Charles Davis on Juan Cole

Charles Davis has a good post up defending anarchy from the pen of fierce Libya-War supporter, Juan Cole:

Nominally about the recent GOP presidential debate, Cole’s attack on anarchy — from "anarcho-syndicalists like [Noam] Chomsky" to the aforementioned Paul — is perhaps a sign that liberals like him are fearful the anti-state position is gaining traction, especially given the conspicuous lack of change since liberal savior Barack Obama moved to the White House. Indeed, that would explain why, instead of addressing the world we live in now, where a Nobel laureate is waging war in at least half a dozen countries with the help of an army of private war-profiteering corporations and their mercenaries, Cole focuses our attention on a scary future where, without the state, "warmongering corporations [could] pursue war all on their own."

"The East India Companies of Britain and the Netherlands behaved that way," Cole writes. "[And] India was not conquered by the British government, but by the East India Company. Likewise what is now Indonesia was a project of the Dutch East India Company."

However, while intended as a critique of anarchism, Cole’s examples only bolster the critique of the state. The East India Companies, after all, were chartered by the British government, granted trade monopolies by the British government, and had their claim to properties, most of which were looted from poor foreigners, protected by the British government. And while I won’t claim to speak for Ron Paul, most anarchists — and it shows Cole’s muddled thinking that he lumps "limited government" advocates like Paul in with Pierre-Joseph Proudhon & Co. — don’t just oppose "the state," they oppose the use of violence and coercion. It just so happens that states with their claims to a "legitimate monopoly on the use of violence" tend to be the greatest purveyors of it.

If in some future anarchotopia a private corporation — let’s not get into the fact that corporations are created by the state — should wage war, then they would be acting like states and would be opposed just as vigorously. Indeed, to an anarchist the distinction between corporation and state is the same as a Christian’s distinction between God and Jesus: though taking different forms, they’re one and the same, the difference academic.

Of course, most corporations are not violent, whereas almost every iteration of government includes some sort of force. Then again, human nature being what it is, I have a hard time fully buying into anarchism. I still can’t quite figure out what would be done with violent criminals or the mentally ill who are a danger to themselves or others. Government rises up out of a need to be able to deal with problems such as these. It often just outgrows these initial, far more limited, uses. Absent the state, anarchists might very well oppose violence on the part of non-state entities. But what’s to be done when it’s not institutional violence, but simply a violent person? Some anarcho-capitalists advocate for a system of courts and nothing more. I simply can’t square how this all plays out. Perhaps I need to read more Proudhon.

First principles


I find myself largely in agreement with Freddie’s list of first principles, in spite of our various political and economic disagreements. This is interesting to me, because Freddie is very much an economic leftist, and I am very much a free-marketeer.

But we both believe in a robust social safety net; we both believe that civil liberties are the cornerstone of – not just democracy – but of a flourishing human society; we both believe that a broadly non-interventionist foreign policy is the best policy for America and the world; we both believe in some form of Keynesian countercyclical economic policy; we both believe in worker’s rights, though I find myself more and more of the opinion that workers need to organize and stand up for their own rights without the express backing of the state, which has historically only hampered and hobbled unions. We both believe in progressive taxation, though we may disagree on the particulars.

Freddie’s last point is not so much a first principle as it is a jab at the president:

I finally believe, on a purely tactical level, that rewarding bad behavior inevitably reinforces that behavior and ensures that it will continue. I don’t open the door when my dog whines to come in; I wouldn’t give a child throwing a tantrum the toy he is asking for. Capitulation to terrible behavior sends the unmistakable message that terrible behavior is rewarded and should be repeated.

This last one is hard. It could be applied to A) big banks who did not deserve to be bailed out or B) many state governments who badly mismanaged their money or C) the Republican Party who did not deserve to be elected back into office after the eight years of disaster under George W Bush or D) countless pundits who helped steer us into the dark waters we’re in today. The list goes on and on.

What’s interesting to me is that I largely agree with just about everything Freddie says in this post, though I know we have many disagreements as well. Which puts me to the left of Barack Obama. At the same time, I’m a big advocate of deregulation and a hands-off approach to the economy. Deregulate healthcare, let markets work, get government out of the economy. This, as I noted yesterday, can make me sound like a rightwinger in the current American context.

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Why progressives should be more libertarian

Matt Zwolinski has a really good piece up in the Daily Caller on why he’s a bleeding-heart libertarian, and why progressives should be more libertarian themselves. He lists seven reasons, and concludes:

[P]olitical disagreement does not always, or even usually, imply an irreconcilable conflict of fundamental values. Progressives and libertarians should realize that they share many more values in common than they probably think, and that their different political prescriptions are less the product of an epic battle of good vs. evil and more a function of reasonable disagreement regarding how to prioritize and realize their common goals. Even if disagreement persists, bearing this point in mind should make that disagreement a more civil and productive one.

It’s too bad, in a sense, that Matt didn’t get this published in The Nation or some other progressive outlet. But it’s a good liberaltarian piece, and you should read the whole thing.

See also, Steve Horwitz on libertarianism and power – a topic that’s gotten quite a lot of play in the comments at the main blog yesterday and today.

On So-Called “Public Service”

Kevin Carson has a brilliant post up at the Center for a Stateless Society on the problems with public services and public-private cronyism. This is all in response to Steven Cohen’s defense of public service workers.

Here’s Kevin:

Let me start by saying I’ve fallen afoul of many libertarians by defending public sector employees like those in Wisconsin against reflexive charges of parasitism.  If they’re engaged in a legitimate function like teaching kids or delivering mail that would still exist on a voluntary basis even in a stateless society, and the state currently crowds out voluntary alternatives, they’re no more blameworthy than the workers in Soviet state-owned factories.

And I’ve argued that public sector unions frequently empower such workers against those at the top rungs of the state, and might be a useful tool for genuine privatization — i.e., Proudhon’s vision of devolving state functions into voluntary social relationships.  That means, instead of the right-wing “privatization” agenda of auctioning off government functions to crony capitalist corporations, mutualizing them as consumer cooperatives owned by the recipients of services. Anyway, I’ll proudly back a teachers’ union local against a superintendent of schools, any day of the week.

Nevertheless, the term “public service” really activates my gag reflex.  Like “statesmanship” and “reaching across the aisle,” it belongs in the kind of drinking game you play when you see managerial centrist hacks like David Gergen, Chris Matthews and David Brooks gathering to feed on a cable news talking head show.

He goes on to list the many problems with public servants including cops planting evidence, the fondling TSA and their captive “clientele”, and the prison guard and police unions and their efforts to sustain the Drug War; the politicians who start wars and the massive public-private partnerships that entrench many of the world’s largest corporations, sustain monopolies and duopolies, and the rentier class.

It’s not hard to be against the crony-capitalism, but it’s much thornier once you start talking about actual workers. Obviously even the police do a great deal of good, even if the system in which they work is heavily tilted to preserve privilege and keep the masses down. I think it’s good to differentiate between the workers and the system, as Kevin does with teachers. You don’t have to approve of the political force of the unions to understand that they’re in place to help protect workers against bureaucrats. Civil service laws were written to do the same thing.

But the system, the institutions, the cronyism – these all transcend the workers or the service being provided. Institutions seek self-preservation first and foremost. That’s why government and corporations team up to begin with. They scratch each other’s backs until the whole world bleeds.

Mark puts it well in the comments:

I think what Kevin is trying to get at is that the use of the phrase "public service" as a synonym for anything done in the name of the government winds up being a cover for all the things the government does that would be anything but a "public service" under any rational definition of the word.  Moreover, I think Carson would say, a true "public service" is not rendered as such solely by virtue of the employer signing the paychecks.

The phrase elevates government work as being somehow inherently more noble than so-called "private sector" work when in fact, I think Carson would say, it is really not inherently any different (this implies that so-called "private sector" work is also no more noble than government work).

On classical liberalism

Matt Yglesias:

An idiosyncratic intellectual project of mine is trying to rescue classical liberalism’s good name from the clutches of contemporary libertarianism. A big issue here is that classical liberals were very concerned with binding resource constraints. In their day, that meant primarily arable land. John Locke, for example, famously noted that individual appropriation of land as property was legitimate “at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others.”

The particular problem of arable land isn’t a big deal in a modern rich democracy. But the basic issue that individualistic solutions don’t work when you have binding resource constraints is applicable to a lot of modern day issues. The atmosphere has a finite ability to absorb carbon dioxide emissions before we hit some kind of devastating climate tipping point. It’s striking that seven of the world’s ten highest revenue firmsare in the oil business. And a huge share of the recent action in the high-tech space is intimately bound up with the finite quantity of radio spectrum. Tim Lee, who identifies as a libertarian but who I see eye to eye with a huge range of issues, has a thoughtful post about the application of these Lockean issues to the AT&T/T-Mobile merger.

Meanwhile, for the countervailing forces ledger note that the Communications Workers of America are strong proponents of the merger because AT&T is unionized and they think this will help them organize T-Mobile’s workers.

This is something of an idiosyncratic intellectual project of mine as well, though I haven’t settled on whether I’m trying to rescue classical liberalism from contemporary libertarianism or rescue liberalism from the clutches of technocratic progressivism. Maybe both.

It’s also quite possible that I’m just in it for the money.


Who brings von Mises to the beach?

Apparently Michelle Bachmann:

Ms. Bachmann is best known for her conservative activism on issues like abortion, but what I want to talk about today is economics. When I ask who she reads on the subject, she responds that she admires the late Milton Friedman as well as Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams. “I’m also an Art Laffer fiend—we’re very close,” she adds. “And [Ludwig] von Mises. I love von Mises,” getting excited and rattling off some of his classics like “Human Action” and “Bureaucracy.” “When I go on vacation and I lay on the beach, I bring von Mises.”

I guess it’s time for her to do her Five Books.

The Five Books piece with Mitch Daniels was actually when I started to become somewhat fond of the Indiana governor. It’s a shame he’s not running.

Somehow I doubt Bachmann’s von Mises beach-reading would have the same effect on me.