Comments Elsewhere: comments tagged Left-Libertarianism

Re: The Central Committe Has Handed Down Its Denunciation

Bill: If it’s “oppression”, then the voluntary arrangement fundamentally implies an injustice, a victimization, and, yes, an aggression …

“Hey, if I re-interpret your statements about oppressive social relationships according my definition of ‘oppression’ in terms of aggression, which you just explicitly rejected, then you end up with an inconsistent position.” Well, yes … yes, I guess you would.

Bill: If it’s okay to engage in directing social opprobrium at people engaged in voluntary behavior you find objectionable, why would it be wrong to impose a tax on them? …

Because “social opprobrium” is a voluntary process involving non-violent social relationships, without the use of legal sanction or physical force against your person or your property. Taxes, fines and jail obviously are not.

Social reputation, social tolerance and social approval are the products of other people’s opinions and choices; but while you own your possessions, and your body, you don’t own other people’s opinions of you. if they choose to cast opprobrium on you for non-violent but oppressive behavior, then they are within their rights on most any minimally libertarian theory.

Of course, it might be that in a particular instance they are acting wrongly, even if they are not acting aggressively — people can use social opprobrium to harass and to bully and to dominate and to exploit the vulnerable even though they are not violating anyone’s rights to person and property. Certainly anyone who advocates the particular “thick” conception of libertarianism that I am defending would agree with you there. But then in order for you to help yourself to the claim that there is something wrong with this kind of misdirected social opprobrium, you must accept the claim that people can act oppressively towards each other without acting aggressively. Which is precisely the claim you were trying to deny.

(My own view, on the contrary, allows for a fairly simple understanding of what’s going on: social opprobrium is not force; it is a social process which can be used either rightly or wrongly; but when social opprobrium is used abusively, oppressively, or in some other way wrongly, then the way to deal with that is to respond to it in kind — with solidarity and social activism of your own, but used rightly and supportively. The reason you shouldn’t use taxes, fines or jail is because physical force is only justified by defense of person and property, and what you’re combating here, while abusive, is not a violation of your rights to person or property.)

Re: The Central Committee Has Handed Down Its Denunciation

Bill: That means that they view these voluntary choices of others as oppression.

That’s correct, the thick conception of libertarianism they (I) defend includes an explicit claim that voluntary social interactions can be oppressive without ceasing to be voluntary. I don’t see this as a problem for the view. I see it as the point of the view.

Bill: Unless they assume some massive amount of masochism on the part of those they’re claiming are oppressed, they’ve given themselves veto power over legitimacy of the voluntary interactions of those who don’t adopt similar attitudes …

I don’t know what kind of “veto power” you have in mind. If you think that a position against non-aggressive forms of oppression involves some tendency to individually disapprove of, or, say, to non-violently socially stigmatize, at least some behaviors, interactions or relationships which are admittedly voluntary (in the sense of being acted out through strictly non-aggressive means), then of course you are right about that. But is that “veto power” in any meaningful sense of the term? Certainly not in any meaning of the term that involves an exercise of aggressive power. Again, the point of the view, as stated by those who advance it, is to provide some considerations in favor of addressing non-violent social problems through non-violent social means. (Rather than, say, holding that there just are no non-violent social problems, by definition.) If, on the other hand, you think that calling X “oppressive” means assuming “veto power” over X in the sense of legitimating the use of political force to repress X, then, again, that is what the people in question (me included) explicitly deny, and have denied all along. (See for example this discussion of “the authoritarian theory of politics.”)

Given that we have explicitly called for the use of non-violent social activism and cultural change instead of any use of political force to address the oppressive-but-non-aggressive dynamics that we’ve discussed, any charge that what we’re proposing must ultimately logically lead to criminalizing those dynamics seems to be completely unfounded in what we’ve argued. Of course, you might hold that social stigma, cultural politics, etc. can all be problems even if they are not leading into political force — you might hold that the attitudes we take are, say, narrow-minded, or intolerant, or busybodying. And I don’t agree that they are, but you might have an argument for that. (Certainly I don’t think that “social stigma,” say, is something harmless when misused, even though it may be non-aggressive.) But then of course you too are advocating a thick conception of libertarianism — just one which connects libertarianism, say, with a very broad norm of social tolerance, and which exercises a great deal of skepticism towards any sort of social pressure or conscious non-violent activism, rather than with the sort of anti-oppression activism that I have tended to promote. And the argument is not going to be an argument about whether libertarianism should be conceived thinly (as a demand strictly independent of other social or individual norms) or thickly (as integrated with other, interlocking commitments) — it will just be an argument about what other commitments a thick conception of libertarianism ought to be integrated with.

The Bold and the Desirable: A Prophecy and a Proposal

[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.

Re: Marxism: Not such a nice idea after all

Mike P.:

Of course any individual can strike on their own. But for a labor union to do so every individual would have to voluntarily agree to be a member of that union and every single other person on earth would have to voluntarily agree to not cross the picket line and work for the company at union busting rates.

Come on; this is silly. In a shopfloor strike, labor unions do not need universal participation to get the job done; they just need enough participation that it is more costly for the boss to replace all the striking workers and try to carry on with business (in spite of pickets, boycotts, etc.) than it is to come to terms with the union. Now, it may be the case that everyone in a shopfloor does agree to join the union (there’s no reason why this would be impossible; organizations of tens or hundreds of members can be formed voluntarily). But if not you don’t need everyone. You just need enough to make it costly and difficult on the margin for the boss to keep on going as before.

Perhaps you think that the transaction costs of replacing a striking shop are neglible, but I don’t think history bears you out on this. (See, for example, the victory in the Lawrence Textile Strike of 1912, which was won more than 20 years before the NLRB existed; the Delano grape strike in 1965, which the UFW won without NLRB assistance, as farmworkers aren’t eligible for NLRB recognition; and a lot of much less famous, much smaller-scale actions.)

In any case, I’m not sure why you think the only tactic available to a voluntarily organized union is a shopfloor strike. I already mentioned the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, for example, a union which operates primarily through mutual aid provision at home and secondary boycotts of retail purchasers. Other folks suggest tactics of direct action, “open mouth sabotage” (basically, airing the dirty laundry and rallying public pressure), work-to-rule and other forms of slow-downs, etc. The IWW is especially interested in “minority unionism,” which involves the use of tactics that don’t depend on having a voting majority or NLRB recognition; see Kevin’s “Ethics of Labor Struggle” for some general discussion of all these issues.

The primary victim of labor unions is other workers, not capitalists.

Look, I think this is false, and we could dick around about why. (*) But suppose I granted that this were true: that labor unions gain what they gain at the expense of non-unionized workers. Well, so what? Do you think that an association of workers needs to feel obliged to go out of its way to improve the wages and conditions of workers who aren’t members of the association? If so, do you also expect Ford to build cars for GM?

I see that you have an advertisement for the IWW on your site.

Well, it’s not an “advertisement.” It’s a union bug. It’s there because I’m a member of the union.

That’s nice. the IWW absolutely does resort to legal threats and threats of force from the state as we can see just by looking at their site.

Some locals do this. Others do not (either because they cannot, or because they considered it and decided not to.) I certainly do not agree with the use of legal threats and NLRB actions in, e.g., the recent Jimmy Johns campaign or the occasional use of it in the Starbucks campaign. I think it sucks, and that it’s contrary to the historical spirit and principles of the union, and I tell my FWs so when it comes up. I’ve also worked for employers that I thought were doing things that were wrong (including accepting state money, state privileges, etc.). As for the union, this is hardly the only way the IWW operates. In fact, it’s pretty rarely how the IWW operates (I know, because as a member of the union I get pretty frequent reports and action alerts). What’s rather more common is to do things like this or that or this.

So the IWW could not exist without threats of force from the state,

This is nonsense. The IWW was founded in 1905. It existed — and enjoyed something like 100 times the membership it currently enjoys — for three decades without any state backing. In fact, it was rather frequently the victim of massive state violence (from the use of “criminal syndicalism” laws in the early 19-aughts, to the assaults on free speech in Spokane and other Western towns during the period of the free speech fights, to the mass “sedition” show trials, the Palmer Raids, and mass deportations during World War I and the Red Scare). Since the IWW existed for more than 20 years without the backing of state force, I conclude that it can exist without threats of force from the state. As for the threat of NLRB action against retaliatory firings, some IWWs try to use it. It mostly doesn’t work. Walk-outs and phone zaps have generally had a higher success rate at getting workers reinstated.

The IWW is pretty much a joke though. Its not really a union, more of a social club for leftist college kids.

The IWW is certainly much smaller than it used to be, and certainly tiled towards leftist activists. You do know that, prior to the Palmer Raids and the Wagner Act, it was one of the largest unions in the United States, yes? (The primary base of support at the time being among Western miners, loggers and migrant farmworkers, with another significant base of support in the Eastern seaboard textile industries.)

I’m not even sure if they have ever successfully organized a single workplace.

Well, Christ, your ignorance on this is not really my problem, is it? Besides deliberately activist worker co-ops (like, say, Red and Black in Portland), which were “unionized” without any struggle because they were founded by people who were already in or favorable towards the union, there are also IWW “job shops” organized in a number of US cities. For examples, check the directory for the San Francisco Bay Area. The Starbucks Workers Union backed off of attempts to win NLRB recognition (a move which I applaud), but they have clear majorities at some individual Starbucks locations and they have enough general membership to have won a number of victories (including getting fired organizers reinstated through walk-outs, winning holiday pay increases for all Starbucks employees, etc.).

Of course, the organizing that is done now is nothing like the organizing that was done at the height of the union in the 1900s-1910s, when, to put it rather mildly, they did succeed in organizing a few shops here and there.

(* For one thing, my view is not that union’s long-term goals should be to strike deals with capitalists so as to increase wages or bennies, but rather that workers’ organizations should be moving towards nonviolently replacing capitalists with worker-controlled mutual aid funds, and worker-directed and worker-owned enterprises. For another, I think that hard bargaining under free market conditions serves an informational purpose, which improves economic calculation and thus benefits a lot more than just the unionized workers. Etc.)

Re: Roger Douglas is a Left-Libertarian

Brad,

Thank you for the mention. And for the kind words.

I also have a problem with the “free-market anti-capitalists” assuming that there would be no hierarchical firms in a freed market…

Well, I think the claim is usually not that there will be no “hierarchical firms” in a free market, but rather that firms will be (much) less hierarchical on average, and that hierarchical firms will be (much) less prevalent and (much) less central in the broader economy than they are today under the rigged state-capitalist economy. At least, that’s my view. (Similarly, it’s not that I think a free economy with a rich bed of mutual aid networks and wildcat unions will result in there not being any employer-employee relationships anywhere at all; rather, what I think is that those kind of relationships will no longer be the overwhelmingly predominant means for workers to make a living, and that those workers who do agree to them will be much less dependent on them for their economic survival.)

In any case, these theses aren’t just something that we’re “assuming.” They’re the conclusion of an argument. (Or rather, of several converging lines of argument. Having to do with, e.g., ways in which the state burns out informal-sector alternatives to hierarchical firms, subsidizes hierarchical firms over grassroots alternatives through government-granted monopolies, cartelized captive markets, corporate welfare, “development” policy, etc., privileges politically-connected big landlords, mobilizes tremendous amounts of money to support capital-intensive forms of production, big agribusiness, large-scale resource extraction, and long-distance shipping, etc.) Maybe these arguments don’t go far enough to establish their intended conclusions; but I think that they are at least a pretty substantial line of argument that needs to be engaged with by those who predict business-as-usual to continue, even if with greater competition from the bottom, when the gigantic firms you see running today pretty much all depend very heavily (as in fact they do) on government privileges that would be abolished in a freed market.

Many poor people are pretty much responsible for their own problems insofar as they haven’t made the best of things within the current system.

Well. Everybody makes mistakes. Certainly I’ve made my own, and I have lots of friends who got themselves into all kinds of financial trouble through their own bad decisions. Not least the college-educated kids from well-off families who enter their mid-20s with tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt to repay and no clear plan on how to do it. But I think the interesting thing is how far people have an economic support structure, or available economic opportunities, to cushion the fall and to get back up on your feet after it, once you’ve made your mistakes.

But the situation faced by the economically comfortable, and the situation faced by the poor, in these respects are very different. Things like whether or not you have access to credit, whether or not you have access to alternative housing, what your options are for alternative ways of making a living if your current arrangement falls through, whether or not you are constantly being socked with new expenses that knock you back, whether or not you have access to insurance to cover emergency expenses, etc. And I’d say that in each case, the differences between rich and poor in these respects are in no small part the result of either direct government assaults on poor people’s property rights and alternative survival strategies (as I discuss in “Scratching By”) or else indirect ripple-effects of cartelizing, rigidifying, and subsdizing interventions by the state into the market. Everyone walks a tightrope, and people of all classes fall off from time to time; the real question is whether you’re allowed to work with a net, or whether the government has cut it down and taken it out from under you.

On Anarchy and Big Business

You write: The other problem I have with the Libertarian Free Market is this. I loathe Wal-Mart, Target, Best Buys, MacDonald’s and even Piggly Wiggly. The problem there is corporations result when the market is totally free. With corporations we enjoy… offshore outsourcing of manufacturing. [...] I guess I have trouble with the totally free market, not that I have a better solution. But I’m none too thrilled by the strip malls all looking the same and owned by nameless faceless corporations.

What makes you think that the success of big-box retailers like Wal-Mart, Target or Best Buy is the result of the free market? Certainly they’re prosperous in the market that we have, but as you know, the market that we have is not free.

In particular, big-box retailers like Wal-Mart, Target, and Best Buy benefit massively from — in fact, they probably depend on — government hand-outs for big, centralized corporations in the name of “development” and “economic growth.” For example, in order to build those giant big box stores, they need large, contiguous blocks of land near an interstate highway exit. They often get those large blocks of well-positioned land at artificially low prices because the city government uses eminent domain to seize it, either in the process of building the highway or else as an independent project for “development” purposes. In a freed market, they wouldn’t have that.

Big chains like Wal-Mart, Target, and Best Buy also need big systems of warehouses, cross-country trucking, etc., and for all of that, they need big interstate highways. Which happen to be built, maintained, and subsidized by the government. In a freed market, there would be no government-subsidized highway system, and they’d actually have to pay the full cost of their shipping and distribution networks.

They also typically depend on being able to get very low-cost goods exported from textile mills, plastic factories, etc. overseas, in places like Communist China, Indonesia, Malaysia, and so on. Those goods are often cheap because labor is extremely cheap. But labor is extremely cheap because labor markets in those countries are unfree, because those governments happen to be comfortable with extreme brutality in order to keep small-time farmers and industrial workers poor, subservient, and desperate for any way to get cash. In a freed market, workers overseas would be much better off, much less desperate for cash, much more free to leave abusive or exploitative bosses to find new livelihoods, and generally able to command much higher prices for their labor. As a result, Wal-Mart’s comparative advantage in importing from developing countries would make for much less of a comparative advantage in competing with smaller, local shops — because goods from developing countries would no larger be made artificially cheap by the intervention of violently anti-worker governments.

As Roderick Long has argued (http://www.cato-unbound.org/2008/11/10/roderick-long/corporations-versus-the-market-or-whip-conflation-now/): “In a free market, firms would be smaller and less hierarchical, more local and more numerous (and many would probably be employee-owned); prices would be lower and wages higher; and corporate power would be in shambles. Small wonder that big business, despite often paying lip service to free market ideals, tends to systematically oppose them in practice.”

You write: As an old punk I should be all gung-ho for anarchy but anarchy is what “governs” Iraq.

Oh, come on, really? Iraq is in a state of civil war, not a state of anarchy. Civil war is what you have when a strip of land has too many governments (or would-be governments) fighting with each other over which one gets to do the governing. Anarchy is what you have when the have no governments at all. Iraq, which is currently being contested by the armed forces of the most powerful government in the world, a nominally independent puppet government propped up by those occupying armed forces, fractious provincial governments (especially in Kurdistan), occasional incursions from Turkey and Iran, roving sectarian death squads closely associated with various armed factions like SCIRI, the Sadrist movement, various tribally-based Sunni warlord-gangsters, Al-Qaeda, etc., all instituting police-state measures wherever they have strong enough control to do so, and all of them fighting with each other over who will be able to come out on top as rulers of Iraq, or–failing that–how they will be able to carve up Iraq into fiefs under their military control. That’s not anarchy; it’s just a bunch of warring states trying to get their hands on parts of the same country. No surprise: the situation there was created by a war between feuding governments and a military occupation.

Anarchy means no governments and no rulers — a consensual society based on free association, without wars, taxes, occupations, government prohibitions, government police, government curfews, or any of the rest. Maybe that’s achievable in this world, and maybe it’s not, but possible or impossible, it’s important to keep in mind what it is we’re talking about. Anarchy means lawlessness, not disorder; and it certainly doesn’t mean having so many would-be law-makers in one place that they end up fighting over who gets to make the laws!

Re: Four Quick Answers

Roads and other infrastructure should be provided by voluntary means, with some combo of user fees/advertising, etc. paying for them–and they would be in a free market, just as innovation would still get done without the monopoly formerly known as intellectual property paying off politically-connected rent seekers. Roads would also be better maintained in a free market, so the transportation costs incurred by Wal-Mart would fall in a free market.

Re: On Dissolving the State, and What to Replace It With

Kevin,

Broadly speaking, I agree with your and Henley’s point about strategic priorities. It’s an odd form of libertarianism, and a damned foolish one, that operates by trying to pitch itself to the classes that control all the levers of power in both the market and the State, and to play off their fears and class resentment against those who have virtually no power, no access to legislators, are disproportionately likely not to even be able to vote, and who are trodden upon by the State at virtually every turn. It makes just about as much sense as trying to launch a feminist movement whose first campaign would be to organize a bunch of men against their “crazy ex-girlfriends.”

But I do want to sound a note of caution. Aren’t there a lot of so-called social programs out there which the government fraudulently passes off as crutches, when in fact they are crowbars? Since you mentioned it, consider the minimum wage–the primary effect of which is simply to force willing workers out of work. If it benefits any workers, then it benefits the better-off workers at the expense of marginal workers who can less afford to lose the job. Or, to take another example, consider every gradualist’s favorite program — the government schools — which in fact function as highly regimented, thoroughly stifling, and unbearably unpleasant detention-indoctrination-humiliation camps for the vast majority of children and adolescents for whose benefit these edu-prisons are supposedly being maintained.

Or for that matter, consider phony “pro-labor” legislation like the Wagner Act, the primary function of which is actually to capture unions with government patronage and bring them under greater government regulation.

Aren’t there a lot of so-called “crutches,” usually defended by corporate liberals and excoriated by conservatives, which really ought to be pressured and resisted and limited and abolished as quickly as possible, precisely because, bogus liberal and conservative arguments notwithstanding, they actually work to shackle the poor or otherwise powerless “for their own good”?