscious social activism and community organizing. “Market forces” are not superhuman entities that push us around from the outside; they are a conveniently abstracted way of talking about the systematic patterns that emerge from our own economic choices. We are market forces, and in markets broadly understood as spaces of freewheeling social experimentation, it is in our hands, and up to us, to make different choices; or shift the range of choices available, through the creative practice of hard-driving social activism, culture jamming, workplace organizing, strikes, boycotts, sit-ins, divestiture, the development of humane alternatives, counter-institutions, and the practice of grassroots solidarity and mutual aid.

This is, of course, simply to state the normative claim; I’ve only outlined the conclusion, not (yet, here) given an argument in its favor. Left-libertarians’ case for stateless social activism rests on a set of arguments that I can only hint at within the space of this essay, but the normative defense of a broadly leftist programme of social and economic activism
may draw support from (1) independent ethical or social considerations in favor of greater autonomy, less hierarchical, less privileged, less rigid, more participatory and more co-operative social relationships. And it may draw support also from (2) arguments in favor of a “thick” conception of libertarianism, drawing from and mutually reinforcing integrated commitments to a radical anti-authoritarianism, and to concerns about broad social dynamics of deference, privilege, participation and autonomy.

At any rate, the normative and activist element of left-libertarian claims about freed markets may help explain the strength of the bold predictive claim, as follows. Market anarchists’ inquiries under the economic tendency claim give us reasons to suggest, more or less strongly, that getting rid of rigged markets and interlocking radical monopolies would be sufficient to bring about a sort of laissez-faire socialism – the natural tendency of freed markets may well be for ownership to be more widely dispersed and for many forms of concentrated social or economic privilege, stripped of the bail-outs and monopolies that sustained them, to collapse under their own weight. But left-libertarians see freed markets as characterized not only by laissez-faire socialism, but also entrepreneurial anti-capitalism: whatever reasons we may have to predict that some concentrations of economic or social power may not simply collapse on their own, left-libertarians, drawing on the resources of grassroots, nonviolent social activism, intend to knock them over. The strength of the predictive claim, then, comes from its double origins: it is both a prophecy about the likely effects of market freedom; and a radical proposal about what to do with what remains.

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The Freeman Against State Capitalism Fri, 26 Aug 2011 10:28:07 +0000 Bleeding-Heart Libertarians might find a great deal of potential interest in the upcoming month’s issue of The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty. I mention this partly for selfish (or at least...

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Bleeding-Heart Libertarians might find a great deal of potential interest in the upcoming month’s issue of The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty. I mention this partly for selfish (or at least self-promotional) reasons; one of the articles there — The Many Monopolies — is an article of mine. But if I’m glad that my article is in this month’s issue, it’s in no small part because I’m so honored to be sharing an issue with Kevin Carson’s remarkable cover story on Taylorism, Progressivism, and Rule by Experts, Sheldon Richman’s left-libertarian case against neoliberalism and the IMF, and book reviews by (BHL contributor) Gary Chartier and Carl Watner (a pioneer voluntaryist and a scholar of nonviolent resistance and the 19th century radical individualists). Tolle, lege.

My article on The Many Monopolies is closely related to the distinction I explored last week in “Libertarian Anticapitalism,” along with a bit of a puzzle about the libertarian tradition. Throughout the 20th century,[1. The “short 20th century,” that is. What I’m calling the “20th century” libertarian attitude towards capitalism took shape  mainly during the 1930s and 1940s, as radical libertarians like Albert Jay Nock and Frank Chodorov found themselves increasingly associated with the coalition now retroactively described as the “Old Right.” See for example Chodorov’s 1945 “Let’s Try Capitalism.” But before about 1917, the radical free marketeers in America were primarily associated with the Anarchist movement, and both considered themselves, and were considered, as red as Emma Goldman. In this respect the 1900s and 1910s were more or less a part of the late 19th century milieu, with World War I and the Wilson administration as a decisive break-point.] American free marketeers overwhelmingly saw themselves, described themselves, and were described by others as defenders of “capitalism.” Now, I spent some time last week talking about one of the conceptual issues involved in that claim — whether “capitalism” is supposed to mean a free market, or an interventionist  pro-business political economy; or whether it’s supposed to refer to a social order in which economic affairs are dominated by a very particular complex of structures, motives and patterns of activity, in particular the wage-labor system or profit-dominated relationships. As I briefly mentioned at the time, 20th century libertarians, at least those who called themselves “pro-capitalist,” typically claimed to mean nothing more than the free market, pure and simple, by the term. But then they proceeded to identify free markets with corporate structures, wage-labor relationships, etc. that were capitalistic in one of the concrete senses — in order to defend actually-existing inequalities of wealth, common real-world business practices, workplace hierarchy, etc., as being (they claimed) the natural outcomes of private property and voluntary market exchange. Their picture of a free market, then, was capitalistic not only in the first sense but also in the third and fourth: something which would look, more or less, like business as usual, but even more so: bigger, stronger, faster, and no longer held back by government from pushing the corporate business model to the hilt.

In this respect, the 20th century libertarian infatuation with “capitalism” was almost a complete reversal from the traditional attitude of American libertarians. During the 19th century the compromising libertarians considered themselves “liberals,” and defined their priorities mainly in terms of the fight against mercantile privilege. Radical libertarians — individualist anarchists and mutualists,  like Benjamin Tucker, Lysander Spooner, Voltairine de Cleyre, Victor Yarros, Ezra and Angela Heywood, Gertrude Kelly, Stephen Pearl Andrews, Dyer Lum, et al. — were supporters and participants in the abolition movement, the first-wave feminist movement, and the organized labor movement.[2. Dyer Lum, for example, was an organizer for the Knights of Labor, the anarchist International Working People’s Association in Chicago, and, late in life, the AFL. Many of the Boston individualists first met through the meetings of the New England Labor Reform League. Andrews, Tucker, Spooner, Josiah Warren and William B. Greene were all members of the First International, before it came to be completely dominated by Marx and his followers.] Tucker was one of the best-known defenders of free markets in late nineteenth-century America, and happily summarized his economic principles, in his classic “State Socialism and Anarchism: how far they agree, and wherein they differ” (1888), as “Absolute Free Trade . . . laissez-faire the universal rule.” And yet, in the same essay, he (like most of the individualist Anarchists) also repeatedly described his views as a form of “Anarchistic Socialism.” The combination could hardly be more unexpected, or more jarring, to the 20th century libertarian eye — how could laissez-faire, laissez-passer be the political program of an avowed “Socialist?” But we must remember that “Socialism” is as contested a term as “Capitalism;” and, remembering that, we must ask ourself what “socialism” could mean for a radical, free-market individualist like Tucker? Certainly not government control of industry, or political management of the means of production. Rather, what Tucker meant by “socialism” was workers’ control over the conditions of their own labor.[3. As Tucker put it, “the bottom claim of Socialism” as he understood it, is “that labor should be put in possession of its own.” Where the State Socialists and Marxists saw “in possession of its own” collectively, as something Labor is supposed to get, with the State or the Worker’s Council acting representatively to administer this collective property (allegedly) on behalf of the whole, Tucker thought of it distributively, with laborers gaining control over their product and its means of production, each for herself, or through such cooperative associations as individual workers might choose to form. Tucker’s view was not idiosyncratic: you can see much the same views expressed, explicitly, in the works of Anarchistic Socialists writing well before Marx’s rise to fame, e.g.  Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Ernest Lesigne, Josiah Warren, et al.] This control, he argued, was denied, not by market processes or honestly-gained property, but rather by an interlocking set of political privileges to large-scale, incumbent capitalists — the Four Monopolies, and the artificial inequalities of wealth and bargaining power those monopolies fostered. For Tucker, then, libertarianism was not a defense of business interests, but an attack on economic privilege, by kicking away the political privileges that propped it up, and dismantling monopolies by exposing them to competition from below.

Given this divergence between the 19th century libertarians and the 20th, one natural question to ask is which of them libertarians should take as our model in the 21st century. (Or should we put them both aside, and try something new?) But before the question can be fairly considered, we need to do some detail work, recovering and fleshing out an understanding of what the 19th century individualists’ position was. So in my article I explore Tucker’s Four Monopolies analysis of capitalism (meaning “capitalism” in the sense of the wage-labor system), and how the analysis might be applied to the economic statist quo that we see around us.

The crises laid at the feet of laissez faire are the crises of markets that are nothing if not fettered. When critics confront us with corporate malfeasance, structural poverty, or socioeconomic marginalization, we should be clear that market principles do not require defending big business at all costs, and that much of what our critics condemn results from government regulation and legal privileges. As a model for analyzing the political edge of corporate power and defending markets from the bottom up, we twenty-first-century libertarians might look to our nineteenth-century roots—to the insights of the American individualists, especially their most talented exponent, Benjamin Ricketson Tucker (1854–1939), editor of the free-market anarchist journal Liberty.

Conventional textbook treatments portray the American Gilded Age as one of relentless exploitation and economic laissez faire. But Tucker argued that the stereotypical features of capitalism in his day were products not of the market form, but of markets deformed by political privileges. Tucker did not use this terminology, but for the sake of analysis we might delineate four patterns of deformation that especially concerned him: captive markets, ratchet effects, concentration of ownership, and insulation of incumbents.

The analysis, the application of it to the present day, and the outlines of an argument for the analysis and the re-application, ensues.




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The (Philosophical) Battle of Seattle: CFP for the Molinari Society Spring 2012 Symposium, “Explorations in Philosophical Anarchy (II)” Tue, 23 Aug 2011 18:42:46 +0000 The Molinari Society is calling for papers. Your papers. In what may be of some interest to philosophically-inclined Bleeding Heart Libertarians: the Molinari Society (of which I am a member;...

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The Molinari Society is calling for papers. Your papers.

In what may be of some interest to philosophically-inclined Bleeding Heart Libertarians: the Molinari Society (of which I am a member; hence the blurbing) is holding a session in conjunction with the APA Pacific Division meeting in Seattle, April 4-7, 2012. (The Molinari Society is a philosophical society dedicated to promoting critical discussion and innovative research in radical libertarian theory — not only political or economic theory, but also in developing “thicker” philosophical conceptions of libertarianism, as a wide-ranging body of theory concerning the nature and foundations of human society, with implications for every aspect of philosophy, including epistemology, social-science methodology, ethics, aesthetics, and the philosophies of history, religion, law, science, language and logic. We take our name from Gustave de Molinari, the Belgian economist and essayist who, in 1849, first described how market institutions could supply all legitimate legal and protective services in an advanced stateless society. You can take a gander at our past symposia at the Molinari Society homepage.)

* * *

Call for Papers

for the Society’s Symposium to be held in conjunction with the American Philosophical Association Pacific Division meeting, April 4-7, 2012, Seattle.

Symposium Topic:
Explorations in Philosophical Anarchy (II)

Submission Deadline:
September 30, 2011

The past two decades have seen a resurgence of interest, both in activist and academic circles, in Anarchist politics and theory, with new and challenging work from several different directions. Renewed academic interest in Anarchism has drawn attention to the importance, vitality and philosophical fruitfulness of key Anarchist arguments and concepts – such as the conflict between authority and autonomy; tensions between collectivism and individualism; critical challenges to hierarchy, centralized power, top-down control and authoritarian conceptions of representation; and the development of concepts of spontaneous social order, decentralized consensus, and the knowledge problems and ideological mythologzing inherent in relations or structures of domination.

Most of this discussion has, naturally enough, taken place within the field of political and moral philosophy. But Anarchist theory (like marxist or feminist theory) embodies more than a policy orientation or a system of moral or political theses. The Anarchist tradition offers a wide-ranging, diverse and vigorously argued literature, concerning the nature and foundations of human society, with implications for every aspect of philosophy, including not only political and moral theory but also aesthetics, social-science methodology, epistemology, and the philosophies of science, religion, history, language and logic. We are looking for papers that address possible connections, approaches, challenges or insights that anarchy and its conceptual environs may suggest for philosophy broadly – or that philosophy may suggest for anarchy – beyond the familiar territory of political and moral theory, especially in such areas as epistemology, philosophy of language, philosophy of logic, and metaphilosophy or philosophical method. Papers from all analytical and critical standpoints (both with regard to philosophy and with regard to Anarchism) are welcome.

Please submit complete papers of 3,000-6,000 words for consideration for the 2012 Symposium by September 30, 2011. Papers should be of appropriate scope and length to be presented within 15-30 minutes. Submitting authors will be notified of the acceptance or rejection of their papers by October 10, 2011.

Submit papers as e-mail attachments, in Word .doc format or PDF, to or

For any questions or information, contact us at the above email addresses.

* * *

I know that not everyone here is an Anarchist, so I should mention that that bit about “all analytical and critical standpoints” is seriously intended – papers that are broadly interested in libertarian ideas but not specifically with Anarchism are welcome; and papers that argue that Philosophy has something important on which to correct Anarchism, or which argue that Anarchism has implications for Philosophy, and the wrongness of those implications offer a modus tollens against Anarchism, are as welcome as papers with the opposite directions of fit.

In any case, to give you an idea of what we mean, some examples of possible topics include – but are hardly limited to:

  • Authority and Epistemology
  • Anarchy and Logic
  • Illusions of control in philosophy
  • Decentralism or spontaneous order in philosophy of language
  • Philosophical implications of the work of “canonical” Anarchist theorists (Godwin, Proudhon, Molinari, Tucker, Spooner, Kropotkin, Tolstoy, De Cleyre, Goodman, Bookchin, Rothbard, Wolff, Zerzan…)
  • Anarchy and Rationality
  • Hierarchy, legibility and knowledge problems
  • Philosophical Method and Anarchism
  • Claims of representation and claims of knowledge
  • Etc.

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I’m Against Free Trade Agreements Because I’m For Free Trade Mon, 22 Aug 2011 12:00:41 +0000 A while ago at BHL, Andrew Cohen took notice of a New York Times article on some recent political compromises in the U.S. that might speed the passage of three...

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A while ago at BHL, Andrew Cohen took notice of a New York Times article on some recent political compromises in the U.S. that might speed the passage of three proposed “free trade” agreements (with South Korea, Colombia and Panama). Andrew takes notice of one of the provisions of the agreements — that the deal includes authorization for a series of subsidies (including retraining and cash payouts) for U.S. workers whose jobs are offshored up through 2013. Then he asks:

The two things are separable of course: there is the free trade agreement (which may or may not be a genuine free trade agreement) and there is the so-called “trade adjustment assistance” that will help those whose jobs are lost …. Will this be overall good? I suspect so, but can’t be sure. In general, I am wary of “free trade agreements,” since they end up being anything but. If anyone has a better understanding of the situation, I’d be happy for input. How free is the free trade?

I’m much less uncertain, and much more pessimistic, about the agreements in question than Andrew is. But not especially because of “transitional” welfare programs like the one he mentions. Of course, I oppose that, because I oppose the welfare state as a whole. (And I oppose the welfare state as a whole because I oppose the state as a whole. Your mileage may vary.) But the major issue here is not so much with small-scale, explicitly time-limited welfare programs tacked on to the deal; it’s with the core of the agreements themselves. Getting rid of protectionist tariffs is a fine thing, and really economically beneficial — especially for working folks. But in my view neoliberal “free trade” agreements don’t get rid of protectionist tariffs; they swap out one form of protectionism for another.

That’s because how free the “free trade” in these agreements looks is going to depend on your views about so-called Intellectual Property. For reasons I’ve discussed elsewhere (and which have been handled in greater depth by Roderick Long and Kevin Carson), I think that the legal protection of copyrights and patents has nothing to do with genuine property rights, but really is a form of coercive monopoly, which suppresses peaceful competition and allows the IP-holder to extract monopoly profits from consumers, with the explicit aim of fattening profits to protect the business interests of the copyright- or patent-holder. (Now, many libertarians disagree with the anti-IP position; if you’re one of them, I won’t have much to satisfy you here, but the in-depth discussions I’ve linked may be more helpful. Or we can discuss in the comments.) However, while IP (on my view) is radically anticompetitive, and has nothing to do with — indeed, is the exact opposite of — genuine free trade, an extensive and uniform system of IP restrictions does smooth out the road for, and serve the commercial interests of, a number of well-placed First World corporations. As a result, every major FTA, from NAFTA through CAFTA and down to the FTAs proposed for South Korea, Panama, and Colombia has had a big, fat chapter on Intellectual Property, and the function of the chapter is always to institute a massive, synchronized hike in copyright and patent terms, penalties for infringement, and the police powers that governments can invoke to enforce IP restrictions.[1] For example, here is a brief summary of the IP chapter of KORUS FTA:

The KORUS FTA strengthens protection for intellectual property, including software, music, film, videos, and text.

For copyrighted works:

  • Extends copyright from life of the author plus 50 years to 70 years.
  • Protects temporary copies of copyrighted work (music, movies, text, etc.) on the Internet.
  • Prevents tampering with technical protection measures (TPMs). [This is essentially an implementation of the invasive powers granted under DMCA and ACTA, as discussed here –CJ.]
  • Criminalizes recording of movies in theaters.
  • Strengthens enforcement against Internet online piracy, holding liable those who profit from unauthorized downloading, and establishing penalties for end-user IPR piracy.

For patents:

  • Provides an extension of patent terms for undue delays in granting the original patent.
  • Abolishes the revocation of a patent due to non-usage.

For trademarks:

  • Requires the seizure, forfeiture, and destruction of counterfeit and pirated goods and the equipment used to produce them.
  • Deters IPR violators from shipping counterfeit products through Korean ports and free trade zones through new customs enforcement rules.
  • Sound and scent marks will receive trademark protections [!]. Introduces “first-in, first-in-right” to trademarks.
  • Protects Internet domain names.

KORUS FTA NOW: Benefits [sic] by Industry/Sector – Intellectual Property

In short, one of the major functions of KORUS FTA is to lengthen the terms of existing government monopolies, to escalate government enforcement of the monopolies, and to enlist legal power to clamp down on (mainly Korean) peaceful trade and competition with (mainly U.S.) IP holders. It’s clear enough how this serves the interests of a certain, politically fetishized form of corporate commerce (“trade” by multibillion dollar entertainment, technology and pharmaceutical businesses); but whether that’s an instance of
freeing markets, or invading markets in order to prop up the bottom line of big business, is going to depend on whether you see IP as a legitimate exercise of private property rights, or an anticompetitive privation of property rights for the protection of big players. For anti-IP libertarians, FTAs promise at best one step forward and two steps back — the easing of old-fashioned protectionist controls on commodities, in favor of creating and expanding protectionist controls on information and technology.

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One other note on the political debate over the FTAs. In the comments on Andrew’s post, Fernando Teson has this to say about “trade adjustment” subsidies:

Libertarians (e.g., Gary Becker, Walter Block) generally reject re-training of workers displaced by imports, but we must remember that the policy, bad as it may be, is less bad than protectionist measures. Given the enormous difficulty of convincing the public of the advantages of unrestrained trade, free trade cum re-training may well be a second-best solution.

Another commenter, Aaron, has this to say in response:

But this brings up an interesting question, Professor – what’s the general preferred libertarian mitigation against the risk of having one’s career shipped overseas before you’re done with it? It seems that demanding a higher salary if you perceive a risk isn’t that workable, if the whole point is that you’re dealing with a price-sensitive employer. Saving to pay for one’s own retraining seems like a good option, but if you pick the wrong career to train for, you’re in trouble, and there’s pretty much no-one with a long-term interest (after any student loans are paid off) in seeing you get it right – after all, once they’re paid, they don’t care if you can get a new job.

Well, I can’t speak for Gary Becker, Walter Block, or Fernando Teson — let alone all libertarians. And I don’t have anything to offer at all on the policy question of how governors might best package free trade legislation (even if it were genuine free trade, rather than a faux-free FTA) in order to sell it to an anxious public. But what I can say for myself is that, as an Anarchist, I believe in DIY social transformation, and as a left-libertarian I think that free trade is best when it comes along with a robust culture of grassroots solidarity and mutual aid. So my view is that the best non-state means of mitigating against the risk of losing your job is twofold. One, you focus on getting rid of the state capitalist political controls which dispossess the poor and marginalized, constrain the options available to impoverished people, and make ordinary workers artificially dependent on corporate employers. (The basic problem here, as stated, is that the labor market is constrained in such a way that any particular worker is much more dispensable for his employer than any particular employment is for the worker. If that’s the result of free market processes, then perhaps it’s a problem for libertarian economic views; but if it is — as I contend — substantially the result of state capitalist controls on the direction and extent of market activity — in particular, oppressive political restrictions on the poor, and exploitative protections for established businesses — then that’s a problem for business as usual, but not for markets. The thing to do is not to “mitigate” the economic problem, but to get rid of the political problem that produces it.)

Second, while I think that removing constraints on individual workers is important (thus putting them in a better position to fall back on alternative resources, drive harder bargains, or make a living outside of wage-labor entirely), it’s also important to remember that — on a sufficiently rich conception of what’s in a market — a freed market is an individualist social order, not an antisocial one. What I mean is this: it’s a mistake to think that the only available options are for (a) government-organized safety nets or (b) uncoordinated personal measures, leaving workers with only the personal savings or insurance arrangements that they can individually provide for. There is a third option: (c) consensual socially-organized safety nets, providing grassroots mutual aid. What I’ve said elsewhere about community-based mutual aid in medical care can be applied broadly to grassroots efforts where workers pool resources to help cope with many different kinds of hard times or catastrophic costs:

Pervasive confusion of the existing government-supported anticompetitive corporate health care market with medical services provided by a genuinely freed market leads to two related confusions about what a real market in medicine would mean.

First is the widespread, but ultimately ridiculous notion that free markets would require individual workers to rely only on personal savings or expensive corporate health insurance to cover high medical costs. In fact in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, freer medical markets actually offered many competitive, noncorporate means for working folks to get affordable, decent health care for themselves by pooling resources through free-market bargaining and free association. As libertarian scholars David Beito and Roderick Long have discussed, “contract practice” agreements, organized by low-income workers and primarily negotiated through unions, mutual-aid societies, and fraternal lodges, provided reliable medical care for 20-50 percent of workers in English-speaking countries for about one day’s wages per year. These affordable arrangements were ultimately driven out not by the ruthlessness of the free market, but rather by deliberate assaults by government and the government-privileged medical guilds.

The anti-state response to economic pinches and hard transitions is — grassroots community organizing.

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  1. Typically, these escalations in IP protection and enforcement are designed to bring less-restrictive laws in U.S. trading partners up to the insanely restrictive state of copyright and patent law inflicted by the U.S. government. ↩

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Libertarian Anticapitalism Fri, 19 Aug 2011 01:10:52 +0000 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...

The post Libertarian Anticapitalism appeared first on Bleeding Heart Libertarians.


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. 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.] 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. 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.] 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.



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