Libertarianism Means Worker Empowerment

Roderick Long


Advocates of free markets and advocates of worker empowerment often find themselves at odds, as is attested by the current controversy between Bertram, Robin, and Gourevitch on the one hand and members of this blog on the other.

This was not always so. In the 19th century, free-market libertarians were in the forefront of the labour movement; libertarian theorists such as Thomas Hodgskin, Herbert Spencer, Lysander Spooner, Benjamin Tucker, Voltairine de Cleyre, and Dyer Lum looked forward to the displacement, total or partial, of the wage system and of hierarchical firms, in favour of an economy in which workers were generally either independent proprietors or members of labour cooperatives – a world without bosses. Seeing state power and business power as two interlocking sides of a single oppressive system, they were libertarians because they were labour activists, and labour activists because they were libertarians.

Alliance of the Libertarian Left

Many of these thinkers even called themselves “socialists,” and the system of business power that they opposed “capitalism,” to signal their support for a shift in the ownership of the means of production away from the capitalist class to the working class. Yet this stance in no way involved a moderation of their support for free markets and private property; on the contrary, they tended to be quite radical and hardcore on those issues. Rather, they maintained that it was only state interference with free markets and private property that kept wealth and power in the hands of the capitalists, since the natural effects of free competition would be to favour workers’ control over their own lives and labour.

This position of what Kevin Carson has named “free-market anti-capitalism” (henceforth FMAC) became sidelined in the 20th century, as the threat of totalitarian communism abroad and welfare-state liberalism at home tempted libertarians into a perilous alliance with conservatives, with all the effects of which the old adage about dogs and fleas warns. But FMAC, never entirely submerged by the more conservative varieties of libertarianism, has now re-emerged with renewed vigour; its most prominent defenders today include the Alliance of the Libertarian Left (no relation to the Vallentyne-Steiner-Otsuka version of “left-libertarianism”) and the Center for a Stateless Society. The FMAC perspective is also represented on the BHL blog, by Gary Chartier and myself, as well as by sometime guest blogger Charles Johnson. (For a good introduction to the FMAC perspective, see Gary and Charles’ anthology Markets Not Capitalism: Individualist Anarchism Against Bosses, Inequality, Corporate Power, and Structural Povertybuy a hard copy ordownload a free pdf. Given the FMAC presence on BHL, it’s a bit odd that Bertram, Robin, and Gourevitch keep referring to “the” views of “the” Bleeding-Heart Libertarians without taking FMAC into account.)

To be a proponent of FMAC is to be perpetually (well, until the revolution) at odds both with mainstream libertarianism and with its critics, urging the former to recover its original leftist goals and the latter to recognise its proper leftist effects.

Libertarians ought to care about the kinds of chickenshit workplace regulations that Bertram, Robin, and Gourevitch cite – not because those regulations are necessarily violations of libertarian rights, but because:

  • a) they are objectionable for many of the same reasons that governmental rights-violations are objectionable (e.g., they disrespect individual autonomy, treat people like crap, and overestimate the effectiveness of centralised, hierachical direction in comparison with local knowledge and horizontal, networked cooperation);
  • b) they are made possible, and/or likelier, by rights-violations, primarily governmental ones; and
  • c) by reinforcing a culture of servility and regimentation in the general populace, they tend in turn to contribute to further rights-violations on government’s part.

In Charles Johnson’s taxonomy of the ways in which libertarianism is causally and/or conceptually entwined with other values, (a), (b), and (c) correspond to grounds thickness, consequence thickness, and strategic thickness, respectively.

Fellow BHL blogger Matt Zwolinski asks:

if, say, limiting workers’ bathroom breaks hurts workers more than it benefits employers, then one would expect competitive pressures to provide some kind of check against this behavior. So what’s going on? Is it a failure of competition – some kind of market failure that allows bosses to get away with being inefficiently mean? Or is it a necessary check against employee slacking?

But surely these are not the only options. The third possibility is that free competition is neither working well nor working badly, but is simply not being allowed to work.

Government regulations tend to increase the size and hierarchical nature of firms while reducing their numbers, thus constraining competition both among these corporate leviathans, and between them and smaller, flatter competitors. As I’ve written elsewhere:

The ability of colossal firms to exploit economies of scale is … limited in a free market, since beyond a certain point the benefits of size (e.g., reduced transaction costs) get outweighed by diseconomies of scale (e.g., calculational chaos stemming from absence of price feedback) – unless the state enables them to socialise these costs by immunising them from competition – e.g., by imposing fees, licensure requirements, capitalisation requirements, and other regulatory burdens that disproportionately impact newer, poorer entrants as opposed to richer, more established firms.

It’s true, as Matt rightly stresses, that simply banning an exploitative practice when those exploited would be even worse off without it is doing the exploited no favour. This is a point that critics of libertarianism all too often miss. But simply pointing out the wrongheadedness of banning an exploitative practice, without also seeking to address and combat the sociopolitical factors that drive the exploited into the arms of the exploiters, is a mistake as well – and it tends to reinforce the pernicious idea, not only among libertarianism’s critics but among libertarians as well, that exploitation is not a libertarian concern. Instead we should be highlighting the way in which a freed market, by forcing the exploiters onto a level playing field, would undermine their power to exploit. (This was also one of the main points of mysweatshop post.)

Governments, in Harry Browne’s memorable phrase, operate by breaking people’s legs and then offering them crutches. We might add that the crutches are defective and, while relieving the injury in some respects, tend to make it worse in others. All the same, surely the mainlibertarian policy proposal – especially for those of us who consider ourselves Bleeding Heart Libertarians – should be to combat the breaking of legs, not to combat the distribution of crutches!

But the solution favoured by the statist left – leaving in place the structure that shifts the balance of power in favour of employers and against workers, and then trying to counteract its effects via piecemeal regulation – is no improvement. First of all, it’s pointlessly wasteful; it’s like handing out clubs to one side, and then trying to correct the imbalance by handing out shields to the other.

But worse, it’s counterproductive, as governmental measures to limit business power usually end up getting turned to business’s advantage. Look at existing u.s. labour legislation, passed ostensibly in the interests of workers, which in fact has had the effect of defanging serious labour activism by limiting its scope, and co-opting union leadership into the big-government/big-business partnership – just as antitrust laws and other purportedly anti-big-business, pro-consumer regulations, from the Progressive Era to the New Deal, have actually served corporate interests. Centralised power tends to get captured by wealthy, concentrated interests; the solution is to eliminate centralised power.

Bertram, Robin, and Gourevitch are quite right in saying that “workers and bosses constantly disagree about the nature of a job.” As Kevin Carson and other FMAC libertarians have stressed, employment contracts are typically vague, but thanks to the power differential between employers and workers, such ambiguities are typically resolved in the employer’s favour. What’s needed is more alternatives, so that workers aren’t forced to labour for employers, and so that those who still choose to do so can be assured that the threat of losing workers to these alternatives will force employers to give their employees greater autonomy.

But the key to achieving this desideratum is neither the intrusive statism offered by Bertram, Robin, and Gourevitch, nor the somewhat more tepid statism of the minimum basic income offered by some of my fellow BHL bloggers. If employers can’t be trusted with power, how on earth can politicians and bureaucrats be so? The solution is to smash the structures of government-imposed privilege that put workers into a position of dependency on employers in the first place.

Some will say that politicians and bureaucrats are more trustworthy than employers, not owing to any inherent nobility of character, but rather because their power is accountable to the voters. But the kind of “accountability” offered by the franchise is a rather blunt instrument compared to that offered by freed markets.

To adapt an example of David Friedman’s: suppose there were only two grocery stores, Kroger and Winn-Dixie. And suppose that every four years, consumers voted between them. Whichever store won a majority of votes, everyone (however they voted) would have to buyall their groceries from that store for the next four years, at which point they would get another chance to vote.

Suppose, further, that Kroger’s pickles are much worse (and are generally agreed to be worse) than Winn-Dixie’s, but that on the whole Kroger’s groceries are better, so most consumers vote for Kroger. Where in this system is the mechanism or incentive to correct Kroger’s bad pickles?

Bad policies tend to be immune from democratic correction for much the same reason. Choosing between two enormous package deals every four years is not genuine choice; it’s like trying to separate grains of white rice from grains of brown rice when your only tool is a hammer.

Bertram, Robin, and Gourevitch fear that libertarians’ “fetish of private property and contract … gives too much scope to private empires of tyranny and domination.” But I have yet to see them seriously engage with the FMAC arguments for the claim that it is precisely the government’s failure to respect private property and contract that is responsible for the private empires of tyranny and domination that characterise so much of our economy.


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