Posts tagged Kevin Carson

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.

See also:

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.

Liberty, Equality, Solidarity: Toward a Dialectical Anarchism

Here’s what I got in the mail Monday afternoon. It took a week longer to reach me than it did to reach Roderick; I don’t know whether that’s one of the perks of being an editor rather than a mere contributor like me, or simply because I’m way out west and he’s in Alabama.

A hardbound copy of Anarchism/Minarchism: Is a Government Part of a Free Country? Edited by Roderick T. Long and Tibor R. Machan. Published by Ashgate Press (pictured here).

Liberty, Equality, Solidarity: Toward a Dialectical Anarchism

The purpose of this essay is political revolution. And I don’t mean a revolution in libertarian political theory, or a revolutionary new political strategy, or the kind of revolution that consists in electing a cadre of new and better politicians to the existing seats of power. When I say a revolution, I mean the real thing: I hope that this essay will contribute to the overthrow of the United States government, and indeed all governments everywhere in the world. You might think that the argument of an academic essay is a pretty slender reed to lean on; but then, every revolution has to start somewhere, and in any case what I have in mind may be somewhat different from what you imagine. For now, it will be enough to say that I intend to give you some reasons to become an individualist anarchist,1 and undermine some of the arguments for preferring minimalist government to anarchy. In the process, I will argue that the form of anarchism I defend is best understood from what Chris Sciabarra has described as a dialectical orientation in social theory,2 as part of a larger effort to understand and to challenge interlocking, mutually reinforcing systems of oppression, of which statism is an integral part—but only one part among others. Not only is libertarianism part of a radical politics of human liberation, it is in fact the natural companion of revolutionary Leftism and radical feminism.

My argument will take a whole theory of justice—libertarian rights theory3—more or less for granted: that is, some version of the non-aggression principle and the conception of negative rights that it entails. Also that a particular method for moral inquiry—ethical individualism—is the correct method, and that common claims of collective obligations or collective entitlements are therefore unfounded. Although I will discuss some of the intuitive grounds for these views, I don’t intend to give a comprehensive justification for them, and those who object to the views may just as easily to object to the grounds I offer for them. If you have a fundamentally different conception of rights, or of ethical relations, this essay will probably not convince you to become an anarchist. On the other hand, it may help explain how principled commitment to a libertarian theory of rights—including a robust defense of private property rights—is compatible with struggles for equality, mutual aid, and social justice. It may also help show that libertarian individualism does not depend on an atomized picture of human social life, does not require indifference to oppression or exploitation other than government coercion, and invites neither nostalgia for big business nor conservatism towards social change. Thus, while my argument may not directly convince those who are not already libertarians of some sort, it may help to remove some of the obstacles that stop well-meaning Leftists from accepting libertarian principles. In any case, it should show non-libertarians that they need another line of argument: libertarianism has no necessary connection with the vulgar political economy or bourgeois liberalism that their criticism targets.

The threefold structure of my argument draws from the three demands made by the original revolutionary Left in France: Liberty, Equality, and Solidarity.4 I will argue that, rightly understood, these demands are more intertwined than many contemporary libertarians realize: each contributes an essential element to a radical challenge to any form of coercive authority. Taken together, they undermine the legitimacy of any form of government authority, including the limited government imagined by minarchists. Minarchism eventually requires abandoning your commitment to liberty; but the dilemma is obscured when minarchists fracture the revolutionary triad, and seek liberty abstracted from equality and solidarity, the intertwined values that give the demand for freedom its life, its meaning, and its radicalism. Liberty, understood in light of equality and solidarity, is a revolutionary doctrine demanding anarchy, with no room for authoritarian mysticism and no excuse for arbitrary dominion, no matter how limited or benign. . . .

1. For the purposes of this essay, I will mostly be using the term anarchism as shorthand for individualist anarchism; since the defense of anarchism I will offer rests on individualist principles, it will not provide a cogent basis for communist, primitivist, or other non-individualist forms of anarchism. And I will use the term individualist anarchism in a broad sense, to describe any position that (1) denies the legitimacy of any form of (monopoly) government authority, (2) on individualist ethical grounds. As I will use it, the term picks out a family of similar *doctrines*, not a particular self-description or historical tradition. Thus it includes, but is not limited to, the specific nineteenth and early twentieth-century socialist movement known as individualist anarchism, whose members included Benjamin Tucker, Victor Yarros, and Voltairine de Cleyre. It also includes the views of twentieth and twenty-first-century anarcho-capitalists such as Murray Rothbard and David Friedman; contemporary self-described individualist anarchists and mutualists such as Wendy McElroy, Joe Peacott, and Kevin Carson; and of others, such as Gustave de Molinari, Lysander Spooner, or Robert LeFevre, who rejected the State on individualist grounds but declined (for whatever reasons) to refer to themselves as anarchists. Many self-described socialist anarchists deny that anarcho-capitalism should be counted as a form of anarchism at all, or associated with individualist anarchism in particular; many self-described anarcho-capitalists deny that socialist anarchism should be counted as a form of genuine individualism, or genuine anarchism. With all due respect to my comrades on the Left and on the Right, I will use the term in an ecumenical sense, for reasons of style, and also because the relationship between anarchism, capitalism, and socialism is one of the substantive issues to be discussed in the course of this essay.

2. See Chris Matthew Sciabarra (2000), Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism. See also Sciabarra 1995a and 1995b.

3. Libertarianism as discussed in this essay is a theory of political justice, not as a position on the Nolan Chart. Small government types who speak kindly of economic freedom or civil liberties may or may not qualify as libertarians for the purpose of my discussion. Those who treat liberty as one political good that must be balanced against other goods such as social stability, economic prosperity, democratic rule, or socioeconomic equality, and should sometimes be sacrificed for their sake, are unlikely to count. Since they are not committed to the ideal of liberty as a principled constraint on *all* political power, they are no more likely to be directly convinced by my arguments than progressives, traditionalists, communists, etc.

4. Of course, the male Left of the day actually demanded fraternité, brotherhood. I’ll speak of solidarity instead of brotherhood for the obvious anti-sexist reasons, and also for its association with the history of the labor movement. There are few causes in America that most twentieth-century libertarians were less sympathetic to than organized labor, but I have chosen to speak of the value of solidarity, in spite of all that, for the same reasons that Ayn Rand chose to speak of the virtue of selfishness: in order to prove a point. The common criticisms of organized labor from the twentieth-century libertarian movement, and the relationship between liberty and organized labor, are one of the topics I will discuss below.

— Liberty, Equality, Solidarity: Toward a Dialectical Anarchism in Roderick T. Long and Tibor Machan (eds.), Anarchism/Minarchism: Is a Government Part of a Free Country. Ashgate Press, ISBN 978-0-7546-6066-8. 155–157.

The good news, for those whose interest is piqued and who would like to read the whole thing, is that the book is now available for pre-ordering and will be shipped somewhere around the end of the month. The bad news is that it’s about $80.00 for the hardcover edition, which is, for the time being, the only edition there is. (If you’re interested in reading the essay but are unlikely to have the bread to buy the book anytime soon, contact me privately.) In any case, for those who do get a chance to read the essay, I’d be glad to hear what you think, or any questions you may have, in the comments section at this post.

I mention this in the essay, but I’d like to repeat it here while I have the chance: the debts I accumulated in the process of writing this essay, and the earlier work on which it drew, are too numerous to give an accounting of them all, but I would especially like to thank my companion Laura and my teacher Roderick. The essay would have been much the poorer, or simply nonexistent, without their patience, inspiration, collaboration, encouragement, and detailed and very helpful comments

May Day 2007

We Have Fed You All for a Thousand Years

We have fed you all for a thousand years,
And you hail us still unfed,
Though there’s never a dollar of all your wealth
But marks the workers dead.
We have yielded our best to give you rest,
And you lie on crimson wool;
But if blood be the price of all your wealth
Good God we have paid in full.

There is never a mine blown skyward now
But we’re buried alive for you;
There’s never a wreck drifts shoreward now
But we are its ghastly crew.
Go and reckon our dead by the forges red,
And the factories where we spin;
If blood be the price of your cursèd wealth
Good God we have paid it in.

We have fed you all for a thousand years–
For that was our doom, you know,
From the days when you chained us in your fields
To the strike a week ago.
You have taken our lives, and our husbands and wives,
And called it your legal share;
But if blood be the price of your lawful wealth
Good God we bought it fair.

–First printed by the Industrial Workers of the World in 1908. Words by an anonymous proletarian, tune by Rudolph von Leibich

Fellow workers:

Today is May Day, or International Workers Day, a holiday created by Chicago workers–most of them anarchists–to honor the memory of the Haymarket martyrs and to celebrate the struggle of workers for freedom, a better life, and determination of the conditions of their own labor. It’s also the second annual day of strikes and marches for immigrant workers’ rights. May Day is and ought to be a day of resistance against the arrogance and power of the plutocrats. A day to celebrate workers’ struggles for dignity, and for freedom, through organizing in their own self-interest, through agitating and exhorting for solidarity, and through free acts of worker-led direct action to achieve their goals, marching under the banners of We are all leaders here and Dump the bosses off your back . A day to cheer immigrant workers struggling for their own freedom, in defiance of the attempts by La Migra and freelance nativist bullies to silence and intimidate them, marching under the banners We are not criminals, and We are not going anywhere. A day to remember:

There Is Power In A Union

There is power, there is power,
In a band of working folk,
When we stand
Hand in hand.

–Joe Hill (1913)

In honor of the day, it’s a pleasure to recommend some reading from anti-state radicals–from a history of May Day’s American roots at The Agitator (Lauritz, not Balko), to Kevin Carson’s Organized Capital vs. Organized Labor, to Sheldon Richman’s column Labor’s Right to a Free Market. And I’d especially like to recommend Kevin’s simply brilliant earlier column, The Ethics of Labor Struggle: A Free Market Perspective. Kevin’s and Sheldon’s columns do an especially good job of showing the gulf between the managerial style of establishmentarian business unionism–so familiar to us in these the waning days of Babylon, with Wagner and Taft-Hartley carefully arranged to bring the established unions into the web of State privilege and State regulation–with the older, state-free tradition of wildcat unionism that May Day celebrates. Here’s Kevin Carson:

First of all, when the strike was chosen as a weapon, it relied more on the threat of imposing costs on the employer than on the forcible exclusion of scabs. You wouldn’t think it so hard for the Misoids to understand that the replacement of a major portion of the workforce, especially when the supply of replacement workers is limited by moral sympathy with the strike, might entail considerable transaction costs and disruption of production. The idiosyncratic knowledge of the existing workforce, the time and cost of bringing replacement workers to an equivalent level of productivity, and the damage short-term disruption of production may do to customer relations, together constitute a rent that invests the threat of walking out with a considerable deterrent value. And the cost and disruption is greatly intensified when the strike is backed by sympathy strikes at other stages of production. Wagner and Taft-Hartley greatly reduced the effectiveness of strikes at individual plants by transforming them into declared wars fought by Queensbury rules, and likewise reduced their effectiveness by prohibiting the coordination of actions across multiple plants or industries. Taft-Hartley’s cooling off periods, in addition, gave employers time to prepare ahead of time for such disruptions and greatly reduced the informational rents embodied in the training of the existing workforce. Were not such restrictions in place, today’s “just-in-time” economy would likely be far more vulnerable to such disruption than that of the 1930s.

More importantly, though, unionism was historically less about strikes or excluding non-union workers from the workplace than about what workers did inside the workplace to strengthen their bargaining power against the boss.

The Wagner Act, along with the rest of the corporate liberal legal regime, had as its central goal the redirection of labor resistance away from the successful asymmetric warfare model, toward a formalized, bureaucratic system centered on labor contracts enforced by the state and the union hierarchies.

It’s time to take up Sweeney’s half-hearted suggestion, not just as a throwaway line, but as a challenge to the bosses. We’ll gladly forego legal protections against punitive firing of union organizers, and federal certification of unions, if you’ll forego the court injunctions and cooling-off periods and arbitration. We’ll leave you free to fire organizers at will, to bring back the yellow dog contract, if you leave us free to engage in sympathy and boycott strikes all the way up and down the production chain, boycott retailers, and strike against the hauling of scab cargo, etc., effectively turning every strike into a general strike. We give up Wagner (such as it is), and you give up Taft-Hartley and the Railway Labor Relations Act. And then we’ll mop the floor with your ass.

— Kevin Carson, The Ethics of Labor Struggle: A Free Market Perspective

That’s just a sampling. You really must read the whole thing.



Meanwhile, in the news, some creep in Washington is wandering around proclaiming Loyalty Day and demanding our renewed allegiance; and while the punch-drunk official unions are begging the government for more favors, the captains of industry are begging the government to keep a tight leash on free association. But the most significant events for labor and for human freedom are happening beyond the noise and spectacle of that gladiatorial arena, in the streets of cities all over the country where workers demand their rights in defiance of the so-called immigration law, and in unrecognized, grassroots unions organized along syndicalist lines, where workers have won concrete gains from the biggest corporations in their industry by operating through the use of creative secondary boycotts. There is a lesson here–a lesson for workers, for organizers, for agitators, and anti-statists. One we’d do well to remember when confronted by any of the bosses–whether corporate bosses or political, the labor fakirs and the authoritarian thugs styling themselves the vanguard of the working class, the regulators and the deporters and the patronizing friends of labor all:

Dump the Bosses Off Your Back

Are you cold, forelorn, and hungry?
Are there lots of things you lack?
Is your life made up of misery?
Then dump the bosses off your back!

–John Brill (1916)

Further reading:

Remarks on Matt MacKenzie’s “Exploitation: A Dialectical Anarchist Perspective”

These remarks were read on 29 December 2006, at American Philosophical Association meeting in Washington, D.C. The event was the Molinari Society group meeting and the occasion for the comments was Matt MacKenzie’s (excellent) essay, Exploitation: A Dialectical Anarchist Perspective, which is now also available online.

Update 2007-01-13: Typographical errors fixed.

Update 2007-03-23: MDM has put up a copy of the original essay on his website.

… Well, I, for one, have no opinion whether Marxists should be interested in exploitation. If Matt MacKenzie is right, though, perhaps a better question would be, Should exploitation theorists be interested in Marxism? If critiques of exploitation have heretofore been reserved for the use of state socialism–and Marxism in particular–then, as MacKenzie ably shows, that is the result more by default than by anything inherently statist in the notion of exploitation. Drawing from the work of Alan Wertheimer, MacKenzie offers a neutral concept of exploitation based on the virtue of fairness, and develops a libertarian conception of exploitation that compares favorably to the more familiar Marxist and Progressive theories. Thus, through MacKenzie’s insightful analytical work, exploitation joins class, oppression, dialectics, state capitalism, and other concepts that left-libertarians have swiped from the theoretical lexicon of the statist Left, and rehabilitated for anti-statist purposes.

Not surprisingly, this dialectical strategy tends to drive both state Leftists and right-wing libertarians bonkers. The statist Left may complain that we are plundering their private property; and the anti-statist Right may complain that we are trying to use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house. But the fact is that left-libertarian efforts are, in terms of the history of ideas, more like expropriating the expropriators: if we today sometimes find Marxian notions useful, it is usually because those Marxian notions were themselves swiped from anti-state, pro-market theorists–especially those in the French tradition of industrialism (out of which arose both Proudhon’s mutualist anarchism, and the radicalized classical liberalism of Bastiat and Gustave de Molinari). Although twentieth century libertarians often identified themselves with the economic Right, and treated complaints of exploitation with either indifference our outright contempt, nineteenth century libertarians–Benjamin Tucker, for example–drew directly from their industrialist heritage, and wrote extensively, even obsessively, about economic exploitation (or, as Tucker most often called it, usury), which they saw as pervasive, systemic, destructive, and indeed one of the chief evils for principled libertarians to confront. Thus MacKenzie’s efforts, insofar as they are successful, merely reclaim a word for liberty that we never should have given up to the statists to begin with.

MacKenzie’s careful analysis of the forms of exploitation represents some of the most important work in the essay. He uses this taxonomic backdrop to set out and defend a claim which is far more controversial than it ought to be: that there can be economic relationships which should be condemned as exploitative even though they are both mutually consensual and mutually beneficial (relative to a no-exchange baseline). For any principled libertarian, proving that an economic relationship is consensual is enough to show that no-one has any right to suppress it by force. But if MacKenzie is right, then that is very far from being enough to prove that it should not be condemned and opposed by non-violent means. This point has some import for the applied policy debates that libertarians have often involved themselves in: consider some of the more common libertarian apologetics for third world sweatshops against the objections of Leftists and so-called Progressives; or, to take another example, for the so-called sex industry against the objections of radical feminists. Libertarian writers have all too often suggested that if piece work or sex work is agreed to voluntarily, and if it benefits the workers more than other realistically available lines of work would have, then there must be nothing objectionably exploitative about either industry. But if our conception of exploitation refers not only to respecting rights, but also to questions of fair dealing and to the background conditions that enlarge or constrain the options that are realistically available, the defense of these industries against charges of exploitation must, at the very least, become more sophisticated than they have so far largely been. (I think, in fact, that libertarians who want to defend the so-called sex industry will find their position almost completely indefensible, and those who want to defend neo-liberal development policies in the third world will find that they have an eminently sensible position in some cases and a ludicrous position in others. But let’s try to postpone those quagmires until at least the question and answer period.)

For now, in the name of diabolical advocacy, I would like to prod MacKenzie a little on the applicability of his notion of fairness in exchange, and thus the applicability of his conception of exploitation. The concern that I’d like to raise, though, is not a logical but rather an epistemological concern. While I know some libertarians who would dig in and argue that there just is no tractable notion of harm, or unfairness, beyond the violation of individual rights–and thus no form of exploitation beyond transactions forced through direct coercion–I think that that claim is simply indefensible in light of any robust theory of human virtues. Here’s an objection I find much more plausible, though: if an economic relationship is both mutually consensual, then it may be very difficult to reliably judge whether or not it is exploitative. There are many virtues that are important for the sustainability of a free society, and while I think fairness is one of the most important of those virtues, tolerance is arguably another; one of the things that libertarians would be wise to cultivate is a certain amount of deference to other people’s judgments about the arrangements that they have voluntarily entered into, and exercising this virtue may make it correspondingly difficult to pick out exploitative economic relationships independently of workers’ decisions about whether or not the arrangement is worth staying in. The example that MacKenzie gives of an exploitative labor contract doesn’t help alleviate the worry, either: if it’s true that a worker making $6.50 an hour might make $11.00 if her bargaining were done against the backdrop of a free market, there remains the question of how we would ever know that this is true. Unless socialist calculation is possible (and it’s not), the hypothetical price of a good or service in a hypothetical free market will never be something that we can quantitatively predict, and orders of magnitude or even directions of change will be, at best, difficult to reliably judge. So might it not be difficult, at best, to identify concrete cases of mutually-consensual-but-exploitative economic relationships? And if so, would that not demand a great deal of caution, if not outright abstention, from putting exploitation to use in political debates?

I should say two things about this epistemological worry. First, I’m not actually convinced by it myself. Second, if it does have any bite, it’s important to note that the uncertainty involved affects only the question of moral force, not moral weight. Exploitation would be no less bad even if we could never figure out where it does and where it does not occur. Uncertainty may be a reason to qualify your judgments about what is or is not exploitative; it is not a reason to abandon your conviction that exploitation, wherever it may occur, is seriously wrong. Still, this may be an important caveat on the theoretical fruitfulness of exploitation within a pro-market theory; and I’d be interested to hear more about how MacKenzie would deal with it.

The second important claim that MacKenzie sets out to defend is that in the political economy of state capitalism, the exploitation of labor is systemic and pervasive. He favorably cites the work of Benjamin Tucker and Kevin Carson, identifying state violence as the basis of class conflict, and government-enforced monopolies for politically-favored businesses as the root of economic exploitation. It’s important to note that, for MacKenzie as for Tucker and Carson, the exploitative economic relationship may not be itself coercive, even though the conditions that make it exploitative do involve coercion. For most of his life, Tucker pretty clearly suggested that exploitation (or usury) could only survive as long as the background of government privileges for the monopolists was sustained, and that if the privileges were once repealed, the exploitative arrangements would quickly crumble under the pressure of free competition. But while government intervention in the economy is one of the most important ways in which economic options can be restricted, it seems like there are other factors that could have the same effect. For example, if widely-shared cultural prejudices tend to constrain women to lower-wage or no-wage work — such as mothering, housekeeping, nursing, teaching, or acting as a secretary or assistant — when they would otherwise be willing and able to take on better-paying careers, then arguably the sexist cultural norms sustain a form of exploitation that has little if anything to do with government intervention, either directly or indirectly. MacKenzie suggests that he recognizes cases such as these when he says that a genuinely free market will dramatically undermine existing systems of exploitation, but will not be enough to do them in entirely. Later in the essay he offers a number of reasons why libertarians should be concerned with the forms of exploitation that are closely linked with the background of government privilege and regimentation of the economy; but I wonder whether he thinks that libertarians, qua libertarians, should also be concerned with forms of exploitation where not only the transactions but also the background conditions are non-aggressive, e.g. the result of objectionable but non-coercive cultural norms. And, if so, I’d also be interested to know whether the grounds for libertarian objections to these forms of exploitation, which might persist or even flourish even in a free society, are significantly different from the grounds for libertarian objection to exploitation that directly or indirectly depends on government-enforced privilege.

Third, in a brief but important section of the paper, MacKenzie suggests that where exploitative economic relationships are systemic, prevalent, and seriously morally wrong, it deserves organized political efforts to undermine it. Since he includes non-coercive forms of exploitation in that suggestion, it’s important for him to make it clear that he rejects the identification of politics with the employment of systematic force; thus, while it may be appropriate to enlist organized force in order to suppress coercive forms of exploitation, the sort of politics involved in undermining the non-coercive forms of exploitation need not involve any use of force at all, either from the government or from organized private efforts. Instead he endorses a conception of politics that I’ve elsewhere characterized in terms of organized efforts to address problems of social coordination through deliberate, co-operative action (rather than through the spontaneous orders that emerge from unintended consequences of private actions). MacKenzie suggests that non-coercive forms of exploitation can appropriately be met through working to develop and maintain anti-explotiative cultural norms, values, and practices, and supporting efforts to challenge and develop alternatives to exploitative institutions and social relations. I’d like to hear more about what, in particular, he has in mind here, particularly since he suggests that at least some political activism against exploitation will be necessary even in a genuinely free market. What sort of concrete institutions should we look to, join with, and build up as part of the way forward?

Finally, MacKenzie ends his essay by suggesting several ways in which a critique of exploitation–even when the exploitation is not, in itself, aggressive–might be connected with the libertarian commitment to non-aggression and the decentralization of political power. To frame the discussion he uses five forms of thick connections between libertarianism and other cultural or political projects in my remarks at this session last year. While I think MacKenzie’s right that a libertarian critique of exploitation involves each of these forms of thickness, I’d actually like to suggest that, when exploitation depends on a background of government intervention to survive, it suggests yet another form of thickness, which addresses the issue more directly but which did not make it into my earlier list of five. (Fortunately the list wasn’t intended to be exhaustive, so I’m happy to welcome one more into the family.) You might gloss the form of thickness here as something like this:

Consequence thickness: Libertarians should commit to opposing E because even though E is not in itself coercive, (1) E would be very difficult to carry out or sustain over time if not for background acts of government coercion that sustain it; and (2) there are independent reasons for regarding E as an evil.

If aggression is morally illegitimate, then libertarians are entitled not only to condemn it, but also to condemn the destructive results that flow from statist aggression–even if those results are, in some important sense, external to the actual coercion. Now, there are a lot of details and caveats that I am skipping over, but I do wonder whether something like consequence thickness, as I’ve roughly described it, might better explain the immediate concerns that folks like Tucker, Carson, and MacKenzie have about (at least some forms of) exploitation–concerns which seem to arise well before questions about instrumental supports for statism or the ultimate grounds of libertarianism even get raised.

Tucker changed his mind near the end of his life, as reflected in the pessimistic postscript to later editions of State Socialism and Anarchism. But even then, his position was merely that the wealth accumulated through so many years of government privilege would be enough to crush any attempts at free competition–government intervention was still the central issue, but the late Tucker thought the shadow of past government intervention had grown too long to be escaped in the forseeable future, even if the disruptive power of the free market were fully unleashed.