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Mutualist Blog: Free Market Anti-Capitalism

To dissolve, submerge, and cause to disappear the political or governmental system in the economic system by reducing, simplifying, decentralizing and suppressing, one after another, all the wheels of this great machine, which is called the Government or the State. --Proudhon, General Idea of the Revolution

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Thursday, December 22, 2005

Follow-Up: Vulgar Liberalism Watch

Since I first posted "Vulgar Liberalism Watch," I found several more links to excellent posts on libertarian attitudes toward labor unions. Thanks to freeman, lc, who links to several of them in this post.

Rad Geek links to some good recent stuff by Roderick Long and Brad Spangler, as well as this great post at No Treason, by frequent Mutualist Blog commenter Joshua Holmes, on libertarian attitudes toward labor unions.

What do libertarians have against labour unions? This question struck me the other day (because it was better than studying for Business Associations) and I wondered why libertarians have so much bile for labour unions.

As an example of the genre, he cites George Reisman, one of the more viscerally vulgar libertarian writers at Mises.Org. Holmes, in considering the possible reason for so much anti-union bile, includes these standout comments:

Reason 1: Unions wouldn’t exist in a free market.

Answer 1: Why wouldn’t they? Perhaps they would actually be the dominant system for large-scale production enterprises. [Indeed; no particular reason that labor wouldn't be the firm and hire capital, instead of the other way around. KC]

Answer 2: Neither would the water department. How much bile do you have against public water?

Reason 2: Unions get government protection.

Answer: Sure, who doesn’t? The corporations whose products libertarians enjoy and often lionise enjoy government protection themselves. Direct subsidies, research grants, uneven tax laws, transport subsidies, bureaucratic regulation, etc. all contribute to the success of numerous corporations. Libertarians seem less bothered by this than with (admittedly unjust) laws such as the prohibition on firing striking workers.

Reason 3: Unions attempt to raise wages above the market rate.

Answer 1: In other words, unions attempt to get more for workers. So what?

Answer 2: The market rate, if I understand it, is what buyers and sellers are willing to bear. There is no objectively correct wage for labour - it is the result of the interplay of market actors. Workers will, of course, push for higher wages, just as management will push for higher profits....

Freeman also links to a post by Spangler in support of the NYC transit strike.

So there's a wealth of examples out there, if you look for them, showing that libertarians are not monolithically anti-union, and some of us free marketers are even pretty union-friendly. In fact, you don't even have to look for them. As I indicated in the original post, I practically rubbed philgoblue's and eugene's noses in such examples; and, gentlemen, if either of you is reading this, consider your noses duly rubbed once again.

So what's the deal? Confronted with such examples, why do so many liberals continue to cling so desperately to their false stereotype of libertarianism? The examples they cite of labor exploitation, pollution and other corporate malfeasance have about as much to do with genuine free markets as with Pinochet's Chile. In fact, they seem to be gleefully taking vulgar libertarian apologists for Pinochet at their word in their definition of libertarianism. Are they really unaware that anti-corporate, pro-union free market libertarians exist, and that there's a fairly substantial community of us? Surely philgoblue can't plead sincere ignorance, after he's been practically clubbed over the head with links proving just that. Are they really unaware of the extent to which corporate power benefits from state intervention, and the present system deviates from a free market? I fear the truth, rather, is that they deliberately reject evidence contrary to their crude black-and-white stereotype, and consciously embrace the most vulgar of vulgar libertarian ideas on "free markets," because they don't want to know the truth. It would make it a lot harder to hold on to their instinctive aesthetic revulsion against free markets, and their illusion that paternalistic, technocratic corporatism exists to benefit "the little guy." Simply put, it's more comfortable to be ignorant, and they'll fight to the death to keep from learning anything.

I say it once more: When somebody confronts you with evidence that your caricature of them is wrong, and you then calmly repeat that caricature without batting an eye, you're no longer ignorant. You're a liar.


Blogger Unknown said...

"Answer 1: Why wouldn’t they? Perhaps they would actually be the dominant system for large-scale production enterprises. [Indeed; no particular reason that labor wouldn't be the firm and hire capital, instead of the other way around. KC]"

just on a tangent, that situation you described is how houses usually get fixed/built.

December 22, 2005 11:30 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...


Thanks for the info.


I'm assuming that, even if the subway is a natural monopoly (the buses clearly aren't), it shouldn't be in state hands. It should be either in the hands of the work force or clientele. So anything the workers do to contest the authority of the existing bosses is a good thing. Even better would be if they started running the trains themselves and locked the bosses out.

There's an excellent movie, Article 99, about the staff of a corruptly managed VA hospital (if that's not redundant) doing something similar. Somebody who worked in a VA hospital when it was released told me that management there went nuts, warning everybody not to talk to the press or comment on the movie.

Or the transit workers might have been better off just doing what the Wobs call a "good work strike," quietly continuing to do their job, but letting passengers ride for free. The commuting public would then have been screaming for the authority's heads, instead of the strikers'.

December 22, 2005 2:42 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

That's some very creative thinking, Dada. The feedback from your moderation companies remind me a little of E.F. Russell's account of the little boy who welched on all his obs in "And Then There Were None." I wonder, though: wouldn't their attempts at tracking be subject to the same moral hazard problems involved in monitoring individual compliance with orders within a single employment relationship?

What interests me in the issue of employment relations in a stateless society is that it's a classic "asymmetric warfare" situation--only the workers don't know it yet. Once they recognize the possibilities, if they're disgruntled enough, the way lies open to using the whole panoply of irregular direct action techniques described in the Wobbly pamphlet "How to Fire Your Boss."

Of course, something like yellow dog contracts (coupled with your moderation agencies) might be used to control worker behavior. But many forms of guerrilla activity carry very low risk of detection, and very high transaction costs of monitoring compliant behavior (that's why I call it asymmetric warfare), which brings us back to the moral hazard problems.

Given a sufficiently disgruntled workforce, it will cost workers a lot less to circumvent any management control measure than it costs management to implement it. So once workers decide they're in a war, the cost of maintaining labor discipline over wage-earners in a hierarchy will be prohibitive. In that case, decentralized production by producer co-ops may well be the default mode.

December 22, 2005 7:17 PM  
Blogger Joel Schlosberg said...

Is "Vulgar Liberalism Watch" going to be a regular blog feature? I sure hope so. There are so many juicy examples of vulgar liberalism I'd love to see you dig into.

A gold mine of statist goo-goo-ism is James Hughes's essay Democratic Transhumanism. This is one of the things that really convinced me that social democratic statist "leftists" are hopeless (unless they eradicate their statism). The best part is:

"While the progressives and New Dealers had built the welfare state to be a tool of reason and social justice, the New Left joined cultural conservatives and free-market libertarians in attacking it as a stultifying tool of oppression, contributing to the general decline in faith in democratic governments."

George Lakoff's analysis of conservatism is also pretty dumb (for instance when he goes on about the evils of lowering taxes and Adam Smith -- see the linked article for an example.)

The "Critiques of Libertarianism" site deserves some sort of award. It recently passed its 10th anniversary, but the guy seems to have not picked up during that decade on any of the more worthwhile forms of libertarianism -- and thinks that this recent piece is a clever take down on libertarianism.

Also in general just how completely ignorant "liberals" are of the history of classical liberalism and how they slam the evils of "laissez faire" and Adam Smith.

December 22, 2005 9:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"When somebody confronts you with evidence that your caricature of them is wrong, and you then calmly repeat that caricature without batting an eye, you're no longer ignorant. You're a liar." Or a self deceiver. Not only is denial more likely than malice, it is important to know what you're dealing with in these debates. Remember, the debates are mostly not about converting the antagonists but about informing and persuading bystanders who have not yet got full information and firm positions secured by this sort of emotional commitment of sunk cost.

If any of these pick up on inadvertent false statements, say because they have separate knowledge of the antagonists' personal integrity and intelligence outside their areas of monomania, the observers will probably conclude that the antagonists are reasonable here too, inferring a broader mistake on your part because they spotted a small one.

December 23, 2005 2:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, Kevin,
I can't speak for all liberals, or those you've specifically taken upon yourself to educate. But I can say that there is a good reason why most liberal's perception of libertarians remain stuck at the kind of libertarians you characterize as "vulgar libertarians." Rightwing libertarian are the ones who have made an effort to integrate with the policy making mechanisms. From my limited experience, if I might stick my neck out a bit, left libertarians talk a lot of the promised land without being too clear on how to get there.

For most liberals, left libertarians are simply not part of the conversation because they're not accepting the basic ground terms that politics imply government. It's almost as if we're playing a game of stickball and you show up with a hula hoop.

Now, you can say that the Catoids are being hypocrites by espousing a rejection of government while simultaneously playing the policy game, and that would be true. But if you eschew political reformism, how do you expect to be part of the conversation on how to reform our politics?

December 23, 2005 9:21 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

Joel Schlosberg,

It might be, you never know. Individualist anarchism is equally marginal to free market libertarianism and the socialist movement, so I guess I ought to give equal time to differentiating "free market anti-capitalism" from the anti-market kind.

PM Lawrence,

Good point. I meant the term "liar" in the broad sense that includes self-deception, but I probably didn't make it clear enough. But the case with philgoblue was especially egregious. He went on the offensive, right off the bat, calling anyone who disagreed with him "Dumbfuck," "Dumbass," and a "Pure Fool."

And directly confronted by Logan, who made a valiant effort to remain civil, and flat-out said "I'M a libertarian, and I don't believe those things," what was philgoblue's response? It was basically the same as if you interrupted an acquaintance's anti-semitic rant in a bar, said "Uh, do you know I'm a Jew?" and he then looked at you for about half a second and resumed the anti-semitic rant. Philgoblue wasn't just overcome by a monomania. He was deliberately trying to be as big an ass as possible.


I don't have any problem with "reformism" myself, in the sense of political action to roll back the state.

Some on the LeftLib blogosphere are anti-political and eschew voting in principle; their preference is for building alternative social institutions, or "counter-economics," and the like--kind of like the Wobbly idea of building the structure of the new society within the shell of the old. When the state is irrelevant to the way enough people are living, it will collapse.

I don't really see it that way myself. There will always be a large enough minority of beneficiaries of the state who, in league with the police and armed forces, will try to hold onto their good thing. I prefer to combine the building of counter-institutions with political pressure to gradually dismantle state capitalism. I'm too lazy to find the link, but there's an article called "A 'Political' Program for Anarchists" on the articles page at Mutualist.Org, if you're interested.

Some left-libertarians do try to connect with policy-makers. Logan and I both frequent the Democratic Freedom Caucus, a more or less geolibertarian group which supports like-minded candidates. Any time I see a politician who expresses some left-lib friendly ideas like cutting corporate welfare and cutting the bottom tax brackets first, or shifting taxes off of human labor and onto unearned wealth, I try to push them further in the right direction.

But you're right--the Catoid types are much more closely linked with the "free market" policy-making apparatus. The reason is that corporate interests largely control the policy-making apparatus, and like calls to like. But the same filtering mechanism works for liberals, as well. Those most likely to be politically effective are the ones easiest for corporate interests to coopt. That's why I prefer broad-based coalitions on single issues or groups of issues, rather than insider connections to the policy apparatus.

Anyway, I'll try not to work up so much of a self-righteous froth when I "take it upon myself to educate" anybody else! :)

December 23, 2005 10:14 AM  
Blogger freeman said...

Even though I am an anarchist, I also don't reject reformism. I'd love to see a Democrat (or someone from any party) that was serious about slashing corporate welfare and other forms of political privledge for the rich while reducing the tax burden on the poor and middle class. People like Kevin, Thomas Knapp, and MDM have all promoted such things in the past.

Many who are more anarchist in their thinking used to be more statist, and slowly began questioning the role government should have in various areas. Just as conservatives with a "libertarian" streak influenced people who were initially more reformist in nature and eventually became more radical, the same could be true amongst liberals who are open to left-libertarian ideas. In other words, many people feel more comfortable taking baby steps in a certain direction as there are many who absolutely do not see themselves jumping from being a staunch statist to an anarchist.

I see any sort of reformist effort with a left-libertarian flavor as being a step in the right direction, whether it's seeing more Democrats with a Georgist bent or decentralist movements (like the secessionary movement in Vermont) gaining momentum.

December 23, 2005 9:48 PM  
Blogger troutsky said...

It seems to me most socialists see their project as an evolving one that accepts a less than perfect ,intermediary stage before evolving into better , that is, ideologically truer ,forms.Hence the "dictatorship of the proletariat" was to give way to a much broader based form of governance.( we know that didnt happen of course) Similarly, a socialist "realist" might envision a state form playing a transitional role in organization before giving way to less centralized structures (or whatever the people want)The "hitch" of course, is that the conditional state must be "of the people, by the people and for the people" and not the power seeking, bureaucratic demon anarchists assume it to inherently be.(it is the only one we can envision because it is the only one we have known)

To the other point about "vulgar libertarians", I think they are so infected with Ayn Randianism they cant conceptualize mutually beneficial, cooperative arrangements.

December 24, 2005 9:39 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...


I'm not aware of any successful attempts to seize a factory and keep it running in the U.S. But the "good work strike," which is very similar, has been used some (especially among transit workers, which makes it a good fit for the New York conflict).

December 24, 2005 8:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Man, I just read your previous "vulgar liberalism" post, and this post makes a lot more sense.

your indignation didn't come from nowhere. Some people had it coming!

December 27, 2005 8:06 PM  
Blogger Charles Johnson (Rad Geek) said...

Battlepanda: Rightwing libertarian are the ones who have made an effort to integrate with the policy making mechanisms.

So how's that been working out for them, lately?

Battlepanda: For most liberals, left libertarians are simply not part of the conversation because they're not accepting the basic ground terms that politics imply government. It's almost as if we're playing a game of stickball and you show up with a hula hoop.

It's not clear to me that libertarian policy-wonkery is a strategy well justified by its success. If "the conversation" about politics simply precludes those who aren't pouring their time into getting an inside man at the skunk works, then perhaps the terms of the conversation need to change.

(N.B.: this is not a point peculiar to modern day left-libertarianism. Identifying politics exclusively with electioneering, lobbying, and wonkery related to those two activities, would also rule out any reasonable discussion of the radical feminist movement, the grassroots gay rights movement, the IWW, the Garrisonian abolitionist movement, and a lot of other really significant historical developments in politics.)

December 27, 2005 9:33 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...


Here is Brad's original quote:

"....the fundamental characteristic of markets is not movement of currency, but voluntary, mutually agreeable cooperation and exchange."

As I read it, he seemed to be saying "....the fundamental characteristic of markets is not [only] movement of currency [as such], but [also any other form of] voluntary, mutually agreeable cooperation and exchange."

I still believe your comment on it indicates you read it in an entirely different manner:

"The above is a contradiction. Movement of currency is voluntary, mutually agreeable cooperation. It is called accurate language that is free from falsehood. The moment falsehood (fiat language) is introduced is the moment that current language is no longer agreeable, cooperative, or accurate. Movement of currency is also accurate exchange using a form of language called accurate money when the exchange is not simple barter. Barter is also the movement of currency.

"So the profound and very true observations are neither profound nor true."

Since I can't read Brad's mind, I leave it to anyone interested to read all the above quotes and decide whose interpretation is closer to the import of the original quote.

December 29, 2005 10:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wrote a, only slightly, satiric post on this a while ago:

The implications of a free market in labour

December 30, 2005 8:58 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

"The fundamental characteristic (principle) of markets (trade) IS currency."

But that's just a rephrasing of what I considered to be your misconception in the first place. I disagree that markets=trade. Markets are simply the sum total of consensual, non-coercive social interaction.

Brad was just saying, as I read it, that it's a mistake to identify markets with the actions of "economic man" in the "cash nexus."

"If we are trading ideas, if the market is ideas, then, these words are currency. If we are trading egos, if the market is dominance, then, these words remain currency. The fundamental characteristic of markets IS currency. Currency is the current stuff that links every market of every kind always."

This is true, if you define currency and exchange in such a broad sense as to encompass all forms of human interaction. But Brad, I believe, was referring to "currency" in the conventional sense, and arguing that the market was broader than the cash nexus.

"My observation is that you think you are right and no evidence will sway your opinion."

In earlier exchanges you said, among other things, that it was inevitable that I would agree with you, and generally adopted the tone of someone who had received a revelation from Mt. Sinai. And now, you seem to be going ballistic at the very suggestion that you might have misinterpreted somebody else's statement, or that I think I'm right and you're wrong (that last, I think, is entailed in the very concept of disagreement). So I must say, this is a remarkable exercise in mirror-imaging.

January 01, 2006 9:32 AM  

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