Chomsky Inc.

In other news, left-libertarians will find Ben O’Neill’s new piece on Chomsky a bit frustrating. It attacks Chomsky at a point where he certainly needs attacking, and rightly complains that “Chomsky’s quarrels with private business entities do not rest on any allegation of the initiation of force either by these corporations or on their behalf”; moreover, O’Neill even cites Kolko re the dependence of corporate power on government intervention. So far, so good.

Kevin A. Carson - Organization Theory: A Libertarian PerspectiveNevertheless, the Kolko references notwithstanding, the tone of O’Neill’s piece still conveys the impression that existing corporate structures, with all their Dilbertian irrationality and obnoxious hierarchy, are mostly the result of the free market and so to be defended, thus leaving the reader with the old choice between vulgar liberalism (treating various nasty features of the prevailing corporatism as though they constituted an objection to the free market) and vulgar libertarianism (treating the case for the free market as though it justified various nasty features of the prevailing corporatism). In fact, given the impact of statist intervention on corporate structure, Chomsky’s characterisation of corporations as “private tyrannies” can be vindicated on purely libertarian grounds – as Kevin Carson does in his new book Organization Theory: A Libertarian Perspective. (And of course it’s also worth saying that even forms of power that don’t involve or depend on coercion can still be harmful and worth fighting – noncoercively, of course.)

While we’re on this topic – I haven’t forgotten my promise to respond to some of the later criticisms in the Conflation Debate; life has just been über-hectic lately.

, , ,

25 Responses to Chomsky Inc.

  1. Ben O'Neill January 22, 2009 at 8:03 pm #

    Prof Long’s critique of my article is also “a bit frustrating”. Prof Long does not point to a single error in my article. He does not cite a single assertion with which he disagrees. Instead he complains that the tone conveys the wrong impression.

    Prof Long states that my article “…conveys the impression that existing corporate structures, with all their Dilbertian irrationality and obnoxious hierarchy, are mostly the result of the free market…”. No quotation from the article is given to defend this interpretation; this is presumably because the sole statement I make about corporate structure is that hierarchies are not inherently tyrannical, as Chomsky contends. I am at a loss to determine which hierarchies are “obnoxious” and which are not, since I don’t mention this anywhere in my article.

    Long states that “Chomsky’s characterisation of corporations as “private tyrannies” can be vindicated on purely libertarian grounds“. Does this mean that anyone who badmouths corporations is vindicated, regardless of their argument, because there are libertarian arguments against corporations too?

    The crux of my article is this: Chomsky says private businesses are tyrannical because they are hierarchical and have substantial power from their ownership of private property. But this conflates economic power and political power. There is nothing illegitimate about a business being structured as a hierarchy and exercising economic power through property ownership.

    I go to great effort to mention libertarian arguments against corporate structure and corporate special privilege. Among the points I make in my article that should be music to the ears of left-libertarians are the following (Prof Long acknowledges only the first point):
    1. Big corporations use government power to cartelize their markets;
    2. The free market leads to a diffusion of economic power among smaller businesses, rather than a concentration of economic power among big corporations;
    3. Chomsky’s calls for more regulation empower big corporations to crush their smaller competitors;
    4. Most major corporations are the recipients of special privileges, which should be repealed; and
    5. Even the corporate structure with limited liability is arguably a special privilege which should be repealed.

    So that is the content of the article – with humble apologies for my “tone”.

  2. Kevin Carson January 22, 2009 at 8:17 pm #

    I agree that the main problem with O’Neill’s article was one of tone. He certainly tips his hat to the possibility of government-corporate collusion to a non-trivial extent. But his wording (“corporations can’t be tyrannies except to the extent that they collude with government”) suggests that non-tyrannical corporations are the norm, and corporate-government collusion a deviation from it.

    Thanks for the book promo!

    • Ben January 23, 2009 at 8:54 am #

      I am glad you acknowledge that my discussion of government-corporate collusion is “non-trivial”; I would characterize it as substantial.

      However, the sentence you cite, does not suggest that corporate-government collusion is rare, as you contend. All it means (and suggests) is that corporations have no power to use force on their own – that they must use government force for their special privileges. In fact, my article specifically states that “Most major corporations are recipients of special privileges from governments in one form or another…” (probably all of them are, but I say “most” because I am not certain of this). This completely contradicts what you say I am implying.

      As with Prof Long, I have absolutely no disagreement with you on this point, but somehow the tone of my words is mysteriously held to be wrong.

      • Roderick January 23, 2009 at 12:53 pm #

        corporations have no power to use force on their own

        But neither do politicians and bureaucrats. It’s not through their own personal might that they exercise force; their power, like that of corporations, depends upon the willingness of enforcers (police, soldiers, etc.) to go along with their demands. And the power of the latter largely depends in turn on the acquiescence of the population. So partly what I’m grumping about is what strikes me as an artificial and exaggerated dichotomy between politicians’ relation to government power and politicians’ relation to government power — as though politicians are part of the ruling class but corporations are not.

        Here’s what I mean. Suppose some medieval Chomsky had written an attack on the feudal lords, focusing simply on the fact that the feudal lords wear fancy clothes and eat fancy food, claiming that these facts themselves are oppressive. And suppose a medieval O’Neill had written a rebuttal to the medieval Chomsky, saying: “There is nothing oppressive about wearing fancy clothes and eating fancy food. In a free market, the feudal lords gain these advantages by productive effort and voluntary exchange, and it is very dangerous to confuse these legitimately gained advantages that feudal lords enjoy with the illegitimate results of political power. Of course it must be pointed out that feudal lords also do exercise political power, and reap unjust advantages thereby, and it would be fair to criticise them for this.”

        There would be nothing objectionable in the content of what I’m imagining the medieval O’Neill to say. But do you see why it might strike someone as weird in its emphasis?

        • Black Bloke January 23, 2009 at 2:04 pm #

          dichotomy between politicians’ relation to government power and politicians’ relation to government power

          One of those instances of “politicians'” was meant to be “corporations'”.

        • Roderick January 26, 2009 at 7:17 pm #

          True that.

  3. Roderick January 23, 2009 at 12:05 am #

    I have no disagreement with what O’Neill says about the content of his article (since of course I did not criticise the content). But I’m not sure what he thinks about the criticism I actually made. Is he a) claiming that I have misinterpreted the tone, or b) denying that concerns with tone are relevant at all? If (a), then here’s an example of what I’m talking about:

    “The truth is that workers in a corporation choose to be there because they prefer this to the available alternatives. They are not forcibly compelled to be there, and they face no threat of violence if they fail to turn up to work and do their jobs. Rather, many people choose to work within corporations or other hierarchical business enterprises and take a subordinate role to their bosses because they are offered money and other benefits to do so. By virtue of the voluntary nature of this action, the workers clearly regard this trade as beneficial ex ante; if they did not, they would not enter into this role.”

    The suggestion conveyed by the wording of this passage is that the existing job market is free, that the workers’ choices are not shaped and constricted by violent state intervention. (The fact that O’Neill acknowledges state intervention elsewhere in the article makes my objection one of tone, not of content.)

    Am I being excessively nitpicky? If that’s the objection, then it seems to me that we’re back with (b).

  4. Ben O'Neill January 23, 2009 at 3:50 am #

    In my opinion, yes, you are being excessively nitpicky. I am claiming that: (a) you did misrepresent the tone of the article, insofar as you did not point out the many legitimate left-libertarian points I raised; and (b) an objection to tone rather than content, in an article which goes to great pains to enunciate legitimate left-libertarian points, is so fastidious as to border on irrelevance and pointless antagonism. To be frank, the kind of critique you offer strikes me as the kind of spiteful sectarian antagonism that I wish libertarians could avoid.

    I know you should never post anything when you are angry, but this kind of thing really annoys me, because I agree with you on literally every philosophical point on this topic. I expected to have to defend this article from Chomsky fans and socialists, but not left-libertarians who’s arguments I draw on extensively in the article. I have put probably nine out of every ten left-libertarian points that could have been raised directly into the article, having devoted an entire section to critiques of corporate use of state power.

    I am a bit fan of strict delimitation in writing. It is simply not possible to regurgitate the entire left-libertarian arsenal in an article that is designed as a rebuttal to a point made by Noam Chomsky, and any attempt to do so would detract from the quality of the article.

    The tone of the article is offered in contrast to the views of Chomsky, which is the subject of the article. It stresses the free market aspects of economic power because this is the point that Chomsky gets disastrously wrong. Of course there are a thousand issues I could have mentioned about bad things corporations do; you could write an encyclopedia on the subject. But the point is that Chomsky’s argument does not rest on any of these things. His objection is to hierarchical organization and economic power derived from private property ownership. The tone of my article stresses the errors in his analysis, since this is the subject.

    In the quotation you mention, I state only that those who work for corporations regard it as better than the available alternatives, not that there is a free market in these alternatives. Again, the point is to stress the difference between economic and political power. The fact that I delay discussion of corporate power a whole six paragraphs before I complain of corporate special privilege does not strike me as being grounds for serious complaint.

    Carson says that by saying “…corporations can’t be tyrannies except to the extent that they collude with government,” that this somehow “…suggests that non-tyrannical corporations are the norm, and corporate-government collusion a deviation from it.” No, it doesn’t suggest this at all. All it suggests is that corporations have no power to use force on their own – that they must rely on government force for special privilege. In fact, my article specifically states that “Most major corporations are recipients of special privileges from governments in one form or another…” (probably all of them are, but I say “most” because I am not certain of this). This completely contradicts what Carson says I am implying. Again, I have absolutely no disagreement with Carson as to this point, but somehow the tone of my words is mysteriously wrong.

    In fairness, it is nice to have anyone comment on my article at all, so thank you for giving it some attention. However, my experience with left-libertarians has been that they are so sectarian as to be impossible to please, even when you agree with them on literally every point and go to some length to mention these points (everyone is defending vulgar libertarianism!). The above critiques only strengthen that view.

    • Roderick January 23, 2009 at 12:56 pm #

      I think I probably did overreact to what I disliked in the tone and gave insufficient emphasis to what I liked in the content. My apologies.

      But I still do find the tone puzzling; see my comment above.

      • Ben January 25, 2009 at 2:45 am #

        Apologies cheerfully accepted.

  5. Bob Kaercher January 23, 2009 at 12:12 pm #

    If I may put in my 2 cents, I rather agree with Mr. O’Neill that Roderick’s criticism is a bit nit-picky.

    The focal point of O’Neill’s attack is Chomsky’s hopelessly confused conflation of private property per se with concentrated political power, while totally ignoring the fact that it is the state’s superficially legalized ability to expropriate and forcibly manipulate nominally “private” property that provides the vehicle for concentrated corporate political power, and then actually positing the state–the ulitimate hierarchical monopolist–as the beneficent “cage” that will supposedly protect all of us from hierarchical monopolies. I’ve had more than one conversation with Chomskyite anarchists along these lines, and this incredibly self-contradicting line of reasoning they spout is enough to make you bang your head against a brick wall. (Sort of the flip side of the vulgar libertarian who fails to see virtually any of the special privileges corporations derive from state cartelization, or at least doesn’t seem to think said privileges have any material real world impacts on people.)

    Could O’Neill have mentioned that the incentival context in which available workers are currently choosing employment (or employment over self-employment) options is largely shaped by the many statist interventions in the market to enforce corporate privilege? Sure, and it’s constructive for any criticism to note it. But his merely not mentioning that does not necessarily mean that the “tone” of his piece conveys any impression that existing corporate structures are the result of the free market, nor does it mean that he’s claiming that non-tyrannical corporations or the norm, or that government-corporate collusion is a devation from the norm. (Especially when explicitly mentions it!)

  6. Bob Kaercher January 23, 2009 at 12:15 pm #

    That last parenthetical in my post should have said “(Especially when he explicitly mentions the extent to which government-corporate collusion occurs!)”

  7. DixieFlatline January 23, 2009 at 3:43 pm #

    First, Dr. Long, thank you for another reference to Dilbert. I have made some fun of this, and you continue to provide material. You see, I like much of your work, except the left-libertarian nonsense, and the childish “vulgar libertarian” namecalling/strawman. So when you cite Dilbert as a source in the conflation argument (or elsewhere) it pretty much reinforces what many of us so-called “vulgar libertarians” believe. Your understanding of corporate forms comes from the funny papers.

    But really, I do like much of your work, and cite some of it regularly, such as how government fixed health care.

    To the more general notion that some nit-picking has occurred, it appears to me that the picking of nits seems to be a key part of the left-libertarian experience. I anxiously await the day when Mutualists and other left-libertarians join with their vulgar brothers to oppose the state, instead of crusading within the libertarian spectrum for compassionate causes found only in comic strips.

    veritas et aequitas

    • Bob Kaercher January 23, 2009 at 3:54 pm #

      “But really, I do like much of your work, and cite some of it regularly, such as how government fixed health care.”

      What??? Hmmmm….Roderick Long claims “government fixed health care”??? Where and when did he write that???

    • Roderick January 23, 2009 at 4:15 pm #

      While this should be too obvious to say, I’ll say it once again: I cite Dilbert as illustration, not as evidence.

      • DixieFlatline January 23, 2009 at 6:23 pm #

        Thanks for replying Dr. Long. I look forward to a continuation of the conflation debate. Now that your blog is back, I have several nits to pick with your position.

        veritas et aequitas

  8. Araglin January 23, 2009 at 5:39 pm #

    Ben (and any others still reading),

    I, too, wish that we could all defuse the sometimes nasty sectarian rancor between left-libertarians and their fellow anti-state brethren; however, I think it’s important to realize that, both sides can be faulted with a tendency to read with suspicion and pick nits regarding ‘tone,’ atmospherics, and the like. Just think of the many snarky, anti-‘vandarchist’ posts that have appeared over at the Mises Blog since the phenomenon of Long-Johnston-Carson-Spangler left-libertarianism arose within (and partly outside) the confines of Austro-libertarianism. Instead of carefully sifting through this work and seeking to appropriate its genuine insights*, there has been a lot of name-calling and broad-brush characterizations. One of the main obstacles to mutual enrichment is the polysemy of words such as ‘capitalism’ and ‘socialism.’ These words have no stable, univocal definition. People like Rand and Mises tried to repristinate the term ‘capitalism’ to stand for an economy structured according to unalloyed free market principles, and then to only use it in reference to actually-existing economies as an approximation (or else to call the actually-existing economy a ‘mixed economy’). People on the Left tend to use the term ‘capitalism’ for the social formation that actually emerged in the West, in the aftermath of the various “primitive accumulations,” Enclosures, and the like. Likewise, Mises sought to use ‘socialism’ as a devil term for planned, top-down, command economies. Quite naturally, then, people fed on a steady diet of Mises’s works, then, can’t help but treat all criticisms of ‘capitalism,’ or words in praise of ‘socialism,’ as fighting words…

    *Likewise, I find it infuriating that the many other (often quite intelligent and important) scholars associated with the Mises Institute don’t appear to have carefully read and absorbed Long’s Wittgensteinian and coherentist re-casting of praxeology, and his eudaemonistic elaboration of libertarian ethics.

  9. Joel Schlosberg January 26, 2009 at 12:26 am #

    No time for a full response now, but: (1) the random Ludwig von Mises quote that appeared in the sidebar when I viewed the article is very appropriate:
    “The trend toward bureaucratic rigidity is not inherent in the evolution of business. It is an outcome of government meddling with business.” — Bureaucracy
    and (2) a very good leftist response to Chomsky’s “cage” analogy is from James Herod:
    “There is a terrible assumption buried here, namely that the cage protects the workers from murder. This is glaringly false. Workers are being murdered by the millions all over the world, inside the cage. The anecdote throws up a false image in other ways as well. The predators are not outside the cage, they, and their practices, are the cage. The cage itself is lethal. And when we realize that the cage is as large as the world, and that there is no longer any outside to escape to, then we can see that the only way to keep ourselves from being murdered, or otherwise brutalized and oppressed, is to destroy the cage itself.”

  10. RTR January 26, 2009 at 4:11 am #

    Ben and Long,

    I agree with the left libertarian misgivings about corporate power, which current hierarchical structures are supported by the state, but I don’t think corporations or certain types of hierarchies are illegitimate. however, It is possible to have corporations in a libertarian society be bigger and more “stratified” than they “should” be, but the blame for this situation lies with an unexpected group that most libertarians do not address or just plain miss altogether…

    blame the working class

    Think about it. The average working man (in America at least) has a negative savings rate and high interest debt. This puts him at a constant mercy for income and at companies that provide jobs. It does not help that they have been misled to get into such debt and not save by the influence of schools, universities, the media, corporations, and the government. Not to mention that compulsory education implicitly undermines the entrepreneurial spirit that aspiring “working class” individuals could have otherwise had.

    High debt and no savings puts the working class under constant pressure to bring in monthly income, and the fear of getting fired will make the worker more likely to put up with “dilbert-like management” that can form under corporate hierarchies. Its hard for someone to say “F*** you!” to their jerk boss if it means they could default on all their loans and end up with losing their home, car, and most of their possessions. This could happen in a month or two for the average debt ridden worker, not too much time to take chances on job hunting. Any forms of collective bargaining by the working class is a minor symptom relief to a major illness (IMO any forms of collectivism are enemies of the poor and the weak).

    Contrast this to a working class that saves at least a third of their income consistently, and pays most (or all major) expenses off with little leftover debt. How much easier is it for someone to quit a job where managers treat them like crap or use stupid business models? How much easier is it for them to invest in education for some time or start a business while going without income for a few months? How much easier is for them to be picky about their jobs and pay if they can tolerate “lower pay but better environment” in other jobs or careers lines? (it also helps if the poor or working class were not subject to taxes either, namely the property, income, and sales taxes)

    Corporations would be forced to become much more wage competitive, and treat their workers better with good and efficient management, unlike the management in dilbert, because workers would have more options and freedom to switch jobs that comes along with high savings and low to no debt.

    So in a libertarian society, the working class will hold the key to how “exploitative” the corporate structure is, by how much they save and how much debt they have. The whole “culture war” of corporate power can be won over by following the, um, following: Stay out of debt, save a lot.

    Once again, the true enemies of the working class are the federal reserve the government. Nothing new here…

    • Roderick January 26, 2009 at 7:23 pm #

      I agree with most of the above, but given the relatively small degree of wiggle room that most working-class people have (thanks to state involvement), “blame the working class” seems the wrong way to put it. Doubtless, many working-class people could save a bit more. Equally doubtless, many working-class people couldn’t. I’ve been there.

      • RTR January 29, 2009 at 2:58 am #

        My apologies, I should have been more clear. I meant that if corporations are too “big and stratified” in an anarcho-capitalist society, then the blame could be put on the working class.

        And yes, thanks to the government’s taxes and interventions, its impossible for some working class members to save even a fraction of their income under the current scenario.

        I think Mises said it best when he said (paraphrased) the MO of keynesianism is to cheat the workers.

  11. Mark January 31, 2009 at 6:02 am #

    Isn’t it central to the Austrian school that human nature is the source of troubles? Isn’t bureaucracy and hierarchy merely superempowering institutions for good or bad? I know of no left-libertarians who criticise natural hierarchy such as the relationship between brain surgeons and nurses (woe to patients needing surgery on the day of that revolution). All things outside of human action are like fire. They can be used for good or bad.

    I suspect left-libertarians get nitpicky because people like Miss Anthrope Karen De Coster keeps baiting them.

Leave a Reply

Powered by WordPress. Designed by WooThemes