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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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Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Vulgar Libertarianism Watch, Part XIV

Here's a great quote from Benjamin Tucker, his critique of the later Herbert Spencer, that reminds me of my own criticisms of vulgar libertarianism:

He is making a wholesale onslaught on Socialism as the incarnation of the doctrine of State omnipotence carried to its highest power. And I am not sure he is quite honest in this. I begin to be a little suspicious of him. It seems as if he had forgotten the teachings of his earlier writings, and had become a champion of the capitalistic class... amid his multitudinous illustrations... of the evils of legislatoin, he in every instance cites some law passed ostensibly at least to protect labor, alleviating suffering, or promote the people's welfare. But never once does he call attention to the far more deadly and deep-seated evils growing out of the innumerable laws creating privilege and sustaining monopoly (Liberty, May 17, 1884).

In my inaugural post on this blog, and the first installment of my recurring "Vulgar Libertarianism Watch" feature, I quoted a passage from Mutualist Political Economy on the defining characteristics of the vulgar libertarian:
This school of libertarianism has inscribed on its banner the reactionary watchword: "Them pore ole bosses need all the help they can get." For every imaginable policy issue, the good guys and bad guys can be predicted with ease, by simply inverting the slogan of Animal Farm: "Two legs good, four legs baaaad." In every case, the good guys, the sacrificial victims of the Progressive State, are the rich and powerful. The bad guys are the consumer and the worker, acting to enrich themselves from the public treasury. As one of the most egregious examples of this tendency, consider Ayn Rand's characterization of big business as an "oppressed minority," and of the Military-Industrial Complex as a "myth or worse."

The ideal "free market" society of such people, it seems, is simply actually existing capitalism, minus the regulatory and welfare state: a hyper-thyroidal version of nineteenth century robber baron capitalism, perhaps; or better yet, a society "reformed" by the likes of Pinochet, the Dionysius to whom Milton Friedman and the Chicago Boys played Aristotle.

Vulgar libertarian apologists for capitalism use the term "free market" in an equivocal sense: they seem to have trouble remembering, from one moment to the next, whether they’re defending actually existing capitalism or free market principles. So we get the standard boilerplate article in The Freeman arguing that the rich can’t get rich at the expense of the poor, because "that’s not how the free market works"--implicitly assuming that this is a free market. When prodded, they’ll grudgingly admit that the present system is not a free market, and that it includes a lot of state intervention on behalf of the rich. But as soon as they think they can get away with it, they go right back to defending the wealth of existing corporations on the basis of "free market principles."

[Note, as Gene Callahan pointed out, I mixed my classical metaphors--it should have been Plato and Dionysius, not Aristotle.]

If you want to see some textbook examples of that last vulgar libertarian trait, the equivocal use of "free market," you can find at least three of them in an article by John Semmens in the October issue of The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty: "Wal-Mart Is Good for the Economy":

Since competition in the free market is continuous, today’s losers can be tomorrow’s winners. Instead of fomenting political opposition to Wal-Mart, its rivals should be improving their own game....

Ideologues who rant against Wal-Mart do not understand economics. In a market economy, success goes to those businesses that best and most efficiently serve consumer needs....

The free market requires that transactions be carried out voluntarily between the parties. No one is forced to work for Wal-Mart.The wages it pays must be adequate to secure the services of its employees....

Semmens manages to drag out the old "next-best alternative" chestnut so dear to sweatshop apologists, which was the target of the first installment of "Vulgar Libertarianism Watch":

So as bad as these “sweatshop” wages and working conditions may appear to Americans who have a fabulous array of lucrative employment opportunities, they are obviously superior to the alternatives that inhabitants of less-developed economies are offered. If the “sweatshop”jobs weren’t superior, people wouldn’t take them.

As I wrote in that first post, this argument neglects the fundamental question of just why the other alternatives are so shitty, and whether there might be some collusion between sweatshop employers and the state in determining what range of alternatives is available.

Semmens also seems to think the labor relations rules are slanted in favor of organized labor. Um, perhaps he's heard of something called Taft-Hartley? He also displays a fundamental misunderstanding of the union shop, treating it as a creature of NLRB regluations. In fact, the union shop can be established by simple contract between management and the union local. Prohibiting the union shop, by impairing the right of free contract, is what requires government intervention (i.e., the so-called "right to work" law). Here's Benjamin Tucker's view of management-labor relations, with which I heartily concur:

....It is not enough, however true, to say that, "if a man has labor to sell, he must find some one with money to buy it"; it is necessary to add the much more important truth that, if a man has labor to sell, he has a right to a free market in which to sell it, - a market in which no one shall be prevented by restrictive laws from honestly obtaining the money to buy it. If the man with labor to sell has not this free market, then his liberty is violated and his property virtually taken from him. Now, such a market has constantly been denied, not only to the laborers at Homestead, but to the laborers of the entire civilized world. And the men who have denied it are the Andrew Carnegies. Capitalists of whom this Pittsburgh forge-master is a typical representative have placed and kept upon the statute-books all sorts of prohibitions and taxes (of which the customs tariff is among the least harmful) designed to limit and effective in limiting the number of bidders for the labor of those who have labor to sell....

....Let Carnegie, Dana & Co. first see to it that every law in violation of equal liberty is removed from the statute-books. If, after that, any laborers shall interfere with the rights of their employers, or shall use force upon inoffensive "scabs," or shall attack their employers' watchmen, whether these be Pinkerton detectives, sheriff's deputies, or the State militia, I pledge myself that, as an Anarchist and in consequence of my Anarchistic faith, I will be among the first to volunteer as a member of a force to repress these disturbers of order and, if necessary, sweep them from the earth. But while these invasive laws remain, I must view every forcible conflict that arises as the consequence of an original violation of liberty on the part of the employing classes, and, if any sweeping is done, may the laborers hold the broom! Still, while my sympathies thus go with the under dog, I shall never cease to proclaim my conviction that the annihilation of neither party can secure justice, and that the only effective sweeping will be that which clears from the statute-book every restriction of the freedom of the market....

Finally, Semmens lauds Wal-Mart for its charitable contributions:

Wal-Mart runs the largest corporate cash-giving foundation in America. In 2004 Wal-Mart donated over $170 million. More than 90 percent of these donations went to charities in the communities served by Wal-Mart stores.

But if Wal-Mart's profit isn't the reward of superior virtue, as Semmens contends, then his admiration for their corporal works of mercy may be somewhat misplaced. As I've heard from more than one native Ozarker, if they weren't such crooks in the first place, they might not have so much money to give away. After reading that, I couldn't resist dusting of my copy of Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class for one of my favorite quotes. As a group of textile workers passed a chapel built by their mill-owner, Mr. Sutcliffe, one of the workers

looked towards the chapel and wished that it might sink into hell, and Mr. Sutcliffe go with it.

The narrator of the anecdote remonstrated with him, apparently to little effect:

I said it was too bad, as Mr. Sutcliffe had built the chapel for their good. "Damn him," said another, "I know him, I have had a swatch of him, and a corner of that chapel is mine, and it all belongs to his workpeople.

Note--Although more than one writer for The Freeman has been in my crosshairs in previous editions of this feature, I should add the caveat that this is called Vulgar Libertarianism, not Libertarian, Watch for a reason. With the possible exception of the Adam Smith Institute's blog, which may be beyond redemption, nobody is ever consistently vulgar libertarian. I learned that lesson with Alex Singleton, another of my frequent targets, who himself got fragged by some disgruntled vulgar libertarians for going wobbly on drug patents and other IP issues (check out the new Pharmopoly blog, by the way). The Freeman often mixes vulgar libertarian chaff like my blog-fodder above with some nourishing kernels of genuine wheat by (for example) Roderick Long and Chris Sciabarra. Just thought I ought to throw in that disclaimer, especially since I got a nice email from The Freeman editor Sheldon Richman today, and I don't want to seem too churlish.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, I've worked at some companies where working conditions were below average and unpleasant. And yet they made a big deal of advertising how much they gave to charity. This apparently took priority over their own workers. It's a typical schizoid corporate behavior it seems.

December 08, 2005 8:33 AM  

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