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Dec 14, 2011 9:05 pm


Some Distinctions and Clarifications



I want to talk a bit a bit some of the ways in which left-libertarian claims are susceptible of misinterpretation. (Note: when I use the term “right-libertarian” below, I mean “libertarians who deviate rightward from the C4SS/ALL plumbline”!)

1. Right-libertarians sometimes accuse left-libertarians of misrepresenting right-libertarians’ relation to corporatism. “They say we support government favouritism toward big business,” they complain, “yet no libertarian supports any such thing.”

To answer this, I need to invoke the de re / de dicto distinction.

Ozma of Oz

Suppose I’m reading Ozma of Oz, and I think, “hey, this guy Baum is a good author.” Assume I don’t know that Baum also wrote a novel (a lousy one, in fact, though that doesn’t matter for the example) called The Master Key. Would it be true or false to say, “Roderick thinks the author of The Master Key is a good author”?

Well, it’s ambiguous. I don’t have a thought of the form “The author of The Master Key is a good author,” since I’m not aware of any such book. But I do think of Baum that he’s a good author; and since Baum is the author of The Master Key, I thereby think of the author of The Master Key that he’s a good author. So the philosopher’s way of marking the distinction is to say that I believe de re (“of the thing”), but not de dicto (“of what is said”), that the author of The Master Key is a good author.

Or again, suppose I want to marry Griselda. And suppose Griselda is, unbeknownst to me, a pathological liar. Then is it true or false that I want to marry a pathological liar? Well, in one sense it’s true and in another sense it’s false. I don’t have such a desire de dicto; I don’t form any thought expressible as “I want to marry a pathological liar.” But I do have such a desire de re, since there’s a pathological liar that I want to marry.

So when left-libertarians accuse (some) right-libertarians of supporting corporatism, this is to be understood in a de re sense, not in a de dicto sense. Thus the claim is that right-libertarians are supporting certain policies/institutions/phenomena that are in fact instances of corporatism; we are not claiming that right-libertarians are deliberately supporting them qua instances of corporatism – and so pointing out that they’re not is not relevant as a reply to the original point.

2. The left-libertarian call for worker empowerment can itself be construed as a (left-wing) form of corporatism.

Lew Rockwell recently wrote:

[S]yndicalism means economic control by the producers. Capitalism is different. It places by virtue of market structures all control in the hands of the consumers. The only question for syndicalists, then, is which producers are going to enjoy political privilege. It might be the workers, but it can also be the largest corporations.

not a left-libertarian

not a left-libertarian

Lew doesn’t draw the inference that left-libertarians are corporatists, but he illuminates a way in which that inference might be drawn. After all, we too favour economic control by producers, right? So why doesn’t that make our position akin to corporatism?

I think there’s a perilous ambiguity here. In one way, “economic control” can mean ownership; in that sense, we left-libertarians do favour economic control by producers.

But in that sense capitalists (taking that term in the Rothbardian sense) do not favour economic control by consumers; they favour economic control by producers too, even if capitalist employers loom larger in their conception of “producers” than in ours.

When Lew says that capitalism favours consumer control, he’s not talking about ownership; he means that consumer preferences determine production decisions through the price system – which is true enough (although I think that way of putting it makes producers seem too passive – what about advertising? entrepreneurial experimentation?) but that’s just as true when the producers are workers’ co-ops. So there’s no one sense of producer control which is both advocated by left-libertarians and akin to corporatism.

(These issues are closely related to those I’ve discussed under the name of the “POOTMOP” problem, here and here, as well as to the different ways that the libertarian and authoritarian wings of the French industriel movement understood the concept of producer control, discussed here.)

3. There is a tendency among right-libertarians to treat racism and sexism as equivalent to hostility toward persons of a different race or gender. Thus where such hostility is absent, racism and sexism are presumed to be absent also – with the upshot that left-libertarians are seen as exaggerating the amount of racism and sexism around.

anti-Japanese sign

For example, Walter Block argues that because heterosexual male employers are attracted to women, they are more likely to be prejudiced in their favour rather than against them.

But racism and sexism are found in more forms than simply that of hostility (not that there isn’t plenty of that form around too – and we all know, too well, that being a heterosexual male is not exactly an obstacle to hostility against women). A white male employer who feels no hostility toward women or minorities may still be inclined to pay them less or deny them positions of authority if he holds, say, prejudicial expectations about their likely capacities.

But what if these expectations are rationally justified? The problem is that they generally aren’t. And the arguments on behalf of such expectations are so shockingly sloppy (as, e.g., Anne Fausto-Sterling shows), and the historical track record of such arguments is so wretched, that an employer’s indulgence in such expectations is overwhelmingly likely to be the result of an irrational bias, most often one unconsciously absorbed from the culture. In such cases we will say that the empoyer’s decision is shaped by racism or sexism – but in saying that, we are not (necessarily) saying that the employer is an evil, hate-filled person. After all, by analogy: most people are statists, but that doesn’t mean that most people are filled with hated for individual liberty.

Walter says in the same piece that the persistence of unjustified racist or sexist prejudices is unlikely, since “as we know from our study of business cycles, any such conglomeration of error cannot long endure without continued statist interference with markets.” Now of course we have “continued statist interference with markets,” so for anything Walter says here we could still have plenty of prejudice in the real world. But in any case I question the implied (and un-Austrian!) assumption that the market always gets us to equilibrium in the long run. There’s a difference between saying that the market has a tendency to equilibrium and saying that the market eventually reaches equilibrium. After all, everything on earth has a tendency to move toward the center of the earth, but that doesn’t mean that everything eventually gets to the center of the earth. Culture matters; it’s not just an epiphenomenon of the price system.

And of course, comme l’on dit, “we are market forces.”


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