Today, 31 March 2005, is César Chávez Day—the 78th anniversary of Chávez’s birth near Yuma, Arizona, and a state holiday (I’m told it’s officially celebrated in California, Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Utah, and Michigan) commemorating his lifelong work as an union organizer, agitator, and Chicano activist in the Southwestern United States. Chávez, together with Dolores Huerta, co-founded the ground-breaking United Farm Workers, and organized and inspired a generation of organized labor and Chicano community activists. Hugo Schwyzer has some more thoughts on Chávez’s legacy today; and of course you can find plenty to read from the United Farm Workers’ website.
As far as commemorating Chávez goes, they’ve said it better than I could. I’ll be commemorating the day by talking some more about libertarianism, organized labor, and the struggle of farmworkers in southern Florida—the workers organized by Coalition of Immokalee Workers and the Taco Bell Boycott they launched and, just a few days ago, won—a campaign that was directly inspired by the UFW grape boycott that Chávez helped craft and win, and a campaign that was thrilled to receive the UFW’s endorsement in August 2001.
A few days ago, I prodded Daniel D’Amico in this space and in commentary on his blog over his criticisms of the Taco Bell boycott. He’s since come back with a reply to my prodding and to some similar concerns raised by other commentators. And since we have a nice convergence between the date and a question that might be of some interest—that is, libertarianism and labor, and the compatibility of principled anti-statism and a fighting labor movement—I figured that now is as good a time as any to offer a response to the response.
Before we begin, though, let’s hop onto a long tangent about terminology. Daniel leads off his argument by saying:
The Austrian school and libertarianism alike are against
government control of market transactions, but the CIW appears to
be refraining from such tactics, so what’s my problem anyway?
Simply put I believe, there are more ways to be anti-capitalist
than just using government. Mainly promoting ideas that capitalism
is evil or claiming it resorts to rampant market failure are, in my
Some of Daniel’s other commentators had asked him what he thought made the boycott
anti-capitalist, but I didn’t and I’m not going to. I don’t have any strong opinions on whether or not the Taco Bell boycott is
anti-capitalist because I haven’t got any strong opinions about what
capitalism (or, a fortiori,
anti-capitalism) means. It seems to me that has been used to describe at least three different things, two of which are mutually exclusive and one of which is independent of those two. These are:
The free market:
capitalism has been used, mostly (but not exclusively) by its defenders to just mean a free market, i.e., an economic order that emerges from voluntary exchanges of property and labor without government intervention (or any other form of systemic coercion).
The corporate State:
capitalism has also been used, sometimes by its opponents and sometimes by the beneficiaries of the system, to mean a corporate State—that is, active government support for big businesses through instruments such as subsidies, central banking, tax-funded infrastructure,
development grants and loans, special tax exemptions, funding plants, acquiring land through eminent domain, government union-busting, and so on down the line. Since government intervention is always, by nature, either services funded by expropriated tax dollars or regulations enforced from the barrel of a gun, it’s worth noting that being
capitalist in the sense of a free marketeer requires being
anti-capitalist in the sense of opposing the corporate State, and vice versa. The fact that state socialists and the anti-communist Right have spent the past century systematically running these two distinct senses of
capitalism together (in order to make it seem that you had to swallow the corporate State if you believed in the free market—which the Marxists used for a modus tollens and the Rightists used for a modus ponens) doesn’t make these two any less distinct, or any less antagonistic.
Boss-directed labor: third,
capitalism has been used (by for example, Marxians and socialists who are careful about their use of language) to refer to a specific form of labor market—that is, one where the dominant form of economic activity is the production of goods in workplaces that are strictly divided by class. Under
capitalism in the third sense, most workers are working for a boss, in return for a wage; they are renting out their labor to someone else, in order to survive, and it is the boss and not the workers who holds the title to the business, the shop, and the tools and facilities that make the business run. (Or, as the Marxists would have it, the
means of production.) It’s worth noting that
capitalism in this third sense is a category independent of
capitalism in either of the first two senses: there are lots of different ways that a free labor market could turn out (it could be organized in traditional employer-employee relationships, or into worker co-ops, or into community workers’ councils, or into a diffuse network of shopkeeps and independent contractors) and someone who is an unflinching free marketeer might plump for any of these, or might be completely indifferent as to which one wins out; whereas an interventionist statist might also favor traditional employer-employee relationships (as in Fascism) or any number of different arrangements (as in various forms of state socialism).
With these distinctions on the table, it’s worth pointing out that many 19th century libertarians—Benjamin Tucker chief among them—who considered themselves both radical free marketeers and radical critics of capitalism; what they meant was that they attacked capitalism in senses (2) and (3)—holding that state intervention on behalf of big business was unjust and at the root of most social evils, including the exploitation and impoverishment of workers which they identified as being part and parcel of capitalism in the third sense. (They also believed that exploitative and impoverishing practices would collapse in a free market; although many of the practices of landlords, bankers, bosses, etc. were not coercive in themselves, Tucker and his circle argued, they were evils that workers would not put up with if it weren’t for a background of systemic coercion and restriction of competition. So they were worth railing against, even if they were not themselves forms of aggression.)
I point all this out because I don’t think there’s actually anything about being a libertarian, or an Austrian about economics, that requires you to plump for
capitalism in the second or third senses. Both Austrian economics and libertarian theories of justice require you to be a free marketeer, of course, but whether that makes you
anti-capitalist, or just doesn’t decide the matter one way or another depends on how you pin down the term
capitalism. Part of my worry is that the way that statists have jammed together three completely different concepts under the chimerical term
capitalism has tended to blind libertarians, in the 20th century, to some of the insights that their forbearers in the 19th century had. The idea is usually that if something is
anti-capitalist, it is therefore anti-libertarian. But that only follows if it’s anti-capitalist in the sense of wanting to use violence to intervene in the free market. My worry is that Daniel has probably got a good argument for showing that CIW’s actions are anti-capitalist in senses two and three, and mistakenly figured that undermining capitalism in those senses tends to undermine capitalism in the first sense, and therefore destructive. In order to try to avoid confusion on the matter, I’m going to be sticking to the term
free market when I talk about what Austro-libertarians are committed to defending.
With that out of the way, let’s look at what Daniel objects to in the rhetoric of the Taco Bell boycott and its supporters. Here’s one objection:
Simply put I believe, there are more ways to be anti-capitalist
than just using government. Mainly promoting ideas that capitalism
is evil or claiming it resorts to rampant market failure are, in my
There are two things that this might mean.
It might mean that you can undermine capitalism in the sense of the bosses’ labor market without going for government intervention. That’s certainly true, but it’s not yet clear that this is a vice. If you think (as I do) that there are serious economic problems with the sort of bureaucratic, boss-controlled, centralized, top-down corporate commerce that rose to dominance in the 20th century, then undermining that—by pointing out, for example, that it typically involves crippling knowledge problems, fosters a culture of petulant entitlement among the decision-makers, exploits the workers and systematically shuts them out of important channels for autonomous and rewarding labor, and so on—then undermining capitalism in that sense can only be counted as a good thing. If you also think that the cultural and material conditions created by boss-directed labor profits from and tends to promote the growth of corporate statism that expropriates wealth in order to support the bosses, then that gives you even stronger libertarian reasons to support
anti-capitalist agitation in this sense. And indeed there are good reasons for Austrians and their fellow-travelers to think these charges against boss-centric are solid—the knowledge problems that Mises, Hayek, and Rothbard pointed out in central planning also apply when that central planning is done by bureaucratic corporations; the potential of free market competition ameliorates the problem but doesn’t eliminate it, and if decisions are being made on the margin in a market that is already dominated by centralized interlocking bureau-corps, which are supported not only by their existing market share but also by a network of cultural attitudes towards work and jobs, it looks like it is going to be a long, hard struggle to undermine those structures and make the threat of serious competition into a practicable reality. The sort of long, hard struggle, in fact, that groups like the CIW are, at their best, engaged in.
On the other hand, this might mean that there are ways to undermine the free market other than calling down the government. That’s true, I guess, but it’s unclear that the things Daniel cites are examples of it. It’s true that spreading economic fallacies is dangerous, and undermines people’s willingness to stand up for economic freedom even if the person spreading the fallacies isn’t personally calling for government intervention. But whether saying
capitalism is evil or that capitalism involves frequent and systemic market failures does that or not depends on whether the critic is using capitalism in the first sense, the second sense, the third sense, or an unstable congerie of different senses. If it’s in the first sense, then clearly it involves an economic fallacies—liberty as such is always an economic (and moral) good, and the Austrians have shown that, while the utopia of neo-classical equilibrium is just that—utopian nonsense—liberty doesn’t create systemic market failures, but rather creates the opportunities and incentives to overcome them. But if
capitalism is being used in the sense of the corporate State, then both the condemnation and the accusation of systemic market failure are obviously right. If it’s being used in the sense of boss-directed labor, then the charges involve economic fallacies and undermine the free market only if you think that boss-directed labor is a necessary condition for a free market (which it obviously isn’t), or a necessary condition for a flourishing free market (which is a premise that has not yet been convincingly argued). In fact, I’d say that the history of big business support for stifling
Progressive regulation—cf., for example, Gabriel Kolko’s The Triumph of Conservatism—the economic record of big corporations over the past century, and the considerations about bureaucratic planning that I mentioned above are all very good reasons for saying that the link doesn’t exist, that if anything boss-directed labor is corrosive to the free market, and that if it takes a fighting union to weaken or supplant it, then that’s as good an argument as any for vibrant, agitating, government-free union organizing.
Now, it’s true that most labor organizers and labor activists today are hardly consistent libertarians, and it’s likely that their rhetoric is going to jostle back and forth between different meanings as they go along just as much as when anyone else uses the terms. But that’s not a reason to issue a blanket criticism of the action as anti-market; it’s a reason to call for a clarification of the argument, and an attempt to grasp the dominant principle in the particular case—as stated in their talk and as manifest in their actions. Coming back to the CIW and their supporters specifically, it would be a lot easier to convict them of being swayed mainly by anti-market maxims if they were, for example, a State-protected union, or if they were calling for State action against Taco Bell or its contractors, or if they were proposing that the free market in farm work is the problem, rather than the practices of specific farm employers. But they aren’t; they are making a point specifically about the common labor practices of farm employers in southern Florida, as far as I know aren’t attributing their evils to the free market (maybe their supporters in JVC were making this claim; I don’t know), and they did a lot of really quite fascinating and groundbreaking work in doing labor organizing and achieving goals without the suffocating
help of the federal labor bureaucracy. All of these facts are well worth noting when we try to piece out what we should think of as the dominant trends in CIW’s campaign.
The other strand of Daniel’s objection I find a lot more puzzling: he objects that
their means (boycotting) are not efficient in obtaining their ends (higher real wages and living conditions for the Immokalee workers), that this is so because
the boycott strategy ignores the effects that a drop in demand for tacos will have on wages related to the production of tacos, and so that
alternative means would be more effective at obtaining the ends of higher wages and living conditions for the Immokalee workers.
It seems to me that the question of obtaining the end has already been settled now that the boycott has been won. Taco Bell established a pass-through program, the workers will be getting more money, and whatever effects the slow-down in Taco Bell sales might have had on the workers have now ended with the boycott. Workers will be getting about $100 more or so per year, and the amount will increase if CIW can leverage their success in the Taco Bell campaign to convince other companies to adopt a similar policy. So I’m especially puzzled by Daniel’s argument that the drop in demand for tacos (and thus tomatoes) hurts the CIW workers rather than helping them. Sure, the boycott may have hurt their income for the three years of the boycott—although my suspicion is that the change on the margin per worker was probably pretty negligible. But people make decisions that will result in less income for the short term in order to get a better result in the long term all the time. Boycotts and strikes are an example; so are school, investment, and quitting your job in order to become an entrepreneur. One thing you have to keep in mind here is that it was the workers themselves who decided that the trade-off of potential present losses for future gains was worth it; that doesn’t guarantee that the decision was a wise one, but it’s certainly not a bizarre sort of decision to make and here, at least, it seems to have begun to pay off.
Daniel’s right to point out that the Taco Bell boycott didn’t encourage consumers to patronize competing tomato-purchasing industries (in order to keep tomato prices steady or raise them by increasing demand for substitute uses of tomatoes, while encouraging Taco Bell to change its ways in order to recapture some of the lost business). But surely here he has misunderstood the strategy behind the boycott. Tomato-pickers aren’t paid directly by the tomato-using industry that consumers buy from; they’re paid by big tomato farmers, who put sell their tomatoes to Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, Heinz, Pace, et al. as contractors. Since none of those competing tomato-users has a pass-through system either, there’s no reason why the boycott should want to funnel business to them; that would merely be shifting business from one sharp dealer to another; and while it might give Taco Bell an incentive to change its ways, it would reward other tomato-using companies for engaging in exactly the same practices as Taco Bell.
Further, Daniel’s too uncharitable to the CIW when he suggests the following as an alternative, higher-valued use of resources that the CIW could have employed:
Any form of productivity. Allegedly the housing prices in the
Immokalee area are exorbitant, and contribute to the poverty
conditions of those who live there. So this is an entrepreneurial
area that could host the energy of riled activists that is instead
being diverted by this boycott. If these activists were instead
producing houses, clothes, and consumable goods to be exchanged
with the Immokalee workers they would be more successful in
improving their quality of life.
But look, these are things that the CIW is already working on. They have already established, among other things a (tremendously successful) grocery store in Immokalee (run on a co-op model, providing goods at near-wholesale prices) and a multilingual community radio station (which helps keep workers communicating and up-to-date on community news). CIW isn’t just a fighting labor organization—although it is that; it’s a community organization and they’ve put a lot of resources into improving living conditions in Imokalee on the ground. They’ve done this in a lot of ways: by putting money into producing community resources, by organizing general strikes and boycotts to negotiate higher wages, by exposing slavery rings, fraud, and violence in the fields (sometimes through the government, sometimes through the press, and sometimes through direct action by workers). The workers have made their decisions about when and how to apply their resources by developing strategies over time to prioritize their needs, and when they launched the Taco Bell boycott it was because they decided it would be worth it to use some resources in the boycott in order to gain better pay and conditions later using a public education and pressure campaign. Now, the mere fact that they decided that this would be best doesn’t mean that they were right; but it’s important to see that their decision wasn’t different in kind from any number of other decisions in the free market, such as: quitting your job, going back to school, starting your own business, investing your money in what you think will be a winning stock, buying a tool, etc. There are plenty of cases where each of these decisions would be wise and plenty where each would be foolish; that depends a lot on the specifics of the case at hand. In this particular case, it looks like the boycott has paid off nicely for the workers—both in direct results and in precedent for future campaigns—and unless you can come up with some pretty specific plans and give some pretty strong reasons in favor of thinking that they would have been a better way to improve farmworkers’ quality of life, I think the presumption is going to be in favor of chalking this campaign up as a good move for the workers.
Of course, you might instead argue that it benefitted the workers, but only at the expense of either Taco Bell, or consumers, or both. That’s a separate argument, but it’s one worth worrying about when we talk about campaigns in which part of the outcome is raising the price of a consumer good. But of course here we need to keep a couple of things in mind. First, the marginal increase in price of the tomatos for Taco Bell is $0.01 per pound of tomatos; in total it will cost Taco Bell about $100,000 / year more than they spent before. If Taco Bell eats that cost it will hardly be noticed, and if the fraction of that cost on the margin is passed on to Taco Bell patrons, it will hardly make a difference. But also, second, that even if the change were likely to make a difference on the margin, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the change in price comes at the expense of the people buying the tacos. One way to look at CIW’s strategy in the Taco Bell boycott is that they were working to earn more money for themselves by changing consumer preferences; what they aimed to do, and succeeded in doing enough to win the boycott, was to educate Taco Bell consumers and get them to recognize the worth of a decent standard of living for farmworkers, and to take that value into account when they deliberate over purchasing a taco. Of course, once they take that into account, they will be willing to pay more for the taco in order to secure the decent standard of living for farmworkers. But it’s not at all clear that this is an loss to them. Sure, it means more money going out, but it’s money being exchanged for something they now value. You could argue that they only ought to value the pleasure of eating the taco, and drop the sentimental concerns about farmworkers; but Jesus, why would you argue that? The market isn’t an arena for machines to maximize their store of precious metals or for hedonic calculators to maximize their bodily pleasures; it’s a process that emerges from the deliberations that free human beings make about what they want and how they can achieve it. People have every right to value tasty food, of course, but they have just as much right to value solidarity with fellow workers, concern for fellow human beings, charity for people suffering, and a lot of other things that come into play when we think about the labor practices of the people we do business with.
Finally, Daniel is again too uncharitable when he worries that the CIW’s practices and demands aren’t as free of government meddling as I’ve made them out to be. Let me be clear—as far as I know, CIW aren’t principled anarchists; while I’m excited about the model of organizing that they’ve developed, and I think their successes have a lot to do with the fact that they are free from both the worm of government union
protections and the hook of government union controls, I don’t claim that they’re any kind of infallible resource. My point here has been to draw out the aspects of them that have something to teach libertarians. But it’s not fair to accuse them of grabbing for government backing based on this line from their press release:
The Company indicated that it believes other restaurant chains and
supermarkets, along with the Florida Tomato Committee, should join
in seeking legislative reform, because human rights are universal
and we hope others will follow our company’s lead.
It’s not fair because (1) the statement about seeking
legislative reform came from Taco Bell, not from the CIW; and because (2) it’s not specified what sort of
legislative reform they mean. There are two different things that CIW has objected to in southern Florida: (1) the prevalent low wages and harsh working conditions; and (2) the use of fraud, coercion, and outright slavery against immigrant farm workers. Both of the complaints were part of the Taco Bell boycott campaign, and if the
legislative reform is aimed at dealing with enslavement of farmworkers or making local law enforcement more responsive to issues of slavery and trafficking, then there’s no reason at all why an anarchist should object. If Taco Bell is proposing some kind of bureaucratic labor regulation by the Florida legislature, then yes, we’ll have to oppose that when the time comes. But that suggestion came from Taco Bell, not CIW, and if CIW were to come out in support of it, I wouldn’t be terribly shocked, but it would represent a substantial break from the strategy and tactics behind all of their successful organizing and activism so far.
So enjoy César Chávez Day, and wish the Coalition of Immokalee Workers well on their recent victory. It’s OK. In fact, if you care about workers bettering their lives without coercion and in organizations autonomous from the State, it’s pretty exciting. Even if you’re a libertarian. Really. I promise.