Reporting on the death of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il, Reuters (via The Atlantic) asks, “How did one man starve a nation of roughly 23 million people? The answer: By clinging to a broken economic system designed to do little but ensure his own survival.”
Sketching out the tyrant’s disastrous tenure as General Secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea, the story underlines the country’s former reliance on the Soviet Union and its unwillingness to “open up its economy” after the Cold War.
Received economic wisdom places countries like North Korea on one end of a continuum that finds, roughly, the nations of the developed West on the other. The argument incorporated in that account is that if too little economic freedom is destructive, then that is also true of too much freedom. The problem with the conventional narrative, however, is that is puts far too much space between the supposedly “free” and “un-free,” and mistakenly places the blame owed to rather un-free systems on liberty.
It may be that a spectrum running simply from more to less free is indeed a worthwhile tool, a set of metrics for attempting to measure the extent to which human relationships and society itself are voluntary as opposed to defined by coercion or aggression. But, even at that, “voluntary” must be given a more nuanced meaning than is commonly assigned it today.
Observing the economies of those countries routinely adjudged — by the standards of conservative think tanks — economically free, we have to wonder what “free market” has come to mean. Any analysis that disregards generations of, for instance, land thefts and other patent injustices, papering them over for a thin defense of today’s capitalism, is not one worth considering.
The myth that wealth concentration and huge gaps dividing the rich from the poor are symptomatic of free markets serves the ideological foundation of state in an important way. Whether the state refers to itself as (like North Korea) a communist “workers’ paradise” or as a “liberal democracy” where “free enterprise” reigns supreme, inquiries about actual conditions of freedom remain to be dealt with.
Form should be humbled to substance, easy categorizations abandoned for the application of principles. Economic decision-making power is no less distillated for elites in a state-maintained corporate economy than it is in the dreaded planned economy.
Just as governments may arbitrarily declare certain government-sponsored enterprises “private,” so too could companies like Boeing and Northrop Grumman be regarded as “public.” The meaningful distinction, then, is a particular entity’s overall relationship with the state, the source of the privileges that drive the cost of living up and wages down.
Today, virtually everywhere, we witness the mastery of a systematically-favored rich (not all that different from the Kims), but this end product is in no way begotten under conditions of liberty. Statism, in all of its forms, wherever it exists, is just one kind of thing; whatever its flavor or rhetoric, oscillating over the centuries, its purpose has been that of the Kim family’s in North Korea.
As a matter of course particular states differ in degree and in their particularities, but only in those, for the fundamental character of the state is what defines it. As Albert Jay Nock wrote, “The State originated in conquest and confiscation, as a device for maintaining the stratification of society permanently into two classes — an owning and exploiting class, relatively small, and a propertyless dependent class.”
North Korea is an extreme example of what the state is meant to do and has always done, but the opposite extreme is not the United Kingdom or Germany or the United States. The opposite extreme, the truly free society of mutually beneficial exchange and cooperation, is a condition of statelessness or anarchy. And whereas nothing could be more hopeless or disorderly than the North Korean state, anarchism represents genuine peace and justice.