I keep resolving not to comment on any more of Alternet‘s by-the-numbers anti-libertarian puff pieces, but a recent one from David Masciotra (“You’re Not the Boss of Me: Why Libertarianism is a Childish Sham,” February 26) is in its own category of wretchedness.
Masciotra’s commentary includes two seemingly contradictory lines of argument. In the first, he dismisses anti-authoritarianism, as such, as the ethos of a spoiled toddler:
the protest of children who scream through tears, “You’re not the boss of me.” The rejection of all rules and regulations, and the belief that everyone should have the ability to do whatever they want, is not rebellion or dissent. It is infantile naïveté.
He associates this infantile rejection of all authority with selfishness and anti-sociality. In fact it “does not even rise to the most elementary level of politics,” which Aristotle defined as “the things concerning the polis,” or the community. Confucius associated politics with an ethics of “communal service with a moral system based on empathy.” This, in contrast to libertarianism, which “eliminates empathy, and denies the collective,” and opposes “any concept of the common good” or organizing communities “in the interest of solidarity.”
And of course because this is an Alternet attack on libertarianism, he can’t get through it without mentioning Ayn Rand — “the rebel queen of their icy kingdom.” Oddly enough, he didn’t manage to drag in the Koch brothers.
Just in passing, it’s a bit odd that none of Alternet‘s stable of center-left critics of libertarianism seem to have any idea that the movement might have ideological roots older than last Tuesday. American libertarianism as an organized political movement — the movement that later gave birth to the Libertarian Party — has its origins more or less in the radicals who dropped out of Young Americans for Freedom in 1968. But radical free market thought didn’t start with them, or with Ayn Rand, or even with Ludwig von Mises. It goes back to the classical liberalism of two hundred and more years ago.
And classical liberalism was a very diverse and varied movement, including some quite left-leaning strands, who considered themselves socialists as well as free market libertarians. This shouldn’t be surprising, given that the origins of classical liberalism, socialism and anarchism are so closely intertwined in the culture of the Enlightenment, and overlapped so heavily in their formative period of the 1820s through 1840s.
Two of my strongest ideological influences were the free market libertarians Thomas Hodgskin in England and Benjamin Tucker in the U.S., both of whom were socialists and saw the state’s primary role as intervening in the market on behalf of landlords and capitalists to enforce rents on the artificial scarcity of land and capital. And left-wing strands (like the thought of Henry George) persisted in American classical liberalism afterwards, and have continued to exist even in the modern libertarian movement.
Although contemporary American libertarianism is generally right-leaning and much of it is corporate-influenced, it still contains leftward-oriented strands — many of them quite anti-corporate, or (like me) even anti-capitalist. At his most left-friendly phase in the late ’60s, for example, prominent libertarian Murray Rothbard collaborated with New Left scholars like Ronald Radosh and the Studies on the Left group. During this period Rothbard described the main function of “our corporate state” as subsidizing the operating costs of big business and the accumulation of capital.
After all this, though, Masciotra dismisses libertarians as not being rebellious enough. Their rebellion disguises “their subservience to — for all their protests against the ‘political elite’ — the real elite.”
Who then are the libertarians rebelling against? The most powerful sector of the society is corporate America, and it profits and benefits most from the deregulatory and anti-tax measures libertarians champion. That sector of society also happens to own the federal government. Through large campaign donations and aggressive lobbying — the very corruption that libertarians help enable by defending Citizens United and opposing campaign finance reform — they have institutionalized bribery, transforming the legislative process into an auction. Libertarians proclaim an anti-government position, but they are only opposing the last measures of protection that remain in place to prevent the government from full mutation into an aristocracy.
Masciotra might be surprised to know I actually agree with most of this, and I’m a libertarian. My understanding of government as something that serves the interest of propertied classes, protects big business from competition, and funnels rents on artificial scarcity and artificial property upward from the producing classes to the plutocracy is one of the reasons I became a libertarian and an anarchist.
And one of the primary targets of my writing has been the right-leaning sort of libertarian who ignores the extent to which Corporate America owns the federal government. These people pass over the primary function of government — intervening in the market to facilitate rent extraction by the propertied ruling classes — and focus entirely on eliminating the secondary functions like partially restricting abuses of those ruling classes’ power and stabilizing the worst side-effects of corporate power.
My hatred of bosses is at the root of my identification, not only as a libertarian — but as a Leftist. My instinctive affinity for the “you’re not the boss of me” sentiment, which Masciotra dismisses contemptuously, is the reason I so strongly support labor struggle and radical unions like the I.W.W.
I believe that institutional hierarchies of all kinds are bad — corporate, government, university, etc. — because they suppress the free flow of information and feedback that those in authority don’t want to hear. They create conflicts of interest in which those at the top appropriate the gains from contributions to productivity from those below, and shift costs and blame downward — basically kind of stuff anyone who’s worked under a boss, or reads Dilbert, knows instinctively.
And my belief in free markets doesn’t mean that I lionize “rugged individualism,” or believe that the cash nexus should dominate most aspects of social life. It just means I don’t think the state should interfere with voluntary exchange where it exists. In fact I strongly support a solidaritarian society build on the kinds of self-organized working class institutions for mutual aid that Pyotr Kropotkin and E.P. Thompson described in their writing. I’m strongly influenced by Elinor Ostrom’s views on the governance of common pool resources. And I think that most economic activity in a free society would take place through forms of voluntary interaction other than money exchange — the social and gift economy and commons-based peer production, among them.
If Masciotra took a break from constructing his libertarian strawmen for a minute and checked out the diverse array of real people within our movement, he might find he actually has stuff in common with some of us.