Try saying that three times fast.
For a while now I’ve been urging libertarians and the labor movement to take a more serious and sympathetic look at one another. (Cf. GT 2004-05-01: Free the Unions (and all political prisoners!), GT 2005-03-23: El pueblo unido jamás será vencido! and GT 2005-03-31: Anarquistas por La Causa for representative examples.) Just as with radical libertarianism and radical feminism I think that the supposedly obvious and unbridgeable opposition between the two is the result more of terminological difficulties and shifting political alliances over the course of the 20th century than any deep or principled gulf. The best way to see this is with more engaged discussion: fewer polemics, more history, more earnest questioning, and more listening. So I’m excited to see a lot of interesting new material just in the past couple of weeks from libertarians (mostly but not exclusively left-libertarians) trying to get clear on the questions and hammer out some of the answers about the prospect for a libertarianism that has a place for workers organizing freely, and a wildcat labor movement that frees itself from the smothering patronage of the State. Here’s a bit of lazy linking to the discussion so far.
Brad Spangler (2005-12-03): War, Socialism, and Precision in Thinking writes on the need to disentangle the different meanings attached to the words
socialism(each of them has at least one traditional meaning that’s perfectly consistent with the peaceful economic cooperation, and one that’s directly antagonistic to it). Brad protests the fuzzy thinking that typically comes about from running the terms freely together, and urges libertarians to realize that
If anything that is voluntary on all sides is, at the very least, acceptable to the point that it at least can not righteously be opposed by force, then one has to come to grips that a stateless society will have
socialisticaspects in practice. Hippy communes. Farmers co-ops. Employee owned enterprises. Workers syndicates. Unions. … Ultimately, vulgar libertarians, on this point anyway, fail to distinguish libertarianism from personal preference for a particular class of business models.
Roderick Long at Austro-Athenian Empire (2005-12-04): Freedom and the Firm asks
What will firms look like in a free society?He points out the important trade-off that you face when you decide whether to get business done with a centralized, amalgamated firm, or a small-scale, decentralized operations like family shops and worker’s co-ops: larger size can mean lower transaction costs, but it also comes at the cost of calculational chaos. (The incentive problems and knowledge problems that libertarians have pointed out in central planning don’t evaporate when the central planning is done by corporate rather than government bureaucrats.) Roderick points out some of the ways in which state capitalism distorts the trade-off in favor of big, centralized firms; Leviathan, as always, is Behemoth’s greatest ally:
We don’t have a free market, however; instead we have a highly regulated market. For familiar reasons, such regulations hamper the less affluent more than the more affluent, and so successful firms will tend to become somewhat insulated from competition by less established firms, thus removing one check on their inefficiency. And as Kevin Carson points out, regulatory standardisation also decreases competition among the successful firms — a form of de facto cartelisation. Government regulation thus lowers the costs associated with size and hierarchy more than it lowers the associated benefits; it stands to reason, then, that firms in a genuine free-market context could be expected to be smaller and less hierarchical than they tend to be today. This is doubly true once one takes into account the increased competition for workers that a less regulated economy would presumably see (assuming that workers generally prefer less hierarchical work environments).
Kevin Carson (2005-12-08): Socialist Definitional Free-for-All: Part I reviews a recent donnybrook over the meaning of
socialismand whether voluntary workers’ co-ops and other forms of state-free direct worker control over the means of production are (1) instances of socialism, and (2) compatible with libertarianism. Bithead makes an ass of himself; Knapp holds his own; John T. Kennedy directs some good critical questions at Knapp; Knapp offers some good replies. Carson adds his own
Extended Commentary,placing the debate in the historical context of the thought of late-19th and early-20th century libertarians such as Thomas Hodgskin, Benjamin Tucker, and Franz Oppenheimer, who explicitly considered themselves (1) socialists, (2) supporters of organized labor, and (3) radical advocates of laissez-faire in economics. Carson also offers some interesting historical notes on the individualists’ economic thought
Individualist anarchism, the strand of socialism that most closely approximates my own position, doesn’t place that much importance on ownership of the means of production (leaving aside the views of Tucker et al on occupancy-based ownership of land, anyway). Although some strands of mutualism tended toward a much more active affinity for cooperative organization of production, and considered explicitly cooperativist arrangements would likely predominate in a stateless society, the American individualist branch of mutualism placed much more emphasis on the conditions of exchange than the organization of production. … What mattered to him was that, without state enforcement of special privileges for capital, and without artificial scarcity rents resulting from such privileges, the natural wage of labor in a free market would be its full product. And without the state’s enforcement of artificial scarcity in land and capital, jobs would be competing for workers instead of the other way around.
And Carson points out that the debate is often confused by the fact that all sides tend to talk about
propertyas if everyone already had a perfectly clear and common conception of what sorts of things can count as your property and under what conditions. Libertarians tend to broadly agree on central cases, but when the debate is about something more substantial than name-tags or banner colors, it usually comes down to substantive disagreements over peripheral cases:
All the parties to the debate tend to throw around the term coercion, in discussing whether coercion is essential to collective ownership of the means of production, without addressing the prior question of what constitutes coercion. Now I would argue that whether the establishment and enforcement of collective ownership is
coercivedepends on what set of property rights rules you start out with. Forcibly invading someone’s
rightfulproperty, by definition, is coercion; but using force to defend one’s
rightfulproperty claims against invasion is not. So the question of whether force is coercive depends on who the
rightful owneris. When the parties to the dispute adhere to two separate sets of rules for property rights, they will disagree on who is the aggressor and who is the defender.
Kevin Carson (2005-12-08): Socialist Definitional Free-for-All, Part II offers a lengthy follow-up where he assembles quotes from posts Roderick, Brad, and me on definitions of
capitalism,the size of firms, and organized labor, and adds his own exposition and commentary. Among other things, he points out one of the important ways in which unionization can serve as a road to, rather than a roadblock against, workers adjusting pay, security, and conditions to something like the marginal product of their labor:
Regardless of the long-run market incentives to pay labor its full product and treat people like actual human beings, in the short run the uncertainty and potential disruption of being an at-will employee can be quite a hassle. For the benefit of those who have been living on Planet Cato these many years and never had direct experience working for a boss, I’d like to point out that the average boss can fuck your life up in some really unpleasant ways before the market disadvantages of doing so are finally brought home to him. And, as some radical historians of workplace relations have pointed out, a management policy of harassing selected subgroups of workers and dividing them against each other may produce benefits, in the form of reduced labor solidarity and bargaining power, that outweigh the alleged
irrationalitycosts. On the other hand, the benefits of contractually-enforced stability and predictability are just as real to a wage-laborer as they are to the parties to any other kind of contract.
That’s a rather dense thicket of interlinking posts; moving aside from this mutualist admiration society, there’s also been good discussion elsewhere:
Joshua Holmes at No Treason (2005-12-09): Open Question about Libertarians and Unions asks
What do libertarians have against labour unions? This question struck me the other day (because it was better than studying for Business Associations) and I wondered why libertarians have so much bile for labour unions.Holmes has a good breakdown of common corporatarian objections to unions and responses to them. A vigorous go-around on semantics, tactics, and principles follows in the comments.
Irfan Khawaja at Theory and Practice (2005-12-15): The Taylor Law and the Transit Strike: Some Questions asks for further discussion from libertarians and classical liberals about the status of strikes and work stoppages, and laws (such as the Taylor Law) which ban strikes by government employees:
Is a strike—as Howard Dickman suggests in his book Industrial Democracy in America—just a glorified form of breach of contract? In that case, libertarianism justifies strike-breaking and scabdom, period. (Cf. Truman’s breaking up the railway and miner’s strikes in 1946.) Or does striking have a deeper justification in libertarian principles? To the best of my knowledge, there isn’t much normative discussion of this subject in the contemporary libertarian literature—a shame, considering the centrality of the issues.
In comments, I suggest a focus on questions about individual rights to refuse to work and move on to the status of strikes from there; Irfan replies with more helpful questions and commentary.
This doesn’t end here. A week from now — 28 December 2005, 11:15 a.m.-1:15 p.m — The Molinari Society will be holding a symposium at APA Eastern Division in New York. The topic is going to be the debate between
thin libertarianism, and the
thick side will be represented by Jack Ross’s Labor and Liberty: A Lost Ideal and an Unlikely New Alliance. Ross will read and I’ll be commenting on the essay. (Shorter me: the outline of Ross’s argument is correct and important; I’m not so confident about the details and I think there are some important questions and distinctions to be raised about the kind of labor organizing that libertarians should ally with.)
Hope to see you there!