Redistribution and the State
I’ve written recently about what I termed ‘front-end’ redistribution. That is, redistribution of wealth and resources prior to state redistribution – or, the way it should be in a perfect world. One example of this is collective bargaining between organized labor and management. Another would be ending the War on Drugs.
Over at Bleeding-Heart Libertarians, Gary Chartier lists several ways that redistribution can occur absent taxation and government spending.
1. The elimination of privilege. Existing market structures feature a broad range of privileges that shift resources into the pockets of the wealthy and well connected—whilemaking and keeping others poor. Think occupational licensure, patents and copyrights, zoning laws and building codes, the use of eminent domain to benefit developers and their clients, transportation subsidies, and tariffs, just for starters.
Generally speaking, these are good ideas, though obviously actually getting to a point where we could undo patent law and zoning codes altogether would require a hugely steep uphill political battle. Indeed, many of Gary’s ideas would require enormous political will and resources, so even if they are not government solutions per se they are nonetheless solutions which the government will inevitably be a part of. Indeed, my example – organized labor – would require a political solution as well: repeal of Taft-Hartley and the Wagner Act in particular. All non-state solutions nonetheless require political process – which can make good libertarian policies really hard to actually achieve.
2. The operation of a freed market. When privileges are absent, capitalization costs are lower, and more people can enter the market. The result is more enthusiastic competition—and, of course, the practical effect of competition is to reduce profit margins and to make it harder for people to preserve entrenched economic positions. Freeing the market is itself an act of revolutionary redistribution, because, as Jeremy Weiland emphasizes, the free market will “eat the rich.”
I agree, in theory. But where along the road to a freed market do we suddenly find ourselves instead in a highly monopolized corporatist dystopia, the political process wholly captured by the most deregulated industries? The finance sector strikes me as an example of the road to free markets gone badly wrong. In other words, how do we truly free markets fairly? How do we avoid the pitfalls of regulation when it comes to deregulation, a process just as open to capture and abuse?
3. Acts of solidarity. Just because forcible redistribution by the state is problematic for multiple reasons doesn’t mean bleeding-heart libertarians should be anything but enthusiastic about wise acts of solidaristic redistribution—choices, that is, by people to share their resources benevolently with others.
This seems like a fine idea, and one that is put into practice daily by charities and churches across the country. Should we have more of it? Certainly. But I don’t quite buy the notion that government spending crowds out charity and private acts of economic solidarity.
4. Radical rectification. The state engages in theft on a grand scale. Its cronies steal too, frequently with its blessing. Some obvious examples: the theft of land in Latin America from those who worked it—converted through violence from rightful owners to tenants and the use of eminent domain to take land from ordinary people in order to enrich the state’s corporate cronies. Land stolen in this way can and should be reclaimed by its rightful owners—without compensation to thieves.
Here is where we come to the crux of many other questions. If theft of land is an issue – and I agree, it is! – then perhaps we should widen our scope. If libertarians are correct that government intervention tends to benefit the wealthy (I would largely agree) and that the government has entrenched and enriched many of the wealthy that the free market would “eat” if left alone, then isn’t much of the wealth accrued by corporations and the wealthy in this country in fact stolen wealth – wealth that would otherwise be much more evenly distributed? Therefore, do we not have a responsibility to rectify this imbalance in the same way we should rectify land stolen through eminent domain or, I dunno, the forceful removal of indigenous people at gunpoint? Of course, this question is far more complicated. Once you start down the rectification path you get into the weeds quickly. What about the Native Americans? The reservation system? etc. etc. ad infinitum. Or since the government has helped cartelize the healthcare industry, enriching suppliers of health-care at the expense of ordinary people, doesn’t the government owe said ordinary people something in turn?
5. Radical homesteading. Even when it doesn’t steal identifiable assets and pieces of real property from particular people, the state uses its power to take resources that don’t belong to it and to use stolen money to fund its own activities and those of its cronies. Consider, for instance, the arbitrary expropriation of vast tracts of land in colonial North America (and in the newly minted United States as well) by political authorities who proceeded to parcel it out to their cronies. Or think of the ways in which the state funnels huge sums of money to the military-industrial complex or to universities that maintain cozy relationships with the “defense” establishment. There are no specific, rightful owners of unjustly engrossed land and unjustly funded businesses or universities. But they can reasonably be regarded as unowned, and ripe for homesteading. These stolen assets should be redistributed by being claimed by ordinary people willing to occupy them, people whose just claims other should be quite willing to support.
The only problem with this is that it describes, well, pretty much everything.
I like a lot of what Gary is saying here but I think speaking in terms of order of operations is pretty crucial. As Jim Henley put it:
So we want to remove most or all crutches and shed most or all shackles, depending on how, for lack of a better term, anarchistic we are. But which shackles and which crutches when? The “liberal” “libertarian” answer is: first take the crutches from those best able to bear their own weight, and remove the shackles from the weak before the strong. So: corporate welfare before Social Security before Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Drug prohibition before marginal income tax rates.
Most libertarians would agree that it’s a messed-up state that:
* Creates a massive crime problem in poor minority neighborhoods with a futile, vicious and every more far-reaching attempt to prevent commerce in popular, highly portable intoxicants that leaves absurd numbers of young men with felony records, making them marginally employable.
* Fails to provide adequate policing for such neighborhoods.
* Fails to provide effective education in such neighborhoods after installing itself as the educator of first resort.
* Uses regulatory power to sharply curtail entry into lines of business from hair-care to ride provision, further limiting the employment options of people in such neighborhoods.
* Has in the past actively fostered the oppression of said minority, up to and including spending state money and time in keeping its members in bondage.
* To make up for all of the above, provides a nominal amount of tax-financed welfare for the afflicted.
But it’s a messed-up libertarianism that looks at that situation and says, “Man, first thing we gotta do is get rid of that welfare!“
We may be able to do a lot of good by reducing interference by the state, freeing up markets, and so forth, but we should be really wary of trying to do these things at the same time as stripping back the welfare state. I guess one thing that has really turned me off to libertarianism is not libertarianism-in-theory, but libertarianism as a means of cutting (or ‘privatizing’) services for those who really need them. If a free market would actually lead to greater overall prosperity and agency across the board, let’s work on getting a free market before we start to take a pick-axe to the welfare state. Maybe many of the social welfare programs we have now would be less necessary in a world where the rich did not benefit so grotesquely from a corrupt state apparatus – but until then the state should rectify the situation by providing for those who cannot provide for themselves. Here’s Kevin Carson on that point:
If the privilege remains, statist “corrective” action will be the inevitable result. That’s why I don’t get too bent out of shape about the statism of the minimum wage or overtime laws–in my list of statist evils, the guys who are breaking legs rank considerably higher than the ones handing out government crutches. All too many libertarians could care less about the statism that causes the problems of income disparity, but go ballistic over the statism intended to alleviate it. It’s another example of the general rule that statism that helps the rich is kinda sorta bad, maybe, I guess, but statism that helps the poor is flaming red ruin on wheels.