Posts tagged Roderick Long

Fight the powers that be

From Roderick’s blog, here’s part of his bang-on recent article on the reasons why a thick conception of libertarianism — or just a realistic assessment of the human predicament — recommends a left-libertarian strategy of connecting radical libertarianism with a thoroughgoing form of psychological, institutional, and cultural anti-authoritarianism (as a general thing, and also when it comes to specific forms and markers of privilege and subordination, like bossism, patriarchy, heterosexism, white supremacy, et al.):

But there’s a further left-libertarian moral, because it’s not merely coercive authority that is shown to be problematic by the Stanford and Milgram experiments. The jailors in the Stanford experiment had no power to force their prisoners to stay; and the authorities in the Milgram experiment had no tool of compulsion more imposing than a lab coat. Neither had the backing of any legal sanctions. Nor did they have so much as the power to fire anyone from a job. Yet such authority as existed was still abused, and still obeyed.

The moral is clear: even absent coercive enforcement, there is a tendency for people both to abuse authority when they have it, and to acquiesce, indeed become complicit, in its abuse by others. Hence the assumption, common among some right-libertarians, that authority and hierarchy are fine and dandy so long as they don’t involve literal forcible compulsion, seems dubious.

. . .

If people have a harmful tendency that manifests itself in certain circumstances, then the appropriate response is obviously to try to a) reduce the strength of the tendency, and b) reduce the frequency of the triggering circumstances.

The tendency to abuse and/or obey authority may be too ingrained in human nature (or, more accurately: in the human situation) to be completely eliminated, but cultural factors can certainly reduce or exacerbate it. In our own culture, despite lip service (and, admittedly, often more than lip service) to anti-authoritarian values, the legitimacy of authority is constantly reinforced via everything from political propaganda and tv cop shows to the structure of school and workplace. This is one reason that left-libertarians often stress the need to promote anti-authoritarian moral attitudes that go beyond mere opposition to rights-violations. . . . The other prong of the left-libertarian response is to decrease the frequency of those situations in which tendencies to abuse and/or obey authority is manifested, by working to reduce the prevalence of authority. Even if the elimination of all noncoercive hierarchy is not possible (and perhaps not even desirable), we could certainly do with quite a bit less of it. This is one reason that left-libertarians care, to right-libertarians’ bafflement, about combating such things as the hierarchical structure of the workplace.

— Roderick Long, Austro-Athenian Empire (2009-04-26): Why We Fight (the Power)

Read the whole thing.

As I’ve wrote in Libertarianism Through Thick and Thin (drawing on a similar discussion in Liberty, Equality, Solidarity):

Consider the conceptual reasons that libertarians have to oppose authoritarianism, not only as enforced by governments but also as expressed in culture, business, the family, and civil society. Social systems of status and authority include not only exercises of coercive power by the government, but also a knot of ideas, practices, and institutions based on deference to traditionally constituted authority. In politics, these patterns of deference show up most clearly in the honorary titles, submissive etiquette, and unquestioning obedience traditionally expected by, and willingly extended to, heads of state, judges, police, and other visible representatives of government law and order. Although these rituals and habits of obedience exist against the backdrop of statist coercion and intimidation, they are also often practiced voluntarily. Similar kinds of deference are often demanded from workers by bosses, or from children by parents or teachers. Submission to traditionally constituted authorities is reinforced not only through violence and threats, but also through art, humor, sermons, written history, journalism, childrearing, and so on. Although political coercion is the most distinctive expression of political inequality, you could—in principle—have a consistent authoritarian social order without any use of force. Even in a completely free society, everyone could, in principle, still voluntarily agree to bow and scrape and speak only when spoken to in the presence of the (mutually agreed-upon) town Chief, or unthinkingly agree to obey whatever restrictions and regulations he tells them to follow over their own business or personal lives, or agree to give him as much in voluntary taxes on their income or property as he might ask. So long as the expectation of submission and the demands for wealth to be rendered were backed up only by means of verbal harangues, cultural glorifications of the wise and virtuous authorities, social ostracism of unruly dissenters, and so on, these demands would violate no-one’s individual rights to liberty or property. But while there’s nothing logically inconsistent about a libertarian envisioning—or even championing—this sort of social order, it would certainly be weird. Yes, in a free society the meek could voluntarily agree to bow and scrape, and the proud could angrily but nonviolently demand obsequious forms of address and immediate obedience to their commands. But why should they? Non-coercive authoritarianism may be consistent with libertarian principles, but it is hard to reasonably reconcile the two; whatever reasons you may have for rejecting the arrogant claims of power-hungry politicians and bureaucrats—say, for example, the Jeffersonian notion that all men and women are born equal in political authority, and that no-one has a natural right to rule or dominate other people’s affairs—probably serve just as well for reasons to reject other kinds of authoritarian pretension, even if they are not expressed by means of coercive government action. While no-one should be forced as a matter of policy to treat her fellows with the respect due to equals, or to cultivate independent thinking and contempt for the arrogance of power, libertarians certainly can—and should—criticize those who do not, and exhort our fellows not to rely on authoritarian social institutions, for much the same reasons that we have to endorse libertarianism in the first place.

In the article, I discuss anti-authoritarianism in light of grounds thickness; but of course there are many other connections involved, and Roderick does an excellent job of drawing out the reasons of consequence thickness and strategic thickness for joining libertarianism to a broad struggle not only against Aggression, but against Authority in all its forms.

In counting there is strength.

A few days ago there was some back-and-forth over at Ken MacLeod’s blog, and then also at Roderick’s blog, over the the relationship between large, centralized states and peace. MacLeod originally argued:

The panel convened by Farah Mendlesohn on Pacifism and Non-Violence in SF benefited from being on a subject on which there is a manageably small amount of source material. The discussion led me to make one of my very few comments from the floor. A more articulate and argued version of that comment would be this:

We already know how to have peace over large areas of the Earth, and that is by having large states covering those areas. (The combat death rate for men of military age in typical stateless societies far exceeds that in inter-state wars, including world wars.) SF has in its default assumptions a way to get to peace without pacifism, and that is the World State. Even Starship Troopers gives this answer, just as much as Star Trek or anything by H. G. Wells, Isaac Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke. Heinlein’s Federation is a World State, and (consequently) there is peace within the human species. It just has wars with aliens.

But there are no aliens. So we could have peace.

Ken MacLeod, The Early Days of a Better Nation (2009-04-17): Existence Proof of Von Neumann Machine, Placing Imaginary Bets, and other Cultural Learnings

There are several problems with this line of argument. There’s a lot of good back-and-forth at MacLeod’s about the empirical basis of MacLeod’s factoid about combat death rates, and about the underlying sources (it mainly comes from Lawrence Keeley’s War Before Civilization). Roderick has a very interesting response, from another angle, in the comments there that he repeats in his own post, in which he argues that if there is a general correlation between peace and state coverage, it’s because states (as parasites on social production) can only function in societies where there is an certain underlying level of peaceful cooperation; there is a level of widespread ultraviolence at which at a state can no longer steal the material resources it needs to cover the costs of full-time cops, soldiers, and the rest of its repressive apparatus. Hence the correlation between production and the State is like the correlation between human civilization and cockroaches; cockroaches thrive in civilized societies much more than they do in the wilderness, but not because cockroaches somehow produce civilization.

All of which is good, and important, and well-worth reading. What I’d like to add to the discussion is a good, hard look at the notion that what a strong state produces within its own territory can even realistically be called peace.

Let’s grant, for the sake of argument, that Keeley (thus MacLeod) is right about combat deaths for military-age males — that the rates are much, much higher in primitive stateless societies than they are in modern state societies. As Roderick points out, part of the problem here is that that data set, by itself, tells us little or nothing about whether it’s the primitiveness or the statelessness that’s doing the damage. There are other problems, too — for example, comparing percentages is a tricky game when you compare populations of radically different sizes; if a band of 50 !Kung San gets in a fight, and one whole member of their band is killed, then just running the percentages would have us believe that this is like 6,000,000 out of 300,000,00 Americans getting murdered — life for the !Kung San is apparently so savage that every single murder is another Holocaust. Or maybe there is a problem with a standard of comparison which would require 0.000000167 of a !Kung San man or woman to be killed in order to find an equivalent to a single murder in America.

But the problem that I want to focus on is that it looks to me like we are doing some very selective counting here. The selective counting consists in what is counted as violence, and as breaches of peace, and what is not. We are informed that having large states covering a part of the world’s landed surface is a good way to bring about peace. The evidence for this is the drop-off in combat deaths. But combat deaths are not the only sort of violence that people can suffer, and especially not combat-deaths-among-military-aged-males. Keeping that in mind, let us recall some facts about the most powerful, and one of the largest states in the world today — the United States of America — and what goes on in the territory that its government claims to rule.

Under the United States of America, over 2,000,000 people are currently forced into jails and prisons by state, local, and federal governments. Over 7,000,000 people are facing some form of ongoing constraint from the government’s corrections system — either through imprisonment, or through supervised parole, or through probation.

Under the United States of America, the government maintains a force of over 1,100,000 police officers — armed professionals whose job it is to use force against the 7,000,000, so as to get them under the control of the government prison system and its annexes. The government also maintains a force of about 765,000 corrections officers, who are armed and trained to use force against the 2,000,000 while they are confined within the walls of the government’s prisons.

The government’s internal armed forces of over 1,865,000 are currently engaged in a number of large-scale projects to use intense force in the prosecution of campaigns that they describe as wars. There is, for example, the War on Drugs; the War on Terrorism; inner-city surges against gangs, and so on. For the prosecution of these wars, the 1,865,000 put on constant street patrols; they arm themselves with semiautomatic and fully-automatic rifles; they kick in doors and storm houses and businesses; in some neighborhoods they engage in saturation patrols, the explicit purpose of which is to instill a sense of fear and thus make their designated enemies (gangs, mostly) afraid to use public spaces. In some cities they have adopted tactics explicitly modeled on the government military’s surge counter-insurgency tactics in Iraq. In other cities they have established checkpoints on the roads and cordoned off entire neighborhoods. They have recently taken to investing heavily in training and equipping paramilitary defensive lines (riot cops) and paramilitary assault squads (SWAT), and have stocked up on armored vehicles for mechanized warfare and even military helicopters.

When the government’s 1,865,000 go out into the streets or into the jails and prisons, they use force to confront and control the 7,000,000, and also to confront and control uncounted millions more, who are confronted by law enforcement and corrections officers without ending up in jail, in prison, on parole, or on probation. These confrontations produce conflicts, and the conflicts often escalate into violence; under the United States of America, those fights result in cops killing somewhere above 500 people each year[1] and about 50 cops getting killed each year along the way. Upwards of 550 deaths a year, out of 300,000,000 people, may not seem like all that much; but it’s worth remembering that there is a body count here, and, what’s more important, that the body count is not the only form of violence that there is to talk about. Besides the people who end up dead, there is a far greater level of non-lethal but nevertheless violent force, which hasn’t got much of a counterpart in the kind of kill-or-be-killed struggles that the body-counters count as breaches of peace: there is the heavy and repeated use of physical coercion, assaults, beatings, restraints, chemical and electrical torture (pain compliance), that the cops and their antagonists each employ (mostly, it’s the cops who use it) to try to get their way. This violence is constant, pervasive, and intense, and all of these especially in those neighborhoods that are singled out, for demographic reasons, as deserving the special attention of police street patrols and police crackdowns. In neighborhoods like that, the cumulative result is often experienced as being far more like a military occupation than like life in a peaceful society. And this kind of constant, pervasive, intense violence is completely unknown in even the most primitive or ultraviolent stateless societies.

This constant government-declared domestic warfare — most of which is directed against people for offenses that violate nobody’s person or property, such as the use of drugs or the crossing of borders without government permission slips — is dignified as peace by those who claim that covering a territory with a single state eliminates war within that territory. In fact it is nothing of the sort, if peace has any meaning for people’s real lives and not merely for the purposes of politico-legal accounting. It is a form of violence which affects military age males but also a lot of other people besides, and which often has far more profound effects on daily life than the bloody but infrequent violence of communal blood feuds or open war between political entities. And in many cases outside of the United States, it is a form of violence which has proved far more intense and far more lethal than it happens to be here — because, as R.J. Rummel never tires of pointing out, over the past couple centuries, governments have been far more lethal in democidal attacks on their own populations — through the use of government executions, government policing (especially government policing of the use of food stocks), government prison camps, and so on — than they were in inter-governmental warfare. The greatest war of the modern era has never been the kind of warfare that governments wage one against the other — as terrible as those wars have been. It is the war that each and every government is constantly waging within its own territory, against its own subjects — the kind of war that is passed off as peace, and which is more or less never counted in attempts to tally up the balance of peace over violence in modern state-occupied societies.

1 The somewhere above is important, because there are actually no systematic efforts to compile statistics on all homicides by law enforcement in the U.S.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics recently released a report on Arrest-Related Deaths in the United States, 2003-2005 which is based on data from two main sources, the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ Deaths in Custody Reporting Program, and the FBI’s Supplementary Homicide Reports. There are several problems with using these reports to get comprehensive statistics: neither source provides information about the number of people killed by *federal* law enforcement agencies like the FBI, BATF, and ICE. Not all states currently report figures to either program. The SHR reports only report law-enforcement homicides separately when a government agency rules the use of force justifiable; otherwise they are lumped in with other criminal homicides. It’s clear that some states do not report all of the cases where people are killed by cops to the DCRP: California, for example, reported 354 law-enforcement homicides to the SHR program, but only 160 to the DCRP, even though the deaths reported to the DCRP should properly be a superset of the deaths reported to the SHR.

If you use take the maximum of the DCRP figure and the SHR figure for each state that reported at least one of the two, then you get a total of at least 1,489 people killed by police over the three-year period from 2003–2005. Divide that by 3 (because neither the DCRP nor the SHR indicated any big leap in the number from one year to the next), and you get at least 496 people killed by cops each year during the 3 year period.

I do not know of any good statistical source to get a count of how many people were killed by federal law enforcement, or how many cases there were in which a law enforcement homicide reported to the SHR was filed as unjustifiable rather than justifiable in states like California which underreported to the DCRP. Hence, the figure of about 500 people killed a year should be treated not even as a lowball estimate, but simply as a minimum, for the real numbers.

See also:

Shameless Self-promotion Sunday #32

It’s Sunday Shameless Sunday. And in the spirit of self-promotion, I will note that Roderick has helpfully posted directions to the room for the Molinari Society’s APA session tomorrow (at which I will be appearing, as one of the Authors in an Authors-Meet-Critics).

The Molinari Symposium will be held in Independence Meeting Room II. (The APA program supplement says Independence Ballroom II but there is no such animal; the Independence Meeting Rooms are next to the Liberty Ballroom.)

Independence Meeting Room II is hard to find because it’s actually across the street (via skybridge) from the main hotel, in something called the Deluxe Tower (or, less glamorously, the 3rd Floor Annex).

How to find Independence Meeting Room II: from the hotel lobby (1st floor), take the escalator (not the elevator) to the 3rd floor. (It goes directly from 1st to 3rd; I’m not sure there even is a 2nd floor.) Follow the signs that say Deluxe Tower or Bridge to Convention Center. Cross the skybridge; at the other end you’ll see an arrow pointing left saying Convention Center and an arrow pointing right saying Marriott; go right.

Anyway, as for y’all–what have you been up to in the past week? Write anything? Leave a link and a short description for your post in the comments. Or fire away about anything else you might want to talk about.

Where do you normally go to get criticized?

Some of y’all may have already heard through Roderick; but for those of you who haven’t, I will be in Philadelphia from today through (the afternoon of) the 30th of December. I hope to spend some time checking out some local attractions, but my immediate purpose in being here is to take part in the Molinari Society’s joint Author Meets Critics session for Crispin Sartwell’s Against the State and the Anarchism/Minarchism anthology from Ashgate. In virtue of my essay in the anthology I’ll be among the Authors. The Critics I’ll be Meeting are Jennifer McKitrick, Christopher Morris, and Nicole Hassoun. The session will be at the Philadelphia Marriot downtown (1201 Market St., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) on Monday, 29 December, from 1:30 – 4:30pm. Here’s the current lineup, courtesy of Roderick:

GIX-3. Monday, 29 December 2008, 1:30-4:30 p.m.

Molinari Society symposium: Authors Meet Critics:
Crispin Sartwell’s Against the State: An Introduction to Anarchist Political Theory and
Roderick T. Long and Tibor R. Machan, eds., Anarchism/Minarchism: Is a Government Part of a Free Country?
Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, 1201 Market Street, Room TBA

Chair: Carrie-Ann Biondi (Marymount Manhattan College)



The session will consist of three essays from the Critics offering critical responses to the books, followed by short replies from the Authors, and a discussion and Q&A to follow. Nicole Hassoun has diligently sent in her critical essay and Jan Narveson has sent in such replies as he’s been able to prepare, given what’s been sent to him (with some bonus remarks about Crispin Sartwell’s book); what the rest of us will be saying is, I guess, a mystery only to be revealed in the fullness of time. But I’m looking forward to hearing the critical engagement with the work we’ve done, and to joining in on the discussion.

The APA Eastern Division has refused to give out any information about room assignments in the materials you can get without forking over a registration fee — for evil’s sake, of course — so I won’t know where inside the Marriot we’ll be until tomorrowish. But as soon as I do know, I’ll let you know.

Anyway, come on down if you can; it’d be great to see you there. Or, even if you can’t, if you happen to be in the area, drop me a line; I’ll be around.

In reply to a reply by J.H. Huebert and Walter Block

J.H. Huebert and Walter Block have recently published an essay which claims to be a reply to Roderick Long’s essay on left-libertarianism for Cato Unbound. Huebert and Block insist that they are going to set the record straight on the correct libertarian view of these matters. But it’s not clear that they have succeeded in even setting the record straight on Roderick’s view of these matters. For example, I think they have clearly and grossly misread him on the question of selective tax breaks for politically-connected big businesses. (Roderick never claimed that getting selective tax breaks are morally equivalent to receiving a government subsidy; only that firms or practices that get a comparative advantage from government taxes on their competitors are, like firms or practices that get a comparative advantage from government subsidies, not good examples of the free market at work.) Similarly, their attempt at a response to Roderick’s claims about big-box retailers like Wal-Mart, and the importance of using government-subsidized roads to the success of their business model, wavers between an attack on a claim that Roderick never made — that Wal-Mart deserves blame for their successful exploitation of government-subsidized roads — and willfully obtuse replies to the claim that he did make — that Wal-Mart’s road-dependent business model shouldn’t be counted as an example of the free market at work, and that if Wal-Mart had to pay the full costs of its business model, without government subsidies to cross-country freight trucking, it would lose some or all of the comparative advantage that it currently holds over smaller and more local competitors. (Did you know that, since we all use government roads sometimes, that means we are all getting a subsidy like Wal-Mart? Hey, you know, back in May I got a $600 check from the U.S. Department of the Treasury, which was supposed to be for economic stimulus. Just like how AIG gets $85,000,000,000 checks from the U.S. Department of the Treasury, for the sake of economic stimulus! So how could I possibly claim that AIG gets government privileges that I don’t enjoy? Well. See my discussion with Will Wilkinson in a comment thread about the original article.)

In any case, though, Roderick has promised a reply, which I eagerly look forward to. My main reason for mentioning Huebert and Block’s essay here is that it contains a link to my old post Free the Unions (and all political prisoners)! (2004-05-01), and four paragraphs which purport to be a reply to my argument, and the claims Roderick makes on the basis of that argument. Here are those four paragraphs:

Those Poor Unions

Long also laments that our hampered free market doesn’t give unions enough power. He writes: Legal restrictions on labor organizing also make it harder for such workers to organize collectively on their own behalf.

Given that the law allows some workers to not only organize themselves but also coercively organize others, it’s not clear what Long is talking about. To support his claim, he cites a blog post which laments that U.S. labor laws do not go far enough. We should support current labor laws, says Long’s source, but ideally we will return to the days of more militant unions.

You remember militant unions – the kind that used to (and, well, still do) beat and kill workers who do not cooperate with them. Long and his comrade, of course, make no mention of the unions’ bloody history.

Unions are like a tapeworm on the economy, sucking sustenance out of businesses. The entire rust belt is a result of unions demanding wages higher than worker productivity. The present problems of the Detroit Three (Ford, Chrysler, General Motors) are mainly dues to their foolishness in not withstanding the unwarranted demands of the United Auto Workers. But, Long can rejoice: under an Obama administration, these economic scourges are likely to obtain even more power.

— J. H. Huebert and Walter Block (2008-11-24): In Defense of Corporations, Tax Breaks, and Wal-Mart

This is a bizarre misinterpretation of my post, and hard to understand how anyone could make it other than through utter carelessness or willful misreading.

The post that they are referring to was the first in a series of annual May 1 posts, commemorating International Workers’ Day — a grassroots labor holiday originally organized by anarchists, to honor the memory of the five anarchist organizers and agitators who were murdered by the state of Illinois after the Haymarket Riot.

Block and Huebert claim to be puzzled by what Roderick could mean when he says that, due to government regimentation of labor unions, labor organizing is substantially more restricted than it would be in a free market. I’m unclear as to what they find unclear, because if it was not clear to them already, the footnoted post by me, which they claim to have read, goes ahead and lists several of the restrictions in question.

The Wagner Act was the capstone of years of government promotion of conservative, AFL-line unions in order to subvert the organizing efforts of decentralized, uncompromising, radical unions such as the IWW and to avoid the previous year’s tumultuous general strikes in San Francisco, Toledo, and Minneapolis. The labor movement as we know it today was created by government bureaucrats who effectively created a massive subsidy program for conservative unions which followed the AFL and CIO models of organizing–which emphatically did not include general strikes or demands for worker ownership of firms. Once the NRLB-recognized unions had swept over the workforce and co-opted most of the movement for organized labor, the second blow of the one-two punch fell: government benefits always mean government strings attached, and in this case it was the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which pulled the activities of the recognized unions firmly into the regulatory grip of the federal government. Both the internal culture of post-Wagner mainstream unions, and the external controls of the federal labor regulatory apparatus, have dramatically hamstrung the labor movement for the past half-century. Union methods are legally restricted to collective bargaining and limited strikes (which cannot legally be expanded to secondary strikes, and which can be, and have been, broken by arbitrary fiat of the President). Union hiring halls are banned. Union resources have been systematically sapped by banning closed shop contracts, and encouraging states to ban union shop contracts–thus forcing unions to represent free-riding employees who do not join them and do not contribute dues. Union demands are effectively constrained to modest (and easily revoked) improvements in wages and conditions.

— GT 2004-05-01: Free the Unions (and all political prisoners)!

Of course Block and Huebert are right that government patronage grants substantial illegitimate privileges to a certain kind of union (the establishmentarian, conservative unionism of the AFL-CIO and Change to Win [sic]). But those privileges come at the cost of accepting an extensive and intrusive set of government regulations on official union activity. The result is not only a violation of the rights of employers to refuse to bargain with union reps, but also a substantial government subsidy for conservative unionism as against competing forms of union organizing, like those practiced by anti-establishmentarian, radical unions like the Industrial Workers of the World — tactics like minority unionism (crowded out of the market by government-subsidized majoritarian collective bargaining), wildcat strikes (illegal under the Wagner Act), secondary strikes and boycotts (illegal under the Taft-Hartley Act), general strikes (ditto), union hiring halls (double ditto), and so on. The combination of government privilege with government controls may benefit the select outfits that toe the establishmentarian line and get their hands on the government loot. But it does so at the expense of the goals that those organizations supposedly support — in this case, organizing workers for the sake of greater control over the conditions of their labor. I know that Walter Block is perfectly well aware of the way this works when it comes to tax-funded education vouchers for private schooling: although the selected schools that receive the vouchers may profit, the availability and quality of education suffers, because of the way that government privileges squash unofficial competitors who do not qualify for the government hand-out, and also because of the way that government controls restrain the activities that the remaining privileged-and-regulated schools can perform. Have Block and Huebert failed to apply the same analysis to privileged-and-regulated labor unions, and the availability and quality of labor organizing, because they are simply ignorant of the restrictions imposed on NLRB-recognized unions? Or because they are aware of the restrictions, but it hasn’t occurred to them that they might matter as much as the government-granted subsidies?

One way or the other, the post closes by calling for the immediate and complete repeal of the Wagner Act and the Taft Hartley Act, and the complete abolition of the National Labor Relations Board, and all other forms of political patronage and political control in labor organizing, which I argued would always hold the labor movement back from its professed goals:

Don’t get me wrong: the modern labor movement, for all its flaws and limitations, is the reflection (no matter how distorted) of an honorable effort; it deserves our support and does some good. Union bosses, corporate bosses, and government bureaucrats may work to co-opt organized labor to their own ends, but rank-and-file workers have perfectly good reasons to support AFL-style union organizing: modern unions may not be accountable enough to rank-and-file workers, but they are more accountable than corporate bureaucracy; modern unions bosses don’t care enough about giving workers direct control in their own workplace, but they care more than corporate bosses, who make most of their living by denying workers such control. The labor movement, like all too many other honorable movements for social justice in the 20th century, has become a prisoner of politics: a political situation has been created in which the most rational thing for most workers to do is to muddle through with a co-opted and carefully regulated labor movement that helps them in some ways but undermines their long-term prospects. It doesn’t make sense to respond to a situation like that with blanket denunciations of organized labor; the best thing to do is to support our fellow workers within the labor movement as it is constrained today, but also to work to change the political situation that constrains it, and to set it free. That means loosening the ties that bind the union bosses to the corporate and government bureaucrats, by working to repeal the Taft-Hartley Act, and abolish the apparatus of the NLRB, and working to build free, vibrant, militant unions once again.

— GT 2004-05-01: Free the Unions (and all political prisoners)!

The comments expressing some watered support for the actually-existing labor movement are grossly misrepresented by Block and Huebert as support [for] current labor laws (in fact, the point was that the labor movement deserves some watered support in spite of the baleful effects of government labor laws on it). And my call for all existing government labor laws to be repealed and replaced with nothing but free association is, astonishingly, glossed by Block and Huebert as a [lament] that U.S. labor laws do not go far enough.

This is followed by a tirade about my use of the word militant to describe my ideal for free unionism. This is apparently taken, just as such, to be an endorsement of vigilante violence against non-union or anti-union workers, by unions of the kind that used to (and, well, still do) beat and kill workers who do not cooperate with them. This is an absurd and unwarranted misreading. Of course, there have been unions whose members used vigilante violence to achieve their goals. I find the use of aggressive violence, against fellow workers or against anyone else, to be completely reprehensible. But that’s not what militancy refers to in the context of labor organizing. Labor militancy is a term of art that refers to the degree to which unions are willing to use confrontational tactics with bosses, as opposed to back-room negotiations or appeasement of the boss’s demands — where confrontational means just that, not violent. Some militant unions endorsed confrontation in the form of violence against bosses, or their property, or scabs. Others refused to on principle, and expressed their militancy through strictly nonviolent forms of confrontation. I agree with the latter, and what I have argued for in more or less everything I have ever written about unions is the principle that fellow worker Joe Ettor set out when he was working to help organize the great Lawrence textile strike of 1912 with the IWW:

If the workers of the world want to win, all they have to do is recognize their own solidarity. They have nothing to do but fold their arms and the world will stop. The workers are more powerful with their hands in their pockets than all the property of the capitalists. As long as the workers keep their hands in their pockets, the capitalists cannot put theirs there. With passive resistance, with the workers absolutely refusing to move, lying absolutely silent, they are more powerful than all the weapons & instruments that the other side has for attack.

Block and Huebert complain that I make no mention of the unions’ bloody history. (An odd claim, since they seem to think that my use of the adjective militant is an explicit reference to it.) But I may as well complain that Block and Huebert make no mention of the bloody history of bosses who called out hired muscle, injunction-wielding courts, city cops, state militia, or the federal military to commit every sort of atrocity against striking workers, their wives, and their children. If Block and Huebert have not mentioned the extensive use of aggressive violence by bosses, who have always been far more politically powerful and had far greater resources for hiring on thugs than the unions had, and who were frequently able to call out the repressive forces of the State itself in addition to their own thugs — if they have not mentioned it, I say, because (of course, of course) they don’t agree with it, and intend only to defend the actions of bosses that are consonant with libertarian principles, then that’s fine; but then the reason that I didn’t spend a long time talking about vigilante violence by unionists is because (of course, of course), I don’t agree with that, and intend only to defend the actions of union organizers that are consonant with libertarian principles. But if Block want violence mentioned, then it is totally irresponsible for them to insist on such a wildly distorted and one-sided presentation of the matter, since unionists were victims of far more intense and far more systematic violence than they ever committed, and since much (but by no means all) of the violence attributed to unionists was in fact defensive force against those same company and government thugs.

Huebert and Block close with a laughably overheated ritualistic denunciation of labor unions as a tapeworm on the economy, sucking sustenance out of businesses, and an astonishing monocausal theory of middle-American industrial decline, on which the entire rust belt is a result of unions demanding wages higher than worker productivity (!). Apparently decades of unsustainable malinvestment, public-private partnerships with city, state, and federal governments, corporate welfare, protectionist tariffs, bail-outs of failed business models, etc. have nothing to do with it.

But whether all that is accurate or inaccurate is something best hashed out elsewhere. For right now, my main concern is how wildly Block and Huebert have misrepresented the position that they claim to be arguing against, in the attempt to make it seem as though this overheated denunciation of state unionism had anything to do with the freed-market unionism that I advocate, or that Roderick endorsed via footnote. It is inconceivable that a post whose primary purpose was to condemn the effects of government labor laws and to call for the repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act and the Wagner Act, for the immediate and complete abolition of the National Labor Relations Board, and in general for the exorcism of all political command-and-control (including all enforced recognition, all political patronage, and all political regulation) from organized labor could be reasonably read as support for current coercive labor laws, let alone a call for their expansion (!). An error like that must either be the cause of extraordinarily careless reading, or willful misrepresentation. In either case, Block and Huebert ought to be embarrassed that they have published it.