In an earlier commentary piece, “Breaking Eggs to Make Libertarian Omelets,” I mentioned the Romanian “libertarian” Sorin Cucerai. As I pointed out there, Cucerai doesn’t equate the “free markets” and “liberalism” he advocates with anything so simple as, say, doing what you want with your own stuff, or freely cooperating and exchanging with others as you see fit. No! The fundamental prerequisite of a “liberal” order, as Cucerai sees it, is separation of the individual from the means of subsistence. A “market” economy can only exist when the individual is deprived (by such expedients as Enclosures) of direct access to a source of food, so that he has no choice but to produce for the money economy in order to purchase subsistence goods from others.
But that’s not the only contradiction in Cucerai’s thought. According to John Medaille, who translated Cucerai’s article “Repeatable Present,” Cucerai treats human freedom as a means to the end of his more “efficient” capitalism in another way. A second prerequisite of this more “efficient” capitalism is that durable goods disappear, so that our goods must be constantly replaced. This is necessary because capitalist industry is capable of saturating markets, and at the same time uses specialized machinery that cannot easily be switched between products. The solution is for us to keep buying the same things over and over, so they can keep producing them.
But this makes no sense. Cucerai wants capitalism to exist because of objective efficiencies like technical progress that he sees resulting from it. But at the same time, the prerequisites of his kind of capitalism include a great many inefficiencies—like the above-mentioned planned obsolescence.
More broadly, this seems to be a general phenomenon: the imposition of artificial inefficiencies to protect capitalist mass production from more efficient forms of production. They include the artificial imposition of overhead costs, in order both to shut out competition from more efficient low-overhead microproducers, and to render production artificially capital-intensive enough to soak up all the investment capital that would otherwise be superfluous. They also include “intellectual property,” to enable the owners of patents and copyrights to capitalize the productivity benefits of innovation, and prop up commodity price that consists mainly of rents on such artificial property rights rather than actual production costs; the alternative, which must be suppressed by state action at all costs, would be for market competition to socialize the productivity gains.
Cucerai seems never to have considered the possibility that the removal of all these artificially imposed inefficiencies on which capitalism depends, taken together, might actually surpass the alleged efficiencies of capitalist mass production. In particular, it seems never to have occurred to him that it might be more efficient to replace the expensive general purpose machinery with cheaper, flexible machinery capable of switching between products in response to demand, and thereby to eliminate the imperatives for push-distribution and planned obsolescence. A society without planned obsolescence, in which production was organized in response to demand instead of demand being organized to meet the needs of production, and in which we could live comfortably with a 15-hour work week, would be eminently efficient.
The concept of “efficiency” is meaningless, except in reference to the values and priorities of individual human beings. Treating the sacrifice of human freedom as a means to the end of “efficiency” is a contradiction in terms. A true market society is not one in which individuals are forced into the cash nexus against their will, but a society in which individuals are free to pursue their own goals by whatever means they see fit: the cash nexus, subsistence production, or the gift economy. Human beings were not made for the market, but the market for human beings.