Roderick Long on Historical vs. End-State Justice

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    Spooner Bookman

    What a great paper. It wraps up essentially all the main topics between @empifur and I. Democracy, Monopoly, and Structural Injustices (specifically in relation to redistributive approaches in the event the State were removed). In the hopes of piquing Empifur’s interest, I’ve abridged the paper below to make it a quick read — 2.5 pages — that covers the highlights of the paper as it relates to our discussions.

    Empifur: if you have time, I’d recommend reading at least the following — if not the whole paper — before responding to my latest salvos as Long makes many of my main points more eloquently (and succinctly!) than I am able to. (Note: the following has the bits about democracy removed, but Long’s points wrt democracy are spot on.)

    Thanks, @hogeye, for sharing — you always seem to know the exact right thinker/paper for any situation! Also, after a quick search, I couldn’t figure out when this paper was published — any idea when this came out?

    . . . .

    This is a useful, broad distinction between approaches to distributive justice: Empifur’s which emphasises final patterns of holdings, and Spooner’s which emphasises the process by which such patterns arise. Empifur’s main objection to Spooner’s “historical” approach is that it serves to legitimate existing massive inequalities of wealth. Spooner thinks the historical approach represents a far more effective tool for challenging these inequalities than Empifur’s.

    It is true, of course, that Spooner’s approach would legitimate such inequalities IF such inequalities had emerged by a series of just transfers from just original appropriations (or else from a series of transfers and appropriations whose injustices had all been properly rectified).


    Have they emerged this way as Empifur seems to think is Spooner’s argument?

    Of course not.

    Spooner is relying on what has come to be called libertarian class theory. Unlike later and more familiar Marxist theories (like Empifur’s) that identify classes in terms of their possession of economic resources, the earlier libertarian theory identifies classes in terms of their means of acquiring such resources.

    Libertarian class theory distinguishes two principal classes: the productive or “industrial” class, composed of those who earn their living through production and voluntary exchange; the other is the parasitic (or “militant”) class, those who earn their living by plundering the producers. While the latter class includes freelance criminals such as highway robbers, it finds its primary embodiment in the holders and beneficiaries of political power.

    In its modern form, libertarian class theory identifies the ruling class in western democracies as a partnership between the state on the one hand and the private, mostly corporate, beneficiaries of state privilege on the other – big government and big business – and the dominant form of economic and political organization as one of corporatism.

    Vast inequalities of wealth are difficult to achieve or maintain in a free market. But such inequalities can most definitely be achieved and maintained when competition is restricted by regulation. Big government needs big business – as a source of financial backing. And big business needs big government – to protect it from market competition. As libertarian and New Left historians alike have documented, most of the major regulatory interventions in U.S. history, including those most trumpeted and/or vilified as “anti-business” – most notably those of the “Progressive Era” and the “New Deal” – were not only welcomed by, but vigorously lobbied for and in many cases actually drafted by, the corporate elite as a means of eliminating smaller competitors (who were less able to handle the regulatory burdens) or as a means of regimenting workers and consumers.

    The widespread assumption that big business and big government are fundamentally at odds, and that big business supports a free market, serves to maintain the ruling partnership in power; indeed, the establishment left disguises its government intervention on behalf of the rich as government intervention on behalf of the poor, while the right disguises its government intervention on behalf of the rich as an opposition to government intervention per se – and each side has an interest in maintaining the myth propagated by its nominal opponent. Those like Empifur who are repelled by the realities of corporate capitalism are thus easily lured into becoming — wittingly or otherwise — foot soldiers for the ruling class.

    As Carson has stressed, in addition to economies of scale there are diseconomies of scale, which beyond a certain point will offset the economies and put a limit to the firm’s growth – unless the firm can make use of governmental privilege. The government enables the firm to socialise its distribution costs. At the extreme, such socialisation can take the form of opening foreign markets via gunboat [e.g., Dole, Chiquita, etc.]; but its many milder forms include public funding for highways. As is well known, long distance shipping via heavy trucks is responsible for the vast majority of wear and tear on the public highways; yet firms that rely on such shipping do not bear a proportionate share of the tax burden for building and maintaining highways. Hence such firms are able to grow beyond their natural size by getting the taxpayers to pick up the tab for their transportation costs – while the more economical alternative of local production for local use is rendered artificially expensive, inasmuch as it is compelled to subsidise its competition.

    The lowering of transaction costs associated with firm centralisation is offset by the costs of the growing informational chaos within, rendering such firms unable to compete against smaller, flatter rivals – unless competition from such rivals can be curtailed, as it quite effectively is, by government regulations such as licensing fees, zoning, uniform quality standards, capitalisation requirements, and so on, all of which place a disproportionate burden on smaller companies and independent entrepreneurs. In particular, the establishment of workers’ cooperatives, as an alternative to the hierarchical firm, has been rendered artificially difficult both by these regulations and by ostensibly pro-union regulations whose real – and successful – intent was to divert the labour movement’s goals away from worker control of industry and toward the mere pottage of higher wages within the existing “capitalist” framework. If worker-owned firms are efficient why don’t we see more of them? One obvious answer: as Carson reminds us, “The state subsidizes the large, hierarchical, capitalist enterprises against which cooperatives compete, thus rendering them artificially profitable and competitive against alternative forms of organization.” Considering all this, by Spooner’s standards of land ownership, most of the property claims of the corporate elite are illegitimate and might justifiably be homesteaded by their employees to form workers’ cooperatives.

    In any case, the historical approach to justice in holdings leads naturally toward a presumption in favour of worker control of industry. What is distinctive about historical theories is that they focus on means of acquisition. Given the extensive involvement of state violence in the process by which the corporate elite not only achieved its wealth in the past but continues to maintain and augment it in the present, it is clear that the massive inequalities of wealth that characterise present-day “capitalist” society are radically inconsistent with any approach to justice in holdings that is even remotely remotely [historical]. The charge that Spooner’s theories serve to legitimate the existing pattern of wealth distribution is thus shown to be baseless.

    Spooner’s historical approach lays bear the class structure of society, and the roots of such inequalities in state violence. Merely pointing to the fact that some people have a lot more than others as Empifur does is surely less compelling as a critique as the response of sensible, non envious people will always be: “So what? Those who have more aren’t hurting anybody.” By contrast, being able to show that those who enjoy a higher socioeconomic status have to a considerable extent achieved and maintained that status by forcibly expropriating and oppressing the less affluent provides for a far more effective indictment, leading the sensible person to respond, “Good point — that bastard needs to cough up the cash, and I’m convinced enough that I may even lend my support to you in this endeavor.”

    Spooner’s critique correctly identifies a morally relevant fact, one that Empifur’s critique ignore: namely, that in order to substantiate the inequality claim without appealing to historical (i.e. causal) considerations, they have to defend a baseline of equality. While such a defense is not necessarily impossible, the need to defend it places an additional and somewhat recondite burden on Empifur’s challenge to Structural Inequalities – whereas the historical challenge, by identifying past and ongoing acts of violent expropriation rather than merely pointing to the existence of differential shares, provides a much more straightforward, intuitive, and unambiguous basis for condemning the present structure of wealth distribution in (so-called) “capitalist” society.

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