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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

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Libertarian Death-Wishes

Lady Aster jumps into the fray over Brad Spangler's letter to the French students. In the comments to Roderick Long's post on the dustup, Mark mentioned my left-libertarian prescription for "Cutting welfare from the top down, and taxes from the bottom up":

I guess that's as valid as 'cutting welfare from the bottom up, and taxes from the top down' but an implicit interpersonal valuation is present either way.... I'm not unsympathetic to this argument but I suggest it involves some interpersonal valuations different from those that are inherent in mainstream libertarian doctrine.

Lady Aster, in response, writes:

Simply put, one way of reducing net societal technical coercion ends up with a much more awful situation in human terms. Cutting corporate welfare in a semi-statist society isn't going to destroy anyone's life; cutting welfare for the otherwise destitute, in a society where state favouritism still directly and indirectly walls off their choices and opportunities, it might.

If detesting this involves valuations at odds with mainstream libertarian doctrine, so much the worse for mainstream libertarian doctrine....

I could also point out that if libertarianism were to try to dismantle the state while selectively attacking social benefits for the poor while ignoring the structural advantages of the rich, the result would be that the working class would make one great rush for the local state socialist party's recruiting office while classical liberalism remained the party of a few intellectuals and middle-class eccentrics out of touch with social reality. I rather submit that this is what has been happening for the last 150 years or so.

The modern libertarian movement believes its politics are in the interest of everybody yet converts no one (except intellectuals). I suspect this has something to do with the fact that the poor don't see any reason to think libertarians take their perspective or interests seriously, while the comfortable are often regimented sheeple who don't object very much to having the state economically and culturally prop up their institutions. Do you desire libertarianism to succeed? I think there's no way to do that without a libertarian theory that resonates with the actual lives and struggles of human beings.

As perverse at it sounds, I think this lack of appeal to the working class, to some libertarians, is actually a feature rather than a bug. It flatters their sense of being embattled Ubermenschen in Galt's Gulch, surrounded by a world of uncomprehending dullards looking to vote themselves welfare benefits out of the public treasury. I've actually seen libertarians who seem to enjoy writing off the human race as a lost cause, with the only hope for libertarianism being self-selection by the happy few who make it to the ships and build a new society at L-5, or upload their consciousness to the machines.

Well, there's a recipe for success!


Blogger Sheldon Richman said...

This is what I love about you, Kevin.

April 06, 2006 2:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Even leaving aside personal values, there is a solid reason for dismantling support structures last. Think what Social Security and Poor Laws ever did for the hard nosed people who introduced them: those measures compounded for "Vagrancy Costs". Without support structures and better personal resources, the indigent become a sort of sanitary health hazard for everyone else, a negative externality.

If you cut the support structures you wouldn't see a problem at first, since things take a while to work through. But a generation later you would have more people turning to crime from poverty, more private policing costs and so on.

If you really do want to thrust the burden of reform onto the poor, you only have a brief window of opportunity before everything goes wrong and you have to start shooting street people to keep their threat down - and that has a cost too, of catching them. If the wonderful new stuff, all birds in the bush, don't trickle down before that, you have problems.

Overall, even from a detached and dispassionate perspective, it's better (engineering not ethical "better") to have something in place for people first, before you shunt them aside from previous support systems.

But hey, this is where we came in when we looked at the history of how we got here over the last few centuries. I've covered much of it at my publications page, and many other people like KC here have looked at the same developments and summarised them too.

Incidentally, and not entirely off topic, people might be interested to think about just what this fellow is complaining about going on in Vanuatu. It seems to me that on a small scale he wants people there to start following IMF style approaches and selling off their land to invest in things that may or may not pay back.

April 06, 2006 7:51 PM  
Blogger Nick Manley said...

Bravo Kevin!

A fine post on the importance of real world economic context in evaulating proposals to reduce state power.

This kind of keeping the larger picture in mind is what I hope to apply to a number of questions in my book.

Hope you caught my mention of your book as part of my resarch reading for Studies In Dialectical Libertarianism.

I just sent a paypal payment to get a bound copy.

Btw,when will you author your mutualist fiction where the working classes escape to a utopia on strike agaisnt the capitialist system? hehe ( :

April 06, 2006 8:58 PM  
Blogger Prem said...

"As perverse at it sounds, I think this lack of appeal to the working class, to some libertarians, is actually a feature rather than a bug."

I'd like to note that this isn't true of all libertarians, especially being one of those people in the working class.
I definitely don't consider myself a member of the Ubermenschen, but you'll have to admit that idealists often let their self-assurance get to them, sometimes giving them a sense of personal superiority. We've seen this in all ideologies.

I'd also like to contend that the working class's aversion to libertarianism has more to do with passing distaste, than any ideological objection. Our efforts, free-market (capitalist, or not, or w/e) libertarian and other, are supposed to be about truth (at least my effort), and not about appealing to masses.
[However, don't take the above comments to mean that I support, in state-abolishing mind games, necessarily taking apart social programs before other government functions]

April 07, 2006 12:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How much is the working class against libertarianism? From my experience with them (work, family, random encounters), they seem to have the "if you work hard, good things will come" mentality, and the desire to start their own businesses, get the government off their back, etc. To the extent that shirking responsibility is held in contempt by libertarians (both left and right, but in application the emphasis differs), the working class agree. The anti-laziness attitude, at least in the physical labor sense, seems to be a feature of the American working class.

But many of them reject left-libertarianism's cultural emphasis (most working class are pretty die hard conservative) and academic libertarian views on immigration, free trade, religion, etc. however. So it's a mixed bag.


April 07, 2006 12:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I haven't met a lot of libertarians in real life, but the ones I have met don't particularly like people, as a rule.

- Josh

April 07, 2006 2:23 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

You're making me cry, Sheldon.

PML, I don't think even the prospects you point out would dissuade some of these people. They'd be happy to retreated into fenced 'burbs and turn the rest of the country into a free-fire zone.

Thanks, Nick. I appreciate the reference, and look forward to seeing your book. I'm afraid I don't have the gift for writing good fiction. The last fiction I wrote was a short bit of script for a TV western starring Johnny Crawford and Melissa Gilbert, in which they were tortured to death by a gang of outlaws.

Prem and Anon, From my own dealings with people in the working world, I'd say most working folks do indeed value hard work. But many of them also see things like the minimum wage, Social Security, and the like as achievements for working people, that made the system a little less stacked against working people. When they identify movement libertarianism with the kind of people who only talk about abolishing SS and the minimum wage, they justifiably get the idea that it's more about helping the rich than valuing hard work and achievement as such.

Josh, Yeah, I get that impression a lot myself. Speaking of which, if you want to see full-blown misanthropy from too many years of unpleasant dealings with people, you ought to read Fred Woodworth's material in The Match! He likes animals, though.

April 07, 2006 9:11 PM  
Blogger Nick Manley said...

I should have an outline up for it this weekend.

April 08, 2006 12:10 AM  
Blogger Nick Manley said...

Wild Pegasus,
It's funny you mention that because I've been pretty reclusive my entire life but out of shyness rather than disliking people as a rule.

I know some folks with libertarian tendencies who can sound really misanthropic though.

April 08, 2006 9:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

KC, the point is that even your "fenced 'burbs" would have material policing costs - and, though they may be tolerable at the moment, that is they only have to keep out robbers. The full costs would be incurred in the later generations, when the walled out underclass was large enough for roaming gangs to form. Think how 18th and early 19th century Italian towns needed to be fortified to keep out literal bands of banditti.

That's not to say that the people thinking of going into enclaves realise this. They might not even realise it until it was too late and they were faced with unravelling their no longer cost effective laagers, the way apartheid supporters found they had to in South Africa. But all the same the walls wouldn't be able to hold in the face of their increased costs indefinitely.

Pointing this out ahead of time might persuade a few of the more far sighted among the more cynical; they might realise that Bismarck really had got his reckoning right on the cheapest way to deal with the indigent, if you weren't going to promote them out of poverty (which is what I favour).

April 09, 2006 3:08 AM  
Blogger Lorraine said...


This is exactly why I don't self-identify as libertarian.
I speak as a 40 year old American who still hasn't gotten
her "career" out of the temp agency rut.
I identify rather strongly with Thoreau's Indian [sic]
who had failed to make it worth men's while to buy his baskets.
Perhaps I fail to understand certain subtle differences
between the technical term "market" and the colloquial verb
"market" (and cognates including "marketing," "market research"
etc.) Nobody from the libertarian "movement" has explained
to me what's in it for the introverts if the economy gets
even more market-oriented than it has under Reagan, Thatcher et al.
Those of us accustomed to being at the bottom of the food chain
tend to think in terms of what is probable more than what is possible.
Horatio Alger represents "proof of concept," which of course is the
key psychological ingredient of the Ponzi scheme.
Probablistically, "economic freedom" seems synonymous with freedom to fail.

I'm not inclined to head to the state socialist recruiting center,
but that's largely because socialists seem to be extinct.
I don't know of any groups or self-identified movements that
share my constellation of ideological preferences.
I have individualist tendencies, but lack "rugged" ones.
I find fault with the tendency of self-identified individualists
to draw the battle lines between the public sector and the private sector,
some even seeming to define "individual" as "private sector entity."

While I recognize the futility of all things binary, I am dogmatic
in maintaining a dichotomy between individuals (for my purposes, individual humyn organisms)
and humyn entities which are not individuals in this sense (governments, businesses,
ecclesiastical and nonprofit organizations, perhaps even families), which
I call "institutions." Needless to say, I identify at least partially with movements
that speak of "group entities."

The main problem I have with some of the many definitions of libertarianism,
and even with the "anarchism without adjectives" concept, is the (usually dogmatic) notion
that the problem facing humynity is government, exactly no more and no less.
The central problem as I see it is the psycho-biolological tendency of humans to exhibit
traits of dominance and submission. This makes the state, as I see it, a symptom.
I realize, of course, the conservative (ick!) implications of framing the central
problem as some aspect of "humyn nature." Of course, conservative doctrines (Hobbes?, Original Sin)
fault humyn nature for tending to rebel against authority; I knock humyn nature for the
exact opposite reason.

So my world view is a work in progress.
I'll let you know when I work the bugs out.

I sometimes wax nostalgic for the halcyon days described
by Billy Joel in the lyric:

every kid there had a pretty good shot----
to get at least as far as their old man got.

It seems (in America at least) that aptitudes of concrete economic relevance such as
productivity, quality and service were more valued in more bureaucratic times
than these.
I can't help imagining laissez-faire to be a natural meritocracy
mainly of salescrittership and one-upcrittership.

April 22, 2006 1:03 PM  

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