Labor unionization generally produces mixed if not outright negative reactions from libertarians. Labor Day was at the beginning of this previous week, and currently the Industrial Workers of the World are garnering the media spotlight for organizing Jimmy Johns workers to achieve better working conditions on the sandwich line. If I didn’t see disparaging comments, I saw hardly any libertarians paying attention or showing virtually any amount of solidarity whatsoever with working people.
Libertarians often spend a lot of time defending the rich who have supposedly earned their wealth in the marketplace purely through productivity, and then they denounce the crooked labor unions and “socialists”who seek to steal the justly acquired property of the rich. This is a dangerous oversimplification of how the economy is structured, and it unfortunately pushes libertarians away from their true allies on the progressive left.
Working class activism is generally perceived in libertarian circles as collectivist, riddled with economic fallacies, and as yet another coercive state intrusion into the voluntary and peaceful exchange of goods. This very well might be true, but mainstream labor activism is in reality a well-justified but misled reaction to the horrors of state power and capitalism. After all, the elite have been using the state to rig the scales in their favor for virtually all of history. It should come as no surprise when people fight fire with fire by trying to steer the state into advancing their interests instead of that of their oppressors. Unfortunately, libertarians leave out the first part of this cycle and focus exclusively on the statism of the unionizers, ignoring the original anti-market behavior committed by the capitalists.
These positions are chosen as a result of the system of false choices which confront us politically.
We are currently born into a cruel dialectic where one can only reasonably support “markets” or support state power, and virtually all American politickin’ falls within this analytical framework. However, both options further entrench our corporate rulers.
Free market rhetoric in the United States is almost universally a euphemism for fascism. Being for “free markets” in cable news-speak means one wishes to keep the loot corporations have acquired through lobbying, removing none of their numerous subsidies, helpful regulations, competing good prohibitions, tariffs, land use policies, favorable tax codes, inflationary central banking practices & legal tender laws, licensing requirements, zoning mandates, intellectual property restrictions, etc. which bolster the position of the rich at the expense of the working poor, while at the same time removing all protection for the impoverished in the way of welfare programs and labor laws.
This is clearly an insane and disastrous course of action, and definitely an anti-libertarian one. Progressives are correct to oppose “free markets” if this is what they mean.
Consistent libertarians also reject virtually all of the policies I listed, but fail to recognize and frame what this position means for the impoverished of America. The liberty movement is absolutely a fight which can include those who traditionally agitate with labor movements. Libertarian aversion to sounding like a leftist is, in this author’s humble opinion, primarily a result of their long-standing alliance with the right. It is time to end this pattern permanently, but we must also confront the established progressive strategy.
The alternative culturally-approved political avenue of supporting state power to oppose the criminal manipulation of the economy perpetuated by capitalists is well-intentioned, but should be opposed for practical considerations. As it currently stands, very few progressives or libertarians would deny that the state works for the benefit of corporations and not for the average person. As public choice economics sadly elucidates, average people are not incentivized to pay close attention to politics because their vote is statistically unlikely to make a difference, and the costs which they accrue from the political machinations of corporations are spread thinly amongst themselves and all citizens, whereas the benefits are horrifically concentrated for special interests groups like Monsanto who lobby for unjust economic advantages in the marketplace.
Politicians and bureaucrats are primarily motivated by self interest, like everyone else, and thus have far more to gain from supporting those who receive concentrated benefits rather than the rationally oblivious (and often poor) John Q. Public. Mr. Public is being slyly stolen from and subverted but simply does not have the time or resources to become educated about the countless threats to his social and economic well-being. The threats are too numerous, costly, and diverse, and thus political action to combat special interests is extremely difficult. Contrasted with those who have massive opportunities for extreme profit as a result of state power, the amount of regulatory capture and special interest rulership which dominates the American state is no real surprise .
As long as those justly seeking to limit the power of corporations follow the regulatory route, they will face an incredibly well-financed group with money to burn in order to keep their unjust anti-market privileges.
There is, however, a way out of this incredibly destructive and marginalizing false dichotomy now while reflecting upon Jimmy Johns and the IWW.
Eliminating the state’s power to grant special favors to in-groups would genuinely please both libertarians and progressives. We need to acknowledge this immediately and work together to end corporate tyranny.
The state’s intrusion into the economy has purposefully limited competition to the corporations and has dramatically narrowed the range of opportunities for working people to become entrepreneurs through self-employment or collectives/co-ops. Thus they are forced to accept less benefits, worse working conditions, and “wages so low they freaked” as a result of the deck being stacked against freedom of competition in conscious favor of the corporations, the highest bidders for state power.
If Americans removed the state’s ability to play favoritism to the economic elite, which forces labor to be the pawns of the holders of capital, rather than workers jockeying for an artificially low number of jobs, businesses would be forced to compete in order to attract and keep laborers. Why would anyone work for a capitalist when one could reasonably be one’s own boss in a syndicalist or otherwise horizontally-organized workplace? The Jimmy Johns’ workers might very well have been able to start their own sandwichery! And if they ever did choose to work for a capitalist, it’d be because they were getting one heck of a deal.
This freed market approach wouldn’t face the huge public choice problems of avoiding regulatory capture, nor would it unnecessarily limit human creativity and productivity, and it would lead to the progressive end of a more egalitarian society. Libertarians and progressives would be able to make incredible progress by breaking through the false dichotomy and by creating our envisioned world through this strategy.
So next time you see a libertarian being a sourpuss about workers unionizing at Jimmy Johns or celebrating Labor Day, remind them gently that all of us are reacting against corporatism in our own way. For whilst libertarians oppose the use of the state to artificially raise the status of one group at the expense of other peaceful individuals, they have little to fear from laborers rightfully seeking whatever solace they can glean from the corporatist state. They are merely victims of the current system of false choices. The enemies of libertarianism are absolutely not laborers who desperately need economic freedom, nor progressives, but the corporate overlords who criminally wield state power and “free markets” against the impoverished.