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On Being Pretty Much O.K. With That. (Factories, Corporate Secrecy, and Free-Market Anti-Capitalism Edition.)

Here's a pretty old post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 10 years ago, in 2013, on the World Wide Web.

Here’s a couple of loosely-related conversations from elsewhere on the web. I bring up the less recent one because the more recent one reminded me somewhat of it.

A while back (last May) I was hepped to an odd conversation on left-libertarianism going on over at the Mises Community Forum. I decided to jump in on a terminological point; the thread then became something of a quiz about left-libertarian and free-market anti-capitalist economic beliefs. In reply to some questions posed by Freedom4Me73986, I answered that, in addition to being a free market anti-capitalist, sure, I also call myself a socialist, and yes, I am anti-boss.


@Charles Johnson: Do you call yourself a socialist?

Yes, in Tucker’s sense. Some reasons for doing so discussed here, and here, and also here.

And are you anti-boss like many others in the ALL seem to be?


I think bossing and conventional employment are both (1) likely to be unstable, and economically unsustainable, in a fully freed market; and (2) kind of shitty ways to treat your fellow human beings.

— Charles Johnson (28 May 2012), re: What’s your beef with Roderick Long and left-libertarianism? at the Mises Community Forum

In reply, Freedom4Me73986 asked:

So how does a bossless factory work if there’s over 100 workers? How can that many people all make decisions w/o a boss? How can 10 people make a decision w/o a boss? Bosses exist for a reason. There way more efficient. Without one nothing would get done.

— Freedom4Me73986 (28 May 2012), re: What’s your beef with Roderick Long and left-libertarianism? at the Mises Community Forum

To which I answered, first, that you might look at existing examples of big factories running without a boss; but that there is also a more important point. Boldface added.

Well, I dunno. I guess if you really want to know the answer to this question, and don’t just intend it as an apriori Gotcha! about what you are already sure must be unworkable, then probably the best thing to do is to ask some of the people who already work in bossless factories with over 100 workers. There are a number of interviews in books like this one. My impression is that it is typically done with a combination of temporary, constantly-rotating responsibilities, a lot of local initiative on the shop floor, and regular big group meetings for making decisions as a group. Maybe this is an inefficient way to do things. On the other hand it seems to be working for the people who are doing it. In any case, I am quite sure that the claim that “Without [a boss] nothing would get done” is empirically falsifiable, and has in fact been falsified. Spontaneous orders are of course possible without central direction.

But in any case suppose that it turned out to be true[1] that on the whole, in a maximally freed market, the complexity and the costs of keeping everyone communicating with everyone else would tend to hobble the workability of big factories without bosses. That might be a reason to think that there will be more bosses in a freed market than I think there will be. But it might just as well be a reason to think: Well, then there will be smaller factories. And if we turn out to have smaller factories, with their activities largely coordinated by trade and contract rather than by bureaucratic management, I don’t see how that would be a problem. Certainly there is no reason apriori why libertarian economics would have to be concerned with figuring out a way to run giant factories with hundreds of workers. If that turns out to be economically and socially sustainable under conditions of free-market competition, then people will do it. But I don’t take it for granted that it will be, and if it isn’t, then people won’t sustain it, and will find other market means of meeting their needs.

In fact I would say there are some strong reasons to think that that kind of business model — at least, nearly every example of that business model that we have available to us for inspection, from General Motors to Lockheed-Martin to GlaxoSmithKline to Foxconn — is not a product of freed market labor agreements, but rather of a pretty heavy-handed structure of government-financed lines of credit, government privileges, government subsidies, and government contracts to the employers, on the one hand, and on the other hand, political impoverishment, political dispossession, and political constraints on the employee’s options for alternative modes of making a living. My reasons for thinking that bossing will be unsustainable in fact have a lot to do with factors that will apply whether or not big factories tend to need bosses (e.g., they have to do with the changes which are more likely, ceteris paribus, to occur within labor markets when people’s fixed costs of living are radically lower, and their options for making a living outside of formalized employment relationships have radically expanded, as discussed briefly e.g. in The Many Monopolies and in Scratching By — all of which are changes that, if they are likely to come about, are likely to come about regardless of the organizational economics of trying to run a large factory.)

— Charles Johnson (28 May 2012), re: What’s your beef with Roderick Long and left-libertarianism? at the Mises Community Forum

I’m reminded of the conversation back in May because of a different thread in Stephan Kinsella’s recent AmA on Reddit. Kinsella highlighted his opposition to patents and copyrights in the pitch for his AmA, and a lot of the conversation focused on the topic of IP. When asked, Kinsella added that in addition to patent and copyright, he also favored the abolition of trademark and trade secret laws, saying:

I am totally against patent, copyright, and also tradmeark and trade secret. Trademark law should be replaced with fraud law only. Trade secret should just be a private contract. Easy.

— N. Stpehan Kinsella (23 January 2013), re: I am Stephan Kinsella … AMA at /r/IAmA

Redditor /u/probablyreasonable asked, in response:

Trade secret entirely replaced as a private contract? You’re joking right? What of the litany of examples where exiting employees do not sign their nondisclosure? What of the litany of examples where the disclosing party was not in privity with the TS owner?

Please elaborate.

— /u/probablyreasonable (23 January 2013), re: I am Stephan Kinsella … AMA at /r/IAmA

I answered with a charitable clarification of Stephan’s position (as far as I understand it), and then some commentary of my own on the argument, in which I am speaking only for myself. If government doesn’t enforce corporate secrecy, then corporations may have more trouble keeping their secrets. Well, then there may be fewer companies keeping secrets. I’m pretty much OK with that.

Stephan’s view is that if they didn’t sign the contract, then their actions should not be prosecutable. The reason they should not be prosecutable is because they didn’t violate any rights that they were bound to respect. This means that only people who have agreed to keep a secret can be bound to keep it; if that arrangement causes a problem for companies being able to police their own secrets, then we may well end up with fewer businesses whose business models depend on keeping information secret. Well, OK. It’s not obvious, to me at least, that this is a bad outcome.

— Charles Johnson (23 January 2013), re: I am Stephan Kinsella … AMA at /r/IAmA

probablyreasonable replied with what seems to me a bizarre non sequitur, about utopianism and corporate espionage.

Corporate espionage unpunished and will encourage the behavior to increase profitability and competitiveness.

Again, all of Stephan’s arguments presuppose that everyone in our society is healthy, co-operative, and not driven to criminal behavior. This is not the case.

— /u/probablyreasonable (23 January 2013), re: I am Stephan Kinsella … AMA at /r/IAmA

Again, speaking only for myself and not all of Stephan’s arguments, I replied:

That’s a problem if you think that corporate espionage is a problem. I think that corporate business models that are heavily dependent on secrecy and institutional opacity are the problem, and that corporate espionage is a predictable reaction, and a symptom of a broken business model. If companies can adequately keep their secrets by means of contractual agreements and simple property rights (e.g., controlling who has access to sensitive locations or documents in their possession) then they will keep their secrets. If they cannot adequately keep their secrets by these means, then they will fail at keeping their secrets. And if their business depends on keeping secrets, they will fail at their business. That doesn’t mean that nobody will go into business; it means that people who go into business will find it to their advantage to adopt alternative business models, which don’t depend so heavily on secrecy. Again, you need to actually give an argument if you want to establish that this is an unjust, or even an undesirable outcome.

— Charles Johnson (23 January 2013), re: I am Stephan Kinsella … AMA at /r/IAmA

There is no reason at all why writers who defend market relationships should feel compelled to rig their theory in such a way that it could somehow justify, explain the value of, or defend the interests of gigantic-scale factory production, or rigidly-enforced institutional opacity and corporate secrecy. Speaking for myself, as a free-market anti-capitalist, I think that one of the great values of open, bottom-up market relations are the radical possibilities they might offer for destabilizing these deeply dysfunctional, monopolistically policed concentrations of commercial and industrial power.


  1. [1]I’m not committed to this claim, but I don’t reject it out of hand either.

5 replies to On Being Pretty Much O.K. With That. (Factories, Corporate Secrecy, and Free-Market Anti-Capitalism Edition.) Use a feed to Follow replies to this article · TrackBack URI

  1. Crosbie Fitch

    There must be two definitions of libertarian, one that considers liberty to be alienable and one that considers it to be inalienable.

    According to the latter definition, one cannot contract away one’s liberty to disclose something to which one has been made privy.

    Contracts are bondage only of property, not people, nor their bodies, nor their mouths.

    If you tell me something you would prefer remained confidential, your policy of secrecy does not magically alienate me from my liberty to be discreet or indiscreet.

    Let’s not allow the copyright inculcated notion of ‘intellectual property’ to fool us into believing that property can be defined by imaginary boundaries as well as physical ones.

    What you keep secret from me remains your secret – and I violate your privacy if I burgle your office to discover it. However, that which you confide to me no longer remains secret from me – I am at liberty to further confide it in others, or indeed in all others, the public. Confidence is trust – not bondage. And contract cannot change this – I can no more sell my liberty to disclose your favourite colour than I can sell my liberty to pick my nose.

  2. Bob Robertson

    There are two things at work here, contract and social standard. Much of what ‘we’ spend time doing is looking at the former in a vacuum, while in reality there will always be a social standard.

    If I sign a contract that says “I won’t tell your secrets”, and then I do, then I can be held to the terms of that contract that specify what happens if either party is in breach of contract. I cannot “sign away” my right to speak, which is inalienable, but I can put myself into a breach of contract by speaking.

    Affirming the social standard is where we get into “justifiable” breach of contract, or contract terms that are “too restrictive”, “misleading”, etc. These kinds of things are why there are courts and adjudicators even in Libertopia. The cliche of “small print” is cliche for a reason, and it’s just such standards of conduct which, through application of the social standard, the ideas of clear and common language, inability to sell one’s self into slavery, unethical practices, even honest mistakes, can and will be fleshed out.

    All without any need for recourse to statute law. Thus Mr. Kinsella’s assertion that he would prefer there be no statute law at all.

  3. PeaceRequiresAnarchy

    According to the latter definition, one cannot contract away one’s liberty to disclose something to which one has been made privy.

    Contracts are bondage only of property, not people, nor their bodies, nor their mouths.

    Someone could make a contract that says “If I open my mouth and publicly disclose your secret then title to my $100 will automatically be transferred to you.” In this way the person would still have every inalienable right to open his or her mouth and speak, but would have an incentive not to. I bet some sort of “contractual trade secret” could be made out of this sort of contract, although I’ll leave that to others to develop who are more interested.

    • Crosbie Fitch

      A contingent title transfer is one thing, whether contingent upon my speech or me picking my nose, but one should be careful not to pander to those who would claim the value of their secret supersedes the liberty of those to whom they’ve disclosed it.

      Contracts should be equitable, and agreed. Small print to an employment contract that says “Oh, and in case you disclose anything to which you have been made privy, that we regard as a trade secret, you agree that, as security, you transfer to us title to your house and all your other assets, to any arbitrary monetary value we imagine our secrets may have – and if at the end of your employment you have made no such disclosures, we will transfer title of those assets back to you” or some crap like that.

      Who’s to decide the value of a secret?

      Who’s to decide the value of whether I pick my nose or not?

      It seems to me that if any employer was going to make non-disclosure a condition (or not picking one’s nose), that it should be equitable, e.g. both employer and employee deposit a security of $1,000 into a pot. If no disclosure occurs, the employee gets the pot. If disclosure does occur, the employer gets the pot.

      But, of course, one is always at liberty to disclose the secrets to which one has been made privy.

  4. Crosbie Fitch

    Bob, it sounds like you’re finessing the desire to enable someone to surrender their liberty (to disclose certain information) via a non-disclosure contract, because it would be jolly useful. Monopolies are jolly useful too.

    Are you suggesting that ‘breach of contract’ is a crime? A misdemeanour? A civil offence? What?

    Contracts concern the exchange of property. They do not concern bondage – keeping people to their promises – punishing them if they do not. Such a naive idea of contracts is popular, but not libertarian. People are confused by the use of ‘promise’ as in “I promise my property in exchange for your labour”, and then think it similarly applies in “I promise my labour in exchange for your property”. The property is alienable. The labour is not. The word ‘promise’ should thus be avoided. Hence “I agree to give you my property on condition you perform your labour” and “I agree to accept your property on condition I perform my labour”.

    Liberty does not need a court to ‘flesh out’ which liberties may be ‘safely’ subject to contract, and which ones it would be unconscionable to. They are all unconscionable.

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