Dialectical Libertarianism

In the comments to Angelica’s post “Fannie’s Follies, Freddie’s Foibles,” an interesting discussion developed in the comment thread about the order in which to scale back the different forms of state intervention. We also discussed the possibility that particular regulations, even though nominally a form of state intervention, might not actually be a net increase in statism; they might be, rather, a case of the state limiting its own previous grant of special privilege, and amount substantively to a reduction in statism. In such cases, nominal deregulation may actually result in a net increase in statism. In “Public vs. Private Sector,” I discussed the class nature of the state and the meaninglessness in many cases of the distinction between nominally “public” and “private” organizations.

Both of these issues involve what Chris Sciabarra, in his brilliant book Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism, called… well, “dialectical libertarianism.”

By dialectical analysis, Sciabarra means to “grasp the nature of a part by viewing it systemically–that is, as an extension of the system within which it is embedded.” Individual parts receive their character from the whole of which they are a part, and from their function within that whole.

This means, especially, that it is a mistake to consider any particular form of state intervention in isolation, without regard to the role it plays in the overall system.

This is quite at odds with the mainstream libertarian approach (which Arthur Silber calls “atomistic,” in contrast to Sciabarra’s “contextual” approach):

These issues are very complex, so I will state the main point very briefly to begin with: there are two basic methods of thinking that we can often see in the way people approach any given issue. One is what we might call a contextual approach: people who use this method look at any particular issue in the overall context in which it arises, or the system in which it is embedded. Liberals are often associated with this approach. They will analyze racism or the “power differential” between women and men in terms of the entire system in which those issues arise. And in a similar manner, their proposed solutions will often be systemic solutions, aimed at eradicating what they consider to be the ultimate causes of the particular problem that concerns them.

The other fundamental approach is to focus on the basic principles involved, but with scant (or no) attention paid to the overall context in which the principles are being analyzed. In this manner, this approach treats principles like Plato’s Forms….

Atomistic libertarians argue “as if the society in which one lives is completely irrelevant to an analysis of any problem at all.”To determine the function a particular form of state intervention serves in the structure of state power, we must first of all ask what is the end of the state. This is where libertarian class analysis comes in.

The single greatest work I’m aware of on libertarian class theory is Roderick Long’s article, “Toward a Libertarian Theory of Class [PDF]” [Social Philosophy & Policy 15:2 (1998)]. Unfortunately, as far as I’m aware, it’s not yet available online (hint, hint). You can probably get it through JSTOR or something similar. [It has been liberated!]

Long categorizes ruling class theories as either “statocratic” or “plutocratic,” based on the respective emphasis they place on the state apparatus and the plutocracy as components of the ruling class.

The default tendency in mainstream (i.e., right wing) free market liberalism is a high degree of statocracy, to the point not only of emphasizing the role of state coercion in enabling exploitation by the plutocracy, but of downplaying the significance of the plutocracy even as beneficiaries of statism. This means treating the class interests associated with the state as ad hoc and fortuitous. Long cites David Friedman as an extreme example of this tendency:

It seems more reasonable to suppose that there is no ruling class, that we are ruled, rather, by a myriad of quarreling gangs, constantly engaged in stealing from each other to the great impoverishment of their own members as well as the rest of us. [from The Machinery of Freedom]

Sciabarra observes that, at first glance, Rothbard’s class theory might seem to fall into this category, bearing a superficial resemblance to interest group liberalism: although the state is the organized political means, it serves the exploitative interests of whatever collection of political factions happen to seize control of it at any given time. This picture of how the state works does not require any organic relation between the various interest groups controlling the state at any time, or between them and the state. The state might be controlled by a disparate array of interest groups, ranging from licensed professionals, rent-seeking corporations, farmers, regulated utilities, and big labor; the only thing they have in common is the fact that they happen to be currently the best at latching onto the state.

But Long shows that, on closer observation, Rothbard’s position is far different. Rothbard saw the state as controlled by

a primary group that has achieved a position of structural hegemony, a group central to class consolidation and crisis in contemporary political economy. Rothbard’s approach to this problem is, in fact, highly dialectical in its comprehension of the historical, political, economic, and social dynamics of class.

I have argued that the corporate economy is so closely bound up with the power of the state, that it makes more sense to think of the corporate ruling class as a component of the state, in the same way that landlords were a component of the state under the Old Regime.

Given this perspective, it doesn’t make much sense to consider particular proposals for deregulating or cutting taxes, without regard to the role the taxes and regulations play in the overall structure of state capitalism. That’s especially true, considering that most mainstream proposals from “free market reform” are generated by the very class interests that benefit from the corporate state.

No politico-economic system has ever approximated total statism, in the sense that “everything not forbidden is compulsory.” In every system, there is a mixture of compulsory and discretionary behavior. The ruling class in every system allows some amount of voluntary market exchange within the interstices of a system whose overall structure is defined by coercive state intervention. The choice of what areas to leave to voluntary exchange, just as much as of what to subject to compulsory regulation, reflects the overall strategic picture of the ruling class. The total mixture of statism and market activity will be chosen as most likely, in the estimation of the ruling class, to maximize net exploitation.

Some forms of state intervention are primary. They involve the privileges, subsidies, and other structural bases of economic exploitation. This is the primary purpose of the state: the organized political means to wealth, exercised by and for the ruling class. Some, however, are secondary. Their purpose is stabilizing, or ameliorative. They include welfare state measures, Keynesian demand management, and the like, whose purpose is to limit the most destabilizing side-effects of privilege, and to secure the long-term survival of the system.

The kind of “free market reform” typically issuing from corporate-funded “libertarian” think tanks and politicians involves eliminating only the ameliorative or regulatory forms of intervention, while leaving intact the primary structure of privilege and exploitation.

The strategic priorities of real libertarians should be just the opposite: first to dismantle the fundamental, structural forms of state intervention whose primary effect is to enable exploitation; and only then to dismantle the secondary, ameliorative forms of intervention which serve to make life bearable for the average person living under a system of state-enabled exploitation. As Jim Henley put it, remove the shackles before the crutches.
Regulations that simply limit and constrain the exercise of privilege do not involve, properly speaking, a net increase in statism at all. They are simply the statist ruling class’s stabilizing restrictions on its own more fundamental forms of intervention.

Arthur Silber illustrated the dialectical nature of such restrictions in another post. He raised the question of whether pharmacists ought to be able to refuse to sell items (morning after pills, birth control pills, etc.) that violate their conscience. The atomistic libertarian response is “Of course. The right to sell, or not sell, is a fundamental free market liberty.” The atomistic libertarian’s implicit assumption, as Silber pointed out, is “that this dispute arises in a society which is essentially free.” But pharmacists are in fact direct beneficiaries of compulsory occupational licensing, a statist racket whose central purpose is to restrict competition and enable them to charge a monopoly price for their services.

The major point is a very simple one: the pharmacy profession is a state-enforced monopoly. In other words: the consumer and the pharmacist are not equal competitors on the playing field. The state has placed its thumb firmly on the scales — and on one side only. That is the crucial point, from which all further analysis must flow….

…[T]he state has created a government-enforced monopoly for licensed pharmacists. Given that central fact, the least the state can do is ensure that everyone has access to the drugs they require — and whether a particular pill is of life and death importance is for the individual who wants it to decide, not the pharmacist and most certainly not the government.

I had the opportunity to work out these principles further in an extended discussion with Charles Johnson, starting with my blog post “On Dissolving the State, and What to Replace it With.” Charles responded with a post of his own, “On Crutches and Crowbars: Toward a Labor Radical Case Against the Minimum Wage.” From there, the debate went to an extended discussion in the comments under my original post. What I worked out in my mind, in that very productive exchange, was the following:

When the state confers a special privilege on an occupation, a business firm, or an industry, and then sets regulatory limits on the use of that privilege, the regulation is not a new intrusion of statism into a free market. It is, rather, the state’s limitation and qualification of its own underlying statism. The secondary regulation is not a net increase, but a net reduction in statism. On the other hand, the repeal of the secondary regulation, without an accompanying repeal of the primary privilege, would be a net increase in statism. Since the beneficiaries of privilege are a de facto branch of the state, the elimination of regulatory constraints on their abuse of privilege has the same practical effect as repealing a constitutional restriction on the state’s exercise of its own powers.

Brad Spangler used the analogy of gunman and bagman to illustrate the relationship between the state apparatus and the corporate ruling class. To apply that analogy here, a great deal of alleged statism amounts to the gunman telling the bagman, after the victim has handed his wallet over at gunpoint, to give the victim back enough money to pay cab fare back home so he can keep on earning money to be robbed of.

When the state is controlled by robbers, and every decision for or against state intervention in a particular circumstance reflects the robbers’ strategic assessment of the ideal mixture of intervention and non-intervention, it’s a mistake for a genuine anti-state movement to allow the priorities for “free market reform” to be set by the robbers’ estimation of what forms of intervention no longer serve their purpose. If the corporate-funded “libertarian” think tanks and the corporate stooges in government are proposing a particular “free market reform,” you can bet your bottom dollar it’s because they believe it will increase the net level of statist exploitation.

The measure of statism inheres in the functioning of the overall system, not in the formal statism of its separate parts. A reduction in the formal statism of some separate parts, chosen in accordance with the stategic priorities of the statist exploiters, may result in a net increase in the overall level of statism.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, April 8th, 2008.

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