Saturday, March 20, 2010

Libertarians for Redistribution

Libertarianism is a redistributive project. That’s another way in which radical market anarchism is rightly seen as part of the socialist tradition.

Statists on both the left and the right favor the redistribution of wealth. Libertarians, by contrast, are often assumed to be dead-set against all varieties of redistribution. But it’s important to see that whether this is really the case or not depends on how we answer several questions:

  • Agent: who effects the redistribution?
  • Rationale: what justifies the redistribution?
  • Means: how is the redistribution accomplished?

Statist Redistribution

For statists, the agent of redistribution is the state. The rationales for redistribution are primarily consequentialist—it’s seen as designed to bring about some favored end-state—though it may also be used to punish the putatively undeserving and to reward the arguably virtuous. The means? The creation of monopolies, the enactment of regulations, the confiscation of property via eminent domain, or the transfer of resources acquired via taxation.

Thus, both kinds of statists shift wealth from those who produce it to politically favored elites. They may also, of course, shift resources to the economically vulnerable, but the prime beneficiaries of these programs are various groups of politically influential people.

Statist redistribution is unjust because it employs aggressive means and because it is undertaken by the state—an aggressive monopolist. It is indefensible to the extent that its viability depends on the coherence of consequentialism. And it is undesirable because it serves the interests of the power elite at the expense of the well being of ordinary people.

Solidaristic Redistribution

Many libertarians acknowledge the importance of voluntary, solidaristic redistribution, undertaken by people using their own resources for the purpose of aiding victims of accident or disaster or those experiencing economic insecurity and not coercively mandated by the state. It is, indeed, perfectly consistent with libertarian principles to maintain that, while it is not just to use force to effect solidaristic redistribution, engaging in it may nonetheless be an “imperfect” duty: something one has a responsibility to do, but which one doesn’t owe to any specific person, and which can reasonably be fulfilled in multiple ways—and which cannot therefore be claimed by anyone in particular as a right. The agent of such redistribution is the individual, using her own resources and operating independently or through a voluntary association. The rationale is the importance (however understood) of helping those who need assistance. The means—all voluntary—might include contributions to worthwhile projects, providing unemployment for those unable to secure work, various kinds of investments, and direct gifts to economically vulnerable people.

Transactional and Rectificational Redistribution

But this is hardly the only kind of redistribution libertarians can and should favor. Libertarians also have good reason to recognize the importance of two other kinds of redistribution: redistribution understood as the predictable and desirable outcome of the maintenance of a freed market, and redistribution as a matter of corrective justice.. We can call these kinds of redistribution transactional and rectificational.

Transactional Redistribution

Transactional redistribution is just a description of what happens in a genuinely freed market. Markets undermine privilege. Without the protection afforded by monopoly privileges (including patents and copyrights), subsidies, tariffs, restrictions on union organizing, protections for long-term ownership of uncultivated property, and so forth, members of the power elite, forced to participate along with everyone else in the process of voluntary cooperation that is the freed market, will tend to lose ill-gotten gains. They will retain wealth only if they actually serve the needs of other market participants. And they will be unable to use the legal system to protect their wealth from squatters (by enabling them to maintain uncultivated land indefinitely) or to limit vigorous bargaining by workers (both because workers will be freer to organize without statist restrictions and because the absence of such restrictions will give workers options other than paid employment that will improve their negotiating positions).

While unfettered competition obviously will not create mathematical equality, it will make it much harder for vast disparities of wealth to persist than at present. The state props up the power elite, using the threat of aggression to shift wealth to the politically favored. Removing the privileges of the power elite will lead, through the operation of the market, to the widespread dispersion of wealth members of the power elite are able to retain at present in virtue of the protection they receive from the political order.

The means of transactional redistribution is the market. The direct agents are ordinary market actors, while those responsible for the elimination of statist privileges that distort the market and prop up the wealth of the power elite are the indirect agents. The rationales for transactional redistribution include the value of freedom and the injustice of the privileges transactional redistribution corrects.

Rectificational Redistribution

Eliminating privilege and creating a freed market will tend to foster the widespread sharing of wealth. But it will not on its own be sufficient to make up for the effects of systematic aggression by the members of the power elite and their allies. That’s why rectificational redistribution is also important.

Massive injustice lies at the root of much of the contemporary distribution of wealth. Land theft is the most obvious example. But other kinds of aggression—the internal passport system implemented in eighteenth-century England, for instance, or the engrossment of unowned land by state fiat—have also served to deprive ordinary people of resources and opportunities. The beneficiaries of this kind of aggression have varied to some extent, but they have consistently belonged to politically favored groups—they’ve been either members of the power elite or their associates.

People deserve compensation for the losses they have suffered at the hands of those who prefer the political to the economic means of acquiring wealth. It is obviously not possible to correct all historical injustices. But when those injustices have systematically benefited some identifiable groups at the expense of others, radical correction is possible and entirely warranted. That’s why Murray Rothbard argued that slaves should be entitled to the plantation land on which they worked: their putative “owners” had not used their own labor, or the labor of free people cooperating with them, to cultivate the land; rather, those who cultivated it for the members of the plantocracy did so at gunpoint. Thus, the land was reasonably regarded as unowned prior to the cultivating work of the slaves, who should have been treated as, in effect, homesteading it—and who obviously deserved compensation for the theft of their labor by their “owners.”

In the same way, independent farmers turned into serfs by violence deserved, Rothbard believed, to receive title to the land on which they worked, while the aristocratic proprietors of the latifundia on which they worked deserved precisely nothing in compensation for land to which they weren’t entitled in the first place. Military contractors, research universities, and other entities largely supported by the state’s theft of land and resources might well, he and Karl Hess suggested, be treated as unowned and capable of being homestead by their workers or others. And it would be easy to argue along similar lines that those prevented from homesteading unowned land by means of its legal engrossment should be allowed to claim it. And so forth.

The means of rectificational redistribution is the reallocation of unjustly acquired or retained property titles. The direct agents are the people who homestead property newly acknowledged to be unowned or who claim property unjustly taken from or denied to them or their predecessors in interest, while those who work to ensure the denial of recognition or protection to unjust titles are the indirect agents. The rationales for rectificational redistribution include both the injustices of the titles to the property rectificational redistribution reallocates and the claims to compensation of those deprived of title to their own property or unjustly prevented for claiming unowned property by the power elite. While it is not a source of independent justification for reallocating title, the greater dispersion of wealth this kind of redistribution effects can be welcomed by libertarians both in virtue of the benefits it confers on economically vulnerable people and because of its contribution to greater social stability.

Libertarianism as a Redistributive Project

Libertarian redistribution is just because it employs voluntary or rectificatory means and because it is undertaken by non-state actors. It does not require any sort of global consequentialist justification. And it serves to empower ordinary people and compensate them for injustice.

Statists might reflexively dismiss libertarian redistribution because it isn’t undertaken by the state. But, if they did, they would owe us an explanation: why should they be concerned primarily about means? Statists ordinarily argue for redistribution either as a means of reducing economic vulnerability or as a way of fostering economic equality, understood as valuable in its own right. But libertarian redistribution would certainly achieve the former goal and would likely promote the latter, too. So statists opposed to libertarian redistribution would seem to have fetishized statist means—and to care more about these means than about the purported ends of statist policies.

Libertarians rightly reject statist redistribution as a variety of slavery. But they have every reason to embrace solidaristic, transactional, and rectificational redistribution. A libertarian commitment to redistribution helps clearly to identify libertarianism as a species of genuine radicalism that challenges the status quo, undermines hierarchy, exclusion, and poverty, and fosters authentic empowerment.

Sunday, March 14, 2010


Glenn Greenwald's blog features a fascinating discussion about the history of uses of the word “terrorism." Greenwald highlights the fact that there is no international consensus regarding the use of “terrorism.”

I'd like to suggest simple definitions for "terrorism” and a new term, “quasi-terrorism.” I'd welcome your feedback.

1. "Terrorism": the purposeful use of force against non-combatants to achieve political ends, broadly defined.

2. "Quasi-terrorism": the use of force against combatants to achieve political ends in a way that involves indiscriminate harm to non-combatants, with minimal effort to limit such harm.

Wanted: An Anarchist PI

No, as far as I know, I don't need a gumshoe personally.

But I think the anarchist movement does.

The most fun and cost-effective exercise in anarchist consciousness-raising I can imagine (at least at this point in the morning, before breakfast) would be the creation of a set of PI novels set in a stateless society.

Genre-crossing is already all the rage in crime fiction. Think Laurell Hamilton's early Anita Blake novels (the ones before sex became the central point of each story), which combined fantasy, horror, and romance with elements of the traditional police procedural. Or Hamilton's Merry Gentry novels, which combine fantasy, detective work, and politics. Or Jim Butcher's novels that blend the traditional PI story with fantasy (and occasionally horror). Or Steven Brust's Vlad Taltos novels, which often mix fantasy with politics and detection.

But this isn't, of course, a feature exclusively or primarily of fantasy fiction. A prime function of today's PI novel seems to be to introduce readers to unfamiliar worlds. Peter Spiegelman's really excellent novels concerned with the New York financial world come immediately to mind. So does the whole sub-genre of mysteries set in ancient Rome (of which Lindsey Davis's Falco stories are, on balance, I think, the best examples).

So: why not a series that integrates SF and politics with the Chandleresque PI story, offering the reader a window into the diverse sorts of communities that would doubtless figure in a stateless society through the eyes of a shamus?

Fiction about radically different social alternatives runs a serious risk of being boring and self-righteous if its primary purpose is explain what's wrong with current society while highlighting the advantages of an alternative. It's likely to be heavy on philosophical dialogue and exposition.

The need to write a good PI story, with no more exposition than you'd get in any piece of detective fiction or SF introducing readers to an unfamiliar environment, would make the boring and self-righteousness less likely (you can never rule out the possibility of either entirely, of course).

The series would be a great opportunity to put different anarchic options on display and to do what fiction of this sort always does: show how the sausages are made by revealing a society's seamy under-side. Thus, it would facilitate self-critical reflection by anarchists on their various projects. But, more importantly, it would help to normalize anarchism in the minds of an ordinary reader just interested in picking up something different in the mystery or SF section of her local bookstore.

I'm not volunteering—just proposing. I'd love to see volunteers come forward, so we could rally around them. But if you just want to debate my suggestion, that's OK, too.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Exchange with Probable “419” Scammer

I was sitting in front of my computer on the afternoon of March 6, 2010, when I got a Facebook instant message purporting to be from “Emma” (not her real name)—who is, it will be useful to note, in her mid-sixties and relatively conservative (as well as being a native and capable speaker of English). It quickly became clear that the real Emma’s Facebook account had been hacked. Apart from changing the purported sender’s name (and my wife’s), I’ve reproduced the conversation just as it occurred.

2:50pm Emma

Hi,how are you?

2:50pm Gary

Good afternoon, Emma.

It's a pleasure to see you on FB.

2:51pm Emma


2:51pm Gary

How are you?

2:51pm Emma

but am not good at the moment..

2:51pm Gary

I wondered how APC would impact turnout at SS today. We had a relatively big group, but one composed entirely of regulars or semi-regulars.

Oh, my--what's the matter?

2:52pm Emma

am stuck in London with my family..

2:52pm Gary

London, where it's, what, 10:50 at night?

Doesn't sound fun at all.

Flight canceled?

On stand-by?

2:54pm Emma


we got mugged at gun point last night,

2:54pm Gary

So what's happened?

2:54pm Emma

they took all our cash,credit cards,and cellphones

it was so scary

2:55pm Gary

Oh, my . . . .

Any trip insurance?

2:56pm Emma

reported to the police,and canceled all cards,and bank accounts for now

all we have left are just our passports,and return tickets.

2:57pm Gary

Can your credit card companies get you substitute cards?

2:57pm Emma


that will be till I get back

but we need some money to settle the hotel bills,and then get a cab to the airport.

I need your help please!!

2:59pm Gary

OK--what can I do?

2:59pm Emma

I need you to loan me some money,

3:00pm Gary

What's the best way to handle that?

3:00pm Emma

I'll def refund you as soon as am back.

western union.

all you do is have it wired on my name,and location.

3:02pm Gary

How long have you been in London? That's just awful.

3:02pm Emma

just visited for a short vac

do you have any western union office nearby ?

3:03pm Gary

Hmmm . . . .

3:05pm Emma


3:07pm Gary

Trying to think

3:08pm Gary

Just sent you $250 to your PayPal account.

3:08pm Emma

I can't get that for now

guess it will be better with western union

I still have my passport for identification at western union.

3:10pm Gary

Where's the Western Union?

It may be near someone I know in London who could get you the money.

3:11pm Emma

you can google to find one nearby,

3:12pm Gary

No, I'm asking where the one is at which you'll be getting the money, to see if it's near where my friend lives.

3:12pm Emma

or you can have it done online with your credit card.

that is lavender hill

3:12pm Gary

Which hotel are you at? I can simply have my friend drop by with the money. That will be simplest. She can pay the hotel bill and give you some cash.

3:13pm Emma

I have limited time down here

that is why i ASKED YOU TO HAVE THE $250 wired on my name,and location via western union.

3:14pm Gary

Well, she can be there in half an hour.

3:15pm Emma

my flight might have left by then.

3:15pm Gary

Emma, because it's an emergency, I'm happy to try to help you, but after what you did I'm really kind of surprised you'd choose me to contact.

3:16pm Emma

as it seems at the moment,

3:17pm Emma

am really sorry if

am really sorry if

3:21pm Emma

are you theree?


3:24pm Gary

Are you going to keep your hands off my wife the next time you see her?

3:25pm Emma

please I promise I'll do anything you need.

3:26pm Gary

Carla is still in therapy because of what you did at that party.

3:46pm Emma

are you there?

are you still helping me out?

3:46pm Gary

Have you checked out of your hotel yet?

3:47pm Emma


need to settle the bills,before we leave.

3:47pm Gary

OK, what's the hotel?

3:48pm Emma

sunderland hotel

3:49pm Gary

But which Sunderland? I can arrange for the money to be at the desk in five to ten minutes.

3:53pm Emma

can you just help me out here?

3:53pm Gary

Yes, I can, as I said to you: I can have cold hard cash in your hands at the desk in five to ten minutes. But I first need to know which hotel you're at.

Please understand how angry Carla will be with me even for thinking of giving money to you.

If I wire money to London, she'll know.

But if I have Rowena drop it off for you, we can handle it under the table.

3:55pm Emma

how will she know?if you don't tell her?

3:55pm Gary

Because wiring it means using my credit card, and she reviews every credit card bill.

3:55pm Emma

just help me out if you can

3:55pm Gary

Look, are you at the Sunderland in Gosford Park?

3:55pm Emma


3:55pm Gary

I know that's where you stayed last time.

OK, which one?

3:56pm Emma

please enough of the questions and get me off here


3:56pm Gary

Emma, you're asking me to take a big risk with my wife, and I'm not sure why I should help someone who's behaved the way you have. Just stop being cagey and tell me which hotel you're at. Is it because you're there with Peter?

Is that why you don't want to tell me?

Poverty without the State

Statists on the right are perhaps most likely to oppose anarchism because they fear that the institutions of a stateless society would be unable to maintain order and resolve disputes peacefully. Statists on the left, by contrast, may object to anarchism because they are concerned that economically vulnerable people would suffer without the state to provide them with economic support and vital services. All of the following points (in making which I draw on insights gleaned from Roderick T. Long, Charles Johnson, Kevin Carson, David Friedman, and others) ought to figure, I think, in an anarchist response to this objection:

  1. States don’t treat recipients of their aid well. It’s important to avoid comparing idealized state practice with imaginary worst-case practice in a stateless society. If we focus on actual state practice, we find that poor people are not served particularly well by the state, and that states routinely intrude into the lives of recipients of state assistance, violating people’s privacy and seeking to regulate their behavior. The state’s performance sets a very low standard.
  2. States actively make and keep people poor. Licensing laws, zoning regulations, and similar restrictions make it hard for poor people to enter particular job markets and to operate businesses out of their homes. Without the state to put these kinds of restrictions in place, people would be less likely to be poor.
  3. States raise the cost of being poor. Building codes and zoning regulations raise the cost of housing, and so make it harder for people to find inexpensive homes. Some people are forced to live without permanent housing at all, while others must spend much larger fractions of their incomes on housing than they otherwise would. Agricultural tariffs raise the cost of food, the most significant portion of anyone’s budget. Without the state to make meeting their basic needs unnecessarily expensive, poor people would have more disposable income and would be more economically secure.
  4. States actively take money from poor people. Many poor people pay more in taxes than they get back in services under the state's rule. These people would have more resources, net, in the absence of the state's demand for tax money.
  5. Support for poverty relief doesn’t just come from tax funds now, and there’s no reason to think no one would support poverty relief efforts absent the state. People give money to charitable causes over and above their tax bills today, despite the huge sums the state claims. There's no reason to think they wouldn't do so in a stateless society. It is na├»ve to suppose that the wealthy and powerful are opposed to state funding for services to the poor at present; the poor have far less clout than do the wealthy and powerful, and yet the state provides minimal services for poor people. There is no reason to suppose that wealthy and well connected people willing to see the state spend their tax money to support services for the poor would be dramatically less willing to contribute to the support of such services without the state. (Why do people give money to good causes, including voluntary programs that help the poor? Why do wealthy and well connected people endorse state spending on programs that provide services to poor people. Presumably for a combination of reasons, including [in no particular order] compassion, social norms, the desire for good reputations, the desire to avoid bad reputations, and the desire to avoid social disorder. All of these reasons would be operative in a stateless society.)
  6. In a stateless society, less money would be spent obtaining key services. Without the state, there wouldn't be taxes, and what are now state-provided services would be available on the market and thus in most cases less expensively. The state does a range of things (notably requiring professional licenses, hospital accreditation, and prescriptions and enforcing drug and medical device patents, and other restraints on trade) to make particular services, like health care services, especially expensive. Without state interference, basic services would be less expensive and more available. In addition, some services (think a bloated military) wouldn't be part of the picture at all. So people would have more disposable income than at present. This means both that people with limited incomes would be better off and that people with more money would have bigger disposable incomes from which to give to support good causes (recall, again, that lots of people do this today even while paying taxes).
  7. The absence of the state would make everyone richer. The state's subsidies and regulations drive down the overall productivity of the economy. So, again, there's good reason to believe that, in its absence, people, including members of the working poor, would be wealthier on average than they are today. Again, this means both that poor people would have more money and that those in a position to help them would, too.
  8. Mutual aid networks could provide many of the services well intentioned statists want the state to offer. Societies in which people pooled risk and provided pensions, health care, and other services functioned effectively before the rise of state social services, and there's no reason to think they couldn't again without the state—and, indeed, wouldn’t function much better given that people would have access to more resources and that the state wasn’t on-hand to regulate them out of existence.
  9. Rectification for state-committed and state-sanctioned wrong-doing would significantly decrease poverty. Politically privileged elites have stolen land and resources from poor, working class, and middle class people. To the extent that land and other resources were made available for homesteading or returned to those from whom they were taken, there would be a significant shift of income to people currently limited in resources.
  10. Structural changes would make poverty less likely. Rules that made it harder for absentee landlords to sit on undeveloped, uncultivated land would open up this land for homesteading by people with limited resources and thus provide them an avenue to greater economic security. Eliminating props for hierarchical corporations would increase the likelihood that people could enjoy the job security associated with working for themselves (with less risk than accompanies being an independent contractor in a less healthy economy) or in partnerships or cooperatives and that, when they did work for others, they could bargain successfully for better compensation.
  11. Social norms could ensure predictable, consistent support of community-wide aid programs without taxation. General acceptance of a social norm entailing regular contributions to a community income support fund, or leaving the edges of fields available (as in Leviticus) for gleaning, could ensure that poor people who needed it could rely on community assistance.

What additions to the list do readers think would be appropriate?