This month’s discussion at the C4SS podcast Mutual Exchange centers around Long’s work on libertarian class theory, as well as the normative concerns that rise out of such a theory on balancing distributive and relational justice concerns with individual liberty. As we will discuss, libertarian class theory sees a primary creator and enforcer of class distinctions as the state. This is a wide-ranging discussion that touches on the economic and sociological analysis on class theory at the heart of Roderick’s work on the issue, the empirical plausibility of such a theory, whether class distinctions of this sort would continue to exist under market anarchism, and the ethical and normative framework of justice that motivates this theory. Roderick draws from Aristotelian virtue ethics to bring the seeming contradictions between a concern for individual property rights and a concern for equal treatment of all in society into balance in interesting ways.
Zachary Woodman: Welcome to this episode of Mutual Exchange Radio. I’m your host Zachary Woodman. Joining me today is Roderick Long from Auburn University. We are at the Eastern APA in Philadelphia, decided to get some extra podcasting done, or in addition to the Will-episode since we were all together for a Molinari panel.
So hello Roderick.
Roderick Long: Hi, good to be here.
Zachary Woodman: So today we’re going to discuss some of your work on libertarian class theory and what some of the normative implications of it are, how it differs from other class theories and maybe why it is a superior one to other possible class theories.
So maybe we should start before going into your account with a general idea of what a class theory is and what we want it to capture, what it should capture.
Roderick Long: Okay. So, a class theory is meant to explain certain kinds of power relationships among different groups in society. The one that’s best known is the Marxist theory of classes. According to which what determines the ruling class status is control over the access to the means production.
So under capitalism, the capitalist class controls the means of production. And the proletariat doesn’t have access to the means of production of factories, land, et cetera. This is the idea behind this and then just explain what’s wrong in society.
Why it is that some groups are systematically underprivileged or oppressed and what needs to be changed. Now, in fact, in the libertarian tradition, there are sort of two, at least two, different versions of libertarian class theory. So there’s one that is like a substitute, a switch…
Well, I say it’s a switch as though it’s a response to Marx’s class theory. It’s actually on the whole older than Marx’s. But there’s a version that simply says the basis for the ruling class isn’t access to the immediate production, it’s access to political power or the political means and…
Zachary Woodman: …the resources of the state.
Roderick Long: Yeah. So the idea is that, whereas on the classical Marxist view — although actually there turns out to be more than one classical Marxist view, at least I want to start a very familiar version of the Marxist view — classes emerged through the market and then the ruling class seizes power, seizes the state.
That’s not Marx’s only story, but that’s like one way the story seems to go. And then, so this is sort of traditional, libertarian, or classical liberal version, according to which it’s state privilege that creates this ruling class. And so the problem that needs to be addressed is state power and not the economic distribution. But there’s also more lefty version of the libertarian version which looks like a fusion of the Marxist and classical liberal versions.
Although all three are roughly theorizing around the same time. To some extent the Marxist view might be the latest of the three. So you get people like Thomas Hodgkin and so forth. Who were very early left-libertarian class theorists. And to put it anachronistically, this view looks like a cross between the classical liberal theory and the Marxist theory in that they see the concentration of ownership of the means of production as resulting from state power, but they do see kind of the constitution of ownership and things of production as the problem, as opposed to other sort of more right-wing versions of classical liberal theory that don’t really focus that much on ownership of the means of production, think it’s just a matter of state control and so forth.
So for a more right-wing version of classical liberalism, the oppressed classes might easily include, they might or might not depending on the details, people with vast economic resources on the grounds that they got those resources through market means not through the state.
Whereas the left-libertarian tends to be that in fact most vast disparities of wealth are the result of state privilege, not the result of the market. Now as I said, the Marxists sort of have two views because there’s attempts in the official Marxist theoretical view, according to which markets give right rise to economic inequality, and then the super-privileged on markets so then are in a position to get control of the state.
But then when Marx is talking about history, then he talks as though state privilege has been part of it all along and state privilege has been driving it. When he’s talking about history, Marx makes fun of the idea, that it felt like a bourgeoisie fairy tale or something, that it’s just through greater thrift in industry that the wealthy classes got their excess wealth. He says, no the history of capital cumulation has written the letters of blood and fire or whatever. But a lot of later Marxists have sometimes downplayed that. So for example in the ABC of communism by Bukharin and Preobrazhensky — two people that had the misfortune of being to the left and to the right of Stalin and paid the price both way in cases — but before that, they wrote what was sort of the Soviet Union’s standard intro Marxist textbook and in the ABC of communism they say, “Well look, capitalism isn’t the same thing as having a market with commodities and production for exchange and so forth. That’s not capitalism. You don’t have capitalism until you have a concentration of ownership of the means of production with a capitalist class everyone else is forced to work for.
Zachary Woodman: Markets Not Capitalism. *laughs*
Roderick Long: Right. But the problem, they say, with simple commodity production is that it’s unstable; that it automatically tends to turn into concentrated capitalism because some people are thrifter or smarter and so forth and they accumulate more and eventually they become super wealthy and they get control of everything. And they say, “We can see that that that’s what actually has happened”. And so they imply that the existing disparity and wealth actually arose out of a simple commodity production through just some people being thrifty and smarter — the very thing that Marx had dismissed as a bourgeoisie fairy tale. So there’s this kind of bifurcation in the Marxists as to exactly the state and state power crucial to serve accumulation when they’re trying to refute the people who say that the capitalist class got wealthy just through their own efforts. But then, when they’re trying to justify not having markets and private property, then the rule of the state seems to vanish. Then over on the classical liberal or libertarian sides, you got the early class theorists. In France, people like Charles Comte and Charles Dunoyer and Augustin Thierry who have this view about the state power, but they saw themselves as champions of the bourgeois class. Charles Comte for example says, “Some people are living in mansions, other people are living in hovels, your initial response is this is unjust. Once you realize that this is the result of the free market, then you’ll realize it’s okay.” Whereas someone like Hodgskin would have said, “What the hell are you talking about? Look at the actual history. They didn’t get this this way”. And then someone like Thierry ended up in a way being the same kind of champion for bourgeois class rule that Marx became for proletarian class rule.
He initially thought no one should be in charge of the state. He was, if not quite an anarchist, at least close to it. And the problem is just having anyone in charge of the state at all. We need to radically decrease state power, but by the end of his career he was saying, “Now that the French revolution has happened and now that the bourgeois classes is in control of the state, now it’s great and wonderful because they’re class that can be trusted.”
Because they are the third estate, their interests are identical with the interests of everyone. And so he has the same kind of what seems to me like the naivete that Marx had about the proletarians, he has about the bourgeois.
They’re thinking that once they’re in power, they’ll continue to represent society as a whole or something like that. So, my favourite class theory is more along the line of lines of Hodgskin. I think that vast disparities in wealth are difficult to maintain in a free market, because if you’ve got open competition, then if some people are getting much wealthier than other people, you can imitate what they’re doing and compete a lot of that wealth away from them. Things like intellectual property and so forth… The main function of intellectual property is to prevent you from imitating what other people are doing. And they would like to expand that as far as possible. Protectionism kind of. You know, I had the idea of building a restaurant here, so I don’t want anyone else to go to restaurant anywhere near me because it takes my idea away.
So on the left-libertarian version of class theory, the problem looks similar to what the Marxists identify as a problem, namely concentrations of capital ownership, ownership of the means of production, such that most people have no choice except to work, perform wage-labour for a smaller group of people. But their account of how it arose and what maintains it — and not just how it arose historically, but what continues to maintain it — it has a lot more to do with violent intervention, particularly, although not solely, but particularly by the state.
Zachary Woodman: So there’s a lot in there to unpack. I guess maybe the first question that one might have, especially when one comes from the more naive oor vulgar libertarian background, or maybe a more centrist liberal background, is, “Why should we want a class series to begin with?”
They might think all it is is bad social science, that all it is is this ideologically informed attempt to account for the distribution of income and all we need is to understand like certain economic processes to understand why income is distributed, or they might think that if we’re going to be methodological individualist, it doesn’t make sense to talk about classes as operating these large social features. So why should we want a class theory to begin with?
Roderick Long: Well, I mean, you shouldn’t want one, unless it’s true.
Zachary Woodman: *laughs*
Roderick Long: It’s not like, “Oh, you know, there’s just a general need for a class theory.” I think there’s good reason to think it’s true, but so let’s start with the last bit, “Is a class theory consistent with methodological individualism?”.
Of course, methological individualism is not always understood by everyone in exactly the same way but a class theory doesn’t have to say that classes act as some sort of agents over and above their members or anything like that.
Zachary Woodman: Although Marxists sometimes slip into that.
Roderick Long: They sometimes talk that way. They don’t always, when they’re being more careful. Heck, I think the libertarians sometimes talk that way too when they’re not being careful. But actually, to some extent, I think you could have many elements of a libertarian class theory, even if none of the people were intending anything. I don’t think that’s the case.
But… So here’s what I have in mind: suppose that the wealthy people have no intention of actually trying to maintain themselves as a class and suppose that the state isn’t actively trying to serve them. Imagine the state is just passing laws at random.
Just random laws, whatever. Some laws benefit the rich, some laws benefit the poor, some benefit them both, some harm them both… the state just generates things like a random number generator. I don’t think that’s what happens, but imagine it did. Then there’s going to be a filtering process. If something affects the interest of the rich, the rich have have lobbyists, they’ve got time, they’ve got lawyers, they’re in a position to be aware of what of what’s happening. They’ve got the resources to fight it and combat it and lobby against it. And so, it’s going to be harder for those laws to get passed or easier for them to get repealed.
Whereas the poor people are too busy working, they’re dispersed in interest. They don’t have the time or often they don’t have the education to know what to do. Don’t have the money to fight it. And so even if the government passed laws at random, I think there’d be a tendency for the laws to end up favoring the rich over the poor on average, for that reason. So, that doesn’t involve any conscious intentions for anything.
Zachary Woodman: That should be a basic insight of public trust.
Roderick Long: Yeah. And once you add conscious intentions, it doesn’t necessarily mean that all members of the ruling class have some strong feeling of class solidarity with each other. Because often they’re rivals. They may the cooperate to hold down any dangerous outsider, but in all of these coalitions each one wants more power than the others.
I don’t think that the capitalists are all marching arm in arm. And I don’t think the state is just a purely passive tool of the capitalist class. The people working within the state have their own interests that aren’t identical with, although they’re symbiotic, with the capitalist class.
It’s a partnership where each one would like to be the dominant partner, just like church and state in the middle ages. It says, “Look, there’s jockeying for power”. And so when people think that big government and big business are at odds, I think that’s mostly an illusion. But there’s a kernel of truth to it. There are genuine conflicts. There are cases where people in this side want one, people in this other side want something else. And likewise people in government and people in business are not completely unified either. But nevertheless, there are certain overall common tendencies. There are certain things that, if you lobby, if you’re trying to protect your company by law, to make the economy generally less competitive and make it harder for other people to come along and compete with you… That’s also gonna protect and other already established interests and so forth. And then there’ll be cooperation among these things. If a bunch of corporations get together and lobby, they can be more effective. And they will sort of trade favors with each other and then people in the government are trading favours with each other. You know, it’s, it’s not some kind of harmonious class solidarity. It’s not that the capital’s class as a whole, or that the government as a whole or anything as a whole acts as an agent. But nevertheless people’s incentives will often lead them to act in systematically coordinated ways.
Zachary Woodman: They might cultivate an ideology. Not that they act all uniformly, but that they have this sense of belonging.
Roderick Long: Yeah. I’m not saying that there’s no such thing as class solidarity. Part of what that means is that class solidarity isn’t necessary for this to happen.
Zachary Woodman: And class solidarity doesn’t undermine methodological individualism.
Roderick Long: Right. But certainly, it’s often likely that people in privileged groups tend to relate to other people in privileged groups and tend to think of themselves [as] naturally belonging where they’re belonging and tend to see outsiders as interlopers.
These people go to similar schools and similar functions and hang out together and they form friendships and social ties and form common views of the world often. Not always. I’m not saying that there’s no class solidarity, but there’s multiple things going on that reinforce the overall effect.
Zachary Woodman: So the overall answer to that objection is that — you know, there’s a line in Mises where he says like analysis of nations doesn’t undermine methodological individualism. And it’s for similar reasons to that, that you can have a group of individuals… not consciously interacting with each other, but the class can emerge as an emergent phenomenon to use Hayekian phraseology.
Roderick Long: And a lot of people criticize class theory… The two criticisms they often make… one is, they say, well, it’s just a conspiracy theory.
Zachary Woodman: Right.
Roderick Long: The answer is: well, sometimes these things are conspiracies. Sometimes you actually find evidence that these people are collaborating.
Because the more concentration of power that you have, the easier it is for these people to talk to each other and cooperate. And sometimes it doesn’t even count as a conspiracy instance, often they’re doing it fairly in the open. But also it doesn’t always need to be a conscious conspiracy. Often people’s economic interests will just lead them to act and the relevant way.
Zachary Woodman: And it seems like a confusion of like out latent functions — is a sociological term — of class with people thinking it’s an intended function of it.
Roderick Long: And the other criticism that you often hear, particularly on the right, of class theory, is it is driven by envy. If you think that the rich are getting rich illegitimately, you’re just saying it out of envy.
Well, then the answer is: well, let’s look and see why they’re getting rich. If it turns out, in fact, they’re getting rich through systematic government privilege, that is restricted…
Zachary Woodman: Or other illegitimate means.
Roderick Long: If it turns out that the highway man has a lot more money than the rest of us because he’s been robbing us all. Is it envy exactly that makes us resent him? It’s resentment, but it seems like it could be perfectly justified resentment. In any case, even if there’s envy involved, that is a motivation for getting people interested in class theory, that doesn’t make class theory false.
You have to look and see what the evidence is.
Zachary Woodman: So, the other objection one might make, and this is one that is not just a problem for class theory but for the broader project of left-market anarchists, is the possibility that we’re wrong about the empirical question, about what causes disparities in wealth.
Or that even if we’re right about that question under current economic conditions, that in a purely free market, there would be massive disparities that would recreate these sorts of classes. And you don’t necessarily have to be a Marxist to think that. You could find some mechanisms broadly within the neoclassical economics, like Piketty tries to explain that.
So what, what do you think are the arguments against those sorts of possibilities?
Roderick Long: Well, I mean obviously we don’t have complete detective knowledge of what would happen in a fully freed market. So I don’t think we can say with absolute certainty there’s nothing that would create this very large systematic disparities in wealth. But we can just look and say, “Well, look at what’s causing them now, look what the overall effect is.” If you see someone just hobbling along and they’ve got a 200 pound sack on their back and they’re hobbling along with difficulty, you can help them by getting that sack off the back.
And you would say, “Well, who knows if you’ve got the sack off their back? Maybe there would cause something else to make them probably even worse”. It’s possible. But it’s not initially the way we bet. The bet is, well, if there’s something that’s systematically causing a problem… getting rid of it will get rid the problem.
And of course sure social phenomena are complicated and interconnected and various ways and it’s not like you move one thing and, and you can just easily predict whatever everything else is gonna happen. We always have to go by our best guess and our best guess is that when we look at what actually seems to be causing these disparities, there always seems to be this hand of force involved.
Zachary Woodman: Let’s go into that best guess. Let’s go into the reasons you have for that and possible other reasons.
So let’s start with the reasons you have for thinking that. What are discrete empirical pieces of evidence that current disparities in wealth are caused largely by state control and intervention.
Roderick Long: Okay. So I mentioned IP as something that prevents people from imitating wealth generating activity. There’s more obvious kinds of subsidies to corporations, but there are also various indirect ones. Kevin Carson likes to talk about transportation subsidies. So for example, the fact that the the vast share of wear and tear on the roads is caused by these big shipping companies, but you don’t pay a proportional share of the taxes for maintaining the roads, which means in effect, tax funded highways end up being a subsidy from the everyone else to these big box companies and so forth. You’ve got various kinds of protectionist legislation that helps big companies. You’ve got…
Zachary Woodman: …certain sorts of trade restrictions.
Roderick Long: You know, you’ve got…
Zachary Woodman: …regulatory capture.
Roderick Long: …what I call the capture of the labour movement. More right traditional right wing libertarians see the labour movement as the beneficiary of the state. They think of the overall effect of liberal legislation is that it empowers unions at the expensive of employers. The left libertarian analysis is if you look at it in its totality, not just look at individual pieces of legislation that seem to be benefiting unions but look at it in its totality, in fact [it] indeed seems to have been intended to be in effect to de-fang the labour movement and make it a kind of junior partner in the big government business big business thing. Then you get these legalised unions but there are restrictions. Government can tell you when to strike and it can rule out sympathy strikes and various things. The right wing libertarian analysis of unions is, it’s just the cartels to raise labour prices. But in fact, traditionally, for a lot of the labour movement it was something more than that. There really was a the goal to try and get something more like labour control of industry. And it’s turned into a bunch of little labour cartels, because that was something easier for government to deal with. And so a lot of labour legislation has been driven in that direction. And then just sort of broadly there’s… I mean Kevin has another nice distinction of what he calls primary and secondary regulations.
So there are all these regulations that look as though they’re designed to help the less affluent. But often they turn out to be highly visible ways of mitigating the effects of less visible regulations that are just part of the basic framework.
So take a very straightforward example. Back in the Reagan administration,it had this deregulation of the savings and loan industry. They had lots of restrictions on how risky loans they could make. And they took those restrictions off.
So to a lot of people it looked like in the direction to free market move, and it caused a lot of problems. But from a more careful analysis to say, well look… What had happened was, first they gave them the federal deposit insurance saying, “If you, if you make excessively risky loans and you are in danger of going out of business, running out of money, the taxpayers will insure and cover your losses”. But given that, we want these regulations on you that you can’t do stuff that is too risky. So they gave them a government privilege and then restricted how they could use it. Then the deregulation comes along and what it does is… it took away the restriction without taking away the privilege!
So now the savings and loans were free to gamble with the taxpayer’s money, knowing that their losses would likely be covered.
Zachary Woodman: So that was worse than by bailouts…
Roderick Long: Yeah. So what looked like a move in the direction of less regulation really wasn’t.
Another example is liability caps for things like oil spills and so forth. Where if a company knows that there’s a limit to how much it can be sued in case of oil spill, they’re going to be less conscientious about avoiding those things and take more risks.
Just basic things like starting a business. The kinds of regulatory hoops you have to go through to start a business, which if you’re wealthy and established, it’s easy. You can jump through those hoops. You’ve got the lawyers you’ve got the time. But if you just a very small business or entrepreneur or you’re some of the inner city who just wants to start a hair braiding business. Or if you want to start your own taxi service, and all you’ve got is a car and a cell phone, which is all you need to run a taxi service, really… But are all these regulations, you know…
Zachary Woodman: …medallion services and what have you…
Roderick Long: Yeah, some of those medallions would cost like something [around] a hundred thousand dollars. [It] Is a big difference between… the number of people who can afford a business whose capital equipment is a car and a cell phone is a lot larger than those who could afford a car and a cell phone and a hundred thousand dollar license…
And although things like Uber and Lyft have liberalized that a little bit, there’s still…. no, there’s still a centralized corporation [with] a big advantage to get certain kinds of exemptions sometimes. It’s an ongoing fight.
Zachary Woodman: And they’re using their intellectual property to have barriers on who can use it.
Roderick Long: So Uber and Lyft and they haven’t made it such that just anyone can go and just start their own ride sharing service without any legal hassles. They’re an improvement over the preexisting section, but… Another thing that would be really easy for less affluent people to start is restaurants, if they could just start something in their own home and using their own kitchen, but zoning rules that out. Or another thing is daycare. Actually my mother wanted to start a daycare/sort of nursery school with some of her friends and they would take care of the kids while so some of the mothers would be working and others would be taking care of the kids of the other ones.
Anyway, it turned out that in order to do that, they’re supposed to have a lot of money upfront to pay various kinds of fees and licensing and they had to have degrees and education. They didn’t need a degree in education to take care of their own kid, but [they] had needed to [have] education to take care of each other kids.
So they couldn’t do it. And it just goes on and on
Zachary Woodman: My mother with therapy had to go into grad school just so she could be a therapist in the state, or be a social worker even in the state of Michigan. Go to a grad school that was licensed.
Not that the grad school was licensed, but they had to have a partnership with the Michigan state licensure so she could get the license directly through the grad school.
Roderick Long: [There] where all of cases where in order to have a hair braiding business, you have to get a certificate, that requires taking a course for doing lots and lots of different things with hair that they weren’t planning to do.
Zachary Woodman: Right, right.
Roderick Long: And of course, the course also costs a lot of money. I remember in — this was a while ago, I don’t know if it’s still true, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it is — that in Louisiana, there was this controversy about how difficult was to enter the florist business. And you had to have this very difficult process of getting a license to be a florist because we all know the damage that people can do with unlicensed flower arrangements.
Zachary Woodman: *laughs*
Roderick Long: And it turned out that the people in charge of granting licenses to new florists [were] a board staffed by people from existing florists who were being asked to authorize their competitors. And so of course they tended to be a little…
Zachary Woodman: Yeah. And there are examples in the drug industry, where to prove equivalence of a generic drug to a name brand drug, you have to prove the chemical equivalence. They have to send in a sample from the would be competitors like from Pfizer, who have you, and of course, Pfizer never sends you the samples.
Roderick Long: I’m talking about things in a very small scale likehair braiding or florists but also things like the government sending in the army to protect the interests of large corporations and countries.
This happens at every level of scale,
Zachary Woodman: Right. And this has the effect both of stopping the poor from accumulating wealth by starting their own business and stuff and stuff like that and also by increasing prices for various things. for them that disproportionately affect the worst off.
Roderick Long: Yeah.
Zachary Woodman: So, I mean these are all effects that you don’t need to be a left-libertarian to acknowledge. I think Rob Reich in his book on inequality acknowledges a lot of this and he’s like a progressive economist. Steven Teles and […] his coauthor [Brink Lindsey] for The Captured Economy has a whole book on this and then they’re relatively centrist progressives and libertarians. So, you don’t have to be a […] libertarian to acknowledge all that, but you still might think, “Yeah, that’s all true about our existing economy, but even if you had a purely freed market…”. Maybe they might cite Piketty’s analysis of how under markets the rate of return on capital is bigger than the growth rate, and so that causes disproportionate returns on those who already have capital… And they might think that therefore there are reasons to believe that even in a completely free market, you still have these problematic unequal distributions… So what’s your general thought on those types of accounts?
Roderick Long: Well, I think it underestimates the entrepreneurial potential of people working on their own, not working for these big firms, the ability to produce stuff that doesn’t rely on these guys. So, it’s one thing to have accumulated because it’s not just that you’ve accumulated capital in the past, but the ability to keep on doing it in the face of this massive storm of upstarts. Because look at all the businesses that people do start or try to start and get squashed down. I think there’s a massive entrepreneurial drive from where people are constantly trying to just start something. Everything from selling loose cigarettes in the streets to whatever, selling drugs, whatever it is. There are a lot of things that don’t require a lot of capital upfront. So it’s not just the accumulation of capital. It’s the prohibition on free entry into a lot of these things.
Zachary Woodman: Alright. So moving on a bit from that question, one might think that there are other ways, not just through the market, but through other cultural forces that classes are created. They might have an intersectional analysis of class in terms of gender, in terms of race. Probably race being the biggest one.
They’ll point out that in America poverty is largely a feminized phenomenon. It’s largely a racialized phenomenon. Historically disenfranchised racial groups tend to be poor. The poorest people tend to be single women with children. And they might think, maybe what’s going on a bit here is there’s an ideology that maybe the state helps use, but is largely independent of the apparatus of the state that stops these people from accumulating wealth.
So discrimination against these groups and what have you. And so to think that it’s largely just the state that creates these classes is to miss this large cultural, social explanation. So what’s the left-libertarian response to that, or how do they incorporate that insight?
Roderick Long: I mean there’s division among left-libertarians on this issue.
Zachary Woodman: What’s your take?
Roderick Long: Well, I’ll just say, I know some libertarians who remind me a bit of vulgar Marx’s in the sense of saying,”No, really it’s just the state” — sort of the left-libertarian analogue of vulgar Marxists — “It’s just the state”, and I don’t think that’s the case.
I definitely think that culture and ideology and so forth matter and also, of course, I don’t think that the state is the only form of violence. [When] we’re talking about gender politics… a lot of the male violence against women is not motivated by the state. It’s a freelance violence that helps to maintain power imbalance between men and women. I don’t discount that. But I think that having market incentives as opposed to governments incentives is very effective in combating it, even though if it’s not all you need. And here’s a distinction I’d want to make. So, a lot of libertarians who want to talk about discrimination, all of them will say, “Look, discrimination is costly because if you’re not hiring the best people or having the best customers, it hurts you economically”.
And so the market incentives will…
Zachary Woodman: That’s what Gary Becker and Milton Friedman say.
Roderick Long: Yeah and I think that hat’s overstated. I think there is a way that a market helps that problem, but not quite the way people think, because a lot of people… if they’re prejudiced and their peer group is also prejudiced, they may not want to go against their peer group. Suppose that you’re a white guy living in a racist, white community and you want to you pay your black employees more or you want to accept black customers who get more money, but then you know that you’re going to be shunned by your white peer group. You might not do it. Often the way that economics breaks up cartels in general — cause it’s a kind of a racial cartel — is not so much that it leads members of the cartel to cheat on each other, ’cause often they have non-monetary reasons to hang together, but then it brings in outsiders who aren’t part of that culture. Yeah. So here’s a story about my grandmother. So my grandmother lived in… she wasn’t from Florida, she was like from Chicago. She moved to Florida in the 1940s, maybe, in Daytona beach. She paid her black servants way more than her white neighbours did — not because she wasn’t racist, she was racist as hell but her flavor of racism was different from the local flavour. And she didn’t do it just to get the best employees. Although, in fact, that was the result and caused all the neighbours to complain.
She did just because she thought it was un-classy to pay people below a certain level. It was below her dignity to pay people that little. Her motives were not ideal. As a matter of fact, she did get economic benefits from getting the best of the local black employees. Because she wasn’t part of this local group. She wasn’t planning to live forever in Florida. She didn’t identify with this peer group. She didn’t give a crap what they thought about anything. And so, she wasn’t motivated primarily by the economic incentives, although that was probably part of it. I think in general, economic incentives break up cartels more successfully by luring competitors in from the outside than necessarily from breaking up the cartel from within. So I think those things can be effective, but also I think we shouldn’t think of the market as just a matter of sitting back and letting the price system take care of things. I mean, I think the price system is amazing. It can in fact take care of lots and lots of things, but also I think, you know, we think of market the markets as sort of the totality free exchanges, not all free exchanges are just matters of, you know, I want to get, you know, I want to maximize my monetary profit or something like that.
I think that there’s a vital role for deliberate social action to try and change the culture. I think that even if people did work like that, if everyone were just robotic profit maximizers, the market would, would have solved these things pretty well, but as long as you’ve go a lot of people who are being driven by bad non-monetary incentives, it’s really crucial to have people driven by good non-monetary incentives to combat it.
And so I think that’s one of the reasons I think that libertarians shouldn’t focus just on getting rid of state intervention, even though I think state intervention is a huge part of the story. But that they should also be focused on getting involved in these kinds of solidarity movements and sort of precisely the sorts of things that intersectional feminists and race theorists and so forth are interested in.
So, I think that, although we’re a lot more optimistic than a lot of more traditional leftists are about the power of markets and so forth, nevertheless I think that these other movements are absolutely crucial too and we should be supporting them.
Zachary Woodman: Right. And that’s very good. I guess that’s enough on the distinguishing [features] of libertarian class theory. I [would like] to go into the normative motivations for that project. Well, maybe we can go into what we care about with egalitarianism.
What sort of egalitarianism do you buy into, what do you think the point of distributive justice is? And why? There’s this classic libertarian view that distributed justice is, to paraphrase Hayek, a mirage of some sorts; that we shouldn’t care about it because free exchange can create an unequal wealth distributions, even if the free exchange is completely valid. Nozick made that argument with his Will Chamberlain example. So why should we care about [it]?
Roderick Long: I should say that my views have evolved somewhat since I wrote that. I’m not sure I disagree with anything I said in that article, but yeah. Probably the range of kinds of equality I’m interested in is probably greater now. So what I said back then in that article was that the libertarian conception of freedom is itself a form of a egalitarianism.
Zachary Woodman: Right.
Roderick Long: The idea was a quality of authority and idea. An idea that goes back to Locke. When Locke and Jefferson say that we’re all created equal, […] the kind of equality they have in mind is a equality of authority. No one has the right to tell anyone else what to do.
Zachary Woodman: That’s something most liberal theories share in general.
Roderick Long: In principle, but they end up supporting an organization that… one criticism of the state is the state is an organization that is unequal. […] So, people think of the state’s job was to ensure na equality among the governed, but the question is: what about equality between the governed and the governors? There’s this inequality and power, and you can say, “Well, if it’s a democratic state, then somehow it’s really all just us” or, “We control it or we rotate into and out of it”, and so forth. In practice, you end up meeting […] either people in a political office or people with private political influence or people with badges and guns and truncheons, being in a position to impose stuff on us that we don’t have [?] to impose on them. So there’s a sense in which just the basic libertarians conception of freedom is itself a form of egalitarianism. But I wouldn’t limit my egalitarianism to that. I think that’s a very important form of egalitarianism. It would be, it worthwhile be having that, even if we didn’t get the kind of wealth quality that I would expect. But, I think the wealth equality, that I expect… I also think it’s valuable in its own right. People often say, a lot of right-libertarians say, “Well look, it’s not the degree of equality of wealth that matters. All it matters is sort of…
Zachary Woodman: …how it was attained.
Roderick Long: Yeah. Well also they’ll say how, what matters is, as long as it’s going up, it doesn’t matter.
And I think they’re half right. In the sense in that my ideal to getting rid of wealth inequality would not be… if I could do it by sort of reducing everyone to an equal level of poverty or something like that.
But of course that’s not what, you know… So take something like Rawl’s principal. Which is that deviations from equality are fine so long as the worst off people are better off than they would be under equality. So, that’s not the kind of egalitarianism that wants… that would get rid of equality of i by, reducing ourselves to some sort of Harrison Bridger on equality. [?]
A lot of libertarians say that they don’t see any value in…
Zachary Woodman: …in anything like that? Distributive justice.
Roderick Long: I see some value to it. I certainly don’t think it’s the whole story of justice. I don’t think that it trumps the kinds of property rights considerations that someone like Nozick has. Suppose we all became fantastic and much more wealthy than we are, but it was still massively unequal, I think, there’ll be a problem.
I mean, I take it but it’d be a problem because how we relate to each other in society, what all kinds of opportunities we have to interact and possibly being left out of things…
Zachary Woodman: The relational egalitarianism of Liz Anderson is what you have in mind…
Roderick Long: Maybe something like that. And of course, to a lot of right libertarians it’s just going to sound like envy, but it’s not envy in the sense of, “I resent you from having more and I want to take it away from you”.
It’s like, I want to be sort of a full participant in the society. Now, how does the value of that kind of concern relate to the value of something like Nozickian rights? Well, this is where my Aristotelianism comes in. So Eric, In the Aristotelian view, this as I interpret it, as I interpret the idea of the unity of virtue is that… The traditional way of putting that unity of virtue is that you can’t have one virtue completely without having them all. The strong version of it is that all the virtues are just different names for one virtue. That’s like Socrates’ view. That’s not Aristotle’s view. Aristotle’s view is there are different virtues.
Zachary Woodman: To be courageous, you will also…
Roderick Long: …to be fully courageous!
Zachary Woodman: Fully or, I guess the better example as giving is, to be fully benevolent, in certain situations, you’re going to have to do the courageous things, you have to be courageous.
Roderick Long: Yeah. So, he doesn’t rule out the possibility that you could be like 70% benevolent but only 40% courageous or something like that. I think that he would allow that. But you couldn’t be a hundred percent benevolent without being a hundred percent courageous because there are going to be cases where doing the benevolent thing requires facing some kind of danger. But for me, the most important point about the unity of virtue is not just that you can’t have one without having them all with it. You can’t settle what it means. We can’t settle what courage requires of you without figuring what benevolence requires of you and vice versa. So that the contents of the virtues are inter-defined. Each one has some sort of provisional content to begin with. But as you work out the details, there’s a kind of mutual adjustment to come up with our content.
So I think that there are some virtues that are very much social consequence oriented, like benevolence, and there’s some that are much more deontic rights oriented like justice. But if those two are standing in relationship of sort of reciprocal determination, that means that in filling in one, you also have to fill in the other so that you may have to adjust the content of justice to fit consequentialist concerns. But also, you may have to adjust the concept of what counts as a good result by concerns of justice.
Zachary Woodman: Okay. So, that’s a really fascinating… I hadn’t heard you make that argument for it. And that’s really fascinating use of the unity of virtue, which is a doctrine that I’m generally skeptical of cause I’m not much of an Aristotelian myself. But, one objection that comes to mind to that is that, well, it doesn’t look like we need to fully conceptually spell out what a just distributive society is. I guess the way you cash [?] that was in terms of what a benevolently distributive society would be, although in the literature it’s usually talked about in terms of justice. But since we’re in virtue theory, now we should keep those two distinct that guess.
Roderick Long: Well sometimes see with benevolence, benevolence feeds into determining the content of justice.
Zachary Woodman: Right. That’s that’s the claim. And it looks to me like, if what we mean by justice here is like non-aggression libertarian stuff, what justice demands of you is that you don’t initiate force or fraud bla bla bla in illegitimate ways. It doesn’t look like you need to make much reference to distributive justice to know what that is. And a Rawlsian would push back to say, “Well, I don’t really need to refer to a theory of property rights to know what a just society looks like distributively.” So, it looks like… why would we think that there’s this important sort of conceptual link to them in this unity of virtue way to explain them?
Roderick Long: Well, there are different ways of specifying the general libertarian principles. You’ve got general libertarian principles about rights and so forth for different ways of specifying the details.
And likewise, you can have general concerns about distributive justice and different ways of specifying the details. And the idea is that each one has some content of its own, it doesn’t start off as a blank slate because if they all start off with blank slates, then trying to mutually adjust blank slates wouldn’t get you anywhere.
But the idea is that it’s reasonable to take these distributive concerns into account when choosing among different ways of instantiating the basis libertarian principles and vice versa.
Zachary Woodman: So give me some examples.
Roderick Long: This isn’t really a matter of social policy, it’s more a matter of individual action but the question is like, “Is it [right] to steal bread when you’re starving”, or something like that. And so there’s this one right-libertarian view that would say, “No, it’s your duty to starve”. Back in the 90s, the Liberty magazine had this poll where they asked people, “If you are falling out of a building and you grab on to someone else’s balcony to prevent yourself from falling to your death and they say, ‘Get off my balcony.’ Are you obligated to let go and fall to your death?”. And there was a significant percentage that said yes. And in fact, that example ended up getting incorporated in one of L. Neil Smith’s science fiction libertarian novels, where he seemed to endorse that position.
And so the question is, well that’s one interpretation of the libertarian principle. We can also have the interpretation that in a situation like that, what you owe them is maybe something like reparation afterward, but not actually… if you’re breaking into someone’s cabin to avoid freezing to death or something, should we say that you’re just required to die or can we say that inemergency situations it’s alright to make use of their property but then you should do your best, if possible, to make restitution to them later. And I’d say, well, in choosing among those different interpretations, it makes sense to take into account considerations of benevolence and welfare and so forth.
And as you choose the less creepy answers to those questions that would be an example. Let’s say there are different ways of interpreting land rights…
Zachary Woodman: Occupancy & Use versus homesteading.
Roderick Long: Yeah. And also things like, even in cases where you don’t actually get full property title to something, what you have to do in order to get an easement. So there are some libertarians who will say, “Well look, if someone buys up all the land around your house well, you should have contractually acquired an easement before that. And if you didn’t, well, you’re just out of luck and you can just come in and out of a helicopter”, versus the view that, “Well no, by buying up all the land around your house, not letting you out, they’re imprisoning you.” and so they’re violating your liberty. So those are two different ways of interpreting the libertarian principle.
Well, it’s legitimate to bring in social welfare considerations to choose between them and say, “Well, in light of those, it’ll be more reasonable to take the one that they have to give you an easement.” And like I was talking about things like native American land rights, where someone will say, “Well look, in the cases of the nomadic tribes, maybe they weren’t alternative landscape enough to get full ownership, so could you just grab all that stuff?”, the thing that they hunted over or were they entitled to an easement, at least over the areas that they hunted, even if they didn’t have full property rights and you could say, “Well, if you take the benevolence seriously, it’s going to be in favor of giving them an easement as opposed to what actually happened.”
No, of course what actually happened was, even Indian tribes that had farms and settled, they had stuff that that would clearly have been private property, in extended Lockean views. The government took that too. […] The government was just sort of misapplying libertarian principles, but…
Zachary Woodman: Right.
Roderick Long: But some libertarians have argued, “Well, this is for the nomadic tribes and nomadic tribes didn’t have any property rights as they did just take whatever.” And I think that’s going to be a less plausible interpretation once you bring in benevolence to choose among these different interpretations of the libertarian principle.
Zachary Woodman: Right. That’s really interesting. Other thing that came to mind is, that it’s pretty uncontroversial among mainstream political philosophers, as I take it, to adjust one’s view of distributive justice in light of other justice considerations. The famous objection to look at egalitarianism is it would require continual interventions, into your life, in problematic ways that violate liberal justice to correct for bad luck.
Maybe we need to control how people parent their kids or what have you. Alright, I think that’s really interesting. The other thought that I have, when you apply the doctrine of virtue to try to link a thick conception of distributive justice with a thinner libertarian view is one might think that virtue theory is something that should only apply to individuals. When we talk about the virtue of courage, benevolence, blah, blah, blah, that’s something that works with individuals that doesn’t really apply to whole societies to all polities. And it would be some sort of fallacy to start applying virtues to society, so why should we be using like a doctrine of the unity of virtue to try to link features that we want societies to have, and they’re not really virtuous proper.
Roderick Long: Well, all these decisions are made by individuals. So anyone who’s implementing, anyone who’s acting and doing a role in being part of a legal system or something, whether they’re a judge or a legal theorist or some kind of law enforcement person or light rights protector, whatever they are, all the people who are the agents of the legal system, be it a state or some kind of something more anarchic, you know… they’re individuals and the individual contact is government of virtues and everything the state does ultimately, or whatever any legal system, state or anarchic, happens in virtue of individuals making decisions and they’re always going to be governed by it by these virtue considerations. So, you don’t get off the hook for following the virtues, just because you’re acting as an agent of a legal system. Now of course, the traditional virtue theorists thought of the purpose of the state as to promote virtue. And so they were very paternalistic and intrusive, you know, not all of them as paternalistic and intrusive as Plato’s Republic…
Zachary Woodman: Cause it’s like Aristotle’s politics…
Roderick Long: So Aristotle’s politics… it looks very libertarian compared to Plato’s Republic, but it looks a lot like Plato’s Republic compared to libertarianism.
But I think that what they failed to think about was they were thinking about virtue as something to promote, but they are forgetting about the ways in which virtue should constrain the behavior of the people running the system. And so, suppose that I think that there’s this value of respect that you owe to all other people, something a lot of the ancient virtue theorists sometimes seem to think, sometimes not. And of course Aristotle explicitly didn’t think that, he thought that there were natural slaves. But you’ve got people like Cicero who says, we’re all equal parts of this — well, he didn’t say equal but — we’re all parts of humanity and everyone deserves respect and so forth, but he had no problem with slavery, he never explained it. But, they think of it as value of respect and so they would think, therefore, it’s the job of the state to promote, make people respectful, but you have to say, “Well look, the state is going to [viewing] this in virtue of individuals doing various things and they’re bound by that respect too. And so you can’t promote respect in ways that violate respect. So, the idea that the natural political implementation of virtue ethics is a state that promotes virtue is a mistake because virtue requires taking an attitude toward other people that’s inconsistent with the kind of paternalistic micromanaging that the traditional virtue ethical state was favoring.
Zachary Woodman: So, what I had in mind by giving voice to that objection was something somewhat different. I had in mind that Hayek in The Fatal Conceit…
Roderick Long: Oh yeah.
Zachary Woodman: …argues that we need to apply a different sort of… maybe putting it in terms of whether virtue applied as societies or state institutions was the wrong way to give voice to this line. But I had in mind that, you know, Hayek in The Fatal Conceit says that we now live in such a large, complicated society that we have to apply different ways of thinking about ethics, maybe different virtues, to our lives in our intimate orders and our intimate groupings, like families, relationships, blah, blah, blah, as opposed to the extended order of society, you know…
Roderick Long: Yeah.
Zachary Woodman: …the world out there. And maybe we can catch this out in terms of virtue ethics by thinking about like how a lawyer has to exhibit virtues to different degrees in different ways, when he’s arguing in his court case, as opposed to when he’s talking to his wife. A lawyer who — and this is a very non-Aristotelian way of thinking about it as I see it — a lawyer…
Roderick Long: That’s a very Ciceronian way of thinking about it. *laughs*
Zachary Woodman: Maybe. The lawyer who were to treat his court case the way he treats a discussion with his wife, would very likely lose the court case. Whereas, if he were to go home and get in this combative debate with his wife, he’d probably get a divorce very quickly and we would view him as not a good husband and we wouldn’t feel him as not a good lawyer in the other case. So, why would we think that the way virtues work, work the same in the political realm as they do in the public space as they do in the private space of our intimate […] lives?
Roderick Long: Well, it’s part of virtue to recognize that one and the same virtue will have different manifestations in different social contexts. That’s been a part of virtue ethics forever. There’s this often disagreement of what those contexts are., I agree that there are differences in these contexts, but I think that people have tended to be too comfortable with allowing radical differences, like… basically all the things that cops are allowed to do.
Zachary Woodman: Right.
Roderick Long: But also take another example that’s sort of similar to your example and that I think is partially right and partially wrong. So, in business ethics there is this famous art article by Albert Carr, I think called “Business Bluffing or something like that? [the title is Is Business Bluffing Ethical?] It often appears in business ethics textbooks, where he says you don’t use the same ethics in business that you do in dealing with personal friends and family. The operators claim different set of rules. What I think to some extent is right, but he takes it instead of saying, “Look, it’s like poker. In poker, you know they’re trying to deceive you.” And by playing the game, you’ve sort of consented to their deceiving you. So, likewise when you’re in business, when you’re engaging in economic transactions in the market, you know they’re trying to deceive you and you’ve sort of consented to that by entering these economic transactions. Which really seems… And it’s not just that they don’t have to be as bedeviled to you as you would be a family member, but actually they can deceive you as long as they don’t actively lie and so forth. They can manipulate you and so forth.
And I think it’s just wrong. This idea that we’ve consented, like consenting to play a poker game. I mean, there’s no such thing as consenting to engage in economic trade in the market, you just have to do it in order to survive. And so what they did really sounds more like sort of the social contract argument that somehow by just living in a place you’ve consented to all kinds of crap from the government. Likewise, they said by living in a place you’ve consented to all that kinds of crap from business people. So, I think there’s a limit to how far you can have these different roles mean different ethics things. Now of course, part of Hayek’s idea was, “Well, it doesn’t make any sense to talk about the justice of a distribution.”
Zachary Woodman: Right.
Roderick Long: Because justice applies only to the actions of individuals and so it doesn’t apply to spontaneous orders. But of course you can always translate talk about the justice of a distribution into talk about the justice of what individuals either individually or in concert with each other should do in response to an existing distribution. So you can always translate talk about social justice into talk about what individuals should do.
Zachary Woodman: But at that point, haven’t you just conceded the point and gotten rid of the distributive justice. And gotten just back to the end…
Roderick Long: No, cause I think it’s [?] saying what people justly should do in response to a distribution, given distribution… whether they should try and change that distribution or not, that’s an issue of distributive justice.
Zachary Woodman: Okay.
Roderick Long: Now, it’s true that there’s a kind of communism that can work at the level of the family that I think can’t work at the level of society as a whole.
Zachary Woodman: Right. That’s what I also think […].
Roderick Long: And that’s fine, that’s right. And in fact, if you try to apply it to the level of the society as a whole, it’ll cause starvation and chaos and if you’re benevolent, you don’t want to do that. And so…
Zachary Woodman: The rest of that quote is, if we apply it or the ethics to our intimate groupings, we would demolish them and if we applied the intimate grouping ethics of the extended order, we would destroy it.
Roderick Long: Yeah. So, benevolence is when a simple minded application of benevolence to the social order would have horrific results, then a nuanced understanding of benevolence would say, “Well, don’t do that.” But nevertheless, I don’t think that’s a reason to think that there’s no reason to be concerned about systematic inequalities of wealth or thinking that there’s just not a problem. Now, if it’s true that the only way we could get rid of them is by some sort of intrusive violation of people’s property rights, then I’m saying, “Alright well, I guess then the worlds sucks, we don’t want to do that.”
But to the extent that you can combat these kinds of inequalities without violating libertarian rights, I think we should. It’s a better society if more people can participate on an equal well basis. Part of it is just that societies work better when more people’s ideas can enter into the competition. And if there’s a vast inequality of wealth between one group and another, then the lower group… they may be living comfortably, but they’re not able to participate as much in that conversation, I think the society as a whole suffers from that.
Zachary Woodman: Yeah. And not to mention that there might be something intrinsically wrong with excluding people from the conversation….
Roderick Long: Yes.
Zachary Woodman: …who would otherwise want to participate in it. Or excluding people from certain social practices, cultural rights etc.
Roderick Long: Yeah. To take an extreme example. A lot of people say, “Black people shouldn’t complain about the legacy of slavery because if the slavery never happened, then they would have been born back in Africa instead of here and so they would have been living in much worse poverty.” Well, actually they would never have been bored at all because this history meant that two different parents meant, but anyway.
Zachary Woodman: We don’t need to get into modal identity here. Transmodal identity. *laughs*
Roderick Long: Treating people like crap is not justified by the fact that your ability to do it is made possible by a series of events that had they happened otherwise those persons would have been worse off. It’s like if I come up to you and I punch you in the face and you fall over and then by sheer luck that means that you end up not being hit by a bullet that someone else was firing, I’ve actually benefited you by punching in the face.
I wasn’t trying to benefit you but as a matter of fact you’re better off. So now I might say, “Oh, instead of me owing you for punching in the face, you owe me for saving you from the bullet.” No. And so likewise when people are excluded from things you could say, “Well yeah, but under this regime where they’re excluded, they’re much better off and are much more comfortable than they would have ever been before.” What’s great. Want to keep them comfortable? Good. They wouldn’t want to impoverish everyone in the name of equality, but if people are excluded from things, it’s just not a respectful way to treat people.
And it doesn’t mean that you need all of it, you know… a bunch of stuff imposed by law?! Because that’s also not a respectful way to treat people but happily that’s not the only way we can deal with it.
Zachary Woodman: Alright. So the last question I always like to ask is what are three works, could be books, articles, documentaries. that people you think the listeners should read pertaining to this or generally to learn more about what you’re interested in.
Roderick Long: Okay. So on libertarian class theory, three books that I’d recommend. One is an anthology, I was a co-editor of it along with David Hart and Gary Chartier and Ross Kenyon. It’s titled Social Class and State Power: Exploring an Alternative Radical Tradition and it’s just a collection of various works in classical liberal class theory — both more lefty ones and more righty ones — from basically the 17th century through today. It gives us a range of different versions.
Then, specifically on the French liberal class theorists, in particular Charles Comte, Charles Dunoyer and Augustin Thierry, who wrote this journal in early 19th century France that developed a lot of these ideas early on. David Hart on his website has got a couple of different versions of his dissertation, and he’s got a couple of different titles depending on the version, but most of them have either as the title or the subtitle something like The Radical Liberalism of Charles Comte and Charles Dunoyer. And that’s useful because the class theory book that I mentioned before doesn’t have stuff from them. Well, it has like a little snippet or something but hardly anything from them has been translated. And so it’s a really useful account of them. And then, for the third thing, for more specifically the kind of class theory that left-libertarians go for in for these days, there’s yet another anthology: Markets Not Capitalism by Gary Chartier and Charles Johnson. It has a few older things like stuff from Benjamin Tucker in the 19th century but it’s mostly a recent — like from the last 20 years — left libertarian analysis of the interaction between state power and the power of big business and the corporate elite.
And so those are the three things that come to mind.
Zachary Woodman: Alright. Roderick Long, thank you for coming on the show. We hope to have you on again!
Roderick Long: Thanks, I enjoyed it!