Some Distinctions and Clarifications

I want to talk a bit a bit some of the ways in which left-libertarian claims are susceptible of misinterpretation. (Note: when I use the term “right-libertarian” below, I mean “libertarians who deviate rightward from the C4SS/ALL plumbline”!)

1. Right-libertarians sometimes accuse left-libertarians of misrepresenting right-libertarians’ relation to corporatism. “They say we support government favouritism toward big business,” they complain, “yet no libertarian supports any such thing.”

To answer this, I need to invoke the de re / de dicto distinction.

Ozma of Oz

Suppose I’m reading Ozma of Oz, and I think, “hey, this guy Baum is a good author.” Assume I don’t know that Baum also wrote a novel (a lousy one, in fact, though that doesn’t matter for the example) called The Master Key. Would it be true or false to say, “Roderick thinks the author of The Master Key is a good author”?

Well, it’s ambiguous. I don’t have a thought of the form “The author of The Master Key is a good author,” since I’m not aware of any such book. But I do think of Baum that he’s a good author; and since Baum is the author of The Master Key, I thereby think of the author of The Master Key that he’s a good author. So the philosopher’s way of marking the distinction is to say that I believe de re (“of the thing”), but not de dicto (“of what is said”), that the author of The Master Key is a good author.

Or again, suppose I want to marry Griselda. And suppose Griselda is, unbeknownst to me, a pathological liar. Then is it true or false that I want to marry a pathological liar? Well, in one sense it’s true and in another sense it’s false. I don’t have such a desire de dicto; I don’t form any thought expressible as “I want to marry a pathological liar.” But I do have such a desire de re, since there’s a pathological liar that I want to marry.

So when left-libertarians accuse (some) right-libertarians of supporting corporatism, this is to be understood in a de re sense, not in a de dicto sense. Thus the claim is that right-libertarians are supporting certain policies/institutions/phenomena that are in fact instances of corporatism; we are not claiming that right-libertarians are deliberately supporting them qua instances of corporatism – and so pointing out that they’re not is not relevant as a reply to the original point.

2. The left-libertarian call for worker empowerment can itself be construed as a (left-wing) form of corporatism.

Lew Rockwell recently wrote:

[S]yndicalism means economic control by the producers. Capitalism is different. It places by virtue of market structures all control in the hands of the consumers. The only question for syndicalists, then, is which producers are going to enjoy political privilege. It might be the workers, but it can also be the largest corporations.

not a left-libertarian

not a left-libertarian

Lew doesn’t draw the inference that left-libertarians are corporatists, but he illuminates a way in which that inference might be drawn. After all, we too favour economic control by producers, right? So why doesn’t that make our position akin to corporatism?

I think there’s a perilous ambiguity here. In one way, “economic control” can mean ownership; in that sense, we left-libertarians do favour economic control by producers.

But in that sense capitalists (taking that term in the Rothbardian sense) do not favour economic control by consumers; they favour economic control by producers too, even if capitalist employers loom larger in their conception of “producers” than in ours.

When Lew says that capitalism favours consumer control, he’s not talking about ownership; he means that consumer preferences determine production decisions through the price system – which is true enough (although I think that way of putting it makes producers seem too passive – what about advertising? entrepreneurial experimentation?) but that’s just as true when the producers are workers’ co-ops. So there’s no one sense of producer control which is both advocated by left-libertarians and akin to corporatism.

(These issues are closely related to those I’ve discussed under the name of the “POOTMOP” problem, here and here, as well as to the different ways that the libertarian and authoritarian wings of the French industriel movement understood the concept of producer control, discussed here.)

3. There is a tendency among right-libertarians to treat racism and sexism as equivalent to hostility toward persons of a different race or gender. Thus where such hostility is absent, racism and sexism are presumed to be absent also – with the upshot that left-libertarians are seen as exaggerating the amount of racism and sexism around.

anti-Japanese sign

For example, Walter Block argues that because heterosexual male employers are attracted to women, they are more likely to be prejudiced in their favour rather than against them.

But racism and sexism are found in more forms than simply that of hostility (not that there isn’t plenty of that form around too – and we all know, too well, that being a heterosexual male is not exactly an obstacle to hostility against women). A white male employer who feels no hostility toward women or minorities may still be inclined to pay them less or deny them positions of authority if he holds, say, prejudicial expectations about their likely capacities.

But what if these expectations are rationally justified? The problem is that they generally aren’t. And the arguments on behalf of such expectations are so shockingly sloppy (as, e.g., Anne Fausto-Sterling shows), and the historical track record of such arguments is so wretched, that an employer’s indulgence in such expectations is overwhelmingly likely to be the result of an irrational bias, most often one unconsciously absorbed from the culture. In such cases we will say that the empoyer’s decision is shaped by racism or sexism – but in saying that, we are not (necessarily) saying that the employer is an evil, hate-filled person. After all, by analogy: most people are statists, but that doesn’t mean that most people are filled with hatred for individual liberty.

Walter says in the same piece that the persistence of unjustified racist or sexist prejudices is unlikely, since “as we know from our study of business cycles, any such conglomeration of error cannot long endure without continued statist interference with markets.” Now of course we have “continued statist interference with markets,” so for anything Walter says here we could still have plenty of prejudice in the real world. But in any case I question the implied (and un-Austrian!) assumption that the market always gets us to equilibrium in the long run. There’s a difference between saying that the market has a tendency to equilibrium and saying that the market eventually reaches equilibrium. After all, everything on earth has a tendency to move toward the center of the earth, but that doesn’t mean that everything eventually gets to the center of the earth. Culture matters; it’s not just an epiphenomenon of the price system.

And of course, comme l’on dit, “we are market forces.”

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30 Responses to Some Distinctions and Clarifications

  1. Baus December 13, 2011 at 12:52 pm #

    This is great. Have you (or has someone you know) worked out a list that highlights major contrasts between right- and left- libertarians… not (as some lists I’ve seen) in de dicto “supports corporatism” terms that aren’t acceptable to both sides… but rather in such terms as what “looms larger” in the differing specifics of generally mutual conceptions?
    (sorry if that question is tortured)

    I mean to say, for instance, that it seems “culture matters” to right-libertarians too… but the cultural thickness of their libertarianism is differently conceived.

    If it’s true that right-libertarians think in a freed market that non-aggressive racism would get priced into economic and/or cultural negligibility, but that left-libertarians think in a freed market that non-aggressive racism wouldn’t get priced into economic and/or cultural negligibility… well, if this is a genuine specific contrast between the two, I’d like to see a more elaborate list of such differences (ideally footnoted with references to important discussions on those differences).

    • Roderick December 13, 2011 at 10:01 pm #

      Some right-libertarians think culture matters, some don’t. And left-libertarians disagree amongst themselves as to the extent of bigotry’s dependence on statism. So those two don’t seem like defining features. Cluster concept fodder, mayhap.

  2. Renzo Novatore December 13, 2011 at 7:03 pm #

    “We are market forces” is such a terrible line. I mean no disrespect to Ross, and there is a kernel of the truth to the thing, but ultimately it’s little better than the “we are the government” fallacy. The fact that the supposed leftists, which I would argue are actually communitarian right-wingers, have adopted this absurd mantra, especially as of late, makes me seriously question whether they ever understood precisely why “we are the government” was such an absurd statement in the first place.

    • Roderick December 13, 2011 at 9:54 pm #

      The line isn’t from Ross, it’s from Charles. Here’s the original; why is it absurd? It doesn’t seem to have any obvious connection to “we are the government” (apart from the superficial connection that “grass is green” and “grass is purple with orange stripes” share).

      And what’s the argument that we are rightwing communitarians? That one I’ve gotta see.

      • Renzo Novatore December 13, 2011 at 11:11 pm #

        Both “we are the government” and “we are the government” ignore marginal utility theory. Yes, the market is composed of people and if enough people changed their behavior then they could have a significant effect on the market, but I am emphatically not the market and am no more responsible for what the market does than for what the government does. This argument perfectly parallels the argument for why we are not the government.

        • Roderick December 13, 2011 at 11:52 pm #

          That argument would make sense if the phrase being attacked were “I am market forces.” But modus tollens.

        • Rad Geek December 15, 2011 at 1:35 pm #

          Well, you know, if you thought the point of the slogan was to tell you that you secretly really wanted whatever it is the market tends to provide (as the purpose of “We are the government” is to tell you that you secretly really wanted whatever it is that a democratic government does to you), then I suppose they would seem pretty similar. But that is actually just about exactly the opposite of the point of the slogan.

          It was not made in ignorance of marginal analysis; it was made to stress the difference between two different ways to look at the marginal case. You can look at it as an already-decided fact and relate to it as a consumer; or you can look at as an outcome of an open-ended process of choice and discovery, and relate to it as an entrepreneur. There is nothing in any “marginal utility theory” worthy of taking notice of that would rule out the second kind of attitude. Nor is there anything that would require the attitude to be taken only with regard to monetary returns, or only within the institutional context of a formal business relationship.

          In any case, (1) the “We” in “We are market forces” is “We” rather than “I” for a reason (the reason has to do with the fact that the slogan is used to talk about consciously organized activist campaigns carried on among many people interacting consensually within a market context *).

          (2) And the slogan also says “We are market forces,” not “We are the market,” for a reason. Because the point is that you can shift equilibrium points from where they are through entrepreneurial action; not that you can just pick them up and place them wherever you would like them to be. (**)

          (*) Which is rather different from the “We” in “We are the government,” since that “We” is of course not a group of people who are assembled consensually, but rather literally everyone within the corral of a democratic government, relating to each other through a political system that they were forced into and have been blocked from exiting.

          (**) Which is rather different from claiming that “We are the government,” tout court. One slogan is making a much more sweeping claim about the individual’s relationship to collective efficacy than the other slogan is. If the political slogan were not “We are the government,” but simply that, in a democracy, “We are political forces,” then it seems to me that it would be a lot harder to complain about that. But then the more modest slogan wouldn’t do the justificatory work that “We are the government” is supposed to do. (Since “We are market forces” is not intended to justify outcomes in the first place, it labors under no such burden.)

    • Scott Trinh December 13, 2011 at 10:40 pm #

      I’m with Long on this one. “We are the government” is not actually true. I am not the government. Our benevolent rulers are the government. However, I am constantly the market whether I want to be or not.

      • Renzo Novatore December 13, 2011 at 11:12 pm #

        The people in a modern Western democracy are as close to being the government as they are to being the market. Bryan Caplan’s excellent research in this area reveals just how closely the preferences of the median voter mirror actual government policy.

        • Roderick December 13, 2011 at 11:54 pm #

          The people in a modern Western democracy are as close to being the government as they are to being the market.

          Doesn’t that ignore public choice theory?

          Bryan Caplan’s excellent research in this area reveals just how closely the preferences of the median voter mirror actual government policy.

          Given that the government exercises substantial control over education, which is cause and which is effect?

        • Renzo Novatore December 14, 2011 at 2:19 am #

          Pre-Caplanian Public Choice Theory, yes. But that model is now outdated.

          As for your point about education, it isn’t relevant. The desires of the median voter match up with policy pretty darn well. If anything policy is actually slightly more libertarian than what public opinion would want it to be.

        • Roderick December 14, 2011 at 2:31 am #

          Pre-Caplanian Public Choice Theory, yes. But that model is now outdated.

          Assertion is not argument.

          As for your point about education, it isn’t relevant. The desires of the median voter match up with policy pretty darn well.

          Huh? You claim that A reflects B, and your evidence is that A and B match. I reply that A’s and B’s matching is equally consistent with B’s reflecting A, and I offer C as evidence for the likelihood of B’s reflecting A. You reply: “C is irrelevant, because A and B match.” That seems a bit of a dialectical misstep.

          If anything policy is actually slightly more libertarian than what public opinion would want it to be.

          You mean people want even more privileges for corporate elite than the system is currently providing?

        • Renzo Novatore December 15, 2011 at 4:59 am #

          Assertion is not argument.

          You can’t expect me to lay out precisely how Caplan revolutionized Public Choice theory in a blog comment, do you? You should know this by now.

          Huh? You claim that A reflects B, and your evidence is that A and B match. I reply that A’s and B’s matching is equally consistent with B’s reflecting A, and I offer C as evidence for the likelihood of B’s reflecting A. You reply: “C is irrelevant, because A and B match.” That seems a bit of a dialectical misstep.

          My claim is that governmental policy reflects position of the median voter. The median voters opinions may be influenced by government policy, but that government policy was determined by a previous median voter.

          You mean people want even more privileges for corporate elite than the system is currently providing?

          De dicto, of course not. De re, yes.

  3. David Friedman December 13, 2011 at 10:27 pm #

    Your use of the de re/de dicto distinction reminds me of Orwell’s description of the use of “objective” by his communist contemporaries. “Trotskyites are objectively pro-Nazi” sounds as if it means that Trotskyites are pro-Nazi. When it is pointed out that they aren’t, it is explained that “objectively pro-Nazi” means “do things, such as criticizing Stalin, that we think help the Nazis.”

    Similarly here. “You support corporatism” sounds as though it means what it says. But, you explain, it actually means “you support what we regard as institutions of corporatism, even though we realize that you think they aren’t.”

    Suppose I conclude that the policies supported by left-libertarians would lead to poverty. Would it then be fair for me to accuse left-libertarians of supporting poverty?

    When someone explains that “when I say that A supports X, what I mean is that A supports X’,” the natural question is, if that’s what he means, why isn’t that what he says?

    • Scott Trinh December 13, 2011 at 10:37 pm #

      I would say that if you truly feel “that the policies supported by left-libertarians would lead to poverty”, than it would be appropriate to say say that left-libs support poverty. Of course, be prepared to back up that claim, as I’m sure any left-libertarian would be willing to back up his own claims.

    • Roderick December 13, 2011 at 10:52 pm #

      I think de re ascriptions are a pretty common feature of ordinary language; they’re not some kind of ideological-rhetorical trick.

    • zhinxy December 14, 2011 at 12:34 am #

      Nobody threw in objectively, which makes quite a difference, I’d say.

      Besides, if this is a rhetorical trick, (And I agree wholeheartedly that it’s ordinary language),we’re on a path where making libertarian talk without saying that Non-Libertarian Person Or Group X “Supports State Violence” is going to get very unweildy.

      • Roderick December 14, 2011 at 2:16 am #

        Moreover, I don’t actually have any problem with the Marxist use of “objectively.” I have to disagree with David’s claim that “‘Trotskyites are objectively pro-Nazi’ sounds as if it means that Trotskyites are pro-Nazi.” The “objectively” is there for a reason, and everyone in the context of that discourse understands how it functions.

        • zhinxy December 14, 2011 at 9:31 am #

          Hmmm. I always agreed with Orwell there, largely because of “objectively” outside the Marxist context, so the “ordinary language” thing wouldn’t apply… But you have a very good point.

          *Tears down “Agree with Orwell” Poster* We are in agreement with Austro-Athenian Empire! We have always been in agreement with Austro-Athenian Empire!

  4. David Friedman December 14, 2011 at 1:29 pm #

    I agree that the “objectively” was there for a reason, but I think we disagree about what that reason is. In my view, and I think Orwell’s, it was there to allow the speaker to say something that would be interpreted by most hearers as “It is an objective fact that Trotskyists support the Nazis,” while letting him defend the statement, if necessary, by attributing an entirely different meaning to the words.

    I don’t know enough about the views of left-libertarians–a label applied to a variety of different positions–to offer an opinion about whether they lead to poverty. But there are lots of other people whose policies, in my view, have bad effects that those people would not approve of, and I think it would be rhetorically dishonest to say that they support those bad effects.

  5. zhinxy December 14, 2011 at 4:25 pm #

    Well, this was certainly a tactic Orwell used himself… See his famous and still oft-quoted (by not the best among us, either) “pacifism is objectively pro-fascism” from “Pacifism and The War”

    So, really, it’s possible – I say probable, that Orwell was speaking of his own slipperiness in saying that Pacifism was Pro-Fascism – Having it both ways by encouraging “ordinary readers” to view it as Orwell saying it was “objective fact”, while still being able to take the “this is what I mean by that tactic” (And there are other examples of this use of objectively in his newspaper columns, though I can’t provide citations offhand, but would be happy to look!) And that he was assuming others were using it the same way he did.

    Objectively” gets a quick note in the famous Politics and the English Language, and he discusses it elsewhere (Again, happy to look, later!)

    But I think the most relevant essay and “I have been guilty of this myself” admission, is in his As I Please column of Dec. 8 1944 (Though not, really, repudiation – he still believed and argued that pacifism supported facism, just that it wasn’t intentional. A meaning, I would say, closer to the “ordinary language” X supports Y statement, with the Objectively being what he sees as the dodgy bit. )

    So it CAN definitely be a rhetorical trick, as Orwell knows, because… The person who did it as the rhetorical trick most famously, and with the most consequence, was almost certainly Orwell.

    BUT, it really doesn’t have to follow from that that any other Marxist was necessarily using it in such a tricky way… If they were using it within Marxist discourse, there’s no need to accuse them of using it to confuse an audience unfamiliar with it as well. It can be misinterpreted that way by such an audience, but if it’s not directed outside, or not done with that audience in mind it doesn’t HAVE to be a rhetorical trick at all.

    And Orwell was writing in the popular press, for a popular audience, and probably knew what he was doing and being a lot more slippery than someone writing in a Marxist phamphlet, and probably should have given them more credit.

    Or that’s what Roderick’s comment has me thinking, now.

    So, in closing, I’m talking to David D. Friedman about Orwell and rhetorical tricks on Roderick Long’s blog, and the internet is awesome!

  6. Richard O. Hammer December 15, 2011 at 1:03 am #

    I am still growing neural connections which will enable me to understand this discussion. Or at least I hope that is the case.

  7. Mabuse December 15, 2011 at 5:47 am #

    I don’t have anything to contribute to the discussion at hand but I thought it interesting to note that David says that he does not know much about the views of left-libertarians when (at least in my own conception of things) his own views are at least broadly within the left-libertarian purview. While he might not have much to say on matters cultural, his stated desire for economic life to develop to a point where everybody is self employed and his (perhaps apochryphal) lines about corporations being undigested lumps of socialism clogging up the market have always struck me as well within the left-libertarian line of thinking on such matters.

  8. David Friedman December 15, 2011 at 12:22 pm #

    1. In my experience, “left libertarian” is used in a number of different ways, ranging from Georgist to “libertarian with left wing cultural sympathies.” I doubt that regarding an agorist economy as an attractive way for humans to organize their lives is sufficient to qualify.

    2. Walter Block has a recent post on accusing Wendy McElroy of not being a libertarian. Why? Because she opposes the Ron Paul campaign, and Walter believes that libertarians ought to support the Ron Paul campaign.

    That seems to me to be the same rhetorical trick/error–error in Walter’s case, since he goes into some detail in explaining how libertarian Wendy is by any other criterion–that I have been objecting to in both the de re/de dicto form and the “objective” form. It says “You support X” when it means “You support Y which I believe (and you don’t) leads to X.”

    On Walter’s principles, Wendy, given her view that the Paul campaign is a bad thing for libertarianism, has the same basis for accusing him of not being a libertarian, since he supports it, as he does for accusing her, since she doesn’t.

    Thus disagreements about tactics get misrepresented as disagreements about objectives. Not a good thing for either clear thinking or a healthy movement.

    • Brandon December 15, 2011 at 12:50 pm #

      Block said that her reasons for not supporting RP’s campaign were the problem:

      She is demonizing him. She is engaged in false malicious slander and libel against him. At a time when he is building up the libertarian movement at a pace greater than anyone else in the entire history of the world, she is busily trying to tear him down. That is not critical thinking. That is not being open-minded. That is being an objective enemy of liberty.

      • Angus MacAskill December 15, 2011 at 1:04 pm #

        There’s that pesky “objective” again.

  9. Keith Preston December 15, 2011 at 10:03 pm #

    Clearly, the solution to this dilemma is the implementation of pan-secessionism/national-anarchism/anarcho-pluralism/neo-tribalism.

    In the anarcho-capitalist tribe/city-state/canton/micronation, the greedy capitalist pig Randians and right-libertarians can exploit their beleaguered workers to their heart’s content, and the workers can simply be told to go fuck themselves.

    In the left-libertarian tribe/city-state/canton/micronation, the workers can choose to be as poor as they wish to be. If they decide they are getting too poor for their own good, they can console themselves that at least they are not as poor as the Zerzanite primitivist tribe/city-state/canton/micronation a few provinces over.

    Meanwhile, in the anarcho-leftoid tribe/city-state/canton/micronation, the proponents of racism, sexism, homophobia, bigotry, reflexive outgroup hostility, authoritarian personality syndrome, et. al. ad nauseum can put the racist, sexist, homophobic, fascist bastards on cattle cars to be shipped far, far away to somewhere where work will make them free.

    All the while, in the anarcho-fascist tribe/city-state/canton/micronation, irrational fear of the other will go through the roof.

    And everyone will live happily ever after….if only faggots don’t ruin anarchism for everyone!

    • Roderick December 16, 2011 at 3:56 am #

      I suspect that in paragraph 4, “proponents” was supposed to be “opponents.” Otherwise they’re shipping themselves.

      I also suspect, though with somewhat less confidence, that the author of this comment is not really Keith Preston.

      • zhinxy December 16, 2011 at 6:18 am #

        A variant of Poe’s law here, Preston’s law? I…Don’t think it’s him, I just don’t know if it’s him or not. Sorry, whoever the real Preston is. Or I guess everybody loses.


  1. Some Distinctions and Clarifications | The Libertarian Alliance: BLOG - December 13, 2011

    […] Some Distinctions and Clarifications Posted on 13 December, 2011 by Dr Sean Gabb | Leave a comment by Roderkick Long […]

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