Bits & Pieces on Free Market Anti-Capitalism: What about them poor ol’ bosses? What about gains from trade and economies of scale?
These are remarks that I gave as part of my presentation at the
Free Market Anti-Capitalism? panel at the Association of Private Enterprise Education on 13 April 2010. The final instalments will be coming out over the next few days.
- By way of introduction or apology
- With apologies to Shulamith Firestone
- Two meanings of
- Rigged markets, captive markets, and capitalistic business as usual
- The Many Monopolies
- What about them poor ol’ bosses? What about gains from trade and economies of scale?
- Is this all just a semantic debate?
I’ve spent a fair amount of time in these remarks discussing the general outlines of the thesis that the cash-nexus is artificially expanded, and forcibly deformed, into the patterns of actually-existing capitalism, by means of government privilege to big players; and discussing the many monopolies (once the Big Four; now the Big Nine, at least) that provide some of the most pervasive and intense points of force that dispossess working people, favor big, centralized forms of business, and coercively favor capitalistic, formalized, commercialized uses of resources over non-commercialized alternatives. One of the objections which may have occurred to you by now is that government intervention in the economy goes in more than one direction. It may be true that the monopolies Tucker and I have named tend to benefit entrenched players and conventionally capitalistic arrangements. But what about government regulations that benefit poor people (such as government welfare schemes) small players (such as, say, Small Business Administration loans), or which are supposed to regulate and control large-scale, concentrated forms of enterprise (such as antitrust legislation)?
I would respond, first, that this kind of response seems to suggest an unusual faith in the efficacy of government regulation and welfare state programs to achieve their stated ends. In fact, as I’ve already suggested, much of the “progressive” regulatory structure, supposedly aimed at curbing big business, has largely served to cartelize big business, and to create large fixed costs which tend to drive out potential competitors from the rigged markets in which they have entrenched themselves. Historical work by Gabriel Kolko (in The Triumph of Conservatism) and Butler Shaffer (In Restraint of Trade) has, I think, convincingly shown that these regulatory measures mainly served to rigidify the positions of existing market incumbents and to bail out failing cartelists so as to prevent freedom from
disrupting a well-regulated market. And there are good a priori reasons – from the public choice analysis of the incentives faced by politically-appointed regulators — to believe that such regulatory efforts will always be highly prone to capture by the concentrated interests of market incumbents, to be wielded against the dispersed interests of consumers, workers, and would-be start-up competitors.
Second, it is important to keep in mind questions of priority and scale. While I object to SBA loans, antitrust legislation, social welfare programs, and other government interventions as much as any other free marketeer, I think that in this age of trillion-dollar bank bailouts it ought to be clear that, even if government is putting its finger on both sides of the scale, one finger is pushing down a lot harder than the other.
You may also be concerned that I have had so little to say, so far, about some of the conventional explanations that free market economists have offered for the efficiency and scalability of capitalistic arrangements – arguments based, for example, on the division of labor, or on economies of scale, or the gains from trade. But I am not denying the value of either the division of labor, or gains from trade; I am suggesting that labor and trade might be organized along different lines than they are currently organized, in alternative forms of specialization and trade such as co-ops, worker-managed firms, or independent contracting, with comparatively less centralization of decision-making, less hierarchy, less management, and, in many cases, more trade and entrepreneurial independence among the workers involved. Centralized, capitalistic forms of organization are only one sort of cash nexus among many others. And the cash nexus itself is only one way of facilitating a division of labor and a mutually-beneficial exchange can take place; returning to the broader sense of
markets as a space of social experimentation, there are all kinds of other social experiments, not necessarily based on quid pro quo exchanges or on cash media, that provide places for people to meet, work and swap.
It is also common for pro-capitalist libertarians to point to economies of scale as an economic reason for believing that large, centralized corporations, industrial agribusiness, et cetera would survive even without the government subsidies and monopolies they currently enjoy. But while I’d hardly deny the importance of economies of scale, I think it is important to remember that economies of scale represent a trade-off between gains and losses. There are diseconomies of scale, just as there are economies of scale – as scale increases, so do the costs of communication and management within the larger workforce, the costs of maintaining heavier equipment, the difficulty of accounting and efficiently allocating resources as more transactions are internalized within the firm, and the difficulty of regearing such a large mechanism to respond to new challenges from new competitors and changing market conditions. The question is not whether or not there are economies of scale; there are, and there is also a point at which the economies of scale are outweighed by the diseconomies. The question is where that point is; and whether, in a free market, the equilibrium point would tend to shift towards smaller scales, or towards larger scales. When government monopolies and rigged markets artificially encourage large, consolidated, bureaucratic forms of organization — organizations which can better afford the high fixed costs imposed by regulatory requirements, can better lobby for subsidies, can better capture regulatory bodies and use them to advance their own interests, etc. — that shifts the balance by forcing up the rewards of scale. When the same measures punish small competitors in favor of market incumbents, and especially when it punishes informal, small-scale community or personal uses of scarce resources, in favor of formalized commercial uses, government forcibly pushes the diseconomies of scale down, by suppressing competitors who might eat the eggs of the political-economic dinosaurs. In both cases, the most pervasive and far-reaching forms of government economic intervention tend to deform economic life towards formalization, commercialization, consolidation, hyperthyroidal scale and the complex hierarchy that’s needed to manage it. Not because these things are naturally demanded by economies of scale, but rather because they grow out of control when the costs of scale are socialized and the competitive pressures and alternatives burned out by government monopoly.
Next up: Is this all just a semantic debate?
-  For more on the last point, see Three notes for the critics of the critics of apologists for Wal-Mart. ↩
-  For a detailed discussion of the diseconomies of scale, see Kevin Carson (2007), Economic Calculation in the Corporate Commonwealth. ↩