Home > Politics > An Overview of my Argument

An Overview of my Argument

I’ve been asked to do a short talk about the book I am writing so I thought this would be a good opportunity to provide a very high level outline of where I’m heading. I’d like to sketch out here in very broad brushstrokes an overall thesis, tying together some of things that have already been discussed here, and leaving for future posts the details of the remainder. Where I can, I will make links here to more detailed arguments that I have made in past posts. The remaining arguments will be regrettably brief but I will endeavour to flesh them as I progress with the book.

The case I am making is against the ideology known as “political libertarianism”. It is closely related to an economic doctrine called “neoliberalism” and the arguments I make will count against both. These doctrines are typical of the “new right” in politics, the motivations of people such as Reagan and Thatcher, but also in practice of the likes of Blair, Clinton, and Cameron. All of these have sought to “roll back the state” and to promote free market capitalism based on variations of these philosophies.

The libertarian argument is, very roughly:
1. Liberty is an absence of coercion, where coercion means physical force or the threat thereof. This is the so-called “negative” definition of liberty.
2. People have the right to liberty. Therefore the rights that people have are limited to protection against coercion. Coercion is only permissible in preventing coercion.
3. Private property can only be transferred between two parties voluntarily. This is mostly free exchange (in a market or otherwise), or in the form of gifts or bequests (e.g. inheritance). Any other mode of property transfer is coercive and therefore a violation of people’s rights.
4. The state should only involve itself in protecting people’s rights. Therefore, the state should limit itself primarily to protecting private property.
5. Taxation and the provision of welfare and services to the members a society is a violation of liberty because it requires taking resources from some to provide to others. Similarly, regulation of commerce, labour conditions, and so forth limit free exchange and, hence, liberty
6. Free market capitalism consists of voluntary exchanges, so a) the free market is the only valid manifestation of liberty and b) the state should support the free market.

In philosophical terms these claims are indefensible. In practical terms they are unsustainable.

Here, as briefly as possible, are the top-level philosophical objections.

The idea that liberty means non-coercion is simply too narrow and does not reflect any reasonable notion of what it means to be free. Freedom is not just something that individuals have. It is a function of the relationships between people in a shared real world. Libertarians conflate liberty with choice, or “revealed preferences”. But we cannot infer freedom from the fact that people choose between some options. People under dictatorships typically go along with it without struggle, and, in that sense, make choices within that context, but they cannot be said to be free. The nature of the options available to a person, and how they are shaped by the choices of others, is an important component of liberty. Arguing for freedom-as-choice, Robert Nozick was able to defend voluntary slavery as compatible with liberty. He could only do so by ignoring the likelihood that a person is very likely not free before they make such an appalling “choice”. A more plausible definition of liberty is “non-domination”. Domination implies that a person or group has significant control over the life options of others. I can dominate you and bend your will to my ends simply by having something you need. Coercion is simply the extreme point of domination and cannot exist without domination already being present. They need not resort to actual coercion to impose this control. People can be perfectly unfree before coercion need be employed (in fact, a recourse to actual coercion might point to imperfect domination). Our interaction with others is grounded in relative bargaining positions, often very asymmetrical, and it is here that we find the spectre of domination.

The idea of rights goes well beyond the prevention of coercion. Rights are social devices that protect us from “standard threats”.  The common right-wing view suggests that rights exist to protect us from the state. This is only half the story. Rights exist to mutually protect us from each other (including but in no way limited to the uses that some would put the state to). This extends the notion of rights well beyond simply preventing us from the coercion of the state. Bargaining asymmetries are an important site of standard threats and a variety of rights may be needed to effect protection.

The notion of private property, in the hands of libertarian thought, suffers from numerous problems. It is common for the ownership of property to be conflated with the ownership of one’s self – Nozick, for instance, segues between objecting to the redistribution of bodily organs, talents, and other personal attributes, to objecting to the redistribution of wealth and material goods. But the two are importantly distinct. Interfering with a person’s body and mind is a very different prospect to interfering with their property. Property ownership is a relationship to the external world. It is, importantly, a relationship between not just the owner and a thing but all people and a thing.

The property relationship is one of tyranny as much as it is one of freedom. A person’s property defines their own little dictatorship. It is a limit on the freedom of what everyone else in the world can do with that thing. It is not clear that any individual can or even should have such a unique control over any part of the external and shared world. We all need physical resources to pursue nearly all of our goals in life. Exclusive control of some resources that we can use to directly pursue our goals is thus an essential precondition to any reasonable notion of liberty. But property is also held that is not directly needed by a person. We live in a complex world where our goals can typically only be fulfilled by cooperating with others. So property can also be used as leverage against people who have the things or skills that we need to pursue our goals. Beyond that, it can simply be used as a coarser lever against others to bend to one’s will. It is here that the prime threat to liberty exists. The question is how much control over the resources needed by others is compatible with liberty.

Property exchange is both subject to, and heavily influenced by its outcomes, asymmetries of bargaining positions. It is not the only component of bargaining advantage but is surely the most important. Other components, like the very important informational advantage, and the ability to develop innate talents, are heavily influenced by property control. The relationship between property ownership and bargaining advantage is the primary contributor to the fact that property tends to concentrate in a small number of hands (anyone who can grasp compound interest can understand this, I think). It is simply not the case, as libertarians claim, that the transfer of property according to some “rules of the game” automatically produces just and fair results – the content of the rules matter very much.

Property rights are, on the whole, instrumental – they exist to serve other, more important, goals that we may have. Clearly they cannot protect these goals if the role of the state is limited to purely protecting existing property holdings. For property rights to be effective in asserting our liberty they must ensure that a) all people have some amount of guaranteed property, both for direct personal use and for exchange, and b) differentials in property ownership do not become so large as to create intolerable differences in bargaining relations. Property ownership, unchecked, contains both the seeds and the mechanism of domination. The protection of unlimited property accumulation is not a defence of liberty but a defence of power. Not only is the redistribution of wealth not necessarily a violation of liberty (or no worse than the violation inherent in defending property rights) – it is a necessary precondition to the preservation of it. Liberty and equality are not at all opposites as is often claimed.

In some cases it is preferable to protect more directly the things that people need rather than leave it to the indirect means of private property ownership and the markets. Provision of rights to health care and education fit this bill. Their contribution to bargaining positions makes it important to ensure that access to them is not subject to pre-existing bargaining advantages. The state has a clear role here that goes well beyond simply facilitating open markets.

Finally, the kinds of property that we permit in a society are important. In the not so distant past it was thought perfectly ok to own people as property. Laws in many parts still treat spouses as property in important ways. Today, the dominant form of productive ownership, the investor-owner share/stock model, is effectively the ownership of the productivity of workers (the argument on this is long, and for another day). This is no great advance on feudalism, and the arguments that defend it are flimsy to say the least. The resulting businesses look uncomfortably like authoritarian systems. They are also one of the greatest sources of compounding inequalities. A society built around worker-owned cooperative enterprises is a necessary step to fixing this.

So much for the philosophical case. What, then, of the practical objections? I can only discuss a couple of points here, but these are especially important.

It is orthodox in right-wing economics that market transactions capture everything of relevance to the world. This is patently false. Every transaction carries potential costs, risks, and benefits to people who are not involved in the transaction. Economists call these “externalities”, or third-party effects. Most discussion limits these to physical effects like pollution (and more recently, climate effects). These are very important and illuminate much in what is wrong with the property and market models. What is much less discussed is what I call “social externalities” – the side-effects of markets on people across a society. These include poverty, unemployment, crime, social instability and many other things. In an increasingly complex and interdependent world risks taken by some are leaked onto others who had no part in choosing them: risks are increasingly social. Growing inequality and, with it, growing disparities of bargaining positions have compounded the problem by making it much easier for powerful actors to shirk risk while retaining the profits (again, compounding their advantages). The banking crisis of 2008 is a dramatic example of this. Both redistribution (understood here not as welfare but as insurance) and regulation have crucial roles to play in this.

Closely related to this is the notion that private ownership ensures the best use and conservation of a resource – neoliberals would say “something that is owned by everyone is owned by no one”. This bears little scrutiny. Capitalism has an appalling track record of conservation and it can only get worse. Markets hold notoriously short-term and myopic views. An individual owning a rainforest will as soon sell or destroy it to make a profit and move on to some other profitable activity with the gains than preserve it for future use. Private ownership denies a voice to many interested parties (including the not yet existing parties of future generations). Self-interest, of the mythical “rational” type or otherwise, has little room for the consideration of others.

Markets may be blind to race, religion and gender (although this claim is much exaggerated – they are very much alive to wealth). But they are also blind to need. Market demand only recognises the presence of purchasing power, and gross inequality also means that the productive powers of a society are weighed heavily towards fulfilling the wants of the best off. The conservative argument is that the worse off benefit because the rich serve as “early adopters” and pay the price of research and so forth, paving the way to luxuries become available to the poor. This claim, like others, is greatly overstated and depends very much on the gap between the wealthy and the poor being reasonably close. (Never mind that it has been overwhelmingly the middle classes who have served this role in the last century). It also ensures that many of the things that poor need that already exist (like healthcare) are priced to suit the rich and kept out of reach of the poor. This has been even more evident in the inflation of house prices by wealthy “speculators” which did much to create the debt conditions leading to the “sub-prime crisis”, and the following financial crisis.

Finally, the overall structure of capitalism has no end-goal. It relies on perpetual growth and a form of economic obesity. Over the last two centuries we have moved from a producer economy to a consumer economy. The mechanism of capitalism has been useful in raising our capacities to meet our material needs. (The jury is out on whether this might have been achieved in other, better, and more sustainable ways). But having met those needs, and then some, the system, relying as it does on ensuring that investor/owners continue to profit, has come to depend on exponentially ever-growing consumption. We have gone from producing in order to consume to consuming in order to produce. While we adhere to a property system that insists that those with more than they need are richly rewarded for allowing the use of their excess wealth it cannot be otherwise. Rather than reap the rewards of improved productivity in better lives, we have sold (and have had to sell) those lives in exchange for things we simply do not need or even want. We have seen, in only a few decades, the growth of planned obsolescence, and increasingly short life-spans for products, along with the encroaching commodification of all aspects of life, from food preparation to the out-sourcing of the raising of our children.  At the same time we have seen the transformation from a public that saved to one that takes on personal debt in order to compete in the anti-social status consumption race, so much so that people are paying off their debts long after they have consumed their goods. This was also important in the lead-up to the banking crisis. The bailouts in 2008 have extended across generations and across all of society the indebtedness required to keep this system going. We work longer and harder than we used to and are, by most measures, less happy. The alternative – living good, sensible, fulfilling lives – cannot work because, to put it bluntly, if the “one percent” do not get their three percent per annum they will take their ball and go home, taking all of our social gains with them. Perhaps we should let them – this is a most sublime form of servitude. Libertarianism has no answer to these questions but goes a long way to explaining how we got here. The growth problem has profound implications for the way that we view society, property, employment, unemployment, the work ethic, and progress. These are just some of the vestigial ideas that past circumstances have left us with that we need to reconsider.

Or else.

  1. No comments yet.
  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: