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Comment on Chartier’s Socialism revisited


I think there is good reason to use “socialism” to mean something like opposition to:

  1. bossism (that is to subordinative workplace hierarchy); and
  2. deprivation (that is, persistent, exclusionary poverty, whether resulting from state-capitalist depredation, private theft, disaster, accident, or other factors.

Okayyy. But libertarianism is not against “bossism”, and therefore socialism in this sense is at most compatible with, while orthogonal to, libertarianism.

I am more sympathetic than perhaps I seem to the claims of those who object to linguistic arguments that they fear may have no real impact on anyone’s political judgment. I wouldn’t dismiss as silly someone who said that no market anarchist could employ “socialist” without creating inescapable confusion. …

So the first thing to say, I think, is that the same is true of “capitalism.” It’s a word with a history, and the history is, very often, rather less than pretty.

I find this argument weak for a couple reasons. First, say you are right, that we ought not use “capitalism” because of its linguistic confusion–why then urge “socialism”‘s use? Second, I have mostly stopped using “capitalist” for these reasons–I prefer “anarcho-libertarian.” Third, I disagree that the linguistic confusion between socialism and capitalism are of the same magnitude. Socialism is widely understood to mean state control of property. But at least one common meaning of capitalism is private ownership of the means of production. So even with its flaws, “capitalism” is much closer to the substance of libertarianism than is the common meaning of “socialism.”

So, in short, I’m not sure that using “socialism” as the label for a particular sort of market anarchist project, or of “capitalism” for what that project opposes, has to be seen as just an exercise in semantic game-playing.

1. Emancipatory intent. For instance: labeling a particular sort of market anarchist project “socialist” clearly identifies its emancipatory intent: it links that project with the opposition to bossism and deprivation that provide the real moral and emotional force of socialist appeals of all sorts.

But libertarianism is not opposed to “bossism.”

2. Warranted opposition to “capitalism.” Thus, identifying one’s project as “socialist” is a way of making clear one’s opposition to “capitalism”—as that term is understood by an enormous range of ordinary people around the world.

Well, but of course then the “socialist” is saddled with the linguistic confusion over that term. Why not just be clear, and say one is a pro-worker, anti-state-corporatist, anti-state-capitalist, pro-free market libertarian? Just be clear that one is opposed to “state capitalism”. (Of course, all libertarians are opposed to state capitalism already.)

The “socialist” label signals to them that a market anarchist project like Kevin’s is on their side and that it is opposed to those entities they identify as their oppressors.

And it also falsely signals the state-socialist connotations; and it also signals sympathy with the non-libertarian (I don’t say anti-libertarian) “anti-bossist” view of the left-libertarians. It even falsely implies, IMO, that there is some link between anti-bossism and libertarianism. There is not. Far from it.

3. Forcing the state-socialist to distinguish between her attachment to ends and her attachment to means. A final rationale: suppose a market anarchist like Kevin points out to the state-socialist—by sincerely owning the “socialist” label—that she or he shares the state-socialist’s ends, while disagreeing radically with the state-socialist’s judgments about appropriate means to those ends. This simultaneously sincere and rhetorically effective move allows the market anarchist to challenge the state-socialist to confront the reality that there is an inconsistency between the state-socialist’s emancipatory goals and the authoritarian means she or he professes to prefer. It sets the stage for the market anarchist to highlight the fact that purported statist responses to bossism create more, and more powerful, bosses, that the state is much better at causing deprivation than curing it.

Gary, maybe I missed it but in this post you don’t explicitly define socialism.  You imply it’s anti-bossism, and anti-deprivation. Surely it has to be more than this. If this is all it is, then (a) the anti-bossism is not part of libertarianism; and (b) the anti-deprivationism is not anything special but is what standard libertarianism is infused with. So I see no reason for the libertarian to see any appeal to “socialism”–they are already against deprivation, thank you very much, and see the “anti-bossist” stuff as naive and kooky. In fact, on Roderick Long’s blog he stated: “Even if in a freed market capitalist-owned firms were better for workers than they are now (and I think they would be), having a boss still grates, and rightly so I think.” Now, left-libertarians are free to think this way. But here are a few comments some of my (non-left) libertarian friends made about this kind of remark: “This misses the important point that the customer is your boss even if you have no other.” “Also, if you have a bad boss, you might be able to complain about him or change jobs or move within the company, and maybe get a good boss. If you own a small business, and your customers are bosses, you can’t do much about the bad ones. Customers can get away with all sorts of abuse that bosses can’t.” “Many (not all) academics have zero understanding of real-life work and wealth production. They would be improved by spending a year in West Virginia coal mines.”  But back to your remarks:

… I do not ask myself whether my appreciation for “socialism” in this sense is something to which I am committed qua libertarian. Rather, my willingness to identify as a libertarian is licensed by a more fundamental set of moral judgments which also make “socialism” in the relevant sense attractive, and which help to ensure that the senses in which I am a libertarian and in which I am a socialist consistent.

This harkens back to the thick-thin debate, which is also perennially confusing and mired in semantical issues. Sure, people are not just libertarians. Sure, there are connections between various ideas and values they hold.  Sure, the more fundamental reasons that make you a libertarian have other implications. For example in my own case and in my view, one cannot be a libertarian without being empathetic, and interested in truth, and valuing honesty (say). But this does not mean truth and honesty are “part of” libertarianism. And in this particular issue, you seem to think the reasons that impel your opposition to aggression also imply anti-bossism. I don’t see it.

At minimum, there seems to be some reason for using the label “capitalism”, so clearly understood to be the alter of “socialism,” for the kind of economic system we have now, backed up so clearly by state-granted and state-maintained privilege.

I’ll make you a deal: we’ll drop capitalism, and you drop socialism, and advocate your “anti-bossism” on its on lights and don’t tie it to libertarianism. Deal? 🙂

I am avowedly opposed to the institutionalized use of force against persons, and against their (Aristotelian-Thomist) ownership rights, and I am quite willing to say so loudly or clearly. That makes me, by my own lights, a libertarian. But I am not prepared to dismiss my invocation of “socialism” as a label that has not lost its usefulness for the left-libertarian project,

Gary, from my perspective, socialism to you means anti-bossism, and andi-deprivation. The latter part is not unique to your brand of libertarianism, so we leave this out. That means left-libertarianism basically means anti-bossism and related views. But anti-bossism is not part of libertarianism at all, so it is misleading to characterize “left-libertarianism” thusly. Unless you mean it as a compound concept, sort of like “lifeguard-libertarian” would be someone who happens to be a lifeguard and a libertarian. But lifeguard-libertarianism would offer no reason for regular libertarians to become lifeguards. Likewise, I might be a snow-skiing-libertarian, and so on. If left-libertarian just means a person who is a libertarian and who also dislikes bossism, then fine; but this gives the standard libertarian no reason to adopt the leftish stuff, the anti-bossism. (This is true even if you are right that your highlighting your socialism the way you do when talking to non-libertarian socialists might be an effective way of pushing some of them in a libertarian direction by making them realize their means are not appropriate to their ends.)

as simply an expression of individual preference with which no good libertarian ought to interfere, simply because interference would be unreasonably aggressive. Rather, “socialism” names a set of concerns, including ones regarding attractive patterns of social organization, that there is good reason for left-libertarians whole-heartedly to endorse.

As far as I can tell there is no reason for the libertarian qua libertarian to agree with the left-libs that your preferential patterns of social organization are attractive. What we libertarians find attractive is whatever patterns and institutions are adopted on the free market by free people. We have no predisposition toward, or against, localism, bossism, the size of firms, etc., any more than we have a pre-programmed notion of how many brands of toothpaste there ought to be.

Gary: “Stephan: you are nothing if not intellectually energetic and indefatigable. I wish I could write as quickly.”

and pugnacious and incontinent. 🙂

“It seems to me that you and I may simply see the point of the conversation about “socialism” and “capitalism” differently. It seems to me that you want to ask whether “socialism” is the best name for the libertarian project you want to advance, given a plumb-line account of libertarianism as a commitment to non-aggression understood along broadly Rothbardian lines. You acknowledge that someone might make moral judgments other than the judgment that aggression is wrong, but such judgments are not, I take you to say, integral to the libertarian project.”

Well, I am a bit reluctant to talk in such terms; I view them as terribly vague and prone to confusion; and also a bit too activist for my taste. That said, I am not really opposed to this approach, it’s just that I like to have clarity in the concepts, terms, and underlying fundamental principles first.

“I think that, by contrast, I want to ask whether the moral-cum-political program I’d like to defend, one that’s rooted, as I’ve said before, in Aristotle and Aquinas, exhibits enough continuity with the socialist tradition to be reasonably identified as socialist. Opposed to state-capitalism and state-socialism, I’m an anarchist who values markets, and I’m an an anti-authoritarian in a wide range of contexts. So I’m happy to wear the “libertarian” label.”

but libertarian does not describe your “anti-authoritarian” aspect. Libertarianism is not against authority.

“Some proponents of this sort of libertarianism are not, indeed, against bossism (I’m happy for a better term). But I am. And I don’t see my opposition as a matter of hobbyistic preference; I think it flows from my overall moral position, and I think there is good reason for others to adopt both my view of bossism and the position from which it flows”

What is a good, concise, clear explanation of this view, and the reasons you would hold it–especially the reasons you would hold it qua libertarian? It makes no sense to me; it seems terribly amorphous and misguided, if and to the extent it’s held up as anything more than some vague preference.

“the Golden Rule, in turn (along with the Efficiency Principle), warrants opposition to bossism.”

Why? How? This may seem obvious to you, and to those steeped in Marxian literature, but it’s not to standard libertarians, I think. It is baffling to us that you guys even take this seriously. If it’s just a reaction to what you see as “vulgar pro-capitalist” libertarainsim, a corrective approach going too far the other way [sort of how Rand did in her time, the other way around], then I can at least understand it; but you guys actually seem to mean this seriously.


Stephan Kinsella said…


“Stephan: It’s true that plumb-line libertarianism, per se, isn’t about bossism. In the same sense, plumb-line libertarianism, per se, doesn’t object to seeing people pushed around or treated like dirt–so long as it’s voluntary. But I’d have to wonder why anyone who didn’t find seeing people pushed around and treated like dirt would ever be attracted to libertarianism in the first place.”

Sure. But we would all agree treating people “like dirt” is bad; it’s question-begging to assume “bossism” is similarly bad. (Further, “treating people like dirt” is amorphous and non-rigorous; and we still would not base a policy or rights view on it.) As for “pushing people around,” this is so vague as to be contentless; or so broad that it’s not clearly bad–it would capture too many innocuous institutions and interactions. There is nothing obviously bad about or unlibertarian about natural authority structures, whether they be civil, familial, even financial, what have you.

“From the standpoint of entailment thickness, there is a close affinity between a distaste for such treatment, and the values of respect for individual dignity that draw most people to libertarianism.”

Sure, but it is not obvious that this is also true of “bossism”. What is even wrong with it, even from a non-libertarian perspective?


Stephan Kinsella said…

“Plumbline libertarianism doesn’t mean … libertarianism that’s neither left nor right …, nor does it mean libertarianism that ignores all issues besides the non-aggression principle; it just means libertarianism that never deviates from the non-aggression principle.”

Which is of course the reason to oppose minarchism, since minarchism always supports aggression. It is deviationist in this sense.

Bossism is not aggression nor is “pushing people around,” or even calling them names–and while the latter two are presumptively bad the former is not. It’s not unlibertarian for a libertarian to dislike “bossism,” just like it’s not unlibertarian to dislike trekkies.

Now what?



“most people tend not to *like* being pushed around, even if they do so “voluntarily,” and they put up with it as a necessary evil because their choices are constrained.”

Kevin, it seems to me “being pushed around” is nebulous and not well defined. That is fine for attitudes and such but not really very rigorous. And while you may be able to mount a philosophical case against it I am skeptical of this, and in any case think it is far afield from what the libertarian project is about.

“So it’s natural for libertarians to focus on the ways choices are constrained by a state-corporate power nexus,”

Sure, libertarians are opposed to and interested in examining the various ways in which the state harms people. Constraining choices is one way. This does not mean that “constraining choices” is in general bad; this is just the result of the way the world is, a world of scarcity and opportunity costs.

“I forget the term for it, but one of the forms of thickness involves the tendency of particular forms of “voluntary” authoritarianism to create a cultural climate which is hostile to the survival of libertarian practices.”

As a practical matter, I’d agree that there are various preconditions for liberty flourishing, and we libertarians of course should favor these, as means to our end. As an example you can never have libertarian society without civilized grundnorms such as peace, respect, honesty, truth-valuing, cooperatism, and so on. Sure. We are in favor of these things. Likewise we ought, as humans for sure, and maybe even qua libertarian, to oppose things like intolerance, narrow mindedness, pettiness, and other vices or bad practices that undermine or conflict with libertarian norms or grundnorms. Sure. This is all fairly non-controversial and trivial, in my view.

“In the case of bossism, it breeds a habit of subordination and passivity;”

But you keep assuming we know what you mean by “bossism.” Those of us not steeped in leftist literature and talk may be baffled by your presumption that such things are well known and obviously bad.

” and people in whom such personality traits have been inculcated by spending half their waking hours taking orders are in danger of coming to see such obedience as part of the natural order of things, and are less likely to resist the encroachment of formal statism outside the workplace.”

Well, this is just one narrow observation, though; it’s not rigorous or systematic, and it’s just one aspect of reality, but we have to have a more general, ceteris paribus view. Nohthing is for free. To put it simply and starkly, let’s say we could have a more productive, assembly-line, soul-deadening, bossist industrial society, rife with wage slavery and exploitation and “alienated” workers; or a less productive one where people live in coops and communes, with general purpose tools and their own butter churns, wearing hemp shirts and living in harmony with the bees and the snakes and the elements, singing kumbaya by campfires at night, while the teenagers explore each other without societal condemnation in the flower-painted VW vans parked down by the river. (I’m jokingly exaggerating; I trust you get my contrast here–a monotonous but more productive industrial life versus a more pastoral farmer’s market localist one with less soul-deadening drudge-work.) Well, to get the latter, you have to suffer more poverty. Life’s a tradeoff. Moreover, unless you can show that non-localism, assembly lines, factory labor, mass production, and so on are exclusively the result of state interference, it would seem that the demonstrated preference of the masses shows that they disagree with your own subjective preferences in this regard. And I do not believe you have shown with a good, clear, rigorous argument that one economic model leads to a more unlibertarian society than the other; in fact I would not expect any one model but many to proliferate.


Stephan Kinsella said…

“Stephan: Although I’m sure I haven’t demonstrated it to your satisfaction, one of the central focuses of my work has been the proposition that government shifts the terms of the tradeoff. That is, it shifts the competitive balance between hierarchy and (if you’ll excuse the Cartmanism) “g-d tree-hugging hippie crap” in terms of productivity, and increases the amount of hierarchy we have to endure for a given level of consumption. In this case, absent government subsidies to centralization and hierarchy, the Billy Jack commune would entail far less in the way of productivity tradeoffs.”

This is possible. And I do not deny the state is distorting this and other things. But this does not persuade me we would have the agrarian, localist model, or the shunning of mass production, large firms, division of labor, distance trade, and the like, in a free market.

But let’s remove the shackles and find out–I’m game! For now I’m glad you guys are at least anti-state.

“I just revisited Stephan’s earlier comment and noted that he didn’t argue for the compatibility of libertarianism and authoritarianism but rather of libertarianism and authority; my implicit reference to his view was in this way inaccurate.”

Thanks. I was wondering what you were talking about.


“when Kevin has just published a 600-page book filled with arguments that bossism is bad, I don’t think he’s begging any questions by mentioning that view here.”

If someone can point me to a section that carefully defines “bossism,” I’d be happy to read it and show you what is wrong with it 🙂 Seriously at this point all I see is that “good socialism” is concerned with the evil of bossism, and the evil of deprivation, while the latter is the concern of all libertarianism; and bossism has something to do with “pushing people around,” or perhaps any employer-employee relationship. Seems far-fetched to me. I like my theory near-fetched.

June 23, 2009 10:54 PM

My followup comment:

Gary, your comment about supports for the power of big business is provocative. It seems to me many of the left-libertarians for various (personal, etc.) reasons have more dislike for modern industrialism, capitalism, institutions, authority structures, mass production, and so on. They prefer the vision of a less bossist world, less labor-alienated, less mass-production, more localist, self-sufficient, whatever.

I think in their desire to paint such a world as natural–which can then be used as a contrast to show that the current industrialist society is largely unjust and distorted–they overemphasize the state “support” for aspects of capitalism. For example they argue that without the state, there would be no corporations (and so more localism, less bossism, fewer multi-national enterprises), less international or long-distance transportation (and so more localism, self-sufficiency), no ability for “absentee” ownership (so no lending, leasing, renting, no factories (the workers would just take them over), no apartment buildings (the tenants would take them over)), and so on.

Well of course if you stack the deck this way, you get the results you want. If you claim that a free(d) market would not permit the various institutional features of modern capitalism, then voila, out pops some localist commune, mutal aid societies, “wildcat” strikes, worker “coops,” and so on.

Now, it is no doubt right that the economy and society would change significantly, and for the better, absent state intervention. Carson e.g. is no doubt right that state subsidies for roads and transportation distorts the market. But that does not mean there would be no such commerce or roads absent the state. And the mutualist view of absentee ownership, which seems to render illegal the ability to rent property or to own more than one or two factories etc., is not merely at one end of the libertarian spectrum on abandonment; it is false (see A Critique of Mutualist Occupancy). And if you remove state privileges for incorporation, that does not mean that the essential features of corporations would go away; similar business entities could easily arise, as Hessen has shown.

There is every reason to think that in a free, stateless society that respected libertarian property rights, there would be thriving commerce, capitalism, and industrialism; there would still be bosses and employees and wage-jobs; there would still be large “corporations” (call them Hessens if you prefer); there would still be international trade and commerce; there would be still be a division of labor and mass production. And there would no doubt be lots more things, such as more ability to devote time to leisure, the arts, avocations, and self-sufficiency if you prefer that.

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