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Saturday, March 20, 2010

Block Says Yes to Capitalism

My old friend Walter Block (we've known each other about 40 years) has written a rebuttal of my views on the value, or lack thereof, of the word capitalism to free-market radicals. As if to make my case, Block writes:
If U.S. Presidents such as George Bush (41st or 43rd), Dwight D. Eisenhower, Gerald Ford, Herbert Hoover, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan are widely considered capitalist supporters, and they are, then I, along with Libertarians Against Capitalism [my Facebook group], want no part of this moniker.
Then after naming a slew of conservatives and neoconservatives who use the word capitalism in ways he does not like, Block says:
If they support capitalism, and they are widely seen to do so, then I, too, along with called Libertarians Against Capitalism, oppose it. For the "capitalism" of these people includes as a central tenet war, militarism and imperialism. They may call it "American Greatness," but what it amounts to is the U.S. tossing its military weight all around the world, in a totally unjustified manner.
So, "Reading the above, one might infer that I am as good a candidate as any other libertarian to join Libertarians Against Capitalism."

Alas, "Not so, not so."
My main reason is not etymological but rather linguistic. I readily admit that "capitalism" has a bad press, and its historical use is none too salutary either. But, the enemies of libertarianism are always trying to take words away from us. ...Some have recently [!] had the audacity to try to take away the word "libertarian." I refer, here, to Noam Chomsky, who has the temerity to characterize himself as a libertarian.
Whoa! Block needs to read some history. If anything, we took it from them (to make up for the loss of liberal) ! Libertarian was used by left-wing Spanish anarchists during the 1930s civil war; they were no friends of private property and free trade. Going back further, the word was used by anarcho-socialists after the fall of the Paris Commune in 1871 because the word anarchist could land them in a heap of trouble. I doubt Block would regard those libertarians as comrades. The French word Libertaire appears to be the origin of our word libertarian, and it seems to have had nothing to do with what Block wants to call capitalism. Quite the opposite.

Even if you can find an earlier free-market advocate who used the word (can you?), there is no case that Chomsky's use of it constitutes a case of "attempted theft," as Block charges.

But let that pass.

"So, I beseech Sheldon Richman and the other members of Libertarians Against Capitalism to disband their group," Block concludes, "and, instead, work with the rest of us to save as many words as we can for our own use."

Sorry, can't do it, old friend. It's not worth the candle. The word was tainted from the start -- free-market radicals used it disparagingly -- and it has never lost its taint, despite the efforts of Mises and Rand. It creates confusion not clarity. We have perfectly good words for what we want: the free market and laissez faire, voluntarism and market anarchism.

We don't need the poisonous word capitalism.


Kevin Carson said...

A couple of points Block misses:

First, as you point out, that word that's "being taken away from us" was arbitrarily redefined by people like Mises using something like the Humpty Dumpty rule.

And second, it wasn't just that "capitalism" was originally used by enemies of the free market. It was used by *everybody* (including not only free market radicals like Hodgskin but mainstream capitalist apologists) though the 19th century to refer to the actually existing economic system they lived under.

Sheldon Richman said...

I note that John Taylor of Caroline and Destutt de Tracy both used capitalist in a way that did not suggest admiration.

Puck T. Smith said...

I'm wondering what the brouhaha is about. What it boils down to is your position on private property.

Gary Chartier said...

Puck, I think it also has to do with some other issues:

1. Which groups use "capitalism" as a label for what they prefer, and which groups use it as a label fo what they oppose? With which of these groups would you like to ally?

2. Who would you like to see as the dominant players in your society and on the global stage?

3. Is our current economic system very much like a free market, as regards the rules by which it operates?

4. Does large-scale, systematic dispossession, generally to the benefit of those currently in socially, politically, and economically prominent positions, lie behind the distribution of resources in our society?