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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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Sunday, July 23, 2006

Vulgar Liberalism Watch, Part II

Sometimes the biggest obstacle libertarians face in communicating with "progressive" liberals is libertarians: i.e. the common liberal impression, often justified, that libertarians are just pot-smoking Republicans who see corporate welfare queens as the victimized party in modern society. As I've said before,

in my list of statist evils, the guys who are breaking legs rank considerably higher than the ones handing out government crutches. All too many libertarians could care less about the statism that causes the problems of income disparity, but go ballistic over the statism intended to alleviate it. It's another example of the general rule that statism that helps the rich is kinda sorta bad, maybe, I guess, but statism that helps the poor is flaming red ruin on wheels.

But sometimes the obstacle is the utter tenacity with which liberals themselves hold on to their own misconceptions: e.g., that the state is the only possible means of coordinating cooperative behavior between human beings, and that the only alternative is a Hobbesian free-for-all.

This was illustrated by an interesting open thread at John Quiggin's blog. It was quickly taken over by a discussion of the benefits of cooperative behavior in game theory.

The beginnings were quite promising. Meika started with a link to a story about Timothy Killingback's work.

Under the typical public goods game, an experimenter gives four players a pot of money. Each player can invest all or some of the money into a common pool. The experimenter then collects money thrown into the pool, doubles it and divides it amongst the players. The outcome: If every player invests all the money, every player wins big. If every player cheats by investing a just few dollars, every player reaps a small dividend. But if a cooperator squares off against a cheater – with the altruist investing more than the swindler – the swindler always gets the bigger payoff. Cheating, in short, is a winning survival strategy.

Under the new model, the team introduced population dynamics into the public goods game.

Players were broken into groups and played with other members of their group. Each player then reproduced in proportion to the payoff they received from playing the game, passing their cooperator or cheater strategy on to their offspring. After reproduction, random mutations occurred, changing how much an individual invests. Finally, players randomly dispersed to other groups, bringing their investment strategies with them. The result was an ever-changing cast of characters creating groups of various sizes.

After running the model through 100,000 generations, the results were striking. Cooperators not only survived, they thrived and maintained their numbers over time. The key is group size.

Terje supplemented this with a recommendation of Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene for its "insights in the area of altruism arising from systems that are seemingly driven by payoffs for selfish action." He added:

To a large extent it is why I think the use of state based coersion to supposedly enforce and ensure altruism and co-operative behaviour is mostly flawed and unnecessary. Most of what the state currently does in the name of altruism (ie the welfare state) can be better achieved in the long term by individual acts of charity, free market dynamics and civil society.

This is the point at which Paul Kelly, our exemplary vulgar liberal, jumped in:

Regarding welfare etc, quite often those individuals decide it is more efficient and rational to do these things collectively, through a central authority. It makes economic sense.

Frequent Mutualist Blog commenter P.M. Lawrence confronted him on the issue:

Actually, no, PK, it doesn’t make economic sense - unless of course the range of options has been restricted beforehand. Guess what, in our time and place it has been restricted like that.

Lawrence was kind enough to direct Kelley to my blog for some relevant material. Kelly's response:

So everyone should wander around guessing who is the most needy and give them money? Just pick the skinniest person? Or should research be done?

And they say the government schools aren't teaching critical thinking skills! Lawrence's rejoinder:

I’m sorry PK, was there some reason you didn’t find the material I referred you to at Kevin Carson’s site, or is it just that you think I should spoonfeed things?

Surely you aren’t under the impression that (a) the problems would be as great as they are now if only efforts were made to engineer them out (rather than provide governmental palliative care for them), and (b) that only a government can ever handle problems?

Fatfingers attempted to interpret Kelly's comments in a charitable light (i.e., finding some way of reading them as something other than total idiocy)....

PM, don’t confuse collectivism for government. PK talks about collectives, and you assume government. While I personally believe government will inevitably organically arise from collectives, for the purposes of thought experiments, stick with the given parameters.

...but Kelly wasn't having any of it:

You’re right PM, I’m not going to read a long economic paper explaining why it’s better for everyone to walk around making their own individual decisions. I would prefer a spoonfeeding please.

Lawrence came back:

Fatfingers, I did not “assume” that PK was talking about governments. He was explicitly talking about central authority, not merely some form of co-operative or collective action. That’s what a government is. If you are obliged to submit to it, it qualifies under the walks like a duck test.

Finally, tipped off by Lawrence to the interesting thread, I stopped by and left a comment:

As P.M. Lawrence said, it is Paul Kelley who assumes that cooperative effort can only be organized through government, and PML who is trying to get it into PK’s head that cooperative (or collective) effort can be achieved by voluntary means.

The fact that PK automatically dismisses any suggestion that voluntary cooperation is possible as a call for “everyone [to] wander around guessing who is the most needy and give them money,” suggests to me that PK’s problem goes beyond mere historical illiteracy. The underlying problem is far more basic: an inability (or unwillingness) to recognize a non sequitur in his own argument. If he is unable to acknowledge a fundamental logical flaw in his argument, all the empirical evidence in the world won’t do him any good.

But I’m more than willing to accept a person’s admission that he’s too lazy to follow a simple link that directly concerns the validity of a general assertion he made, or that he’s uninterested in any evidence as to whether his opinion is correct–just so long as he’s willing to admit that his opinion is, as a result, absolutely worthless.

For anyone else who is interested, though, there is a wealth of historical material on associations for mutual aid among the working class before the rise of the welfare state. Kropotkin’s last two chapters on the recent history of Europe in Mutual Aid are a good starting point.

E.P. Thompson has a great deal of good information on sick benefit societies, burial societies, and other mutuals in The Making of the English Working Class.

Colin Ward’s Anarchy in Action contains a section on the “welfare road we failed to take.”

Dr. Bob James is one of the best historians of working class friendly societies in the 18th and 19th centuries. Many of his articles can be found at the “Radical Tradition” site.

Finally, Section J.5.16 of An Anachist FAQ has an amazing amount of material on such self-organization, including extended block quotes and many, many references.

The kinds of voluntary mutual aid described by these writers were first suppressed by the capitalists (because they were seen as potential breeding grounds for subversion, and a possible basis for mutual economic support during strikes), and later crowded out or suppressed by regulation when the New Class decided that working class self-organization was atavistic and should be supplanted by the benevolent supervision of “qualified professionals.” David Beito’s From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State is a history, in large part, of the latter phenomenon, in addition to a good account of mutual aid organizations themselves.


Blogger Larry Gambone said...

The only argument a liberal has vs libertarians about the non-statist provision of social services is the lack of universality. Only the better off half of the English working class could afford the benefits of mutual aid, since the other half were too poor to pay the fees. There could have been a solution to this problem, one that did not entail scrapping mutualism and creating a statist, centralized system. The state could have paid the fees to the mutual of the individuals choice for those too poor to make the payments. This way, mutualism would have remained the dominant form of social service and the state would have had minimal involvement. As incomes rose, and obviously it would have been in the interest of the state that this should happen and not the opposite, more and more people would be making their own payments without state subsidy. Eventually, only those who, for physical or mental reasons could not work, would need to be subsidized. I suggest a non-statist and voluntary Solidarity Fund could have then been set up for these people, and the state could withdraw completely from the financing of social services.

July 24, 2006 8:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

LG's description is taking a couple of things as read, i.e. not stating them explicitly. (They aren't so much assumptions as circumstances of a particular time and place.) These are that being too poor to pay was significant (which means, a cash nexus and no spreading of risks as actually happened with burial clubs and early building societies); and that it is actually in the state's interest to raise incomes (in many countries, it makes more sense to raise a few out of poverty so as to inspire hope in the rest without actually freeing them).

But mainly I am posting here to provide a link to a recent Lew Rockwell item by Vedran Vuk, falling into the usual best-alternative trap but with a difference. He is more thorough than usual, and I think would need to be shown some statistics as well as flaws in the methodologies that gave him his statistics. That's tricky, since only the accepted methodologies have had enough support and funding to go into that detail. Also, some of his descriptions of subsistence living are in fact accurate, albeit descriptions of special cases. Finally, he is aware that it is necessary to compare with previous situations - but he may suppose he has already made all necessary adjustments for external forces and really existing previous situations.

Well, that was tangled prose. I'm planning on sending him an email on a number of his recent pieces including that one, but it'll take a while to get it less turgid.

July 24, 2006 8:02 PM  

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