Thursday, April 29, 2010

Raimondo on “Airtight Borders”

AntiWar.Com is arguably the libertarian movement’s single most valuable contribution to political debate around the world. I am proud to be a donor to and occasional copywriter for the site.

And Justin Raimondo’s unapologetically libertarian columns for the site are among its most obvious assets. Justin is consistently hard-hitting, well-informed, and willing to take on sacred cows with little hesitation. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed his books about the life and thought of Murray Rothbard and, even though I’m a leftist, the anti-imperialist heritage of American conservatism. I’m a big fan of Justin and his work.

But I wish he hadn’t taken the position he did in his recent column, “South of the Border,” available here. (Raimondo’s AntiWar.Com colleagues respond here.) Addressing the problem of drug-related violence along the US-Mexico border, he fails to discuss the obvious and crucial role of drug prohibition in creating and exacerbating this violence. And he treats the state as a legitimate entity with responsibilities and rightful claims to authority. He writes: “Okay, you might ask, so what’s your solution to the problem, Mr. Smarty-pants? A logical question, with an inescapably logical answer: stop trying to protect Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan and start protecting our own border with Mexico. Make the border airtight. In short, start using the resources of the federal government to carry out its one-and-only legitimate function: securing and protecting our borders.”

I’m not convinced.

1. In accounting for border violence, Raimondo fails to focus on the central factor—the criminalization of the drug trade. This matters, of course, because criminalization creates and sustains oligopolistic privileges for drug dealers—and for their political cronies in both Mexico and the United States. Those privileges drive up prices dramatically and so boost incentives for people to use violence to obtain drug profits. In addition, by locating the drug industry outside the law, criminalization makes it impossible for people involved in the industry to resolve intra-industry disputes using the legal system and disposes them to resort to violence to do so instead. Further, because the legal system and associated cultural norms frame participants in the industry as criminals, they will be more inclined to behave as criminals are expected to behave: while there is no necessary connection between selling drugs on the one hand and violently attacking persons or property on the other, if both are treated as criminal in nature—and, indeed, if engaging in the drug trade is treated as among the most vile of crimes—it is hardly surprising if violence by participants in the trade is viewed as normal not only outside but also inside the trade.

It is not a lack of immigration controls that accounts for violence along the border. It is, instead, the existence and operation of violent organizations whose existence and predisposition to violence are inexplicable without the activity of the state.

Replying to a critic, Raimondo says that mafia violence persisted after the end of Prohibition, implying that it is unreasonable to think that drug legalization would end border violence. However, the end of Prohibition was not accompanied by an end to cartelizing laws and regulations that enabled organized crime to profit from involvement in industries other than alcohol production and distribution, including gambling, prostitution, and the creation and sale of non-alcoholic dugs, so the American experience with Prohibition can only provide limited insights into what would happen in the absence of the regulations responsible for birthing and nourishing the drug trade in northern Mexico.

2. It is certainly true that organizations involved in the drug trade might seek to engage in other sorts of crime were drugs legalized. But Raimondo fails to emphasize that the fact that drug cartels are violent tells us nothing about whether ordinary people should be treated as likely participants in violence. The need to protect peaceful people from cartel-related violence does not justify the actual or threatened use of force against people who are behaving non-violently.

3. The failure to discriminate between protecting the peaceful from criminal violence and regulating the behavior of those who are themselves peaceful reflects a more deep-seated problem with Raimondo’s column: it treats the state, an organ of institutionalized violence, as legitimate and its claims to govern the territory it claims as reasonable. There are no justifications for doing either. And it is especially odd to find Raimondo, a founder of the Libertarian Radical Caucus, reasoning this way. An entity that violently asserts and maintains a monopoly over the use of force and the determination of legal rights is not entitled to exist and has no necessary responsibilities.

4. There is an integral connection between opposition to war and opposition to the power of the state. So there is something odd about serving as editorial director of AntiWar.Com while favoring state violence. I oppose the statist violence of war because of a deeper opposition to aggression—purposefully attacking their minds and bodies, or infringing on their property when I would resent their doing the same to me. But the force employed to prevent unauthorized immigrants from entering the United States is aggressive, provided their entry takes place on state property, which is properly treated as unowned or as generally accessible, or on the private property of people who are willing to receive them. And this is doubly so of such force used to prevent them from remaining or working here once they have arrived. In such cases, force is unjustly used to impede voluntary, consensual relationships between contracting partners. Opposing the unjust use of force in war is inconsistent with favoring its use to attack peaceful people seeking work or fleeing violence.

The drug trade, not peaceful migration, lies behind border violence. And state action is largely responsible for the violent quality of the drug trade. The state has no right to exist and no legitimate function. And opposition to state violence in war leads naturally to opposition to state violence more generally, including state violence used to repel or eject peaceful migrants or to penalize them for seeking work or others for providing them with work. Raimondo’s call for “airtight” border controls is both unnecessary and unjust.

Monday, April 26, 2010

More on Machan

Even as I beg to differ with Tibor Machan regarding benefit corporations, I think he's done quite a fine job of responding to Ted Honderich's charge that a libertarian society would be morally abominable here.

In essence, Honderich moves much too quickly from the claim that, in a libertarian society, it would not be viewed as just for the state (or any other entity) to take responsibility for redistributing income to economically vulnerable people to the conclusion that no one would in such a society would acknowledge any moral obligation to redistribute income to economically vulnerable people. It is perhaps not altogether surprising that the impermissibility of the use of force here would seem trivial and irrelevant to Honderich, an occasional apologist for political violence. It is disappointing, however, that Honderich, a capable philosopher, can’t see the difference between “I am morally obligated to perform action action A (or one of a class of actions of which A is a member)” and “Physical force may be used to compel me to perform action A.” Machan seems to me to be correct that

it is quite often morally wrong for many who know of such a case [of great deprivation] to fail to provide help. (If, however, they had more vital goals to pursue, say attending to their children’s medical needs, this wouldn’t be so.) Lack of generosity, compassion, or support for those who deserve it would be morally wrong. Indeed, it could well be true of many that they ought to help anyone in such dire straits and very wrong for them not to do so.

I would only add that responding to economic vulnerability in a stateless society is not just a matter of personal solidarity, valuable as this is, but also of ending privileges that make and keep some people poor and of effecting reparations for past acts of large-scale theft and land engrossment.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Machan on Benefit Corporations

I confess some puzzlement.

In a recent column, Tibor Machan voices his dismay at the fact that “in several states across the U.S.A.—among them California, Vermont, Maryland and others—politicians have created, by legislation, “benefit corporations” in which managers may proceed to do pro bono work without having to answer to shareholders whose resources are being used for this.” He goes on:

Normally if managers mis-allocate company resources, they could be sued by the owners for malpractice but with this law they will become immune. The only recourse by shareholders will be to sell their stocks and of course these stocks will have lost a goodly portion of their value given that the company isn’t committed to making a profit any longer; nor does the management have to answer to the owners for abandoning this task.

Then, he offers a parade of horribles—doctors who ignore their patients in favor of non-paying clients, teachers who fail to grade students’ papers because they “must provide service to people in the neighborhood” and “will be in violation of the law” if they do not.

The benefit corporation as Machan has described it is a legal form available to contracting parties. Those parties can opt for this form or for a more familiar alternative. Nothing Machan says suggests either that the availability of the more familiar corporate form has been eliminated by legislation in the states he mentions or that existing corporations are being or will be transformed without investors’ knowledge or consent into benefit corporations.

Rather, it appears that, on the facts he presents, people who want to do so can choose, if they wish, to create, work for, and invest in corporations legally structured in particular ways. This seems suspiciously like what could be expected to happen in a freed market in which patterns of business association were determined not by state-created templates but by voluntary agreement.

Is attachment to a particular vision of the corporation and of investor behavior so great that the voluntary nature of the transactions contemplated here is invisible?

Friday, April 23, 2010

Stossel’s Myths

Nathan Goodman called my attention to this recent piece by John Stossel: “Myths about Capitalism: Confronting the Biggest Lies about American Business.” I can’t resist commenting.

1. Capitalism is mostly cruel and unfair

Notice that the subtitle of Stossel’s article suggests that “capitalism” is synonymous with “American business.” Genuinely freed markets are not mostly cruel and unfair. But I think it’s a stretch to assume that the same is true of big businesses that operate with all sorts of privileges from the state and that benefit from a long history of injustice and dispossession. Big business in America does not enjoy its power and privilege in virtue of a freed market, and there is no reason to think business leaders desire a freed market. The cruelty and unfairness of big business—at home and abroad—may have little to do with free(d) markets, but they’re systemic features of “capitalism”—if by that term is meant “rule by capitalists” or “the economic system we have now.”

2. When the rich get richer, the poor get poorer.

In a genuinely freed market, no. A truly freed market would tend to eat the rich, as Jeremy Weiland has suggested. But in a market distorted by privilege, in which people get rich not exclusively or primarily because they provide goods and services people want, in which increased wealth is not necessarily a reflection of genuine wealth creation, I suspect it’s much more likely that some people are despoiled to the advantage of others.

3. Government is more fair and reliable than business.

This is clearly a myth. But that’s hardly reason to take a trusting attitude toward big business, which happily utilizes state-secured privilege to the detriment of consumers and workers. And I suspect that Stossel may be rather too fond of the related myth that government and big business are adversaries rather than, as seems more likely, competitive and sometimes hostile allies.

4. The current downturn means the death of capitalism.

Nope, it doesn’t. Stossel’s right. But not for the reasons he thinks. He’s right, in fact, because capitalism is marked by privilege and cronyism, which lay behind the current crisis and which have featured rather too prominently in efforts purportedly intended to address it. In any case, the partnership between the business elite and the political elite will doubtless continue as long as there’s anything like the current economic and political order. The occasional crisis won’t be enough to end that order, I fear.

It’s hard not to see Stossel and Michael Medved, his conversation partner in the segment he discusses in the article, as exhibiting just the uncritical equation of the contemporary economic order with a genuinely freed market that Kevin Carson rightly lampoons as “vulgar libertarianism.”