Available Now! (click cover)

America's Counter-Revolution
The Constitution Revisited

From the back cover:

This book challenges the assumption that the Constitution was a landmark in the struggle for liberty. Instead, Sheldon Richman argues, it was the product of a counter-revolution, a setback for the radicalism represented by America’s break with the British empire. Drawing on careful, credible historical scholarship and contemporary political analysis, Richman suggests that this counter-revolution was the work of conservatives who sought a nation of “power, consequence, and grandeur.” America’s Counter-Revolution makes a persuasive case that the Constitution was a victory not for liberty but for the agendas and interests of a militaristic, aristocratic, privilege-seeking ruling class.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Carson: Good Reading!

I'm reading Kevin Carson's Organization Theory: A Libertarian Perspective, and I couldn't be more enthusiastic about it. I'll have more to report in the coming weeks, but for now let me leave it at this: When I read Carson I get have the same positive reaction I used to get when reading or listening to my libertarian hero and friend the late Karl Hess.

P.S. I can't resist saying a bit more. I'm not far into the hefty book yet, but what I have covered confirms through massive evidence what my previous reading led me to believe: that the modern American economy is far more the product of government-business collusion than of free markets. Contrary to the way free-marketeers tend to talk, we don't have an essentially free economy except for a thin interventionist crust that needs to be scraped away. Instead, intervention is woven deeply throughout the economic fabric. Thus our economy would have looked very different had laissez faire been the rule. We can't undo what has been done, of course, but if all privilege and intervention were abolished, the economy would evolve in a radically different direction than if the State's favors stay in place.

Libertarians really need to come to grips with this if we are to make a contribution to the continuing debate over political economy. If we keep sounding like Lawrence Kudlow and Ben Stein, we will be irrelevant. And we should be.

38 comments:

Kevin Carson said...

Thanks much, Sheldon. I look forward to any comments you have when you've finished it.

Stephan Kinsella said...

Sheldon: "the modern American economy is far more the product of government-business collusion than of free markets. Contrary to the way free-marketeers tend to talk, we don't have an essentially free economy except for a thin interventionist crust that needs to be scraped away. Instead, intervention is woven deeply throughout the economic fabric."

Radical anarcho-libertarians do not deny this at all. We do not say that we have an essentially free market economy that only has a thin crust that needs to be scraped away. We recognize the entire system is distorted and corrupted.

"Thus our economy would have looked very different had laissez faire been the rule."

Yes, I think we all know this.

"We can't undo what has been done, of course, but if all privilege and intervention were abolished, the economy would evolve in a radically different direction than if the State's favors stay in place."

Again, this is true, but is this news?

"Libertarians really need to come to grips with this if we are to make a contribution to the continuing debate over political economy."

Come to grips with it? We know it, and oppose it.

"If we keep sounding like Lawrence Kudlow and Ben Stein, we will be irrelevant."

Agree with this, but I think this refers more to the Objectivists who romanticize our past, the libertarian centralists who think the Constitution is almost libertarian or can be tweaked a bit or that if we can just persuade the judges to see the light we'll have libertopia. I don't think anarcho-libertarians need to come to grips with this. We already see the state for the evil it is, and oppose its intervention in the economy. I am not gainsaying your praise of Carson's elaboration of this but I am often mystified by left-libertarians presuming to preach to regular libertarians as if we are naifs are apologists for corporatism.

freeman said...

Stephan,

While I can't speak for Sheldon, what makes you think he's primarily or only addressing "anarcho-libertarians"?

I think it would be accurate, though unfortunate, to say that most people who identify themselves as libertarian aren't in the anarchist camp. Additionally, most non-libertarians tend to think of Objectivists or Catoites when they think of libertarianism. Both non-anarchist libertarians and non-libertrians generally do not know all of the things Sheldon points out in this entry.

With that in mind, why the mystification?

Stephan Kinsella said...

freeman, I don't think he's primarily or only addressing anarcho-libertarians, but I think they are, or might be, included. They often are when left-libertarians make these kind of comments about corporatism. This is what the "vulgar" label is used for, it seems to me.

I don't know. Sheldon can clarify. If not, then the anarcho-libertarians are just as aware of these problems as are the "left"-libertarians and mutualists, in which case this is not the province of left-libertarians, but just yet another way the state causes damage, that anarcho-libertarians of course recognize and oppose.

freeman said...

True, although I think the inclusion of anarcho-libertarians you refer to results from left-libertarians having more familiarity and commonality with anarcho-libertarians than, say, your typical Cato wonk. I think most people familiar with all this realizes that vulgar tendencies usually come from the latter camp more than the former.

One small criticism I have of Kevin Carson's book is the amount of ink used to criticize Misesians as opposed to the more mainstream libertarians whose opinions play a larger role in shaping mainstream consciousness regarding libertarianism, for better or (usually) for worse.

Have you read Carson's book yet?

freeman said...

Hmm... I was responding to a portion of your comment, which I placed in italics, but blogger apparently left it out. The portion I was responding to was the claim that anarcho-libertarians are often included when left-libertarians critique corporatism.

Kevin Carson said...

Stephan: I think Sheldon was addressing mainly the kinds of people the general public thinks of when they hear the term "libertarian": Cough cough Adam Smith Institute cough Dick Armey cough.

Freeman: I'm trying to recall what I wrote about the Misesians in Org Theory, but as far as I can remember I only mentioned them in passing because the book's not primarily about economics or even libertarian politics. I did focus primarily on the Austrians in Mutualist Political Economy, but that was because I was most familiar with their statements of the marginalist/subjectivist position and their critiques of the LTV (and I didn't read a lot of neoclassical stuff beyond Marshall because it involved a lot of, you know, math).

Sheldon Richman said...

Stephan, if you know all this, then I guess I wasn't addressing my remarks to you. But even libertarians who know this may not fully realize that many other libertarians don't know it -- or, while those others "know" it, they don't really KNOW it. That is, they understand the abstract point but it doesn't go down deep and influence how they comment on the world. (The reaction to Amazon's employee policies is the latest example.)

Sheldon Richman said...

BTW, a prominent movement libertarian (not an anarchist) tells me that government intervention has been of minor significance in the development of the American economy.

Sheldon Richman said...

I've encountered the word "Misoid" once so far, I think. It was probably in relation to the point I make in this post.

Sheldon Richman said...

More: Stephan, your comment and previous ones on this subject remind me of the joke in which a guy goes to a baseball game and after repeatedly hearing someone somewhere in the crowd yelling, "Hey, Joe!" finally turns around and shouts back, "My name's not Joe!"

I've been in the libertarian movement for (rounding here) 40 years. After all that time it is my sense that most libertarians do not realize how radical libertarianism is, which is another way of saying: how much our economic life has been shaped by what Roderick Long calls the statocracy-plutocracy. That's why we cannot reiterate Carson's point too often. As long as "our side" does a knee-jerk defense of Exxon, Walmart, etc. every time they are criticized, we will need to offer the radical libertarian response.

Stephan Kinsella said...

Sheldon, Kevin: I hear you, and know all this. And if the shoe does not fit--fine, it does not fit. But just as you think you guys need to make an effort to counter implicit corporatism in kneejerk Exxon defenses by "libertarians," so I think we plumbline radical libertarians--those of us who realize we are neither left nor right and do not make the mistake of calling ourselves "left"--need to remind you guys that you do not own this issue, or indeed have any special contribution to make to it that regular radical libertarians can make--that we can all make *as* radical libertarians, not as "left" libertarians.

The Amazon thing you mention is a bad example, IMO, since I think Roderick Long (as a left-lib exemplar) was way off base in his attack. In my view this is typical leftish overreaching which is unjustified and ungrounded. But that is another topic.

Sheldon Richman said...

Stephan, I heard you. Your name's not Joe. But I don't know why you need to keep telling me this. Who said I own this or any other issue? Doth you protest too much?

Stephan Kinsella said...

Sheldon, I'm saying i disagree with the implicit or explicit view of you and some others that the left-libertarians are unique in seeing some problem, that left-lens helps to see things. I think it does not. Plumbline (radical) libertarianism is just fine.

Further, I think you and Carson have to recognize that despite significant state intervention and distortion, we are still ridiculously wealthy by historical standards and it is because we have had (and continue to have) a free market to a considerable extent (even if it's heavily distorted and corrupted and burdened). We are not credible if we don't acknowledge this, IMO--we don't want to come off sounding like Henry George, who insisted that our
system makes the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, when that
obviously is not so. Roderick's response to the Amazon case is a good example of a flawed, unsupported "left" reaction, and shows the lack of value of this whole "left" paradigm. We should just be state-hating libertarians.

Sheldon Richman said...

Left-libertarians are not committed to the poor-get-poorer position. But we are committed to the nonrich-would-be-much-richer-without-the-plutocracy-statocracy position.

Sheldon Richman said...

"We should just be state-hating libertarians."

Why should we hate only the state. Why not also the big companies that actively seek privileges at our expense?

Kevin Carson said...

"Further, I think you and Carson have to recognize that despite significant state intervention and distortion, we are still ridiculously wealthy by historical standards and it is because we have had (and continue to have) a free market to a considerable extent (even if it's heavily distorted and corrupted and burdened)."

Stephan, you've stated this in even stronger terms in the past: the nature of the economy is defined more by its market elements than by its elements of statism, because it functions--and according to Mises, if it were primarily or fundamentally statist, it would be paralyzed by calculation problems.

It seems to me that this argument proves too much, though. If the standard for an economy being "free market to a considerable extent" is not suffering the kind of reversion to covered wagons and tallow candles we see at the end of Atlas Shrugged, then it follows that there's a very low threshold for "market elements" sufficient to permit calculation after a kind, the creation of wealth and technological innovation, etc. It's a threshold so low that even feudal Europe and the Soviet planned economy could function and advance.

Rothbard himself conceded as much re the USSR. It could engage in rough calculations, even with total state ownership and central planning, by using prices in the far removed spot markets of the West as a reference point and allowing some jiggering around with prices by factory managers.

So to say that the Western economies have sufficient market elements to function and to increase wealth seems to be damning with faint praise.

Stephan Kinsella said...

Sheldon: ""We should just be state-hating libertarians."

"Why should we hate only the state. Why not also the big companies that actively seek privileges at our expense?"

Oh, we should--that's implied by our hatred of the state, crime, statism, socialism, etc. But we should also oppose unions propped up by the state, recipients of welfare (of all types), and on and on. If I'm an anti-(state-propped)union person, I don't characterize myself as a union-cognizant libertarian. I'm just a libertarian. I don't see the left, anyway--which is riddled with hoary economic ideas and a fondness for socialism--as offering anything of value to libertarianism in terms of recognizing the evils of interventionism and corporatism.

Stephan Kinsella said...

Kevin:

""Further, I think you and Carson have to recognize that despite significant state intervention and distortion, we are still ridiculously wealthy by historical standards and it is because we have had (and continue to have) a free market to a considerable extent (even if it's heavily distorted and corrupted and burdened)."

"Stephan, you've stated this in even stronger terms in the past: the nature of the economy is defined more by its market elements than by its elements of statism, because it functions--and according to Mises, if it were primarily or fundamentally statist, it would be paralyzed by calculation problems."

I think you are giving undue stress to what was a tangential, tentative point of mine. And the point anyway does not support the "vulgar" perspective that we are essentially free economy [as one would look absent the state] except for a thin interventionist crust that needs to be scraped away". But it means we are free market enough that we do produce wealth still.

[to continue below]

Stephan Kinsella said...

(continued)

My argument there was essentially this. I do not disagree with you that the interventionism, the corporatism, is deep, and that it has corrupted and distorted the economy. I don't disagree the economy would look very different absent the state. I disagree that we can predict this as you and others do, or that we can predict that it would look more kibbutzy and localist, agrarian and self-sufficient, that large multinational enterprises and the division of labor and large-scale long-distance transportation of goods would largely wither away or at least substantially recede. I think this is possible but unlikely; in any event it is not easy (maybe not even possible) to show this, and I dont' think anyone has. I think you can do a good job showing the waste and injustice and distortion caused by the union of state and business (and state and.... education, unions, labor, workers, voters, justice, defense, roads, telecommunications, what have you), without having to contrast it to some other idealized scenario that you cannot be sure is the ideal to which to compare it anyway.

Now, those who argue that corporations are essentially criminal, or essentially "part" of the state--which it seems to me is an implication of more extreme version of this leftish-libertarian take on things--well, they would have to say we have a huge socialist command economy. BUt if so, it would be hampered in socialist calculation problems. Which means we would not be very productive. Now, it seems to me that despite state interventions and distortions, the US economy is still tremendously productive--so we must not be having a severe calculation problem--so we must not be socialist--so the corporations must not be arms of the state.

My argument -- which I am not sure about since it is highly qualitatives-- was basically, if we are so rich, there must be some non-state, free market buried beneath the massive state interventions. That was al. It was just a tentative thought, an interesting and perhaps creative way to apply Mises' calculation problem insights.

"It seems to me that this argument proves too much, though. If the standard for an economy being "free market to a considerable extent" is not suffering the kind of reversion to covered wagons and tallow candles we see at the end of Atlas Shrugged, then it follows that there's a very low threshold for "market elements" sufficient to permit calculation after a kind, the creation of wealth and technological innovation, etc. It's a threshold so low that even feudal Europe and the Soviet planned economy could function and advance."

You could be right. My arguments are not based on this little tentative insight.

In any event--so what? So you prove that (big?) corporations (?) are "so enmeshed" wiht the state that... what? they "are" the state? Okay. Anyway, we all oppose that, and we all recognize the terrible harms and injustice and distortions that arise from this entanglement--however you want to quantify and characterize it. This is still not any "leftist" insight.

Now, I would agree that if you take the mutualist view on occupancy, it does change how you would characterize things, but this rests on ideological and ethical perspectives.

"So to say that the Western economies have sufficient market elements to function and to increase wealth seems to be damning with faint praise."

Yes, but so what? We have some degree of capitalist market operation, but it is severely hampered and distorted. We know this. We all oppose the interventions and corporatism that give rise to it, as we oppose the end result.

Kevin Carson said...

"But it means we are free market enough that we do produce wealth still."

Sure. But it implies that the amount of market leavening necessary to keep producing wealth is very, very small. Either this means

1) that the threshold of market activity necessary to preserve a state-owned and state-planned economy from calculational chaos is so low as to render Mises calculation argument virtually meaningless and irrelevant aside from a caricature of statism which has never been remotely approached (at least outside of Cambodia), or

2) Calculational chaos becomes a matter of degree, and deviation from market price a matter of degree, so that progressive inefficiencies only render a system non-functional in cases that approach the "absolute zero" of market activity.

And in such a case, again, it's not saying much to argue that American style state capitalism contains sufficient market elements to create prosperty.

Sheldon Richman said...

For the record, I don't hate politically powerless recipients of welfare.

Stephan Kinsella said...

Kevin: ""But it means we are free market enough that we do produce wealth still."

"Sure. But it implies that the amount of market leavening necessary to keep producing wealth is very, very small."

This could be true. Or it could be that the market is so amazingly efficient (maybe at this technological stage) that it can generate tremendous wealth despite huge hampering. Perhaps you and I disagree on how much wealth is generated. I know a lot is fake GDP etc., but it seems to me indisputable that the hybrid market we have generates tremendous amounts of wealth and that this could not be possible in a severley socialized economy.

Anyway it's not relevant how we characterize it. My point there, IIRC, was to fight the characterization by some that nominallly private companies are not "really" private, that they "really" "are" "part of the state" and therefore have no right to their property--so that it's up for grabs, say by workers. I'm using a Misesian insight--loosely and qualitatively applied, I admit--to buttress an ethical point, which is also supported by criticizing some of the mutualist property norms as being unlibertarian.

"And in such a case, again, it's not saying much to argue that American style state capitalism contains sufficient market elements to create prosperty."

I agree. Regardless of this, I still oppose the view that companies do not own their property and that it may be taken from them by either law, state, squatters, occupiers, or workers.

Stephan Kinsella said...

Sheldon: "For the record, I don't hate politically powerless recipients of welfare."

Me neither, and I said welfare "of all sorts"--including corporate welfare, redistribution from poor/middle class to rich, etc. Not saying i hate them, but that we oppose this as libertarians. I assume you don't hate "corporations" either, right? I don't.

Sheldon Richman said...

The State can't control everything. There will always be larger or smaller zones of relative freedom. If we want to call that the free market, then the free market can take a lot of crap. But it doesn't negate the fact that a corporatist system exists with the purpose of maintaining control.

Stephan Kinsella said...

Sheldon: "The State can't control everything. There will always be larger or smaller zones of relative freedom. If we want to call that the free market, then the free market can take a lot of crap. But it doesn't negate the fact that a corporatist system exists with the purpose of maintaining control."

Agreed. I just don't see how any leftist prefix helps one see this at all. This is a libertarian insight.

Sheldon Richman said...

"I still oppose the view that companies do not own their property and that it may be taken from them by either law, state, squatters, occupiers, or workers."

This has not come up in this discussion, has it?

"I assume you don't hate "corporations" either, right? I don't."

I don't like fictitious persons.

Sheldon Richman said...

Stephan wonders about the value of the "left" prefix. There are good historical reasons for this: The right has been identified with the ruling establishment; Bastiat sat on the left side of the French assembly with Proudhon, etc. But there are other reasons. Since libertarianism is generally seen as "right-wing" and a hipper variant of conservatism, we have good grounds to broadcast our objection to that association, which has harmed us incalculably. We can insist that libertarianism is neither left nor right, but I suspect that just confuses lots of people who need to locate us on the map.

Stephan Kinsella said...

Sheldon,

""I assume you don't hate "corporations" either, right? I don't."

"I don't like fictitious persons."

Does this mean you *do* hate corporations? Wow. I don't think that's very defensible, if so. Especially given the fact that, as Hessen has explained, if you remove the state chartering grant and even limited liability, corporations could and would easily exist on the free market via simple contract law combined with a libertarian theory of causation and responsibilty. So if we abolish the state tomorrow Intel would still exist. would you hate it then?

"Stephan wonders about the value of the "left" prefix. There are good historical reasons for this: The right has been identified with the ruling establishment; Bastiat sat on the left side of the French assembly with Proudhon, etc. But there are other reasons. Since libertarianism is generally seen as "right-wing" and a hipper variant of conservatism, we have good grounds to broadcast our objection to that association, which has harmed us incalculably. We can insist that libertarianism is neither left nor right, but I suspect that just confuses lots of people who need to locate us on the map."

We ARE neither left nor right. This seems bizarre--are you seriously saying we should say we are left, even though we are not, just because the average person "needs" to locate us on the left-right spectrum?? Might as well just say we have to be either democrats or republicans (or centrists)--. Of course not. We are orthogonal. The fact that it's hard to get average people to understand this is the very reason we have statism. It doesn't mean we should accept the very paradigm that causes the problem in the first place. There is no tension between personal and economic liberties. We do not have to choose left or right. The left is as evil as the right is; we are neither.

Sheldon Richman said...

"are you seriously saying we should say we are left, even though we are not, just because the average person 'needs' to locate us on the left-right spectrum??"

This is addressed in the same comment you are responding to, Stephan.

I'm not persuaded that market contracts can get you to corporate personhood independent of the parties to the contracts. I know this has been thrashed out, but your case leaves me unimpressed. Carson's book has a good section on this.

Stephan Kinsella said...

"Since libertarianism is generally seen as "right-wing" and a hipper variant of conservatism, we have good grounds to broadcast our objection to that association, which has harmed us incalculably."

Agreed. But falsely labeling us left will also harm us.

"We can insist that libertarianism is neither left nor right,"

Yes, because it is not.

"but I suspect that just confuses lots of people who need to locate us on the map."

That may be, but it does not mean we are left or that we should call ourselves left. Left and right have mucked things up for too long. Time to have a fresh, sui generis approach--libertarianism.

MarkZ said...

I don't mean to butt in, but...

Stephan, your insistence that there must be a strong free market component to the US economy seems to ignore all the other factors that can give rise to wealth. For example, there might be some value in suppressing the rest of the world (militarily, politically, or otherwise), if the only goal is to boost the local economy. I guess it depends on the take.

In general, I think trying to derive the amount of 'free market-ness' of any given country's economic system based on their will give you very inconsistent answers.

D. Saul Weiner said...

I find that the point that Sheldon has made in this post to be an extremely timely one, considering the degree to which state intervention has screwed up our health care market. It's really too bad that this point was not better appreciated by the masses. If it were, then we might have seen a marked rollback in such intervention, rather than the monstrosity now making its way through Congress.

Neverfox said...

Stephan, I confused by your comments because at no point was the word "left" used in Sheldon's post nor was there any indication that he was claiming that the position was uniquely left-libertarian. It seemed clear to me that he was arguing for the proper libertarian (period) stance on the issue in the same way that you do all the time with, say, IP. It comes across a little like you are trying to pick a fight or that you are a little paranoid about a secret left-libertarian ambush.

Stephan Kinsella said...

Neverfox, I'm not picking a fight. I do assume and think Sheldon characterizes himself as a left-libertarian and he here even goes so far as to defend poor people on welfare but to decline to say he doesn't hate corporations because they are fictious people. I think we probably have a respectful disagreement here, what's wrong with that?

Sean Gabb said...

I'm also interested in the influence that Kevin Carson is having on the libertarian movement. Here is my own review of this book:

http://www.seangabb.co.uk/flcomm/flc184.htm

One of my resolutions for 2010 will be a longer and more critical review, in which I discuss not only where I am convinced, but where I am not at all convinced.

Sheldon Richman said...

Thank you, Sean. Your review has been in my Kindle and is on my soon-to-read list. I want to finish Kevin's book first. For a book that covers so much territory, I can be sure I will not agree everything in it. But I know that this is an important -- not to mention very impressive -- work. I'm enjoying reading.

Sean Gabb said...

Oh, it is an impressive book. Over on this side of the water two libertarians hardly meet nowadays, but the subject turns eventually to Kevin Carson. So much of what he says is true and powerfully said. At the same time, I do think he has often been unfair to other libertarians. And I think there are difficulties with his general line of thought. In particular, there is the fact that he oly approves of enterprise when it is truly without state involvement. The problem is that nearly all business involves the State. We may, therefore, find ourselves in the same position as the welfare economists, who believe that perfectly competitive markets are the only legitimate form of free enterprise, and who endorse state intervention in all the markets that are not perfectly competitive - ie, state socialism in the name of free markets.