Lew Rockwell’s recent
interviewof Naomi Wolf for his podcast — the scare quotes are there because it quickly turns into a very two-sided conversation, and works very differently from a conventional interview — is really remarkable, and a paradigm for the kind of engagement that could build a vibrant libertarian Left. Naomi Wolf is not my favorite feminist, and Lew Rockwell is certainly not my favorite libertarian, but this is great stuff. Naomi Wolf now says she thinks she’s
been a secret libertarian for many years in many, many waysand mentions that she’s feeling increasingly sympathetic toward radical libertarianism; she insists on the importance of challenging both Democratic- and Republican-sponsored power grabs, and expresses sympathy for the libertarian case for abolishing federal control over schooling. Rockwell does a tolerable job of explaining the libertarian case against the Fed as a instrument of class warfare, does a good job of cautioning against premature jumps into statist political action, and comes out that the conservative movement has been an
engine of fascismfor the past 50 years. Also, Wolf has some great material at about 23:45 in the interview about the way in which media producers deliberately encourage false-alternative shouting matches and instruct their guests that serious deliberation is not
Socialist Alexander Cockburn writes a libertarian article for the Buchananite newsjournal The American Conservative, discussing the ongoing bipartisan assault on civil liberties, in which he points out the continuity between Clinton’s and Bush’s anti-terrorism and drug war rackets, decrying Social Security Numbers and the Kelo decision, while praising the defense of the individualist reading of the Second Amendment in Heller.
There’s been a lot more discussion of Roderick’s Corporations Versus the Market piece on Cato Unbound. Roderick’s Keeping Libertarian, Keeping Left replies to the initial responses from the Danny Bonaduce of the Blogosphere, Steven Horwitz, and Dean Baker. Roderick’s Owning Ideas Means Owning People makes the case for libertarian radicalism against Intellectual Protectionism (indeed, for a position even more radical than those advocated by Cato minimal-statist Tim Lee and by anti-IP, but pro-governmental Leftist Dean Baker).
Yglesias, in reply to Roderick and Steven Horwitz, says he is a bit puzzled by pragmatic arguments for left-libertarianism, based on the claim that markets do more for human flourishing than government programs, writing:
If this means that the absence of governance à la Joseph Stalin is a more important determinant of our well-being than is, say, the existence of unemployment insurance then, yes, of course this is true. But the question facing government programs is not whether they are more or less beneficial than the existence of a market economy, the question is whether the programs are more beneficial than would be the absence of programs.Roderick does a great job of responding to Yglesias (as well as to some another reply by Dean Baker) here. Let me just add a bit more about the fundamental problem with Yglesias’s proposed methods for assessing whether or not a given government program is warranted.
The problem here is that Yglesias seems to be treating this as a ceteris paribus comparison: as if the right question to ask is whether people would be better off with the government program in place or in a situation which is exactly identical, but without the government program.
There are two problems with this. First, unless there is some strong reason to believe that ceteris will stay paribus in the absence of a government program, the real alternative is between a government program and market alternatives to that program. So, for example, Yglesias mentions ex ante environmental regulations. But he rigs the match by apparently comparing outcomes with ex ante environmental regulations to outcomes from a market situation which is basically the same as the present, but in which corporate polluters are free to go on polluting with impunity. An un-rigged comparison would be one between ex ante environmental regulations and free market means of addressing pollution that the ex ante regulations have either directly suppressed or crowded out — like the use of pollution nuisance suits or a more robust use of free market grassroots activism, through boycotts,
sustainabilitycertification, social investing, and so on. Maybe these kind of tactics would not be as effective as ex ante regulation, or maybe they would be more effective; but in either case, this is the comparison that actually needs to be made, and as far as I can tell Yglesias hasn’t given any argument to support a claim that market methods would do worse. Indeed, there’s some good reasons to think that they might do better. Since freed-market methods are by their nature decentralized, and not dependent on political lobbying or electioneering, they are also not subject to the same problems of regulatory capture by those who can put
a lot of money and political influence behindtheir interests.
Second, Yglesias also more or less explicitly suggests that, when you’re deliberating over whether to favor government programs or freed-market alternatives, any given government program ought to be assessed in isolation from all the others (on a
case-by-casebasis). But of course libertarian Leftists have repeatedly stressed the importance of seeing particular social or political processes in the context of how many different processes interlock and interact with each other. So, for example, as Roderick has repeatedly stressed, if you want to know about whether to prefer unfettered free markets or regulatory command-and-control in financial markets, it doesn’t make sense to compare a rigged market where finance capital is tightly regulated and can reasonably expect government bail-outs in case of failure to a rigged market where finance capital is loosely regulated but can still reasonably expect government bail-outs in case of failure. Whether the latter or the former turns out to have better results is a question we could debate, but the important point, from a left-libertarian point of view, is that it would be more interesting and fruitful to compare the rigged markets to a free market with neither ex ante regulation nor bail-outs. Similarly, if we are looking at environmental regulations then we have to consider not only market alternatives to ex ante environmental regulation; we also have to consider other government programs which may indirectly contribute to environmentally destructive practices — like subsidizing corporate centralization and capital-intensive production; or stealing land from homeowners and small businesses for large, polluting manufacturing plants, garbage incinerators, and other forced-modernization boondoggles; or subsidizing fossil fuel dependence; or highway-driven suburban sprawl — and whether the absence of those other programs, taken together with the absence of ex ante environmental regulation, would make freed-market alternatives to ex ante environmental regulation even more palatable than they would be when considered in isolation. (For some similar points in the context of health care, see GT 2007-10-25: Radical healthcare reform.)
Meanwhile, Roderick’s article has also prompted a lot of discussion outside of Cato Unbound, most notably interesting but misguided replies from Peter Klein, Will Wilkinson, and an extremely ill-conceived response by Walter Block and J.H. Huebert. I’ve already discussed Block’s and Huebert’s comments, with a focus on their distortion of my own expressed views (cited favorably by Roderick) on radical labor unionism.. There’s a lot of fascinating exchange among Klein, some other right-libertarians and agnostic-libertarians, and a number of libertarian Leftists in the comments thread on Klein’s article; note especially the exchange among Araglin, Klein, P.M. Lawrence and others over the legitimacy and viability of the corporate form, limited liability, etc., under freed markets, and this short comment by Jesse Walker:
It seems clear to me that, at the very least, the “more local and more numerous” claim is correct, if not in every sector than certainly in the economy as a whole. Removing occupational licensing laws alone would unleash such a flood of tiny enterprises — many of them one-man or one-woman shows, sometimes run part-time — that I doubt the elimination of antitrust law and small-business setasides would offset it. Especially when large businesses have proven so adept at using antitrust and setasides for their own purposes. .(Jesse promises a more detailed follow-up at Hit and Run; I look forward to it.)
Meanwhile, as promsied, Roderick has added his own (detailed, excellent) reply on most of the points raised by Klein, Wilkinson, Huebert, and Block back over at Cato Unbound, entitled Free Market Firms: Smaller, Flatter, and More Crowded.
Read the whole damn thread. It’s great.
On the activist front, this past Monday, New Jersey ALLy Darian Worden announced a new series of Alliance of the Libertarian Left outreach flyers and
subversion squaresavailable from the NJ ALL website. Enjoy! (I also think there will be some interesting news in the near future about ALL in Southern California, England, Denver, and some new activities for ALL in Las Vegas. But I’m not going to tip my hand more than that in public, just yet. If you’re curious — and especially if you are in one or more of those geographical areas — drop me a line in private.
Congratulations to Roderick for heading up a round-table discussion in the latest Cato Unbound on corporate power, with a fine introductiory essay on left-libertarianism, and left-libertarian takes on corporatism, the alliance of big government and big business, class, and vulgar libertarian conflation of freed markets with actually-existing capitalism. Our efforts to cover the world with lying, thieving mutualism proceed apace.
Defenders of the free market are often accused of being apologists for big business and shills for the corporate elite. Is this a fair charge?
No and yes. Emphatically no—because corporate power and the free market are actually antithetical; genuine competition is big business’s worst nightmare. But also, in all too many cases, yes —because although liberty and plutocracy cannot coexist, simultaneous advocacy of both is all too possible.
First, the no. Corporations tend to fear competition, because competition exerts downward pressure on prices and upward pressure on salaries; moreover, success on the market comes with no guarantee of permanency, depending as it does on outdoing other firms at correctly figuring out how best to satisfy forever-changing consumer preferences, and that kind of vulnerability to loss is no picnic. It is no surprise, then, that throughout U.S. history corporations have been overwhelmingly hostile to the free market. Indeed, most of the existing regulatory apparatus—including those regulations widely misperceived as restraints on corporate power—were vigorously supported, lobbied for, and in some cases even drafted by the corporate elite.
Corporate power depends crucially on government intervention in the marketplace. This is obvious enough in the case of the more overt forms of government favoritism such as subsidies, bailouts, and other forms of corporate welfare; protectionist tariffs; explicit grants of monopoly privilege; and the seizing of private property for corporate use via eminent domain (as in Kelo v. New London). But these direct forms of pro-business intervention are supplemented by a swarm of indirect forms whose impact is arguably greater still.
So where does this idea come from that advocates of free-market libertarianism must be carrying water for big business interests? Whence the pervasive conflation of corporatist plutocracy with libertarian laissez-faire? Who is responsible for promoting this confusion?
There are three different groups that must shoulder their share of the blame. (Note: in speaking of “blame” I am not necessarily saying that the “culprits” have deliberately promulgated what they knew to be a confusion; in most cases the failing is rather one of negligence, of inadequate attention to inconsistencies in their worldview. And as we’ll see, these three groups have systematically reinforced one another’s confusions.)
Culprit #1: the left. Across the spectrum from the squishiest mainstream liberal to the bomb-throwingest radical leftist, there is widespread (though not, it should be noted, universal) agreement that laissez-faire and corporate plutocracy are virtually synonymous. David Korten, for example, describes advocates of unrestricted markets, private property, and individual rights ascorporate libertarianswho champion aglobalized free market that leaves resource allocation decisions in the hands of giant corporations—as though these giant corporations were creatures of the free market rather than of the state—while Noam Chomsky, though savvy enough to recognize that the corporate elite are terrified of genuine free markets, yet in the same breath will turn around and say that we must at all costs avoid free markets lest we unduly empower the corporate elite.
Culprit #2: the right. If libertarians’ left-wing opponents have conflated free markets with pro-business intervention, libertarians’ right-wing opponents have done all they can to foster precisely this confusion; for there is a widespread (though again not universal) tendency for conservatives to cloak corporatist policies in free-market rhetoric. This is how conservative politicians in their presumptuous Adam Smith neckties have managed to get themselves perceived—perhaps have even managed to perceive themselves—as proponents of tax cuts, spending cuts, and unhampered competition despite endlessly raising taxes, raising spending, and promotinggovernment-business partnerships.
Consider the conservative virtue-termprivatization,which has two distinct, indeed opposed, meanings. On the one hand, it can mean returning some service or industry from the monopolistic government sector to the competitive private sector—getting government out of it; this would be the libertarian meaning. On the other hand, it can meancontracting out,i.e., granting to some private firm a monopoly privilege in the provision some service previously provided by government directly. There is nothing free-market about privatization in this latter sense, since the monopoly power is merely transferred from one set of hands to another; this is corporatism, or pro-business intervention, not laissez-faire. (To be sure, there may be competition in the bidding for such monopoly contracts, but competition to establish a legal monopoly is no more genuine market competition than voting—one last time—to establish a dictator is genuine democracy.)
Of these two meanings, the corporatist meaning may actually be older, dating back to fascist economic policies in Nazi Germany; but it was the libertarian meaning that was primarily intended when the term (coined independently, as the reverse of “nationalization”) first achieved widespread usage in recent decades. Yet conservatives have largely co-opted the term, turning it once again toward the corporatist sense.
Culprit #3: libertarians themselves. Alas, libertarians are not innocent here—which is why the answer to my opening question (as to whether it’s fair to charge libertarians with being apologists for big business) was no and yes rather than a simple no. If libertarians are accused of carrying water for corporate interests, that may be at least in part because, well, they so often sound like that’s just what they’re doing (though here, as above, there are plenty of honorable exceptions to this tendency). Consider libertarian icon Ayn Rand’s description of big business as apersecuted minority, or the way libertarians defendour free-market health-care systemagainst the alternative of socialized medicine, as though the health care system that prevails in the United States were the product of free competition rather than of systematic government intervention on behalf of insurance companies and the medical establishment at the expense of ordinary people. Or again, note the alacrity with which so many libertarians rush to defend Wal-Mart and the like as heroic exemplars of the free market. Among such libertarians, criticisms of corporate power are routinely dismissed as anti-market ideology. (Of course such dismissiveness gets reinforced by the fact that many critics of corporate power are in the grip of anti-market ideology.) Thus when left-wing analysts complain aboutcorporate libertariansthey are not merely confused; they’re responding to a genuine tendency even if they’ve to some extent misunderstood it.
Read the whole thing. It’s great.
The post has already provoked a lot of discussion. Some of it — for example, from Wirkman 2008-11-10, Peter Klein 2008-11-10, and Will Wilkinson 2008-11-10 — is insightful and raises important issues. I’ll also be interested to see the upcoming promised replies from Steven Horwitz, Dean Baker, and the Danny Bonaduce of the Blogosphere. The commentary is a bit much to cover fully here, and is getting hashed out in comments threads, anyway; but I will say that I’m a bit puzzled about this from Will Wilkinson:
But this hints at a thicket of trickier issues. We want a system in which profit-seeking behavior creates the greatest net positive externalities (like continuously increasing the consumer’s share of the cooperative surplus from mundane purchases). But positive spillover maximization within the constraints of a sub-optimal overall system is really desirable, despite the less-than-best incentive structure.
Dude, I just want Sam Walton to get his cold, dead hands out of my pockets. The rest is all details, as far as I’m concerned.
In any case, it seems to me that whether or not Wal-Mart and its business practices ought to be regarded with admiration, contempt, or indifference is really an importantly separate question from the question of whether or not Wal-Mart would have a sustainable business model under freed markets. If Wal-Mart as we know it could not exist but for State privileges, that’s reason enough for libertarians to be wary of reflexively defending Wal-Mart’s bidniz practices as examples of the free market at work, even if it’s not yet clear whether or not libertarians ought to find Wal-Mart objectionable (as a matter of thickness from consequences, and it seems to me that Roderick’s point has to do more or less entirely with the simpler point about sustainability, not the more complicated point about how to feel about the State-dependent business in question.
Meanwhile, Jesse Walker also kindly posted a notice over at Hit and Run, which provoked a discussion in which Hit and Run commenters were fully able to live up to their reputation for fair, insightful, and thought-provoking discussion of issues in libertarianism. For example, here’s the top comment in its entirety:
joshua corning | November 10, 2008, 2:14pm | #
If libertarians are accused of carrying water for corporate interests, that may be at least in part because, well, they so often sound like that’s just what they’re doing
Fuck you Roderick Long.
I mention the Hit and Run thread, though, mainly because it contains the nicest illustration you could possibly hope for of vulgar libertarian reasoning. Roderick wrote:
In a free market, firms would be smaller and less hierarchical, more local and more numerous
I don’t see why. Just to take one example of a market that is pretty free of overt government intervention of the kind listed above: Bookstores. Mostsmaller, less hierarchicallocal bookstores are now history, replaced by Big Box Bookstores and on-line booksellers that have huge inventories and lower prices.
So, you see:
Big box bookstores are more successful than smaller, more localized bookstore in the (unfree, government-regulated, privilege-infused,
developmentmachine-driven) actually existing market.
Therefore, big box bookstores will be more successful than smaller, more localized bookstores in the free market.
Far be it from me to bag on Borders and Barnes and Noble — I like them each a lot. But this notion that we can just look at their current market success, under the constrained and distorted conditions of the actually-existing unfree capitalist market, in which their business model is fundamentally dependent on the use of government highways to ship huge piles of books, on the use of the government
development machine to seize huge tracts of land and lucrative subsidies to artificially encourage big box retail outlets, and, lest we forget, on government copyright laws that forcibly restrict booksellers to a limited number of centralized, monopoly-priced suppliers; without them, any jackass with a printer or a Kinko’s card could start her own local bookstore for little more than the cost of ink and paper — the notion, I say that we can just look at their current success on the unfree market and immediately infer it to be the result of processes that would continue with no noticeable reduction in a freed market, is desperately in need of a substantive argument that has not been given.
Economies of scale only seem to matter here because, as usual, the costs of scale (like, the freed-market cost of consensually acquiring big blocks of contiguous land; like, the freed-market cost of competing with hyperlocal, extremely low-cost competitors that current laws force out of business) are being ignored, and while the rest of the (artificially centralized, subsidized, monopoly-protected) corporate market is assumed to remain fixed just as it is, even though the whole supply chain would in fact be radically altered by freed markets.
- GT 2008-05-29: Dump the rentiers off your back
- GT 2008-10-24: How the United States government looks out for small business
- GT 2008-09-29: Not One Damned Dime
- GT 2008-09-12: What’s good for General Motors is good for American state capitalism
- GT 2008-06-06: Carson in the Freeman: Hierarchy or the Market
- GT 2008-03-19: Small enough to fail
- GT 2008-02-13: Liberty, Equality, Solidarity: Toward a Dialectical Anarchism
- GT 2008-01-04: Cognitive Dissonance of the Non-Libertarian Left
- GT 2007-11-08: Sprachkritik:
- GT 2004-05-02: Écrasez l’Wal-Mart
- GT 2008-08-08: Proof by ostention
- GT 2008-01-26: In which I fail to be reassured