On the surface, a recent post on Walking Upstream called “Libertarianism: Coercion Seen Through a Fun House Mirror” may not look like something libertarians should embrace. Upon deeper reflection though, it is exactly the kind of thinking about our current corporatist economic system that libertarians need to embrace (and are doing more of) to become part of a broader populist movement.
The most striking portion of the post highlighted why unequal power relations are the natural breading grounds for injustice. To name the most obvious that come to mind to me, power comes in many forms: economic, psychological, political, social and physical. As the state demonstrates, it is pretty apparent that centralized power becomes self-serving and oppressive. I think libertarians are reluctant to criticize certain forms of power, like economic power, because the commonplace response is to mobilize big government as the countervailing power to big business.
From an outsider’s perspective, that reluctance on behalf of libertarians to criticize corrupt non-political power looks like an endorsement though. For some, they may indeed support libertarianism out of a belief that non-political forms of power may gain strength in the absence of the heavy hand of government. I think they are wrong. Big business is heavily dependent on big government’s privileged subsidies and protections from competition to stay upright. Big government acts less as a restraint to cut big business down to size than it does as a crutch to keep big business from falling under the weight of its own diseconomies of scale.
Seeing that being able to make reasoned judgements is what distinguishes Mankind from other animals, libertarians oppose aggression because an aggressor thwarts the victim’s judgements for how to live his or her life. Notwithstanding, maintaining significantly greater degrees of power over another is bound to play a part shaping the less powerful person’s decisions. Equally important, opposing subordination does not necessarily endorse any particular means of discharging of that power. Subordination comes in different degrees and different kinds through different forms of power. As Gary Chartier said, “Acknowledging the reality of subordination as morally objectionable need not involve erasing moral differences among kinds of subordination or responses to them.”
A memorable lines from Frederic Bastiat’s The Law really elaborates on this point when he criticizes state socialists for not recognizing the difference between society and the state, so that “every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all. … We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain.” His point was that because someone has a worthy goal, that does not mean state coercion, or any coercion at all, is the most proper means of achieving that goal.
An Opportunity to Clarify
Another good thing about the post is that some really cogent challenges are made of libertarianism. I think those points can be resolved with some added clarity, but for simplicity’s sake I’ll address what I think are the two most fundamental points. I can’t speak for all libertarians, so I’ll try to speak as broadly as possible.
One of the first challenges made against libertarianism is that there is not currently, nor ever can be, a free market. The point is made that any economic system is going to have some sort of framework or rules that prohibit or sanction certain activities. If challenged, conservatives would probably even concede that the financial success of behemoth corporations like Walmart and Northrop Grumman are not a reflection their performance on a free market. It is also a fair point that no economic system is going to be truly unregulated, which is also something libertarians rightly acknowledge. However, libertarians are not using “free” to connote unrestrained or costless. After all, it would be just as easy (and empty) a criticism to point out that nothing is free (of opportunity costs at least) on the free market. Libertarians are using the word “free” in a particular political context. To be free means to exercise one’s own will (within the context of honoring the will of others to exercise their rights). Prohibitions on theft, fraud, murder and slavery (all means of negating another’s will) is evidence of that libertarians understand the conditions necessary for a free market to exist. Regulations on (direct and indirect) aggression are not interventions into a free market since an economic system that condoned aggression would not be a free market in the first place. So when libertarians object to regulations, the implicit understanding is that they are addressing government regulatory controls that interpose on a free(d) market.
To intercept a possible objection, the so-called freedom to violate another’s freedom is a logical contradiction since it denies the very basis of freedom, our equality. So prohibitions on the initiation of force do not restrain freedom since the so-called freedom to initiate force does not exists. Ayn Rand reiterated, “Within the sphere of your own rights, your freedom is absolute.” As Jim May wrote recently,
It is not society that sets that boundary — it is the moral principle itself which does this, by its internal logic. Individual rights are thusly logically self-limiting, and self-constraining. Society’s role, properly constituted, is simply to recognize and enforce these logical, moral boundaries between men — not to author them.
A second criticism is that “The concept of ownership is a form of coercion.” I don’t think the author literally meant the concept of ownership, but perhaps the practice of ownership. In any case, the statement is conveying a common composition fallacy. Because the characteristic of a component of ownership, the right to defend one’s property, involves coercion, then the entire whole of ownership is coercive. A simple analogy reveals the logical error. An atom is invisible to the naked eye; cats are made of atoms, so cats are invisible to the naked eye.
In regards to ownership, a person’s action is voluntary or coercive based on that person’s relationship with the property being owned. In that case, the ownership (e.g., the right to the possession, use, disposal, and defense) of property is voluntary from beginning to end. The owner of a property is perfectly free to possess his or her property, to use it, and to dispose of the property. To note, it is not even incumbent upon an owner to use coercion to defend the property. Pacifists libertarians (like the late Robert LeFevre) are steadfast proponents of the ownership of property, and there is nothing internally inconsistent with supporting the ownership of property and renouncing retaliatory coercion. In fact, a mature free market society would likely recognize the destructive nature of punitive punishments like execution, imprisonment and fines and instead favor restitution practices that made victims whole again to the greatest extent possible and put offenders on a path to living independently and not off the enterprise of others.
Now with respect to that which is his or her own property, a person is not acting against the will or without the permission of anyone by defending it. Thus with respect to that which is his or her property, a property owner is acting voluntarily by choosing or not to defend the property from coercion.
Consider the actions of a non-owner. With respect to that which is not his or her own property, a non-owner exercising the rights of ownership is acting against the will or without the permission of the property owner. Thus a non-owner’s action, with respect to that which is not his or her property, would be coercive if the owner disapproved of it. Moreover, an aggressor has by his or her own will created a debt owned to his or her victim, who is entitled to exercise rights over that debt, including collecting it. If the aggressor continues to put up roadblocks to prevent the collection of debt by the rightful owner, the aggressor is doing so voluntarily and only has to end his continued acts of coercion against the owner (or owner’s agent) of the debt for coercion against the aggressor to halt.
It also occurs to me that the idea that ownership is a form of coercion could also be committing the fallacy of the stolen concept. In order to grasp and accept as proper the concept of ownership, a person first has to grasp that a person can use property voluntarily (according to his or her own will) to even make the distinction between voluntary and (involuntary) coercive use of a property. I am not so sure though, and I could definitely be stood corrected.
Genuinely leftist ends are perfectly compatible with a libertarian theory of justice that responds in proportion and in kind to undesirable exercises of power. I would also grant that in a mixed economy like ours, the distinction between economic and political power is not always so clear. That is the danger of superficially dismissing criticisms (or worse rationalizing justifications) of the wretched treatment of employees by an employer, for example.
Another lesson libertarians might take away is that it is worthwhile to elaborate why and how the state undermines genuinely positive practices like democracy, social safety nets and property ownership for nefarious ends.
Ultimately, a libertarian movement will never get off the ground if cultural attitudes continue to condone general practices of social hierarchy, of which the state is probably the most visible figure. In that light, the legitimacy of the state is diminished when people regain decision-making power over their own lives. If nothing else, breaking up oppressive power (through economic and social means like mutual aid) is how libertarians can take the lead to enjoy immediately the benefits of the new world, in the shell of the old.