David Gordon — Comments on Johnson and Long

Mutual Exchange is the Center’s goal in two senses — we favor a society rooted in peaceful, voluntary cooperation, and we seek to foster understanding through ongoing dialogue.

Mutual Exchange will provide opportunities for conversation about issues that matter to the Center’s various publics. A lead essay, deliberately provocative, will be followed by responses from inside and outside of C4SS. Contributions and comments from readers are enthusiastically encouraged.

The following Mutual Exchange began as a Molinari Society Symposium on Spontaneous Order scheduled for the December 2010 meeting of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association in Boston; when that was snowed out, the venue was shifted, by the kind invitation of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, to the March 2011 Austrian Scholars Conference in Auburn, Alabama.

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Charles Johnson has two principal goals in his excellent paper. First,1 he endeavors to clarify the concept of spontaneous order. Once he has cleared up the ambiguities in this concept, he applies it to Susan Brownmiller’s account of rape, which in her view plays a crucial role in bringing about the domination and exploitation of women by men.

In the first of these goals, he seems to me entirely successful. His account of three meanings of spontaneous order, viz., consensual, polycentric, and emergent, greatly clarifies a confused literature; and, as he shows, many famous names, de Jasay and Hayek himself among them, have tripped up here. I am gratified to learn that, in a paper I had long forgotten, I called attention to one of these confusions. Johnson also rightly notes that “the distinction between polycentric and directive orders, and that between directive and emergent orders, are really differences of degree, with many intermediate shades and borderline cases rather than clean categorical breaks.” I would add (if this is not identical to Johnson’s own point here) that the same order may be spontaneous under one description and not spontaneous under another. People may, e.g., establish a market economy in a fully intentional way, if one understands by a market economy an order in which resources are allocated by the price system and not by a central plan. If one has in mind a different description of a market economy, i.e., one that mentions the particular prices that the people who establish the market will arrive at, the order is emergent: no one knows in advance what all these prices will turn out to be.

Johnson also seems to me to be successful in his second goal. He uses the notion of spontaneous order to offer a charitable reading of Brownmiller’s theory. She does not, he shows, embrace the absurd position that all or most men consciously use rape as a tactic to keep women under control.

Johnson does not attempt a full-scale defense of Brownmiller’s theory, though it is evident that he thinks there is a great deal to be said in its favor. I find myself unable to agree with him, although my reaction may well stem from insufficient acquaintance with her account and the literature it has generated. To me, the theory has little to recommend it, at least if it is intended as an account of contemporary American society. In setting forward the critical remarks to follow, I may be unfair to Johnson, as I am attacking a point he did not attempt to defend. But I have done so in large part because I would value highly a response to what seems to me an evident weakness in Brownmiller’s theory.

Johnson devotes some time to discussing studies that show rape or physical battering is widespread. But he does not present any evidence for a crucial part of Brownmiller’s theory. In her view, women’s fear of rape leads them to seek male protection, the price of which is to submit to male dominance. For this mechanism to operate, it must be the case that women fear being raped. But why should we believe this? Obviously, I do not mean to question that to rape someone is to inflict upon her a terrible indignity. But it does not follow from this manifest fact that most women live in fear that this calamity will befall them. An analogy may, I hope, clarify the point. It is likely that many of us will, at some time in our lives, experience a serious illness. But it does not follow that those who know this live their lives dreading the onset of such illnesses. Would we not think it odd to find someone terrified of contracting cancer or heart disease, even though, should the person live long enough, this will probably occur? Yet unless Brownmiller can show that most women live in fear of rape, her theory cannot get off the ground.

Roderick Long has also in his outstanding paper argued for two main contentions. He first presents a picture of the form of state system that prevails in modern industrial society. Having done so, he endeavors, with characteristic ingenuity, to show why most people fail to grasp the nature of this system and in fact have grossly inaccurate views of it.

I should like to suggest an additional reason to those so ably canvassed by Long why people fail to adopt Long’s account of the true nature of the state system. That reason is that his account is not fully correct.

He begins from an undoubted fact, which well deserves the emphasis he gives it. He notes that the government in modern industrialized societies grants special privileges to big business. Many regulations, presented to the public as measures to protect consumers, serve rather to entrench special privileges. Readers of Rothbard will not be surprised by any of this, and Long shows a commanding knowledge of the literature on this topic, as a glance at his second footnote will show.

Where I differ from him is on a consequence he draws from this point. He views businesses privileged by the state as part of the state system: “when government and private business stand in such a relation of mutual support, I take private business to be part of the state system even if it is not literally part of the state.”

The issue at stake here is more than semantic: if all that Long means here is that the government grants businesses privileges and that business interests often dominate the government, there would be little point to saying that I prefer to avoid his choice of words to describe this situation.

But I take him to mean much more than this. He maintains that under the state system, prices are no longer established through market competition. Rather, we have a situation where powerful corporations control monopolistic or oligopolistic markets. The wages of labor depend, to a large extent, on bargaining power: workers’ marginal productivity leaves open vast zones of indeterminacy.

Here Long parts company with the Austrian economics of Mises and Rothbard. As Mises again and again insisted, there is no third system intermediate between capitalism and socialism. The fact that a business has gotten to its position through government aid does not by itself change the way it sets prices. Neither is it the case that large firms operate by setting monopolistic or oligopolistic prices rather than competitive ones. (Of course, if government regulations set prices, or give a business the legal power to set prices, that is another matter altogether.)2 It is also not the case that wage determination rests on bargaining power: as Mises and Rothbard see matters, zones of indeterminacy are mythical.

To adduce differences between Long, on the one hand, and Mises and Rothbard, on the other is not to show that Long is mistaken. I have wished here only to indicate a sharp divergence between the left-libertarianism that Long supports and the Austrian position I regard as correct.

David Gordon is a Senior Scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute and Editor of The Mises Review.

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1     I mean by “first” what is conceptually prior in the paper rather than what is first discussed there.

2     Mises allowed a very limited role for monopoly prices, while Rothbard rejected the notion entirely.

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