Update: Matt Yglesias has a reponse essay at Cato Unbound linked in the sidebar. Better yet is a response to the response at Will Wilkinson’s blog. Reading the comments is pretty worthwhile, too.
Roderick Long (about whom I know nothing other than that he is “a left-libertarian market anarchist in social theory” as described on his about page) writes in Cato Unbound about how the Big Business Right is all about state protection of corporations as opposed to a free market, and how libertarians who yoke themselves into coalition with right wing statists betray their own principles.
Defenders of the free market are often accused of being apologists for big business and shills for the corporate elite. Is this a fair charge?
No and yes. Emphatically noâ€”because corporate power and the free market are actually antithetical; genuine competition is big businessâ€™s worst nightmare. But also, in all too many cases, yes â€”because although liberty and plutocracy cannot coexist, simultaneous advocacy of both is all too possible.
Followed by a litany of how state power protects big business: favorable tax rates, regulatory barriers to entry by competitors, subsidy of transportation costs, and so forth.
He assigns blame all around, from the left, among whom “there is widespread (though not, it should be noted, universal) agreement that laissez-faire and corporate plutocracy are virtually synonymous”, to the right, among whom there is “widespread (though again not universal) tendency for conservatives to cloak corporatist policies in free-market rhetoric”, and finally to libertarians who too often accept the right-wing position themselves.
Why has there been a libertarian-conservative alliance?
In the nineteenth century, it was far more common than it is today for libertarians to see themselves as opponents of big business. The long 20th-century alliance of libertarians with conservatives against the common enemy of state-socialism probably had much to do with reorienting libertarian thought toward the right; and the brief rapprochement between libertarians and the left during the 1960s foundered when the New Left imploded. As a result, libertarians have been ill-placed to combat left-wing and right-wing conflation of markets with privilege, because they have not been entirely free of the conflation themselves.
In other words, libertarians allied with conservatives because liberals were worse.
A lot of this was stuff that I’d been more-or-less vaguely aware of, but it’s nice to see it laid out with explanations and footnotes and eight-by-ten colour glossy photographs with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back. This is all great stuff, but he loses me at the sentence immediately after the last quotation:
Happily, the left/libertarian coalition is now beginning to re-emerge…”
And in support he cites the mere existence of two left/libertarian-themed blogs. Well, given time, I can probably find some Nazi/Communist-themed blogs, so I don’t think that his evidence is all that convincing.
If considered as a separate bloc, libertarians still fit better with the right wing as described in the article, because at least the right wing gives lip service to the ideal of the free market, whereas the left wing seems to think that it’s a positive evil. (Perhaps a necessary evil, but evil nonetheless.)
One thing I can certainly agree with: we need to stop using the word “capitalism.”
Take, for example, the word â€œcapitalism,â€ which libertarians during the past century have tended to apply to the system they favor. As Iâ€™ve argued elsewhere, this term is somewhat problematic; some use it to mean free markets, others to mean corporate privilege, and still others (perhaps the majority) to mean some confused amalgamation of the two:
By â€œcapitalismâ€ most people mean neither the free market simpliciter nor the prevailing neomercantilist system simpliciter. Rather, what most people mean by â€œcapitalismâ€ is this free-market system that currently prevails in the western world. In short, the term â€œcapitalismâ€ as generally used conceals an assumption that the prevailing system is a free market. And since the prevailing system is in fact one of government favoritism toward business, the ordinary use of the term carries with it the assumption that the free market is government favoritism toward business.
Hence clinging to the term â€œcapitalismâ€ may be one of the factors reinforcing the conflation of libertarianism with corporatist advocacy. In any case, if libertarianism advocacy is not to be misperceivedâ€”or worse yet, correctly perceived! â€”as pro-corporate apologetics, the antithetical relationship between free markets and corporate power must be continually highlighted.
Warming to my recurring theme, this is yet another dimension of political distinction in which the Republican Party needs to realign itself. Theoretically, at least, the GOP stands against government intervention in the marketplace; it’s time they asserted the courage of their convictions.
(I was going to say “put their money where their mouth is,” but their mouths seem to be affixed to the collective corporate ass, so maybe that isn’t the best metaphor…)