Category Archives: Anti-capitalism/usury/STV

Customer complaint for capitalism.

A customer enters a store and goes up to the desk.

Customer: Hello there, I’d like an exchange please.

Owner: We don’t do exchanges. All sales are final.

Customer: Now listen here, you simply have got to take responsibility for this faulty product. It’s illegal, is what it is.

Owner: Well, what is it then?

Customer: It’s this capitalism. I’ve had it for more than two hundred years, and it’s not working.

Owner: What do you mean it’s not working. It looks fine to me. Isn’t it producing?

Customer: Oh yes, it’s producing a great deal of stuff and things, but the distribution system is broken, and it all pools at the top.

Owner: Oh, that’s not broken, that’s a feature.

Customer: (outraged) A feature? A feature? How can that be a feature?

Owner: Well, you only need the stuff at the top, since that’s the only part that really does anything.

Customer: But the top part doesn’t actually produce anything, it just makes the rest of the machine produce things and then takes the credit for it. This is completely broken. Also, when it produces, it’s polluting as hell and it’s really loud.

Owner: Have you tried painting it green?

Customer: What??

Owner: Have you tried painting it green?

Customer: How is that gonna change anything?

Owner: Well, a fresh coat of green would make it look a lot better. It wouldn’t LOOK broken.

Customer: But that’ll just give me a broken machine with green paint on it.

Owner: Yea well, what can you do? We’re the only game in town.

Customer: That’s not true, there was another outfit that had to cut down in the nineties, but they’re still open. They have a different economy. There’s also theoretical models that have been tested piecemeal in other places.

Owner: Hah! You’re gonna rely on a discredited model or some theoretical model that’s probably gonna collapse on you? Just accept this capitalism.

Customer: No, it’s broken! I want my money back!

Owner: Look, I can sell you this green paint.

Customer: How much is it?

Owner: 44 trillion dollars.

Customer: WHAT? I don’t have that kind of money.

Owner: Well you bought the capitalism, you gotta pay for the paint. It’s like airline fees.

Customer: I don’t like those either!

Owner: Yea but… you’re stuck now. You have to pay the 44 trillions or your capitalism will stay broken.

Customer: What about adding some failsafes? Like a more even distribution of stuff, or making less stuff so we can have less pollution?

Owner: You can’t do that without breaking the property rights gauge.

Customer: So what? Break the gauge.

Owner: If you break the gauge, you void the warranty.

Customer: I don’t care, we need some failsafes in there.

Owner: Can’t do that. If you break the gauge, you void the warranty.

Customer: But what about the fact-

Owner: You break the gauge, you void the warranty.

Customer: They’re doing it in other places.

Owner: Their warranties are expired. If their capitalism breaks, it’s entirely their fault. The capitalism works perfectly well with the property gauge. Anything else is suboptimal.

Customer: Suboptimal for what?

Owner: For the property gauge.

Customer: Who the fuck cares about the fucking property gauge? I want you to fix this capitalism.

Owner: The property gauge says it’s working perfectly fine. The distribution and pollution are at optimal levels.

Customer: And why are almost all the couplings leading to the top white and male connectors?

Owner: That’s a coincidence.

Customer: What do you mean, it’s a coincidence? Whoever put this machine together connected the top with the white and male connectors. The blueprint itself specifies that there could ONLY be white and male connectors at the top.

Owner: Oh sure, but there are some connectors that aren’t white or male at the top now, so what are you whining about? It’s working.

Customer: It’s only “working” because it was so bad when it was made that any improvement looks better!

Owner: Well, you’re totally wrong. There are no other products. And breaking the property gauge would break the warranty. I’m gonna have to call the police.

Customer: Call the police? What do you want to call the police for? I’m just trying to get an exchange.

Owner: You’re being uppity.

Customer: I’m not being uppity, you’re being uppity!

Owner: I’m a respectable professional. You shouldn’t talk to me like that.

Customer: Well listen now, we can talk like reasonable people and…

Two policemen in riot gear bash through the door and start tasering and beating on the customer.

Owner: (smug) He tried to break the warranty! I told him!

Why is being against methodological individualism so important?

I have often said that methodological individualism, the view that every social phenomenon can only be explained as being caused by individuals, is profoundly wrong and leads to irrational conclusions. But it seems like such an obscure issue to make a point about. If you ask people what “methodological individualism” is, you’d get mostly blank stares.

The funny thing is how prevalent it is amongst our modern political ideologies. It is the driving idea behind neo-liberalism. It is also the foundation of post-modernism. These two ideas exist in completely different areas of the political spectrum. It is also behind most of political reasoning: no matter the issue, we seem to believe that we can talk about it by solely referring to individual actions and individual merit or demerit. If Christians and other woo-woos can attack science on the basis of its reductionism (reducing all phenomena to “atoms banging around”), a charge which is mostly spurious, then all the more should we attack this political reductionism (reducing all social phenomena to individual action “in a vacuum”).

Atheism is the first threshold that one must cross intellectually, because most people are indoctrinated into some religion or other, and religion is a closed system which does not admit of intellectual progress. Some Christians may be able to transcend their Christianity, especially if they are in less extreme denominations, but by and large they are the exception, not the rule. It is very rare that you’ll find a committed religious person who does not also support hierarchies (so-called “Christian Anarchists” notwithstanding). Hierarchies are inscribed in monotheistic religions: the hierarchy between God and humans, the hierarchy between men and women, the hierarchy between humans and the natural world, and so on.

Still, most atheists are unable to progress very far beyond that point, so what is holding them back? What is the belief holding them back? I’ve tried to identify what that belief is, and I think it must be something like methodological individualism.

Religion is an extreme example of methodological individualism. After all, it seeks to explain the entire universe through the actions of only one individual: God. But beyond that trivial aspect, religion also tries to explain social issues through individual actions: crime is caused by unsaved, Satanic individuals (or Satanic conspiracies), poverty is caused by lack of faith or other personal shortcomings, and lack of faith itself is caused by you simply not trying hard enough. Crackpots even try to blame meteorological phenomena on individual sins. Often they simply cannot explain things that happen to us, shrugging them off as “God’s will.” But ultimately, the “choice” to be saved, or to not be saved, is the source of every good or bad thing in our lives, including our eternal fate.

Politics work in a similar way, just less extreme. We see issues through narratives, and we evaluate narratives by judging the archetype or stereotype involved. This means that we evaluate issues by looking at (imaginary) individual actions. This is methodological individualism, too.

The best sign of methodological individualism, at least from the liberal side, is when they interpret a socio-political critique as a personal attack. They are so indoctrinated to believe that politics is only about individual actions that they cannot even conceive of a critique of something greater than themselves. From their perspective, there is nothing greater than themselves. They follow Thatcher’s principle that “there is no such thing as society… [t]here are individual men and women, and there are families,” even though they may greatly disagree with Thatcher’s policies, because they have accepted the basic premise of neo-liberalism.

All the mainstream political movements, on all sides, are branches of neo-liberalism, which is an extreme-right ideology. So what they’re doing is trying to argue for liberal concepts by using extreme-right framing. It can’t work. So that’s the situation we’re in today. If you don’t understand how harmful this premise is, you won’t be able to reason your way beyond it.

Voluntaryism is probably the most well-intentioned methodological individualist position there is, which is why I was one for a while, and why I’ve taken so much pains to debunk it. In my view, if voluntaryism is debunked (which I think it is), then no individualist position can hold water, because they are all worse. Voluntaryists, of course, disagree that their position is debunked, but by and large their objections are very weak (a lot of moving the goalposts and tu quoque fallacies, mostly, which doesn’t add to a hill of beans).

The problem with voluntaryism is, in a large part, the problem of methodological individualism: the refusal to acknowledge the nature of institutions, a nature which mostly lies outside of individual action. But if you don’t understand institutions, then you can’t understand society. Society just cannot be reduced to individual actions, no matter how hard you try. This means you will always get wrong results. We see this in neo-liberalism, where these beliefs are implanted in order to further the capitalist agenda. We see this in post-modernism, where these beliefs are pushed in order to destroy any systemic analysis and reduce truth to a set of personal, innate traits. Their objective has never been to uncover the truth.

People who do break through this individualist premise are able to move on and construct theories which are much better at explaining social phenomena. Feminism (the systemic analysis of the gender hierarchy) makes a lot more sense than sexism (more specifically, the belief that individual women are responsible for their own exploitation). Anti-racism (the systemic analysis of the race hierarchy) makes a lot more sense than racism (the belief that individual POC are responsible for their own exploitation). Anti-capitalism (the systemic analysis of capitalism and how it affects society) makes a lot more sense than neo-liberalist rhetoric (which posits that individuals are responsible for their own economic exploitation). Anarchism (the systemic analysis of political hierarchies) makes a lot more sense than the rhetoric designed to support political hierarchies (that people are innately evil and must be governed, that people cannot do anything without hierarchies, in general, that individuals alone are incapable). The conclusions of the systemic analyses are much closer to reality than those of the individualist ideologies. But sexism, racism and neo-liberalism were never designed to uncover any truth anyway: they are rationalizations for exploitation and oppression, in the exact same way that Christian apologetics is a rationalization for Christianity. And they fail for the same reasons.

Free market logic doesn’t work out.

There is an argument, which is really more of a dogma, used to justify free markets. It is basically a reductionist argument which holds the following:

1. Person-to-person market exchanges are to both parties’ mutual benefit.
2. The free1 market is reducible to a set of person-to-person market exchanges.
3. Therefore, the free1 market serves the general welfare.

This argument is usually presented as if it was rigorously logical and unimpeachable, but nothing could be further from the truth. For one thing, it is predicated upon the truth of the vulgar individualist premise, that society is nothing but a collection of individuals. Otherwise it is impossible to make sense of premise 2. Since social institutions are not just groups of individuals, and they do partake in exchange (e.g. corporations, governments, churches, and so on), it is impossible to reduce the free1 market to a loose set of individual exchanges, and premise 2 necessarily crumbles.

The only way to make any sense out of premise 2 is to assume that it is not descriptive but prescriptive: that it does not mean “we observe that the free market is reducible to a set of market exchanges,” but that it means “in order to be a free1 market, an economy (or subset thereof) must be reducible to a set of market exchanges.” But the only kind of economy that would be so primitive as to remain at the level of pure individual exchange would be a small-scale barter system. Anything more you introduce into the equation, like a ruling class, a currency system, property rights, laws against theft or fraud, or whatever, would be part of an institution, and therefore introduce something that goes beyond “one-to-one market exchanges.”

So let me now review premise 1. This premise is usually introduced as a little story of an exchange between two individuals. Here is a typical example:

Two individuals go to market; Person A owns Good X, and Person B owns Good Y. What needs to happen for A and B to voluntarily exchange X and Y?

If the exchange takes place, it must be true that certain prerequisites have been met. A must value Y more than he values X; otherwise, he would not have given up the greater satisfaction conferred by X for a lesser one conferred by Y. B—on the other hand—must value X more than he values Y; otherwise, he would not have been willing to give up Y for X.

What, then, is the inevitable result of the exchange? A leaves the market with Y—which he values more than he valued the X he used to have. B leaves the market with X—which he values more than he valued the Y he used to have. Both people now have goods that satisfy them more than the goods they gave to the other person. Both people are benefited by the exchange. In that sense, any trade—provided that no party is coerced—is mutually beneficial to all those involved.

The use of the word “market” here is interesting. If we assume it means a market as a public place where farmers and other producers display their wares, then it assumes some level of civil organization which is beyond the level of pure individual exchange. But I may be nit-picking here.

The more relevant point, however, is that this is a just-so story, that is to say, it is a made up story which fits a certain worldview but doesn’t necessarily have any relation to the facts of reality. For one thing, it confuses value with desire. There are many things we desire to receive in exchange but do not value highly enough to validate the exchange. For example, someone who is addicted (no matter to what) will desire the object of their addiction even if they do not value them. Also, many things are desired not for the value they themselves have, but for what they can bring the individual in status or credibility (a college education, a luxury car, expensive art works, whatever). Finally, there are also things we must acquire because we simply cannot get by without them, regardless of how much we value them (car insurance, for instance).

One may reply that, in all my examples, the person buying the things still wants to make the exchange because they get more from doing it than not doing it, and therefore still fulfills the “mutual benefit” clause. But if that’s the case, then either “benefit” merely means that one is willing to do an exchange, which is circular, or it means that the person is actually, factually, always better off, which is simply false. Plenty of exchanges do not actually, factually lead to mutual benefit, especially in situations where the problem of incomplete information, or risk in general, are particularly important. For example, if you buy a new car, and it breaks down within a week through no fault of your own, then you can hardly be said to have benefitted from the exchange, no matter whose fault it is.

The fact that market exchanges leading to mutual benefit entails that a free1 market also leads to general benefit is not nearly as significant as it’s portrayed. Advocates of any economic system can argue that their chosen system also serves the general welfare through a set of beneficial flows of resources, whatever those flows consist of. For example, a libsoc would argue that each individual’s exchange of their labor-time for an equal part in society’s production is to mutual benefit, and leads to the general welfare. A proponent of the welfare state might argue that all valid welfare resource redistribution improve the Pareto efficiency of a society (i.e. they benefit some people while leaving no one worse off). Even a hypothetical advocate of the Grab-What-You-Can system (I say hypothetical because, as far as I know, not even the most consistent voluntaryist is stupid enough to advocate such a system) may, with some credibility, argue that while any individual theft does leave the former possessor worse off, any set of mutual thefts, where each person steals what they need the most, leaves everyone better off.

If anyone can make up a just-so story, even the imaginary Grab-What-You-Can advocate, then they are basically useless without empirical evidence to back them up. I happen to believe that the libsoc view is correct, but you do not have to agree with me on that. My point here is that capitalism does not gain much from the argument, even if it was an entirely valid argument. Whether capitalism leads to the general welfare is not under question, but does not distinguish it from any other economic system that has ever existed: what is under question is whether capitalism is more ethical than those other systems, which is an entirely different issue. People who argue about technological progress or living standards under capitalism, or communism, or any other system, are missing the point.

So now that I’ve cleared premise 1, let me come back to premise 2, the premise that the free1 market is reducible to a set of person-to-person market exchanges. We can show very easily that this is false. Keep in mind that the argument here tries to transpose the fact that individual exchanges entail mutual benefit to show that a free1 market entail general welfare. So, any set of exchanges that are mutually beneficial must therefore lead to the general welfare.

Now, suppose that a person A is buying all the power plants in a region for great amount of money from person B, C, and D. Each exchange was beneficial to both parties involved. Persona A then decides to shut down all those power plants. Persons B, C and D are now out of power and must either make their own or move. This is a huge loss on their part. The set of exchanges did not lead to their mutual welfare.

My example highlights two important conditions which lead a set of favorable exchanges towards an unfavorable result: the formation of monopolies, and clashing values. We already know (except for market fanatics) that monopolies are a good example of market failure. Having one person, or a small group of people, control a vital resource through a series of exchanges is bad news for everyone else, even if it was in the interest of each person who traded it away. But equally important in this example is the fact that person A has a different objective, shutting down power plants, than person B, C and D, who are interested in having power. In a capitalist economy, most people involved in the economy have the same objective, make more money. A monopoly mainly hurts people because of inflated prices (because of the lack of competition) and inequality of power (they can make their monopoly into law, or discourage new entrants more easily).

If a series of beneficial exchanges can turn into an unfavorable situation, then premise 2 must be invalid. The problem here is that individual exchanges do not exist in a vacuum: they are part of a socio-economic context, use resources that come from somewhere and are used by someone, they involve partially or completely unknown information, and they involve people who have a specific status in that society.

To quote an actual, serious economics definition:

A completely free market is an idealized form of a market economy where buyers and sellers are allowed to transact freely (i.e. buy/sell/trade) based on a mutual agreement on price without state intervention in the form of taxes, subsidies or regulation.

Note the word “idealized.” The concept of the free1 market is based on a mental construct, a hypothetical, not a reality. Again, the only economic system that has ever come close to this hypothetical is a primitive, small-scale barter system. In real life, market prices are mostly set by institutions (mostly corporations), and people do not transact freely because of pre-existing conditions.

But most importantly, a free1 market, or any kind of market for that matter, cannot exist without some form of property rights. An individual can only trade something if they are in control of it. And this control, in ordinary life (not in cases of theft, for example), is predicated upon the general recognition and respect of property rights. Because property rights are a chimera and generally go against people’s interests, they must be protected and maintained by some form of authority, and that authority is most likely to be a State. Therefore no market can be free from State intervention, because it depends on the State for its survival.

Furthermore, property rights are not the result of market exchange, they are a precondition to market exchange. If, as some market fanatics believe (like “anarcho-capitalists”), the only legitimate impositions are those that arise from market exchange, then that would necessarily exclude property rights, since, logically, property rights cannot arise from that thing which depends on the prior existence of property rights.

The ironic thing is that their objections to State intervention also apply to capitalism in general. Here is an example:

For example, you enter a post office and buy a first-class stamp for 45 cents. May we conclude that you prefer the services the stamp will buy to whatever else you might have spent the 45 cents on? If you were not ordered into the post office at gunpoint, I should think so.

Is the transaction therefore legitimate? I should think not—not entirely. Why not? Because your alternatives were artificially constricted by a system supported by violence.

The phrasing of this last sentence is rather revealing, because it’s an apt description of modern capitalism, where our alternatives are “artificially constructed” by a system “supported by violence.” It is the violence of the enclosure of the commons and the genocide of native people that created the space necessary for capitalism to exist, it is the violence against the third world that gave capitalism its cheap labor force, it is the violence against labor activism that gave the capitalists power they needed to extract more surplus value from their workers.

The author of this particular extract might say that the post office represents embodied coercion, that the violence is not present at that very moment in that particular exchange but that it is part of what made the post office what it is, what gave it its power. The same thing is true of corporations. While none of our exchanges with corporations may be violent, at least in the West, the corporations themselves embody all the coercion that was necessary for their formation. Our alternatives to their products and modes of operation are artificially constrained by a system supported by violence.

The concept of “child poverty.”

I have already touched on this before, but I think it’s just too damning to gloss over. “Child poverty” as a concept is, in and of itself, a complete refutation of both capitalism and childism.

In our daily lives, the concept of “child poverty” is little more than a statistic. In 2014, UNICEF announced that 32.2% of children in the United States live under the poverty line, and that this is one of the worst levels of child poverty in the Western world, only trailing behind Greece, Latvia, Spain, Israel and Mexico.

But if we analyze this concept of “child poverty,” what does it really mean? What does it mean for us to say that a child is poor?

We are told that in a capitalist system, we need some people to be rich and some people to be poor, because we need to reward good decision-making, hard work, and so on and so nauseatingly forth, and we need to punish bad decision-making, laziness, failure to contribute, and so on and so nauseatingly forth. It’s a complete propaganda line that has no connection to reality, but I understand it. But what does it have to do with children? Children aren’t making economic decisions, and they don’t have any opportunities to be hard-working or lazy at a job.

One attempt at rationalization I’ve actually seen in some Austrian economics-affiliated book (probably by that disgusting little troll, Hans-Hermann Hoppe) was that the defects of character that make someone poor will be transmitted by the parents to the child, as they will raise their children to be lazy and bad at decision-making, and therefore we should expect children of poor families to be poor as well. In essence, the fact that the children are poor is basically economics cutting to the chase: you are an inferior child and therefore do not deserve a chance.

I absolutely reject this rationalization as anything but pure bigotry. Even if it was true that poverty arises from personal failings (which is nonsense), there is no reason to expect that a child would inherit those personal failings. There are plenty of hard-working people who had lazy parents, lazy people who had hard-working parents, smart children with dumb parents, dumb children with smart parents. Genetics is not destiny.

It seems to me that this alone destroys capitalism, if we accept the premise that capitalism is a fair system. Even if it was fair in general (which it isn’t, not by a long shot), it certainly is not fair to the children in poverty. And children who start poor have a lower chance of being able to escape poverty later in life, which means that the merit argument for capitalism necessarily fails. Pre-existing inequality nullifies the “free market.”

Capitalism is an inherently elitist system and, in order for that elite to reproduce itself, there must be a distinction between it and the rest of the population. That distinction is in the schooling system: the families with the most money can send their children to the best colleges, which are the breeding grounds for the next generation of elites.

But let’s continue further. What does it mean for a child to be poor? It means that the child lives in a family that is under the poverty line. But the child did not choose to be born to a poor family. This was, purely and simply, an accident of birth. Was it not? What justification can there be for this?

Technically, this is not a criticism of the family structure as such, since a society can have families and keep child poverty low by redistribution, like Finland and Norway (where child poverty is below 10%). But the root cause of child poverty is still the family structure. We believe that it makes sense to make a child’s financial, emotional and physical well-being depend on the social status of two individuals, the two individuals who had sex to give birth to it. That’s the best case scenario, of course: often it’s dependent on just one individual.

The only justification offered for this state of affairs is that the child is, after all, property of the parents: they don’t use that word, but that’s what it amounts to. The child must be tied to the status of those two individuals because they own it. It is not A child, it’s THEIR child. This is the tradeoff we’re making: we’re “gaining” this ownership of children, this possession of another human being, the “right” to indoctrinate it, and in exchange we admit that up to more than a third of children will live in poverty.

Is that a good tradeoff, you think? Do we need to be making it? Is it worth all this child poverty? I don’t fucking think so.

Why couldn’t a forest own itself?

I’ve talked a great deal about the incoherence of the concept of self-ownership and how it’s a self-serving belief used to further capitalist aims. Here I would like to talk about how self-ownership rhetoric can unwittingly be used to attack capitalism.

My line of reasoning began when I learned about a very special tree. There is a tree in Athens, Georgia, the only one in the world as far as I know, which is a “self-owner.” Not only that, but it also owns the piece of land it lives on. Since it is the son of the original “self-owning” tree, people call it “The Son of the Tree that Owns Itself.” For the sake of clarity, let’s call them both SOTs (self-owning trees).

The Wikipedia page opines:

This does not confirm that the tree owns itself, but suggests, rather, that it is considered to be within the right-of-way along Finley Street. Athens-Clarke County confirms that the tree is in the right-of-way, and is thus “accepted for care” by municipal authorities… Regarding Jackson’s deed, one writer noted at the beginning of the 20th century, “However defective this title may be in law, the public recognized it.” In that spirit, it is the stated position of the Athens-Clarke County unified government that the tree, in spite of the law, does indeed own itself.

This may just be a “cute” footnote to local Georgia folklore, but seen from a political perspective it does present some interesting questions.

“Property” is really two relations: a relation between two sides, owner and owned, which we could call a claim, and a relation between the owner and the other individuals in that society where the latter agree to respect and uphold the claim. Without either of these two relations, property cannot exist.

According to self-ownership rhetoric, however, we can just forget about the first relation because “owner” and “owned” can be equated. If this is true, then, from this perspective, “property” can only be a relation between that person or thing and the rest of society. If other people recognize and respect a property claim, then that claim is valid. And in reverse, if the property claim is not recognized, then the claim is invalid.

If this is true (and I am not saying it is, obviously, since I don’t believe in self-ownership), then the SOT in question is actually self-owning, because its claim is recognized by the individuals in its society. The law is, as in all things, an indication but not a definitive answer: an unenforced law has no relevance due to that lack of enforcement, and a belief enforced without or against law (as in this case) gains relevance from that enforcement.

One may answer that this recognition is facetious and could be withdrawn at any time, but I fail to see how this does not equally apply to human beings. After all, we withdraw our belief in other people’s self-ownership constantly (for example, when we throw them in prison, force them to go to school, kill them in wars, etc), and most people praise these events. If this does not nullify self-ownership in humans, why should it nullify self-ownership in trees?

On what other basis should we disqualify trees from “self-ownership”? That we need to cut them down, and therefore cannot afford such tenderness of heart? But there are plenty of people who defend human sacrifice, and who would accuse egalitarians of being namby-pamby. So again, no significant difference there.

Is it that trees do not have a “self”? I have yet to hear any account of the “self” in “self-ownership” that doesn’t either degenerate into “the body owns the body” or veers into metaphysical nonsense. If advocates of the concept can point to a “self,” and can explain why their particular conception has any relevance to the discussion, then we shall see.

But suppose that non-human organisms, such as trees, can indeed own themselves, as I think the SOTs has demonstrated. Then the link between self-ownership and rampant capitalism is cast in even further doubt than previously.

Our “normal” perspective on “self-ownership” is that only humans can be “self-owners.” That’s because “self-ownership” is a self-serving construct meant to reinforce the notion that humans are at the apex and “nature,” that which is outside of us, is inherently inferior and should serve our needs. As God stated to Noah and his family, all green plants are their property and everything that moves is for eating: the only difference now is that we’ve replaced the religious Bible with a secular “Humans’ Burden.”

In capitalism, the natural world only gains any sort of value at all through an alchemic transmutation called “mixing one’s labor,” or “transformation.” The message here is clear: nature itself is only valuable insofar as it serves human values. This is the same rationale of exploitation that the elite uses against women, workers, children, POC, and so on: you are valuable only as long as you serve our interests.

The concept that a tree could be an owner is ridiculous to us because we’ve been raised with the elitist Western notion that humans are separate from the rest of nature, that humans (especially white adult males) are “intelligent” in a way that no other part of nature can be, that trees, like all other “natural resources,” exist solely for our benefit.

I was driving through the English countryside with my daughter Juliet, then aged six, and she pointed out some flowers by the wayside. I asked her what she thought wildflowers were for. She gave a rather thoughtful answer: “Two things,” she said. “To make the world pretty, and to help the bees make honey for us.” I was touched by this and sorry I had to tell her that it wasn’t true.
Richard Dawkins, Climbing Mount Improbable

Sure it’s easy to laugh it off as childish ignorance, but she’s just regurgitating what she’s been taught. That’s the worldview we’ve all been indoctrinated with, and it’s the worldview that’s leading to the squandering of the resources of this planet and the extermination of hundreds of species every year.

Defining fairness.

It has been well established at this point that fairness is a basic human moral intuition, which also exists in other primates. This has been demonstrated by applying the Ultimatum Game (where one person is given the choice of how to share a certain amount of money with another person, who is free to then reject the offer and void the reward for both of them if ey is unsatisfied) to a wide variety of human cultures and to other primate species.

What these experiments do show is that while the exact definition of fairness is culture-dependent, it exists everywhere. Furthermore, it’s been found that the more a species cooperates with non-kin, the more extensive their concept of fairness becomes, showing the evolutionary basis of this behavior.

So far so good. But how do we get from something simple like sharing 100$ between two people to a social framework of what’s fair and what’s not? How do we get from “meat is shared amongst all the hunters” to “we should have a higher minimum wage”?

I want to start with one specific example of a debate around fairness in order to try to see how to articulate it: wages and prices. I think this is close enough to the Ultimatum Game, and yet it is a strictly modern, capitalist sort of debate.

We get people who say things like: the market price for labor is necessarily fair, because you can only determine the value of anything through the exercise of offer and demand. I have already debunked the Subjective Theory of Value, which is just subjectivism writ large. So the latter half of the statement is simply false.

But let’s go further. People who defend the fairness of market prices argue that any government intervention distorts people’s choices and returns undesirable outcomes. But corporations also intervene in prices, and distort people’s choices all the time. The difference, we are told, is that the government acts coercively and corporations are market agents just like you and me.

This of course is bullshit at many levels. But it also links us to the narrow meaning of political words. Any definition of fairness which consider anything beyond coercion as fair is limited to fairness1, and is therefore too narrow for our purposes.

Like any other socio-political word, we have to examine how narrowly it’s used. And through this process, we can connect fairness to all other socio-political concepts like freedom, equality, justice, tyranny, and “choice.” A person who thinks market processes are a guarantee of equality will have no problem saying that market prices are fair. A person who sees equality as an equal ability to live and express one’s values will see market prices as ridiculously unfair.

The intuition of fairness has existed for millennia before the advent of capitalist markets, and there’s no particular reason to believe that markets are necessary for it to be expressed.

If we move further away from resources and into social power, the principle remains roughly the same. Is affirmative action fair? Are women’s rights fair? They are certainly not fair1, but there’s no particular reason why we should care about that. If we translate social power into a tangible resource like money, then I think we get a general correspondence with issues like labor price and taxation.

The general consequence of considering only the most narrow kind of fairness (the absence of physical coercion or threat) is that only policies which extend the status quo are “fair.” The enormous amount of coercion deployed to protect property rights and State interests is omitted because this protection does not count as coercion in our societies.

Because fairness is a basic human intuition which permates ethics, all political views must have some conception of how fairness should be expressed in society.

Based on his conceptual analysis, George Lakoff defined two basic political models: the strict parent model and the nurturing parent model, associating them with conservatives and liberals respectively. To this I would add a third model, the anti-parent model, as exemplified by Anarchism in general, democratic schools, worker self-management, federated communities, and so on (I have an entry coming at a later date detailing this alternative moral framework).

Now compare this with a poll made by intuitionist Jonathan Haidt comparing fairness as proportionality (“you should get what you deserve”), fairness as opportunities (“everyone should have an equal chance to succeed”) and fairness as equality (“ideally everyone should have the same amount of money”). He found that the first was held mostly by conservatives, the second was held mostly by liberals, and the third was held by neither. Actually, I think the third is probably mostly held by people who hold to the anti-parent model.

“You should get what you deserve,” in practice, often ends up being “you got what you deserved.” “Everyone should have an equal chance to succeed,” in practice, often ends up being “you had an equal chance to succeed, you loser.” In short, these conceptions often end up used as reasons to beat up on those less fortunate… and that’s pretty unfair, if you ask me.

I would not exactly qualify myself as believing that everyone should have the same amount of money, or that money is the primary criterion by which we should evaluate the goodness of a life, although it’s obviously of great importance in a capitalist system. True, money is an important form of power, but an unfree society is bad for everyone (except the power elite) regardless of how much money you have.

I’ve commented many times before that negative rights, rights for something to be protected, are useless unless they are accompanied by positive rights, rights to access resources. The right to stay alive is useless without the right to access health care, for example. This concept of access, I think, provides us with an entryway into “fairness.”

I would like to define three principles of fairness, in order of depth, which I think encapsulate my anti-parent model concept of fairness very well:

1. Basic rights fairness: That all should have viable access to the resources necessary for their life as modern citizens (food, water, shelter, clothing, health care, transportation, electricity, sanitation, etc). This would require a major overhaul of the capitalist system, but is not inherently contradictory to it.

2. Power fairness: That there should be no hierarchies unless they can be justified by a greater good (the Chomsky Principle). This would require a major overhaul of all institutions, and it’s unrealistic to think that any existing power structure would voluntarily do this.

3. Generational fairness: That we should be fair to future generations as well, by not destroying the environment they are going to live in. This would basically require a miracle at this point.

Arguments against the free market.

UPDATE: Due to an influx of trolls from I don’t know where, I have to close the comments section.

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Milton Friedman is quoted as saying that “[u]nderlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself.” If we keep in mind that for free market advocates the term “freedom” only means the absence of force, or freedom1 (for those who don’t know my nomenclature, see this entry for explanation), then the quote makes a great deal of sense. I argue against the free1 market and I do indeed lack belief in freedom1. But this very abstract conception of freedom is so impoverished that its continued use as a valid political framework begs credulity; it has about as much to do with politics as alchemy has to do with science.

Like freedom1, the free1 market is a theoretical, idealized construct which reflects a very narrow view of power. A free1 market is an economic system where individuals perform voluntary transactions to their mutual advantage, free from government regulation and taxation. The model of human behavior underpinning this idealized structure is that of the Invisible Hand, which was expressed by Adam Smith as such:

Every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it… He intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for society that it was no part of his intention. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.

The Invisible Hand model can only obtain if a number of prerequisites are true: first, that everyone is self-interested, second, that there exists no sources of power above and beyond that of individuals (such as governments or corporations) which can be exploited for personal gains that are against public interest, third, that all trades are inherently beneficial for both parties, fourth, that competition is the most efficient way of structuring the interplay of self-interested individuals.

All these prerequisites are patently invalid. It is not true that everyone, or even most people, are self-interested, which is to say, only consider their own values as relevant to an ethical problem. Apart from some Objectivist droids and sociopaths, self-interest is pretty universally vilified and considered abnormal, as it should be. Self-interest is a very low level of moral development and it makes as much sense to posit universal altruism as it does to posit universal egoism.

The second prerequisite is especially problematic, since free1 market proponents believe in corporate power, and corporate power depends on government for enormous subsidies of infrastructure, favorable regulations and laws (including protectionism and immigration), money and protection of private property (i.e. of the means of production). Both forms of power are therefore always available for people in a free1 market to exploit for personal gain, bypassing the benefits to the public interest which are supposedly brought about by unfettered trade.

The third prerequisite is only true if we look at the issue from a superficial, voluntaryist point of view. Of course there is a mutual benefit in the sense that both parties to a trade have agreed to make the trade and therefore believe it’s better than the alternative. But this can only be convincing if one sees any given trade as existing in a vacuum. I’ve already argued against this over-simplified view.

As for the fourth prerequisite, competition is the most inefficient way of structuring production, motivating people and fostering creativity. This is a result confirmed by so many studies that it is an ironclad fact of sociology (see No Contest by Alfie Kohn for a summary of these studies).

This leads me to the first argument for free markets, which is that markets allocate resources efficiently. All free market arguments are wonderful examples of projection, and this one is no exception. I can’t think of a more inefficient system of resource allocation than one where everyone’s effort is duplicated endlessly in the name of “competition,” where resources are transformed to maximize profits instead of use value, where there is unemployment and wasteful production, and where natural resources are so drastically wasted. It’s hard to conceive of a workable economic system more inefficient than capitalism (although some forms of capitalism are far more wasteful and inefficient than others).

The second argument for free markets is that central planning is inadequate in gathering and using information due to its top-down nature, and the free market is somehow superior in its supposedly decentralized nature. Again this is pure projection, as free1 markets are a form of central planning: the corporation is the unit of planning and information is gathered within them on a top-down basis. In fact, the corporate structure have been compared to communist organization: both are rigid hierarchies made to benefit an elite at the expense of the common people, property is owned by the collective (the corporation as “person”), and no corporation uses market processes to allocate resources within itself but rather allocates resources top-down based on profit-maximization.

I’ve pointed out that the famous story I, Pencil, by Leonard Read, is actually the best argument for socialism that I’ve ever seen. I, Pencil relies entirely on demonstrating that any single person’s production is at best a marginal addition to everyone else’s production. Therefore any individual producer is largely indebted to, ultimately, eir entire society of co-producers, and the capitalist conception of property as individualistic is nonsensical.

The third argument is that free markets promote innovation and scientific research. This is pretty laughable given how much disrepute corporate-funded “scientific” research has fallen into. As for innovation, well, as long as we have Intellectual Property that pretense will remain equally false, although I think free1 market advocates are pretty divided on that issue. It is at least a good argument against the free market that it is the antithesis of responsible scientific research (for more information, see Trust Us, We’re Experts!, by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber).

The fourth argument is the belief that there is a fundamental equality in a free market, at least in the sense that no one can set prices or impose regulations that are unwanted by others. This strange belief is the result of anti-government sentiments, but makes little sense in a system where corporations actually do set prices and impose their own regulations through State power. Of course free1 market advocates are against State power, but without a State corporations would simply fill the gap with their own self-regulating institutions. There’s no reason to think corporations wouldn’t have a common interest in banding together against labor power just because there’s no State.

Even from a capitalist standpoint, the free market is not effective at profit-seeking. Isolationism and high tariffs grow stronger corporations, free markets do not. In fact, free markets have historically been, more often than not, imposed on vassal States by imperialist States as part of a global strategy of economic domination and control.

Another popular argument for free markets is the so-called “tragedy of the commons,” the debunked myth (said debunking winning someone a Nobel Prize) that resources held in common will be depleted rapidly as people only seek their self-interest (another free market myth) and will seize everything they can. The historical reality is the exact opposite: commons of natural resources have been far more stable than privately-owned natural resources, which have been typified by rapid depletion and “tragedy.”

But despite these known facts, free market advocates continue to brandish the “tragedy of the commons” myth as if it was established scientific fact and proof positive of the superiority of free markets. The truth is actually a powerful argument against free markets: free markets are terrible at resource management compared to commons, because of the unaccountable, total control inherent to private property.

My position on the minimum wage.

The minimum wage debate is framed by the media as a battle of ideas between conservatives, who believe that poor people are responsible for their condition and basically deserve to die, and liberals, who believe that the minimum wage should be raised so income inequality can be somewhat stemmed. These two positions set the margins of discourse in our societies.

Both sides of the debate share some major assumptions:

1. They both believe in the “virtuousness of work”; that working is inherently good and not having a job is a situation to be remedied or a personal dysfunction. From an Anarchist standpoint, the desirability of work is highly suspect; in a capitalist society, work is inherently demeaning, alienating, and serves to enrich the elite of society at the expense of the workers and unemployed.

2. Wages are rewards for having a job, not a right. Apart from general grumblings about unemployment, we don’t hear much about the right to a job, let alone the right to a wage. Wages remain controlled by the economic elite and the minimum wage is really the only restriction on that control.

3. They think minimum wage is about teenagers, but three-quarters of minimum wage earners are not teenagers (admittedly, it’s mostly conservatives who posit this).

These assumptions have profound consequences on how people relate to work:

* Unemployed people, whether by choice, by handicap (physical or mental), or by “the market,” feel guilty. The only possible consequence of this unearned guilt is a lowering of one’s confidence and a lesser enjoyment of life. Guilt cannot give someone a job, therefore it is uselessly destructive.

Not only that, but there’s no reason why anyone should feel guilty from not working. Of course they may feel anxiety due to financial stress and that’s normal, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with not having a job. Why should one feel guilty at not being made into a “human resource”?

* Wages are set according to “offer and demand,” which really means set according to the power wielded by each party. Owners offering a job for which a lot of people compete have the leeway to offer low wages, because they hold the power.

* Owners of the means of production steal a profit (because it is theft, not production, I would not say “make a profit”) by lowering costs and/or raising prices. The most important category of costs is wages. If forced to offer higher wages, owners can generally get away with offering fewer jobs or raising prices.

Conservatives claim that the minimum wage lowers employment, while liberals claim that the minimum age has little to no effect on employment for various reasons. Either way, the unbiased, objective evidence for a link between minimum wage and employment is spotty at best and is usually based on bad science. Various reasons have been proposed to explain the lack of correlation.

Small increases may have no effect or such a small effect that it’s swallowed up by normal fluctuations. But a small increase in the minimum wage, while beneficial, would not solve the problem of inequality.

The 15$ living wage proposal would be a substantial income equalizing policy, even though it wouldn’t be accompanied by a strict reduction of income for the rich. The problem I see is that such a large increase would have a substantial impact on employment, putting workers between a rock and a hard place.

The minimum wage debate, like the other debates I’ve discussed previously (abortion, gun control, immigration), is a distraction from the real issue; in this case, the real issue is control over jobs. The capitalist elite always seeks greater profits, and these new profits can only be achieved by raising prices, which hurts the working class the most, or cutting costs, which means lowering wages/benefits or hiring fewer people.

There is no permanent solution to poverty and inequality possible until we reject the doctrine of private property of the means of production. The push for a higher minimum wage benefits us, but any debate about minimum wage laws which does not set this as the ultimate goal of any legislative measure wastes revolutionary energies. That’s why we need to put this fact at the front and center of the debate.