On Big Charity

I’ve talked here a couple times before about the notion of mass education and targeted persuasion and how important it is to what I take myself to be doing in writing a crazy-ass blog about all my crazy-ass positions like I do. (The basic notion here is that one way to advance crazy-ass radical views — views which you’re not likely to convince many people of, just as they are, outside of a relatively small, somewhat self-selected target audience — you can still move the conversation forward in really important ways just by taking the time to put the position on people’s intellectual radar — by explaining the view, and why some people might hold it, clearly enough that you thereby push out people’s horizons of intelligible dissent. Most folks still won’t accept your position, but if you do it right, you will get them to where they’ll consider it as a position that’s open for discussion. And just doing that much has a big damn effect on where discussions can go.)

Anyway, the point of mentioning all this is to bring up a really fine post that Roderick put up last month, entitled Wild Cards, which I think does some really important work towards just that kind of dialectical project. After some excellent introductory material which introduces several of the same notions, in other terms, Roderick comes around to this really quite excellent effort to distill the left-libertarian position down to six key points:

Our vital task, then, is to get the word out that there is a position out there that includes the following theses:

  1. Big business and big government are (for the most part) natural allies.

  2. Although conservative politicians pretend to hate big government, and liberal politicians pretend to hate big business, most mainstream policies – both liberal and conservative – involve (slightly different versions of) massive intervention on behalf of the big-business/big-government elite at the expense of ordinary people.

  3. Liberal politicians cloak their intervention on behalf of the strong in the rhetoric of intervention on behalf of the weak; conservative politicians cloak their intervention on behalf of the strong in the rhetoric of non-intervention and free markets – but in both cases the rhetoric is belied by the reality.

  4. A genuine policy of intervention on behalf of the weak, if liberals actually tried it, wouldn’t work either, since the nature of government power would automatically warp it toward the interests of the elite.

  5. A genuine policy of non-intervention and free markets, if conservatives actually tried it, would work, since free competition would empower ordinary people at the expense of the elite.

  6. Since conservative policies, despite their associated free-market rhetoric, are mostly the diametrical opposite of free-market policies, the failures of conservative policies do not constitute an objection to (but rather, if anything, a vindication of) free-market policies.

Of course we should be prepared to defend these theses through economic reasoning and historical evidence, but the main goal at this point, I think, should be not so much to defend them as simply to advertise their existence. We need to make our red spades and black hearts a sufficiently familiar feature of the intellectual landscape that people will be able to see them for what they are rather than misclassifying them – at which point we’ll be in a better position to defend them.

— Roderick Long, Austro-Athenian Empire (2009-09-10): Wild Cards

Read the whole thing.

Now, part of the point of this kind of thing is to provoke discussion. And here’s Stephan Kinsella’s reply to principle (1) in particular:

As I noted there, Do you mean big business as it exists in today’s world, or big business per se? If the former, you have a point (and from my quick read I don’t disagree with any of your other points). But to argue for the latter interpretation would imply that there could be no big business in a free society.

It seems that the bigger a company is, in today’s world, the more they have to play ball to prosper. I’m not sure, though, why this observation is limited to big business, or even business in general. Even individuals drive on public roads, and are incentivized or coerced into using public schools, say. And what about Big Medicine, Big Education, Big Research, and so on? (And let’s not forget Big Labor!)

Come to think of it—most larger charities I’m aware of continually seek state partnerships and funding, and encourage state redistribution schemes. Down with charity!

— Stephan Kinsella, The LRC Blog (2009-09-15): Big Charity

Sometimes with Stephan, it’s hard to tell whether he intends this kind of but-what-about, doesn’t-everybody move as just some further observations riffing on the general theme or whether he really intends for it to be taken as support (by means of a reductio) for some specific objection. But if this is intended as part of an objection to (the per-se interpretation of) Roderick’s claims about the alliance between Big Business and the interventionist State, then what exactly is the objection here supposed to be?

Let’s set aside Stephan’s mentions of individuals driving on government roads, or sending children to government schools. Sure they do; but this doesn’t strike me as even remotely compelling, if you pause for even a second to consider matters of degree, and it’s hard to see what purpose mentioning it really serves except as a way to just sort of scatter critique as broadly as possible. Last year, the Department of the Treasury sent me a $600 check, allegedly for the purpose of economic stimulus — just like how they also cut AIG a $170,000,000,000 check last year, also allegedly for the purpose of economic stimulus. But, well, so what? I’d say it’s still pretty accurate to see AIG as having a much closer relationship with bail-out statism than I do.

So let’s set aside the doesn’t-everybody move, and stick to the comments on other Bigs — large-scale, formalized institutions in which control is concentrated in a professionalized hierarchy and an administrative bureaucracy — whether it’s Big Medicine, Big Education, Big Research, Big Labor, or Big Charity. Kinsella points out that the other big institutions are, in general, tangled up with the interventionist state, just as big business is. If left-libertarians are going to lay down some heavy critique on Big Business, shouldn’t they be doing the same on the other Bigs?

Well, sure.

So what’s the problem?

What makes you think that left-libertarians would have some kind of problem critiquing Big Medicine (2, 3, 4), or Big Research, or Big Education (2, 3, 4), or Big Charity (2, 3), or Big Labor (2, 3, 4)?

Sure, public-private jobbery, state regimented, hypertrophic, centralized institutions, political capture, subsidized featherbedding, and unresponsive professionalized bureaucracies are hardly limited to conventional for-profit corporations. They happen all over the place — in big professionalized charities like United Way or the Starvation Army; in big hospitals and corporate adjuncts of the medical industry (insurance corporations, pharma corporations, etc.); in big administration-heavy multiversities; and in top-down, centralized business unions like the UAW, the Teamsters, or SEIU. Just like the Fortune 500, they’re also major beneficiaries of State regimentation, subsidy, and captive audiences; just like the Fortune 500, they’re also major causes of State regimentation, through their lobbying and political influence. And just like with hypertrophic, centralized, top-down corporate commerce, there’s some solid reasons for thinking that their hypertrophic, centralized, top-down not-for-profit operations would be fundamentally unsustainable in a freed market.

But that’s hardly an objection to the left-libertarian critique of big business; it’s a perfectly acceptable complement to it. Left-libertarians — at least, the sort of left-libertarians that Roderick is an example of — aren’t just conventional libertarians who believe you ought to voluntarily give more to charity. The critique of corporate capitalism is just the most high-profile part of a broad critique of the state’s promotion of credentialism, bureaucracy, and top-down centralized control — which is why folks like us generally promote community mutual aid over professionalized charity; grassroots, rank-and-file unionism over AFL-CIO-style union bosses and collective bargaining; unschooling over bureaucratic-liberal public education; etc., etc., etc.

So, yeah, down with Big Charity. I agree. Where’s the problem?

Updated 2012-03-23. I fixed a typographical error and updated some links to articles from Formulations, whose archives have moved to a newer, more secure web home.

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  1. Stephan Kinsella

    Charles, you conclude, “So, yeah, down with Big Charity. I agree. Where’s the problem?”

    But in my post that you quoted, I ended it, “Down with charity!” not down with Big Charity. My point should be obvious. I am mocking the notion that just because you are against Big Business (understood to “mean big business as it exists in today’s world,” business that is in bed with the state), means you are against business itself—or even against “big” business per se. I am mocking it by showing how ridiculous it would be for you to be against charity (or even “big” charity), just because you are opposed to Big Charity. That’s why in my comment on Long, I largely agreed with his 6 points but demurred if and to the extent the opposition to “Big Business” was meant to include “big business” (that is, any private business that happens to be big). I was also objecting to the apparent singling out of Big Business, but I’m glad to see you agree that Big Labor, etc. are equally (?) criticizable. YOu say, “Let’s set aside Stephan’s mentions of individuals driving on government roads, or sending children to government schools. Sure they do; but this doesn’t strike me as even remotely compelling, if you pause for even a second to consider matters of degree, and it’s hard to see what purpose mentioning it really serves except as a way to just sort of scatter critique as broadly as possible. Last year, the Department of the Treasury sent me a $600 check, allegedly for the purpose of economic stimulus — just like how they also cut AIG a $170,000,000,000 check last year, also allegedly for the purpose of economic stimulus. But, well, so what? I’d say it’s still pretty accurate to see AIG as having a much closer relationship with bail-out statism than I do.”

    Remotely compelling for what? Your criticism is inapt. I am not comparing the sins of individuals to the sins of Big Business (which would be disproportionate, sure). Rather, I am trying to illustrate a couple things. First, that it is indiscriminate to attack anyone for merely benefitting from or even cooperating with the state; I think you and I would agree that the ones who actively lobby it and influence it like the Defense Industry etc. are far more blameworthy than a social security recipient or road-user. But this is my point. If we recognize distinctions then this means not all business—even “big” business—should be castigated the same way Big Business is. And to the contrary, Big Labor, Big Education, etc. shoudl be attacked as Big Business is—and despite your laundry list of links showing your ilk has sometimes criticized Big Labor etc., I note that in Roderick’s list he didn’t. Rather he singled out Big Business. So which is it?

    My post was one of agreement with Roderick, with the caveat that I thought it was unclear whether he was castigating “Big Business” or any “big” business. If the latter, I disagree—for some of the reasons I gave (namely that if you indict all “big business” then your threshold for sin has to be so low that you indict almost everyone, mom and pop stores, people who drive on roads, etc.). And I notice that neither Roderick in his comments, nor you here, have tried to clarify. Ratheer you seem to dodge the question by saying you against Big Charity—implying you are not against charity (or even big charity)—but without specifying whether likewise you are against Big Business but not against business (or “big” business). Well? What’s your position?

  2. Rad Geek

    Stephan,

    I am mocking the notion that just because you are against Big Business (understood to mean big business as it exists in today’s world, business that is in bed with the state), means you are against business itself […]

    Well, that’s an interesting notion, but whose notion is it supposed to be?

    Certainly not Roderick’s, and in fact I can’t think of a single left-libertarian in the world who could fairly be described as being against business per se. (At the extreme, a couple folks — e.g. Roman Pearah — have suggested that they have problems with employer-employee relationships just as such. But it would be a mistake to conclude from that they are against business per se, since not all businesses have employers or employees.) If you can think of at least one example, hit me up with a name and a citation.

    If you can’t, then why spend time trying to mock a position that nobody actually holds?

    —or even against “big” business per se. I am mocking it by showing how ridiculous it would be for you to be against charity (or even “big” charity), just because you are opposed to Big Charity.

    But what you’ve shown isn’t a successful reductio of that. I do have a problem with ‘big’ charity, just as such (which is of course a different thing with having a problem with charity just as such).The reasons for having a problem with it are very similar to my reasons with having a problem not only with actually-existing big businesses, but also with bigness per se in business: I think it tends to be unresponsive and economically inefficient, and sustainable only because of state subsidies and the forcible suppression of substitute goods. And while I can’t speak for Roderick specifically, I do think that many other left-libertarians would agree with me.

    Of course, you could try to give some kind of argument for thinking that a condemnation of bigness in business, or in charity, just as such, must ultimately lead to a condemnation of business just as such, or charity just as such. And, if so, the reductio would be well taken. But I don’t know what kind of argument you’d give to support that kind of logical leap.

    First, that it is indiscriminate to attack anyone for merely benefitting from or even cooperating with the state; I think you and I would agree that the ones who actively lobby it and influence it like the Defense Industry etc. are far more blameworthy than a social security recipient or road-user. But this is my point. If we recognize distinctions then this means not all business—even big business—should be castigated the same way Big Business is.

    Well, as you please, but I don’t think Roderick’s point under (1) was about who does or does not deserve blame. The claim was that big government and big business are natural allies. That sounds more like a descriptive claim about mutual benefit and mutual reinforcement — not a normative claim about who merits or does not merit blame for their role in the system.

    and despite your laundry list of links showing your ilk has sometimes criticized Big Labor etc., I note that in Roderick’s list he didn’t. Rather he singled out Big Business. So which is it?

    Cmoe on, dude, the singling out stuff again? Really?

    Roderick was explicitly trying to boil down a set of talking-points for the purpose of concisely pointing out what is interesting and distinctive about left-libertarian analysis. The fact that he didn’t include every single possible aspect of left-libertarian thought in the list is a feature, not a bug.

    Of course, he could have rewritten (1) to include something like a capsule summary of Carson’s Organization Theory book, about something like hypertrophic hierarchy, centralization, and professionalization, rather than about business in particular. But why? It’s not hard to apply the lesson more broadly if you grasp it in the case of businesses. And the left-libertarian attitude towards big business is one of the most prominent and interesting points of difference between left-libertarians and other kinds of libertarians, and between left-libertarians and economic conservatives. So, while there are certainly a lot more conclusions to draw than just (1), there’s no reason why every one of those conclusions should be included in a deliberately concise list of distinguishing principles.

    And I notice that neither Roderick in his comments, nor you here, have tried to clarify. Ratheer you seem to dodge the question by saying you against Big Charity—implying you are not against charity (or even big charity)—but without specifying whether likewise you are against Big Business but not against business (or “big” business). Well? What’s your position?

    I can’t speak for Roderick’s position. But I think it should be fairly clear from my comments that I’m not just against actually-existing big charities (like the Starvation Army or the Red Cross), but that I think that there’s a problem with bigness in charity per se. (That’s what the bit about fundamentally unsustainable in a freed market is intended to mean.) In spite of the unargued or-evens in your comments, however, I see no reason why you would think that an opposition to bigness in charity, just as such, would necessarily translate into an opposition to charity, just as such. And the same goes, mutatis mutandis, with actually-existing big business, bigness in business just as such, and business just as such.

    The reasons why I have a beef with bigness as such, and not just the jackasses currently on the scene, are the usual left-libertarian reasons: I’m concerned about bigness in business because I think bigness is bad for business in a genuinely freed market. Similarly, I’m concerned about bigness in charity because I think bigness undermines their capacity to be charitable.

    And also because I think that economic concentration and formalization — something you see expressed both in big business and big charity — reinforce the size and invasiveness of the state, by reinforcing authoritarian notions that also support political power, by making it harder for people to evade or resist it, and by giving the state a small number of clear command-posts to capture.

  3. Darian

    Regarding singling out big business:

    Roderick was making talking points for a presentation to the broad public, and worries about big business are more prevalent in society than are worries about big charity or big labor. I rarely hear that we need government to protect us from the latter, but the behavior of big business is often given as a reason why we need government regulation. So it makes sense to focus on big business when you only have time for sound bites.

    At the extreme, a couple folks — e.g. Roman Pearah — have suggested that they have problems with employer-employee relationships just as such.

    For the record, I prefer co-operatives and independent entrepreneurs to the worker-boss relationship, but I still think we’d see workplace hierarchy in a free market - and I’m fine with that because the greater opportunities that would exist in a freed market would improve the bargaining power of labor.

  4. Rad Geek

    Darian,

    For the record, I prefer co-operatives and independent entrepreneurs to the worker-boss relationship, but I still think we’d see workplace hierarchy in a free market - and I’m fine with that because the greater opportunities that would exist in a freed market would improve the bargaining power of labor.

    Yeah, which is why that just as such is important; as I understand it, Roman’s view is that employer-employee relationships (if we take the absentee ownership of the end-product by the owner, or by the owner’s principals, to be a defining feature of those relationships) are a problem just as such, as individual relationships between people. (Which is based on a particular view about the homesteading of property.) I don’t agree with him about that; on the other hand, I also don’t agree with the common alternative view that the only important thing is that (personal preferences for independent or co-op labor aside) workers are not forced into wage labor by the state, or (as with Tucker, say) by the state-created lack of accessible land, capital, and credit.

    My own view is that wage labor is fine as an occasional practice but that it’s a problem when it becomes the statistically prevailing mode of making a living (whether for a statistical majority of the society, or for smaller but stable and identifiable classes of people within the society). So I think it’s important that workers have not only alternatives to wage labor in principle, but also prevalent workable alternatives on the ground. Partly because of syndicalist worries about exploitative treatment, knowledge problems in boss-run enterprises and incentive problems created by the separation of labor from ownership, etc. And partly because of thick libertarian considerations about the dangers of hierarchy and centralization, and the benefits of having nexuses of social and economic power (unions, lodges, coops, mutual aid networks, etc.) that ordinary people participate in and have significant real influence over. And that, to the extent that the natural tendencies of freed-market processes don’t bring these outcomes about just on their own (I think they’ll get us a lot of the way there, but not all the way there), that left-libertarians ought to engage in conscious activism — social entrepreneurship, carried out through unions, worker’s councils, boycotts, pro-cotts, mutual aid networks, and the rest of the usual bag of tricks — to bring it about.

— 2011 —

— 2012 —

  1. Joseph Frazier

    FYI, the libertariannation.org links in this part 404 for me:

    What makes you think that left-libertarians would have some kind of problem critiquing Big Medicine (2, 3, 4), or Big Research, or Big Education (2, 3, 4), or Big Charity ( 2, 3), or Big Labor (2, 3, 4?

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