Neoliberalism and the Human Economy


Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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214 Responses

  1. Avatar E.C. Gach says:

    “This is also where I think libertarians are weakest in their critique of state power and of power more broadly. The state is simply one among many possible concentrations of power, and power left unchecked on any level, and at any scale, can result in domination of the weak by the powerful.”

    This is a point too often ignored. The centralization of the national government at the turn of the 20th century was in response to the growing power of organized captial.

    One solution was to decentralize capital and put it on more even footing with labor. The other option was to centralize government power to regulate it and protect consumers while supporting workers.

    I think the first option is preferable, but only in the larger scheme of a tiered system where different institutions of self-government mediate between these competing forces. Though the devil is in those details, I think empowering workers rather than providing “pity charity” for consumers is the way to go.

    Ultimately, that’s because I don’t think the consumer economy on which a lot of “neo-liberal” policy seems to be based is sustainable. Redistributing income so that working class households can buy more stuff and keep suppliers in business and returns on investment flowing seems too parisitic.

    On the otherhand, empowering the worker might just not be possible in re-balancing of world economies as developing nations compete, and in some cases displace, existing ones. In which case a robust saftey net that helps provide necessities like affordable housing/renting, utilities, healthcare, and education while American workers convert to the German “mini-job” model might be the only alternative.

    That is, if capital has concentrated to the point of existing outside the power of any one national government to control it, providing for the essentials while labor prostitutes itself for dollars an hour might be inevitable, at least for a few decades.Report

    • Avatar E.D. Kain says:

      Well said. I think the rise of the federal government was also in response to the local tyrannies of state governments (with the Civil War being the most bloody instance of this). So not just capital, but also a reorienting of the power balance between states and the feds.Report

      • Avatar E.C. Gach says:

        True, I hadn’t thought about that aspect.

        That’s definitely one of the most dissappointing realities of our current democracy. On the one hand, I wish states had more power to mediate between citizens and their federal government, but at the same time, they hardly seem like a suitable vehicle for that.

        I almost wonder if liberating municipalties from state control, and making them (or counties) a third part of the federalist framework would help reinvigorate self-government, or only further its fragmentation/alienation.Report

        • Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

          Per a previous discussion at the LoOG, the states are in an invaluable position to fight local tyrannies and Leviathan’s encroachment. [If we do not castrate them from above and below.]Report

          • Avatar E.C. Gach says:

            But hasn’t capital already done this?

            In what setup between the federal government and the states would they be in a position to support consumers/workers?Report

  2. Avatar Eli says:

    What if I don’t want to participate in your welfare state? Does that carry no weight at all? It seems to me that you aim to substitute oppression of political minorities for the oppression of all the people you think you would liberate. I know it’s a banal point, but that’s not very appealing to me.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      There’s always Somalia. Love it or leave it.Report

    • Avatar E.C. Gach says:

      This is always an interesting idea.

      On the one hand, there’s the discussion of which would be the better way to do things. But then people who still disagree want an out: what if I don’t want to participate?

      It’s still a democracy. In E.D.’s articulation I’m sure the avenues to democratic reform would still be open.

      ACA is a good example. It’s one thing to say, I disagree with a mandate so I’m going to rally political support to defeat it (i.e. repeal). It’s another to want a framework in which such legislation would be illegitimate on it’s face (i.e. unconstitutional).Report

      • Avatar E.D. Kain says:

        All this brings up another point I’ve been trying to find a way to make. Libertarians always talk about coercion, but the libertarian version of coercion is too narrow. You say you don’t want to live in my welfare state, and that any move on the part of other people to foist said state upon you is a form of coercion. But what if I don’t want to live in a libertarian state? If that state prevents me from democratically choosing to craft or sustain a welfare state, is that not also a form of coercion?Report

        • Avatar Jaybird says:

          I’ve always argued that folks should be able to change their governments stem to stern every five years.

          Try five years of Constitutional Monarchy! Then try five years of Communism! Then try five years of Democratic Republic!

          And so on. The problem is that, in the real world, there are institutions that, once they go away, never come back… or, alternately, institutions that show up and then NEVER EVER go away. Look at the TSA, for example. Even if the majority of the country thought that we should get rid of it and go back to September 10th as far as airline travel was concerned… we wouldn’t. *THAT* is the problem.

          You can always create a Neoliberal government out of a Libertarian one. You can’t really turn a Neoliberal government back into a Libertarian one. Like, ever.

          Maybe we’ll be able to keep our tennis shoes on, someday. That will be considered a victory.Report

          • Avatar E.D. Kain says:

            Well Jaybird, I think you could theoretically have something more along these lines if you had governments that could unilaterally make or break programs. Not really the monarchy part, but various other forms of government.Report

            • Avatar DarrenG says:

              The problem is institutional inertia, not lack of political power or will.

              Large institutions (both public and private) create their own center of gravity and become very, very good at protecting their existence and desire to expand regardless of need.Report

          • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

            “I’ve always argued that folks should be able to change their governments stem to stern every five years.”

            As much as I respect you JB, this seems like a terrible, terrible idea – exempt in some kind of SIM game. People have s**t to do. Constantly reforming a new system of government shouldn’t be piled on top.Report

            • Avatar E.D. Kain says:

              True, but a parliamentary system allows governments to actually enact the programs (or scale back the programs) that they want – at least more than our system of filibusters and secret holds does.Report

              • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

                I kind of alluded to this down below, but we already have a system to take care of these things.

                People like us who think of politics as a hobby make the mistake of thinking that those things we don’t like about our system are forced upon us; they’re not.Report

            • Avatar Jaybird says:

              Twenty years, then. Burn the constitution and write a new one from the ground up.

              If you can’t get it ratified, start over.

              Don’t like 20? I don’t want to go higher than 25.

              I don’t want to live under laws written for people long dead by people long dead for reasons no one remembers.Report

              • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

                But why?

                If you want to now, can can change the Constitution outlawing men’s suits, and requiring all white collar business people to wear clown costumes to work. (btw, this would be awesome)

                I think you’re confusing people being generally happy with the way things are running – or at least not dissatisfied enough to change things – with people willing to do anything for change in a system that won’t allow that change.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                Well, how’s this? We can make the Constitution map to the way things actually work.

                The 2nd Amendment? Reword it!
                The 4th Amendment? Get rid of it!
                The 8th Amendment? Tweak it!
                The 9th Amendment? Get rid of it!
                The 10th Amendment! Get rid of it!

                What does the War Powers Act actually mean in practice? Write it down!

                That would be preferable to not knowing.Report

              • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

                Again, what does this accomplish that we don’t already do and/or have the power to do, legislatively or by torte?Report

              • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

                tort, i mean. as in court torts. not tortes, which are delicious.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                It would, at least, accomplish something that has not been done through the legislature or by torte.

                I mean, imagine a presidential candidate who argued that the Constitution meant what it said, even the weird bits.

                You’d have Ron Paul.

                Wouldn’t it be nice to have more than just cranks say that?Report

              • Avatar E.D. Kain says:

                Jaybird – this is why we have a court system, no?Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                Given the last 30 years, I have no idea why we have a court system.

                Look at the WPA. Look at the 8th Amendment.

                Does the President have the power to engage in hostilities in Libya for six months without Congress voting on anything?

                Does the President have the power to waterboard someone suspected of conspiring to engage in terrorism?Report

              • Avatar E.D. Kain says:

                Jaybird – which institution would decide how to dismember and reassemble the government? Why do you suppose it would be any less broken than current institutions?Report

              • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

                Where does rewriting the constitution every 5 or 20 years solve these problems?Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                The problem of not knowing what the Constitution actually limits or prohibits or allows?

                I hope that it would, at least, clear that one.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                Assuming that the new Constitution would have to be ratified, I’d say that 13 states could effectively filibuster anything that was tooo bad.Report

              • Avatar Jesse Ewiak says:

                Or block anything actually decent from passing.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                If it’s a good idea, any given state ought to be able to pass it.

                If it’s a good enough idea, the states will trample each other trying to adopt it.Report

              • Avatar Jesse Ewiak says:

                I take it you haven’t been actually paying attention to politics for the past few years. The GOP are actually turning down _tax cuts_ because a Democratic President put forth the idea.

                A New Constitution probably wouldn’t be able to get the basic functions of government approved in large chunks of the South and Mountain West.Report

              • Avatar DarrenG says:

                Jaybird, is the idea here that judicial review and interpretation removes more clarity regarding the roles and boundaries of government than it adds?

                If so, interesting…Report

              • Avatar Robert Lee Hodgson says:

                The clown suit thing would indeed be awesome. My reason is probably different from your’s though; the price of clown suits would rise drastically and the price of suits would fall, then people like me (who aren’t white collar buisness men, haha) could afford all the suits we could possibly want.Report

              • Avatar DarrenG says:

                While I like this as an intellectual exercise, in practice it has all the same problems as zero-based budgeting.

                When you have a large, complex existing system evolutionary change is always more possible, and generally more effective, than attempting revolutionary change.Report

            • Avatar Christopher Carr says:

              Choosing to live in other countries for relatively brief periods of time serves the same purpose.Report

          • Avatar North says:

            Wouldn’t there first have to have been some Libertarian governments? Like ever?Report

            • Avatar Jaybird says:

              If you want to use a definition strident enough to say that the USSR or Mao’s China wasn’t *really* Communist, then yes.

              If you want to allow enough slop to be able to say that these were Communist countries, then we could probably point to a handful of countries that were Libertarianish.Report

              • Avatar dexter says:

                Jaybird, could you give us some examples of Libertarianish countries?Report

              • Avatar DarrenG says:

                I’ve seen libertarians argue that the late 19th century U.S. was a good example of one variety of libertarian government.

                And of course many critics of libertarianism have argued that much of sub-Saharan Africa constitute other varieties.Report

              • Avatar Christopher Carr says:

                On the more self-serving end of things there’s Singapore.Report

              • Avatar Murali says:

                Singapore is libertarianish if you ignore the plight of gays in Singapore. There is still a semi-official taboo against portraying gay relationships as normal. The kids are all right was rated R21 for showing a gay couple as normal. Singapore still has some room to go on really important issues.Report

              • Avatar Jesse Ewiak says:

                Also, the whole government forcing you to save 30% of your income, owning large chunks of the housing market, and the lack of personal freedoms.Report

              • Avatar Murali says:

                Also, the whole government forcing you to save 30% of your income

                Its kind of an obvious unlibertarian paternalism, but its not too bad.

                owning large chunks of the housing market.

                That was one of the things I thought the government could improve on.

                and the lack of personal freedoms.

                There isnt much in the way of a problem for personal freedoms except when it comes to gays and gay marriage, which I’m willing to criticise the government on. It is political freedom which is circumscribed, not personal. (except if you’re gay)Report

            • Avatar North says:

              Jay, I feel that the USSR and China were firm falsifiers of communism as a governing philosophy so let the libertarian examples fly.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                Allowing for slop, I’d say that the countries have already been touched on. These United States under the Old Deal was Libertarian in a great many ways (and, ironically, many of the ways that it was not have been rectified and we are now Libertarian or pointed in that direction).

                Singapore provides an interesting counterpoint as well. If we’re allowed to include Singapore, I think that we’d be able to find a number of European countries that are socially libertarian and fiscally liberal (the blond/blue ones, mostly).Report

              • Avatar North says:

                With affection Jay, that is a hell of a lot of slop. Certainly if I were a libertarian I certainly wouldn’t want the pre-new deal US to be the poster child of my governing philosophy, even if you wrote segregation and Jim Crow out of the picture.

                Singapore is better though as far as I know the government of Singapore still builds most of the infrastructure and does a lot of regulating and the like.
                I mean wouldn’t a truly libertarian state be more like, say, pre-uprising Rapture (bioshock) though with perhaps open trade and no Paul Ryan being hypocritical about banning bibles and the like?Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:


                My problem with Rapture is that to say that that is a Libertarian Utopia is to allow for Bellamy’s Boston to be evidence for (or against) Communism.

                In the same way that Stalinist Russia and Maoist China provide criticism against Marxism, The US and Singapore (and parts of Europe) do the same for Libertarianism.

                I do think that it’s fair to wonder what is intrinsic to the institution, what is intrinsic to the culture, and what is epiphenomenon that will arise once Libertarianism is embraced… but I don’t think it’s fair to say that Bioshock provides a fair criticism against Libertarianism in practice.

                Though, I suppose, it might provide a more interesting criticism against Objectivism…Report

              • Avatar North says:

                Oh yes Jay, I’d agree with you about bioshock 100%. It’s a great story but utterly useless as a criticism against libertarianism since, in Ryan’s Rapture, the base actions that brought about the gulch’s fall were antithical to libertarianism: Ryan closed off all trade and contact with the outside world. He banned religious items and symbols. He involved himself with Raptures banks, created secret police, violated Raptures citizens civil rights and ultimately enslaved them chemically.Report

          • Avatar Jesse Ewiak says:

            But, the problems with that argument is that yes, there are things the majority supports that doesn’t get enacted.

            However, the welfare state and many other things that wouldn’t exist in a libertarian state as a whole is popular. It has supermajority support. It has so much support than even though large parts of the GOP Establishment wants to kill of Social Security and Medicare, they’ll never run on that because even their own base is against large cuts in both of those programs.Report

          • Avatar Michael Drew says:

            No, the problem is not that you couldn’t move between systems from time to time, and your insistence that neoliberalism could never move to libertarianism is simply a fatalist platitude. The “problem” with your proposal is that stability and predictability are necessary for productivity and security, so changing regimes or even just systems every five or even twenty years would be disruptive, destructive, or else simply catastrophic for human welfare and flourishing. That’s a routinely observed fact in unstable societies. And *that’s* the problem with your idea.Report

        • Avatar Tom Van Dyke says:

          Sure, EDK. The Allies coerced the Axis into not coercing anymore. The snake eats its tail.Report

        • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

          I think one of the issues with a lot of libertarians, at least many I come across on the web, is a disconnect between what they think most people want and what most people actually want.

          Hence social security or safety nets are not things that people choose year in and year out, and by in large support, but a tyranny that has been forced upon us against our will from which we must be liberated.

          I find libertarian arguments can be strong when couched as a “things might be better if X” (Jason does this very well) ; the ones that suggest we are being oppressed against our will not so much, and I suspect do more harm to any libertarian cause than liberal counterarguments.Report

        • Avatar Stillwater says:

          Libertarians always talk about coercion, but the libertarian version of coercion is too narrow.

          Well, we’ve had lengthy discussions here at the LOOG where libertarians have made it crystal clear that on their view, coercion is the exclusive domain of the state. Individuals and private institutions, acting withing their rights in a ‘free’ market or ‘free’ society simply cannot ever attain to coercion.

          That’s the most revealing and as you imply in the OP a pretty devastating objection to libertarianism: that on teh Libertarian view, private power necessarily constitutes a less significant threat to liberty than democratic government.Report

          • Avatar E.D. Kain says:

            And beyond this, any system of government – even a system which prohibits government – is in a sense coercive.Report

            • Avatar Stillwater says:

              Yes. Quite right. I thought you meant something else, but this is a good point.Report

              • Avatar E.D. Kain says:

                Yes, but that’s a small “d” democratic view. I agree with you, certainly. But it is still, by the definition of coercion that is used against the welfare state, a form of coercion even if democratically agreed upon.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                Yes, yes. Even a libertarian government would be imposed on people coercively – supporters and detractors alike – with penalty of law and all that that entails. Especially if laws were imposed to maintain libertarian principles from democratic revisions. It would be coercive to it’s core, even if the active reach of government was theoretically less.Report

          • Avatar Stillwater says:

            Btw, I agree with you that imposing a libertarian government against a broadly democratic opposition to those views would be coercive. But I also think that if libertarianism was embraced by the majority, and the policies enacted didn’t violate basic rights and constitutional provisions, we’d have to eat it.

            That’s just the way it goes.Report

            • Avatar Jesse Ewiak says:

              Bingo. I may not like that several states are throwing out any regulations and letting corporations dump whatever wherever, but the people making those decisions were voted in to office.Report

    • Avatar Jesse Ewiak says:

      I know Jaybird is making a joke, but yes. I don’t want my country to bomb people for no good reason. So I vote for and organize with people who believe the same. Sometimes, we make mistake in who we support like any other large group of humans.

      So, find a majority of a voting populace to back you. If you can’t, oh well. I, as a social democrat, can’t find a voting majority for a lot of my ideals. But, I don’t want the voting majority to bow my wishes to things outside of Constitutional rights either.Report

    • Avatar Creon Critic says:

      “What if I don’t want to participate in your welfare state?”

      Isn’t it “our” welfare state? Like Jesse Ewiak remarks above, you are free to organize and try to convince the public of your position and/or argue that the state is violating your rights in a way that requires judicial remedy.

      As for dueling oppressions, I’m curious as to what you mean by welfare state oppressions. In what respects do you see the various welfare states of the world as oppressive (when operating as welfare states, i.e., fulfilling the social insurance/social progress designs of the welfare state)?Report

    • Avatar E.D. Kain says:

      Eli – this is why I’m a small “d” democrat. I think you can work through the democratic process to defeat my evil plans.

      Ideally we’d have much, much more open borders and it would far easier and less pithy to say “vote with your feet.”Report

      • Avatar Eli says:

        I don’t want and shouldn’t have to work against your plans (btw, they might not be evil, they might just not be right for me). In any case, I don’t want to exercise imaginary democratic authority over you any more than I want you to exercise imaginary democratic authority over me. I really don’t.Report

        • Avatar DarrenG says:

          …and apparently there is no such thing as a collective action problem in your world where all men are completely self-sufficient islands?Report

        • Avatar E.D. Kain says:

          And yet it is inevitable that you will, or I will, or someone else will. Society is always a compromise, and compromise always involves coercion if we loosen the definition of that term enough. Unless we have boundless land and endless resources I see no way around this.Report

          • Avatar Eli says:

            You’re conflating coercion with my phrase “imaginary democratic authority.” The former is not strictly necessary, but I agree that we’ll probably always have it, though I wish we did not. In terms of the latter, I don’t vote, and I don’t ascribe any moral significance to the collective judgments of people who do. It is completely unnecessary that people continue to falsely believe that greater numbers carries moral significance.Report

            • Avatar E.D. Kain says:

              In purely utilitarian terms, though, I’m not sure we can improve upon a limited, democratic governing model. It isn’t about moral significance, it’s about practical implementation.Report

              • Avatar Eli says:

                Well, our current “limited, democratic governing model” is producing a lot of outcomes I think we can agree are awful: three wars, 2+ million people in prison, immigration restrictions, trade barriers. I don’t think the view that it can improved upon it is utopian.

                And are you a pure utilitarian? Be careful in answering; I’ll have some fun with you if you say yes.Report

              • Avatar E.D. Kain says:

                Of course it’s producing bad outcomes. Most systems will which is why we work to improve them. And no, I’m not much of a utilitarian at all, truth be told.Report

              • Avatar Eli says:

                Presumably at some point, if the awful policies continue, you would concede that limited democracy sucks and we should try something else on pragmatic grounds. If the outcomes are still terrible a decade from now, will you recant?Report

              • Avatar E.D. Kain says:

                I think we should constantly strive toward something better, but I also believe that change – lasting change – is slow. Can we move toward even more freedom? I think we can. I think one way to do this is the plan I outline above. Recant – probably not. Change my mind? Now that I am comfortable with.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                What alternative are you advocating?Report

              • Avatar Eli says:

                Stillwater, I’d like to see a lot of experimentation in governance. Greater use of city-states, non-contiguous governance institutions, autonomous zones, polycentric legal orders, customary law, choice of law, restitution-based legal systems, voluntary arrangements, communes, secession: I more or less favor all these things. And I could easily imagine a non-democratic version of some of the above that I would prefer to live in, since as I mentioned earlier, I don’t vote anyway (mostly on practical, but also moral, grounds).Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                Eli, thanks for the reply. I have to think/read about what you wrote – it sounds interesting – and I’m sorta busy right now. So as they say, noted.Report

              • Avatar Stillwater says:

                This is a good point. Democracy necessarily yields suboptimal outcomes. But less suboptimal than the alternatives.Report

    • Avatar Jeff says:

      Don’t drive on the roads. Get all your food and drink from Mexico. Get your medications from Bangladesh. Go to some quack when you get sick.

      “No one got rich by themselves!”Report

  3. Avatar greginak says:

    Great stuff Eric. So if some of us want to become your acolytes since you are spreading so much truth and sense what do we call ourselves? Kainiacs…Kaommies…The Fighting Badgers….Kainsters….Kain’s Peoples Front???Report

  4. Avatar Michael Cain says:

    “I believe we may be headed toward a gig economy or a peer-to-peer style DIY economy. Let’s allow that to happen by allowing people to create their own economy, work from their own homes or food trucks or lemonade stands or whatever…”

    My question about this is always what happens when you substitute the enormous amounts of underlying economic activity that a modern “gig” economy depends on that doesn’t fit the gig model. For example, let’s “allow” people to create their own integrated circuits, build their own six-foot-diameter pre-stressed concrete sewer pipes, drill their own oil wells, make their own plastic in the garage, and so forth. DIY peer-to-peer just doesn’t work for the “infrastructure” of modern technology.Report

    • Avatar E.D. Kain says:

      Well the “gig economy” doesn’t encapsulate the entire economy. Just a portion of it. Just like the service economy hasn’t replaced the manufacturing economy entirely either, and probably never will. There’s overlap, and certainly with 3D printing and open-source technology we may indeed see manufacturing/DIY overlap.Report

      • Avatar DarrenG says:

        3D printing is cool, and open source is important, but I don’t see either as key enablers of a gig economy. Off the top of my head I can think of two things that would make a much bigger difference:

        – Better communications infrastructure

        Near-universal real broadband (what the rest of the world defines as broadband, not the sad-ass stuff we put up with) and 4G wireless.

        – Universal health care

        The current employer-based system is a significant barrier to more creative and flexible job arrangements.Report

        • Avatar E.D. Kain says:

          DarrenG – Absolutely! Universal healthcare and improved infrastructure – especially internet – are huge…way more important than 3D printing. I was simply trying to show how the manufacturing industry could, in theory, meld a bit with the gig economy.Report

  5. Avatar James Hanley says:

    Some relatively random thoughts in response;

    Civil society and the state can work together.
    True. I like to give the example of concessionaires in U.S. national parks. The gov’t owns and manages the parks, but contracts out the business of feeding and housing all the tourists (plus providing them with all their knick-knacky trinkets). Note there that I’m treating market institutions as part of civil society–that may not go over well with all. But while I think their ability to work together is an important point (that liberals, conservatives, and libertarians all miss when they get ideological and forget to be empirical), that is not, to me, sufficient. I’m also interested in whether civil society, including markets, can work well with ever less government. That is, how far can we reduce the coercive thing we call government before its diminishment is canceled out by coerciveness in civil society (including market institutions)?

    Re: Cory Robin: What’s so astounding about … the neoliberal worldview more generally—is that it would just add to this immense, and incredibly shitty, hassle of everyday life. One more account to keep track of, one more bell to answer. Why would anyone want to live like that?
    Conservatives, and many libertarians, like to accuse liberals of just wanting someone to take care of all their worries for them. But you rarely see a liberal admit it so bluntly. The thing is, though, there’s a perfectly good reason to want to live like that–agency problems. Cory Robin is assuming that the government as our agent will take care of those problems in an efficient manner , but as public choice theory demonstrates, that’s not particularly likely. I think, though, that many liberals don’t really care if it’s efficient as long as the noticeable cost to them is diminished. E.g., a friend of mine who loves the Austrian health care system because he doesn’t have any out-of-pocket costs and has less paperwork requirements than his private health insurer in the U.S. has–he doesn’t care if the system is inefficient so long as it relieves him of those hassles. That’s a legitimate position to take, except that it requires other people to go along unwillingly.

    [T]he entire history of American social movements has been about trying to bring the power of a—often sadly non-existent—centralized state apparatus to bear on private regimes of power (on the plantation, in the family, and in the workplace), to use a decentralized, federated national state to break the back of private autocracies.
    Wow, I think this is horribly mis-stated. Those plantations could never have existed except for the power of the state in supporting slavery. Absent government, the slave would simply have run away. And most of the workplace examples people trot out aren’t really examples of coercion–just examples of workers choosing the best alternative available to them when there aren’t many good ones. If we’re talking about chaining the doors shut in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, sure. But somehow I think he’s talking about something more than that, which won’t hold up as well to close scrutiny.

    Re: Mike Konczal: What happens when we have producers with pricing power and where demand for a good – say because education is the main source of socio-economic mobility in this country – is inelastic?
    First, liberals frequently think producers have price-setting power, and they rarely can show real examples. The vast majority of cases where producers have price-setting power occur when the government is protecting them from competition. Second, it’s questionable whether demand for education is truly inelastic, but even assuming it is, at the collegiate level there’s plenty of competition, and it’s only at the K-12 level where there’s something approaching a monopoly with price-setting power–a government monopoly.

    rather than the government provide these goods themselves at a discount
    Government does not provide goods at a discount. Konczal is far off base here. Government may appear to provide goods at a discount, but only because it’s hiding the true cost in taxes, or providing the discount to some by causing others to subsidize it. Government has little ability to provide things in a manner that is more cost-effective than the competitive market, and because of the absence of competition, it often is providing things at a higher true cost than the market would.

    And E.D. writes, One way capital exercises its power is to keep unemployment high and keep workers on their toes.
    A) You are treating a collective, capital, as though it were an individual actor. Capital does not act unitarily (see, for example, Fred Block’s classic The Ruling Class Does Not Rule: Notes on the Marxist Theory of the State. And a “capital strike”? I’m not really sure what to say here, except that my mind has boggled. Previously the only people I had seen use that phrase were Marxists and right-wing nutters at Free Republic who think capital is going on strike until Obama leaves office. Whichever side such an idea comes from, it’s a pretty nutty concept.Report

    • Avatar E.D. Kain says:

      James – thanks for the detailed response. I will try to do it justice in a bit. Quick note – the “capital strike” comment is a bit tongue in cheek, though I do think austerity politics can serve the same ends.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley says:


        I’m glad to hear that the capital strike is tongue-in-cheek. My mind is unboggled.

        Of course austerity measures are a government action, so while it may have the same effect, it has to be evaluated differently if the basis of the argument is, as here, distinctions between government and non-government actors.

        And of course I didn’t actually address the core of your argument. I don’t mean to just quibble around the sides, but I end up doing that because I’m not sure what to say about the core. That requires more thinking. Based on the definitions here it sounds like I’m a neoliberal–I never would have called myself that, but perhaps I am.Report

        • Avatar E.D. Kain says:

          James – I think a capital strike is most likely going to take incidental shape. Large corporations will sit on cash (as they do now) and not hire (again, e.g. now) and this can be exacerbated by policy or – I theorize – by an out of control finance sector.Report

          • Avatar James Hanley says:


            Agreed both that they’re sitting on cash and that it can be exaggerated by policy (I’m fuzzy enough on the finance sector to not tread there either/or). But from my perspective, it’s critical to note that they’re sitting on cash because they don’t see better options (whether or not that’s caused by policy), and not out of any nefarious motives. It’s frustrating that their lack of investment may be part of what’s preventing recovery, but on the other hand if they’re right–if they don’t have investment opportunities that are better than cash–then if we (e.g., the public, not necessarily you or me) demand they invest, we could just cause a bunch of companies to go bankrupt, or at least sharply decline in value. And that’s certainly not socially beneficial (unless one is waiting eagerly for the socialist revolution–then it might be exactly what’s desired!).Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew says:

      It’s not nutty to suspect that some business owners let partisan politics affect their business decisions. Obviously, a strike would have to involved coordinated action on that score, and that is somewhat beyond what is reasonable to suspect. But I think it’s entirely likely that some business owners tell themselves that having a Republican in office makes an inherently better investment climate when in fact they are simply acting out of pique. But I guess strictly speaking, it would have to be a widespread, coordinated action for it to be a strike so I suppose I have to technically agree with you that that is simply not happening, whether it’s nutty or not to think that it could.Report

  6. Avatar James Hanley says:

    This is also where I think libertarians are weakest in their critique of state power and of power more broadly. The state is simply one among many possible concentrations of power, and power left unchecked on any level, and at any scale, can result in domination of the weak by the powerful.

    I respectfully disagree with your political theory here. The state is not just “one among many possible concentrations of power.” It is historically the concentration of power that has been the most dangerous. Only the state, or actors working with the cooperation of the state, or actors trying to become the state, engage in warfare. When power becomes concentrated enough, it is the state. C.f., Max Weber’s definition of the state as “that human organization that successfully claims a monopoly on the legitimate use of force over a given territory.”

    To say that the state is just “one among many possible concentrations of power” is wrong in that the state is the ultimate concentration of power–there is no absolute, or even truly dominating concentration of power that is not a de facto state.Report

    • Avatar E.D. Kain says:

      I think it depends on how we define power, how we look at the lives of individuals. Hell, if we imagine a society without a state, surely we can imagine other forms of non-state power and domination.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley says:

        I’m not sure it matters at all how you define power, unless you go with something far out of the range of normal.

        To be clear, my argument doesn’t say that there are no non-state forms of power and domination. It only says that the more extensive they become, the more they come to resemble a state, until they reach a point at which they are logically indistinguishable from a state.Report

        • Avatar DarrenG says:

          To be clear, my argument doesn’t say that there are no non-state forms of power and domination. It only says that the more extensive they become, the more they come to resemble a state, until they reach a point at which they are logically indistinguishable from a state.

          To expand on my comment below, I think this theory incorrectly correlates power and domination with organizational size/extent. While it would be foolish to argue that there isn’t a correlation there at all, I don’t think it’s strong enough to uphold your theory.

          In addition to some of my other examples, street gangs would seem to be a good c0unter-example. They are much smaller than states and don’t have any meaningful aspiration toward statehood, yet they wield more power in many communities than the state.Report

          • Avatar James Hanley says:


            Street gangs are an interesting, and tough, example. Well played! I would respond that while it’s true they don’t seek to behave exactly as we expect states to, they do seek to control territory, and they often try to extract tribute/taxes (or as an economist would say, rents) from those within their jurisdiction. Note below that I talk about a scale; and reject a binary distinction between state/non-state.

            I think this theory incorrectly correlates power and domination with organizational size/extent.
            If I understand you correctly, this is a misunderstanding–a reasonable one–of what I mean. An organization does not have to be very large or extensive to be a state or state-like. There are, of course, very small states (Liechtenstein) and organizationally much larger and more extensive non-states (Wal Mart, GM, University of Phoenix).

            It’s more about the degree of consolidation of coercive power that determines where an organization is along the scale of non-state, quasi-or near-state, and state.Report

            • Avatar Michael Drew says:

              If you insist you’re committed to a scale of power and reject a distinction between states and what is not a state, then it must follow that the thing you really oppose is power (or domination), not the state. What am I missing?Report

              • Avatar Jeff says:

                “Gubment is Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeevil! And we must drown it in the bathtub (even if it means drowning 100’s of people in New Orleans)!!!!!!”Report

              • Avatar Kolohe says:

                Yeah, that’s not what he’s saying at all. What he’s saying if you look at places with very weak state institutions – like Afghanistan, Somalia, Haiti, you see the continuum between ‘street gang’ and ‘state’ and the very fuzzy distinctions between to which we grant ‘legitimacy’ and to which we maintain are no more than criminal enterprises.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                Kolohe–Thank you.

                Jeff–Do you make only childishly simplistic arguments?Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                Michael Drew,

                If you insist you’re committed to a scale of power and reject a distinction between states and what is not a state, then it must follow that the thing you really oppose is power (or domination), not the state. What am I missing?

                Yes, exactly. But the state is the ultimate expression of power/domination–it, particularly in certain forms–marks the far end of that scale of power. So in opposing power/domination one cannot avoid opposing the state.Report

              • Avatar Michael Drew says:

                Well, one can have thoughts and feelings about the concept of legitimacy that may complicate that syllogism, but yes I’m clear what you’re saying now.Report

  7. Avatar DarrenG says:

    It is historically the concentration of power that has been the most dangerous. Only the state, or actors working with the cooperation of the state, or actors trying to become the state, engage in warfare.

    This seems to be overstating the actual historic record, as the medieval Roman Catholic church would seem to be a good counter-example, as would the Dutch East India Company, and private armies/police forces raised by various Gilded Age industrialists.

    To say that the state is just “one among many possible concentrations of power” is wrong in that the state is the ultimate concentration of power–there is no absolute, or even truly dominating concentration of power that is not a de facto state.

    This also seems wrong, both historically and currently, as it’s not difficult to find examples where non-state actors hold more local power than the nominal state they are a part of. Company towns, religious communities, areas dominated by local warlords or militias, and a myriad other arrangements of power.Report

    • Avatar James Hanley says:


      The Roman Catholic Church, the Dutch East India Company (not to mention it’s British counterpart) were all deeply in bed with the state. In fact the Roman Catholic Church frequently was the de facto state, and the British East India Company was the de facto state in India. But only because it was granted a monopoly by the Crown. The great little book, The Company: A Short History of a Revolutionary Idea has an excellent discussion of this, showing how fine, or perhaps nonexistent, the line between a company and a state is when the company has a total monopoly over a given territory. (Recommended reading for anyone interested in a historical overview of how the modern world came to be. ) Company towns are fundamentally identical, but on a smaller scale. The company that owns the town is de facto the town’s government. In its character as a firm competing on the market, its power may be very limited, but in its character as town-owner/governor, its power is much less limited. Fortunately they don’t cover a large territory, and they generally aren’t able to extend the range of their territory at gunpoint.

      Religious communities can easily become theocracies, a religious state. E.g., the communities of Hilldale, UT and Colorado City, AZ, discussed by Krakauer in Under the Banner of Heaven. The church there is (or at least was) the local government. The formal, official, distinction exists only on paper, not in the actual functioning of their system.

      Local warlords are nothing less than people striving to become the state–to exercise, in Weber’s words, “a monopoly on the legitimate use of force over a given territory.”

      I want to emphasize this point–while we’re used to thinking of states and firms as fundamentally different, they’re really only different in the degree of their monopoly power. (All sides in the ideological debates make this error–liberals make the error, but it’s not a liberal error, as conservatives and libertarians make it, too.) Make states compete for citizens and they become firms; allow firms an absolute monopoly and they become states. It’s worth noting that this is simply an extension of Weber’s definition–he says that there is nothing states do that non-state actors don’t do, and that states are distinguished only by their use of physical force. Since, as I think we’re agreed here, non-state actors also use physical force, the fine-tuning of Weber’s argument requires that we focus on his concept of a “monopoly,” on legitimate force, and distinguish states, near-states, and non-states along a continuum of the degree of force they’re able to wield.

      (Not sure how many links I can give, so won’t like to Weber, but google Weber and “Politics as a Vocation” and you can find it. These bits are found in the third and fourth paragraphs.)Report

      • Avatar DarrenG says:

        Thanks for the expansion, and many thanks for the pointers on what looks to be some interesting reading.

        I largely agree with this, assuming your definition of state above (which I admittedly wasn’t in my original responses).

        I’m still a bit stuck on the monopolistic aspect, as I think there are many situations where power and coercion is shared among multiple actors who either have no desire for monopoly or no realistic path to achieving it.

        When I referenced the Roman Catholic church I was mostly thinking of the 16th century where they didn’t have complete dominion over Europe as they did in the earlier medieval period, but were still a very powerful actor that didn’t particularly resemble a state.

        I think your idea also nicely covers overtly authoritarian, hierarchical theocratic communities like the examples given, but may not account as well for religious communities like the Amish, or areas where multiple churches wield separate power with different congregations as in much of the South (another non-monopolistic example).Report

        • Avatar E.D. Kain says:

          Either way, we begin to see how non-state actors can act like states nonetheless, and how the definition of ‘state’ as it becomes more loose starts to resemble groupings of power or authority. In many ways, this works in favor of the points I’m making in this post.Report

          • Avatar James Hanley says:

            In many ways, this works in favor of the points I’m making in this post.

            You may be right. Certainly a concern about all cases of coercion is justified. I would just argue that the further they fall from resembling a state’s coercion, the less I find it worthwhile concerning myself about them. So a business that says “you can’t work here unless you’ll take $3.50/hour, but you’re free to try your luck elsewhere” doesn’t really bother me when compared to a church that says, “now that you’re 13 years old we’re marrying you to this 50 year old man.” I guess that’s why I’m so impatient with some of the worry about the coercive power of businesses. I just don’t see it as being remotely as coercive as other concentrations of power.

            So when you write, “So let’s have as free an economy as possible, and let’s take civil liberties seriously,” I’m fully in agreement, but we’d probably differ on just how free an economy is possible.Report

        • Avatar James Hanley says:

          Re: The Amish. Yes, there’s definitely the potential for emotional/psychological/social coercion. I think the fact that humans are, as a product of evolution, social animals makes that inevitable. Very tricky to deal with, though. When they get physically coercive, physically preventing people from leaving, as cults do, it’s all very simple to justify a forceful response because the exiting individual has clearly announced their intention to leave; hence we can know with certainty that their will is being violated. When it comes to less overt coercion…well, emotional/psychological/social pressures work by shaping that will, so we have no way of knowing what the individual really wants. I’m not arguing that these institutions aren’t coercive, just that it’s a coercion of a type that often denies us the ability to determine when its crossed the line or not. I certainly wish it weren’t so, but it is.

          But I would add that the very fact that they can’t physically coerce does limit the authority of religious groups like the Amish in important ways. Exit is emotionally difficult, but occurs fairly frequently and normally without violent retribution. And those churches in the south are a sort of nested system, where they are competing with each other, but in a structure where Christianity is dominant, and Christians dominate the governments, repeatedly blurring the distinction between the state and the church.Report

          • Avatar DarrenG says:

            And those churches in the south are a sort of nested system, where they are competing with each other, but in a structure where Christianity is dominant, and Christians dominate the governments, repeatedly blurring the distinction between the state and the church.

            I suspect that more than a few members of historically black churches in the south might disagree with this description.

            Another type of concentrated power and coercion that doesn’t follow your prescription of monopoly on force or territorial control is from the economic realm. Microsoft (among many others, obviously) has used coercive methods to lock in and expand market share, and has certainly engaged in rent-seeking both with the cooperation of the state and in the face of active opposition from the state.

            I think it would be stretching the definition of “state” past the breaking point to include Microsoft as even a quasi-state.

            I agree that states, and state-like organizations, are historically the most prevalent sources of coercion, but I don’t think you’ve successfully rebutted Erik’s point that they are not the only sources of coercion over which we should be concerned.Report

            • Avatar James Hanley says:

              OK, I should have said “a particular form of Christianity.” Lines are fuzzy, I don’t have a problem admitting that, but the realities are still there. In fact if you ask Black Christians in the south, I’m sure they’ll staunchly agree.

              Re: Microsoft. I hear these claims all the time, but I rarely see examples that hold up to serious scrutiny. Please provide specific examples of Microsoft using coercion to gain market share.

              But here’s the thing, even if they have, their coercive power is so damned minimal–there are few things easier than for me to go out and buy a Mac instead of a PC–that of course we can’t define them as a quasi-state. Microsoft can’t coerce me in that way. And that’s my point.

              I don’t think you’ve successfully rebutted Erik’s point that they are not the only sources of coercion over which we should be concerned.
              I’m not saying states are the only sources of coercion we should be concerned about. Hell, I’m passionately concerned about rape, child molestation, the local factory dumping its waste on me, etc. All I’m saying is that for the most part, worrying about coercion by businesses over their employees, or producers over consumers, is to focus on those actors that, like Microsoft, are farthest from government on the scale, so it’s to focus on what are really pretty minor issues of coercion in comparison to what government and near-government actors do.Report

              • Avatar DarrenG says:

                Re: Black churches in the south, my intended point was to counter your assertion that southern Christian churches controlled, or at least worked hand-in-hand, with the state, not that they weren’t Christian sects. I definitely could have made this point more clearly, though.

                As for Microsoft, the two most obvious cases of coercive business practices that come to mind were their demands that hardware manufacturers like Dell and HP not offer any other desktop operating systems (particularly Linux) to their customers, or pre-install any web browser other than Internet Explorer, on threat of losing their ability to sell or pre-install Windows.

                These actions caused massive distortions in a very large and influential marketplace, and are only a couple of the more obvious examples.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                As for Microsoft, the two most obvious cases of coercive business practices that come to mind were their demands that hardware manufacturers like Dell and HP not offer any other desktop operating systems (particularly Linux) to their customers, or pre-install any web browser other than Internet Explorer, on threat of losing their ability to sell or pre-install Windows.

                Sincerely, this is the kind of claim of coercion that I think is completely non-sensical. It’s a contractual issue. Dell and HP can walk away from Microsoft. Microsoft can’t force Dell and HP to work with them. This is the kind of coercion that people want to compare to governments that have power of life or death over us, and that often people aren’t allowed to walk away from?

                Why doesn’t anyone ever complain about Apple’s coercion in not allowing any other computer manufacturer to make Macs? Microsoft has made other computer manufacturers literally billions of dollars, while Mac has studiously avoided doing so, but Microsoft somehow is the bad guy that has coerced others?

                I’m sorry, but contractual business relations like this, while they do involve power and each side trying to get the best of each other, are not worrisome cases of coercion. Microsoft held no gun to anyone’s head. They did not blow up anybody’s factory. They didn’t chain software workers to desks and deny them bathroom breaks. They said, “if you want to work with us, we insist that you not work with anyone else. If you want to work with other people, we’ll work with someone else.”

                Heck, I’ve got that rule in my marriage–I guess I’ve unjustly coerced my wife! (Or has she unjustly coerced me?)Report

              • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

                It’s a contractual issue. Dell and HP can walk away from Microsoft.

                No, they couldn’t. Not if they wanted to stay in the PC business. This is precisely the abuse of market power you were asking for.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:


                You’re a good guy, but you’re just wrong.

                This is a business deal, involving property rights. It’s Microsoft’s property. HP and Dell did not have to stay in the PC business; they wanted to because they knew they could benefit greatly from working with Microsoft’s property. Microsoft made their profits possible, and yet somehow this is an example of Microsoft abusing them?

                I hear tech people and lawyers makes this argument against Microsoft all the time. Who I never hear making it are economists–people who actually study economics and understand how markets are supposed to work.

                The only grounds for legitimate debate here are how long Microsoft’s intellectual property rights should last. There we’d probably agree that the current state of affairs is atrocious.

                But “precisely the abuse of market power” I was asking for? No. You may choose to see it as that, but I firmly reject the notion that it constitutes the type of coercion about which we should have any concern. It’s a perfectly legitimate market/contractual outcome.Report

              • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

                Oh, no, it’s not HP and Dell getting screwed. They did and do quite well selling Windows PCs. It’s

                1. All the competitors to Windows, denied access to the PC market, because Microsoft wouldn’t allow the manufacturers to sell PCs with their OS installed. (Yes, you could buy or download Linux and install it yourself. That’s a significant barrier for most people.)

                2. The consumer, who’s denied a choice between competing OS’s.

                3. The industry as a whole, held back by buggy, virus-laden Microsoft software , precisely because Microsoft relied on their market power instead of producing a better product.

                It’s suggestive that Microsoft’s success has been entirely in areas where they can leverage Windows’s market power. In other areas )servers, smart phones, game systems, etc.) they’re at best one of a number of competitors, and often not even that.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:


                That’s totally unpersuasive. The whole concept is posited on their being these great competitors that had no way to gain a foothold. But it’s easy as hell to put together a computer, so it would have been easy for a company with better software than MS to put together a competing computer and go after them. Nobody needed Dell or HP to build the computers for them.

                You’re blaming lack of competitors on Microsoft, but there’s no natural monopoly there. In the absence of a natural monopoly the lack of competitors should be blamed on those who failed to compete instead of those who competed.

                You say it’s “suggestive” that MS’s success comes entirely in the area where they can leverage Window’s market power, but that analysis begins with two flaws. First, it assumes rather than demonstrates market power. For all its alleged market power MS has never been able to do a good job of setting prices. And for all its alleged market power–even preventing competing browsers from being pre-loaded on PCs–it could never win the browser wars. That’s some pretty weak market power.

                Second, your argument takes their market position for granted, as the starting point that enables it to be successful. But how did it become successful? It didn’t begin with that kind of market position. In other words, your argument is that MS was successful because it had market power–but if it actually had market power, it could only have so because it became successful. You have things turned backwards.

                I know MS bashing is something of a religion among certain folks, particularly those of a techie bent. But noticeably, I repeat, those who actually study markets don’t join in. Perhaps they know something you don’t?Report

              • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

                But it’s easy as hell to put together a computer, so it would have been easy for a company with better software than MS to put together a competing computer and go after them.

                I’m guessing you’ve never been in the computer business.

                For all its alleged market power MS has never been able to do a good job of setting prices.

                What does Windows cost? What does MS Office cost? What do competing products cost?

                it could never win the browser wars.

                Really? Tell me, how is Netscape doing these days?

                But how did it become successful? It didn’t begin with that kind of market position.

                That’s an interesting question, but a different one from “How did it behave once it had that kind of market power?”Report

              • Avatar wardsmith says:


                You lose. James is right across the board and I got WAY back with Microsoft. The biggest problem with your argument as James mentioned is a little old company named Apple. They are now the 2nd largest corp (by market cap) in the country. They are sitting on twice as much cash as Microsoft. They are making money hand over fist and they will undoubtedly replace PC’s with something akin to the iPad of the future.

                Microsoft held on for a very long time that is true, but they were never immortal nor invincible. Their market cap hasn’t moved in a decade. They are merely holding on, but of course inertia is quite powerful. HP wanted to get out of the PC business because they were spending so damn much money supporting buggy Microsoft OS issues. Microsoft writes their contracts that way so as James says, “take it or leave it”.

                But HP and others made untold billions riding Microsoft’s coattails. The “gun” held to their head was greed and profit, nothing more. For all Microsoft’s problems, they allowed for incredible hardware (and software) innovation that Apple would have stymied. Don’t believe me? How’s that flash working out on your iPad and iPhone? About as well as “Hope and Change” from Obama?Report

              • Avatar DarrenG says:

                James & Ward:

                The period to which I was referring was the mid-to-late-90s, not now. Check out the market share of Apple and other non-Windows PCs at that time before offering them as a counter-argument.

                Same with browsers. Look at the market share of Netscape, Opera, and such before Microsoft strong-armed manufacturers into not installing their software and after.

                The DoJ obtained a consent decree from Microsoft in the late 90s to stop this behavior and it’s taken a decade for other companies to even start making a dent in MSFT’s market share *after* this coercive behavior stopped. (And even now Apple’s share of the desktop market is still fairly tiny — they’ve gotten huge off the mobile and media streaming markets).

                And yes, this was coercive behavior even if it didn’t involve imminent threat of physical violence. In fact, it’s exactly the same sort of coercion that libertarians routinely invoke to defend their anti-regulation and anti-taxation stances — using statutory or contract law backed by the threat of force to coerce others into doing what they’d rather not.Report

              • Avatar DarrenG says:

                One more quick comment and clarification:

                I wasn’t claiming Microsoft was ever a true monopoly. They weren’t.

                I was claiming they used their market position to engage in grossly coercive behavior, eliminate competition, and distort the market further in their favor.Report

              • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

                All the competitors to Windows, denied access to the PC market, because Microsoft wouldn’t allow the manufacturers to sell PCs with their OS installed.

                If there’s a market for PCs that don’t run Windows, then someone will meet it, even at the cost of sacrificing the opportunity to sell Windows PCs. As PCs are made with interchangeable parts, the barriers to entry are very, very low. There was no reason the market would have been unable to support system builders specializing in Linux systems, if the demand had been there. And there was a producer specializing in Apple systems, namely Apple.

                Linux failed to gain market share on the desktop because it was completely unusable to non-experts. For a very long time, the kind of people who ran Linux were the kind of people who built their own systems from parts.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                Mike Schilling,

                “But it’s easy as hell to put together a computer, [JH]” I’m guessing you’ve never been in the computer business.

                No, I haven’t. But I can look at all the entrants to the industry and tell that it can’t be a serious barrier to entry. If those alternatives to Windows were really so awesome that consumers would have clamored for them, either Dell would have dumped MS or some company named Not-Dell would have jumped on them.

                “For all its alleged market power MS has never been able to do a good job of setting prices. [JH]” What does Windows cost? What does MS Office cost? What do competing products cost? As I remember, MS was giving away its browser for free. What does Office cost? Less than WordPerfect did, and it did more.

                “it could never win the browser wars.” [JH] Really? Tell me, how is Netscape doing these days?
                It’s hard to be polite to such a silly response. Netscape failed because it started putting out a crappy product, but Netscape is not, by itself, the browser wars. Damn near everybody today uses Firefox, there are several others that are readily available, and I know almost nobody who uses Explorer. That is not winning the browser wars.

                Those anti-competitive contracts were invalidated by court orders some time ago.
                Yeah, I’ve run into any number of techies and lawyers who think this was a fantastic outcome. Again, you’ll be hard pressed to find many economists who do. American anti-trust law is deeply moronic, and the fact that a company runs afoul of it does not by itself indicate that the company was actually creating market inefficiencies. Our anti-trust law was written by people who don’t have a clue about market competition–they just see a big company and think big equals anti-competitive. Remember, one of the charges against Microsoft was that it was selling too cheap–giving it’s browser away. Think about that, the government stopped a business from providing consumers a huge benefit.

                There’s an old story that illustrates the absolute absurdity of our laws. Three businessmen are sitting in court discussing how they got there. The first says, “I’m here because I was selling my product for too much–they’re accusing me of price gouging.” The second says, “I’m here because I sold my product for too little–they’re accusing me of predatory pricing.” The third says, “That’s funny, I’m here because I sold my product for the same price as everyone else–they’re accusing me of collusion.”

                The attack on Microsoft was driven by companies that just weren’t good enough to compete successfully against them, and by politicians in the states where those companies were headquartered (here’s looking at you, Orrin Hatch), and made possible by laws that make no economic sense whatsover. derstand what market competition is.Report

              • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

                As I remember, MS was giving away its browser for free.

                That is bundled with the OS, which was anything but free.

                And if you think that having to invent new hardware to sell it on isn’t a huge barrier to entry for software, or that vendor lock-in makes giving away the software that enables it a terrific investment, than, James, I’m afraid there’s no point discussing the software business with you.Report

              • Avatar Will Truman says:


                Microsoft Office (Home & Student Edition): $126

                WordPerfect Suite (Home & Student Edition): $63

                Sun StarOffice: $79

                OpenOffice: FreeReport

              • Avatar DarrenG says:

                James, that’s largely non-responsive to the original point, which is that Microsoft engaged in coercive behavior which did substantial economic harm and restricted consumer choice.

                There are almost always ways to avoid or mitigate the effects of coercive behavior, and by your logic defending Microsoft much state-driven coercion is likewise non-existent or unimportant, too.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                Darren G.,
                James, that’s largely non-responsive to the original point, which is that Microsoft engaged in coercive behavior which did substantial economic harm and restricted consumer choice.

                It’s not non-responsive at all. Microsoft engaged in competitive behavior, and never forced anyone to buy their product, nor forced anyone to do business with them. The claims of “substantial economic harm” are entirely speculative. People had the option to buy Apple products, and another firm could have invested in popularizing a Linux-based OS if they thought consumers would buy it. Your entire argument is based on speculation about what consumers would have done, but those with a real financial investment in the game (instead of just words) never bet consumers would act like you suggest they would.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                Mike Schilling,

                That is bundled with the OS, which was anything but free.
                But there was essentially zero marginal cost to the consumer for Netscape, which means Netscape was effectively free. Marginal analysis is crucial here.

                And if you think that having to invent new hardware to sell it on isn’t a huge barrier to entry for software,
                How much “new invention” of hardware is really necessary? Most of the hardware in computers isn’t really that proprietary, is it? I’m not buying this, unless you can provide more evidence, because on the surface it sounds wholly unpersuasive.

                Are you a tech guy? I ask because you sound like most of the techies I’ve ever talked to.Report

              • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

                Yes, I write software for a living. Why does that matter?Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:


                I’ve met a lot of techies, although I’m a bit of a luddite myself. My casual observation is that a very large proportion of them share two things in common: 1) minimal grasp of how an economist would define unfair competition in a market; 2) minimal understanding of, or patience for, the average consumer/end-user who lacks any noticeable tech skills.

                I think these two things combine to form an irrational hatred of Microsoft–a company that has been phenomenally successful in winning customers despite a system despised by techies. Not understanding the average consumer, techies can’t imagine that so many people willingly choose MS, so they assume there must be something nefarious going on. Not understanding how an economist would define unfair competition, they assume unfair competition must be the cause. The legal wins against MS, of course, bolster their belief. But again, not understanding how an economist would define unfair competition, they don’t recognize just how economically nonsensical U.S. anti-trust law is.

                As to the unanswered question, about creating new hardware. I’m still curious how much new hardware would need to be created (not being a techie, that’s the kind of thing I’m clueless about), and wondering if, with all the technology firms in the U.S., not to mention the world why someone besides MS and Apple would find it prohibitively difficult? And if MS really were one of only a couple firms that could manage it, wouldn’t they deserve more praise and less condemnation?Report

              • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

                Linux failed to gain market share on the desktop because it was completely unusable to non-experts.

                For instance, you had to install it yourself. Have you ever tries to install Windows on bare hardware? [1] It isn’t pretty.

                1. Windows NT 3.x or Windows 95/98, anyway. For all I know, it might have gotten better.Report

              • Avatar Will Truman says:

                Windows has gotten better. Starting at around XP, they started having solid driver support for most basic hardware.

                Linux driver support has gotten better and actually surpassed Windows, however. The problem is that Linux is Linux, and there are a lot of headaches after installation. I used to try it annually up until a couple of years ago when I just gave up on it.

                Outside of the sandbox, to do anything, you have to learn everything. I don’t quite have the energy for that, yet.Report

              • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

                Yes. I’ve been building my own computers from parts since the late ’90s, and installing Windows has always been very easy. As late as 2006, my attempts at installing Linux involved cryptic errors that took hours of research to resolve.

                I have a vague memory of reinstalling Windows 3.1 from floppy disks, and I don’t recall any particular problems, but that was a long time ago, and I only did it once.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                “Linux failed to gain market share on the desktop because it was completely unusable to non-experts.”
                For instance, you had to install it yourself.

                Thanks for demonstrating the point for me. For the average consumer Linux was an inferior product. But if a company developed a simpler version of Linux and pre-loaded it, they could have met consumer demand. It’s not MS’s fault that they thought MS was a better bet.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP says:

                I began working with Mandrake Linux around 2000. While other distros were difficult to install, Mandrake was easy and had a polished interface.

                Ubuntu Linux has gone the same route: make it easy and pretty. Me, I’m a Fedora man and won’t go back: Fedora’s an easy install and keeps itself up to date with relentless efficiency.Report

              • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

                @BB: As I recall, Windows 3.x wasn’t bad to install. Of course, it wasn’t really an OS — DOS underneath was doing all the heavy lifting. The horror shows were things like Windows NT 3.x and Windows 95. You’d get to the point where all the software was loaded onto the hard drive and the OS booted for the first time, and if it hung or crashed, there was no clue why.Report

              • Avatar Will Truman says:

                Pre-XP was a real pain in the rear if you didn’t already have all of the drivers lined up. By the time you got to XP, unless you were dealing with a laptop, most of the hardware drivers would install automatically. You’d typically want to go get the video card driver, but you weren’t stuck in 640×480 16-color hell while trying to do so.Report

              • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

                One more point: take a look at (which, amusingly is being run on a Microsoft server. You can tell from the “asp” suffix, inspired by Bill Gates’s identification with Daddy Warbucks [1].) IE was the most popular browser through mid-2008. That’s a more-than-decade-long victory in the browser wars. IE is still in third place with more than 20% of users, though obviously the trend is against it.

                1. OK, it’s really from Active Server Page.Report

              • Avatar Will Truman says:

                It’s actually ironic, because Internet Explorer has actually never been better. As they’ve improved, they’ve lost marketshare. Too little, too late, I guess.Report

              • Avatar wardsmith says:

                @Mike, You do realize that Mozilla (which is now Firefox) STARTED with Netscape’s source code? Therefore, you could say Netscape’s child has won the browser war after all. Of course Netscape started with NCSA’s Mosaic source code, where Andreessen had worked as a contractor. We also don’t need to blame Netscape’s demise solely on Microsoft, but on AOL who purchased it and drove it into the toilet (pretty much what they have also done with every acquisition they ever completed).

                I’ve put together computers since the days of the SC/MP chip (built on a breadboard of course), then I put together an IMSAI, then bought Seattle Computer’s S-100 boards and installed them myself in a Paradynamics card cage, eventually received my copy of Seattle Dos from Tim Patterson himself. He was also nice enough to give me a couple of 8″ floppies with all the source code in case I needed to build my own device drivers for additional hardware since he had to go to work at the evil empire then.

                I’ve built and programmed hundreds of computers over the decades, there really is nothing much to it. If you can follow instructions and have a little imagination you can do almost anything. A lot like cooking. 🙂

                Core point to this entire discussion is inertia. The technology adoption life cycle should be well known to everyone here.

                In my energetic youth I was absolutely an innovator. Now I’m less energetic and happy to be a laggard. I don’t even futz with Linux anymore, which is a shame since I was a co-founder of a Linux supercomputer company.Report

              • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

                Mozilla (which is now Firefox) STARTED with Netscape’s source code? Therefore, you could say Netscape’s child has won the browser war after all. Of course Netscape started with NCSA’s Mosaic source code

                Hence the name “Mozilla” (Mosaic + Godzilla). IE descends from Mosaic too.Report

              • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

                My favorite real-life example of winning via your descendants is Frederick V, Elector of the Rhine-Palatine, who stupidly accepted the Czech’s offer of the crown of Bohemia, got his butt kicked out of both Bohemia and the Palatinate by the Hapsburgs, and spent the rest of the Thirty Years War helplessly hoping somebody, somewhere would win his lands back for him. The Bourbons, Hapsburgs, and most other 17th-century powers are long gone, but Frederick’s descendants sit on the British throne and show every sign of doing so indefinitely.Report

              • Avatar Will Truman says:

                Dell did offer Linux for at least a little while. Within the last couple of years. As did Lenovo and I think Asus on their Netbooks.Report

              • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

                Those anti-competitive contracts were invalidated by court orders some time ago.Report

              • Avatar DarrenG says:

                Yep. Most manufacturers now offer Linux as a server option thanks to the DoJ stepping in and obtaining a consent decree from Microsoft not to use their market leverage to shut competitors out of the market.Report

              • Avatar Creon Critic says:

                James, something you said in another thread seems appropriate here,

                The fact that something could be worse does not mean that we cannot insist that it be even better. The economy is worse in Greece than in the U.S., so should we stop being concerned about the state of our economy? My health is not great, but could be worse, so I shouldn’t try to make it even better? A student gets a C on a paper; it could have been worse, so he shouldn’t try for an A next time?

                The experiences of minorities in the US (and elsewhere) demonstrates how non-state actors can collude to deprive people of human rights. Not only the outright mobilization of private violence by the KKK, lynchings, and such, but also practices like redlining, housing discrimination, or racial steering.

                The fact that the state conduct wars – and I agree we can tally war dead and remark on the ability of the state to mobilize populations to do absolutely terrible things – does not take away from the fact that non-state actors engage in all sorts of similarly troubling coercive/rights violative conduct. To me, the libertarian outlook seems to consistently overlook this misconduct and further set off limits measures to correct these types of non-state actor based injustices.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:


                I absolutely agree about the KKK and such groups. But, again, there we are not talking about market oriented organizations. They come up so often in these discussions (e.g., Microsoft), but when we get serious about non-governmental oppression, we so often have to shift to things like the KKK. And of course the whole structure of my argument rests on the claim that there is a continuum of coercion, not a sharp distinction between coercive government and non-coercive organizations.

                But let’s also not forget the extent to which the KKK was protected by the state. Yes, it was ultimately brought under control by the state, but only after nearly a century of implicit state protection, and in many cases, actual KKK control of the state.

                As to war vs. other “absolutely terrible things,” I think we can stipulate that humans do absolutely terrible things. But only the state manages to do them on the scale of killing hundreds of thousands and millions. The KKK was evil through and through, but simply not as accomplished as the state at doing terrible things. See political scientist Rudolf Rummel’s 20th Century Democide page, and ask yourself what non-governmental coercive organization has ever done anything remotely similar? I once tried graphing such deaths from the Chernobyl disaster and the Union Carbide gas leak alongside the numbers from 20th century democides–the deaths from those 2 worst ever industrial accidents don’t even appear on the graph unless you magnify them by about 100 because they are so dwarfed by the killings of governments.

                (To clarify: Those are authoritarian governments. They are so far and above democratic governments in their killing that there’s little comparison. But even democratic governments do their fair share of unjustified killing–far more than most people realize. Look, for example, at what the U.S. did in the Philippines following the Spanish-American war.)Report

      • Avatar Jeff says:

        “If it has power, it’s a ‘state’, by my wonderfully circular definition!”Report

        • Avatar James Hanley says:


          Why don’t you try reading Weber’s “Politics as a Vocation”?

          His definition of the state as the human organization successfully claiming a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force is the closest thing we have to a standard definition. What do you offer as an alternative?

          And it’s not circular at all. Weber was grasping with the question of what distinguishes a state from other types of human organization, and he pointed out that states don’t actually do anything that isn’t also done by other human organizations, so a state can’t meaningfully be defined by its functions. The only difference is that it successfully claims a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Nothing circular at all.

          Ergo, the more physical force, the more coercion, an organization is able to exercise, the closer it is to claiming a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, and the close it is to becoming a state.Report

  8. Avatar Mike Schilling says:

    Local warlords are nothing less than people striving to become the state–to exercise, in Weber’s words, “a monopoly on the legitimate use of force over a given territory.”

    Becoming “the state” implies permanence. If their primary goal, rathet than to control territory, is to plunder areas lacking the military protection of a state, that’s quite different.

    Similarly, while the RCC was the de facto (and de jure) government in the Papal States, their main involvement with the Holy Roman Empire (of which Italy was in principle a part) was to ensure that it never became a state.Report

    • Avatar James Hanley says:

      Becoming “the state” implies permanence.

      Not so (although it might imply a desire for permanence). States come and go. At least regimes do, which is the meaning of “state” that’s relevant here (as opposed to it’s meaning as “a country”). Take Germany: The Kaiser regime came and went; the Weimar regime came and went; the Nazi regime came and went. Fortunately for them they’ve managed to hold onto their current, much better, regime for a while.

      And your assumption that plundering a territory is distinct from controlling it doesn’t really hold. The best way to plunder a territory is to control it. In “Dictatorship, Democracy, and Development,” Mancur Olson argued that “roving bandits” (which I take to be your plunderers) do better if they set themselves up as dictators, “stationary bandits.” That leads to “monopolizing and rationalizing theft in the form of taxes.” (American Political Science Review 87: 567-576 (1993). Sorry, I don’t know of an un-gated version.)Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

        Everything human comes and go, but if it’s tenure in a particular area lasts no longer than is needed to rape pillage, plunder, and move on, it’s not a state. And some roving bandits continue to rove, perhaps because they didn’t get the memo.Report

        • Avatar James Hanley says:

          Sure, Mike, but I’ve been saying here that there’s a continuum, not just a state/non-state distinction. I also mentioned things such as rape and child molestation–nobody is denying that coercion happens outside the state. But crucially, those are the types of coercion that aren’t market situations, whereas market situations are so often brought up in these debates as where the real coercion is happening.Report

  9. Avatar Robert Lee Hodgson says:

    Wow, i just discovered this site and i am amazed at the level of politeness it brings to the debate world. America is losing it’s class and is slowly becoming less and less dignified it’s nice to find something like this. This article was a good read and i hope to read more from E.D Kain in the future, thank you for sharing it with us all.Report

  10. Avatar Robert Lee Hodgson says:

    On a different note, does anyone know how to change the picture listed on my comments?Report

  11. Avatar Ryan Bonneville says:


    I don’t have much to add. I think this is a great post, and Corey Robin is doing heroic work puncturing the pretensions of the libertarian virus that has infected our politics.

    I guess the thing I have to add, which is generally confirmed by the comments, is that one of the root causes of neoliberalism/libertarianism/whatever you want to call it seems to me to be a basic hostility to democracy. It takes different forms – Tom Friedman pining for Chinese autocrats to tell us what to do, some of the commenters at this very site bemoaning that we’re all forcing some conception of the good life on them, etc. – but there is a fairly constant strain in there that people are just plain unauthorized to collectively decide how the state should operate.

    This is, for what I should think are obvious reasons, extremely radical, at odds with most of the history of the United States, and not something I’m all that interested in going along with.Report

    • Avatar James Hanley says:

      a basic hostility to democracy.

      Democracy is incomparably superior to autocracy, and people like Tom Friedman are idiots. But democracy is itself a limited and dangerous good. As you note, it forces things on people. You call it “the good life,” but that assumes your conception of the good life is necessarily the same as mine. When our conceptions of the good life conflict we have a vote and someone is forced to accept a world that is not, to them, the good life.

      That’s inevitable if we’re going to live in human societies, but in a democracy the majority can push that as far as it wants, be damned to the minority. And often in a democracy the majority doesn’t even try to force their conception of the good life on the majority but their conception of what will be hell for the minority–because they despise that minority.

      This hostility to democracy is expressed by no less eminent a founding father than James Madison, father of the Constitution, in Federalist 10. In democracies, he says, “measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority,” and “there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party,” and so democracies “have ever been found incompatible with personal security.”

      What I value more in our system than its democraticness is its constitutional constraints, which say that majorities are prohibited from voting on certain issues.

      Friedman’s fascination for dictators? Terrible. An emphasis on constitutional constraints on the democratic expressions of the majority? Brilliant.Report

      • Avatar Ryan Bonneville says:

        I don’t think this is much of a counterargument. Surely none of us think the majority should get to rule on things like freedom of speech, press, etc. We do have constitutional limits on all kinds of things, but libertarians are still hostile to the spaces we have where democracy can act. I will refer you to Eli’s comments above.Report

        • Avatar James Hanley says:

          OK, so you agree there are certain things the majority shouldn’t be able to rule on. Libertarians just thing there is a larger set of such things.

          But please don’t conflate them with a guy like Tom Friedman who gets all dewey-eyed over authoritarianism. He doesn’t like democracy because it doesn’t give government enough authority. Libertarians dislike it because they think it gives government too much authority.Report

        • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

          Basically, you don’t think that the majority should get to rule on things where you disagree with the majority.Report

          • Avatar James Hanley says:

            Brandon Berg,

            No, I don’t think the majority should get to rule on things where the preferences of a minority seriously matter. If I think we should drive on the left side of the road, but the majority votes for the right, my minority preference does not seriously matter.

            If we’re voting on whether the government should take my money and use it for abortions (I’m staunchly pro-choice, by the way), I think the preferences of the minority seriously matter.Report

      • Avatar Creon Critic says:

        Also striking on the anti-democratic front, Peter Thiel’s essay at Cato Unbound, the Education of a Libertarian. Thiel supports seasteading, establishing libertarian communities settling the oceans. All very well and good, if libertarians want to move to seasteads renouncing the coercion and oppressions of the 21st century welfare state, fine with me. But this paragraph on the prospects for libertarianism in American politics took a pretty insensitive view of equal rights,

        Indeed, even more pessimistically, the trend has been going the wrong way for a long time. To return to finance, the last economic depression in the United States that did not result in massive government intervention was the collapse of 1920–21. It was sharp but short, and entailed the sort of Schumpeterian “creative destruction” that could lead to a real boom. The decade that followed — the roaring 1920s — was so strong that historians have forgotten the depression that started it. The 1920s were the last decade in American history during which one could be genuinely optimistic about politics. Since 1920, the vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the franchise to women — two constituencies that are notoriously tough for libertarians — have rendered the notion of “capitalist democracy” into an oxymoron.

        Now, Thiel is not the King of the Libertarians, he is just a pretty wealthy guy and one libertarian amongst many. But still, criticizing the extension of the franchise to women? Not exactly a bridge building move.Report

        • Avatar James Hanley says:


          I have to ask, is he actually “criticizing” the extension of the franchise to women, or is he just noting an empirical truth, that women are less likely to vote libertarian, so libertarian policy outcomes are made harder to achieve? I find people often mistake empirical claims for normative claims. For example, saying “rape is a natural behavior” is an empirical claim (rape happens in multiple species besides our own), but it is often taken as meaning “rape is ok,” which it emphatically does not really mean.

          I could be wrong about Thiel’s intent, of course, but I’d be hesitant to assume he’s actually criticizing equality here.Report

          • Avatar Creon Critic says:

            I read him as saying the following: We can no longer be “genuinely optimistic” about politics, in part, because women have the vote. Women ruined the prospects for capitalist democracy, which I, Peter Thiel, favor. Essentially: We can’t have nice things because of the women (and welfare beneficiaries).

            Also, how he opens the essay (emphasis mine),

            I remain committed to the faith of my teenage years: to authentic human freedom as a precondition for the highest good. I stand against confiscatory taxes, totalitarian collectives, and the ideology of the inevitability of the death of every individual. For all these reasons, I still call myself “libertarian.”

            But I must confess that over the last two decades, I have changed radically on the question of how to achieve these goals. Most importantly, I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible. By tracing out the development of my thinking, I hope to frame some of the challenges faced by all classical liberals today.

            Women (and welfare beneficiaries) represent an impassable obstacle to Thiel’s favored political system. And from his essay’s prescriptions, they are not an obstacle to be overcome through the normal cut and thrust of debate. Democratic processes of convincing those that disagree aren’t the focus, instead cyberspace, outer space, and seasteading are the solutions he offers for consideration.

            I admit, your reading is possible, but he’s certainly not celebrating women having the vote. For someone who opens with a paean to “authentic human freedom”, he’s pretty indifferent to analyzing the ways the 1920’s might not represent a golden age of freedom in America.Report

            • Avatar E.D. Kain says:

              See this is why I can’t be a libertarian. Freedom and democracy are not incompatible. That’s just a bridge too far.Report

            • Avatar James Hanley says:


              Fair enough. But to you and E.D. both I point out that James Madison also believed freedom and democracy were incompatible. That’s why he sought to circumscribe it so tightly.

              E.D., if you’re going to say that’s a bridge too far, you’re going to have to come to grips with Madison (and de Tocqueville, for that matter). If democracy grants the majority power over the minority, in what way is that compatible with the minority’s freedom? Madison’s answer was to put strict limits on the scope of authority, and then to try to have a large enough society that there would be too many overlapping and cross-cutting majorities, so that no one majority could effectively assert itself. It sometimes works (as I noted recently, capital doesn’t rule), but not always.

              Really, if you think it’s nuts to say freedom and democracy aren’t compatible, you’ll need to rebut Madison.Report

              • Avatar Creon Critic says:

                James, believe me, the topics of reconciling freedom and democracy, the individual and the state, the conscience and the community, are really interesting to me. I wouldn’t have chosen Creon Critic as a pseudonym/blog title without interest in the balance between the two. But what about the flip side of the question you pose to E.D. and me, can you have freedom without democracy?

                (And Thiel’s proposition is stronger than the gentler prodding you’re offering here with reference to Madison, in Thiel’s view freedom and democracy are not compatible.)Report

              • Avatar Will Truman says:

                I think that’s where you have to define freedom. And democracy. Both are spectra. And with freedom, you have to ask, freedom for whom?Report

              • Avatar Christopher Carr says:

                Whether we’re talking about the actual definition of the actual word “democracy” which we don’t really have, or whether what we’re really talking about is “republicanism” which is NOT democracy but which we commonly call democracy because it sounds nice and both are pretty close to each other given the alternatives, totally changes the parameters of this conversation. As it is, I think everyone is talking past each other.Report

              • Avatar Will Truman says:

                what we’re really talking about is “republicanism” which is NOT a democracy

                That you will have to take that up with Steven Taylor.

                But let’s assume, for this conversation, that we’re including representative and constrained democracies when we talk about democracy. It then becomes a question of how constrained a would-be democracy is before we stop calling it a democracy.

                The Bill of Rights is a constraint on democracy in favor of freedom. Obviously, there is a tension here. This suggests that freedom and democracy do not go hand-in-hand in perfect harmony. Does that still make us a (representative) democracy? Most would say yes.

                But what about something that is not democratic at all. Can freedom exist? I think it can in theory, but in practice it’s enormously difficult for a government that is not accountable to its people to allow its people to be free. So some degree of democracy does seem to be required for freedom to exist.

                Then, of course, we get to definitions of freedom. Is freedom the ability to put your swingset in your front yard or is it the ability to live in a neighborhood that doesn’t allow swingsets in front yards? That’s what I mean by “freedom for whom.”

                So not only is freedom in conflict with democracy (when we constrain the state from banning Muslim prayer, for instance), but freedom is in conflict with itself. There’s collective freedom versus individual freedom. Positive freedom versus negative freedom. Freedom from want versus freedom over the products of your labor.

                Freedom is like fairness. It’s a subjective thing. Just as what constitutes a democracy is.Report

              • Avatar MFarmer says:

                “Freedom is like fairness. It’s a subjective thing. Just as what constitutes a democracy is.”

                That’s why there has to be clear, spelled out, limits on government’s coercive power.Report

              • Avatar MFarmer says:

                Lots of people who intend to maintain majority power support true democracy until the majority shifts and they are then in the minority, then they support limits on government power.Report

              • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

                The real question isn’t whether you can have freedom without democracy, but whether you can have freedom with democracy. The record suggests that, given the opportunity, people will fairly consistently vote to restrict freedom. The US is only as free as it is because of anti-democratic constitutional restrictions on the power of the government, and these have largely been eroded with the tacit or explicit approval of the electorate.

                Voters can generally be counted on not to elect a politician who runs on a platform of literal decimation. Beyond that, there aren’t really any guarantees.Report

              • Avatar E.D. Kain says:

                James –

                I think Madison et alia saw the danger of majority rule and tried to piece together some ideas that would hamper majority rule – checks and balances written into the constitution and so forth.

                But this is beside the point: freedom is not a thing. If anything, freedom is a sliding scale. Probably so is democracy. Freedom is also the absence of not-freedom, and I’m not sure that the alternatives libertarians present to democracy sound like they’re any more free, or have any less not-freedom even if that not-freedom is of a different stripe than the sort we have now.Report

              • Avatar Murali says:

                So, it is a matter of which freedoms are important. The freedom to not be shot is often thought to be more important than the freedom to shoot people. the thing is, both freedoms individually can be held universally and equally, but not together. The question then boils down to which one is more basic. One argument that could be made is that the first is more basic as the value of the second , to a certain extent is parasitic on the value of the first. Nevertheless, there is common agreement that the first is more important. (societies where duelling was acceptable might beg to differ, but if my first argument is unsuccessful, the least we can say is that we do not live in such a society)

                The thing is, that voting often seems more like freedom to shoot rather than freedom from getting shot. As such the cases when it might be just only arise in certain kinds of non-ideal situations. It is not always clear however, whether the non-ideal situation we are currently in is the kind of non-ideal situation in which the right to vote counterbalances the relevant injustices.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:

                Trying to generally reply to all of you who were writing while I was sleeping…

                Agreed with E.D. that democracy and freedom exist on a sliding scale. We have a tendency to argue these things in binary terms, and I slipped into that above as well.

                Is freedom possible without democracy? Conceptually, yes. Freedom is possible in a world where no authority makes decisions for us all. The things we lose without that authority–resolution of collective action problems, control of externalities, punishment of bandits–may make that freedom less desirable than a system with less freedom but more security (c.f., Hobbes, Locke, and ~1 zillion intellectual descendants).

                So what should that authority look like to maximize freedom? Clearly it should not be authoritarian. But how democratic should it be? I argue it should not be very democratic at all–majorities should be very tightly constrained and fragmented. That is, the system should be more constitutional (for lack of a better term at the moment) than majoritarian–far, far, far more constitutional than majoritarian.

                That is what is really meant when people say democracy and freedom are incompatible. That allowing democracy to make decisions on matters of crucial personal importance to individuals will always violate the liberty of some of those individuals. Only in a very constitutionally constrained democracy–and I argue ours is not constitutionally constrained enough–can we ensure a greater amount of freedom.Report

              • Avatar Murali says:

                Once you place so many constraints on what can be decided democratically, you dont really have a democracy anymore. In effect what you are having is a kind of sovereign judiciary. This is not in itself a bad thing, but it is ultimately rule by an unelected body and therefore argubly dictatorial.Report

              • Avatar James Hanley says:


                As long as their power is entirely negative, I’m fine with that. As Hamilton said, “they have neither the purse nor the sword.”Report

          • Avatar Jeff says:

            Sure he’s criticizing the extension of the franchise to women: he lumps it with the the great bugaboo of libertarians, “welfare beneficiaries”. Not just the same sentence, but the same clause. Those uppity wimmin are just as bad as “those people” (which is what “welfare beneficiaries” is code for).Report

      • Avatar Murali says:

        Democracy is incomparably superior to autocracy

        This is far from clear. In so far as we prefer constitutions, we prefer the judiciary, an unelected body over-riding decisions made by an elected body. To the extent that the judiciary is indepedent, this is autocratic.Report

        • Avatar James Hanley says:


          I don’t know that I agree. If we’re talking only about a negative power, not an active power, is “autocratic” really an appropriate term? If so, at the very least we need to start distinguishing between very fundamentally different types of autocracies. But whichever way we go, I think you’re making a category mistake.Report

          • Avatar Murali says:

            I’m fine with saying that there are good types of autocracies and bad types of autocracies. At least in part, what I want to do is push back against the tendency for a lot of political commentators to cheer just because some people are fighting for democracy, or using the term undemocratic as a criticism rather than in a purely descriptive sense.Report

            • Avatar James Hanley says:

              Hmm, I’ll have to ponder that one. Of course you have experience with Singapore and I don’t. Is Singapore sui generis, or is it an exportable model? I do think I should try to find some time to look at little more closely at it.Report

              • Avatar Murali says:

                The singapore model is essentially a variant of a company town. In fact, at independence the state owned a fairly large portion of businesses. The state to this day still owns a large portion of real estate and infrastructure. There is however plenty of private activity in other sectors. In Singapore,, the key departure from company towns is that the government in most sectors has been willing to court competition. i.e. traditional government services are run like they would have been in a company town while the market is relatively free where it comes to sectors which are traditionally private.Report

  12. Avatar Ryan Bonneville says:

    I also think one of the things that strikes me as really insightful is this “shitty hassle of everyday life” point. Not to cast aspersions, but I have never in my entire life met a libertarian who isn’t either relatively wealthy or white. It is fundamentally the philosophy of comfortable people, and this kind of comment really puts that front and center. IOZ writes about this kind of thing all the time, and does a much better job of it than I will, but my basic response to the hand-wringing about how “inefficient” single-payer is goes something like:

    “We are the richest nation in the history of everything and people die of treatable illnesses because some minority of us thinks it’s more ‘efficient’ to let them. That minority is plainly sociopathic.”Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      You’re using a criticism used against Romney and Neoliberalism more generally against libertarianism?Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        That’s not what he’s saying at all, JB. And you know it.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird says:

          Here. Allow me to read you from the quotation he’s refering to.

          What’s so astounding about Romney’s proposal—and the neoliberal worldview more generally—is that it would just add to this immense, and incredibly shitty, hassle of everyday life. … I sure as hell don’t know, but I think that’s the goal of the neoliberals: not just so that we’re more responsible with our money, but also so that we’re more consumed by it: so that we don’t have time for anything else. Especially anything, like politics, that would upset the social order as it is.

          He went from that to complaining about the Libertarians. And, not only that, about how they’re all either wealthy or white.

          Here, let me quote him: It is fundamentally the philosophy of comfortable people, and this kind of comment really puts that front and center.Report

      • Avatar Ryan Bonneville says:

        This criticism applies equally well to all three parties.Report

    • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

      I oppose single-payer health care largely because I’m fairly certain that the government will use its monopsony power to push down drug prices, as just about every other country with socialized health care has done.

      Currently the Europeans are free-riding on R&D funded by American consumers. If the US government drives down prices here, this will dramatically reduce the returns to new drug development, and it’s very likely that many more people will die due to the fact that the treatments they need won’t be available at any price.

      For all we know, there may already be a substantial death toll attributable to European price controls, though obviously it’s hard to calculate that sort of thing.Report

  13. Avatar Shawn Gude says:

    This is some really thoughtful, terrific stuff, Erik. I’ll need some time to digest before commenting further.Report

  14. Avatar Brandon Berg says:

    Let’s allow that to happen by allowing people to create their own economy, work from their own homes or food trucks or lemonade stands or whatever – but let’s also make sure that we’re crafting a human economy that doesn’t allow anyone to fall through the cracks. No pity-charity. No shameful revelations. No stupid corporatist regulations either, designed to squeeze everyone out of the market, into stultifying, soul-sucking wage labor.

    Just so we’re on the same page, am I correct in understanding that under this system, if someone just doesn’t feel like working, he won’t have to, because the government will force people who do work to pay all of his living expenses? And that you do not wish for this lifestyle choice to be stigmatized?Report

    • Avatar MFarmer says:

      They’ll probably be nudged to work (until nudges don’t work, then they will be pushed, then hit in the head with club)Report

      • Avatar Murali says:

        Nudges + incentives isnt too bad an idea. Given that there is no priveleged framework, nudges and incentives which encourage productivity is probably the best idea. Its not that nudges and incentives dont count as social engineering, it is that as far as nudges and incentives go, there is no way to avoid social engineering. So then, the best thing to do is nudge and incentivise so that people have an adequate set of equal basic liberties, fair equality of opportunity and that the prospects of the worst off ar maximised. We ca’t ask for more.Report

      • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

        I don’t think that that’s where this is going. I think that the people who advocate this sort of system genuinely think that it’s okay for people to mooch off taxpayers indefinitely. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t want to make it so easy. I just don’t understand why.Report

        • Avatar Kolohe says:

          It’s be perfectly fine, if we can get to the point of living in a post-scarcity society. (because at that point people wouldn’t be living off ‘the taxpayers’ but rather the accumulated structure* of the ages)

          *i.e. that archetypal clean near-infinite-on-human-scale energy source that would make such a society and economy possible.Report

          • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

            Great. Let’s table universal welfare for now, and take another look at it when we’re actually living in a post-scarcity economy.Report

            • Avatar MFarmer says:

              But they want to “freelance” now, enabled by subsidies. I believe I could contribute greatly to the advancement of mankind if I had more time away from work to think about the Big Picture. I don’t need much, just food and a fairly nice furnished apartment hooked up to the internet, and a laptop, oh, and an IPad2. If I could receive free rent, a food allowance and computer equipment, I could come up with some stuff. I wouldn’t even drive a car if I had an apartment in the city, thus doing my part to save the world. Oh, and just a small clothes allowance — t-shirts and jeans, a coat, not much.Report

        • Avatar Rufus F. says:

          I just don’t understand why.

          Because their emphasis is elsewhere.Report

  15. Avatar Murali says:

    that without universal participation, welfare programs not only inspire shame in their recipients, but become politically vulnerable; brittle things, easily overturned.

    1. One thing to note, is that it is not clear that the fact that it inspires shame in the recipients actually counts against it. Even if it does count against it all things considered, it is not clear that it is the kind of thing that governments should care about.

    Perhaps people should be ashamed to be receiving big checques from the government. That would provide them with psychological incentives to reach a point where they do not receive checques. Also, it is prima facie plausibly true to some extent that in an open and competitive economy with fair equality of opportunity, people who even if able bodied and sound of mind but seem chronically unable to do any socially useful work do lack certain virtues. i.e. in my short stint in sales, I noticed a pattern that those who are chronically unemployed or under-employed lacked drive, ambition etc (i.e. all the bourgeois virtues) I noticed that people who were bourgeois were, if not born that way, became bourgeois because they possessed bourgeois virtues. I can also bet that working class people who have the bourgeois virtues will eventually become bourgeois unless there is really bad luck.

    Even if all this is just an expression of my own classist value system, to say that the government should care that welfare policies make people ashamed of being poor seems to be relying on just another competing value claim which is at the least not any more justified than bourgeois values. At the very least there are prudential reasons to adopt bourgeois values in market economies. Economic systems which fail to incentivise bourgeoise values also thereby fail to incentivise production. We call such economies basket cases.

    2. The second thing to note is that it is precisely because means tested programs do not create their own constituencies that we should prefer them. Consider the situation of adopting a universal program. When the program was adopted there was a need for the program and it benefitted the poor and did a relatively good job of doing so. But now, when circumstances have changed and they are not working as wellla s they used to, or there even better alternatives out there, it is difficult to get rid of the programme because a lot of middle class and rich people who dont need the programme like it, or have a strong status quo bias.

    The fact is, there are plenty of means tested programmes in Singapore and political pressure is towards expanding the programmes and not scrapping them. Means tested programmes are plenty stable enough.Report

    • Avatar Kolohe says:

      That’s a good assessment on the merits of means tested programs, but the demerits are that they create perverse incentives, screw over people at the margin, and (as a function of both of these) make income vs asset distinctions problematic.Report

  16. Avatar Murali says:

    but the demerits are that they create perverse incentives, screw over people at the margin

    These can be mitigated to a large extent by introducing different tiers of means and assistance. The really wors off get more help than those who are slightly less. Yet, it is calculated such that even at the margins, there is no disadvantage to crossing over the margins. One way of doing this is to make the whole thing a continuous function instead of discrete functions with discrete classes. At some point it will phase out, but there won’t be dificulties at the margins.Report