Posts tagged Kevin Carson


In a comment over at Roderick’s place, William Gillis has this to say by of encapsulating his worries about (his reading of) Kevin Carson’s emphasis on economic localism:

To clarfiy, my doubts regarding what’s often addressed (not entirely correctly, I agree) as the interrelating two-sided work of you and Kevin is really just my distaste for Localism and Rights-based ethics.

And I’m sorry you caught the backdraft of my annoyance with what is clearly primarily Kevin’s contribution re: Localism. (Note: I don’t mean local sufficiency or DIY tech, but the focus on stable regional communities, as opposed to a gleaming interconnected mass society on hoverbikes.)

— William Gillis, comments @ Austro-Athenian Empire, 27 April 2009 2:50am

That’s beautiful, and it deserves a response in kind. So here’s my attempt to put down my own view on the matter. When I have my hoverbike, I’ll use it for a lot of things, and one of the things I hope to be able to do is to fly through uncountable different neighborhoods within the gleaming metropolis. Don’t forget that even New Tokyo will have neighborhoods, or at least I hope it will, because a city with no neighborhoods isn’t worth a damn. The always-ready hyperlocal holographic social networking mapping mash-up that shimmers into existence over my hoverbike dash will help me find landmarks and fascinating holes-in-the-wall and the good old hang-outs and the hot new things, with help from the interwoven knowledge of friends, visitors, and longtime locals. Some of the neighborhoods may be glass and steel; others may be orchards and wheat fields and villages; others campus gothic spires, grassy quads and libraries; others may be permaculture cities of green roofs and hanging gardens. They will speak many different languages; some will be young and others old; some will be slow and stable over time, and others will be frenetic and constantly changing. Some may be stable in structure while constantly changing in population (think of a University campus), and others may be exactly the reverse (think of an indie rock scene). Which ones are the best to visit, or to live in, will depend on the circumstances of life for each of us. (What you want by way of stability or surroundings when you’re 50 may be different from what you want when you’re 19. What I want at 27 may be different from what you want at 27. What I want in the summer may be different from what I want in the fall.) And that’s what’s beautiful about it. It’s the neighborhoods that makes the city glorious. But without the city, and the hoverbikes to fly through it, there wouldn’t be the neighborhoods, either. There would only be warehouses, deserts, and fortresses.

Which is another way of saying that I don’t think the issue here is really, or at least ought to be, one of (stable) localism versus (dynamic) globalism, or cosmopolitanism, or what have you. There is, I think (oh Lord) a dialectical solution. It has to do with the extent to which the local and the global are allowed to evolve and flourish together, or, on the other hand, are mediated, battered, and fortified, by rigidifed political fabrications (like Nations, States, Law-and-Order, Smart Growth planning committees, Stupid Growth planning committees, Development fetishes, Tradition fetishes, bigots, bashers, macho squads, and all the other forms of structured power-over that would bulldoze and blockade and wall off ghettoes rather than letting neighborhoods grow).

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Three notes for the critics of the critics of apologists for Wal-Mart

I’m a few weeks late to the party over Roderick’s Wal-Mart post. For various reasons; I’ve been meaning to write down these notes for a while, but other things have been grabbing my attention. But today seems like a good day to sit down and get to it, and in any case I expect that exactly the same old debate will be coming up some time in the next month or two, so I’d like this to be on record before the next go-around, because there are three arguments from the anti-anti-Wal-Mart side of things that I’m getting tired of reading, two of which I haven’t seen much in the way of substantive replies to, and all of which I’d like, if it is even remotely possible, to make some contribution towards killing dead.

Roderick complained about an article by Fazil Mihlar. Mihlar claims that Wal-Mart deserves both the Nobel Peace Prize and, in fact, sainthood. (I’m not sure that the Vatican has yet started canonizing corporations or other artificial persons. But never mind.) The reason he offers is that Wal-Mart does a lot of good in the world (providing jobs, making donations, making valued goods available at low prices), and that they are able to do that good because of entrepreneurial innovations and expertise in the market, especially the market for the inputs for their business.

Roderick pointed out, in reply, that this account left out a crucial factor: government interventions against the free market that benefit big retail business models, such as the seizure of land through eminent domain, corporate welfare, regulatory suppression of competitors, and government-subsidized infrastructure for long-distance transportation. Thus:

Both Wal-Mart’s critics and its defenders usually see it as an embodiment of the free market. But to me Wal-Mart looks like just one more special interest feeding at the taxpayers’ trough.

I’m opposed to Wal-Mart because I like the free market.

— Roderick Long, Austro-Athenian Empire (2009-03-31): Advocatus Diaboli

I think that’s straightforward enough. But it brought the usual complaints from the usual suspects. There’s a long and very interesting and sometimes illuminating discussion in the comments, which you should read if you haven’t already. But what I want to focus on now is a couple of counter-arguments, which have been repeatedly raised by critics of this line of criticism (notably J.H. Huebert and Stephan Kinsella) which I think involve serious economic errors and a healthy dose of special pleading.

Before I begin, though, let me say a couple of things. First, this post will have absolutely nothing to do with the question of whether or not Wal-Mart is a morally criminal enterprise of the sort discussed in Confiscation and the Homestead Principle, and hence it will have nothing to do with whether or not Wal-Mart enjoys legitimate private property rights over its land, stores, trucks, goods for sale, bank accounts, or anything else, and hence it will also have nothing to do with whether or not it’s O.K. for people to vandalize their stores, loot them, shoplift from them, expropriate their means of production, or otherwise get up in Wal-Mart’s grill. In fact almost nobody who’s been a party to this particular conversation so far (as opposed to some other, separate conversations about protest tactics and Macy’s) has been talking about this, except for a dialogue between Stephan Kinsella and an imaginary left-libertarian in his head. I have my own views on that (which are fairly uninteresting; in short, that there isn’t one answer for the whole corporation and that it depends on the case), but it’s not the issue at hand in Roderick’s article, and it’s not an issue I’ll be addressing here, either.

Second, this article will also have very little to do with whether or not Wal-Mart deserves the Nobel Peace Prize, or sainthood, or praise, or censure, or some mixture or combination of the two. The arguments that I’ll be discussing might feed into a larger discussion about how to parcel out praise and blame, but that’s not my concern here. My concern has specifically to do with the extent to which Wal-Mart ought to be regarded as an example of free-market entrepreneurial success. (That’s related to but distinct from the question of whether Wal-Mart ought to be praised or blamed or neither by free-marketeers. If you’re curious about that topic, this post will disappoint, but you might get something out of my exchange with Will Wilkinson in the post and comments at GT 2008-11-10: The ALLied invasion of Cato.)

With that cleared out of the way, here are the specific arguments that I do want to address.

  1. Why single out Wal-Mart? When left-libertarians point out that Wal-Mart benefits from certain aggressive government interventions, and suggest that this is a reason not to cite Wal-Mart’s bidniz practices as an example of the free market at work, we are constantly asked — with the utmost innocence, even though this has been addressed over and over again every single time it has come up, generally without any response — why we are singling out Wal-Mart for criticism, given that many other market actors also benefit from the same interventions, or from other similarly objectionable interventions. Thus, for example, when Sheldon Richman writes:

    It would be impossible to sort out which profits are legit and which are not. I don’t think that’s the point. The point is to stop the machinery that makes illegitimate profits possible. That’s the state and its various methods of privileging and burdening.

    Kinsella replies:

    Yes. We libertarians are of course against this. So why single out Walmart? By imprecise, lax standards, 99% of society is criminal/suspect. Where does that get us?

    Let me just repeat here the same damn thing that I have repeated every time this stupid question gets asked. There are two main reasons that Wal-Mart gets singled out here. The first reason is often because some conventionally pro-capitalist libertarian brought Wal-Mart up as an example of the free market in action. Since Mihlar brings Wal-Mart up as an example of free market success, then it would be bizarre for Roderick not to have mentioned Wal-Mart in his reply; if we are informed that Wal-Mart ought to be praised because of a characteristic X that it possesses, but it turns out that Wal-Mart does not actually possess characteristic X, then the responsible thing to do is to discuss some specifics about Wal-Mart (not every other market actor toiling in this unfree market of ours) in order to demonstrate that it hasn’t got X. This is, in fact, what actually happened in the exchange that Kinsella was supposedly commenting on.

    The second reason why Wal-Mart often comes up is because Wal-Mart is a convenient example of something broader that they want to discuss — for example, the specific system of state interventions that tends to privilege big box retailers, as a group, at the expense of alternative channels of distribution, and of alternative uses of land more broadly. Of course, Wal-Mart is not the only retailer that benefits from eminent domain seizures, or from government-subsidized infrastructure for long-distance shipping, or from corporate welfare packages in the name of development. So does Target; so does Best Buy; so does Barnes and Noble; and on, and on, down the line, for just about any strip mall chain store you could think of. But Wal-Mart is a convenient example of the broader trend, because of its unique size, scope, and name recognition. If I intend to talk about a certain kind of business model and its relationship with state power, then I hardly think it’s unfair to pick a specific example to talk about, and leave the extension of the analysis as an exercise for the reader. And I hardly think it’s weird or wrong to pick the most prominent and largest example of that particular business model as my specific example. When I write about bad things that the city government in Las Vegas does — for example, its fierce devotion to police brutality, economic cleansing, and using eminent domain to ensure that land gets used the way the tourism and convention industry wants it used, rather than the way that its owners do — I often go beyond simply reporting on local events, and I draw quite broad conclusions about government in general, or city governments in particular, but even then, I don’t feel compelled to mention, in the same breath, every other large city government in the world that does similarly awful things. It’s not picking on Las Vegas, or singling it out, to focus in on it as an example for the sake of discussion. And it is sheer bluster to go on accusing critics of apologists for Wal-Mart of singling out Wal-Mart when they have explained over, and over, and over again why we are mentioning it as an example of broader trends.

  2. Who are Wal-Mart’s competitors? This is, actually, somewhat related to the earlier question, but the issue goes deeper. When Roderick and others (Kevin Carson, especially) point out that the success of Wal-Mart’s business model depends heavily on Wal-Mart’s capacity to convince city governments to grant them corporate welfare giveaways and steal land on their behalf, or on Wal-Mart’s having access to a large network of reliable interstate roads available at a low marginal cost, which are funded in a way that heavily subsidizes those who use them for high-volume cross-country heavy trucking (which is, after all, exactly what folks like Mihlar are referring to when they extol Wal-Mart’s genious at transportation, distribution, and logistics) it is often replied that Wal-Mart is just making better use of available resources than its competitors; that these resources are available not only to Wal-Mart but to its competitors as well, and that, therefore, Wal-Mart’s advantages over its competitors must be the result of something other than the availability of those resources — must, that is, be the result of greater acumen at serving its customers needs. Thus, it is argued, even though Wal-Mart depends on coercively-funded government resources for its current business model, they would (it is argued) have the same advantages (whatever those may be) that make them successful, in this an unfree market, even after the transformation of the market into a free market. Or, at the very least, they oughtn’t to be blamed for being able to successfully make use of those advantages under the present circumstances. Thus, for example, J.H. Huebert in an earlier reply to Roderick:

    We are still not sure why Long believes big businesses, and Wal-Mart in particular, disproportionately benefit from the existence of government roads. No one disapproves of government roads more than we do, but the roads are there for anyone to use — the would-be competitor has just as much access to them as Wal-Mart does. Where is the unfair advantage?

    And again in the comments on Roderick’s more recent post

    How does the existence of government roads hamstring Wal-Mart’s competitors? Anyone can use the roads.

    And Stephan Kinsella, in the same thread:

    Why do the subsidies help Walmart more than local mom and pop competitors? They all get goods shipped from far away

    The main problem with this kind of response is that it betrays a curious sort of anti-economic blind spot about just who Wal-Mart’s competitors are. It is true that, if we lookonly at the other actually-existing businesses that provide substitute goods and services — K-Mart, Target, Home Depot, and other big box retailers, or, expanding outward, smaller, non-chain retailers trying to sell some subset of the goods that Wal-Mart sells — then it is clear that those sorts of competitors do have access to the same kind of government privileges that Wal-Mart does; Wal-Mart just has succeeded more than they have at exploiting those privileges in such a way as to offer the goods most in demand and to offer them at lower prices. Fine. But of course, those aren’t all the competitors that Wal-Mart has — not if you consider the competitors for Wal-Mart’s inputs as well as the competitors for Wal-Mart’s outputs. In conversations like these, it is typical for conventionally pro-capitalist libertarians to act as if the business under discussion were only competing with other large chains in its sector — as if we were just picking on Wal-Mart because they’re an easy target, and rooting for Target instead — or as if it were only competing with retailers more broadly. But it’s not. The market does not just consist of passive consumers and a handful of formalized joint-stock companies. The market is a big and messy place, and whatever you might say about the ways that Wal-Mart gains advantages over other businesses that do basically what Wal-Mart does, it is certainly clear that Wal-Mart’s advantages over competing uses of the land, labor, and infrastructure that are currently devoted to serving its business model.

    Thus, for example, Wal-Mart currently enjoys preferential access to long, straight stretches of land that it needs to ship its goods in trucks. Preferential access compared to whom? Well, not to Best Buy or Mom & Pop’s; they both can get things shipped along the same stretch. That much is seen. But what is not seen is that they — Wal-Mart, and other retailers as well — do have preferential access to those resources when compared the people who used to have, or might have had, homes, farms, parks, small businesses, car-only roads, or any number of other competitive uses of the land, which would have won out if the question were decided by homesteading and voluntary exchange, rather than by tax-funded acquisitions, government land grants, and eminent domain theft. Similarly, other big retailers also typically get at least some of the same government privileges in corporate welfare giveaways and eminent domain seizures in the name of development. Thus, Wal-Mart may not have much advantage over, say, Target, or other fellow big chain retailers, when it come to this kind of government boodle. But those who were using, or would otherwise have used, the money or the land that the government seized, for purposes that government’s don’t count as development, since they don’t increase property or sales tax revenue — keeping up their own homes, growing their own food, running down-market or informal-sector businesses, street-corner hustling, and the like — those people are also would-be competitors for the use of the land, money, or other resources that Wal-Mart is having the government seize and redistribute by force. And those competitors certainly are hamstrung by the government’s redistribution of money, or its expropriation of land. We know that they are because the government is seizing it by force, and people were using it for other things, and would continue to use it for other things unless they were paid more than Wal-Mart and other development beneficiaries pay for it in the forced sale. That is, after all, the point of eminent domain.

    The problem here is that when you fetishize competition as the struggle between similar businesses to provide substitute goods or services, and forget about the other forms of competition for scarce resources that are at issue — often uses by individual property-owners, often uses of the property that may be heavily tied up in local communities and in the informal sector, and may be governed by incentives different from those faced by large, formalized, for-profit corporations — it will, no doubt, seem incomprehensible that someone would focus on how Wal-Mart uses the roads that anyone can use. Because the real nature of the problem is the fact that resources that are currently devoted to those roads cannot be used for what they would be used for in a freed market, which results in a big splash and some major ripples in the market distorted by that particular rock. Not because Wal-Mart alone benefits at the expense of K-Mart or Target, but rather because Wal-Mart, K-Mart, Target, and all the other big-box chain retailers — and, to a lesser extent, also locally-owned, small retailers — all benefit at the expense of somebody other than retailers, and at the expense of uses for land other than the servicing of retail sales, when the government uses force to seize long, straight strips of land, to build and maintain big highways on it, and to open up those roads, mostly without tolls and mostly without price discrimination, to anyone who cares to use it, regardless of what the marginal cost of the use may be. If those big highways weren’t being laid down according to political considerations and development politics, and if they weren’t being heavily subsidized by coercively-seized taxes, the land might well (would probably) be used for something quite other than a large, subsidized national shipping network; and if so, those who intend to go into retail, especially those who want to go into the retailing of goods from an international network of bargain-basement suppliers, might well lose a lot of the comparative advantage that the sword of the State currently grants them over other, non-retail uses of the same scarce resources. It’s not that Wal-Mart is special here among retailers, in anything other than degree; it’s that Wal-Mart is one prominent example of a larger dynamic — the way in which State coercion, State expropriation, and State redistribution sucks scarce resources out of one sector of the economy and spits them out into another — forcibly redirecting them towards large, centralized, formal-sector cash businesses, and away from other, smaller, more localized, more informal, or less commercial uses of the resources (like housing, open space, small farming, cottage industry, local nightclubs, and other typical victims of the Development machine). The reason that Wal-Mart is not a good example of free market dynamics is not because it somehow owes its advantages over Target to government intervention, but rather because Wal-Mart, Target, and the rest of the big retailers all owe their advantages over every other competing use of resources to the heavy hand of government. The result of removing those coercive advantages probably wouldn’t be to hurt Wal-Mart in particular in its competition with Target; but it would remove a mighty big subsidy that Wal-Mart, Target, and all the other big box retailers enjoy over alternative, non-retail uses of the same property. Which might just make for some changes in how our cities look, and in how we get around and make our livings in them.

  • Diamonds, water, and roads: Finally, when Kinsella and Huebert try to exonerate Wal-Mart from blame for the government interventions that it exploits, they often fall back on an argument that it has just made the best entrepreneurial use of a situation that it found but did not create, and in order to support that claim, they have often portrayed Wal-Mart’s relationship with the state as being quite different from what it actually is. Thus, on roads, J.H. Huebert puts it in the most starkly silly terms here:

    Kevin Carson writes: Wal-Mart’s business model is heavily reliant on susidized roads. It supplanted competitors which had local supply chains.

    Yes, but Wal-Mart found the roads there, it didn’t create them, and it used them better than its competitors to serve consumers.

    The funny thing about this kind of argument is watching an Austrian economist suddenly forget everything that he ever knew about marginal analysis, in order to paint a picture of Wal-Mart just bumbling along until — by George! — it finds a road out in the wilderness (perhaps by tripping over it), and thinks why, I might just be able to use this to efficiently serve consumers! Of course, if we are talking about the whole entire Interstate Highway System, then it is true that Wal-Mart did not play much of a role in creating that, and doesn’t play much of a role in the political process that maintains it. It was created largely at the behest of the military-industrial complex and the construction-pork-barrel complex, back in 1956, when Sam Walton was still running a local Ben Franklin franchise. And the political support for it hardly depends on Wal-Mart; the notion that the federal government shouldn’t be involved in seizing land and seizing taxes for the purpose of a huge network of toll-free interstate highways is so far outside the horizons of acceptable dissent in D.C. that nobody would need to lobby against that. So, yes, fine, in that sense Wal-Mart is benefiting from the situation at competitors’ expense (for the reasons I mentioned above), but it did not create the situation that it benefits from; it just got better than some other similar companies at dealing with it.

    But, of course, if you want to do a serious economic analysis of Wal-Mart’s business model, what you really need to know about is not the whole stock of its inputs. What you really need to know about is the marginal units of its inputs. And if we are going to talk about the highway system that services Wal-Mart, we need to look not only at Wal-Mart’s relationship to system of government roads as a whole, but also Wal-Mart’s relationship to the specific stretches of highway that Wal-Mart uses.

    And when we look at it that way, we’ll find that Wal-Mart is heavily involved in every sort of lobbying in order to get various levels of government involved in subsidizing its access to that. Just about every time Wal-Mart decides to build a new store, or especially a new distribution center, they turn to local governments to demand that they grab some money out of working folks’ pockets and put it towards building up business park infrastructure and highway interchanges, or widening or extending some existing stretch of road to service Wal-Mart’s trucking needs, or simply to build a new spur out to service nothing but the distribution center. (A few examples gleaned from a few minutes on Google: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8.) Wal-Mart solicits and actively lobbies for this sort of thing all the time so that they can improve the marginal benefits they get from the road network, while being able to pass along the marginal cost to taxpayers and to those who would have made alternative uses of the land, capital and labor involved.

    So how far is Wal-Mart merely taking advantage of a situation that it did not create, and how far is it actively collaborating in, and pushing for, wider and more intense aggression by the state against private property owners, when it comes to roads? Well, it depends on what you look at. The problem is that those who have wanted to defend Wal-Mart have done so based on lazy arguments based on Wal-Mart’s relationship to the existence of the interstate highway system as a continent-spanning whole. Once you actually look at the construction and improvement of new stretches of road on the margin — which is, remember, what’s important for understanding how far Wal-Mart’s bidniz model does or does not depend on successfully wielding the sword of the State, since it is only on the margin that they are making all of their decisions, counting all their costs, and reaping all of their profits — it becomes clear that Wal-Mart is not just finding the roads there as some sort of given; it went to the government and got the roads it uses put there, typically by force and typically at the expense of unwilling third parties.

If you want to try and defend Wal-Mart, or its apologists, against their left-libertarian critics, fine, let’s talk about that. But please try to find some arguments other than these.

Hope this helps.

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Center for a Stateless Society Spring fundraiser

From Brad Spangler at the Center for a Stateless Society:

Dear Supporters of the Center,

We hope you’ve liked what you’ve seen so far from the Center for a Stateless Society. Our financial support for independent scholar (now C4SS Research Associate) Kevin Carson allowed him to produce a widely hailed work in his ongoing synthesis of free-market libertarian and libertarian socialist thought — “Industrial Policy: New Wine in Old Bottles” — as well as ongoing commentary pieces.

With your help, for the Spring of 2009 we’d like to:

  • fund Carson’s research work for the second quarter (April through June), to result in another study for publication…
  • fund Carson’s commentaries for the remainder of this quarter and all of next quarter
  • and add our second paid staff position, a News Analyst, to produce additional commentary

This takes money, but not very much of it. Our modest funding goal, to allow us to carry this out and prepare the way for future growth and success, is very small. I’ll break down the expense list for you and you can see for yourself:

  • $300 for Carson’s research study
  • $400 for Carson’s commentary work from now through the end of June ($25 per piece)
  • $600 for the News Analyst’s commentary ($25 per piece) from April through June

That’s a $1,300 fundraising goal. I believe we can achieve it, but I could be wrong. It’s all in your hands. If you want a polycentric movement, donate today.


Brad Spangler

Carson in the Freeman: Hierarchy or the Market

I’ll be posting about my talk at the LP meeting soon, I promise, but I just blew an afternoon on painting a fence (in order to appease our complex’s property manager). I hear that this is the sort of thing that’s supposed to make men feel a sense of vigor and pride and accomplishment. But mostly it just made me want to take a hot bath and zone out with the TV until tomorrow.

Fortunately, other people do the thinking so I don’t have to. In particular, here’s a shout-out and congratulations to Kevin Carson (and thanks also to the indefatigable Sheldon Richman) for another fine article in The Freeman, on Hierarchy or the Market:

F. A. Hayek, in The Use of Knowledge in Society, used distributed, or idiosyncratic, knowledge—the unique situational knowledge possessed by each individual—as an argument against state central planning.

Milton Friedman’s dictum about other people’s money is well known. People are more careful and efficient in spending their own than other people’s money, and likewise in spending money on themselves more so than in spending money on other people.

A third insight is that people act most efficiently when they completely internalize the positive and negative results of their actions.

The corporate hierarchy violates all of these principles in a manner quite similar to the bureaucracy of a socialist state. Those at the top make decisions concerning a production process about which they likely know as little as did, say, the chief of an old Soviet industrial ministry.

The employees of a corporation, from the CEO down to the worker on the shop floor, are spending other people’s money, or using other people’s resources, for other people. Its managers, as Adam Smith observed 200 years ago, are managers rather of other people’s money than of their own.

By its nature, the corporation substitutes administrative incentives for what Oliver Williamson called the high powered incentives of the market: effort and productivity are separated from reward.

. . . The state’s entry barriers, like licensing and capitalization requirements for banks, reduce competition in the supply of credit and drive up its price; enforcement of artificial titles to vacant and unimproved land has a similar effect. As a result, labor’s independent access to capital is limited; workers must sell their labor in a buyer’s market; and workers tend to compete for jobs rather than jobs for workers.

State subsidies to economic centralization and capital accumulation also artificially increase the capital-intensiveness of production and thereby the capitalization of the dominant firm. The effect of such entry barriers is to reduce the number of employers competing for labor, while increasing the difficulty for small property owners to pool their capital and create competing enterprise.

The cumulative legacy of these past acts of state-assisted robbery, and ongoing state-enforced unequal exchange, determines the basic structural foundations of the present-day economy. These include enormous concentrations of wealth in a few hands, the absentee ownership of capital by large-scale investors, and a hired labor force with no property in the means of production it works.

Necessarily, therefore, the absentee owners must resort to the expedients of hierarchy and top-down authority to elicit effort from a workforce with no rational interest in maximizing its own productivity.

. . .

The problem is not hierarchy in itself, but government policies that make it artificially prevalent. No doubt some large-scale production would exist in a free market, and likewise some wage employment and absentee ownership. But in a free market the predominant scale of production would likely be far smaller, and self-employment and cooperative ownership more widespread, than at present. Entrepreneurial profit would replace permanent rents from artificial property and other forms of privilege. Had the industrial revolution taken place in a genuine free market rather than a society characterized by state-backed robbery and privilege, our economy today would probably be far closer to the vision of Lewis Mumford than that of Joseph Schumpeter and Alfred Chandler.

— Kevin Carson, The Freeman 58.3 (April 2008): Hierarchy or the Market

Read the whole thing.

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On crutches and crowbars: toward a labor radical case against the minimum wage

First they taught us to depend
On their Nation-States to mend
Our tired minds, our broken bones, our failing limbs;
And now they’ve sold off all the splints,
and contracted out the tourniquets,
And if we jump through hoops, then we might just survive.

— Propagandhi, The State Lottery

There has been some interesting discussion among Jim Henley (2008-02-21), Tom Knapp (2008-02-29), and Kevin Carson over left-libertarian political programmes, strategic priorities, gradualism, and the welfare state. The debate began with an argument over Knapp’s World’s Smallest Political Platform for the Libertarian Party, and Henley’s worries that the platform, as expressed, doesn’t allow much room for gradualist approaches to repeal, or nuance in strategic priorities. Now, I don’t have much of a dog in that fight, because I’m not a gradualist, but I’m not in the least bit interested about limited-statist party-building or political platforms, either. At the level of moral principle, I have a very simple approach to taxation, government welfare programs, regulation, etc. If I had a platform, it would be three words — Smash the State — and the programme I favor for implementing that is for each and every government program to be be abolished immediately, completely, and forever, whenever, wherever, in whatever order, and to whatever extent that we can, by hook, by crook, slingshot, canoe, wherever the political opportunity to do so presents itself. Political coercion is an evil against which it may sometimes be prudent to retreat, but with which there can be no negotiated compromise. (All such compromises, so-called, are really just conditional surrender.)

In other words, on the one hand, I am an ultra-immediatist, in the sense that I believe that everything’s got to go, and that libertarians and anarchists should make no bones about saying so; and, on the other, I also — unlike certain gradualist anarcho-statists like Noam Chomsky or Ursula K. LeGuin — am an ultra-incrementalist, in the sense that I don’t think that we ought to put our efforts to abolish anything on hold until we’ve somehow (how?) managed to abolish just about everything.

I’m not actually sure whether Henley really is advocating gradualism in the sense that I oppose it; there’s a difference between gradualism in ideals and incrementalism in strategy, which language makes unfortunately easy to overlook. Defending immediate and complete abolition on principle, and the abolition of any coercive program you may get the opportunity to abolish, doesn’t entail any particular order of priorities in terms of the scope or order in which you might concentrate your own limited resources towards making opportunities for abolition that didn’t previously exist. And that’s where I think the interesting part comes in, and where there is a lot of room for interesting discussion about freedom, class, and strategic priorities when it comes to government interventions with distinctive class profiles. Here’s Henley:

… I have a sequencing objection. Figure the state as Annie Wilkes in Stephen King’s novel, Misery. She wants to help the patient so much she’ll never willingly let him go. To a libertarian, much of what the state does looks like providing crutches or shackles. To an anarchist, I suppose everything the state does looks like that. Crutches are actually important for the injured. If you’re to completely heal, though, you have to give them up at the right time. And some badly injured people are never going to be able to do without them - e.g. my mother with her walker.

But the crazy nurse wants you to keep your crutches whether you need them or not, and she’ll chain you to the bed, if necessary, to keep you in her care. If she has to, she’ll cut off your foot, for your own good. … So we want to remove most or all crutches and shed most or all shackles, depending on how, for lack of a better term, anarchistic we are. But which shackles and which crutches when? The liberal libertarian answer is: first take the crutches from those best able to bear their own weight, and remove the shackles from the weak before the strong. So: corporate welfare before Social Security before Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Drug prohibition before marginal income tax rates.

Most libertarians would agree that it’s a messed-up state that:

  • Creates a massive crime problem in poor minority neighborhoods with a futile, vicious and every more far-reaching attempt to prevent commerce in popular, highly portable intoxicants that leaves absurd numbers of young men with felony records, making them marginally employable.

  • Fails to provide adequate policing for such neighborhoods.

  • Fails to provide effective education in such neighborhoods after installing itself as the educator of first resort.

  • Uses regulatory power to sharply curtail entry into lines of business from hair-care to ride provision, further limiting the employment options of people in such neighborhoods.

  • Has in the past actively fostered the oppression of said minority, up to and including spending state money and time in keeping its members in bondage.

  • To make up for all of the above, provides a nominal amount of tax-financed welfare for the afflicted.

But it’s a messed-up libertarianism that looks at that situation and says, Man, first thing we gotta do is get rid of that welfare!

— Jim Henley, Unqualified Offerings (2008-02-21): Ask Me What the Secret of L—TIMING!—ibalertarianism Is

Kevin Carson takes sympathetic notice of Henley’s metaphor of crutches and shackles, quoting an earlier passage in which he’d used quite similar language to make the point:

If the privilege remains, statist corrective action will be the inevitable result. That’s why I don’t get too bent out of shape about the statism of the minimum wage or overtime laws—in my list of statist evils, the guys who are breaking legs rank considerably higher than the ones handing out government crutches. All too many libertarians could care less about the statism that causes the problems of income disparity, but go ballistic over the statism intended to alleviate it. It’s another example of the general rule that statism that helps the rich is kinda sorta bad, maybe, I guess, but statism that helps the poor is flaming red ruin on wheels.

— Quoted by Kevin Carson (2008-03-03): On Dissolving the State, and What to Replace It With

I agree a lot with the broad point that Henley and Carson are both making here. In setting strategic priorities, we have to look at which forms of government coercion do the most concrete damage, which forms of government coercion has intended victims who are most vulnerable to it, which forms have intended victims who can more easily evade or game the system on their own, and, perhaps most importantly, which forms serve as the real historical and ideological anchors for establishing and sustaining the distorted statist social order, and which forms are relatively superficial efforts to stabilize or ameliorate the effects of those anchors. I think that on all these counts, a serious look at how calls the shots and who takes the bullets will show that the welfare state, such as it is, is a fairly small and superficial effort to ameliorate the effects of deep, pervasive, and incredibly destructive economic and institutional privilege for big, centralized, bureaucratic state capitalism, and (as much or more so) for the class power of the State itself over the poor folks that it beats up, locks up, institutionalizes, bombs, robs of their homes and livelihoods, and so on. Moreover, it’s a fairly small and superficial effort which doesn’t violate anybody’s rights per se; it’s the coercive funding of government doles, not their mere existence, that involves government violence, and in that respect, while I think they should be abolished, they’re on quite a different footing from things like the warfare state and the underlying government monopolies and privileges that the welfare state is intended to correct for, which involve coercion both in funding and in the very things that the funding is used for. All this tends to support strategic priorities in favor of (as Tom Knapp himself originally put it) cutting welfare from the top down and cutting taxes from the bottom up.

That’s all well and good. But I want to sound a note of caution. When we’re setting our strategic priorities, one thing that we need to keep an eye out for is the fact that not all of what the government passes out as a crutch really is one; the enemy we’re fighting, after all, is a consolidated mass not only of force, but also of fraud. Lots of so-called crutches really have a secret shackle attached to them — welfare per se is a crutch, but remember that welfare comes with a professional busybody social worker attached. Moreover, lots of so-called crutches are themselves crowbars; they’re the tools that the State uses to break your legs, and then have the supreme impudence to claim that they’re helping you to walk by doing it. As I said to Kevin (internal links added for this post):

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 … 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?

— Rad Geek, in comments (2008-03-03) on On Dissolving the State, and What to Replace It With

Really, to keep my metaphors straight, I should have said cripple the poor or otherwise powerless. Oh well. In any case, Kevin agreed, and added some quite true and important points:

I agree entirely. That’s why I think the setting of priorities for dismantling the state must be combined with educational efforts and building counter-institutions.

Frankly, eliminating the minimum wage and food stamps is at the very bottom of my list of priorities. My guess is that when the landlord and banking monopolies are eliminated, along with intellectual property, Taft-Hartley, and all the regulatory barriers to mutual insurance, eliminating the minimum wage and food stamps will be a moot point because it will be so hard to find anybody on them.

But I also advocate vigorous ideological struggle to counteract the matrix version of reality parroted by the vulgar liberals at Daily Kos, and to expose the role of the state capitalist ruling class in creating the regulatory-welfare state.

And that’s especially true in the case of crutches that play a central role in serious exploitation, like professional licensing and safety codes whose main purpose is to enforce the power of cartels to bleed consumers dry and shut workers out of opportunities for self-employment.

— Kevin Carson, comments (2008-03-03) on On Dissolving the State, and What to Replace It With

But while I agree with him on almost all the details of his reply, I think there’s an important distinction that it misses:

I agree with you on food stamps, but not on the minimum wage. In fact it’s laws like the minimum wage which I especially had in mind when I mentioned crowbars being passed off as crutches. While I agree that a free market would almost certainly result in substantial increases in real income and substantial decreases in cost of living for virtually all workers — to the point where they would either be making well above the current minimum wage, or at least where fixed costs of living would have dropped enough that it amounts to the same — there’s also the question of what we should be pushing for in the meantime in-betweentime, when there aren’t fully free markets in labor, capital, ideas, and land. In that context, the minimum wage law is, I think, actively destructive. Conditional give-aways, like foodstamps, are one thing; the program itself doesn’t violate anyone’s rights (it’s the tax funding that’s the problem), and people can always choose not to go on foodstamps if they decide (for whatever reason) that it’s doing them more harm than good. Not so with minimum wage; the only way to shake off this so-called protection is to seek out someone who’ll let you work under the table, and hope the government doesn’t catch on. The result is forcing one class of workers out of work in favor of another, more privileged class of workers. Hence, I’d argue we should treat abolition of the minimum wage a lot differently, in terms of strategic priorities, from how we treat government welfare, food stamps, etc.

— Rad Geek, in comments (2008-03-04) on On Dissolving the State, and What to Replace It With

Here’s Kevin’s response to the distinction in treatment that I wanted to urge:

I’m not sure the minimum wage really has that effect (and again, my purpose is not to defend the MW, but to move its abolition to the bottom of the priority list).

I know the arguments on how they reduce employment, but they all carry an implied ceteris paribus; and most of the polemicists at Mises.Org and the like strenuously advoid any suggestion that things might not be equal.

It’s most likely that, in an industry that employs minimum wage workers, there is little or no competitive pressure to minimize wage costs because all the local employers in that industry are paying the same wage. And if there’s a high elasticity of demand for fast food, etc., it will probably be passed on to customers unnoticed, as one small component in the price of a Big Mac.

In addition, the argument assumes a competitive labor market and cost-minimizing firms, and neglects the possiblity that minimum wage increases may come out of quasi-rents and simply reduce profit. That’s unlikely to be the case for minimum wage employers per se, which tend to be small businesses with narrow profit margins; but it’s more likely to be true in better paying employers who peg wages to the minimum wage plus some differential.

— Kevin Carson, comments (2008-03-05) on On Dissolving the State, and What to Replace It With

I didn’t mean to suggest that Kevin was trying to defend the minimum wage, and I’m sorry if I inadvertently gave the impression that that’s what I’m arguing against. I take it that he’s not trying to defend government welfare, either; just suggesting that libertarians re-order their strategic priorities in terms of which evils to first and most intently put their limited resources towards combating. The point I’m urging is in a similar vein; I’d like to encourage left libertarians, in particular, to make a further distinction of priorities, and put minimum wage laws higher up the To-Agitate-Against list than they put government dole programs. They’re both objectionable, and I’d argue that both should be abolished (immediately, completely) at the first opportunity. But they’re objectionable in different ways, and shouldn’t be considered as part of a single welfare state package when anarchists look at what kind of opportunities to try to drum up for ourselves. The bare existence directly coerces individual workers, and for the most part tends to hurt the most economically vulnerable workers the most, in ways that the existence of welfare state programs (where the problem is not the program per se, but the coercive funding) do not.

I’m not sure I understand Kevin’s argument when he says, And if there’s a high elasticity of demand for fast food, etc., it will probably be passed on to customers unnoticed, as one small component in the price of a Big Mac, and I wonder whether he meant to write low elasticity of demand. If there’s a high price-elasticity of demand for fast food, then that would mean that quantity demanded is highly sensitive to price increases; in that kind of industry that bosses should be more likely, not less, to try to make up the difference in labor costs by stopping new hires, firing workers, reducing hours, and instituting work speed-ups.

And this isn’t just at the level of ceteris-paribus theory. There is that, and it’s important, but on this one, I can speak from the shop floor. I was working at a pizza joint in Michigan when the governor pushed a minimum wage bill through the state legislature, hiking the state price floor on labor to $6.95 per hour — with a tiered plan that raised it again to $7.15 per hour last July, and will raise it to $7.45 per hour this year. I was an inside cook at the time, and most of us already made above minimum wage, except for a couple of high schoolers.

In our shop, the main issue was the drivers. They got the minimum hourly wage for non-tipped employees on their paycheck (mainly so that the corporate office could invoke some plausible deniability on not reporting and paying FICA tax on their tips). When the increase went through, one of the immediate results was that corporate sent their know-nothing goons down from the office to start chewing out our GM over the hours for our regular late-night driver, who worked about 20 hours of overtime every week, because it’s hard to find other drivers who are willing to regularly work a 5:00pm-4:00am shift.

The other immediate result is that corporate forced our store to institute a $1.00 delivery fee — and to change the compensation structure for drivers. Drivers used to get $1.00 per run plus a commission based on the size (in dollars) of the order; after the change-over, they got a higher hourly wage and a flat commission of $0.75 per run, no matter what the size of the order. The result was that if you took more than four deliveries in an hour — or if you took just about any large-order deliveries — then you actually made less money that hour than you would have before Jennifer Granholm gave us all her government-mandated raise.

The delivery fee might make it look like a significant part of the cost of the minimum wage hike was being shifted onto customers, rather than onto workers. But (1) most of it was taken out on workers; the change in compensation for runs reduced pay to drivers, especially lunchtime drivers, by far more than the price increase increased store revenue. And (2) the fact is that customers usually just deducted the cost of the delivery fee from they would normally give as a tip to the driver. I know from questions that a few of them asked me after the delivery fee was instituted that a lot of them were under the mistaken impression that the delivery fee went to the driver. Thus the total costs to the customer didn’t budge; they just got re-allocated so that more would go to the boss instead of to the driver.

So at our store, at least, we could thank Jennifer Granholm’s raise for imposed hours-reductions, reduced tips, and providing management with the pretext for a really massive screwjob on effective pay for those who were working at the minimum hourly wage.

In other shops, there aren’t always the same opportunities for chiseling workers on non-hourly pay in the way drivers at our shop got chiseled. But in a broader sense, I don’t think our shop’s experience was atypical. Any retail or food service company, even if all pay comes from fixed hourly wages, can use hours reductions, halting new hires, and death-march speed-ups for those still on the crew. And that they will do that sort of thing, rather than adding cents onto meal specials that already focus on 99-cent deals and nickel-and-dime savings, seems like a perfectly predictable pattern that a lot of bosses in the low-wage service sector are going to follow, as long as there’s a lot more of us looking for hours than there are of them dangling the hours in front of us.

Of course, that last bit there is the root cause of the problem — government-imposed distortions of the markets in labor, capital, land, and ideas (inter alia) artificially constrain opportunities for people to make a living for themselves, distorting the labor market to keep disproportionate power in the hands of a small and privileged class of rentiers. Without those market distortions, a law against paying workers $4 an hour would matter about as much as a law against selling pork-chops in Mecca — objectionable on principle, but mainly negligible as a strategic matter, due to a dearth of identifiable victims. But as long as those coercive distortions are substantially in place, we do have to keep in mind how bosses will predictably react to additional coercive counter-distortions that are piled on top to correct for the predictable effects of the first distortion, without actually changing anything about the root causes. And with the predictable patterns of reaction in mind, and their current position of power within the labor market, I don’t think we have to turn into a bunch of vulgar Friedmaniacs or Misoids to agree with them that the effects of keeping, or worse, raising legally-enforced price floors on labor are going to be generally quite destructive, and most destructive to those who need most badly to find a place to sell their labor.

Now, when it comes to workers in my position, who were already working at above minimum wage, I agree that they might well see some wage increases from a minimum wage increase, by way of pegging and ripple effects. I never did, but maybe others might. There are some cases in which minimum wage increases might benefit relatively more privileged workers, but it’s the marginal workers — the ones who are working right at, or right above, or would be willing to work below the current minimum wage — who I’m most concerned about, because they are the ones whose backs it’s taken out on. Usually not in the form of firing existing workers — which is highly visible and has a significant marginal cost for the boss — but very often in the form of hours reductions and by simply not making new hires — which call much less attention to themselves and have much lower marginal costs, but can effect just as much in the way of ratcheting down labor costs.

I have lots of other strategic priorities that are higher on my list than the minimum wage. It’s enough work for me trying to take on war, government policing, international apartheid, the American Stasi, government schooling, institutional psychiatry, violence against women, gay-bashing, trans-bashing, government regimentation of healthcare, land-grabbing and privateering, government-enforced licensure cartels, the IRS, and the Wagner-Taft-Hartley framework, and trying to sell all of this to Leftists who mostly get only about half of it and libertarians who mostly get only the other half, without adding yet another windmill-charge at the pet notions of ACORN types and the corporate liberal consensus! But I do think that there’s a big asymmetry between government relief projects like TANF or food stamps, on the one hand, and the minimum wage and other coercively protective labor legislation, on the other.

I agree with Kevin more or less completely on the former. But the point I’m trying to stress is that, in spite of fact that the anti-minimum-wage argument has mainly been promulgated with a vulgar libertarian tone, the thing for left libertarians to do in response is not to kick it back down to the bottom of the priorities ladder, but rather to take it up themselves and re-conceptualize the debate — to treat minimum wage laws and the rest of coercively protective labor legislation as of a piece with government licensure cartels, zoning laws, the health and building codes favored by the Public Interest and Private Property Values racket, etc., as an integral part of the corporate liberal system of coercive power, which coercively ratchet up poor folks’ fixed costs of living while coercively ratcheting down their opportunities to scratch up a living.