Tag Archives | Left-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.

I Never Had a Secret Chart

In 1965, Murray Rothbard described socialism (or at least state socialism) as a “confused, middle-of-the road movement” that “tries to achieve Liberal ends,” such as “freedom, reason, mobility, progress, higher living standards for the masses, and an end to theocracy and war,” but does so “by the use of incompatible, Conservative means,” such as “statism, central planning, communitarianism, etc.”

If that’s right, and I think it broadly is, it suggests a somewhat different grid from the usual Nolan Chart:

An incompatibility between means and ends suggests, further, that the two quadrants I’ve marked in grey are unstable. Attempts to implement the program of the traditional left politically end up sliding in practice into the political right (as is evidenced by the general recognition that Kremlin hardliners were appropriately called “conservatives”); that’s why Marxist ideology can be preferable to Nazi ideology, even if there’s not much daylight between Stalin and Hitler. The Marxist vision of universal cooperation and solidarity is more congenial than the Nazi vision of superior races crushing inferior ones; but implementing the former vision through the centralised, authoritarian state tends to yield something looking more like the latter vision.

Similarly, right-libertarian attempts to uphold conservative, authoritarian goals (such as heteropatriarchy, white privilege, closed borders, hierarchical workplaces, the capitalist wage system, etc.) via free-market means are doomed to fail for the same reasons. Hence we see the breakdown of libertarian-conservative “fusionism,” the transformation of right-libertarians into alt-righters, etc. At the end of the day, as William Gillis says, “everything is philosophically unstable besides fascism and anarchism.”

Spooner Volumes Published

[cross-posted at BHL and POT]

Phil Magness has performed a great service for the history of individualist anarchism by tracking down and publishing some of Lysander Spooner’s hardest-to-find works, in two volumes:

Two Treatises on Competitive Currency and Banking

“Available for the first time in over 140 years, these two ‘lost’ treatises [What Is a Dollar? and Financial Imposters I-IV] by libertarian legal philosopher Lysander Spooner present his vision for a radically decentralized monetary system rooted in privately issued competitive currencies and free-banking. …

Once presumed to have been destroyed in a turn-of-the-century fire, these writings contain Spooner’s most extensive foray into economic theory and reveal new insights into his distinctive and uncompromising free-market vision. …

Spooner’s articulated theory of radically decentralized competitive currencies might be seen as something of an intellectual grandfather to the rise of cryptocurrency in the present day.”

Public Letters and Political Essays

“This collection brings together the political writings and short essays of Lysander Spooner for the first time in a single volume. Spooner’s editorials span topics ranging from abolitionism and the Civil War, to free banking and currency, to the trial of President Garfield’s assassin, to government corruption in Massachusetts during the Gilded Age – all with biting wit and an uncompromising disdain for politicians.

Containing over 40 years of newspaper editorials as well as the complete set of Spooner’s contributions to the magazine Liberty, many of these essays have been out of print for over a century. For any fan of Spooner’s political philosophy, and the idea of human liberty generally, this collection is essential reading.”

Smashing Fences and Fascists

[cross-posted at BHL and POT]

I’m excited to announce the publication of two new anthologies from C4SS (the Center for a Stateless Society): The Anatomy of Escape: A Defense of the Commons (357 pp.; buy at C4SS [$12 plus shipping] or buy at Amazon) and Fighting Fascism: Anti-fascism, Free Speech and Political Violence (479 pp.; buy at C4SS [$14 plus shipping] or buy at Amazon).

The Anatomy of Escape explores the role of common property in a market anarchist system, while Fighting Fascism features debates over the ethical, political, and strategic/tactical considerations that should inform resistance to fascist movements. (Both books include contributions by me – although my piece in the fascism volume is a bit of an outlier, as it concerns fascism in a somewhat different sense of the term from the one addressed in most of the other pieces.)

From the introduction to The Anatomy of Escape: A Defense of the Commons:

Many market anarchists – especially, though not exclusively, those associated with market anarchism’s “right” wing – tend to envision a fully free market as one in which all resources are privately owned. The essays in this book offer a different perspective: that a stateless free-market society can and should include, alongside private property, a robust role for public property – not, of course, in the sense of governmental property, but rather in the sense of property that is owned by the general community rather than by specific individuals or formally organized groups.

From the introduction to Fighting Fascism: Anti-fascism, Free Speech and Political Violence:

Anarchists are, by definition, anti-fascist. They oppose all forms of fascism just as they oppose all forms of statism, domination, and oppression. What’s left to be settled, however, is what our anti-fascist commitment entails in practice. What should our theoretical debates surrounding the nature and danger of fascist ideas imply for our practical strategies for creating the new, anti-fascist world in the shell of the old, fascist one?

More specifically, we need to understand just what fascism is and how it spreads. We need to know why fascism has any appeal at all and how to stem that appeal. We need to see how concepts like freedom of speech figure into anarchist praxis. We need to discuss what free speech is. We need to explore what constitutes mere speech and assembly and what constitutes intentionality and violence. We need to differentiate between self-defense and aggression. We need to seriously interrogate the morality and efficacy of different kinds of political violence. Most importantly, we need internally consistent ethical and strategic insights into replacing fascist ideas with anarchist ones. Failing to clarify these issues could cost us, not only our souls, but any fighting chance for anarchy left in this fragile world.

You can view the tables of contents at the links above.

And for more LWMA (left-wing market anarchist) books and other swag, check out the C4SS Store.

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