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What Social Animals Owe to Each Other

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Libertarian Socialism?

Some people have a hard time seeing how a libertarian could call himself or herself a socialist. I understand the confusion. But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this was far less a mystery. In market anarchist Benjamin Tucker's day, socialism was more an umbrella term than it is today. It essentially included anyone who thought the reigning political economy -- which they called capitalism (and saw as a system of state privilege for the employer class) -- denied workers the full product they would have been earning in some alternative system. The Tuckerite socialists' alternative was full laissez faire -- without patents, tariffs, government-backed money/banking, government land control, etc. The collectivist socialists had some nonmarket system in mind. The point is that socialism was more a negative statement -- against capitalism -- than a unified positive agenda on behalf of a specific alternative system.

Some might say that the common element for all these variants of socialism was a belief in the labor theory of value. But it may be more precise to say that the comment element was more general: namely, that workers were cheated by the reigning system. That need not commit one to the labor theory. (On the relationship between cost of production and price in Austrian economics, see my "Value, Cost, Marginal Utility, and Böhm-Bawerk.") In fact, Austrian economics contains an implicit exploitation theory, which was made explicit by Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk. As I wrote in "Austrian Exploitation Theory":
Böhm-Bawerk was merely applying the more general exploitation theory held by free-market thinkers at least back to Adam Smith: Monopolies and oligopolies (suppressed competition) harm consumers and workers through higher prices and lower wages. For Smith monopoly was essentially the result of government privilege. This largely has been the view of later Austrians, also.
This should be uncontroversial. In the corporate state, government privilege restricts competition among employers in a variety of ways and -- just as important, if not more so -- forecloses or raises the cost of self-employment and other alternatives to traditional wage labor. So worker bargaining power is reduced. The difference between what workers would have made in a freed market and what they actually make represents systemic exploitation.

I'm not saying that libertarians should call themselves socialists today. That would not communicate well. But this semantic history has its value.


thombrogan said...

Brad Spangler wrote an essay in "Markets Not Capitalism" that explained why anarcho-capitalists are better described by the term stigmergic socialists. After I stopped weeping and uncoiled from my fetal position, the world hadn't collapsed. Actually, all of you guys made me sad, but Spangler was my tipping point.

Stephan Kinsella said...

Hoppe has also written on exploitation theory from a libertarian-Austrian direction -- See here.

As for Tucker, he was against patent, but even he, like lots of the earlier anarchists, was confused on some basic economic issues, the “land” question, etc.–this latter issue even corrupted his heroic opposition to IP: his argument against IP is that it is based on the idea that you own the products of labor (“he who first takes possession of any material production of nature”), but that this would imply you can own land. And we know we can’t have ownership of land, therefore the principle behind IP must be flawed too. See http://fair-use.org/liberty/1891/03/21/land-monopoly-and-literary-monopoly.

Sheldon Richman said...

Here's something I should have added to the post:

Long ago it occurred to me that political-economic theories ought to have been divided into two broad categories: socialism and statism. The reason should be obvious. The locus of decision-making can lie in either society (the voluntary sector) or the state (the sector of aggression). Of course, some combination is possible. Anarcho-libertarians and anarchist/voluntarists of all other stripes choose society exclusively. Everyone else to some degree wants decisions made in the state sector.

What about individualism? It's subsumed under socialism. Human beings are social animals, and while it is always individuals that make decisions, the overall social effect can be greater than the sum of its parts. I can choose not to buy books from Borders, but I alone could not have brought the company to bankruptcy. That took many people deciding not to buy books there, though not necessary in concert.

Individualists can be socialists too.

Sheldon Richman said...

Stephan, I think Tucker's essay on land and ideas raises a real concern for libertarians. (Herbert Spencer had a similar concern.) I'm not saying Tucker's position on land ownership is right, but as a libertarian I would be uncomfortable if I witnessed the scenario he describes. I find mutualism's position on land attractive even if I'm not convinced it is valid.

thombrogan said...

Curse you, Kinsella, for linking to the teaser article instead of the book. ;) Just read chapter 4 and found most of my initial "yeah but" thoughts addressed as Hoppe went further on. Hoppe's prescriptions for expropriated property listed elsewhere; return to rightful owners when possible and otherwise use a variant of anarcho-syndaclism in other cases; tend to put him squarely in the stigmergic socialist camp.

Sheldon Richman said...

The scenario Tucker sets out is not very likely, since it suggests a vast area of unowned land and with nothing to stop others from fencing off pieces of it and thwarting the would-be monopolist. But the scenario is not a priori impossible.

Anonymous said...

Ha Kinsella I totally was about to mention those same two things.

First Hoppes excellent rehabilitation of Marxian exploitation theory, phrasing it in Austro-libertarian terms.

Second is the economic confusions of thinkers like Tucker. I believe Spooner as well has some confused ideas about money, the amount of money they thought should be in society, etc.

However I definitely do see the value in their work, despite their idiosyncrasies.

thombrogan said...

Just read Roderick Long's Critique of Carson On Property Rights and the No Proviso Lockean position he takes as more valid than Carson and Proudhon's position puts Long in the same playpen as Hoppe.

The difference, I think, is in Hoppe's insistence on divorcing laissez-faire markets from capitalism as it has existed from the enclosure movement onward while insisting on keeping the same name. It probably boils down to agreeing with thick libertarianism without wanting to look fat.

The brouhaha against anarchists that identify themselves as socialists or communists seems to be equally more about appearances than form (though, again, the slight difference between Proviso and Non-Proviso Lockeans can reach chasmlike proportions). For when not waiving aside state-granted lands, licenses, and privileges of the past and their role in the present, the common ground of the non-statist capitalists and non-statist socialists is one of mostly complete overlap.

Or, as should not be dismissed, I rival Professor Reisman in poor reading comprehension (which might explain why "Capitalism: A Treatise On Economics" was emotionally appealing to me for so long...).