Tag Archives | Left and Right

Stalag Economics

As most of my readers will know, Kevin Carson uses the term “vulgar libertarian” for the all-too-prevalent tendency in this movement of ours to treat the prevailing state capitalist order as an approximation to a free market, thus allowing the case for the latter to serve as a justification for various features of the former – an unfortunate legacy, IMHO, of the quondam alliance of libertarians and conservatives against state socialism. (Incidentally, as Carson has noted, the term is best used for the sin and not for the sinner, since very few of us commit it consistently.)

I fear I must chide my seldom-vulgarlibbin’ comrade Butler Shaffer (who after all wrote the very un-vulgarlib In Restraint of Trade: The Business Campaign Against Competition) for going the vulgarlib fallacy one better in an LRC blogpost today that treats prison camps as an approximation to the free market.

Jailhouse Rock Butler uses the fact that trade in prison camps leads to significant inequalities of wealth as evidence that free markets generate such inequalities – and so as evidence that such inequalities are unobjectionable from a libertarian standpoint.

Now I have no idea what the extent of economic inequality would be in a free market. Certainly most of the current inequalities, depending as they do on direct or indirect governmental intervention, would be absent; but I don’t claim to know that entrepreneurial skill and/or luck wouldn’t lead to new ones.

What I do claim is that a prison camp, in which all goods are doled out in fixed quantities by the guards and no one has independent access to natural resources, is an even poorer model of a free market than state capitalism is; making inferences from the prison camp to the free market is accordingly risky. Even if in such a prison camp higher economic positions are initially achieved by free exchange, they are in part maintained by the fact that nobody can compete with the present winners by going off and producing more cigarettes or whatever. A prison camp is a perfect example of a world in which production and distribution are radically separated; how goods end up being traded has no effect on the kinds or quantities of goods that will be produced in the future.

Suppose that through clever trading I’ve managed to accumulate more gumdrops than any other prisoner, and am consequently charging high prices for this scarce commodity. In a free market, this would send a price signal to encourage increased production of gumdrops, and my market share would quickly be in danger of erosion. But in the prison camp the production and (initial) distribution of gumdrops is entirely outside of the prisoners’ control, and so the forces that produce competition are suppressed.

In a free market, by contrast, the forces that produce economic inequality by rewarding entrepreneurial judgment face constant challenge from other forces that work to undo such inequality by rewarding the entrepreneurial judgment of competitors. These forces are severely hampered in a prison camp; inequalities in the latter thus tell us little about what inequalities to expect in the former.

The state capitalism that prevails in western democracies is freer than a prison camp; but, as Kevin frequently notes, access to natural resources is artificially restricted here too. (I don’t agree with all the details of Kevin’s views on land – see our exchange here – but I certainly agree with that general point.) And as Kevin further notes, much existing inequality draws support from those governmental restrictions. Thus inequality under state capitalism is likewise an unreliable predictor of how things will be under liberty.

Agora! Dialexis! Ia Ia Cthulhu fhtagn!

I’ve been looking for a label for my particular political orientation.

“Left-libertarian,” “left-Austrian,” and so forth are fine, and I happily use them, but each of them really designates a genus more than a species.

Chris Sciabarra and Sam Konkin horribly merged together by a tragic transporter accidentAgorist” is a bit more specific, but without a qualifier it seems both too narrow (suggesting a stricter adherence to orthodox Konkinism than I can really boast) and too broad (inasmuch as it doesn’t capture my particular quirk of seeking an integration of libertarianism with traditional lefty struggles against racism, patriarchy, and the like).

So, thought I, maybe Agorism plus a qualifier. But what? One possibility is “Left-Agorism,” but that doesn’t really specify what’s more lefty about it. Another possibility is “Dialectical Agorism,” which does suggest (at least for readers of Sciabarra) an integration of Agorism with broader concerns – but it doesn’t specify lefty concerns (even though “dialectical” does have a lefty flavour). Combining them would yield “Dialectical Left-Agorism” – admirably specific on the one hand, butt-ugly on the other.

Maybe I’ll split the difference by alternating between them. Okay, let it be so. Henceforth I am a Dialectical Agorist. That’s right, I said a Dialectical Left-Agorist.

The Doors of Perception

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

Hmm, I see that former Congressman Bob Barr has been appointed to the Libertarian Party’s National Committee.

Now I’ll readily grant that Barr was one of the more libertarian-minded Republicans on the Hill; and maybe the LP should be congratulated for landing such a high-profile member.

Still, as I recall Barr was very strongly in favour of the war on drugs, and I’ve seen no mention of his having changed his mind on that issue. Does his “star power” really outweigh the downside of having a drug warrior on the LNC?

Combination Platter

Here’s a famous libertarian defending the right of workers to form unions and to strike:

Solidarity I do not understand … how one can say that a strike is criminal. If one man has the right to say to another: “I don’t want to work under such and such conditions,” two or three thousand men have the same right; they have the right to quit. This is a natural right, which should also be a legal right. … Does a man not have the right to refuse to sell his labor at a rate that does not suit him? … [A]n action that is innocent in itself is not criminal because it is multiplied by a certain number of men …. [My opponent] says: “The strike is harmful to the employer, since the absence of one or of several workers is troublesome for him. A strike has an adverse effect on his production, so that the strikers violate the freedom of the employer ….” … [Y]ou say that it is I who infringe on the employer’s freedom, because my refusal to work on his terms has an adverse effect on his production! Note that what you proclaim is nothing else than slavery. For what is a slave, if not a man forced by law to work under conditions that he rejects? … You ask that the law intervene because I violate the property rights of the employer; do you not see that, on the contrary, it is the employer who violates mine? If he has the law intervene to impose his will on me, where is freedom, where is equality?

Guess who said it.

And now here’s a different famous libertarian defending the right of businesses to combine to form trusts and cartels. So guess who said this:

[T]he right to cooperate is as unquestionable as the right to compete … [A]ny man or institution attempting to prohibit or restrict either, by legislative enactment or by any form of invasive force, is … an enemy of liberty …. [T]he trust, then, like every other industrial combination endeavoring to do collectively nothing but what each member of the combination rightfully may endeavor to do individually, is per se, an unimpeachable institution. To assail or control or deny this form of co-operation on the ground that it is itself a denial of competition is an absurdity. … The trust is a denial of competition in no other sense than that in which competition itself is a denial of competition. The trust denies competition only by producing and selling more cheaply than those outside of the trust can produce and sell; but in that sense every successful individual competitor also denies competition. … All of us, whether out of a trust or in it, have a right to deny competition by competing, but none of us, whether in a trust or out of it, have a right to deny competition by arbitrary decree, by interference with voluntary effort, by forcible suppression of initiative.

Notice that both passages employ essentially the same argument; that is, both appeal to the freedom to associate or not to associate, as well as to the principle that what people have a right to do singly they also have a right to do in combination.

But one author employs these arguments on behalf of the rights of labour, while the other author employs them on behalf of the rights of business. So which left-wing libertarian wrote the first passage, and which right-wing libertarian wrote the second?

Okay, guessing’s over; you can peek.

Here’s the defender of unions.

And here’s the defender of trusts.

I leave the moral as an exercise for the reader.

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