A Step in the Right Direction
Your "solidarity" sounds suspicious. In a free-market workers can be fired at any time, or can quit anytime. You derisively refer to the CPE as a "free market reform", but that's exactly what it is: A tiny free-market reform in a sea of statism. That you express support, however muted, for these masses of statist student protesters is very telling.
Well, I guess it's "telling" in the sense that it tells Stefan whatever he was looking to be told. But when you start with a sea of state capitalism, and you let the state capitalist ruling class decide on the basis of their own strategic priorities what tiny areas of free market reform to introduce, guess what you get? A state capitalist system that selectively harnesses more free market elements, the more effectively to serve state capitalist interests (see Chris Tame's view of Thatcherism, in a post below, as a more efficient form of corporatism):
Where others saw a rolling back of the state, he saw in privatisation only a more rational - and thus a more efficient - type of statist control. "These new markets are never free," he once said, "and they are always dominated by the ruling class."
Brad Spangler got a similar objection on the comment thread to his original post. Julius Blumfield wrote:
“but representative of perhaps the worst possible choice of priorities”
What do priorities have to do with it? I don’t understand why libertarians would oppose an increase in liberty. Very odd. Please explain!
In response, Brad referred him to my post. Blumfield didn't find it convincing:
I don’t see that he answers the objection at all. If the reform is a step in the right direction (which it plainly is) it is perverse for libertarians to oppose it. Would you oppose a liberalisation of drug laws (such as for example the recent partial decriminalisation of cannabis possession in the UK) because it takes place within an overall statist framework? Surely not. So why is this any different? I can’t help but suspect that your opposition is grounded more in some misplaced sense of solidarity with leftists, than on principle.
I agree with him that I didn't do an adequate job of making my objections explicit. I was implicitly assuming the principle Brad states in another comment:
By begging the state to establish your liberty for you piece-meal, it brings liberty into disrepute as the state inevitably does so in such a manner as to benefit state allies.
Now, I'm not opposed to "reformism," in the sense of a gradualist strategy of rolling back and abolishing the state. But the decision of what aspects of statism to dismantle first should be guided by an overall strategy of dismantling state capitalism as a system. That means we go first after the central structural supports of privilege, that enable the corporate-state ruling class to derive profit by political means, and go last after palliative measures that make such corporatist exploitation humanly tolerable for the non-privileged. As Thomas L. Knapp said, that means dismantling welfare from the top down and cutting taxes from the bottom up. If we allow the state capitalist ruling class and their pet "free market" think tanks to set the priorities of what to go after first, and welcome every incremental reduction as a "step in the right direction," we're allowing the free market to be adopted in a way that only makes statist exploitation more efficient. The best comparison I can think of is the Romans welcoming the withdrawal of the Punic center at Cannae as "a step in the right direction."
As Marshall said in Gibbon v. Ogden, the state's decision of what not to regulate or tax is just as important as its decision of what to regulate or tax. The two go together in a single strategic framework. The state capitalists adopt whatever combination of statism and markets best promotes their (statist) objectives.
In other words, priorities have everything to do with it.
Addendum. As freeman mentioned in the comments, Roderick Long also got into the fray by explaining (in the thread on Brad's petition at Wally Conger's blog) why priorities do matter.
Whether something counts as a reduction of restrictions on liberty depends on the context. Remember when Reagan "deregulated" the Savings & Loans -- such deregulation could be a good thing under many circumstances, but given that he didn't remove federal deposit insurance, "deregulation" amounted in that context to an increase of aggression against the taxpayers, licensing the S&Ls to takes greater risks with taxpayers' money.
So in this case: when government passes laws giving group A unjust privileges over group B, and then passes another law giving B some protection against A, then repealing the second law without repealing the first amounts to increasing A's unjust privilege over B. Of course a free society would have neither the first nor the second law, but repealing them in the wrong order can actually decrease rather than increase liberty.
He elaborated on the theme in an entry at Liberty & Power:
Of course in a free market there would be no legal restrictions (except those contractually agreed to) on an employer’s right to fire an employee. But from the fact that there would be no X in a free society, it doesn’t follow that absolutely any situation will be moved in the direction of freedom simply by removing X. (Compare: from the fact that a healthy person wouldn’t have a pacemaker, it doesn’t follow that the health of anyone who has a pacemaker would be improved by its removal.)...
[I]n general a removal of restrictions on an entity doesn’t count as a move toward liberty if the entity is still a substantial recipient of government privilege or subsidy. For the more that an entity benefits from government intervention, the closer it comes to being an arm of the State – in which case lifting restrictions on it is, to that extent, lifting restrictions on the State.
(Also: here, from a couple of years ago, is a Roderick Long post on Rothbard's reaction to the French student uprising in 1968.)
Finally, Dain suggested that there might be another twist to the CPE issue: if it is a new law, and not simply the repeal of existing law, does it simply eliminate existing legal guarantees of job security; or does it create a positive right to terminate employees at will, preempting existing contractual obligations to the contrary?