Anti-Libertarian Criticism

Keeping libertarians in check and exposing it as a bankrupt ideology

Category Archives: Libertarian Theory

Free Market Economics: The Inept Cousin of Real Social Science

You can call this privileging disciplines if you want, but I would gander that if one took the best of the best of modern social science and psychology and put the field of economics to the test, much of what is talked about as free market theory is in contradiction to recognized sociological and ecological fact. And this would only be reinforced by a host of fairly common experiences of modern life. A kind of theory that often more or less brushes off much of social reality as an “externality” just isn’t going to be that descriptively useful or accurate at the end of the day, since it’s trying to make sweeping claims about society based on a highly limited and inaccurate model.

Free market economics is a simple, and some would say elegant, story. This story would generally have one believe that social good tends to be the unintended consequence of the pursuit of individual economic self-interest and accumulated private property (“the invisible hand” in a nutshell), while the intended pursuit of social good tends to lead to ruin (the scapegoating of socialism). This is supposed to be a counter-intuitive general truth about social interaction. There is the linked belief in competition as the driving engine for order and progress (and in the case of typical Randians and conservative libertarians, heroic captains of industry).

The free market idea is frequently used as support for the belief in a social order based on private property and accumulation, I.E. capitalism, that this is voluntary by definition, and then this is reinforced through the culturally ingrained ethos of “winning” and “growing”. There are certain 19th century and turn of the century notions of “progress” that go along with this, and there are overlaps with social darwinist theory, which took the competitive aspect of Darwin’s idea and ran with it even though it doesn’t entirely jibe with Darwin himself. Perhaps there is a grain of truth in the idea that there can be positive side effects of people’s apparently selfish decisions, but free market economic theory often generalizes or universalizes this in an ideological way.

The story just doesn’t square up to human experience. The freedom of enterprise is not my freedom (*insert left-wing interpretation of Max Stirner here*). The pursuit of self-interest within markets does not inherently lead to nothing but win-wins and markets are not a self-correcting machine that is intrinsically and infinitely adaptable to human needs. Structuring society around a competitive ethos has not been without consequences for social ethics and psychology. Economic power is not a harmless thing in a social vacuum. Choices within markets are not necessarily meaningfully voluntary, and social conflict is not an externality to markets. It also turns out that there are many ways in which we’ve been learning that technology is a double-edged sword and that there’s this thing called a progress trap. Realities of class, the environment, and technology, all challenge free market theory.

Historical fact is that the socialist, anarchist and communist movements came into existence in part as a reaction to this kind of liberal theory of capitalism and the early implementation of such ideas. It is important to remember that the orientation of Marxism and much of early anarchism was anti-liberal, and it is no coincidence that so much of free market libertarian ideology is mired in 19th century liberal thought. The march toward what was to become global capitalism created some serious social ruptures and introduced new difficulties into society. A century later, problems have continued to develop in ways that even Marx – who frankly does a decent job of identifying the problem during his own time – could not foresee.

For the most part, the liberals actually won and got what they wanted (relatively free reign for enterprise), only they were unprepared for the reality of growing state intervention and bureaucracy that inevitably came with the development of capitalism. They would never admit it, but there is realistically no way to develop and maintain large-scale global capitalism without the expansion of the state. They’re often left in a position of denouncing the modern state while continuing to believe in the principles and political ideas that necessitate it. The left-libertarian, Carsonian spin on this question is the idea that anti-statism is the road to non-capitalism.

My statement can be misread as supporting the “free market anti-capitalist” view, but it’s more complicated than that, since I’m emphasizing that the play and growth of market forces, of accumulation and competition, were an important causal factor for the growth of state power. In contrast, the “free market left-libertarian” view is all about emphasizing the notion that state power has aided the growth of economic power, which while true at a certain level is not definitive of the problem of capitalism and often leaves them blind to the ways in which markets generate their own problems and that the modern “welfare state” only exists in large part because of the inadequacies of markets. To admit any of this is simply ideological heresy in contemporary American libertarian circles. They are ideologically trapped by ideal-market notions.

The key aspect of this that free market libertarians wouldn’t accept is that the principles of free markets and property necessitate the modern state. In simply removing state intervention without removing the norms of property and markets and directly challenging economic power, one does not end up with non-capitalist society. What one ends up with at best is more like a reset button to the 19th century, to earlier capitalism, in which the modern state can reformulate itself all over again. Except even that isn’t accurate, because the current social climate is such that economic power is so large and ingrained in society that one may as well say that the result wouldn’t likely be far off from the kind of dystopia associated with anarcho-capitalism – a kind of neo-fuedal order in which powerful economic entities take on the functions of the state.

Some libertarians react to this hard reality with shock and denial, reducing it to the common strawman of Hobbesian pessimism run wild. They generally tend to think of it as scare tactics. But it just comes down to realistic expectations of human behavior, plus a critical analysis of society that doesn’t just treat the state as a primary part of a binary. Libertarians would have us believe that they are solving an antagonism between economy and state in a pretty straightforward dialectic in which the economy wins and we all are free, while real-world social dynamics seem to indicate a complexity of antagonisms that aren’t at all easy to resolve. Sorry to be cliche, but it’s just not that simple. Weakening of state power does not inherently lead to non-capitalist society any more than capitalism naturally progresses to communism. Economic power has a capacity to produce political power, as well as generate social conflicts and issues without the necessity of state bureaucracy.

It is quite fascinating that a discipline about economies is so strongly founded in the denial of economic power. This has left many libertarians with little choice but to engage in questionable historical revisionism blaming everything on the state in order to keep their ideology intact. It’s the impetus behind why Austrian economists have to try to elevate their methods over the contrary findings of social science in the modern age and characterize their claims as ahistorical facts of human action. It’s why Murray Rothbard had to explicitly deny the existence of economic power, to keep the libertarian ideology safe from reality. Austrian schoolers aside, whatever school of free market economics one favors, I say a pox on all your houses.

Advertisements

Left-Libertarianism as Enlightened Anarcho-Capitalism

Over at the Anagorist Blog, my post on left-libertarianism is referenced and the author makes an insightful comment:

“Simply put, the difference between left-libertarians and anarcho-capitalists is one of style, not substance. The left-libertarian definition of capitalism is exactly equal to the anarcho-capitalist (and also, increasingly, tea party) definition of corporatism, and the left-libertarian definition of free market is exactly equal to the anarcho-capitalist definition of capitalism. They both hold the so-called non-aggression principle not only as non-negotiable, but as the central feature of their ideology; the necessary and sufficient condition from which the rest of either left-libertarian or anarcho-capitalist theory can be derived.”

I felt compelled to comment:

“This is very well stated and nails big point of what I was getting at in my piece criticizing free market “left-libertarians”. The typical ancap will distinguish capitalism and corporatism. The left-libertarian in the style of C4SS typically serves a similar function in the way they try to distinguish “the free market” from capitalism. Because for the most part what the ancap means by “capitalism” is the same thing, loaded with much the same ideological stuff, as what the left-lib means by “the freed market”. Most people of both groups will still hold steadfast to the same basic principles: self-ownership and property rights, the market as the pursuit of self-interest creating mutual benefit and social good, the state as the aggressor on the market, and so on.”

To expound, the main economic difference is that free market left-libertarians concede that corporatism is a form of capitalism and try to disassociate themselves from the word capitalism, while standard anarcho-capitalists proudly weild the word capitalism and deny that corporatism is a form of capitalism. At the same time, many if not most left-libertarians hold to much the same basic ideas and rhetoric about the market and property as anarcho-capitalists. Often, they can be seen as trying to shoehorn various radical ideas into more or less anarcho-capitalist terms. This is why I often perceive them as either confused or even engaging in a bit of appropriation.

From personal experience, some of the people who were involved with left-libertarianism some years ago who experimented with ideas ended up moving on to something else, something that just isn’t libertarianism. But your average young online left-libertarian is initially someone who comes from an anarcho-capitalist background or a background in the general American libertarian movement, who has become curious about the left and radicalism. I think it’s relevant to note how that may color perspective, when you have people approaching the left who are ingrained in the beliefs touted by pro-capitalist libertarian organizations.

Left-libertarianism often has the pretense of engaging in a kind of synthesis or reconciliation. But this typically is done in such a way that keeps the core of free market libertarianism safe, and almost never in a way that forces the libertarian to seriously re-examine and perhaps discard some of their beliefs. Or rather, they never face the issues standing in the way of a synthesis. My contention is that if one seriously rolls with critical analysis of capitalism and alternative radical views, one’s core libertarian beliefs necessarily start to dissolve. There really is no reconciliation of the sort that left-libertarians seem to want. They would have to give up on the mythos of the market to have a coherant position. But they want to have their cake and eat it too.

While left-libertarians would like to think that they are being witty and shoving a counter-intuitive truth in our faces by using rhetoric like “free market anti-capitalism”, they really are demonstrating a lack of critical engagement with their own ideas. While it is true that some left-libertarians may make a few genuine deviations, overall they tout the general free market libertarian line (perhaps tailored in such a way as to be a bit edgy) that is well deserving of the criticism it gets. Anarcho-capitalism-with-a-heart-for-the-poor deserves a special kind of criticism for its absurdity.

The Naivete of Market Anarchism

Ultimately, I have come to think of market anarchism (an umbrella term for the radical anti-state contingent of the American libertarian movement) as involving serious naiveté. Because market anarchists typically treat “abolishing the state” as an end in itself while entrusting the market to intrinsically work things out on its own after a state-collapse-scenario, they fail to grasp that a scenario of a state falling is fairly meaningless in itself if one’s goal is supposed to be an improvement in human freedom and well-being.

Since their analysis is often based on Austrian and related free market economics, they simply do not understand that the real power dynamics of the world in the present and the state of human culture is such that a state collapsing is just an opening for other organizations that weren’t the state to either get away with things they wouldn’t have been able to before or become political entities themselves.

Market anarchists are fooling themselves if they think that they are going to actively “abolish the state” rather than a state collapsing on its own accord or for other reasons, and that in the aftermath of that scenario the market will naturally provide better opportunity and well-being for more people while stopping any other formal political entities (“states”) from forming. The fact of the matter is that political revolution without social evolution (like “abolishing the state” in the name of the market) is a gamble in the dark.

It is well known that notable political changes tend to occur after a social or cultural change has already sufficiently taken hold. Markets and states alike are reflective of culture and are embedded in social power dynamics – and thus to simply try to abolish a state and entrust faith in markets is naïve.

It is common for market anarchists to snipe at minarchists, those libertarians who still believe in some form of “limited government”, by using logic to outline that the “limited government” won’t stay limited and ethical. Of course, the same logic applies to market anarchism, only instead of the starting point of a minimal state, we have the starting point of a state collapse scenario. Who is to make sure the post-state scenario doesn’t escalate into non-anarchic results and yield a kind of neo-feudalism in which market-based organizations become the shell for the next states?

The big corporations, banks, and other long-time pre-established centers of economic power sure aren’t going to disappear overnight just because the state falls. The lesson here is that abolishing the state doesn’t abolish economic reality – and it is misleading to be talking of “abolition”.

The market anarchist often implicitly relies on the assumption of a majority of society or at least a sizable contingent being ideologically on board with them sufficient for a movement that overthrows a state, as well as psychologically fit to be ethical post- revolution actors. History, sociology, and common experience gives us plenty of reason for skepticism about this. States rise and fall, and people are people.

Thinking realistically, it would seem that the market anarchist’s dilemma is as follows: you must either face the responsibility of a humungous task for “changing the culture” and making people ethical, basically fostering social evolution before “revolution” (and consequently give up on any Rothbardian zeal to abolish the state at all costs), or face the negative consequences of a state collapse scenario in current socio-economic conditions (and of simply thinking that the state was the problem) as human society’s ingrained problems just re-route themselves.

There are some market anarchists who openly embrace something like that latter option (by more or less embracing market dystopia), but they are not the majority and their position still sucks. You can find some in comments at Mises.org – be sure to point and laugh. On the other hand, some market anarchists (especially the left-libertarian type) may pipe in defensively in the face of my skepticism by saying “hey, I’m a *thick libertarian*, which means that I do want to change the culture”. Ok, I grok, you’re a vegan feminist transhumanist market anarchist from outer space.

The problem here, in addition to the problem I outlined in my criticism of left-libertarianism (that being “culturally enlightened” while enabling capitalism is only a surface-level improvement), is that they must truly face how problematic the culture is and how slow, grueling and futile social change can be. Furthermore, they must face some dissonance between the ideological admonition to abolish the state at all costs and their belief in the need for an enlightened culture. Sometimes this is like Jeckyl and Hyde.

Many people who call themselves “thick libertarians” can be observed to nonetheless fall back on a reductive anti-statism and faith in the market. This both shows that they are in the grips of a kind of culture themselves (libertarian culture and capitalist culture) and that “thickness” still covers a rotten core. Sometimes it seems that “thick libertarianism” signifies more that the individual libertarian is portraying themselves as an ethical person, but not necessarily that they understand how social ethics plays out in the world. It is of course my view that if they did better understand that, they wouldn’t be “thick libertarians” because they wouldn’t be libertarians at all.

Saying that you’re a “thick libertarian” often amounts to declaring one’s group association in culture wars or adding on to a collection of identities in addition to libertarianism that one claims is also part of it. It does not necessarily reflect a comprehensive notion of social change or exempt the market anarchist from the tough realities of trying to enact such change. It’s more like saying that one hopes to win a cultural battle *within the context of the market*, and therefore subjecting it to *the culture of the market* and the general forces of economic power.

Perhaps before rushing to feed the fate of society to economic machinations, we should continue to enculturate ourselves. Perhaps one should think of the market and the state not as a reified binary opposition, but as jointly embedded in human behavior and the result of general but complex power dynamics between people and culturally ingrained beliefs and practices. That seems like a better starting point than talking of “abolishing” things one does not understand and replacing them with something that one also doesn’t understand, while ignoring realistic expectations of human behavior and the common experiences of power that don’t really come from the state.

Why The NAP Is Smoke And Mirrors (A Quick Reminder)

In American libertarian ideology, the holy grail ethical concept is the non-aggression principle, which roughly states that no one may engage in or threaten aggression against others (and their property), often quickly qualified with the idea that defensive force may be used in the face of aggression. When stated in such a simple and abstract way, it is something that is hard for very many people to particularly disagree with, and because of this it also makes it such that it can be used to deceive people into thinking they might be libertarians.

But if you don’t just take it at face value and continue to talk to a libertarian about aggression, it will become clear that they have some specific notion of where the line is between “aggression” and “defense”, as most people do. And that notion is informed by other ideas and principles, by their analysis of society, and by the personality of the given libertarian. The way a person responds to different scenarios in what they consider justified and unjustified force will depend on these kind of factors.

Whatever particular interpretation the libertarian gives is functionally one version of the non-aggression principle out of many. The reality is that virtually everyone who is not either a pacifist, psychopath, or totalitarian believes in something resembling the NAP, and therefore there isn’t necessarily anything novel about it. Liberals, conservatives, socialists and libertarians alike. Different political views just define the social context of aggression differently, draw the aggression/defense line in different places, have different analysis of society.

Libertarians themselves have gotten into many heated internal debates over how this stuff is hashed out (different interpretations of property theory, minarchism vs anarchism, and so on). And for libertarians, how aggression gets defined in practice is highly dependent on their ideas about property and markets, and the principle is used as a rhetorical tool to push one into adopting a consistent position opposing the state. On the flip side, in the eyes of many of those who disagree with libertarians, there is aggression involved with upholding their ideas about property and markets.

The NAP is smoked and mirrors for what is a matter of debate about the proper use of force and how it is organized. Radical American libertarians frequently advocate for essentially privatizing the mechanisms of force in society – they are not against aggression as much as they are against aggression in the hands of public or quasi-public institutions. Anarcho-capitalists do this in the most blatant way by advocating private police and defense. Paleo-libertarians and libertarian racialists advocate aggression at least implicitly for the restructuring of society involved in what they propose to be enforced – the thought of all the forced evictions is horrifying. All of this stuff hinges on the ideas about property and the market. Non-compliance to the libertarian’s property regime merits aggression.

While libertarians might think of the NAP as a moral shroud, the emperor has no clothes. Many libertarians support aggression, either explicitly or implicitly, whether knowingly or not. Their philosophy is primarily about property and economic power, not non-aggression. For the libertarian in their propagandizing mode in discourse, the NAP is a rhetorical tactic to moralize one’s political opponents – “See, you support putting guns to people’s heads! You should be ethically consistent and oppose the state” or “you disagree about property? you support aggression!”.

This frequently ends up being a sensationalist pile of muck in which the libertarian cries aggression in even the most ridiculous of scenarios, parading around like “don’t you tell me what to do!” at the thought of property owners and market actors being held to reasonable ethical standards. The libertarian sees aggression in every disagreement with their notions of property and their policy ideas about the market, while being blinded to the aggression implicit in them. The NAP just begs the question and conceals the violence within libertarianism.