Rad Geek People's Daily

official state media for a secessionist republic of one

Posts from April 2009

Evidential markers

One of the things about studying philosophy is that it dramatically alters the way you listen to people talk. If you’re doing it right, the kind of little words and phrases that most people would scan over without consciously noticing them suddenly become show-stoppers. For example, one of the things I usually hone in on in any conversation are the little emphatic words — certainly, obviously, it’s self-evident, understandably, and so on — that mark out what the speaker is dialectically positioning as certain or obvious or needing no explanation. Logically, it’s important for structuring arguments. In a broader sense, you want to think about what sort of thought, and what sort of lived experience, is being confessed when a speaker marks out what they take as the given, the immediately comprehensible, the commonplace, the sure ground on which they stand.

For example, there’s something fascinating about the kind of life you glimpse when Woody Harrelson says, With my daughter at the airport I was startled by a paparazzo, who I quite understandably mistook for a zombie.

Emphasis mine.

(Via Jesse Walker @ Hit and Run.)

Shameless Self-promotion Sunday #48

It’s Sunday again. Everybody get Shameless.

What have you been up to this 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.

Open thread on: localism, decentralism, anarchism, thick conceptions of libertarianism, and the U.S. Constitution

There have been several lengthy threads of conversation going on in the comments of some of this week’s posts. The purpose of this post is to disentangle one of those threads to make the conversation more easily found and more easily followed.

Speaking as the editor, I will mention that I’ve done a bit to prune off some diverging conversations — e.g. some interesting discussion about group rights and individual rights — that began in some of the comments I’m posting, and have excerpted (with editorial marks) accordingly; you can follow those discussions on the original thread. It’s not that I don’t care; it’s just that the purpose of this post is to try and extract a kind-of straightforward thread of conversation, leaving things that go off at a 45 degree angle to be discussed in spaces of their own. Also, I’ve tended to mash together comments that were made by the same person when one was made right after the other.

Anyway. Branching off from a conversation, in the comments on GT 2009-04-22: Direct action gets the goods, about Greens and Reds and cliques and tendencies within the existing Anarchist scene, and how it all relates to market anarchism, William Gillis mentioned:

... Of course the major MA influences in the Twin Cities were all pro-tech, pie-in-the-sky post-scarcity futurists and inclined to gloss over the more localist, Carson / Hess sort of interpretations.

— William Gillis (2009-04-23 9:09pm)

Soviet Onion:

I didn't feel a strong inclination either way from Kyle or Sarah.

If that is the case, then thank Prometheus for that. As wishful as it sounds, it's a welcome antidote to the left-libertarian tendency to treat localism and decentralization as THE POINT rather than an instrumental tool to some more fundamental desire. That shit's also vulnerable to corruption by every kind of village fascism under the sun. Hence the enabling attitude toward things like National Anarchism coming from Keith Preston and Jeremy Weiland that almost makes ANTIFA-style gang beatdowns seem like a more intelligent response to the phenomenon.

. . .

Oh, and speaking of Sarah, I hear she's going to be living on a farm in South Dakota. Not exactly futurist utopia.

–[Soviet Onion (2009-04-24, 1:39am / 2:20am)][2]



All of this is well put. As wishful as it sounds, it's a welcome antidote to the left-libertarian tendency to treat localism and decentralization as THE POINT rather than an instrumental tool to some more fundamental desire. That shit's also vulnerable to corruption by every kind of village fascism under the sun. Hence the enabling attitude toward things like National Anarchism coming from Keith Preston and Jeremy Weiland that almoAst makes ANTIFA-style gang beatdowns seem like a more intelligent response to the phenomenon.

It is hard for me to express how much I appreciate your speaking out against the national anarchist Trojan horse. Thank you.

And that's precisely it- replacing rights with decentralism completely throws out the principle of liberty. I want the implementation of a specific social system which guarantees individual rights and supports individual autonomy. I'm not interested in a politics which switches this for the goal of acceptance of existing social systems. whether individualist or not. Liberty requires a conscious and rational set of values and institutions which are incompatible with traditional organic society.

I'm a moderate on decentralisation- actually, I think the original 1789 American federal system buttressed by an extensive and enforceable Bill of Rights fully incorporated against local tyranny is a fairly good model. I'm at the moment inclined to say yes to decentralisation in economic matters, no in educational matters, and to favour a mixed system in politics. I think we do need broad regional social organisation in a form which maintains an easy flow of goods, people, and ideas- I think this aspect of the Roman, British, and American empires was a good thing (have you read Isabel Paterson's God of the Machine?).

— Aster (2009-04-24), 5:54am

William Gillis (in reply to Soviet Onion):

As wishful as it sounds, it's a welcome antidote to the left-libertarian tendency to treat localism and decentralization as THE POINT rather than an instrumental tool to some more fundamental desire. That shit's also vulnerable to corruption by every kind of village fascism under the sun.

Whaddaya expect from me aside from twinkles. We agree, of course. I'd write more on the issue but you're particularly eloquent on this and I've never entirely felt it was my place to start shit in the ALL. Left-Libertarianism is someone else's parlor. I'm a post-leftie transhumanist utilitarian who wants to slaughter the rich, turn their mansions into coops and then enact full blooded Anarcho-Capitalism as a door prop on the long road to actual Anarchism. I've never fully belonged to the Carson/Long project. If you want to start something, either calling shit out or strengthening the foundations of an alternative Left-Libertarianism then, by all means I urge you to.

— William (2009-04-24, 5:58am)


Soviet Onion,

As wishful as it sounds, it's a welcome antidote to the left-libertarian tendency to treat localism and decentralization as THE POINT rather than an instrumental tool to some more fundamental desire. That shit's also vulnerable to corruption by every kind of village fascism under the sun.

I agree that localism and decentralism ought not to be fetishized at the expense of other goals (either respect for rights or other cultural goals that my thick conception of libertarianism is entangled with), and that the value of localism and decentralism ought mainly to be treated as a strategic value, not as something that is desirable in itself. (When it ends up being something I'd consider desirable in itself, and not merely strategically, it's because certain forms of centralism and antilocalism are themselves expressions of classism, racism, or other forms of elite bigotry, all of which I do consider objectionable in themselves, apart from any strategic considerations.)

For reference, when you refer to a left-libertarian tendency to fetishize localism and decentralism, do you have anyone particular in mind, other than Jeremy Weiland? (There's also Keith Preston, presumably, but he doesn't consistently identify as a left-libertarian, and in any case I'm not willing to grant him the description.) If so, whom?


I'm a moderate on decentralisation- actually, I think the original 1789 American federal system buttressed by an extensive and enforceable Bill of Rights fully incorporated against local tyranny is a fairly good model.

Huh? Why?

It doesn't seem to have worked out very well so far.

— Rad Geek (2009-04-24), 11:02am

Jeremy Weiland:

. . . And, for the record, I'm not a supporter of National Anarchism. I disagree with them (mostly in the sense that I refuse to take a positive position on what a free society looks like, nor will I work towards that vision in lieu of actually freeing humans. But I would consider working with them on a case by case basis if it served my interests). I don't know what you mean about "enabling" them, though, so I can't say whether or not I do that. I'm aware of the fact that many groups exist whose ideologies I disagree with, and I see no reason to elevate their existence over the existence of more concentrated, institutionalized power structures as a motivating issue for me.

— Jeremy (2009-04-24, 11:22am)

Marja Erwin:

As for decentralism ...

I think it is a powerful tool, but not an end in itself.

It is harder to criminalize acts, let alone criminalize people, when people can walk across the border and out of reach of the criminalizers.

I think intentional communities can be important.

That said, there is an incredible difference between asserting the right of the individual to seek better communities, and claiming a right of a community to condemn certain individuals.

In my admittedly incomplete understanding, collectivist anarchism has historically involved either or both of two kinds of community control. The first being near-monopolistic but temporary; a transitional confederation instead of Marx's transitional state. I think this was Bakunin's pragmatic proposal. The second being community control of specific institutions, but neither requiring participation nor forbidding competition.

I think Parecon has sowed the seeds of Prestonism, because it imagines a permanent system which subjects individual choices to community decision, and forbids independent exchange. ... And the primitivists like that!

— Marja Erwin (2009-04-24, 11:41am)

Jeremy Weiland:

My name is being mentioned far too often in this thread. Color me uncomfortable.

I don't fetishize localism or decentralism – I simply see it as a means to an end. I may place a higher importance on those means, but so what? I don't see anybody else demonstrating a better strategy (it is just a strategy – if you want to talk about what that more fundamental desire is, we can do that).

What is the end, the core desire? For me, it's the standard R.A. Wilson line: achieving an honest society where people can tell the truth, or more technically, a society where individuals can maximally express themselves within the collective. For me, the end is authentic, sustainable society. Breaking up concentrations of power is just a means to this end.

Just so we're clear about where I stand, I part ways with you all mostly on your insistence on a universal morality against which one can judge affairs (thick libertarianism as a motivating ideology). I don't claim that there's a right way to live, and so I don't take, for instance, my opposition to fascist societies in some panarchist future as a directive for which I must find justification in morality or natural law or whatever. I'm quite comfortable opposing it because, well, that's just how I feel about the matter. I have my reasons, but ultimately they are grounded in something either arbitrary (and inaccessable) or intrinsic to reality (and therefore accessible without needing codification and legalisms).

The truth or significance of that feeling is something we can talk about, but it has more to do with my own journey than some ideology. That is where I feel I diverge from thick libertarianism. I support most thick libertarian values because I support them, not because they're right.

Prestonism is a reference, I must assume, to his core position that human beings are inherently tribal, and that therefore the most we can work towards is a cross-ideological alliance against the state rather than the everlasting victory of left libertarian ideology? Whether or not I like that view of humans, I must say it seems to map well to human history and experience. Most people don't give a damn about liberty, in fact. That does [not] preclude a left libertarian agenda in any way, I would think.

As far as I know, his critique of thick libertarianism has never been responded to, which is unfortunate; we could all benefit from a informed debate involving Johnson, Long, et al.

— Jeremy (2009-04-24, 11:43am)

Marja Erwin:

Well, I for one have indirectly criticized his essay:

Grounds Above All

I was more interested, however, in explaining my own views than in confronting his.

— Marja Erwin (2009-04-24, 12:12pm)



. . .

But I would consider working with them on a case by case basis if it served my interests).

Just out of curiosity, what do you imagine as a case in which it would serve your interests to work with National Anarchists?

Just so we're clear about where I stand, I part ways with you all mostly on your insistence on a universal morality against which one can judge affairs (thick libertarianism as a motivating ideology).

The thick-thin debate is not a debate about moral universalism. It's a debate about something else. Most people with a thin conception of libertarianism are moral universalists; they just have a different view of what kind of further commitments the moral virtue of justice might recommend. And it's perfectly possible (although I wouldn't recommend it; but that's because I'm a moral universalist) to be an anti-universalistic thick libertarian; indeed, it's quite possible to advance a view on which some form of anti-universalism or anti-moralism is one of the further commitments that libertarianism recommends. (That seems to be what some Stirnerite and Nietzschean anarchists believe. It also seems to be what you've spent the past several months arguing, while claiming that you're critiquing thick conceptions of libertarianism. The fact that you lay a lot of stress on a very broad-ranging form of social tolerance does not mean that you're opposing the bundling of further social commitments together with libertarianism. It means that you may disagree with those of us who have a more activist stance in the culture wars about what sort of social commitments ought to be bundled.)

As far as I know, his [Keith Preston's] critique of thick libertarianism has never been responded to, which is unfortunate; we could all benefit from a informed debate involving Johnson, Long, et al.

There are a lot of reasons why I haven’t yet published a response to Preston’s article. If I do it is likely to be a series of responses to short points rather than an attempt at extended dialogue in a single essay. I will say here that part of the problem with Preston’s essay is that it is an extended attack on something other than what he starts off claiming to be attacking; it’s not a critique of thick conceptions of libertarianism at all, but rather a critique of left-libertarianism (or more specifically some aspects of the cultural program advanced by, e.g., Roderick and me, as part of the left component of left-libertarianism). The two are not identical; left-libertarianism, at least as Roderick and I present it, is a species of thick libertarianism, but there are many other kinds; notably, as I’ve repeatedly tried to stress Hoppean paleolibertarians, and orthodox Objectivists are each advancing their own thick conceptions of libertarianism. What I differ with them on is not thick libertarianism — the idea that libertarianism is best seen as one strand within a bundle of interrelated and reinforcing political, cultural, or philosophical commitments, which is one of the very few ideas on which the Hoppeans, the ARIans, and I all agree with each other — but rather the specific commitments that they are trying to bundle in. There are several related and entangled but importantly distinct and conceptually distinguishable issues that Preston is attempting to treat, and I don’t think that the essay does a very good job of distinguishing them carefully. (Which is why thick libertarianism ends up getting used over and over again as if it named a distinctive ideology, rather than what it is, a cluster of picky philosophical distinctions that might help categorize a number of different ideological positions. It’s also why the essay jumbles together several different arguments about several different topics, with very little in the way of anything that actually attempts to engage the work I did on distinguishing, explaining and justifying several different kinds of relationships that might connect the struggle against the state with other values in the thick bundle. This kind of jumbling makes fruitful discussion much harder to carry on, and much more work to prepare.

— Rad Geek (2009-04-24, 2:18pm)


Aster: I'm a moderate on decentralisation- actually, I think the original 1789 American federal system buttressed by an extensive and enforceable Bill of Rights fully incorporated against local tyranny is a fairly good model.

Charles: Huh? Why? It doesn't seem to have worked out very well so far.

Me again:

It depends what you compare it to. If you compare it to the best system I think human beings are possible of creating, undoubtably it’s inferior. But if you consider it in the context of that vast slaughterbench of individuals known as human history, it looks more like a miraculously achievement. Certainly, the system is on the edge of failing now. But the very partial, irregular, and inconsistent virtues which the system has shown in the last two centuries is still an unspeakable achievement in a world in which the norm is the closed society. I’m alive today. I can’t ever forget that in any previous age, given my ideas and gender transition, I would never have made it this far.

I think part of the difference in our outlooks is that I look at freedom as a positive construction. I don’t see a natural state of freedom which government, elites, or capital has stolen from us. I see a natural baseline of tribal dictatorship- animal society knows nothing of the individual- which humans have with slow and tortured cumulative effort managed to partially replace with a form of society which allows for some degree of human freedom. We should certainly work and demand more than what we have, but we should also remain aware that the creation of conditions in which the individual personality is even partially free to be herself requires a set of social and material conditions in tension with a state of nature.

I used to consider myself a borderline anarchist, but I don’t any longer. (let me stress that unlike orthodox Objectivists I am not hostile to anarchism). The reason has to do primarily with an experience in the anarchist scene.

Some months before I arrived in Wellington, a female anarchist accused a male anarchist of rape. Prior to this, everything I’ve seen suggests that relations within the community were entirely peaceful- zero aggression beyond the level of dishonestly leaving dishes for the next person to clean up. So when this happened, it was a social shock. People picked sides. People got accused of covering up for a rapist and/or damning someone as a rapist without evidence (I have a strong opiniong about who was telling the truth, but I won’t discuss it here). The result ruined friendships, hurt a community involving hundreds of people, and hovered like a ghost over every subsequent practical or ideological disagreement, long after the victim herself clearly expressed an authentic desire to move on.

The reason the problem kept reverberating is because there was no way to finally and publicly resolve the dispute. Any standing body which was recognised as making a judgement which counted would be… authority, heirarchy, a government. There was clearly a view that things should work themselves out, that things like this shouldn’t happen in a nonheirarchical community… and, indeed, this was a singular and exceptional occurrance within a very honest and safe group of people. But this one aggression had catastrophic results. There was no way to deal with it. And as far as I could see, it was all very tied to the idea that harmony was natural, that interference in that harmony felt wrong. The result of an informality of structure was that everyone ended up supporting their friends and allies and communal trust never entirely recovered. Ironically, the political result of all of this was the creation of a ‘safer spaces’ policy which worked as de facto law but without objective and accountable methods. And the de facto law caused more problems for human freedom than would a written law which explicity set up an authoritative institution.

The conclusion I came out of this was: law is valuable. I don’t mean enforcement, police, prisons, that sort of stuff. I mean that it is better to have publicly written institutions that set up standards rather than trusting society to work itself out. You need formal principles which don’t spring out of the ground, which have to be set up, written down, and applied in a regular manner within a community- for in the absence of formal rules, you get not no rules but tribal rules.

After this, and for other reasons, I started becoming very conscious of the fact that the social relations we take for granted depend on a prior structure of civilisation which makes public dealings possible. A civil society may, from a certain angle, be self-organising. But for that social organisation to work (especially if you want it to work in a dircection of individualism and freedom*) one needs a background set of institutions and values which have to be constructively built. And in that light, partially liberal societies start looking much more half-full than half-empty. Freedom isn’t a birthright that dark forces have stolen from us; freedom is a positive accomplishment made possible by the invention of better social structures. And if we wish- as we should- to seek more freedom, we should look at this not as tearing down but as building higher. Those who do think we will find our freedom primarily by breaking and tearing down are mistaken- and are easy prey for people who don’t like a free society and can abuse the naivete of radicals to make them dig their own graves.

It goes deeper. If you look at an anarchist community, one quickly becomes aware that one is dealing with unusually good people. Nice people. Considerate people. Idealistic people. People who don’t often think of stealing and lying as available options. And they’re often quite privileged people- people who haven’t known as much pain and others and for that very reasons are capable of being more kind and idealistic. That such people exist is a very good thing- the world desperately needs such people and would be very wise not to despise idealists and creators.

But precisely because most bohemians are nice, they create social systems based upon the assumption that their kind of psychology is a given. They take for granted a great deal of civilisation which is unconscious to them. But that social psychology is as a rule a product of favourable circumstances- such as an enriching, leisurely childhood. If one wants to be rude, it’s also sustained by flat out privilege- the characteristic ethical blindspot of bohemians is the assumption that the world owes us a living.

But most importantly, the anarchist way of life is built upon an immense complex of civilisation structure carried around inside the human mind. The better world for which anarchism advocates is built upon all the (to my mind, correct) assumptions of this one. When we fault the injustices of the states that came out of the liberal institutions, we’re right, but our capacity to be right is itself the product of the startling success of those revolutions- Thoreau says something like this in On the Duty of Civil Disobedience. Even our capacity to think and value more finely and treat others with more human dignity is a product of more humane conditions. Those who criticise the illiberalism of the best existing systems today are themselves the continuing success of those systems. We can criticise them because they won (and, if they fall, we will lose the right to criticise).

Yes, Americs and all the other liberal democracies were set up by rich dead white men who forgot to include anybody but themselves. But the fact that they included anyone is, by historical standards, an unspeakable improvement and a breathtaking experiment. Throughout human history poverty, superstition, fear, hatred, collectivism, atrocity, and war have been the order of the day. I find it horrible to think about what life for the average person- averaged over our entire history- has really been like. Everyone reading this is privileged beyond sane possibility by any previous standard. And that includes politics- we’re able to posit the possibility of stateless societies because previous social architects managed the feat of creating working liberal societies.

The success of anarchism would mean that we’ve completely humanised the human condition. The anarchist possibility is a hypercivilisation. Anarchism is not a negation of bourgeois tyranny- it’s an avante-garde continuation of the principles of the older bourgeois liberal revolutions. The revolution (at least one we want) will not break the structures of oppreesion. It will build the structures of freedom another level higher. Anti-racism, feminism, LGBT rights are some of the most recent, the most fragile, and the most difficult of these accomplishments. They are not reversals of the betrayals of 1776 and 1789; they are their most wild successes. And the fact that life after 1776 and 1789 was still a tytannical Hell for most people isn’t something I’ve forgetting- again, I could never have survived if I has been born even one generation ago.

And in that context, I’m grateful to those dead white men and their state- even if to get my freedom, it is them I have to fight with extensions of their own principles.

America’s dying today- but it’s dying precisely because it is guided by people who have abandoned the spiritual infrastructure of liberal civilisation- by a ruling class whose level of thinking is an illiterate mess of delusion and pragmatism incapable of sustaining a free society. Any system would fail in the direction of tyranny under the same circumstances.


One technical point- what I was broadly praising wasn’t the actual American system (past or present), but an ahistorical conjunction of the best parts from different periods- an 18th century ‘conservative’ limited government with 20th century ‘liberal’ provisions for rights enforcement. If I was going to write a model political blueprint I’d change any number of things (a longer bill of rights, proportional representation, a parliamentary system, nix the stupid electoral college).

But I still think what we need is a consciously selected society based upon specific and rationally validated values. A society in which individuals may do what they wish requires an insistence that societies operate by individualist principles, with an establishment of appropriate civil and formal institutions. You can have a society whee individuals are left alone or you can leave societies alone to dispose as they please with individuals- you can’t have both.

— Aster (2009-04-25, 7:02am)


. . .


It depends what you compare it to. If you compare it to the best system I think human beings are possible of creating, undoubtably it's inferior. But if you consider it in the context of that vast slaughterbench of individuals known as human history, it looks more like a miraculously achievement.

  1. I don’t think that it worked out better than other competing proposals which were made at the time would have worked out. For example, if we’re comparing different proposed governments, then it ought to be noted one of the chief accomplishments of the United States Constitution, as compared with the earlier Articles of Confederation was that the U.S. Constitution was deliberately designed to substantially increase centralization, in particular to grant the general government wide powers to impose national taxes and to pass and enforce Fugitive Slave Acts. The first was a substantial reason for its political success at the North; the second was a substantial reason for its political success at the South. I don’t consider either of these an advance over what came before.

  2. How much of an achievement it looks like depends on where you’re looking at it from. There isn’t much of a miracle there for the Shawnee, or the Lakota, or for Africans, or for African-Americans, or for the Filipinos (1,000,000+ dead thanks to a war that could not have happened but for the war machine that a centralized U.S. made possible), or for the Vietnamese (4,000,000 dead from the same cause a few decades later), not just because it failed to improve things but because it made things actively worse than they were before under the status quo ante. It’s not enough to say, Yes, that’s terrible, but the alternatives were just as bad or worse. They weren’t, not for the people who have gotten the heel of the boot under the U.S. government. It’s one thing to say that the ideals that motivated some aspects of the founding events of the U.S. could, if radicalized and universalized, bring liberation for everyone (I agree with that, and often say so); but it’s important not to miss the fact that not only weren’t they, but in fact the selective versions were often used to enable the elite to inflict much more violence, sometimes genocidal violence, on those who were cast outside of the magic circle.

If you want to go looking for less-lethal states, they exist, but I don’t think that anything like the U.S.A. could possibly qualify. San Marino, maybe; Switzerland, maybe. I have problems with these states, as I do with any other, but I can see citing them as examples of societies which manage to rise above the general bloodbath of recorded history. But certainly not anything that has ever been done under the United States Constitution.

America's dying today

Q: When was it ever alive?

I think part of the difference in our outlooks is that I look at freedom as a positive construction. I don't see a natural state of freedom which government, elites, or capital has stolen from us.

But that’s not my view either.

I’m not trying to recover a primordial state. I view freedom as an achievement for the future; the question is by what means it can be achieved. My complaint is not that you’re proposing a structure; it’s that you’re proposing a structure which has been tried and found wanting, and which there are good reasons to consider structurually predisposed to the slaughter, enslavement, war, and torture that has been committed under its name since the day that it was signed. The reason that I want the State to get out of the way is not because I expect everything to fix itself automatically once people are left alone. It would do a handy job of automatically fixing some things — nobody but states builds atomic bombs; nobody but states starves people to death in the name of de-kulakization/industrial modernization/intellectual property rights in DNA/opium prohibition/etc. But there are many things that need to be worked out through conscious effort and activism and the building of social structures and institutions.

So when you say:

The conclusion I came out of this was: [explicit] law is valuable.

I agree with you, but I don’t know why that’s an argument against anarchism, or in favor of the United States Constitution. Anarchism doesn’t mean dispensing with all written precepts for social conduct or with any possible sort of juridical institution. It means dispensing with the State. There are plenty of ways of getting explicit law, and institutions which write down laws based on rational deliberation and criticism, and juridical institutions which apply law or judgment to concrete cases, based on consensual association and without any kind of state. That’s been precisely the point of market anarchist theory since the get-go. The idea is not to get rid of orderly dispute resolution, but rather to stop the State from violently suppressing alternative forms of it.

Without the State, you can’t have finally unaccountable juridical institutions, and you can’t have written laws which are passed off as binding solely because of the political position of those who wrote them down. But I consider that a virtue, not a defect, because the need for institutions which allow for holding aggressors accountable, and for settling disputes through deliberation about right, rather than by means of brute force, doesn’t just apply when it comes to encounters between one citizen and another. It also applies when it comes to encounters between the citizen and the State; but there’s no way to get that as long as the State remains a state. The state as such is lawless in its encounters with the people it claims the right to rule; so if you think that law is valuable, that’s a reason to oppose the state, not a reason to support it.

As for the particular case you mention, that’s awful, and all too familiar. I’ve encountered plenty of similar situations in anarchist scenes around the U.S. in the past. I think existing anarchist scenes do a very bad job of supporting women and a very bad job of responding to rape in particular. But (1) so does the State, as we both know; (2) partly because of male supremacy, which is everywhere at the moment, but partly also for reasons that have specifically to do with the legal and juridical structure of the state (because state-centric criminal law handle crimes of violence as a matter of the State’s interest in preserving public order, not as a matter of vindicating the rights of individual victims; no surprise that D.A.s and cops are typically incredibly unresponsive to the needs of women, especially when it comes to a crime typically committed within the private sphere); and (3) the problems with the existing anarchist scene only suggest a problem with anarchism as such, or a reason to favor the state, if there are no realistically available ways to deal with a situation like this using anarchistic methods. But there are ways to deal with it. I’m all for people involved in organizing anarchist spaces getting together and writing down, and taking seriously, policies about how to deal with sexual violence or other issues that are likely to come up in a social space. (I’ve personally written plenty of policies, back when I was involved with planning an anarchist convention some years back.) Those people in the scene who think that any such attempt to do so amounts to government (for ill or for good) are, well, wrong — not just wrong about how to deal with the problems of interpersonal violence, but also wrong about what government is and what it is anarchism is opposed to.

But I still think what we need is a consciously selected society based upon specific and rationally validated values.

O.K. But isn’t that a reason to favor a form of social organization in which peaceful people are free to select their political institutions, rather than one in which a predetermined set of political institutions are violently imposed on them regardless of their consciously selected preferences?

A society in which individuals may do what they wish requires an insistence that societies operate by individualist principles, with an establishment of appropriate civil and formal institutions.

Anarchism does not preclude civil or formal institutions.

The success of anarchism would mean that we've completely humanised the human condition. The anarchist possibility is a hypercivilisation.

O.K., sure; but the question is how we get there from here. If what you mean as the process of civilization is something like, getting from a condition of chaotic or semistructured violence, to a condition of social peace, then I agree that building social structure is part of the process. But there are different kinds of social structures, and the state is only one among many. It’s only one among many possible structures; it’s also only one among many of structures that have actually operated in history. (Here are some others, which did not derive from a centralized state: the norms and institutions of academe, friendly societies, labor unions, churches, synagogues, the Law Merchant, the English common law of torts and contracts, etc. Some of these are beneficent, others baleful, and most are a mixture of the two.) The question is whether the level of social peace that some people are privileged to enjoy today was brought about by the state, or by other structures without the help of the state, or by other structures in spite of the state; I think the answer is mostly the last. And further, it’s a question of whether, going forward, centralized state methods are likely to advance or to hold back the cause of greater civilization and social peace. I think, looking at what the state actually does do most of the time it is doing something, and looking at what states are always going to be most likely to do, given the way that they are structured, that the question is not a hard one to answer.

One technical point- what I was broadly praising wasn't the actual American system (past or present), but an ahistorical conjunction of the best parts from different periods- an 18th century !!!@@e2;20ac;2dc;conservative' limited government with 20th century !!!@@e2;20ac;2dc;liberal' provisions for rights enforcement.

I hope that you’d also include some other innovations besides the Incorporation Doctrine that also weren’t part of the Founding elite’s interpretation of the Constitution ca. 1790 — for example, the Thirteenth Amendment.

That said, if we’re now going to be looking at political systems which have never existed at any point in history, and which to be sustainable would also (as you argue) require a different culture and civil society, which does not now exist and never has existed and would involve a really radical transformation of what does now exist — then it seems like I can help myself to the same sort of hope and activism for the sort of radical transformation in culture and civil society which would make anarchy practical, sustainable, and desirable.

— Rad Geek (2009-04-25, 2:11pm)

Nick Manley:


Yeah, I was going to point out what Charles did for himself. You were attacking a strawman. The federated organizations imagined by anarcho-communists are fantastically consciously constructed. The minarchist-market anarchist debate is over whether competitive defense services can achieve a individualist liberal rule of law — not over the desirability of orderly proceedings per se. There are also a lot of relatively minor disputes in life where the state doesn't intervene without chaos resulting. A serious rape accusation is arguably something for an objective court of law, but a verbal scuffle with my mom isn't.


How would you answer a person pointing out Lawrence vs Texas, Brown vs Board of Education, and civil rights legislation passed on the national level?

Incidentally, the Brown vs Board of Education decision occurred in the context of compulsory schooling. You were compelled via taxes to support a racist school structure — no doubt said taxes fell on black and white alike.

— Nick Manley (2009-04-25, 4:24pm)



Bill of Rights, Amendment XIII, Aster’s edition.

Section I:

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime where of the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the County of Bohemia, or any place subject to her jurisdiction. Actually, involuntary servitude even as punishment for real crime just makess people nastier and isn’t exactly productive. Forced labour as restitution for aggression is a maybe, but it sounds way open to abuse.

Section II:

One more thing. It’s still involuntary servitude if you force someone to carry a gun and murder foreigners- actually, that’s even worse. And mandatory volunteerism- you guessed it, ‘involuntary servitude’!

Section III:

Oh, and that includes your wife. And your children. Don’t give that look- no, your wife and children aren’t your personal beasts of burden or fuck-toys. I don’t care if ‘your culture’ says otherwise. Tough.

Section IV:

It’s still involuntary servitude if you make the kid go to a big ugly building and bore them to death and call it ‘education’.

Section V:

It probably doesn’t count if it’s your dog or your cow, but we can discuss that issue. Maybe. Torturing millions of veal calves in factory farms does have a really bad slaveryish feel to it. Cats go under ‘implied non-applicability’- you can’t tell them what to do anyway. Actually, this amendment has an exception regarding you in relation to your cat. Obey her or else, not like you can resist.

Section VI.

The principle applies to places not subject to the jurisdiction of the County of Bohemia too, but this isn’t an excuse to bomb foreigners and take their stuff. Or to get other foreigners to ruin their livelihoods so they have to work in your sweatshops for virtually nothing. It even applies to BROWN people, believe it or not- and the fact that it took you this long to figure that out means you suck.

Section VII. Aster shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation. Actually, anyone who wants to stop a slavery situation should feel empowered to do it. Figuring out the enforcement and incentive structures will be a bitch, though- but that’s not an excuse for giving up and just letting slavery happen, Keith.

Section VIII: And the clever loophole in these rules you figured out is NOT OK. Slavery=BAD, if you were missing the point here.

Section IX: And if you were thinking that of course this principle applied to everyone but you- well, then you were wrong.

Charles, is that better?

— Aster (2009-04-25, 5:07pm)

Soviet Onion:


Charles said most of what I would have. I’m very much in favor of polycentric law, specifically because I think it’s a kind of decentralization (not be confused with mutually-exclusive “localisms” a la Hoppestan/anarcho-communism, ’cause that shit’s wack) that manages to incorporate the entire cosmopolis in a competitive and collaborative project(+). It’s the kind of decentralization that incorporates multiple overlapping world-strands instead segregating into little chunks where oppressive conditions can entrench themselves. It’s decentralized only in the sense that the same globalized process is taking place everywhere. The center is everywhere. Perhaps a better term for this is “system redundancy”, or even just competition.

The standard market anarchist talking point posits a competitive system of law and security in which no one is compelled to pay for enforcement they don’t want or seek the services of a specific mediator. This would tend to simultaneously whittle away anything that wasn’t strictly directly related to the defense of person or property, while strengthening those remaining parts (since competition is more efficient than monopoly), resulting in something that would unconsciously grope toward an approximation of a market liberal order, even in the absence of conscious endeavor (and the Lawyers in the crowd would see that as an almost mystical proof of Natural Law, but that’s also wack).

But the same thing would tend to happen culturally. By subsuming more and more people from larger cultural and geographic groups into the process, and forcing them to reason and persuade in an open environment wherein individuals are presented with a realistic possibility to run to the highest ground, you dissolve taboos and meme-traps to wind up with a code that should tend toward something more respectful of rational individualism, irrespective of whatever local aberrations may have been there initially. That ties into what I meant earlier about competition giving people so many options to run to that it forces all options to become better, because it becomes harder to put the cultural clampdown on anyone.

You see, this is why I’m not a good writer. I just ramble. To answer your point, I can see reasoned, macro-level cosmopolitan sentiments manifesting themselves best through this kind of anarchist decentralization. You don’t need to choose between an (unstable) monopoly state or an (undesirable) organic tribe.

(+) It’s no surprise that most of humanity’s early philosophical development took place in violently antagonistic environments like ancient Greece, China, India, Renaissance Italy etc. Competition is just a way of reconstituting this dynamic without violence, anarchist peace being the perfection of what we now call war, as Proudhon would say. Marxism tries to wish this discord away rather than harness it as an engine of progress (and even they recognize that it an engine of progress, but only to envision an end state that transcends it).

Note: I'm the last person to say that cultural change doesn't matter, but this system is likely to be the most stable and compatible form in which to help preserve and extend it. Certainly more than your description of decentralization would indicate.

In a loosely related note, I attended the Finding Our Roots anarchist convergence today and something in one of the workshops caught my ear, a word I hadn’t heard in a long time: Globalization. It was in the context of someone describing anarchism as advancing an alternative vision of globalization to the neoliberal one, and this person spoke in kind of a tongue-in-cheek fashion, because he knew that this had already become a cliche.

Now, left-libertarians do try to present themselves as real advocates of “free-trade”, “free-markets”, “privatization” and sometimes even “property rights”, all in an attempt to redeem these (more or less) valuable concepts from their hypocritical usurpers, and present them as an Unknown Ideal toward which we can aspire with all the genuine radicalism that it deserves.

But I’ve never seen left-libertarians do the same with globalization.

Isn’t it odd that a group of people who advocate mostly local, self-contained, territorial forms self-government and economic relations still felt that the word globalization was worth redeeming, and left-libertarians haven’t?

— Soviet Onion (2009-04-25, 8:03pm/8:53pm/9:28pm)

William Gillis:


I think giving up on the anarchist project because of one specific instance in one specific scene where some folks failed to have a good response to an instance/charge of rape is a little, well disappointing.

No one ever pretended that the present-day movement has already found all the habits and organizational tendencies necessary to resolve every dilemma before a functioning society. Our only claim is that such models exist to be found.

I think these problems of justice can be solved theoretically but because of the emotional immediacy and the relative perpetuity of sexual assault in our culture the movement has opted for a trial and error approach with various cities trying various solutions and engaging in an — albeit limited — dialogue. There are collectives and mediating bodies in dozens of cities across the united states with experience dealing with precisely these kinds of situations, often to impressive ends. Your example is a classic one, but it’s one that’s recognized as such. For all of Social Anarchism’s annoying self-limitations they HAVE demonstrated over the last few decades a serious and proactive commitment to developing organic solutions. And as Market Anarchists we should be able to recognize that if even a free market can take a few iterations to generate and test solutions, a small cliquish group of people LARPing on weekends as though they were already in a free society might take a while longer.

The problem is not that there aren’t solutions, the problem is that these models and groups fall into disuse and their nuances aren’t conveyed to the next 3-year batch of radicals. Long distance (in time AND space) communication has never been Social Anarchism’s strong suit. But this is not a fundamental impediment but a reality of the movement’s size, culture and technological aptitude.


As to the rest.

I take seriously umbrage at your portrayal of the Social Anarchist movement as rife with naive kindness and idealism because of their largely pampered privileged bourgeois upbringings.

Practically everyone I work with or run into on a regular basis come from backgrounds of seriously fucked up shit. I may think I have the slightly worse extreme stories of childhood homelessness, starvation and abuse, and there may be an annoying rash of privileged upper working-class kids scattered around the scene for good measure, but I am really fucking sick of folks who briefly slum it with the cliques most immediately accessible to them and use such unrepresentative anecdotes to write off the entire movement.

It’s not about naivety. It’s precisely because we’re intimately aware of the sheer depth of horrors in the sociological/psychological composition of our society and how they function that we endeavor to prove another world is possible.

Yes America is a pretty damn amazing accomplishment and a great improvement. We can measure things against Anarchy, Full-blown consciousness-outlawed Fascism, or how things were previously in history. America obviously fails against the first but triumphs amazingly against the latters. As far as world empires we could have at this state of technological development America is practically a divine miracle.

But as you well know it’s a strawman to argue against Anarchists as though we want to immediately whisk away the state and its various forms of control. We’re not, nor have we ever, argued for some police-strike. The civilizing process will take some damn time. Probably millennia were we destined to remain at roughly this level of technological capacity.

That being true it’s tempting to throw up one’s hands and become a social democrat for the duration. (And we CAN argue for reformism and certain improved models of statism without being hypocrites.) But the reality is that the statist or liberal paradigm is one of fetishizing immediate advances or ameliorations in ignorance or apathy of their long term consequences. Simply put, the game of statist reform threatens to paint us into a corner from which we cannot emerge. Being an Anarchist is differentiated from Liberalism or Minarchism because while some of us may give to the EFF / ACLU, vote for lesser evils or get involved in political campaigns we navigate these contexts constantly mindful of our pursuit of an end far beyond them. We can’t choose means that cripple our ultimate ends.

— william, 2009-04-25, 11:44pm

Now, setting aside my editor hat and putting my contributor hat back on, a few notes on the discussion.

  1. I’d still be interested in hearing from Soviet Onion whether he has anyone else in mind when he talks about a left-libertarian tendency to inappropriately fetishize localism and decentralism, and if so, who.

  2. In reply to Aster, I oppose debt slavery, including debt slavery to pay off restitution. Otherwise, sounds fine, and, speaking as head of state and a supermajority of the provincial councils, I’m happy to incorporate it into the Bill of Rights of this secessionist republic of one. Probably was already hidden under a penumbra somewhere, but a little repetition never hurt anybody.

  3. In reply to Soviet Onion, I agree with you, and you are unjust to your own writing. Except there’s no such thing as a meme-trap because there’s no such thing as memes. I agree that the non-territoriality of anarchist justice and defense associations, institutions for deliberating about right, and so on, is important to stress; decentralism means the lack of a fixed center, not a proliferation of millions of fixed centers with a small stretch of turf.

    As for globalization, well, I dunno; but for what it’s worth, Southern Nevada ALL does distribute Free Trade Is Fair Trade and one of the main issues we focus on locally is immigration freedom. I agree that the discussion of counter-globalization or alternative globalization doesn’t get as much talk as it ought to, but I don’t think that tendencies among left-libertarians are really the problem here; I think the problem is one that exists throughout the anarchist movement, and that we’d be talking about it more if more of our interlocutors were bringing it up in their own conversations, and I agree with Shawn’s point in What ever happened to (the discourse on) Neoliberalism? that the critical narrative seems to have bumped into some obstacle in the collective memory of radicals. (Speaking only for myself, I suspect that the reasons why have a lot to do with the political events of the last 8 years, and with some bad decisions that we made, or that were made for us by our conversation partners, going into the anti-war movement.)

What do y’all think? Fire when ready in the comments.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Kinsella replies:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    And Stephan Kinsella, in the same thread:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hope this helps.

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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:

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