Forbes contributor psychiatrist Dale Archer asks whether America’s wealth gap could lead to a revolt. Highlighting recent fast food workers’ strikes and the struggle for a “living wage,” Archer observes that “disparity between the nation’s top earners and the bottom 80 percent has grown exponentially over the past three decades, and it’s been exacerbated by the Great Recession.”
Archer also cites survey statistics demonstrating that Americans across the political spectrum regard wealth distribution in the country as unfair and inequitable. Perhaps most disturbing is that the same polling numbers show little awareness of just how much of the country’s wealth the top one percent actually own.
Under the accepted orthodoxy of American political “debate,” questions about wealth inequality are met with stock answers calling for ever more government intervention and further attempts to tame the predatory impulses of our corporate wolves. The premise built into this formula is the idea that unchecked competition is what gives corporations their power in the first place. If we stop and think about this assumption, it appears rather an odd inversion of conventional thinking surrounding the dynamics of power: Does a free and open economy, allowing all entrants, really lead to the imperious oligopolies that worry Archer?
Anarchists on the free market left don’t think so. At the (probably considerable) risk of muddying the waters by adding a few too many –isms, market anarchists see legitimate free markets as a kind of decentralist-distributism. Distributism is a Catholic economic and social position, a criticism of both capitalism and socialism popularized and developed by thinkers like G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. The fundamental proposition of distributist thinking is that a widespread distribution of land and what we might consider “capital goods” would topple the system of compelled dependence we labor under today.
Under such a philosophy, private property and free competition are not actually the flaws of capitalism. Its key defect, rather, is its concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few, which in turn drives the rest of the populace into working for a wage, for the benefit of a economic ruling class akin to those of past slave economies. Anarchists like the Center for a Stateless Society’s Kevin Carson have revived the work of nineteenth century individualists such as Benjamin Tucker, showing that legitimate free markets are a means to distributism’s ends.
Where coercive, political limits on exchange and property ownership are removed, avenues to self-sustainment and independence are thrown open to individuals, families and communities. Should they decide, under such a state of freedom, to work for a wage, it wouldn’t be the pittance that today’s vast disparities of bargaining power — the results of class legislation and regulation — ineluctably create. Indeed, Tucker thought that the natural result of this kind of a free market would be a truly equal exchange, seeing wages commensurate with services rendered.
Market anarchists do not imagine that a perfect, utopian equality of material conditions is possible, or that in practice it could be anything other than dystopian. But neither do we regard the economic status quo, the realities and deprivations of political capitalism, as inevitable or unalterable. Whether or not current economic conditions give rise to a revolt, something certainly has to give. There’s only so long that a political-economic system can function where most people live in destitution while a tiny sliver live in garish opulence.
Less state intrusion and violence, more free agents and movements of the marketplace – these are the paths toward fairness and away from corporate domination. The paternalism of supposed reform and regulation can only lead to more of the same.