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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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Location: Northwest Arkansas, United States

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Them Pore Ol' Bosses Need All the Help They Can Get

Leave aside for the moment the question of what role unions would play in a free market, and whether current state intervention is more on the side of unions or employers. On a purely emotional level, why is it that so many people who call themselves libertarians, when it comes to employment relations, become Type-A authoritarians? In an earlier comment thread, Jeremy of Social Memory Complex drew my attention to a message board discussion on this article: "Proud to be a Replacement Worker." It's a real eye-opener.

Even when the utility-maximizing behavior of employers and workers is exactly the same, the anarcho-authoritarians' reaction to such behavior by the worker is visceral outrage; on the other hand, they react to complaints of such behavior from the employer with a glare of disapproval and a terse "if you don't like it, look for another job." Try it for yourself. Go on the typical libertarian message board and complain about conditions where you work, and see how long it takes you to get the first admonition to "look for work elsewhere." Then try complaining about the laziness of people where you work, and sit back and wait for all the commiserations about "how hard it is to get good help these days."

Charles McDowell: Unions are just generally difficult to empathize with because of their lazy, entitlement mentality. If you've ever worked anyplace with a union, you'll know what I mean. They are all about doing the minimum possible and removing all mechanisms whereby more able employees move up the ranks more quickly.

Jeremy: Economically speaking, why should they do more than the minimum possible for their pay?

McDowell: Why not just rob people if you can get away with it? Economically speaking?

Jeremy: If a person does a certain amount of work and gets paid for that amount of work, is the person really pricing himself efficiently if he does more work without getting paid more?

Just what do you think McDowell's response would be to a complaint that employers are "robbing people" when they try to get the most work they can for an hour's wages?

So is the sale of labor a market exchange between equals, or is it an authority relation between servant and master? If it's an exchange between equals, why is it acceptable for the employer to maximize the return he gets for the wages he pays, while the worker is "lazy" if he doesn't look for opportunities to "do a little something extra"? Why do self-proclaimed libertarians not only respond emotionally to such theoretically equal exchanges as though they're really authority relations, but go so far as to identify with the authority figure in the relationship? Even though they'll stipulate, theoretically, that the employment relation is an equal market exchange, in practice vulgar libertarians accept that the boss is an authority figure who's entitled to expect "something extra," and that good workers should go out of their way looking for ways to impress him.

The most egregious display of a double standard is by Paul Birch, who repeatedly refers to strikes as a "breach of contract." So let me get this straight: your employer should be able to fire you at any time, for any reason, or without any reason at all; but you're bound by some kind of implied contract that prevents you from withdrawing your labor at any time, for any reason, including in concert with your coworkers?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

While I don't think that libertarian dislike of unions is justified, I can understand several ways that a libertarian would come to dislike unions (by "libertarian" I am referring to the "right-libertarianism" that is influential in the LP and that the general public identifies with "libertarianism":

1) The very idea of a union is offensive to these individualists--it involves many people subordinating their own interest to the interests of the group. This reason for disliking unions ignores that this is often a good strategy for improving one's lot (libertarians generally celebrate the patriot, even though he's does the same thing). We could also point out that corporations are a union of capital. Libertarians may not have the same viceral reaction against corporations because they involve capital, not something as intimate as labor. But then we wonder if they have a problem with subordinating one's labor to the union, why don't they have a problem with subordinating one's labor to the boss? In the end, the union demands nothing of the member that the boss doesn't demand also...

2) Unions are often dominated by ideological socialists, who promote ideas like "equal pay for equal work" (libertarians don't believe that there is such a thing as "equal work"), proudly and openly support expansion of the state (corporations do it covertly), and discourage the idea that each person should try to get what he can for himself.

3) Unions are often associated with violence--threats agains the body and property of management and scabs. Capitalists often go out of their way to publicize any incidents of violence by union members. In contrast, violence on behalf of the capitalists is generally legitimized by the state/law.

4) Unions are explicitly monopolistic.

5) Unions rely on their ability to create uncertainity in large-scale economic activities, whereas the ruling class exerts its power in a steady and predictable manner.

6) Unions often emphasize leisure over productivity. Right-libertarians generally value productivity (Stockholm syndrome, perhaps)

7) Unions are bound to fail (in other words, they shoot themselves in the foot by driving their employers out of business). At least, this view is supported by recent experience.

8) Many people believe that the employer "owns" the organizational structure of the firm, even though this organization is embodied in the workers. Unionized striking is the workers claiming that organizational structure as their own-- has superficial similarities to monopolistic behavior. Ownership of the organization is implied by the term "employer".

January 04, 2006 7:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Why do self-proclaimed libertarians not only respond emotionally to such theoretically equal exchanges as though they're really authority relations, but go so far as to identify with the authority figure in the relationship?"

I assume that there's a missing "won't/don't" in the above sentence...

January 04, 2006 8:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ryan Ford's article that you linked to, along with some of the bboard discussion. The complaint against picket lines and "making me feel guilty" seems especially ridiculous. It's called marketing. It's called PR.

Corporations constantly try to grab our attention and manipulate our emotions. Why is it a problem when workers do it for their own benefit? The threat of violence against customers is virtually non-existant. If someone is intimidated simply by the presence of disgruntled workers in front of a store, that's his problem, just like it's his problem if he is bothered by the thought that there is someone "out there" with a gun.

January 04, 2006 8:14 PM  
Blogger Sheldon Richman said...

To my mind, Kevin, this is impeccable libertarian (voluntarist) analysis. Thanks again for shining the light. How easy it is to overlook what ought to be obvious, given one's stated principles. It is interesting that we libertarians often point out that taxes and regulations stifle potential and small competitors (i.e., employment options), yet we blithely say, "Go find another job if you don't like the one you have." We often sound as though we can't remember what we said five minutes ago. Is the system rigged or not? Make a choice and stay with it.

January 05, 2006 5:12 AM  
Blogger Larry Gambone said...

Markets arose within what was essentially a society with feudal power relationships. The early capitalists internalized those feudal relationships (Essentially me lord, you serf) and the contemporary apologists of capitalism do likewise. For them, authoritarianism is only wrong when it comes about thru the state, if corporation bosses are authoritarian, on the other hand, well, that's their right as lord and master. Most free market libertraians are, I am sorry to say, phonies. I wish it were otherwise...

January 05, 2006 6:37 AM  
Blogger Sheldon Richman said...

I don't think, in most cases, that it is self-conscious phoniness. In their (and sometimes my) zeal to defend against the state socialists, we become myopic and exclude essential factors. It's not an excuse, just an attempt at explanation. We can make a far better case by keep the full context in view.

January 05, 2006 6:45 AM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...


On point 1), ironically, Birch accused Jeremy of an absurd antipathy toward collectives and argued that they (i.e., firms) were the way people voluntarily pooled their efforts in a free market. So at least SOME collectivism is OK, I guess. On 6), I thought libertarians were supposed to support revealed preference, whether for work or leisure. I agree that the complaints about picket line "harassment" are ridiculous in most cases. Although one of the people at LU grudgingly conceded that leaflets and signs would be acceptable, most of them didn't make much of a distinction. Considering that most Rothbardians regard libel laws as illegitimate, the concern for hurt feelings is a little odd.


Thanks for posting it. I see they're still making the weird assertion that strikes are a "breach of contract." I live in a state where, by law, employment is at-will unless otherwise specified by contract. That at-will thing cuts both ways. And I don't think I've ever had a job where I was contractually obligated to give 2 weeks notice. Most places expect it as a matter of courtesy, but I've never heard of it being considered an obligation.

Thanks, Sheldon. I may quote that thing about people not remembering what they said five minutes ago.


As Paul Graham (surely nobody's idea of a socialist) wrote somewhere, there's a large element of master-servant DNA surviving in modern employment relations.

January 05, 2006 7:18 AM  
Blogger Vache Folle said...

It always astonishes me to see my conspecifics with working class origins display genuine contempt for working people. They attained "white collar" status and somehow reckon that they no longer have much in common with working men and women. I attribute this to false consciousness of class relations.

January 05, 2006 7:26 AM  
Blogger Sheldon Richman said...

"Thanks, Sheldon. I may quote that thing about people not remembering what they said five minutes ago."

Kevin, did I really say that? :)

I may quote it myself.

January 05, 2006 8:04 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

A lot of libertarians got into it because of Ayn Rand. And she openly called big business a "persecuted minority".

I think there are traces of this weird false social darwinism (false, because the biggies didn't get where they did through market dynamics) that are so deeply imprinted in them that they are hard to shake.

Also, 90% of the people I've met, libertarian or not, seem to believe that the US economy is nearly a free market, with some minor distortions, when I think it's more accurate to say that it's nearly entirely a command economy with some market elements to keep it from collapsing altogether. So they really think that rich people somehow "passed the market test". Whether or or not you think that entitles them to any privileges (which I don't), it's also patently false in almost all cases, once you take all the factors into account. This belief might also explain why social democratic types fear anarchy. They really do think that rich people are somehow inherently better at making money (though most of them would be hard pressed to tell you how or why).

January 05, 2006 9:02 AM  
Blogger Battlepanda said...

Great post, Kevin. There is really a level of identification with big companies that I don't understand among right libertarians. Maybe they all think they'll end up as CEO someday.

January 05, 2006 10:28 AM  

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