Lew Rockwell’s recent
interviewof Naomi Wolf for his podcast — the scare quotes are there because it quickly turns into a very two-sided conversation, and works very differently from a conventional interview — is really remarkable, and a paradigm for the kind of engagement that could build a vibrant libertarian Left. Naomi Wolf is not my favorite feminist, and Lew Rockwell is certainly not my favorite libertarian, but this is great stuff. Naomi Wolf now says she thinks she’s
been a secret libertarian for many years in many, many waysand mentions that she’s feeling increasingly sympathetic toward radical libertarianism; she insists on the importance of challenging both Democratic- and Republican-sponsored power grabs, and expresses sympathy for the libertarian case for abolishing federal control over schooling. Rockwell does a tolerable job of explaining the libertarian case against the Fed as a instrument of class warfare, does a good job of cautioning against premature jumps into statist political action, and comes out that the conservative movement has been an
engine of fascismfor the past 50 years. Also, Wolf has some great material at about 23:45 in the interview about the way in which media producers deliberately encourage false-alternative shouting matches and instruct their guests that serious deliberation is not
Socialist Alexander Cockburn writes a libertarian article for the Buchananite newsjournal The American Conservative, discussing the ongoing bipartisan assault on civil liberties, in which he points out the continuity between Clinton’s and Bush’s anti-terrorism and drug war rackets, decrying Social Security Numbers and the Kelo decision, while praising the defense of the individualist reading of the Second Amendment in Heller.
There’s been a lot more discussion of Roderick’s Corporations Versus the Market piece on Cato Unbound. Roderick’s Keeping Libertarian, Keeping Left replies to the initial responses from the Danny Bonaduce of the Blogosphere, Steven Horwitz, and Dean Baker. Roderick’s Owning Ideas Means Owning People makes the case for libertarian radicalism against Intellectual Protectionism (indeed, for a position even more radical than those advocated by Cato minimal-statist Tim Lee and by anti-IP, but pro-governmental Leftist Dean Baker).
Yglesias, in reply to Roderick and Steven Horwitz, says he is a bit puzzled by pragmatic arguments for left-libertarianism, based on the claim that markets do more for human flourishing than government programs, writing:
If this means that the absence of governance à la Joseph Stalin is a more important determinant of our well-being than is, say, the existence of unemployment insurance then, yes, of course this is true. But the question facing government programs is not whether they are more or less beneficial than the existence of a market economy, the question is whether the programs are more beneficial than would be the absence of programs.Roderick does a great job of responding to Yglesias (as well as to some another reply by Dean Baker) here. Let me just add a bit more about the fundamental problem with Yglesias’s proposed methods for assessing whether or not a given government program is warranted.
The problem here is that Yglesias seems to be treating this as a ceteris paribus comparison: as if the right question to ask is whether people would be better off with the government program in place or in a situation which is exactly identical, but without the government program.
There are two problems with this. First, unless there is some strong reason to believe that ceteris will stay paribus in the absence of a government program, the real alternative is between a government program and market alternatives to that program. So, for example, Yglesias mentions ex ante environmental regulations. But he rigs the match by apparently comparing outcomes with ex ante environmental regulations to outcomes from a market situation which is basically the same as the present, but in which corporate polluters are free to go on polluting with impunity. An un-rigged comparison would be one between ex ante environmental regulations and free market means of addressing pollution that the ex ante regulations have either directly suppressed or crowded out — like the use of pollution nuisance suits or a more robust use of free market grassroots activism, through boycotts,
sustainabilitycertification, social investing, and so on. Maybe these kind of tactics would not be as effective as ex ante regulation, or maybe they would be more effective; but in either case, this is the comparison that actually needs to be made, and as far as I can tell Yglesias hasn’t given any argument to support a claim that market methods would do worse. Indeed, there’s some good reasons to think that they might do better. Since freed-market methods are by their nature decentralized, and not dependent on political lobbying or electioneering, they are also not subject to the same problems of regulatory capture by those who can put
a lot of money and political influence behindtheir interests.
Second, Yglesias also more or less explicitly suggests that, when you’re deliberating over whether to favor government programs or freed-market alternatives, any given government program ought to be assessed in isolation from all the others (on a
case-by-casebasis). But of course libertarian Leftists have repeatedly stressed the importance of seeing particular social or political processes in the context of how many different processes interlock and interact with each other. So, for example, as Roderick has repeatedly stressed, if you want to know about whether to prefer unfettered free markets or regulatory command-and-control in financial markets, it doesn’t make sense to compare a rigged market where finance capital is tightly regulated and can reasonably expect government bail-outs in case of failure to a rigged market where finance capital is loosely regulated but can still reasonably expect government bail-outs in case of failure. Whether the latter or the former turns out to have better results is a question we could debate, but the important point, from a left-libertarian point of view, is that it would be more interesting and fruitful to compare the rigged markets to a free market with neither ex ante regulation nor bail-outs. Similarly, if we are looking at environmental regulations then we have to consider not only market alternatives to ex ante environmental regulation; we also have to consider other government programs which may indirectly contribute to environmentally destructive practices — like subsidizing corporate centralization and capital-intensive production; or stealing land from homeowners and small businesses for large, polluting manufacturing plants, garbage incinerators, and other forced-modernization boondoggles; or subsidizing fossil fuel dependence; or highway-driven suburban sprawl — and whether the absence of those other programs, taken together with the absence of ex ante environmental regulation, would make freed-market alternatives to ex ante environmental regulation even more palatable than they would be when considered in isolation. (For some similar points in the context of health care, see GT 2007-10-25: Radical healthcare reform.)
Meanwhile, Roderick’s article has also prompted a lot of discussion outside of Cato Unbound, most notably interesting but misguided replies from Peter Klein, Will Wilkinson, and an extremely ill-conceived response by Walter Block and J.H. Huebert. I’ve already discussed Block’s and Huebert’s comments, with a focus on their distortion of my own expressed views (cited favorably by Roderick) on radical labor unionism.. There’s a lot of fascinating exchange among Klein, some other right-libertarians and agnostic-libertarians, and a number of libertarian Leftists in the comments thread on Klein’s article; note especially the exchange among Araglin, Klein, P.M. Lawrence and others over the legitimacy and viability of the corporate form, limited liability, etc., under freed markets, and this short comment by Jesse Walker:
It seems clear to me that, at the very least, the “more local and more numerous” claim is correct, if not in every sector than certainly in the economy as a whole. Removing occupational licensing laws alone would unleash such a flood of tiny enterprises — many of them one-man or one-woman shows, sometimes run part-time — that I doubt the elimination of antitrust law and small-business setasides would offset it. Especially when large businesses have proven so adept at using antitrust and setasides for their own purposes. .(Jesse promises a more detailed follow-up at Hit and Run; I look forward to it.)
Meanwhile, as promsied, Roderick has added his own (detailed, excellent) reply on most of the points raised by Klein, Wilkinson, Huebert, and Block back over at Cato Unbound, entitled Free Market Firms: Smaller, Flatter, and More Crowded.
Read the whole damn thread. It’s great.
On the activist front, this past Monday, New Jersey ALLy Darian Worden announced a new series of Alliance of the Libertarian Left outreach flyers and
subversion squaresavailable from the NJ ALL website. Enjoy! (I also think there will be some interesting news in the near future about ALL in Southern California, England, Denver, and some new activities for ALL in Las Vegas. But I’m not going to tip my hand more than that in public, just yet. If you’re curious — and especially if you are in one or more of those geographical areas — drop me a line in private.
One of the points that I wanted to stress in my recent response to Danny Blogaduce’s recent article on left-libertarianism is that, at least as far as it touches on questions of strategy and practical politics, Blogaduce is more or less right about the kind of thing he calls
libertarianism — that is, the sort of gradualist and reformist pet projects advanced by limited-statist outfits like Cato and the Libertarian Party. (The problem with his article is that he wrongly thinks that what he thinks of as
libertarianism is all there is to libertarianism — an odd stance to take in an article responding to a radical Left, anti-electoralist market anarchist.)
But Yglesias is right that minimal-statist reformism, more or less necessarily, depends on an unrealizable and ultimately incoherent notion of State neutrality, and that, strategically, it also inevitable falls into the trap of trying to intervene in government policy debates while taking the basic presuppositions of that debate for granted, on the foolish belief that by doing so we will somehow be able to restrain or undermine the manipulation of that debate and that policy apparatus by the well-organized and well-funded forces that created it and that continue to rig the matches and game the system. There’s a reason why (reformist, minimal-statist) libertarians so often lose track of the subject and smother the revolutionary notion of freed markets and free association with a bunch of tax-subsidized
choice programs, outsourced government monopolies, and other cockamaimey privateering schemes. If you start out by trying to take hold of a system of domination rather than resisting it, and by trying jump into a rigged debate rather than challenging the notion underlying the debate itself–where you’re allowed to file slowly away at only one of the bars of the statist cage, while leaving all the other criss-crossing bars in place, unchallenged or (more commonly) simply unmentioned–then you shouldn’t be surprised when your attempt to intervene in that debate ends up consisting of little more than
No reasonable person is advocating that we are going to stop destroying money! But the American people earned that money. They have the right to decide how it should be destroyed.
When the limits of Beltway consensus policy debate are the limits on what a reasonable person can advocate, what decent people have to do is to start being unreasonable. Anything else, and you’d better just learn to love the money fires. Because that’s all you’re getting, even if you somehow managed to
The central point of Roderick Long’s essay seems completely correct to me—powerful actors in society seek to use their power in order to manipulate the state apparatus to get what they want. Corporations are powerful actors in our society, and they want money. Thus, what corporations are after in politics is political action that gets them money and whether or not this coincides with the dictates of a purist laissez faire vision is a matter of mere happenstance.
In what I find a puzzling move, Long thinks that the main upshot of this is to cast doubt on the legitimacy of castigating libertarians as corporate stooges. I would say the real upshot is to cast doubt on the cogency of the libertarian enterprise. Thinkers affiliated with the libertarian movement have had many smart things to say on individual topics, but the overall concept of a state apparatus that simply sits on the sideline watching the free market roll along is impossibly utopian. People are going to try to manipulate the state to advance their own ends.
Well, I certainly agree with that.
That’s part of the reason I’m a market anarchist, not a Constitutionalist or a minimal-statist. And, while I can speak only for myself, last I checked, that’s why Roderick is a market anarchist, too.
But DBOB is puzzled, apparently because it hasn’t occurred to him that a libertarian might envision forms of social organization (and forms of resistance to corporatism) outside of the political apparatus, and so he concludes that libertarianism offers no realistic proposals for resisting corporate power-grabs and big business’s domination of
the public policy space. Apparently disarming your enemy doesn’t count as a realistic or desirable strategy; Yglesias prefers to shoot first and ask questions later. And, he figures, as long as everyone’s going to be going around robbing each other anyway, we all ought to get together and get some of it while the getting’s good.
As far as political strategery goes, Yglesias’s article is perfectly correct as a critique of what he calls
libertarianism–that is, the sort of thing engaged in by soft limited-govermentalist outfits like Cato or the Libertarian Party. (Whether it’s morally acute is quite another matter; not having any realistic way of achieving anti-robbery goals is no reason to jump wholeheartedly into counter-robbery instead, unless you think that the desirability or undesirability of particular political-economic end states overrules any consideration of the propriety of the means by which you promote or avoid them. Maybe Yglesias thinks that; but he’s given no argument in favor of it.)
But be that as it may, his complaints of utopianism seem strangely selective. As Yglesias himself points out, Cato is hardly alone in its failure to achieve practical results:
American progressives aren’t doing all that great a job of resisting corporate power or stopping the government from sticking its hands into workers pockets for the benefit of endangered capitalists, landlords, and moneylenders. He then uses this as an opportunity to praise the Institute for Justice and to throw out a recruitment pitch for libertarian
Progressive causes. But what he seemingly fails to consider is that maybe the problem isn’t with a lack of numbers, but rather with the
toolkit itself–that those
tools are really traps, which end up enveloping and smothering any attempt at realizing your primary goals in the tremendous secondary effort required just to be able to wield them.
In Anarchy, there is another way. If we stop trying to build the structures envisioned by the Left using the tools of the ruling class, and if we refocus our efforts on achieving our goals by means of people-powered organizing, voluntary association, grassroots mutual aid, and person-to-person solidarity, then workers can get what we need through free markets and free association. When the things that matter most in our lives are the things that we make for ourselves, each of us singly, or with many of us choosing to work together in voluntary associations, there will be no need to waste years of our lives and millions or billions of dollars fighting wars of attrition with back-room king-makers or trying to keep erstwhile
friends in office on the right track–because we will not need to get any of the things that they are trying to hoard. When we expect the State to limit itself through the very process that gives it power, or when we go after the State’s patronage, politics makes prisoners of us all. But freedom means that when the powers that be try to rope you along for something stupid, or try to snuff out something brilliant, we can turn around, walk away, and do things for ourselves—whether they like it or not.