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Posts tagged John T. Kennedy

Lazy linking on Leftist labor libertarianism

Try saying that three times fast.

For a while now I’ve been urging libertarians and the labor movement to take a more serious and sympathetic look at one another. (Cf. GT 2004-05-01: Free the Unions (and all political prisoners!), GT 2005-03-23: El pueblo unido jamás será vencido! and GT 2005-03-31: Anarquistas por La Causa for representative examples.) Just as with radical libertarianism and radical feminism I think that the supposedly obvious and unbridgeable opposition between the two is the result more of terminological difficulties and shifting political alliances over the course of the 20th century than any deep or principled gulf. The best way to see this is with more engaged discussion: fewer polemics, more history, more earnest questioning, and more listening. So I’m excited to see a lot of interesting new material just in the past couple of weeks from libertarians (mostly but not exclusively left-libertarians) trying to get clear on the questions and hammer out some of the answers about the prospect for a libertarianism that has a place for workers organizing freely, and a wildcat labor movement that frees itself from the smothering patronage of the State. Here’s a bit of lazy linking to the discussion so far.

  • Brad Spangler (2005-12-03): War, Socialism, and Precision in Thinking writes on the need to disentangle the different meanings attached to the words capitalism and socialism (each of them has at least one traditional meaning that’s perfectly consistent with the peaceful economic cooperation, and one that’s directly antagonistic to it). Brad protests the fuzzy thinking that typically comes about from running the terms freely together, and urges libertarians to realize that If anything that is voluntary on all sides is, at the very least, acceptable to the point that it at least can not righteously be opposed by force, then one has to come to grips that a stateless society will have capitalistic and socialistic aspects in practice. Hippy communes. Farmers co-ops. Employee owned enterprises. Workers syndicates. Unions. … Ultimately, vulgar libertarians, on this point anyway, fail to distinguish libertarianism from personal preference for a particular class of business models.

  • Roderick Long at Austro-Athenian Empire (2005-12-04): Freedom and the Firm asks What will firms look like in a free society? He points out the important trade-off that you face when you decide whether to get business done with a centralized, amalgamated firm, or a small-scale, decentralized operations like family shops and worker’s co-ops: larger size can mean lower transaction costs, but it also comes at the cost of calculational chaos. (The incentive problems and knowledge problems that libertarians have pointed out in central planning don’t evaporate when the central planning is done by corporate rather than government bureaucrats.) Roderick points out some of the ways in which state capitalism distorts the trade-off in favor of big, centralized firms; Leviathan, as always, is Behemoth’s greatest ally: We don’t have a free market, however; instead we have a highly regulated market. For familiar reasons, such regulations hamper the less affluent more than the more affluent, and so successful firms will tend to become somewhat insulated from competition by less established firms, thus removing one check on their inefficiency. And as Kevin Carson points out, regulatory standardisation also decreases competition among the successful firms — a form of de facto cartelisation. Government regulation thus lowers the costs associated with size and hierarchy more than it lowers the associated benefits; it stands to reason, then, that firms in a genuine free-market context could be expected to be smaller and less hierarchical than they tend to be today. This is doubly true once one takes into account the increased competition for workers that a less regulated economy would presumably see (assuming that workers generally prefer less hierarchical work environments).

  • Kevin Carson (2005-12-08): Socialist Definitional Free-for-All: Part I reviews a recent donnybrook over the meaning of socialism and whether voluntary workers’ co-ops and other forms of state-free direct worker control over the means of production are (1) instances of socialism, and (2) compatible with libertarianism. Bithead makes an ass of himself; Knapp holds his own; John T. Kennedy directs some good critical questions at Knapp; Knapp offers some good replies. Carson adds his own Extended Commentary, placing the debate in the historical context of the thought of late-19th and early-20th century libertarians such as Thomas Hodgskin, Benjamin Tucker, and Franz Oppenheimer, who explicitly considered themselves (1) socialists, (2) supporters of organized labor, and (3) radical advocates of laissez-faire in economics. Carson also offers some interesting historical notes on the individualists’ economic thought

    Individualist anarchism, the strand of socialism that most closely approximates my own position, doesn’t place that much importance on ownership of the means of production (leaving aside the views of Tucker et al on occupancy-based ownership of land, anyway). Although some strands of mutualism tended toward a much more active affinity for cooperative organization of production, and considered explicitly cooperativist arrangements would likely predominate in a stateless society, the American individualist branch of mutualism placed much more emphasis on the conditions of exchange than the organization of production. … What mattered to him was that, without state enforcement of special privileges for capital, and without artificial scarcity rents resulting from such privileges, the natural wage of labor in a free market would be its full product. And without the state’s enforcement of artificial scarcity in land and capital, jobs would be competing for workers instead of the other way around.

    And Carson points out that the debate is often confused by the fact that all sides tend to talk about coercion and property as if everyone already had a perfectly clear and common conception of what sorts of things can count as your property and under what conditions. Libertarians tend to broadly agree on central cases, but when the debate is about something more substantial than name-tags or banner colors, it usually comes down to substantive disagreements over peripheral cases:

    All the parties to the debate tend to throw around the term coercion, in discussing whether coercion is essential to collective ownership of the means of production, without addressing the prior question of what constitutes coercion. Now I would argue that whether the establishment and enforcement of collective ownership is coercive depends on what set of property rights rules you start out with. Forcibly invading someone’s rightful property, by definition, is coercion; but using force to defend one’s rightful property claims against invasion is not. So the question of whether force is coercive depends on who the rightful owner is. When the parties to the dispute adhere to two separate sets of rules for property rights, they will disagree on who is the aggressor and who is the defender.

  • Kevin Carson (2005-12-08): Socialist Definitional Free-for-All, Part II offers a lengthy follow-up where he assembles quotes from posts Roderick, Brad, and me on definitions of socialism and capitalism, the size of firms, and organized labor, and adds his own exposition and commentary. Among other things, he points out one of the important ways in which unionization can serve as a road to, rather than a roadblock against, workers adjusting pay, security, and conditions to something like the marginal product of their labor: Regardless of the long-run market incentives to pay labor its full product and treat people like actual human beings, in the short run the uncertainty and potential disruption of being an at-will employee can be quite a hassle. For the benefit of those who have been living on Planet Cato these many years and never had direct experience working for a boss, I’d like to point out that the average boss can fuck your life up in some really unpleasant ways before the market disadvantages of doing so are finally brought home to him. And, as some radical historians of workplace relations have pointed out, a management policy of harassing selected subgroups of workers and dividing them against each other may produce benefits, in the form of reduced labor solidarity and bargaining power, that outweigh the alleged irrationality costs. On the other hand, the benefits of contractually-enforced stability and predictability are just as real to a wage-laborer as they are to the parties to any other kind of contract.

That’s a rather dense thicket of interlinking posts; moving aside from this mutualist admiration society, there’s also been good discussion elsewhere:

  • Joshua Holmes at No Treason (2005-12-09): Open Question about Libertarians and Unions asks What do libertarians have against labour unions? This question struck me the other day (because it was better than studying for Business Associations) and I wondered why libertarians have so much bile for labour unions. Holmes has a good breakdown of common corporatarian objections to unions and responses to them. A vigorous go-around on semantics, tactics, and principles follows in the comments.

  • Irfan Khawaja at Theory and Practice (2005-12-15): The Taylor Law and the Transit Strike: Some Questions asks for further discussion from libertarians and classical liberals about the status of strikes and work stoppages, and laws (such as the Taylor Law) which ban strikes by government employees:

    Is a strike–as Howard Dickman suggests in his book Industrial Democracy in America–just a glorified form of breach of contract? In that case, libertarianism justifies strike-breaking and scabdom, period. (Cf. Truman’s breaking up the railway and miner’s strikes in 1946.) Or does striking have a deeper justification in libertarian principles? To the best of my knowledge, there isn’t much normative discussion of this subject in the contemporary libertarian literature–a shame, considering the centrality of the issues.

    In comments, I suggest a focus on questions about individual rights to refuse to work and move on to the status of strikes from there; Irfan replies with more helpful questions and commentary.

This doesn’t end here. A week from now — 28 December 2005, 11:15 a.m.-1:15 p.m — The Molinari Society will be holding a symposium at APA Eastern Division in New York. The topic is going to be the debate between thick and thin libertarianism, and the thick side will be represented by Jack Ross’s Labor and Liberty: A Lost Ideal and an Unlikely New Alliance. Ross will read and I’ll be commenting on the essay. (Shorter me: the outline of Ross’s argument is correct and important; I’m not so confident about the details and I think there are some important questions and distinctions to be raised about the kind of labor organizing that libertarians should ally with.)

Hope to see you there!

The Day After Tomorrow

First of all, John Kerry is a douchebag, but I’m voting for him anyway.

Yes, I know he’s a statist, and a lame-o weak-kneed liberal to boot. Yes, I know that he voted for the authorization of force against Iraq, and that he hasn’t announced any plans to do what any rational and sane person should realize it’s time to do–withdraw immediately and completely. Yes, I know that the process I’m going to be participating in tomorrow has no legitimate authority whatsoever no matter who I vote for–and that strategically, replacing one creepy-looking imperial Executive with another slightly less mad one is no means to long-term change. That sucks, but it doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter, because voting is a legitimate form of self-defense and I live in a swing state where a handful of votes may determine whether 17 electoral votes go towards throwing George W. Bush out of the White House or propping up four more years of the same.

Yes, most of the reasons I have for voting for Kerry are purely negative ones. He’s bad on the war, sure–but not nearly as bad as its big fat liar of an architect. Yeah, he’s an unreconstructed statist with a bad record on civil liberties–but not nearly as bad as George W. Bush, who has presided over the largest increase in State bureaucracy and spending since the Great Society, and who believes himself accountable to none save God alone. Sure, his campaign has treated feminists like crap, but, Jesus, it’s not like a second Bush administration is going to bode well for the success of feminist activism. And all of this is important. Given that Kerry is not even worse than Bush (and he’s not), one of the single most important reasons to take the time to get out and vote for Kerry tomorrow (if you’re in a swing state, as I am) is that after everything he’s done, George W. Bush must be thrown out of office. If he’s not punished after all of this, then that means one more blow to the fragile bulwarks remaining for justice and freedom in this country. We have precious few opportunities to pull back the reins on galloping Caesarism, and tomorrow is one of them; there’s no excuse, if you have the chance, not to pull as hard as you can.

And there are a couple of positive reasons to vote for Kerry. First, nearly all of his faults are faults that Bush shares or exceeds. But he is good on abortion; he won’t continue the present gang’s war for control over women’s bodies. Don’t think abortion’s very important? Well, you should; if you don’t think that the right of women–also known as “the majority of the population”–to control their own internal organs, or the use of systematic State violence against women to tread on that right, is a really big deal, well, you had better check your premises. And secondly, Kerry is bad on almost everything else–but a possibility for making things better exists under a Kerry administration that will continue to be vanishingly small in an entrenched, contemptuously secretive, smugly self-satisfied second Bush adminisration.

All that said, we need to remember, as it comes down to the wire, that tomorrow is not the Battle of Armageddon. The world will go on whoever wins, and we will need to figure out what we are going to do–because we are going to face some pretty hefty challenges whether Kerry or Bush is partying at the end of the night (or whether both of them are biting their nails waiting on further legal developments).

So I know what I’m going to be doing tomorrow–voting and then volunteering to go door to door for a few hours before I turn in. And I figure you know what you are going to be doing, too. But here’s the question: what are we going to be doing the day after tomorrow? Come November 3, what can we do that will move things forward whether it’s Bush or Kerry we’re going to have to be dealing with?

For my part, I don’t know entirely, and I’m interested in hearing what y’all think. (Comment away!) But I do know one thing for sure.

I sure am tired of following these assholes.

I’m tired of the two-party duopoly, and I’m tired of incumbents. pinning my hopes on blockheads like Kerry and I’m tired of listening to know-it-all professional blowhards speculate about the color of Kerry’s socks and its impact on undecided Soccer Moms. I know that we are going to need to keep organizing and take the fight to them no matter who wins, but I can’t take federal representative politics much longer and I can’t say that the prospects for meaningful, long-term change through picking between these guys look tremendously bright.

Yeah, Deaniac grassroots politics would help. Sure, we could use instant runoff voting and term limits and lowered ballot access requirements. Fine, I’ll put in my two cents’ worth in favor of building independent parties. I don’t dispute that that would help things a bit. But the more that I think about it the more I think that we (address this to my Libertarian comrades or my Leftist comrades or my Anarchist comrades, whichever you prefer) ought to re-think how we are trying to get things done when we’re working undercover in The System. Because I, for one, am about at the end of my rope.

I’m sure that Kennedy and the rest of the No Treason! crew will take this as as good an opportunity as any to argue that building movements is a dead-end game. I don’t buy that, yet, for a lot of reasons–I suspect that a rigid distinction between volunteer politics and businesses involves some confusions about the nature of the market in a free society, and I have a lot more faith in ordinary people and the historical record of people’s movements. For the time being, at least, I’m more than willing to sign on for political organizing, activism, and evangelism–even working in the belly of the beast, if need be, to help give people some space to breathe and a chance to defend themselves. But not the way we’ve been doing it.

When I go to the polls tomorrow, I won’t just have the chance to pick some idiot or another for federal races. I’ll also have the chance to vote directly on whether or not a number of proposals will be made law. I can do this because Michigan has voter initiatives; and when I vote on an initiative I don’t have to worry about spoilers, parties, trade-offs between candidates, or anything of the sort. It’s a simple up or down and I can make my choices on each issue on the ballot independently–rather than trying to figure out which dude will line up with more of my choices on the whole than the other (and whether that dude can get elected or whether I should vote for someone who’s a bit worse but in a position to win, and…).

Nearly half of the states in this country empower you and I to gather signatures and put laws straight on the ballot without having to lobby legislators or roll logs or hope the least-worst major candidate might consider making a speech about it sometime. Most of us who have been paying attention to voter initiatives have been spending our time fighting them–with good reason, when the initiatives being put out are idiotic stuff such as Amendment 2 in Michigan or Measure 36 in Oregon. But why are we letting these assholes make all the first strikes? We’ve been building a vast network of interlinked volunteers with a do-it-yourself political ethic, from the upsurge of the antiwar movement to United for Peace and Justice to MoveOn and the Dean campaign. So come November 3, how about we start putting those resources to work in the 20-odd states with voter initiatives? (And while we’re at it, bringing them to bear on the state legislature in states that don’t yet have voter initiatives.)

My suggestion would be to focus on campaigns that clearly put the case to the people that the government needs to get its hands out of the till and take its boots from off our necks. Medical marijuana ballot initiatives are a good start–they’ve been extremely popular where introduced and when they win (which they often do) that means one more state in which the federal drug goons have to either get mired down in extremely unpopular campaigns or else just give up. That should be expanded to an effort to roll back the racist War on Drugs more broadly. And here are some other ideas to ponder:

  • Initiatives to curtail corporate welfare–say, for example, abolishing corporate hand-out programs or restricting the power of state and local governments to use eminent domain for corporate development.

  • Death penalty moratorium bills

  • Ending taxes that disproportionately burden people living in poverty–for example, rolling back sales tax on food and other necessities.

  • Resisting the federal warfare State–by passing bills requiring the state government to refuse to comply with the PATRIOT Act, any future draft, or whatever other national security assault on our rights you’d like to single out.

  • Some resources for making it easier when we do have to deal with the party hacks–term limits, recall statutes, lowered ballot access restrictions, instant runoff voting, ….

All of these are simple, practical, incremental changes that would do some good, allow for coalition-building between Leftists, libertarians, and (sometimes, I suppose) small-government conservatives too. We have the resources to mount big door-to-door campaigns, with volunteers and with money raised from supporters; we have the resources to do some real good over the next four years whoever is in office. Better yet, we could start actually talking with each other like rational human beings about issues and whether or not some particular law should be made, instead of dickering over who looks more Presidential and whether Hordak or Smiley Face came off as more of a mindless hack in the latest tete-a-tete.

So, in that spirit, I’m resolving to pitch myself into grassroots politics come November 3. Real grassroots politics–not browbeating the grassroots into supporting some least-worst candidate’s politics, but rather writing letters to the editor, working more with local political organizations. And I’m going to start looking for, and talking about, and acting on, getting some voter initiatives that will make a real move forward on the ballot. I’m tired of following the idiots in the suits; it’s time to take the resources that we’ve got and take our case to the people.

Further reading

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