Steve Horwitz on libertarianism of the left and left libertarianism

Steve Horwitz has been known to refer to himself as a “libertarian of the left.” He’s critical of those who call themselves “left libertarians” for at least two things:

  • The claim that management/labor and rich/poor inequities will take care of themselves once the markets are “freed”
  • The refusal to defend those aspects of the status quo which are market-oriented

As is usual in these cases where a post opens a larger floodgate of my emotions than will fit in a comment, I present excerpts from the original, with my commentary:

Left-libertarians often seem to argue that even just a little bit of statism so distorts markets that the results produced by the mixed economy bear little relationship to what a freed economy would produce.

I’ve never seen it stated this explicitly in the left libertarian literature, but one does get that impression from their pitch.

Ironically, the “one drop” theory that the existence of even one non-defense government program constitutes SOCIALISM!!! is the one-size-fits-all tea party talking point. Tea party Americans also lecture us critics of commerce that what we’re really against is “corporatism, not capitalism.” Apparently they know us better than we know ourselves. I’ve said it before and I’ve said it again, libertarianism offers nothing in the way of rhetoric that isn’t also part of conservatism.

Even as I agree with them that we should end the subsidies, I wish left-libertarians would more often acknowledge that firms like Walmart and others have improved the lives of poor Americans in significant ways and lifted hundreds of thousands out of poverty in some of the poorest parts of the world.

Regarding this variant on Walmart’s “live better” slogan, please understand that a penny saved is emphatically NOT a penny earned. I’m not religious, but I recognize one recurring strand of authentic economic wisdom in the Old Testament. Those who are happy to sell to you, and maybe not so much about buying from you, are not your friends. Don’t kid yourself, first world labor is being boycotted. A counter-boycott is definitely in order.

Call me a utopian if you must, but I say if it ain’t euvoluntary it ain’t voluntary.

The increase in consumption possibilities tends to be in non-essentials like electronics. In every group discussion in which the “absolute poverty” red herring arises there’s always some snarky “market defender” who follows a chain of logic that goes from, the poor are alive, therefore the poor are eating, sometimes to the face of someone claiming to be poor. I’ll grant that things could be worse, but a more apropos question for me is how hard it is to be solvent a lot more often than not. “Failure” at this has severe quality of life consequences.

If inequality is explained in terms of the characteristics of the persons involved, I’d say what’s happening here might not be vulgar, but definitely looks to be a defense of the status quo.

Granted, state intervention can alter the incentive structure within firms, but there are also very good reasons why workers might strongly prefer employment arrangements in which they don’t have to take on additional responsibilities or spend time engaging in collective decision making processes.

Why must people infantilize the role of non-managerial labor? Oh, they just want a lower level of responsibility. Riiiiiight.

Well, I’m critical of the left-styled libertarians from the left. I’m also skeptical that freed markets will automagically level the playing field between the economically privileged (which, like politically privileged, is a thing) and the rest of us. Even if economy of scale turns out to be a feature of political rather than economic privilege, the left-styled libertarians seem to be willing to live with the co-existence of relatively independent (or as Mr. Horwitz might say, “more responsible”) self-employed petty bourgies and supposedly empowered employed-employed who will supposedly encounter a seller’s market for their labor.

To sum it up:

My own view is that this distinction is best captured by the contrast between “markets” and “planning” rather than “capitalism” and “socialism,” but I could be persuaded by other terminology.

Mine too. I just happen to prefer planning. I appreciate that Horwitz has used “markets” and “planning” without adjectives (although in an earlier paragraph he described it as “free markets” and “social planning”). I’ve long thought “market” vs. “command” was a false dichotomy. Besides, money is used as a backer-upper of commands every day and in every way, and people worry constantly about what their goods and services will “command” in the marketplace. I hold out the possibility of planning that isn’t central planning; decentralized planning, if you will. The most visible movement for this seems to be Parecon, although I have been messing with the parameters of “Angel Economics”, too. I find arbitrary the assertion that hierarchy is a solvable problem and “coordination” an utterly unsolvable one. Like “freed markets,” it’s simply an untested hypothesis, or a case of nobody trying hard enough.

About n8chz

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1 Response to Steve Horwitz on libertarianism of the left and left libertarianism

  1. Poor Richard says:

    IMO the biggest problem with markets is externalities, many of which are actually planned and regulated IN by special interests. Getting the externalities out is no trivial technical matter. “There’s no such thing as a free market” might be more universally true than there’s no such thing as a free lunch, so any reliance on free markets to solve socioeconomic ills is extremely naive, speculative, disingenuous, or at the very least technologically premature. I agree that the “one drop” theory (that the existence of even one non-defense government program constitutes socialism) is libertarian/tea-party nonsense. All real (in vivio & in situ) socioeconomic systems are hybrids if viewed through any legitimate taxonomic lens. Taxonomies drawn from empirical observation can be useful in socioeconomic systems analysis, but categorical generalizations drawn from theory, philosophy, or ideology (and the countless false dichotomies that follow) are generally the bailiwick of scoundrels and fools.

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