The Labor Question in Context

“Employer groups,” The Washington Post reports, “turned out in force Monday to challenge rules proposed by the National Labor Relations Board that would streamline the process for holding union elections and make it easier for workers to organize.” The article observes that private sector union membership has fallen nearly 30 percent over the past 60 or so years, perhaps an indication that the existing legal structure is bent to the advantage of employers.

While federal labor statutes and rules certainly affect the outcomes of negotiations between capital and workers, it is little understood how much huge corporations benefit from the lack of a free market and legitimate competition more generally. Contrary to the most oft-repeated and widely-accepted myths, the most established firms are those that fight most fiercely against competition.

A true free market, by comparison to state capitalism, makes accumulating wealth and power far more difficult than people typically imagine. The reason for the misconception — the myth that Big Business longs for laissez-faire — is the related misreading of the present state capitalist economy, dominated by giant corporations, as a free market; at the risk of spoiling the ending, it isn’t one (or even anything close).

The profile of today’s economy is thoroughly shaped by the state and the powerful interests behind it, leaving little room for the kinds of voluntary, mutually beneficial exchanges that market anarchists mean when we say “free market.” Even where an agreement or commercial relationships seems on its face to be undertaken peacefully, absent coercion, the framework within which it takes place is almost always altered and defined by state aggression.

An illustrative example, which can also act as an analogy, is the adhesion contract, the kind of boilerplate agreement that contains terms quite friendly to the drafter and usually very unfair to the other party. Whether an agreement is unfair, of course, turns very heavily on questions about whether both parties understand its terms, enter into it free of duress, and have the mental capacity to agree at all (for example, that they’re of age).

Still, even where all of these conditions fall into place, market anarchists consider the totality of the economic circumstances that lead to the set of available alternatives that buyers and sellers of goods and services are met with. As Roderick T. Long colorfully explained the inquiry, “If I would rather be punched in the face than pay you a million dollars not to punch me in the face, that may explain why I’m getting punched in the face, but only relative to the background conditions that explain why these are my only options.”

The state’s interference in the economy, favoring rich and entrenched companies, systematically closes off options for workers and the less privileged; it thus creates an economic environment in which those latter groups must accept terms that they would summarily dismiss in a real free market, where open competition would undercut state-privileged monopolies.

In the law, everything from zoning laws and corporate subsidies to inappropriately-named “consumer protection” rules and professional licensure all work together to favor Big Business. The aggregate of elitist laws, their functional effect, is to allow purchasers of labor hours to buy them at a discounted price — discounted, that is, as compared to the price in a hypothetical free market.

So when market anarchists contemplate the employer-employee bargain, we do so not in the narrow terms of the mainstream debate, but with an eye to the full range of state controls and impediments that result in the current situation.

It was once thought — by American free market flag-bearers like Josiah Warren and Benjamin Tucker — that markets were a great path to justice for the laboring common man; their arguments are as relevant and compelling today as they were in the nineteenth century. Markets are able to check the power of commercial interests, but only if we free them from the corrupt rapacity of politics.

Free Markets & Capitalism?
Markets Not Capitalism
Organization Theory
Conscience of an Anarchist