Friday, July 26, 2013

Libertarian Socialism: One of Many Libertarian Theories

In my recent defenses of "libertarianism" and classical liberalism, I have stressed that classical liberalism cannot be reduced to the economics of market capitalism. Although I happen to embrace Austrian economic theories and basic capitalism, I do not assume that capitalism is the only way to promote freedom. Corporatism and crony capitalism certainly do not promote or protect freedom.

While personal freedom and individual sovereignty delineate libertarian philosophical principles, there is no single "right" way to pursue these aims. I happen to believe that Austrian economists were more likely to be correct about social and political issues than many other thinkers, but if I don't consider other views then I might overlook an even better path towards freedom.

Libertarian socialism is a utopian philosophy, certainly, but it should be considered when we ask, "What systems promote individual freedom?" This raises questions about what is "freedom" (the negative vs. positive rights arguments, certainly) and whether or not individualism is compatible with social order. Of course, I embrace the (badly labeled) negative rights and individuals over centralized power.

The reality is that socialism tends towards strong central powers. When you believe, as I do, that strong institutions overpower individuals, then there's an understandable skepticism towards anything "socialist" in nature.

Let us consider how many "libertarianism(s)" there might be and how socialism might fit. A quick Web search finds the following topics listed within libertarianism:
  • Anarchism
  • Christian libertarianism
  • Civil libertarianism
  • Consequentialist libertarianism
  • Constitutionalism (United States)
  • Free-market anarchism
  • Green libertarianism
  • Individualist anarchism
  • Left-libertarianism
  • Libertarian Marxism
  • Libertarian socialism
  • Market liberalism
  • Natural-rights libertarianism
  • Objectivism
  • Paleolibertarianism
  • Right-libertarianism
  • Social anarchism

Libertarian socialism presents a rhetorical challenge, and a psychological challenge regarding human nature. First, the rhetorical challenge is that "socialism" is seldom associated with decentralized, individualistic anarchism. Yes, anarchy is the best way to describe libertarian socialism because the school of thought assumes that people, free of corporations, large institutions, and a domineering government, will somehow do the right thing while also enjoying near-complete personal freedom.

Here are some of the concepts of libertarian socialism:
  • Local government councils, instead of a central government, make most decisions;
  • Townhall-style debates, instead of representative democracy, when possible;
  • Employee-owned enterprises, with no outside stockholders or investors;
  • Individual liberty promoted by "positive rights" managed locally.
I am certain that any utopian ideal relies on a human nature that does not exist broadly. People are not going to stop using and abusing each other magically. Eliminating the formal structures of government and production doesn't eliminate human nature: some people will be leaders, some will be followers, some are intrinsically motivated, and some are extrinsically motivated. People are different, in ways that make such "pure" social theories destined for failure.

An entirely "free market" approach to business, for example, is destined to be ruined by the few people driven entirely by extrinsic, materialistic, and narcissistic motivations. The flaws of human nature that make an entirely unregulated market economy dangerous would make a utopian, anarchistic government dangerous. There are "bad" people and they will exploit the flaws in any socio-economic model. Political structure and economics structures don't matter to people driven to be at the top, no matter the price paid by others.

The argument of this post is that "libertarian" is not one-dimensional, represented solely neither by Rand-style Objectivism nor the Chicago school of economics. There are debates within "libertarian" circles, though many of those debates occur only on the fringes because one set of "libertarians" dominate political discourse in the United States and other Anglo-American nations.

Libertarians are generally classical liberals, shaped by Enlightenment ideals that we still believe offer better models for socio-economic models than what has been offered before or since.

I'm more pragmatic than most libertarian socialists, and more realistic than most of the free market conservatives leading the Libertarian Party in the United States. Balance is always key, everything in moderation.
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Friday, July 19, 2013

The Astonishing Collapse of Work In America

The following article is simply depressing:
The Astonishing Collapse of Work In America
Nicholas Eberstadt holds the Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy at the American Enterprise Institute and is the author of A Nation of Takers: America's Entitlement Epidemic (2012).
Today just under 12 million men and women are officially classified as unemployed, roughly twice as many as in early 2000. But if our national employment ratio today were as high as in early 2000, when this measure reached its zenith, about 15 million more Americans would be working today. And remember: over 10 million of today's men and women with jobs are working fewer hours than they want to-well over twice as many as in early 2000. When we look at the jobs problem this way, we see it is vastly bigger than the official unemployment rate implies.
How bad is "real" unemployment and underemployment? Compare today to the not-so-distant past, when a much higher percentage of adults worked.
By these figures, the male employment ratio reached its peak in the early 1950s-and then commenced an almost relentless descent. Today's level is the lowest thus far-but this decline of work for men has been unfolding for decades, indeed generations. Over the past 60 years, the employment ratio for adult men has plummeted by about 20 percentage points. Which is to say: if America's male employment ratios were back at their Eisenhower-era levels, well over 20 million more men would be at work today. At the moment, roughly 76 million men are counted as working.
What are the causes and what might the solutions be? In the Keynesian universe, the government can create demand, thereby creating jobs. Or, the government can even go so far as create the jobs. There are a great many problems with such simplistic solutions, based on minimalistic mathematical models.
From an economic perspective, it seems safe to say that both demand and supply factors are at play in this disheartening dynamic. On the demand side, it seems fairly clear that our contemporary economy is just not generating jobs and work as robustly as it did in the past---even the relatively recent past. This can be seen as a "structural" problem. Of course, it is the problem that self-described Keynesians always fix upon. It is part of the overall picture-but just part. For on the supply side, it is apparent that there has been a major behavioral change in America, wherein a growing proportion of working-age Americans are checking out of paid labor altogether. Suffice it to say that not working at all is neither unthinkable nor unaffordable these days, even for adults in the prime of life. This too is a problem-a huge problem, one that has been gathering for decades, and one must unlikely to be undone by recourse to standard-issue Keynesian tools.
We have Federal Reserve quantitative easing, which is only helping the investor class and bond issuers, and the QE might be hurting emerging markets. We also have had any number of stimulus programs, with limited results. (And yes, I know Keynesians argue we haven't "invested" enough, but I've addressed that many times in this space.) I'm not going to argue that the "austerity" of sequestration is helping (it wasn't properly, logically focused); it might also be inhibiting employment growth. We're in a messy situation that doesn't work well for Keynesian or Chicago adherents.

The employment situation will improve when private employers hire more people. What seems simple, though, is hard to solve with any government policies. My argument has long been that government getting out of the market as much as possible would be the best solution. Unfortunately, our two major political parties and our dominate economic schools of thought are all about interfering… just in different ways.

No, the 1950s and 60s were not perfect, but we could learn something by studying how laws, regulations, and various tax policies have warped the employment market.
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Taxes Way Up… Spending Down, Slightly


Over at Reason, Nick Gillespie offers his usual common sense supported by statistics.
What Austerity Looks Like in 2013: Taxes Up 14%, Spending Down 4% - Hit & Run : Reason.com
As we've noted here before, there's good austerity and bad austerity. The good (read: effective at reducing debt-to-GDP ratios and not crashing an economy) focuses on cutting spending, liberalizing labor laws, reforming entitlements, and either keeping taxes flat or reducing their drag on economic activity. The bad (read: what has generally been tried in Europe over the past few years) involves raising taxes while increasing spending or barely trimming it. That one-two punch stretches out recovery by diverting money and decision-making out of the private sector where it's more likely to benefit more people. All austerity is not created equal and it's clear that austerity which relies on tax hikes more than spending cuts almost always comes a cropper. That's not to say that cutting spending will automatically boost economic growth (though it has at times), but there are real benefits to long-term economic growth to making the sort of structural reforms that form the core of successul austerity packages.
I have repeatedly argued that there is "good" and "bad" austerity, and there are "good" and "bad" forms of federal spending. If we spend to maintain roads, bridges, water systems, schools, etc., that's wise spending with some hope of a slight multiplier effect — plus these things support economic activity, even without a multiplier. Spending on first responders is "good" (to a point, and with reasonable pensions) even without a direct multiplier, since safety and security improve business.

But, the government cuts the wrong things, spends on dumb things, and raises taxes to maintain this absurd balance.

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Friday, July 5, 2013

It's not All About the Money

Profit. Wealth. Return. "Success."

The most troubling trend among "libertarian" organizations and vocal "proponents" of libertarianism and classical liberalism is a near-worship of money and its accumulation.

Too many supposed libertarians confuse "the market" with freedom and liberty. They assume that the market, either the messed-up rigged marketplace we have today or a mythical laissez-faire market, is the foundation of classical liberalism. Usually, these are politicians trying to argue for an ethical system grounded in competitive market theory, or members of think tanks with a vested interest in conflating freedom with markets.

The truth is simple: freedom is about the sovereignty of the self. This freedom to make good or bad choices, the right to be whatever you wish to be, does include the potential to market your ideas and creations, but there is no mandate to participate in a capitalist economy (or crony capitalist or corporatist economy).

I believe in free markets, guided by principles of ownership and the rule of law. If I want to sell my creative works, I should be allowed to sell those works for whatever someone will pay me. But, I also should have the freedom to give away, horde, or destroy those creations. I should not be compelled to take any particular course with my works or my talents.

In most theories of communism (but not all), the interests of the majority compel me to use my talents for the benefits of society. I'm nothing but a cog in the greater machine. The material and devices of production belong to "everyone" (and no one). While there are more "communists" embracing private ownership of some material goods, that's not the original ideal. The ideal, promoted by Marx, was that I own nothing in the production chain, and I "owe" a great deal to the community. Personally, I find that dehumanizing.

In socialism, whatever I "earn" from my efforts should be distributed according to notions of social justice. In Western socialism, the state owns "essential" services, but not all means of production. Also, most socialist nations don't compel me to follow a particular path, especially most democratic-socialist nations. Still, my work does not feel like it belongs to me if I'm forced to surrender a significant portion of the rewards I earn.

My embrace of libertarianism is not about accruing wealth, though. It is about having the freedom to think, create, and produce on my terms — not based on the dictates of any central power or group consensus. I should have control of my body, including my thoughts and actions that result in marketable services and goods.

If I want to live a life of simple solitude, without extravagance, that fits perfectly well within the libertarian model. It does not fit within traditional communism or some forms of socialism. Why? Because if I have a talent that benefits society, communism and some forms of socialism would compel me to use my talents in the "best way" determined by an external authority.

Liberty means the freedom to "succeed" as I define success, not as anyone else defines it.

Personally, I am disappointed that classical liberalism as found in the words of Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, and Edmund Burke (among others), has been appropriated by individuals promoting greed and consumerism. Mill famously dismissed the "conservatives" of his time — he was a democrat and reformer. Smith called for progressive taxes — he feared extreme inequality would impede meritocracy. Burke cautioned against being conservative without being flexible — he sought to moderate change, not to stop progress. How is it that such simple lessons have been lost?

When you celebrate wealth and fame, when personality trumps good character, you cannot claim to understand the goals of classical liberalism.
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