Tag Archives | Conflation Debate

Primitive Accumulation of Pretzels

In my latest YouTube video, I discuss the distinction between markets and capitalism as drawn in the 1919 textbook THE ABC OF COMMUNISM (written by two Soviet apparatchiks, Nikolai Bukharin and Yevgeny Preobrazhensky), as well as in the Marxist tradition generally, with attention to how Marxism twists itself into a pretzel to avoid endorsing free-market anti-capitalism.


Molinari Review I.2: What Lies Within?

[cross-posted at C4SS, BHL, and POT]

The long-awaited second issue of the Molinari Review (the Molinari Institute’s interdisciplinary, open-access, libertarian academic journal) is here! Nearly twice the length of the first issue!

You can order a paper copy from Amazon US, Amazon Canada, Amazon UK, or, I believe, any of the other regional incarnations of Amazon.

(A Kindle copy should be available later this month. In the meantime, the previous issue is available as a free PDF download here.)

So what’s in the new issue? Here’s a rundown:

  • Anarchist communists reject not only the state but the market as well, arguing that private property and market exchange are as much a source of domination as the instrumentalities of the state. In “Supplying the Demand of Liberation: Markets as a Structural Check Against Domination,” philosopher Jason Lee Byas argues, to the contrary, that individualist anarchism, precisely because of its reliance on markets and the greater plasticity they offer, satisfies the anarchist commitment to non-domination more successfully than communism does. Byas highlights the potential dangers of anarchist communists’ proposed alternatives to markets, arguing that these dangers become even more serious when the dynamics of race, gender, sexuality, and other systems of privilege and oppression are factored in, while the market process can be shown to be a powerful engine for addressing such problems.
  • The economic regulations of the American Progressive Era have long been viewed – whether with approval or with disapproval, depending on the political perspective of the viewer – as a powerful blow against big business. In the 1960s, Gabriel Kolko and other New Left historians argued, to the contrary, that the corporate elite were the major beneficiaries of these regulations – a revisionist thesis soon enthusiastically embraced and promoted (much to the dismay of Kolko himself) by a number of free-market libertarian thinkers, including Murray Rothbard and Roy Childs. In recent years, however, Roger L. Bradley Jr. and Roger Donway have argued (see here and here) that Kolko’s account of the relationship between business and the state during the Gilded Age and its aftermath was flawed by a mistaken conceptual framework and a misleading use of evidence through selective quotation of his sources; for Bradley and Donway, what Kolko made to seem like corporate support for regulation was in most cases merely a matter of corporations adapting to regulation as a form of self-defense. In “The War on Kolko,” historian Joseph R. Stromberg defends Kolko against both the charge of misinterpreting the motives of corporate leaders and the charge of distorting the textual evidence, concluding that Kolko’s work remains “quite unscathed.”
  • Is there any connection between liberty in the political sense and liberty in the sense at issue in the free will debate? John Stuart Mill, in the first sentence of his treatise On Liberty, famously replied in the negative. But in “Libertarianism and Hard Determinism,” Thomas Lafayette Bateman III and Walter E. Block argue that if a human being were “no more than a moist robot, subject completely to nature’s laws,” then political institutions to protect such an entity’s freedom of choice would be pointless, abstract principles of rights would be meaningless, and seeking to control individual behaviour through totalitarian manipulation and the judicious application of stimuli would seem optimal. Hence political libertarianism and hard determinism are incompatible; a consistent adherent of the first must reject the second.*
  • For the past thirty years, philosophers Jan Narveson and James P. Sterba have been debating whether a commitment to liberty entails welfare rights or instead rules them out. For Narveson, those who acquire property by innocent means are entitled to it, and anyone who tries to take it from them without their consent is violating their liberty; whereas for Sterba, preventing the poor from making use of the excess property of the affluent is a violation of the liberty of the poor to access resources they need, which is a more important liberty than that of the affluent to maintain control of such resources. In “Liberty vs. Welfare Rights – Continued,” Narveson marshals the principles of Innocent Possession and Open-Ended Use to defend the right of the first user as more consonant with the requirements of peaceful and productive human cooperation than the right of the neediest user; in “A Response to Narveson: Why Liberty Leads to Welfare and Beyond,” Sterba argues that a more defensible formulation of the principles of Innocent Possession and Open-Ended Use instead favours the neediest user over the first user.
  • In our previous issue, Gus diZerega argued that contemporary libertarians misunderstand and misapply their own key concepts, leading them to embrace an atomistic vision of society, and to overvalue the market while undervaluing empathy and democracy. The present issue features an exchange among diZerega, Chris Matthew Sciabarra, and myself on these matters, with particular attention to the interpretation of Ayn Rand, in contributions titled (from Sciabarra) “Reply to Gus diZerega on His Essay, ‘Turning the Tables: The Pathologies and Unrealized Promise of Libertarianism’,” (from diZerega) “Response to Chris Matthew Sciabarra,” and (from me) “It Ain’t Necessarily So: A Response to Gus diZerega.”

Want to order a copy? See the ordering information above.

Want to contribute an article to an upcoming issue? Head to the journal’s webpage.

Want to support this project financially? Make a donation to the Molinari Institute General Fund.

* Incidentally, I welcome Walter Block’s conversion to thick libertarianism – and look forward to his explanation of why his position here doesn’t really count as thick-libertarian. 😛


Turned Into Tongue and Trim Ones Too

This video about PragerU is worth watching, especially for its first half on conservative critiques of feminism. Pull quote:

When women are lagging behind men, for example in the wages they get paid, this is no problem whatsoever; it’s just a natural result of men and women’s biological differences. But when men are lagging behind women, such as receiving lower grades in school, well, that’s “everyone’s concern,” and we need to institute system-wide reforms in order to reverse the trend. And I like how biology is used here: it’s presented as both the reason to preserve a system when men are ahead, and also as the reverse – to reform a system when men are behind. The message seems to be that any societal system should cater to male biological traits (or at least conservatives’ estimation of what male biological traits are).

The second half of the video (starting at 16:31), on economics, is more of a mixed bag, since it’s essentially a left-conflationist attack on right-conflationism, with no Ramsey’s Maxim in sight, and thus predictably offers a fairly even balance of good points and confused points. But the very end (starting at 25:22), on graphs, is funny.


Despair Could Never Touch a Morning

The air was cool, and smelled of sage. It had the clarity that comes to southern California only after a Santa Ana wind has blown all haze and history out to sea – air like telescopic glass, so that the snowtopped San Gabriels seemed near enough to touch, though they were forty miles away. The flanks of the blue foothills revealed the etching of every ravine, and beneath the foothills, stretching to the sea, the broad coastal plain seemed nothing but treetops ….

The sun was obscured by a cloud for a moment, then burst out again. Big clouds like tall ships coasted in, setting sail for the mountains and the desert beyond. The ocean was a deep, rich, blue blue, a blue in blue within blue inside of blue, the heart and soul and center of blue. Blinding chips of sunlight bounced on the swelltops. Liquid white light glazed the apricot cliff of Corona del Mar, the needles of its Torrey pines like sprays of dark green. Ironwood color of the sun-drenched cliff. … Behind him Orange County pulsed green and amber, jumping with his heart, glossy, intense, vibrant, awake, alive. His world and the wind pouring through it.

As you might guess (since it’s been the subject of my two most recent “guess the author” posts – here and here), I recently got around, at last, to reading the “Three Californias” trilogy (The Wild Shore, The Gold Coast, and Pacific Edge) by Kim Stanley Robinson, about whose other work I’ve blogged before (see, e.g., here and here). (For Robinson’s own account of the origin and meaning of his trilogy, see this interview.)

The trilogy concerns three possible futures for southern California: a) post-apocalyptic, b) urban sprawl, and c) ecotopia – three timelines linked by one character who occurs in all three (and who seems to have a vague inkling of his other lives, his alternative pasts and possible futures – see The Wild Shore, pp. 214-221, and Pacific Edge, pp. 63 and 181), as well as by some structural and thematic elements (for example, each novel begins with an archeological excavation and ends with an attempt at sabotage). There are echoes of Ursula K. Le Guin and Philip K. Dick (Robinson was a student of one and wrote his dissertation on the other), as well as prefigurations of his own later fiction, but the trilogy is very much its own thing – and, as one would expect from Robinson, thought-provoking and beautifully written.

While Robinson’s three futures represent, in effect, two bad possibilities and one good one, the portrait is not simplistic: the two dystopian novels offer glimmers of hope and spaces of freedom, while the third, utopian novel represents utopia not as a fixed end point but as something that needs to be continually fought for, defended, and extended – which seems to me to be the right way to think about it. (And his utopia is certainly not one in which all the protagonists live happy lives or find their way to happy endings.)

When it comes to the specific content of his utopia, as opposed to his abstract idea of how to think about utopia as such, Robinson’s vision is much more of a mixed bag, from my (or more broadly, any LWMA) point of view. As I’ve said before, Robinson’s economic and political ideals leave him with “one foot in vital, grassroots, quasi-anarchist radicalism” and “the other in dreary, top-down, paternalistic authoritarianism.” (This conflict actually gets lampshaded somewhat – e.g., at pp. 282-285 of Pacific Edge – though without resolution.) But the trilogy is well worth reading despite this.

I particularly want to recommend the trilogy, though, not just to readers in general but specifically to those who know and love California, especially southern California. Anyone for whom the towns and climate and natural landscape of the region are a geography of their own heart will find a special joy in recognising them in their varied incarnations through the three novels.

(There’s a certain irony in the fact that Robinson, who has the good fortune to live in the California of the present, has written a trilogy filled with longing for Californias of the past and possible future, but mostly frustration with the California of the present – which by contrast looks pretty damn good to me, despite its admitted flaws. Yes, I’m homesick!)


Economic Inequality: Three Takes

[cross-posted at BHL and POT]

In June 1963, when Nathaniel Branden published a piece on “Inherited Wealth” in The Objectivist Newsletter, he was still the beloved disciple of Ayn Rand, who reprinted his piece in her 1966 collection Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, and continued to include it in subsequent editions despite her break with Branden in 1968. As Rand famously did not allow opinions deviating even in the slightest from her own to appear in journals or books that she edited, we can assume Branden speaks for Rand when he writes:

A free, competitive economy is a constant process of improvement, innovation, progress; it does not tolerate stagnation. If an heir who lacks ability acquires a fortune and a great industrial establishment from his successful father, he will not be able to maintain it for long; he will not be equal to the competition. In a free economy, where bureaucrats and legislators would not have the power to sell or grant economic favors, all of the heir’s money would not be able to buy him protection for his incompetence; he would have to be good at his work or lose his customers to companies run by men of superior ability. There is nothing as vulnerable as a large, mismanaged company that competes with small, efficient ones. …

It is a mixed economy – such as the semi-socialist or semi-fascist variety we have today – that protects the nonproductive rich by freezing a society on a given level of development, by freezing people into classes and castes and making it increasingly more difficult for men to rise or fall or move from one caste to another; so that whoever inherited a fortune before the freeze, can keep it with little fear of competition, like an heir in a feudal society.

Here Branden, and by presumption Rand, are endorsing a crucial part of the left-libertarian idea of competition as a levelling force. The quotation makes an interesting pairing with a remark of Murray Rothbard’s in a 1966 letter:

For some time I have come to the conclusion that the grave deficiency in the current output and thinking of our libertarians and “classical liberals” is an enormous blind spot when it comes to big business. There is a tendency to worship Big Business per se … and a corollary tendency to fail to realize that while big business would indeed merit praise if they won that bigness on the purely free market, that in the contemporary world of total neo-mercantilism and what is essentially a neo-fascist “corporate state,” bigness is a priori highly suspect, because Big Business most likely got that way through an intricate and decisive network of subsidies, privileges, and direct and indirect grants of monopoly protection.

Yet if Rand, Branden, and Rothbard all accepted this crucial aspect of left-libertarian analysis, then a) where did Rothbard depart from Rand and Branden, and b) where did all three depart from left-libertarianism as we understand it today? (On the specific issue of economic inequality, I mean – not getting into the various other areas of disagreement.)

A crucial difference dividing Rothbard from Rand and Branden is that Rand and Branden do not seem to fully recognise the implication of their insight that under present circumstances the “unproductive rich” can maintain their position “with little fear of competition.” If they did, they’d have to agree with Rothbard that “bigness is a priori highly suspect” in the present-day economy, given the likelihood that it is the product of “subsidies, privileges, and direct and indirect grants of monopoly protection.” Rand, by contrast, famously declared big business a “persecuted minority,” a formulation ridiculed by Rothbard. While endorsing the premise that government controls insulate the rich from competition and make it difficult for newcomers to rise up, Rand fails to draw the logical conclusion that any firms that do manage to become enormously wealthy in the present-day economy are in most cases likely to have achieved their status at least in large part via government favoritism, and so are proper objects of suspicion, not celebration and defense.

Thus Rothbard is more consistent on this point than Rand and Branden, and so is closer to left-libertarianism. This is presumably in part because he had read and embraced the New Left historical discoveries, by thinkers like Gabriel Kolko, James Weinstein, and William Appleman Williams, of the actual historical role of big business in American history, showing that the Gilded Age magnates that Rand idolised were indeed mostly state-supported parasites too – discoveries that Rand never showed much interest in. (Later Randians eventually got around to discovering Kolko, and responded by going on the attack; see, e.g., here and here. A left-libertarian response to the contemporary Randian critique of Kolko is forthcoming in the Molinari Review.)

Where Rothbard parts company with left-libertarianism is that his suspicion of bigness is limited; while “in the contemporary world” vast concentrations of wealth are suspect, he writes that “big business would indeed merit praise if they won that bigness on the purely free market” – which seems to imply that he thinks enormous, systematic, pervasive, and longterm economic inequalities would indeed be possible in a free market – whereas left-libertarianism denies this, since it would be difficult to sustain such inequalities if producers were free to imitate what others were doing to become rich.

Of course there are differences in talent, as in Nozick’s “Wilt Chamberlain example,” that would serve as a bar to perfect imitation. But a glance at the wealthiest firms and individuals – in popular parlance, the “one percent,” a term actually coined by left-libertarian Karl Hess – shows the persistent role of government privilege in maintaining their status; they did not get there or stay there by talent alone.

In Man, Economy, and State, Rothbard does recognise that a single large firm dominating the entire economy would be impossible in a free market, owing to its insulation from market feedback:

In order to calculate the profits and losses of each branch, a firm must be able to refer its internal operations to external markets for each of the various factors and intermediate products. When any of these external markets disappears, because all are absorbed within the province of a single firm, calculability disappears, and there is no way for the firm rationally to allocate factors to that specific area. The more these limits are encroached upon, the greater and greater will be the sphere of irrationality, and the more difficult it will be to avoid losses. One big cartel would not be able rationally to allocate producers’ goods at all and hence could not avoid severe losses.

But Rothbard does not take the further step of recognising that insulation from market feedback is a matter of degree, so that in a free market diseconomies of scale would begin to kick in well before a single firm dominated the entire market. That is why left-libertarians expect a much flatter free-market landscape than the ones envisioned by Rand, Branden, and even Rothbard.


Who Said This?

I want to do the following in this paper: First to present the theses that constitute the hard core of the Marxist theory of history. I claim that all of them are essentially correct. …

Marx … gives a historical account of the emergence of capitalism that makes the point that much or even most of the initial capitalist property is the result of plunder, enclosure, and conquest. Similarly … the role of force and violence in exporting capitalism to the – as we would now say – Third World is heavily emphasized. Admittedly, all this is generally correct, and insofar as it is there can be no quarrel with labeling such capitalism exploitative.

See the answer.


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