Symposium on Left-Libertarianism – Bleeding Heart Libertarians http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com Free Markets and Social Justice Fri, 19 Jan 2018 15:05:02 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.9.2 http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/cropped-site-icon-BHL-32x32.png Symposium on Left-Libertarianism – Bleeding Heart Libertarians http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com 32 32 22756168 Carson on Masters and Bosses http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2012/11/carson-on-masters-and-bosses/ http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2012/11/carson-on-masters-and-bosses/#comments Fri, 16 Nov 2012 23:00:18 +0000 http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/?p=4567 Over at C4SS, Kevin Carson responds to Danny Shapiro’s and Steve Horwitz’s challenges to the left-libertarian claim that a freed market will be one with significantly less “bossism.” A taste:...

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Over at C4SS, Kevin Carson responds to Danny Shapiro’s and Steve Horwitz’s challenges to the left-libertarian claim that a freed market will be one with significantly less “bossism.”

A taste:

Shapiro seems to assume an economic model in which ownership is expressed through marketable shares, the economy tends to be organized around large market areas with mostly anonymous economic transactions occurring mainly through the cash nexus, etc.

And he explicitly assumes (point three) that current firm size and market structure represents economies of scale that are inherent in production technology.

All the secondary assumptions he makes about the kinds of specialized knowledge a boss must have about consumer demand and the marketplace, it seems, reflect the primary assumptions above about the continuity of the hypothetical economy with the conditions of the one we live in.

None of these assumptions is warranted, in my opinion.

Carson’s conclusion:

left-libertarians’ fundamental area of disagreement with Shapiro and Horwitz is that our model of freed markets isn’t a slightly tweaked, somewhat more leftish variant on the existing model of corporate capitalism. It implies a revolution in the basic structure of our economy.

Relatedly, be sure to take a look at this relevant debate between Peter Klein and Roderick Long from back in 2008.

UPDATE: Another response here.

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The Bold and the Desirable: A Prophecy and a Proposal http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2012/11/the-bold-and-the-desirable-a-prophecy-and-a-proposal-3/ http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2012/11/the-bold-and-the-desirable-a-prophecy-and-a-proposal-3/#comments Fri, 16 Nov 2012 20:08:47 +0000 http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/?p=4561 [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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Strong and Weak Anti-Conflation http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2012/11/strong-and-weak-anti-conflation/ http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2012/11/strong-and-weak-anti-conflation/#comments Wed, 14 Nov 2012 14:00:32 +0000 http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/?p=4414 [Editors Note: This essay is part of BHL’s Symposium on Left-Libertarianism. Click on the link to see the other essays.] In an important essay, “Corporations versus the Market, or Whip Conflation...

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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.]
In an important essay, “Corporations versus the Market, or Whip Conflation Now,” Roderick Long has identified a fallacy committed by both defenders and critics of libertarianism. Those who commit this fallacy identify too closely the institutions of a libertarian society with those of capitalism as it now exists. In doing so, they are blind to the manifold ways corporations, privileged by the state, distort a genuinely free market. Because of this distortion, left libertarians prefer to call what they want a “freed” market rather than a “free” market. (It should be noted, though, that a freed market is a species of free market.  The left libertarians’ preference for the term “freed” hardly suggests that they would not also support a free market that arose without ever suffering from the distortions they deplore.)

Long’s point is a good one, but I think that he and other left libertarians sometimes go too far with it. I should like to distinguish two types of anti-conflation, weak and strong.  Weak anti-conflation is the view that it is wrong to assume that the institutions of a libertarian society will resemble those that now exist under capitalism. We should not assume, e.g., that large, “hierarchical” corporations will be a prominent feature of the freed market. Strong anti-conflation goes further. Its advocates say that certain institutions that now exist will not be present, or at least won’t be present to the same extent, in the freed market. In brief, the weak anti-conflationist says, “Don’t assume that things will be the same in the freed market”; the strong anti-conflationist says, “We can assume that things will be different in the freed market.”

Weak anti-conflation seems to me a correct position, and strong anti-conflationists are clearly sometimes right. We can say, e.g., that state subsidies to businesses would not exist in a freed market: we are not confined to the anemic claim that we don’t know whether such payments would exist in a genuinely free market. Can we say the same about the claim that hierarchical corporations would be largely replaced in a freed market by worker-owned, non-hierarchical firms? I do not think so.

The argument that hierarchical corporations feature only in distorted, not genuinely free, markets goes something like this. People are strongly averse to taking orders from others and having little or no say about the conditions under which they work. If nevertheless many workers today have to labor in Dilbert-like settings, this is not the result of truly voluntary choices on their part. To the contrary, large corporations privileged by the state have substantially more bargaining power than workers. Faced with this disparity of bargaining power, workers have only poor options. If they do not accept the bad terms offered by their corporate employers, they may not be able to get a job at all. The situation is made worse by the fact that the weak bargaining position of the workers is itself the result of corporate and state acts of dispossession against workers and small property owners, both in the past and the present.

I don’t think that wages are determined by bargaining power in the way that left libertarians suggest, but this is not the issue that will be pursued here. Rather, the question I want to consider is this: Suppose that a genuinely free market exists. Would most laborers work in worker-owned firms, such as cooperatives, or be self-employed, rather than work in companies that they do not own?

One reason to think so is that people don’t like to take orders from others.  Would workers not then prefer firms in which they themselves decide how the firm is to be run, rather than be subject to the whims of a boss?  Here, though, there is a problem. It does seem entirely plausible that people dislike taking orders from others; in a worker-owned firm, though, each worker still has to take orders from others.  The group of worker-owners makes the decisions, and individual workers must sometimes still do what they don’t want, unless what they want always is supported by the group’s decision procedure.

True enough, each worker has a say in setting policy; but to those who dislike taking orders, how much solace does this provide? The issue is analogous to that of citizens in a democracy: the fact that one has a vote hardly implies that one is deciding in a significant way what is to be done. Against this, of course, workers in a firm are likely to form a vastly smaller group than do the citizens of a modern state, so each worker will have more of a say; but it remains true that each worker counts as but one among many. This problem can be avoided in firms that consist of one worker only; but to expect an economy to arise in which most people are self-employed is surely an example of what Marx called “duodecimo editions of the New Jerusalem.”

Some might be inclined here to adduce workers’ solidarity: would it not be likely that those who decided to join together in a firm would have a similar sense of the policy the firm ought to follow? I think this suggestion underestimates the propensity to conflict among members of small groups.

Perhaps, though, there is more to the complaint against hierarchy than has so far been considered. People might dislike, besides having to follow the decisions of someone else, the fact that some particular person or group stands over them and is in a position to tell them what to do. In a worker-owned firm, no one occupies this superior role. If you lose a policy decision, then you have been outvoted by equals.

The strength of such a preference for equality of status is hard to estimate, but there is something on the other side that needs to be taken into account. How well the owner of a business does depends on the success of the firm. Many firms fail, and in the case the owner will receive nothing and may have to make up the firm’s debts from his own resources. Many people prefer to receive a fixed salary rather than to leave their fate to the market’s verdict. As an example, most academics receive a fixed salary. One can readily imagine another system, e.g., one in which professors’ salaries were entirely dependent on fees from students they were able to attract. European universities in the past sometimes operated, in whole or part, on this plan. It is highly doubtful, though, whether most academics today would prefer to entrust their financial fate to student choices in this way.  If they want a fixed salary, then the risks of financial failure they decline to assume must be passed on to others: these risks cannot be conjured away. More generally, workers, even in a freed market, may prefer to leave the risks of decisions that will result in profit or loss to others.  It seems perfectly sensible for workers to balance their desire to run things themselves against the costs of assuming the risks of loss and to find the latter consideration the weightier.

I do not say that this suffices to show that worker-owned firms would not prevail in a truly free market. My theme is more modest: we should not too readily assume that the institutions of a free market would overthrow the hierarchical structures that left libertarians oppose.  Left libertarians who are sure that a freed market would sweep away hierarchy and other features of the present order that they dislike should remember the words of Talleyrand: Surtout, pas trop de zèle.

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Beyond Bossism http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2012/11/beyond-bossism/ http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2012/11/beyond-bossism/#comments Tue, 13 Nov 2012 19:32:39 +0000 http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/?p=4534 Professors Horwitz and Shapiro both raise helpful, thoughtful questions about the persistence of hierarchy in a stateless society. I can’t, obviously, demonstrate praxeologically that there will be significantly fewer hierarchies...

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Professors Horwitz and Shapiro both raise helpful, thoughtful questions about the persistence of hierarchy in a stateless society.

I can’t, obviously, demonstrate praxeologically that there will be significantly fewer hierarchies in the workplaces of a freed market—that we should definitely expect more self-employment and a greater proportion of partnerships and cooperatives in a free economy. But let me note some reasons to think this might be the case.

Large, hierarchical firms seem likely to be beset by the incentive and knowledge problems that complicate the lives of state central planners.

The larger an organization, the more likely it is that managers will lack crucial information. This is both because there will be multiple layers separating various actors with relevant information (with institutional pressures impeding accuracy) and because there will be no system of prices encoding the information and usable for calculation.

In addition, the principal-agent problem besets large firms at multiple levels, fostering inefficiencies as workers—whether senior managers or front-line employees—seek their own goals rather than firm profitability.

Thus, it seems fairly clear that, all other things being equal, the smaller and flatter a firm is, the better the information available to participants will be. The more production decisions are based on actual market prices rather than on simulated intra-firm transfer prices, the more efficient and responsive to reality they’re likely to be. And the more a worker has skin in the economic game, the more likely she will be to make prudent, efficient, customer-responsive decisions.

It might seem, then, that smaller, flatter firms could be expected to out-compete larger, more hierarchical ones. But we don’t see lots of smaller, flatter firms in the marketplace. Does this mean that, contrary to expectations, larger firms really are more efficient?

Whether this is so will depend in significant part on empirical questions that can’t be sorted out a priori. But it does seem as if several factors in our economy might tend to help large firms ignore the diseconomies of scale that would otherwise render them unsustainably inefficient. Tax rules and regulations tend to encourage capital concentration and thus increased firm size. Subsidies reduce the costs inefficiently large firms might otherwise confront—and large firms can more readily mobilize the resources needed to enable them to extract wealth from the political process than small firms. And workers often lack access to the resources needed to start firms precisely because of state-sanctioned theft and state-secured privilege. Eliminating these factors seems likely to make alternatives to the large corporate firm significantly more viable.

And if they’re more viable, they can be expected to be more common. Freedom from arbitrary authority is a consumer good. Given the disgust and frustration with which many people view the petty tyrannies of the contemporary workplace, I suspect it’s a consumer good many people would like to purchase. At present, the price is high; there are very few opportunities to work in partnerships or cooperatives or to choose self-employment. So the question is: what might reduce the price?

The price is partly affected by the relative frequency of hierarchical versus non-hierarchical workplaces. So eliminating props for hierarchy ought to put more alternatives on the table. At the same time, people often don’t choose such alternatives because of the risks associated with doing so. Saying good-bye to corporate employment means taking responsibility for one’s own medical care and retirement (if, of course, you’re a worker who even has these options in the first place, as many purportedly part-time workers don’t), requires one to front the capital required to make start-up operations possible, and forces one to confront the spectre of unemployment if one’s start-up business fails. But medical care and retirement are associated with corporate employment primarily because of the current tax system; and medical care, in particular, would be more affordable by far in the absence of state regulation and state-driven cartelization, so that the challenge of caring for one’s health in connection with a mutual-aid network, say, would be much less daunting than at present. Start-up capital would be more available if state-confiscated resources were marketized and state-engrossed land available for homesteading, and less necessary, in any case, if state regulations didn’t drive up capitalization requirements. And unemployment would be more affordable if state regulations didn’t raise the minimum cost of living, and could be manageable by means of the support offered by mutual aid.

Furthermore, it’s not clear to me that it would be impossible to raise money in equity markets and from investment banks for partnerships, cooperatives, and solo ventures. There are ways to secure investments that don’t involve participation in governance—and of course significant quantities of stock for sale today don’t necessarily come with voting rights.

Thus, people who wanted to opt for boss-free workplaces would find it easy to do so in the absence of state-driven props for hierarchy and state-driven barriers to self-employment and employment in partnerships and cooperatives. And the fact that they did so, so that boss-free options were increasingly visible and numerous, would have consequences for boss-dominated workplaces, too. The availability of alternatives that offered people more dignity, more predictability, more security, and more opportunities for participation in decision-making would exert market pressure on conventional corporate firms, encouraging them to make theoretically boss-dominated workplaces more like those at other kinds of firms. The differences wouldn’t disappear, but they might be meaningfully reduced.

In addition, boss-dominated firms might experience greater pressure to democratize in virtue of unionization. To the extent that the state’s bargain with unions has been, all things considered, bad for collective action in the workplace, eliminating state labor regulation could open up opportunities for Wobbly-style direct action that could increase unionization and offer workers resultingly more extensive workplace protection. Again, even in non-unionized firms, there would be market pressure to mimic at least some features of unionized firms, both to avoid losing workers to those firms and to forestall union organizing efforts.

Moral suasion typically shouldn’t be seen as the primary driver of social change. But active advocacy on behalf of workplace dignity and fairness could obviously lead to changes in social norms and expectations that would further reduce the perceived legitimacy of bossism and encourage the flourishing of alternatives.

A free society wouldn’t and couldn’t eliminate investor-owned or boss-dominated firms—nor should it, not only because direct, violent interference with these patterns of ownership and control would be unjust but also because workers might often benefit from the ability to shift risk onto employers and investors. But eliminating state-secured privilege and remedying state-sanctioned aggression could create significantly greater opportunities for self-employment and work in partnerships and cooperatives.

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On the Edge of Utopianism http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2012/11/on-the-edge-of-utopianism/ http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2012/11/on-the-edge-of-utopianism/#comments Mon, 12 Nov 2012 14:00:29 +0000 http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/?p=4428 [Editors Note: This essay is part of BHL’s Symposium on Left-Libertarianism. Click on the link to see the other essays.] As Matt said in his post announcing this symposium, many of...

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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.]

As Matt said in his post announcing this symposium, many of us who blog here are very sympathetic to the left-libertarian project, even as we have various criticisms.  I count myself as one of those highly sympathetic critics.  I have been known to refer to myself as a “libertarian of the left.”  I recently gave a talk arguing that classical liberalism should reclaim its progressive identity and start to think of itself as “of the left.”  And I especially share the left-libertarian criticism of corporatism and militarism, as well as its concern with issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation.  I see my recent work on the family as being very much in tune with what the left-libertarians have to say.  In what follows, I will expand on some points of agreement with left-libertarians, but also raise a fundamental criticism of some of their arguments (and I should note that I very much consider them to be comrades in arms in the larger libertarian project).

That criticism is that they often commit a rhetorical error that is something of the obverse of what they call “vulgar libertarianism.”  Left-libertarians often seem to argue that even just a little bit of statism so distorts markets that the results produced by the mixed economy bear little relationship to what a freed economy would produce.  Just as putting one drop of a liquid one owns into an unowned lake does not make the whole thing yours, neither does one drop of statism suddenly mean that the results of a mixed economy are vastly different from the results produced by a freed market.  Overstating the transformation that freed markets would bring can lead left-libertarianism to both a dangerous utopianism about freed markets and a reluctance to challenge bad criticisms of really existing markets for fear of engaging in vulgar libertarianism. Neither vulgar libertarianism nor the more utopian moments of left-libertarianism are sufficiently nuanced to do the job. To use a phrase I used in an earlier discussion of left-libertarianism, we must carefully untangle the corporatist knot.

Let me start with some areas of agreement with the left-libertarians.  One major point of agreement is that I would like to ditch the word “capitalism,” though I find myself somewhat unable to do so in my own work.  Aside from the fact that the word does seem to mean very different things to different people, the word itself suggests that what capitalism-understood-as-free-markets is really about is the centrality of “capital.”  If an “ism” is a belief system, then “capitalism” would seem to mean “a belief in the power of capital.”  This suggests, especially when contrasted with its claimed opposite “socialism,” that a capitalist system works toward the benefit of capital (and socialism, by contrast, works toward the benefit of “society” as a whole).  Using capitalism and socialism to describe what I think is better understood as a contrast between “free markets” and “social planning” as economic coordination processes inevitably biases the case:  who could be against benefiting society as a whole rather than just the owners of capital?

Left-libertarians rightly argue, and the historical evidence amply supports, two related claims:  1) capitalists are not the primary beneficiaries of freed markets, society as a whole is and 2) capitalists are all in favor of using the state to advance their own interests in the face of free market results they do not like.  Those who genuinely believe in freed markets could avoid a great deal of confusion by not using “capitalism,” a word that, in Alice in Wonderland fashion, seems to mean whatever the speaker wants to mean, and usually something bad.  (In this way, it is much like “fascist.”)  Instead, I think we are better off talking in terms of the degree to which economic decisions are to be coordinated using the institutions of the market or the institutions of politics.  My own view is that this distinction is best captured by the contrast between “markets” and “planning” rather than “capitalism” and “socialism,” but I could be persuaded by other terminology.  The key, however, is focusing on the processes and institutions by which decisions are coordinated, rather than terminology that builds in implicit claims about who does or does not benefit from such processes.

Similarly, I would like to see libertarians ditch the term “privatization” for two reasons.  First, government “privatization” often means handing over to the private sector things no one should be doing, whether public or private.  One need only think of what Halliburton and its successors have done.  Second, in the cases where government is doing something that could be done in the market, I would argue that the real goal should be not “privatization” but “de-monopolization.”  One of the great strengths of the left-libertarians is their consistent opposition to monopoly, which grows out of their 19th century influences.  Libertarians should first and foremost be anti-monopoly, and turning a public monopoly into a private one is therefore not a gain, and might well be worse!  We need to be consistent and vocal opponents of all forms of monopoly privilege and barriers to entry.  And I will note that this must include labor.  I am sympathetic to the left-libertarians when they remind other libertarians that labor unions can and should have an important role in freed markets, but I, in turn, must remind them that unions must be on equal footing with other voluntary organizations, and that means making sure we reject any form of privilege for capital or labor.

The problem I often see in left-libertarian writing is the sense that the world of freed markets would look dramatically different from what we have.  For example, would large corporations like Walmart exist in a freed market?  Left-libertarians are quick to argue no, pointing to the various ways in which the state explicitly and implicitly subsidizes them (e.g., eminent domain, tax breaks, an interstate highway system, and others).  They are correct in pointing to those subsidies, and I certainly agree with them that the state should not be favoring particular firms or types of firms.  However, to use that as evidence that the overall size of firms in a freed market would be smaller seems to be quite a leap.  There are still substantial economies of scale in play here and even if firms had to bear the full costs of, say, finding a new location or transporting goods, I am skeptical that it would significantly dent those advantages.  It often feels that desire to make common cause with leftist criticisms of large corporations, leads left-libertarians to say “oh yes, freed markets are the path to eliminating those guys.”  Again, I am not so sure.  The gains from operating at that scale, especially with consumer basics, are quite real, as are the benefits to consumers.

Even as I agree with them that we should end the subsidies, I wish left-libertarians would more often acknowledge that firms like Walmart and others have improved the lives of poor Americans in significant ways and lifted hundreds of thousands out of poverty in some of the poorest parts of the world.  Those accomplishments seem very much in tune with the left-libertarian project. To argue with such confidence that firms in a freed market would be unable to take advantage of these economies of scale might be cold comfort to the very folks who left-libertarians are rightly concerned about.

Another example of this problem is in left-libertarian discussions of labor markets.  The prediction that a truly freed market, especially one in which corporate privilege was absent, would lead to more labor-managed firms and a less hierarchical workplace suggests that the dominant reason these forms don’t exist is because of the state.  Granted, state intervention can alter the incentive structure within firms, but there are also very good reasons why workers might strongly prefer employment arrangements in which they don’t have to take on additional responsibilities or spend time engaging in collective decision making processes.  To argue that freed markets would significantly transform the workplace seems to put a desire to appeal to leftists ahead of the economics of the situation.

Eliminating every last grain of statism does not magically transform everything we might not like about really existing markets into a form that will match the goals of the traditional left.  One grain of statism doesn’t mean that the really existing world won’t essentially look like it does when markets are freed.  My own conviction is that the underlying market processes carry more weight than the distorting effects of the state along more margins than the left-libertarians believe.  I might well be wrong, but I worry that the promise of more transformation than a left-libertarian world can deliver repeats the very same utopianism that has plagued the left historically.

Finally, half a cheer for a form of vulgar libertarianism.  Often times libertarians find ourselves “playing defense.”  When critics of markets argue that firms like Walmart are bad, they are usually not arguing for an end to state privilege, but objecting to the market itself, including a freed market.  Whatever the imperfections of the status quo, we still do live in an economy in which the invisible hand operates, if with something of a palsy.  One reason I leap to the defense of the Walmarts of the world is because they have done a great deal of good for the least well-off among us precisely due to the underlying market forces that critics would like to remove.  In “playing defense” this way, I might look like a vulgar libertarian, but the larger strategic goal is to defend not the existing imperfect market processes but rather the freed market processes against those who would eliminate both.

Another example of “playing defense” in this way is the literature arguing that the conventional view that the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer is wrong to one degree or another.  Faced with the claim that “capitalism” has generated massive inequalities, libertarians can adopt two kinds of strategies. One is to argue like the left-libertarians that state intervention is responsible for the inequalities and then argue that a freed market would, perhaps, produce less inequality.  Another is to show that the data being trotted out are misleading about the real degree of inequality or income mobility and to argue that even with a palsied invisible hand, the underlying market forces are not producing massive inequality, the further impoverishment of the poor, or restricting mobility.  One could make a similar argument about the very real increase in consumption possibilities available to poor Americans. Although I think the first strategy has some truth to it, I also think this second is both rhetorically effective and correct.

This isn’t vulgar libertarianism. If much of the claimed growth in inequality is the statistical artifact of the way in which people move through the life-cycle of income earnings and/or changes in the demographic characteristics of households, rather than a genuine increase in inequality or loss of mobility, there seems no necessary reason to reject that as being “vulgar libertarianism” and portray it as a defense of the statist status quo.  To the degree that proposals to move us away from freed markets are based on a misreading of these data, defending the market forces at work in a mixed economy is not vulgar libertarianism, but an attempt to save us from even further statism and corporatism.

I happen to think the successes of firms such as Wal-Mart really do reflect market realities that would exist even in a freed market, even as I recognize the large role played by state intervention in such processes.  I also worry that the left-libertarian charge of “vulgar libertarianism” might cause libertarians to stop engaging in the “playing defense” project I describe above. Instead, we should more carefully examine what parts of the status quo are driven by the underlying market forces and which by the state.  Charges of vulgar libertarianism against legitimate arguments for the robustness of markets will do more harm than good.

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Query For Left-Libertarians http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2012/11/query-for-left-libertarians/ http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2012/11/query-for-left-libertarians/#comments Mon, 12 Nov 2012 02:23:57 +0000 http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/?p=4526 I am puzzled by left-libertarianism’s prediction that a freed market will not contain a significant amount of “bossism,” to use Gary Chartier’s phrase in his BHL post. Alas, I have...

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I am puzzled by left-libertarianism’s prediction that a freed market will not contain a significant amount of “bossism,” to use Gary Chartier’s phrase in his BHL post. Alas, I have not read Markets, Not Capitalism, and perhaps the puzzle is something that is easily solved by reading the book. I offer the puzzle here because I suspect it may have occurred to other readers of this blog, and it may help elucidate important features of the left-libertarian view.

Workers in a coop in a freed market are allowed to sell their shares in the coop. Their rights to their shares in the firm include use rights, i.e., they decide the nature of work relations, working condition, pay differentials, managerial responsibility, etc., and income rights, i.e., they receive the net profits of the firms. There are two reasons why this sector will be likely be small.

First, it will be irrational for workers to concentrate their portfolio in their own firm, lest it go under. So they will want to sell some of their shares in their own firm and buy shares in other firms. Once that happens it is not hard to see how those who don’t work in the firm will come to own considerable shares of the firm (and of course that will include institutional investors) which means the end of an economy dominated by worker controlled firms. Now some coops may restrict outsiders’ rights in their firm, so that they are not able to have use rights, i.e., a say or a vote in how the firm is managed. But some coops won’t do this, and it is plausible that those who won’t do this and give outsiders full ownership rights will have a competitive advantage. This is because those who can attract more outside capital will have a competitive advantage in adapting to changing market conditions and those who will supply considerable capital will tend to want some way to monitor that their capital is being used in an efficient manner, which means some kind of say over how the firm is run.

Another reason workers will want to sell their shares is that when workers leave the firm—change jobs, retire, etc.—they will want to take their profits with them. Indeed, even before they leave they may want to cash out some of their profits, i.e., sell some of their shares.  And for reasons I just mentioned, those buying them may not be content with nonvoting shares. So again we get the scenario of outsiders coming to have full ownership rights in the firms, and it’s not hard to see how this will lead fairly quickly to an economy which is dominated by capitalist firms.

Now the prediction that a freed market will not contain a significant amount of bossism does not, I take it, entail a prediction that there won’t be a substantial number of firms which are not coops. It only entails a prediction that most of these firms won’t be hierarchical firms where workers get bossed around. Those firms which are smaller and flatter, to use Roderick Long’s terminology, minimize or eliminate this function of bosses. But here my puzzle continues.  How do left-libertarians know these firms will tend to be small and flat? Firms which are financed largely by equity will, in a freed market, be those that maximize shareholder value, and how do we know that a substantial number of those firms won’t be hierarchical firms? I endorse Roderick Long’s argument that the larger the firm the more likely calculation chaos will impede efficiency, and it’s also true that bossing people around can impede efficiency. But those are ceteris paribus claims, and it may be a firm needs to reach a certain size in order to be efficient, and that too little hierarchy can impede efficiency. So I remain puzzled.

My puzzle to some extent also crosses over to the moral opposition to bossism. Bossing people around can certainly be bad; indeed at times it is positively evil. One of the nice features of being an academic is that one has a fair amount of autonomy in one’s job, so as a personal matter I share Long and Chartier’s outlook. But as libertarians we favor a vigorously competitive market, which means firms will have to be quite attuned to consumer sentiment and shareholder value, and so as libertarians I would think we would have to distinguish between different kinds of bossism. Bossism in the context of a competitive market is regrettable or perhaps a bad we have to put up with for the sake of greater goods or a just society, whereas bossism that has no connection with the rigors of a competitive market is unequivocally oppressive. So I am also puzzled how left-libertarians can say that they are opposed to bossism per se.

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A brief addendum: in the above post, I only discussed coops and capitalist firms, but I did not discuss self-employed or being one’s own boss. But the same argument applies, perhaps a fortiori, to being one’s own boss. Being one’s own boss is quite a risky proposition, so I would be puzzled by a confident prediction that in a freed market this would be something a large percentage of people would choose even without state barriers that make it more difficult to be one’s own boss (occupational licensure, oppressive taxation, etc.)  And morally, being one’s own boss is hardly an unequivocal good. I would suck at it, and I would be puzzled by anyone who argued that I should choose a life at which I have no comparative advantage.

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Further to Holbo http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2012/11/further-to-holbo/ http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2012/11/further-to-holbo/#comments Fri, 09 Nov 2012 16:32:59 +0000 http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/?p=4484 I’d recommend that people read John’s clarificatory post in comments– and would ask that we be polite to our guest! I agree that his main post below is a bit...

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I’d recommend that people read John’s clarificatory post in comments– and would ask that we be polite to our guest! I agree that his main post below is a bit unclear. But let’s then engage him in conversation (as Aeon Skoble did in comments to elicit the clarification). John’s always been one of the more thoughtful, patient, and civil of libertarianism’s critics in the liberal blogosphere.  (See his contribution to the debate with Chris Bertram et.al.– a post that’s related to the issues he discusses below.)  I think he’s got a lot more than one post worth of accumulated credit, and in any case has more than earned civil treatment from us when he comes to visit.

Update:

See John’s summary of his post, the Aeon-John-me series that starts here,  and the John-me-John series that starts here.

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Black-Hearted Or Bleeding-Hearted? It would be irresponsible not to speculate! http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2012/11/black-hearted-or-bleeding-hearted-it-would-be-irresponsible-not-to-speculate/ http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2012/11/black-hearted-or-bleeding-hearted-it-would-be-irresponsible-not-to-speculate/#comments Fri, 09 Nov 2012 14:00:24 +0000 http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/?p=4403 [Editors Note: This essay is part of BHL’s Symposium on Left-Libertarianism. Click on the link to see the other essays.] Jan Narveson: “Liberty is Property … the libertarian thesis is really...

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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.]

Jan Narveson: “Liberty is Property … the libertarian thesis is really the thesis that a right to our persons as our property is the sole fundamental right there is” (The Libertarian Idea, 66). Conjoin this to a negative account of liberty as non-coercion and ponder a Buddhistic paradox. If freedom means non-frustration of the exercise of one’s legitimate property rights, you can be made perfectly free by being relieved of all property, including the right to your own body and life. (Just as Buddhists may say freedom is a matter of deadening your desires, so they cannot be frustrated.) Ergo, if only everyone consents to sell themselves as slaves to Leviathan, we shall enter into libertarian paradise forthwith! (Except Leviathan himself, poor fellow. But no system ensures perfect freedom for all.)

Something has slipped. Hayek can tell us what it is:

 It would be difficult to maintain that a man who voluntarily but irrevocably had sold his services for a long period of years to a military organization such as the Foreign Legion remained free thereafter in our sense; or that a Jesuit who lives up to the ideals of the founder of his order and regards himself “as a corpse which has neither intelligence nor will” could be so described. Perhaps the fact that we have seen millions voting themselves into complete dependence on a tyrant has made our generation understand that to choose one’s government is not necessarily to secure freedom. (Constitution of Liberty)

What we need is a positive account of liberty because what we want – ultimately, although we may aim at it by indirect means, by all means! – is, in fact, positive liberty (not null, non-nutritive Buddhistic substitutes for it.) Again, Hayek is on the case, articulating the relevant sense of liberty as effective autonomy:

The question of how many courses of action are open to a person is, of course, very important. But it is a different question from that of how far in acting he can follow his own plans and intentions, to what extent the pattern of his conduct is of his own design, directed toward ends for which he has been persistently striving rather than toward necessities created by others in order to make him do what they want … Freedom thus presupposes that the individual has some assured private sphere, that there is some set of circumstances in his environment with which others cannot interfere.

What we need to do, then—this is obvious to all fair-minded folk!—is build a strong welfare state, which wraps us back around to Narveson: “The idea of libertarianism is to maximize individual freedom by accounting each person’s person as that person’s own property” (175).

Of course, the parents may object to this flagrant taking-without-compensation—this engorgement of government with so many appropriated products of private labors! (Did that baby homestead itself?) Libertarianism that includes guaranteed self-ownership is the camel nose of communism, gotten under the tent of true liberty! Furthermore, it is sure to lead to rampant child abuse (why will parents care for children if they can’t own them?) Typical liberal self-defeating perverse consequences (grumble grumble, letter to the editor).

On the other hand, some may say this bold social justice scheme for redistributing wealth does to go far enough.

Why shouldn’t the idea of libertarianism be to maximize individual freedom by accounting each person’s person as that person’s own property … and also accounting that person’s bank account as containing at least $1?

Or by passing Obamacare, to ensure that the person each person gets gets healthcare?

Libertarians will want to say something shifts in principle when we pass past giving people themselves to giving people themselves plus a dollar. But I don’t think this reaction is warranted. (‘What do you take me for?’ the libertarian objects, scandalized by my increasingly obscene propositions. ‘I think we have established what you are. Now we are just haggling about the price.’ You know the old joke? Well now it’s a joke about social justice.)

Some libertarians say there is something metaphysically special about personhood (as opposed to $1) that warrants self-ownership at birth. (Government doesn’t give you you. Self-ownership is prior.) I find this line implausible because, while I agree personhood is wonderful, its wonderfulness chiefly flows from the consideration that people have the capacity to flourish as autonomous beings. What, then, is peculiarly ‘natural’ about extending to every person part of what they need, to flourish, but not the whole package? Why should Natural Law be a ceremonious half-measure? (Emerson’s dispossessed youth laments: “It appears there was some mistake in my creation, and that I have been mis-sent to this earth, where all the seats were already taken.” I can picture Nature as amoral, maybe as moral, but libertarian Nature as the moral equivalent of a chronically overbooked airline eludes me.)

It is possible to concoct a consequentialist justification for formal half-measures. But then we are consequentialists. So let’s haggle about the price.

Let’s look at the Chartier and Johnson (eds.) volume (PDF) that is the occasion for this symposium: Markets Not Capitalism: individualist anarchism against bosses, inequality, corporate power, and structural poverty. In “Socialist Ends, Market Means”, Gary Chartier argues that libertarianism is—can be, ought to be—socialism. (He admits saying so will probably cause more terminological trouble than it’s worth. So fine. Don’t call it that. No one is going to force you.)

There is good reason to use “socialism” to mean, at minimum, something like opposition to:

1. bossism (that is, subordinative workplace hierarchy); and

2. deprivation (that is, persistent, exclusionary poverty, whether resulting from state-capitalist depredation, private theft, disaster, accident, or other factors.

“Socialism” in this sense is the genus; “state-socialism” is the (much-to-be-lamented) species. (150)

Chartier’s title ought to be “Autonomous Ends, Socialist Means, Market Means To Those Means”. Libertarianism is commitment to maximizing (optimizing) the human supply of freedom (as autonomy), hitched to the hypothesis that socialism (in the generic sense) is the most likely way to do this, atop the hypothesis that market means (negative liberties all around) are the royal road to the true (generic) socialism (that is the royal road to true freedom.)

The social relationships that market anarchists explicitly defend, and hope to free from all forms of government control, are relationships based on:

1.ownership of property, especially decentralized individual ownership, not only of personal possessions but also of land, homes, natural resources, tools, and capital goods;

2. contract and voluntary exchange of goods and services, by individuals or groups, on the expectation of mutual benefit;

3. free competition among all buyers and sellers – in price, quality, and all other aspects of exchange – without ex ante restraints or burdensome barriers to entry;

4. entrepreneurial discovery, undertaken not only to compete in existing markets but also in order to discover and develop new opportunities for economic or social benefit; and

5. spontaneous order, recognized as a significant and positive coordinating force—in which decentralized negotiations, exchanges, and entrepreneurship converge to produce large-scale coordination without, or beyond the capacity of, any deliberate plans or explicit common blueprints for social or economic development. (Chartier, Johnson, 2)

Libertarianism, on this view, is an alloy of ‘high liberal’ ideals and social theory—really social prophecy. As such, it is more or less falsifiable. Libertarianism could turn out to be wrong about generic socialism being the social form most conducive to an optimized autonomy supply. It might be wrong about market anarchism being the best way to bring about generic socialism. If it turns out that state socialism, or actually existing laissez faire capitalism, or neo-feudalism, or Leninism, or Burkean conservatism, or ‘Nudge’-style paternalism administered by alien ant overlords, or expanded Obamacare, or giving everyone $1 at birth, would, in the event, optimize the effective autonomy supply, then the libertarian is philosophy-bound to run with the best plan.

Conversely, all high liberals ought to admit that if these libertarians are right—if generic socialism makes liberty, if markets make generic socialism—that’s the way to go. Probably. Fair enough.

Of course there’s more that is plausibly distinctive about libertarianism, over and against competing versions of high liberalism. Example: the main reason Tomasi is inclined to build in certain economic rights as basic, whereas Anderson is not, is that Anderson suspects Tomasi’s ‘market democracy’ will backfire in ways Tomasi is confident it won’t. Tomasi thinks Anderson’s evident preference for a mixed market approach is likely to backfire in ways Anderson thinks it won’t. So the dispute is, inevitably, an attempt to argue about means and ends simultaneously. It’s messy, but it can’t go more cleanly.

So let’s hope it goes civilly.

Having done my diplomatic best, let me piss it away. A touch of the paranoid style, if you please, to corrode that high theory gloss! I see it as my sad but scrupulous duty to drag libertarianism through the mud of hermeneutic suspiciousness.

In the Preface to Anarchy, State and Utopia, Robert Nozick reflects on what it’s like to be Robert Nozick—for it is an unusual thing to be. At first he reveled in the contrarianism of it. Then, after a while, he grew out of that, into the plain old philosophy of the thing. He was a libertarian!

Over time, I have grown accustomed to the views and their consequences, and I now see the political realm through them. (Should I say that they enable me to see through the political realm?) Since many of the people who take a similar position are narrow and rigid, and filled, paradoxically, with resentment at other freer ways of being, my now having natural responses which fit the theory puts me in some bad company. (Anarchy, State and Utopia)

Nozick loves paradoxes. Let’s call this one Nozick’s Paradox of Presumptive Paranoia. Why do people become libertarians? They hate freedom, that’s why! (It’s not a sure bet, but as good as any.)

It’s not that libertarianism is mean. It’s that the mean libertarian—and the average and modal libertarian, by my rough, back-of-the-envelope calculation—is wobbly about that liberty business.

What was Nozick thinking? Specifically? No idea. Barry Goldwater winning in the South? Murray Rothbard grumping about Women’s Lib? But, in general, it goes like this. In America you can’t be against freedom. It would be indecent. Nevertheless, lots of people have been—and continue to be—uncomfortable about, or hostile to, effective autonomy for members of groups they feel uncomfortable with, or hostile to, or over which they have traditionally exercised power: blacks, women, the poor, homosexuals, people with strange religions or eccentric lifestyles. Since libertarianism is officially in favor of autonomy for people, and these are people, libertarianism ought to be ‘mood affiliated’, at least, with the goal of autonomy for all groups that, plausibly, have lacked it to some significant degree. In fact, the opposite has all-too-typically been the case. Partly this is due to principled opposition to leftist means, which are regarded as perversely statist. But largely it seems due to the fact that, if you want to keep some group down, libertarian market means might be the ticket. No, it’s not a guaranteed solution to your other-people-getting-free problem. But it’s worth a shot! Social Jim Crow (an extreme example, but the dynamics of the model generalize. ‘Vulgar libertarianism’ is the term some contributors to the Chartier , Johnson volume use for crypto-bossism, I guess you could call it.) Market means permit what J.S. Mill calls ‘the tyranny of society’. So you get to be anti-freedom while calling it ‘freedom’. You fulminate against what J.S. Mill calls ‘the tyranny of the magistrate’!

I am sorry to have to say it, but my considered opinion is that libertarianism is, in the psychic life of US society and culture and politics, at least as often a confabulatory reflex against freedom as it is an impulse on its behalf. A ready-made way to betray the ideal of freedom while pretending to uphold it to a heroic degree.

Roderick Long writes: “I find it preferable to talk of vulgar libertarianism rather than of vulgar libertarians, because very few libertarians are consistently vulgar” (208). I prefer it the other way round, because there is no interesting vulgar libertarian theory, so in the seminar room you can skip to the good stuff. But very many libertarians are consistently semi-vulgar. (No libertarian hates all our freedoms all of the time. But some libertarians hate some of them all the time. And all of them are hated by some libertarian some of the time. And no libertarian likes to admit hating any of them any of the time. So it’s a problem. I see that it says ‘bleeding hearts’ at the top of the page. I’m not saying all that is just ketchup and corn syrup. I’m just saying.)

Libertarian theory is a charming mix of wild-eyed utopianism and hard-nosed realism; but, while the eyes roll every which way, including back into the head, the hard-noses, as hard-noses will, point outwards—at liberals, for example, with their naïve notions about how the apparatus of the state can be wielded on behalf of the powerless. Plainly, the powerful—who, as liberals really ought to have noticed, have the power—will grab those handles and work them for all they are worth. Fair enough. But libertarianism, too, was born to be a Trojan Horse.

Let’s end on another Narvesonian note:

Libertarianism is one kind of liberalism. It is interesting that it is often thought of as a kind of conservatism, as when libertarian defenders of private property are contemptuously referred to as “right-wing” by leftish writers, as though to defend private property in the name of liberty were exactly on all fours with defending genuinely right-wing military dictatorships. The assimilation in question might be understandable in journalists or cracker-barrel pundits, but to find professional philosophers doing so is inexcusable. (2)

No. It is, in fact, inexcusable to find professional philosophers not doing this. You can’t even put the pure theory on one shelf, the hermeneutically suspicious stuff on another. They have to mix. (This causes hurt feelings. Then the seminar discussion goes worse. I’m sorry about that. There’s nothing to be done.)

If you are interested in political philosophy, you are interested in the best versions of liberalism, conservatism, libertarianism (communism, feudalism, so forth.) You want to know what to believe in, ideally. But, unless you are a very strange person, you also interested in what liberalism, conservatism, libertarianism, so forth, are, in actual and potential political practice. You want to know who to believe in, actually. Who are these people? And that feeds back into your ideal theory.

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The Conflation Trap http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2012/11/the-conflation-trap/ http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2012/11/the-conflation-trap/#comments Wed, 07 Nov 2012 14:00:12 +0000 http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/?p=4398 [Editors Note: This essay is part of BHL’s Symposium on Left-Libertarianism. Click on the link to see the other essays.] Left-libertarians differ from the (current) libertarian mainstream both in terms of...

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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 differ from the (current) libertarian mainstream both in terms of what outcomes they regard as desirable, and in terms of what outcomes they think a freed market is likely to produce.

With regard to the latter issue, left-libertarians regard the current domination of the economic landscape by large hierarchical firms as the product not of free competition but of government intervention – including not only direct subsidies, grants of monopoly privilege, and barriers to entry, but also a regulatory framework that enables firms to socialise the scale costs associated with growth and the informational costs associated with hierarchy, while pocketing the benefits – and leaving employees and consumers with a straitened range of options. In the absence of government intervention, we maintain, firms could be expected to be smaller, flatter, and more numerous, with greater worker empowerment.

Thus we tend to wince when libertarians (or many of them, to varying degrees) rush to the defense of elite corporations and prevailing business models and practices as though these were free-market phenomena. First, we think this is factually inaccurate; and second, we think it’s strategically suicidal. Ordinary people generally know firsthand the petty tyranny and bureaucratic incompetence that all too often characterise the world of business; libertarians who try to glamourise that world as an arena of economic rationality and managerial heroism risk coming across as clueless at best, and shills for the ruling class at worse.

This is also why we tend to be less than enthusiastic about the word “capitalism” as the term for free-market society; as Friedrich Hayek notes, the term is“misleading,” since it “suggests a system which mainly benefits the capitalists,” whereas a genuine free market is “a system which imposes upon enterprise a discipline under which the managers chafe and which each endeavours to escape.” (Law, Legislation, and Liberty, vol.1, p. 62.)

But it is not only mainstream libertarians (and of course, to a far greater extent, conservatives) that tend to conflate the results of crony corporatism with those of free markets; such conflationism is all too common on the traditional left as well. The difference is that the evaluations are reversed; where the right-wing version of conflationism treats the virtues of free markets as reason to defend the fruits of corporatism , the left-wing version of conflationism treats the objectionable fruits of corporatism as reason to condemn free markets.

Central to both forms of conflationism is the myth that big business and big government are fundamentally at odds. As is often the case, the myth sustains itself by containing a kernel of truth; while big business and big government are partners, each serving to prop up the other, each side would like to be the dominant partner (as with church and state in the Middle Ages, or Dooku and Palpatine in the Star Wars prequels), so much – though not, I think, most – of the conflict between them is genuine. But we should not allow these squabbles between different wings of the ruling class, essentially over how to divide up the loot, to obscure the far greater extent to which the political elite and the corporate elite work together. Conservative politicians, largely agents of the corporate wing, wrap their policies in anti-big-government rhetoric, while liberal politicians, largely agents of the political wing, wrap their policies in anti-big-business rhetoric; the differences in policy often involve nudging the balance of power slightly in one direction or the other (will healthcare be mainly controlled by government directly, or instead by the private beneficiaries of government-granted privilege like insurance companies and the AMA?), but both wings systematically benefit from most of the policies propounded by each side. FDR’s presidency, for example, with its cartelising policies, gave a massive boost to corporate power, while the three chief indices of state power – taxes, spending, and debt – all skyrocketed under Reagan’s presidency.

But conflationism isn’t just a mistake about the prevailing system; it’s also a means by which that system perpetuates itself. People who are attracted to the idea of free markets are hoodwinked by conflationism into supporting big business, and thus becoming foot soldiers of the corporate wing of the ruling class; people who are repelled by the reality of corporatism on the ground are hoodwinked into supporting big government, and thus becoming foot soldiers of the political wing of the ruling class. Thus, thanks to the pincer-movement of right-conflationism and left-conflationism, those who seek to oppose the prevailing system end up in the ranks of its supporters – and the possibility of a radical challenge to the system as a whole is rendered effectively invisible. This is how conflationism functions.

My talk of “functioning” is not meant to imply that conflationism is deliberately propagated in order to divert potential enemies of the system into the ranks of its supporters (though of course it sometimes is).

In a broader sense, whenever some feature A of a system B tends reliably to produce a certain result C, and A’s being such as to produce C helps to explain the existence and/or persistence of B, and thereby of A, then we may say that the function of A is to produce C. Thus the fact that thorns tend to protect roses from being eaten explains why roses, with their thorns, exist and persist. It’s in that sense that I say that the function of conflationism within the prevailing state/corporate system is to bewilder its foes into becoming supporters, and to render alternatives invisible. Conflationism is an instance of malign spontaneous order.

Philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn describes an intriguing experiment:

Bruner and Postman asked experimental subjects to identify on short and controlled exposure a series of playing cards. Many of the cards were normal, but some were made anomalous, e.g., a red six of spades and a black four of hearts. … For the normal cards these identifications were usually correct, but the anomalous cards were almost always identified, without apparent hesitation or puzzlement, as normal. The black four of hearts might, for example, be identified as the four of either spades or hearts. Without any awareness of trouble, it was immediately fitted to one of the conceptual categories prepared by prior experience. … With a further increase of exposure to the anomalous cards, subjects did begin to hesitate and to display awareness of anomaly. Exposed, for example to the red six of spades, some would say: That’s the six of spades, but there’s something wrong with it – the black has a red border. … A few subjects … were never able to make the requisite adjustment of their categories. (Structure of Scientific Revolutions, pp. 62-63)

In short, people tend to have not only difficulty with, but even aversion to, recognising something that doesn’t fit their established categories. This creates a problem for libertarians generally; for many in the political mainstream, the first impulse is to assimilate libertarians to a more familiar “anti-government” category, namely conservatives. When, after longer exposure, mainstreamers realise that libertarians aren’t quite conservatives after all, then they begin to see libertarians as the equivalent of “black spades with red borders” – conventionally conservative on some issues, conventionally liberal on others, rather than representing a radical alternative to existing ideologies. (Libertarians’ use of the Nolan Chart as an outreach tool may contribute to this tendency.)

What holds true for libertarians generally, holds to a still greater extent in the case of left-libertarians. The prevalence of conflationism tends to reinforce the impression that anyone who attacks (what we consider) the fruits of corporatism must be anti-free-market, and that anyone who defends free markets must be undertaking a defense of (what we consider) the fruits of corporatism. Thus nonlibertarian leftists tend to see us as corporate apologists in leftist camouflage, while nonleftist libertarians tend to see us as commies in libertarian guise.

Even when mainstream libertarians acknowledge the existence (and badness) of corporatism, as most do, communication with left-libertarians still tends to come to grief. Left-libertarians are baffled when mainstream libertarians acknowledge cronyism in one breath, only to slide back in the next breath to into treating criticisms of big business as criticisms of free markets. More mainstream libertarians, for their part, are baffled as to why left-libertarians keep raising the issue of corporatism when the mainstream libertarians have already acknowledged its existence and badness.

Kuhn is helpful here too:

Since remote antiquity most people have seen one or another heavy body swinging back and forth on a string or chain until it finally comes to rest. To the Aristotelians, who believed that a heavy body is moved by its own nature from a higher position to a state of natural rest at a lower one, the swinging body was simply falling with difficulty. Constrained by the chain, it could achieve rest at its low point only after a tortuous motion and a considerable time. Galileo, on the other hand, looking at the swinging body, saw a pendulum, a body that almost succeeded in repeating the same motion over and over again ad infinitum. … [W]hen Aristotle and Galileo looked at swinging stones, the first saw constrained fall, the second a pendulum …. (Ibid., pp. 118-121)

Aristotle and Galileo were observing the same two facts: the stone keeps swinging back and forth for a while, and then it eventually hangs straight down. But for Galileo the swinging was essential and the eventual cessation accidental, a “friction” phenomenon; whereas for Aristotle, progress toward a state of rest was, and the sideways perturbations accidental.

Likewise, for those operating within a conceptual framework that sees conservative opposition to big government and liberal opposition to big business as essential and deviations from these norms as accidental, evidence that conservative policies promote big government or that liberal policies promote will be dismissed as inessential or anomalous or an excusable. (See, for example, this video in which Obama supporters condemn right-wing-sounding policies when they think they’re Romney’s, but either excuse them or go into denial when told that the policies are actually Obama’s.)

Similarly, for many mainstream libertarians, free exchange is what essentially characterises the existing economy, while the corporatist policies are so much friction; and just as there’s no need for constant references to friction when talking about how a mechanism works, such mainstream libertarians don’t constantly bring up corporatism when discussing the working of the existing economy. For left-libertarians, by contrast, corporatism is a far more central feature of the existing economy, and leaving it out radically distorts our understanding. In such cases left-libertarians and more conventional libertarians are arguing from opposite sides of a Gestalt shift, where what looks essential to one side looks accidental to the other.

I don’t mean to suggest that these disputes are rationally irresoluble, however. In the playing-card experiments, subjects did eventually come to see the suits correctly after sufficiently long exposure. And sufficient exposure to the evidence marshaled by left-libertarians can prompt the relevant Gestalt shift, as indeed it frequently does; most left-libertarians once started out either less leftist or less libertarian or both. But the prevailing conceptual framework, through which so many (both libertarian and not) look at the economy without seeing what we see, is, I think, no accident; it’s part of the means by which the big-government/big-business partnership maintains itself.

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The Distinctiveness of Left-Libertarianism http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2012/11/the-distinctiveness-of-left-libertarianism/ http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2012/11/the-distinctiveness-of-left-libertarianism/#comments Mon, 05 Nov 2012 14:00:23 +0000 http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/?p=4044 [Editors Note: This essay is part of BHL’s Symposium on Left-Libertarianism. Click on the link to see the other essays.] Left-libertarianism in the relevant sense is a position that is simultaneously...

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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-libertarianism in the relevant sense is a position that is simultaneously leftist and libertarian. It features leftist commitments to:

  • engaging in class analysis and class struggle;
  • opposing corporate privilege;
  • undermining structural poverty
  • embracing shared responsibility for challenging economic vulnerability;
  • affirming wealth redistribution;
  • supporting grass-roots empowerment;
  • humanizing worklife;
  • protecting civil liberties;
  • opposing the drug war;
  • supporting the rights of sex workers;
  • challenging police violence;
  • promoting environmental well-being and animal welfare;
  • fostering children’s liberation;
  • rejecting racism, sexism, heterosexism, nativism, and national chauvinism; and
  • resisting war, imperialism and colonialism.

Simultaneously, it features libertarian commitments to:

A Leftist Position

 A leftist position is marked, I suggest, by concern with subordination, exclusion, deprivation, and war. Left-libertarians whole-heartedly embrace these leftist concerns. But left-libertarians may differ from other leftists insofar as they:

  • affirm the independent value of robust protections for just possessory claims—as, among other things, an expression of and a means of implementing the leftist opposition to subordination and leftist support for widely shared prosperity, but also as constraints on the means used to pursue some leftist goals;
  • make different predictions about establishing a genuinely freed market (rejecting the view that such a market would be a corporate playground);
  • offer different explanations of the origins and persistence of objectionable social phenomena (so that, for instance, state-secured privileges for elites, rather than market dynamics, account for persistent poverty and workplace subordination); and
  • urge different remedies for these phenomena (characteristically, a combination of remedying state-perpetrated and state-tolerated injustice, and fostering voluntary, solidaristic action).

Left-libertarians share with other leftists the awareness that there are predictable winners and losers in society and that being sorted into the two camps isn’t primarily a matter of luck or skill. But left-libertarians emphasize that it’s not a consequence of market exchange, either: it’s a reflection of state-committed, state-threatened, and state-tolerated aggression. As long as there’s a state apparatus in place, the wealthy can capture it, using it to gain power and more wealth, while the politically powerful can use it to acquire wealth and more power. The ruling class—made up of wealthy people empowered by the state, together with high-level state functionaries—is defined by its relationship with the state, its essential enabler. Opposing this class thus means opposing the state.

Left-libertarians share with other leftists the recognition that big businesses enjoy substantial privileges that benefit them while harming the public. But they stress that the proper response to corporate privilege is to eliminate subsidies, bailouts, cartelizing regulations, and other state-driven features of the legal, political, and economic environments that prop up corporate power rather than retaining the privileges while increasing state regulatory involvement in the economy—which can be expected to create new opportunities for elite manipulation, leave corporate power intact, stifle upstart alternatives to corporate behemoths, and impoverish the public.

Left-libertarians share with other leftists both outrage at structural poverty and the recognition that the wealthy and well connected help to shape the rules of the economic and political game in ways that preserve their wealth and influence while making and keeping others poor. But left-libertarians emphasize that poverty isn’t created or perpetuated by the freed market, but rather by large-scale theft and by the privileges and constraints—from licensing requirements to intellectual property rules to land-use controls to building codes—that prevent people from using their skills and assets effectively or dramatically raise the cost of doing so. Eliminating structural poverty means eliminating state-secured privilege and reversing state-sanctioned theft.

Left-libertarians share with other leftists both compassionate concern with economic vulnerability and the recognition that vulnerable people can’t be left to fend for themselves, that shared responsibility for meeting their needs is morally and practically essential. But they stress that mutual aid arrangements have dealt successfully with economic vulnerability. They also emphasize that such arrangements could be expected to be more successful absent taxation (people can and will spend their own money on poverty relief, but they’re likely to do so much more efficiently and intelligently than state officials deploying tax revenues), poverty-producing state regulations, and limitations on choice in areas like medical care.

Left-libertarians share with other leftists the conviction that the redistribution of wealth can be appropriate or even required. But they deny that redistribution may reasonably be undertaken to bring about a particular pattern of wealth distribution, that it may be effected through aggressive interference with people’s justly acquired possessions, or that it is properly the work of the state. Rather, they suggest, redistribution ought to be effected by the legal system (as it restores to people resources unjustly taken from them or their predecessors in interest, as it makes assets stolen by the state or acquired unjustly by its cronies available for homesteading, and as it denies validity to state-secured privileges that preserve the economic positions of the well-connected while keeping others poor), through solidaristic mutual aid, and through the tendency of a market liberated from privilege to “eat the rich.”

Left-libertarians share with many other leftists—New Leftists and Greens, say—the conviction that decision-making should be decentralized, that people should be able to participate to the maximum feasible degree in shaping decisions that affect their lives. But they maintain that this means that, against a backdrop of secure pre-political rights, all association should be consensual. Top-down, forcible decision-making is likely to be marred by the fallibility of decision-makers and their tendency to pursue self-interested goals at the public’s expense. Small-scale political units are more humanizing than large-scale ones; but decentralization must finally be decentralization to the level of the particular person.

Left-libertarians share with other leftists the realization that hierarchical workplaces are disempowering and stultifying, and that supporting workplace hierarchies is thus often morally objectionable. But they stress that hierarchical workplaces are more likely given state action. Hierarchies limit the ability of workers to use their knowledge and skills to respond flexibly and efficiently to production and distribution challenges and to meet customer needs. The inefficiencies of hierarchies would make them less common aspects of worklife, and increase the odds that people would be able to choose alternatives offering more freedom and dignity (self-employment or work in partnerships or cooperatives), in the absence of privileges that lowered the costs of maintaining hierarchies and raised the costs of opting out of them (as by making self-employment more costly, and so more risky). State action also redirects wealth to those interested in seeing that they and people like them rule the workplace; and the state’s union regulations limit the ways unions can challenge workplace hierarchies.

Left-libertarians share with other leftists a commitment to civil liberties. But they stress that the state is a predictable foe of these liberties and that the most effective way to safeguard them is to protect people’s control over their bodies and justly acquired possessions.

Left-libertarians share with other leftists a conviction that the drug war is destructive, racist, and absurdly expensive. But they emphasize that the best protection against prohibitionist campaigns of all sorts is to respect people’s control over their bodies and justly acquired possessions, and that aggression-based limits on all disfavored but voluntary exchanges should be disallowed.

Left-libertarians share with other leftists a concern for the well-being of sex workers. But they note that state actors engage in violence against sex workers and that state policies, including criminalization and regulation, create or intensify the risks associated with sex work.

Left-libertarians share with other leftists a passionate opposition to police violence and corruption. But they emphasize that this is not simply a reflection of poor oversight or the presence in police agencies of “a few bad apples” but instead a reflection of the structural positions of such agencies as guarantors of state power and of the lack of accountability created both by the existence of substantial de facto differences in standards for the use of force by police officers and others and by the monopolistic status of police agencies.

Left-libertarians share with other leftists persistent concerns with environmental quality and animal welfare. But they stress that environmental harms can be prevented and remedied without state involvement, as long as robust legal protections for bodies and justly acquired possessions are in place; that state action is not required to protect non-human animals from abuse; and that state actions and policies are often directly responsible for protecting polluters, promoting environmental harms, and injuring non-human animals.

Left-libertarians share with other leftists a commitment to the well-being of children. But left-libertarians underscore the importance of respecting children’s rights to control their own bodies and possessions—rejecting both attempts to treat children as their parents’ property and paternalistic state action that interferes unreasonably with children’s freedom—and emphasize the degree to which the state is not the protector of children but is responsible in multiple ways for significant threats to their freedom and well-being, notably through compulsory schooling.

Left-libertarians share with other leftists the awareness that racism, sexism, heterosexism, nativism, and national chauvinism are morally repugnant. But they emphasize the crucial role of the state in creating, perpetuating, and capitalizing on these forms of unfairness while stressing that eliminating the props the state provides for prejudice-driven conduct can play a vital role in combating discrimination. Suspicious of the state and respectful of just possessory claims, they stress non-aggressive solidaristic action as the appropriate means of dealing with persistent discrimination. They promote marriage equality while seeking the departure of the state from the marriage business. And, while joining other leftists in opposing xenophobia, they stress that all borders should be razed to enable untrammeled migration.

Left-libertarians share with other leftists a passionate opposition to war and empire and a concern for the victims of both, including native peoples across the globe. But they emphasize the links between warfare, imperialism, and colonialism and the state’s continuing infringements on civil and economic liberties—not to mention ruling-class mischief. Interference with people’s peaceful conduct within the state’s borders is objectionable for many of the same reasons as war beyond the state’s borders. As a form of enslavement, conscription is unjust. The freedom to trade tends to reduce the probability of war. And warfare is a likely consequence of the operation of the state, which seeks predictably to expand its influence by force. Leftist opposition to war should be seen as entailing opposition to the state per se.

A Libertarian Position

A libertarian position is marked, I suggest, by support for equality of authority; for robust protections for just possessory claims; and for peaceful, voluntary cooperation, including cooperation in and through exchange. Left-libertarians share these commitments. But left-libertarians may differ from other libertarians insofar as they:

  • make different predictions about the likely effects of liberating people and eliminating the institutionalized aggression that prevents them from cooperating peacefully and voluntarily (stressing the contingency of hierarchical workplaces, for instance);
  • call attention to particular generally accepted consequences of building a free society (say, by emphasizing not only freedom but also solidarity, diversity, and poverty relief as among the outcomes of eliminating state-secured privilege);
  • tell different historical or social-scientific stories about the causes and dynamics of social phenomena (so that the extant distribution of wealth is seen as a product of state action rather than individual virtue); and
  • treat certain kinds of social phenomena (arbitrary discrimination, for instance) as morally objectionable and argue for non-aggressive but concerted responses to these phenomena.

Left-libertarians share with other libertarians a commitment to equality of authority—to the view that there is no natural right to rule and that non-consensual authority is presumptively illegitimate. This egalitarianism naturally issues in a commitment to anarchism, since state authority is non-consensual. But left-libertarians emphasize that the commitment to moral equality that underlies belief in equality of authority should entail the rejection of subordination and exclusion on the basis of nationality, gender, race, sexual orientation, workplace status, or other irrelevant characteristics. While left-libertarians agree with other libertarians that people’s decisions to avoid associating with others because of such characteristics shouldn’t be interfered with aggressively, left-libertarians emphasize that such decisions can often still be subjected to moral critique and should be opposed using non-aggressive means.

Left-libertarians share with other libertarians a commitment to robust protections for just possessory claims to physical objects. But they reject “intellectual property” and emphasize that possessory protections shouldn’t cover objects acquired with the decisive aid of the state, or otherwise through the use of violence, or to those clearly abandoned. They make clear that there are just limits to the things people can do to protect their possessions (becoming a trespasser doesn’t automatically make one liable to violence). They note that whether claims to land should be held by individuals or groups can only be determined in light of the economics of particular situations and the ways particular claims are established. And they stress that, while just possessory claims should be respected, it’s quite possible to oppose aggressive interference with someone’s use of her possessions in a given way while challenging that use non-aggressively.

Left-libertarians share with other libertarians a commitment to a model of social life rooted in peaceful, voluntary cooperation. But they differ with other libertarians in emphasizing that, while force may justly be used only in response to aggression, peaceful, voluntary cooperation is a moral ideal with implications that go beyond simple non-aggression. Left-libertarians urge that associations of all kinds be structured in ways that affirm the freedom, dignity, and individuality of all participants, and thus allow participants the option not only of exit but also of voice—of influencing the associations’ trajectories and exercising as much individual discretion within them as possible.

While rejecting capitalism, left-libertarians share with other libertarians an enthusiastic recognition of the value of markets. They stress that both parties to a voluntary exchange participate because they prefer it and believe it will benefit them; that prices provide excellent guides for producers and distributors (far better than anything a central planner could offer); and that people should internalize the costs as well as the benefits of their choices. But they emphasize that background injustice can distort markets and constrain traders’ options. They also note that commercial exchange does not exhaust the sphere of peaceful, voluntary cooperation and that people can and should cooperate in multiple ways—playful, solidaristic, compassionate—that need not be organized along commercial lines.

A Transformed Vision

Left-libertarianism embraces and transforms leftist and libertarian ideals.

Many leftists and libertarians already share some commitments: opposition to war, empire, and corporate privilege; support for civil liberties and grass-roots empowerment. However, many leftists and libertarians also embrace, and often share, various mistaken assumptions.

Left-libertarians challenge these assumptions while embracing the commitments leftists and libertarians share. They seek to demonstrate that it’s reasonable both to oppose structural poverty and to favor freed markets, to seek both workplace dignity and robust protections for just possessory claims, to embrace freedom of association while opposing arbitrary discrimination, to foster both peace and economic liberty, to link rejection of war and imperialism with support for peaceful, voluntary cooperation at all levels.

By endorsing leftist and libertarian concerns and challenging assumptions that make it difficult for leftists to embrace libertarianism and for libertarians to become leftists, left-libertarianism offers a provocative vision of an appealing politics and a world marked by greater freedom and fairness.

Thanks to my colleagues in the Alliance of the Libertarian Left/Center for a Stateless Society/Molinari Society, to Anthony Gregory, and to David Gordon, among others, for reviewing earlier versions of this essay. It is markedly better in virtue of the feedback I have received, though I, of course, remain responsible for its flaws.

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