SFL Liberty Forum Online Presents Ross Kenyon, Senior at Arizona State University

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Free Market Base or Superstructure: An Open Inquiry Regarding Resultant Political Economies & the Moral Culpability of Current Beneficiaries

A Brief Essay by Ross Miller Kenyon

While libertarians reject the provision of corporate welfare there is disagreement about just how deeply such welfare is rooted.  Building off of these basic attitudes is our willingness or unwillingness to tolerate the existing distributions of wealth and how we feel about the people who win and lose under the economy’s current framework.

I. The Traditional Model

The traditional libertarian narrative frames the base of the American economy as free enterprise which unwillingly supports a parasitic superstructural class of regulators, moochers and bureaucrats.  It also sees the emergence of capitalism as occurring primarily through natural and legitimate market means and not through illegitimate state action.  The resultant perspective on the distribution of wealth (political economy) espoused by libertarians utilizing this model can be described as traditional.  It views society’s existing wealthy and successful market actors as those who are productive in spite of the state and all those who oppose any aspect of their property rights, democratically or otherwise, as looters of varying degrees of evil and/or stupidity.

II. The Revisionist Model

Left-libertarian and some radical Rothbardian traditions are generally far more critical of the aforementioned model and view the state as the base of the existing economy with some free market sprinkles on top.  They acknowledge that capitalism’s historical emergence required massive amounts of state power in order to catalyze the Industrial Revolution and create a reliable and dependent working class.[1] It notes that the basic economic rules which have virtually always been and continue to be in place worldwide generally favor the status quo elite who control the political machines in order to further concentrate their wealth and power.

This revisionist ideological foundation leads to a far more skeptical and radical approach toward American political economy which finds as much in common with modern progressive and leftist movements as it does with any fair weather free marketeer conservative tradition.  However, the conclusions drawn from this approach don’t leave us with a precise method of ameliorating the historical and ongoing wrongs nor of how to establish the moral standing of the current beneficiaries and losers.[2]

Merely proclaiming “eat the rich!” in response is neither sufficient nor desirable because the majority of people who are currently financially successful are most likely unaware of the anti-market base of the economy or its injustice and as a result behave as simple market actors (profit-maximizers). [3] Most people tend not to attend conferences on political philosophy or economics of any variety but are merely reacting to the circumstances of the markets within which they operate to the most profitable extent of their ability.

So to what degree are these profit-maximizers to blame for their own success or failure in the state’s economy?

Successful profit-maximizers do probably deserve some degree of leniency for merely being indiscriminate and not actively malicious.  It may be best to levy the majority of the blame against those who created the horribly corrupting and unnatural incentive structure now in place.  However, letting profit-maximizers off the ethical hook isn’t satisfying either.

When libertarians view wealth as purely the efforts of productive people in spite of the state they ignore that the profit-maximizer may just be going along with the existing statist economic system they have been unwilling to take the time to understand or challenge for monetary gain and/or convenience’s sake. When the profit-maximizing individual is conceptualized in these terms they don’t seem like an innocent market actor of circumstance but someone complicit with their own and humanity’s enslavement and exploitation.  It is not that they are evil, only morally lazy, and thus their existing property claims deserve some undetermined degree of scrutiny.

To some extent we are all complicit and culpable in this regard.  We must all react to the world we inherit and make some sacrifices to principle or die fighting.  We don’t always behave as agorists nor are we all tax rebels.  I have not yet hurled my body into the state/corporate revolving door.  If you’re reading this now you probably aren’t engaged in guerilla warfare against egregiously predatory states.  Instead, we mostly spend our time fighting a running retreat from the state’s inquiring tendrils; snatching up what free interactions we can muster and caving to its demands when our cost/benefit analyses direct us to.

The conclusion that this paper hopes to draw isn’t finite or simple, but is only an attempt to encourage nuance in cautiously walking the line on existing distributions of wealth and on how we levy blame against participants in the current system.  Too often libertarians enjoy creating abstract and simple dichotomies which avoid the reality of the world’s unapologetic sloppiness.  To what degree should one blame successful profit-maximizers for their uncritical exploits inside an unlibertarian and fundamentally anti-market system is my open question to the reader which I now humbly submit for responses.

I eagerly await their publication through Students For Liberty’s Liberty Forum.

[1] Kevin A. Carson, Studies in Mutualist Political Economy (2004), 113-231.

[2] There are elements of truth to both models, and like all models, some major generalizations and bluntness must be used in the hope of having any descriptive power whatsoever.  This is especially true for such a short paper, as I will not even have room to address the current relative losers in the state economy.

[3] I am aware that this is an unverified empirical assumption.  I do not believe it is totally unfounded; however, I find it somewhat persuasive that the higher up the economic totem pole one climbs the better the view of the system at large one might perceive.  For the purpose of this paper I will concede to them the benefit of these doubts though it does merit its own writing and critical scholarship.