Early last week, one of many creepy U.S. bureaucracies reminiscent of the Ministry of Truth released new statistics on poverty, among various other metrics that it sees fit to keep track of. If we’re to accept the government’s data as true (and this is hardly an argument for that conclusion), nearly a third of all American counties saw a “significant increase in poverty” during the four years leading up to 2012.
In an essay on poverty especially relevant in light of the new data, John Beverley Robinson confronts the notion “that anybody can go to work that wants to,” that the impoverished are so due to their lack of desire to labor. In Robinson’s monograph, the expositor of that shallow myth is a “man in [a] thousand-dollar sealskin overcoat,” privileged and ignorant enough to sincerely believe it. The myth is of course still with us and is particularly sturdy in these United States. Unfortunately, many of today’s self-styled libertarians hold it up, either consciously or not.
The old individualists, free market libertarians of a different sort, opposed this idea and with it capitalism, resisting it as a system of arbitrary increase, one in which capital was granted a special privilege to demand tribute. This special treatment to capital, particularly to land and to currency, was established through laws giving its holders special treatment by protecting them from competition.
Because these anarchists did not regard capital as anything unique in itself, as anything other than another stage of product (and the reverse, they argued, was also the case), they refused to accept the claim that it was entitled to payment in the industrial process. They instead argued that if a truly competitive system should ever prevail, one without invasive class legislation to protect capitalists, that the price to be paid for a given item would settle in due course at its labor cost.
As Benjamin Tucker once argued the case, of course the owner of a plough should be free to rent it out to his neighbor — having made the sacrifice of time and energy to build it — but without privileges to protect the builder of ploughs from the competitive process, the owner simply would not be able to demand such rents. In short, the absence of privilege would make everyone an owner of capital, and so capital would lose its ability to compel tribute, which anarchists like Tucker saw as just another tax on the productive.
The old libertarians were therefore not very much different from their contemporary counterparts; they very much opposed the welfare idea, the idea that one man ought to be able to live at the expense of another. The pivotal point of department, then, is that the old libertarians understood political economy well enough to detect the fact that it was the rich, and not the poor, who lived parasitically on the hard work of others. From principles the same as those of today’s libertarians — a level playing field, free competition, individual rights and private property — they reached very different, indeed socialistic, conclusions.
It is of course a matter of speculation what effect full economic freedom of the kind urged by libertarians would have. We don’t have a free market, which, as the Center for a Stateless Society’s Kevin Carson often points out, is a fact routinely forgotten (or otherwise ignored) by both the ostensible opponents and advocates of “the free market.” Something about the twentieth century inclined those disposed to advocating economic freedom to identify their views with capitalism. There are arguments to be had about the myriad historical reasons why that might be the case. But the old libertarians, logical and consistent, understood the difference and actively opposed capitalism as utterly inconsistent with libertarian principles.
We’re left with a rather confused and convoluted set of phrasings that are not particularly well adapted to the factual nuances of the present historical moment. Libertarians must cut through language and attempt to take on principles, a process that certainly ought to give a renewed importance to the question of poverty within the free market movement.