On Big Charity
I’ve talked here a couple times before about the notion of
mass education and targeted persuasion and how important it is to what I take myself to be doing in writing a crazy-ass blog about all my crazy-ass positions like I do. (The basic notion here is that one way to advance crazy-ass radical views — views which you’re not likely to convince many people of, just as they are, outside of a relatively small, somewhat self-selected target audience — you can still move the conversation forward in really important ways just by taking the time to put the position on people’s intellectual radar — by explaining the view, and why some people might hold it, clearly enough that you thereby push out people’s horizons of intelligible dissent. Most folks still won’t accept your position, but if you do it right, you will get them to where they’ll consider it as a position that’s open for discussion. And just doing that much has a big damn effect on where discussions can go.)
Anyway, the point of mentioning all this is to bring up a really fine post that Roderick put up last month, entitled Wild Cards, which I think does some really important work towards just that kind of dialectical project. After some excellent introductory material which introduces several of the same notions, in other terms, Roderick comes around to this really quite excellent effort to distill the left-libertarian position down to six key points:
Our vital task, then, is to get the word out that there is a position out there that includes the following theses:
Big business and big government are (for the most part) natural allies.
Although conservative politicians pretend to hate big government, and liberal politicians pretend to hate big business, most mainstream policies – both liberal and conservative – involve (slightly different versions of) massive intervention on behalf of the big-business/big-government elite at the expense of ordinary people.
Liberal politicians cloak their intervention on behalf of the strong in the rhetoric of intervention on behalf of the weak; conservative politicians cloak their intervention on behalf of the strong in the rhetoric of non-intervention and free markets – but in both cases the rhetoric is belied by the reality.
A genuine policy of intervention on behalf of the weak, if liberals actually tried it, wouldn't work either, since the nature of government power would automatically warp it toward the interests of the elite.
A genuine policy of non-intervention and free markets, if conservatives actually tried it, would work, since free competition would empower ordinary people at the expense of the elite.
Since conservative policies, despite their associated free-market rhetoric, are mostly the diametrical opposite of free-market policies, the failures of conservative policies do not constitute an objection to (but rather, if anything, a vindication of) free-market policies.
Of course we should be prepared to defend these theses through economic reasoning and historical evidence, but the main goal at this point, I think, should be not so much to defend them as simply to advertise their existence. We need to make our red spades and black hearts a sufficiently familiar feature of the intellectual landscape that people will be able to see them for what they are rather than misclassifying them – at which point we'll be in a better position to defend them.
— Roderick Long, Austro-Athenian Empire (2009-09-10): Wild Cards
Now, part of the point of this kind of thing is to provoke discussion. And here’s Stephan Kinsella’s reply to principle (1) in particular:
As I noted there,Do you mean big business as it exists in today's world, or big business per se? If the former, you have a point (and from my quick read I don't disagree with any of your other points). But to argue for the latter interpretation would imply that there could be no big business in a free society.
It seems that the bigger a company is, in today's world, the more they have toplay ballto prosper. I'm not sure, though, why this observation is limited to big business, or even business in general. Even individuals drive on public roads, and are incentivized or coerced into using public schools, say. And what about Big Medicine, Big Education, Big Research, and so on? (And let's not forget Big Labor!)
Come to think of it—most larger charities I'm aware of continually seek state partnerships and funding, and encourage state redistribution schemes. Down with charity!
Sometimes with Stephan, it’s hard to tell whether he intends this kind of but-what-about, doesn’t-everybody move as just some further observations riffing on the general theme or whether he really intends for it to be taken as support (by means of a reductio) for some specific objection. But if this is intended as part of an objection to (the per-se interpretation of) Roderick’s claims about the alliance between Big Business and the interventionist State, then what exactly is the objection here supposed to be?
Let’s set aside Stephan’s mentions of individuals driving on government roads, or sending children to government schools. Sure they do; but this doesn’t strike me as even remotely compelling, if you pause for even a second to consider matters of degree, and it’s hard to see what purpose mentioning it really serves except as a way to just sort of scatter critique as broadly as possible. Last year, the Department of the Treasury sent me a $600 check, allegedly for the purpose of economic stimulus — just like how they also cut AIG a $170,000,000,000 check last year, also allegedly for the purpose of economic stimulus. But, well, so what? I’d say it’s still pretty accurate to see AIG as having a much closer relationship with bail-out statism than I do.
So let’s set aside the doesn’t-everybody move, and stick to the comments on other Bigs — large-scale, formalized institutions in which control is concentrated in a professionalized hierarchy and an administrative bureaucracy — whether it’s Big Medicine, Big Education, Big Research, Big Labor, or Big Charity. Kinsella points out that the other big institutions are, in general, tangled up with the interventionist state, just as big business is. If left-libertarians are going to lay down some heavy critique on Big Business, shouldn’t they be doing the same on the other Bigs?
So what’s the problem?
What makes you think that left-libertarians would have some kind of problem critiquing Big Medicine (2, 3, 4), or Big Research, or Big Education (2, 3, 4), or Big Charity (2, 3), or Big Labor (2, 3, 4)?
Sure, public-private jobbery, state regimented, hypertrophic, centralized institutions, political capture, subsidized featherbedding, and unresponsive professionalized bureaucracies are hardly limited to conventional for-profit corporations. They happen all over the place — in big professionalized charities like United Way or the Starvation Army; in big hospitals and corporate adjuncts of the medical industry (insurance corporations, pharma corporations, etc.); in big administration-heavy multiversities; and in top-down, centralized business unions like the UAW, the Teamsters, or SEIU. Just like the Fortune 500, they’re also major beneficiaries of State regimentation, subsidy, and captive audiences; just like the Fortune 500, they’re also major causes of State regimentation, through their lobbying and political influence. And just like with hypertrophic, centralized, top-down corporate commerce, there’s some solid reasons for thinking that their hypertrophic, centralized, top-down not-for-profit operations would be fundamentally unsustainable in a freed market.
But that’s hardly an objection to the left-libertarian critique of big business; it’s a perfectly acceptable complement to it. Left-libertarians — at least, the sort of left-libertarians that Roderick is an example of — aren’t just conventional libertarians who believe you ought to voluntarily give more to charity. The critique of corporate capitalism is just the most high-profile part of a broad critique of the state’s promotion of credentialism, bureaucracy, and top-down centralized control — which is why folks like us generally promote community mutual aid over professionalized charity; grassroots, rank-and-file unionism over AFL-CIO-style union bosses and collective bargaining; unschooling over bureaucratic-liberal
public education; etc., etc., etc.
So, yeah, down with Big Charity. I agree. Where’s the problem?
Updated 2012-03-23. I fixed a typographical error and updated some links to articles from Formulations, whose archives have moved to a newer, more secure web home.