Authority Breeds Inequality

In a recent Christian Science Monitor op-ed (“Inequality dragon rears its head. Again.” August 26), Jared Bernstein cites “new GDP data suggest[ing] that inequality is on the rise again.” Bernstein points out that “[c]orporate profits as a share of GDP has surpassed its prerecession high while compensation has shrunk,” evidence of “two very different economies” existing alongside one another in the United States.

Statistically, there’s no disputing the veracity of claims about “extreme wealth concentration” prevailing in the world today, particularly in the U.S. Worries about the harmful effects of that reality are no less well-founded.

The important questions therefore address the underlying causes of the huge gap dividing the rich from the rest of the world, and that gap is clearly a feature of global capitalism and our moment in history. What are the sources of the privileges of the rich, and why hasn’t a rising tide (in terms of corporate profits) lifted all boats?

Market anarchists, challenging ingrained misconstructions of true free markets, find a direct link between economic inequality and another, more fundamental kind of inequality at the heart of social life. The economic problem and the social problem, though their relationship is seldom confronted fully, are bound together in a morass of issues created by authority.

The world that we occupy today — its economies, its social institutions — is fundamentally an authoritarian one, quite literally one within which our relationships with one another are governed and shaped by external authority.

Often we hear it said of a scholar, particularly distinguished in her field, that she is “an authority,” or observe lawyers distinguishing between primary and secondary forms of legal authority, some mandatory, others merely persuasive. Like so very many of our words, “authority” absorbs within it subtleties gradations of meaning that depend on context and tone.

When anarchists declare that we are opposed to authority, then, it may, especially to the uninstructed, seem to be a principle without meaning; otherwise, to the extent that it does seem to have meaning, the principle might be thought to strike at society itself, disposing of some sense of order that seems worth maintaining.

And although in truth the anti-authority proposition of the anarchist, put to the test, would shake the existing order (if we can really call it such) at its foundations, it wouldn’t be in the way most people likely expect. Authority is, in its essence and in the anarchist conception, the enemy and antithesis of liberty, an imposition against the natural autonomy of the individual, her judgments and her conscience.

Taking a variety of shapes, authority manifests itself in threats, coercion and the use of outright physical force; its introduction creates inherently unequal relationships between individuals, trampling on what American anarchist Benjamin Tucker called “the principle of equal liberty.”

That principle, Tucker thought, if carried to its logical end point, was enough to justify anarchism conceptually and to result in it in the world. To set oneself up in opposition to the kind of authority set out here, was, Tucker argued, to both fear and to denounce “its organ,” the state.

The series of unequal exchanges — and accordingly vastly unequal results — that we see in the economies of the world are products of systems that establish different rules for different people. What we see is the state giving some people license (that is, authority) to do things that others can’t, and this special authority allowing that former group to steal and exploit.

Intellectual property laws that allow people to own and monopolize the nonphysical world of ideas, government contracts, barriers to market entry and professional licensure all compound to create a world dominated by gross inequality. Slowly transitioning from those injustices, from the state, to a true free market of voluntary exchange and cooperation is the just and practicable way forward, away from the “big, scary dragon” of inequality.

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