Blogs > Liberty and Power > Another Loony Left-Libertarian Screed from Roderick

Mar 26, 2006 5:32 am


Another Loony Left-Libertarian Screed from Roderick



[cross-posted at Austro-Athenian Empire]

What the current protests in France are about, at least inter alia, is the French government’s proposal to allow employers to fire their workers – a right they’re currently not allowed.

It might seem clear which side a libertarian has to be on in this dispute: of course libertarians favour freedom of association, which includes the freedom of either party to exit an employment contract. Thus the new proposal apparently represents a move in the direction of a free market: the government is right, and the protestors are wrong.

But things aren’t quite so simple.

Of course in a free market there would be no legal restrictions (except those contractually agreed to) on an employer’s right to fire an employee. But from the fact that there would be no X in a free society, it doesn’t follow that absolutely any situation will be moved in the direction of freedom simply by removing X. (Compare: from the fact that a healthy person wouldn’t have a pacemaker, it doesn’t follow that the health of anyone who has a pacemaker would be improved by its removal.)

As I recently wrote elsewhere:

Whether something counts as a reduction of restrictions on liberty depends on the context. Remember when Reagan “deregulated” the Savings & Loans – such deregulation could be a good thing under many circumstances, but given that he didn’t remove federal deposit insurance, “deregulation” amounted in that context to an increase of aggression against the taxpayers, licensing the S&Ls to takes greater risks with taxpayers’ money.

So in this case: when government passes laws giving group A unjust privileges over group B, and then passes another law giving B some protection against A, then repealing the second law without repealing the first amounts to increasing A’s unjust privilege over B. Of course a free society would have neither the first nor the second law, but repealing them in the wrong order can actually decrease rather than increase liberty.

Just as deregulating the S&Ls doesn’t count as a move toward liberty if it isn’t accompanied by an end to tax-funded deposit insurance, so in general a removal of restrictions on an entity doesn’t count as a move toward liberty if the entity is still a substantial recipient of government privilege or subsidy. For the more that an entity benefits from government intervention, the closer it comes to being an arm of the State – in which case lifting restrictions on it is, to that extent, lifting restrictions on the State.

As Kevin Carson writes:

[S]ince the state’s intervention, directly or indirectly, has been in the interests of the plutocracy, it matters a great deal which functions of the state should be axed first. The first to go should be those forms of intervention in the market that subsidize economic centralization and the concentration of wealth, reduce the bargaining power of labor, and ensure monopoly returns to the owners of land and capital. The last to go should be those government functions that make the system of class exploitation marginally bearable for labor. In the words of Thomas Knapp of the Democratic Freedom Caucus, that means cutting welfare from the top down, and taxes from the bottom up.

While I don’t agree with Kevin as to what in every case counts as “monopoly returns to the owners of land and capital” (he thinks absentee land ownership is unjust, I don’t – see our exchange on Lockean vs. Tuckerite theories of property rights in the forthcoming issue of JLS), I certainly agree with the general sentiment.

To clarify: the claim is not that we need to favour some restrictions on liberty now in order to gain greater liberty later. There are plenty who’ve held that view, from Marx to Chomsky to Victor Yarros – but not me, comrade. The claim is rather that what would count as lifting a restriction on liberty in one context does not so count in another context.

All this is by way of introduction to fellow left-libertarian blogospheroid Brad Spangler’s letter to the French protestors, which expresses solidarity with their struggle while disambiguating genuine from faux market reform and inviting the protestors to adopt libertarian aims and methods. Of course I had to sign it, since it begins with a quotation from me! (By coincidence, the Rothbard Memorial Lecture I delivered at the ASC last weekend ended with a quote from Brad. The mutualist admiration society continues .... And speaking whichly, congratulations to Wally Conger, another fellow left-libertarian blogospheroid, for being awarded the Karl Hess Club’s 2006 Samuel Edward Konkin III Memorial Chauntecleer. But wasn’t that the name of a play by Ayn Rand’s favourite playwright?)

1968: back by popular demand!




comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:


Tom G Palmer - 3/31/2006

I've not read the whole thing, but the first sentence indicates that it's an option:

I. - Les employeurs qui entrent dans le champ du premier alinéa de l'article L. 131-2 du code du travail peuvent conclure, pour toute nouvelle embauche d'un jeune âgé de moins de 26 ans, un contrat de travail dénommé « contrat première embauche ».

"Peuvent conclure" means that they may conclude such an arrangement, not that they must. I will go through the rest of it later (but not being a lawyer and with my French, um, cough, cough, not as good as it should be, I might miss something).


Otto M. Kerner - 3/31/2006

In this sort of situation, I think it is additionally important to be direct and straightforward about what we libertarians want, rather than trying to pick a side and be either pro-protestors or anti-protestors. It may well be that neither side is proposing a libertarian solution; therefore, we must be clear that we are against government-imposed labour contracts in the first place and we are also definitely against a rule which makes it illegal to fire an employee.

(Personally, I have a gut feeling that the French protestors would be freaking out even more if the state abolished mandatory contracts altogether, which, I suppose, explains the lack of sympathy that I feel for the protestors. But I could be wrong about that, I guess).


Russell Hanneken - 3/29/2006

Sheldon wrote, "Sounds like the government is imposing a uniform contract, not simply freeing up the relationship."

I'm not so sure. Asked whether it would be "inevitable that all jobs given to young people would eventually become CPE's [i.e., fall under the new employment contract]," Florence Lefresne, "an economist and specialist in European labour trends," responded as follows:

"Legally, it is quite possible. But keep in mind that we have more than fifteen kinds of contract for young people (CDI + CDD + temporary contract + CNE + CPE + different subsidized contracts set by the public employment policy). The employers just choose what suits to them according to their specific needs."


That's from http://libcom.org/blog/what-is-the-cpe/

It sounds to me like there is a restricted set of labor contracts that are legal, and the new French law adds a new contract to that set.

The actual law is here:

http://www.assemblee-nationale.fr/12/amendements/2787/278700003.asp

Anyone read French?


Sheldon Richman - 3/29/2006

I would like to second this. If history is the record of the exploitation of the productive people, and if libertarians champion the victims of exploitation over their exploiters, then it is entirely proper that, where possible, the privileges of the well-connected be eliminated before the few crumbs thrown to the state's victims. Besides being a matter of justice, it would be a good recruiting device.


Aster Francesca - 3/29/2006

Mark: "'Cutting welfare from the top down, and taxes from the bottom up.'" I guess that's as valid as 'cutting welfare from the bottom up, and taxes from the top down' but an implicit interpersonal valuation is present either way.... I suggest it involves some interpersonal valuations different from those that are inherent in mainstream libertarian doctrine."

Um... I think the 'interpersonal valuation' involved is that shifting the tax burden to the poor while favouring the rich will end up with the poor trapped in misery, squalour, and poverty, while a tiny elite benefits. Simply put, one way of reducing net societal technical coercion ends up with a much more awful situation in human terms. Cutting corporate welfare in a semi-statist society isn't going to destroy anyone's life; cutting welfare for the otherwise destitute, in a society where state favouritism still directly and indirectly walls off their choices and opportunities, it might.

If detesting this involves valuations at odds with mainstream libertarian doctrine, so much the worse for mainstream libertarian doctrine. Libertarianism may not logically require simple human compassion but 'tis my hope it would not make it controversial. Why exactly is cutting the the budget on the backs of privileges built up by the state, rather than those who've been ruined by it, a potential problem?

I could also point out that if libertarianism were to try to dismantle the state while selectively attacking social benefits for the poor while ignoring the structural advantages of the rich, the result would be that the working class would make one great rush for the local state socialist party's recruiting office while classical liberalism remained the party of a few intellectuals and middle-class eccentrics out of touch with social reality. I rather submit that this is what has been happening for the last 150 years or so.

The modern libertarian movement believes its politics are in the interest of everybody yet converts no one (except intellectuals). I suspect this has something to do with the fact that the poor don't see any reason to think libertarians take their perspective or interests seriously, while the comfortable are often regimented sheeple who don't object very much to having the state economically and culturally prop up their institutions. Do you desire libertarianism to succeed? I think there's no way to do that without a libertarian theory that resonates with the actual lives and struggles of human beings.


Sheldon Richman - 3/29/2006

This is clear cut? If so, it's clear-cut fascism that should be opposed.


Sheldon Richman - 3/29/2006

However...look at this from the BBC:

Q. What does the controversial law say?

The law creating the First Employment Contract (Contrat Premiere Embauche or CPE) was passed by parliament as part of a broader bill on equal opportunities which will come into effect in April.

The CPE is a new work contract for under-26s with a two-year trial period. In that period, employers can terminate the contract without having to offer an explanation or give prior warning. For other employees, the trial period is usually 1-3 months.

After the two-year trial period, the contract reverts to a standard full-time contract. (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/4816306.stm)

Sounds like the government is imposing a uniform contract, not simply freeing up the relationship. How can we support this? (This was brought to my attention by an anonymous commenter at Free Association.)


Sheldon Richman - 3/28/2006

It stands to reason that a law prohibiting the firing of young workers would be a heavier burden on an upstart competitor than on an large incumbent firm. If so, then ending that law would be a relative benefit to the challenger. In other words, the new French law, regardless of intentions, does to a small degree roll back the corporate state by giving new competitors a shot they did not have before.


David T. Beito - 3/28/2006

Lest there be any misunderstanding, my comments were directed to Roderick not Mark.


David T. Beito - 3/28/2006

The trouble with your argument is that it can be used to justify a vast array of other interventions. Where does it end? For example, "free market" defenders of rent control can claim that such controls can not eliminated until zoning, building codes, housing subsidies, etc. are also eliminated. The upshot is that rent control will never be challenged. By comparison, I would argue that ending the French labor market controls on firing is a comparatively much easier case.

For this reason, your stand on this issue strikes me as a prescription for inaction.


Bill Woolsey - 3/27/2006

I would suggest that those inclined to side with the student rioters in this situation should review Economics in One Lesson. Regulations aimed at protecting workers generally make the least skilled workers unemployable.

The workers who are left unemployed and the employers who would like to hire them have a commonality of interest.

Some firms are specialized in hiring the more skilled workers and may benefit from the intervention. And, of course, the more skilled workers benefit by prohibiting the competition of the less skilled.

Now, this analysis is exactly what libertarian economists have always emphasized.

Where are you all been!

The contrary view, that ignores all of this, is based on the naive assuption that the law of demand doesn't apply to labor. That regulartory requirements improving the lot of workers simply means workers are better off and employers are worse off. In other words, all of the adjustments made to these reguations are ignored. In other words, economics is ignored!



Sheldon Richman - 3/27/2006

Both Mark and Russell make valid points. Policy issues are often far less than clear-cut. Libertarians still argue over school vouchers and health savings accounts. Are tax breaks for selective businesses good things or maniupulative social engineering? In a sense both sides are right in the labor argument. The old French law no doubt hurt young would-be workers who could not find jobs because firing them was difficult. But the new law might make the corporate state more bearable, perhaps delaying more radical change. I believe we will see such policy arguments among libertarians far into the future.


Russell Hanneken - 3/27/2006

Roderick,

You write, "[T]he more that an entity benefits from government intervention, the closer it comes to being an arm of the State – in which case lifting restrictions on it is, to that extent, lifting restrictions on the State."

I doubt that collapsing the distinction between the state and private actors will clarify more than obfuscate, but... fine. I'll accept for the sake of argument that corporate welfare queens, drivers on public roads, students in public schools, and patients under socialized medicine are all part of the state, and any move to lift any restriction on their behavior amounts to empowering the state. We're still left with the question of whether any such lifting of restrictions is a good or bad idea.

You quote Kevin Carson to the effect that our first priority should be to eliminate laws benefiting big business, and our last priority should be to eliminate laws benefiting their workers. Always?

Here's a thought experiment: imagine that the state has set a minimum wage of $30 per hour and enforces it rigidly. As a result there is, let's say, a 40% unemployment rate. Such a law certainly isn't in the interest of employers, and it might very well benefit many laborers (skilled unionized labor, anyway). Do you think our first priority in such a case would necessarily be to stick it to the rich fat cats?

In the piece to which you linked, Brad Spangler writes, "Young people in France currently often have to live at home for several *years* while job hunting. The consolation that sustains them is that once they’re in, at least they have job security."

Isn't it possible that part of the reason young people in France have to live at home for several years while job hunting is that employers don't have the freedom to try a worker out before committing to spending enormous resources on them? Brad says no: "The overall economic environment in France is so thoroughly statist that they quite reasonably expect no tangible benefit from this one small so-called market reform [to allow French employers to fire workers during their first year in the labor force]." Maybe, but where is the analysis to support this claim?

One problem I have with left-libertarianism is that it seems to assume people's interests align neatly with socialist class distinctions (labor vs. capital). If we dispense with this filter, a less romantic and more complex picture emerges. I don't know much about the French system, but on the face of it I would expect that a system that makes it difficult to fire new workers (and thus makes new workers more risky for employers) would benefit some workers while hurting others. The workers who benefit from the reduction in competition would be the ones who are experienced, have good connections, or have other qualities that might recommend them (education, training). The ones who suffer would be those who lack experience, have poor connections, and lack resources to pay for things like training and education--poor immigrants, for example. Are the latter less important than the former?


Mark Brady - 3/27/2006

Towards the end, I intended to write:

Mark: "Cutting welfare from the top down, and taxes from the bottom up." I guess that's as valid as "cutting welfare from the bottom up, and taxes from the top down" but an implicit interpersonal valuation is present either way.


Mark Brady - 3/27/2006

Roderick: Whether something counts as a reduction of restrictions on liberty depends on the context. Remember when Reagan "deregulated" the Savings & Loans – such deregulation could be a good thing under many circumstances, but given that he didn't remove federal deposit insurance, "deregulation" amounted in that context to an increase of aggression against the taxpayers, licensing the S&Ls to takes greater risks with taxpayers' money.

So in this case: when government passes laws giving group A unjust privileges over group B, and then passes another law giving B some protection against A, then repealing the second law without repealing the first amounts to increasing A's unjust privilege over B.

Mark: I suggest it's more complicated than you suggest. Passing another law giving group B some protection against group A may also infringe the rights of group C, who do not benefit from the first laws giving group A unjust privileges against group B. Thus repealing the second law without repealing the first prevents further injustice being committed against group C without creating an injustice to group B in this regard.

Moreover, it's surely incumbent upon you to explain how this principle applies in the case of the proposal to reform French labor law.

Roderick: Of course a free society would have neither the first nor the second law, but repealing them in the wrong order can actually decrease rather than increase liberty.

Mark: Yes, but only if the destruction of liberty is measured not with respect to the number of restrictions but with respect to some calculus of net benefit to the parties involved. I'm not unsympathetic to this argument but I suggest it involves some interpersonal valuations different from those that are inherent in mainstream libertarian doctrine.

Roderick: Just as deregulating the S&Ls doesn't count as a move toward liberty if it isn't accompanied by an end to tax-funded deposit insurance, so in general a removal of restrictions on an entity doesn't count as a move toward liberty if the entity is still a substantial recipient of government privilege or subsidy. For the more that an entity benefits from government intervention, the closer it comes to being an arm of the State – in which case lifting restrictions on it is, to that extent, lifting restrictions on the State.

Mark: Yes, but how does this apply in the current situation?

Roderick, quoting Kevin Carson: [S]ince the state's intervention, directly or indirectly, has been in the interests of the plutocracy, it matters a great deal which functions of the state should be axed first. The first to go should be those forms of intervention in the market that subsidize economic centralization and the concentration of wealth, reduce the bargaining power of labor, and ensure monopoly returns to the owners of land and capital. The last to go should be those government functions that make the system of class exploitation marginally bearable for labor. In the words of Thomas Knapp of the Democratic Freedom Caucus, that means cutting welfare from the top down, and taxes from the bottom up.

Mark: "Cutting welfare from the top down, and taxes from the bottom up." I guess that's as valid as "cutting welfare from the bottom up, and taxes from the bottom down" but an implicit interpersonal valuation is present either way.

Roderick: To clarify: the claim is not that we need to favour some restrictions on liberty now in order to gain greater liberty later. There are plenty who've held that view, from Marx to Chomsky to Victor Yarros – but not me, comrade. The claim is rather that what would count as lifting a restriction on liberty in one context does not so count in another context.

Mark: Again, yes, but only if the loss of liberty is measured with respect to some calculus of net benefit to the parties involved.


Craig J. Bolton - 3/26/2006

You are, of course, correct. This is much like the debate that occurred about 35 years ago among economic theorists concerning "the theory of the second best." That debate was about competitive optimality versus an economy where there were some less than competitive sectors, but the argument pattern and conclusion were the same.

So, I guess I've now passed the final and definitive test as a "loony left libertarian?" Pretty strange for someone who started out his political life in 1964 as an avid member of the JBS.