June 15, 2011

The Eminently Real Free Market (VII): The Kevin Carson (Side-)Show (3)

It is not surprising that Mr. Ferrara, a connoisseur of the rhetorical slap-in-the-face, fancies Mr. Carson’s coinage of “vulgar libertarianism,”1 which refers to the habit (allegedly widespread in popular libertarian literature) of defending politically hampered markets in the name of free markets, and turning a blind eye to the sordid historical tale of the hampering. Mr. Ferrara intends to exploit Mr. Carson’s insult, but fails to show the empirical fit of that critique to Austro-libertarians. We’re still in opening pages of the chapter under review, but the rest of it, which we will examine in due course, does not satisfy the need for that fit, but merely trades on the rhetorical utility of Mr. Carson’s pejorative descriptor.

We repeat our intention not to get “blogged down” in a discussion of Mr. Carson’s distinctive contributions to contemporary libertarian discourse—certainly not his (in our opinion) quixotic attempt to meld the labor theory of value with Austrian subjectivism. Whatever the verdict on his labors, we believe he is to be commended for his efforts to broaden and deepen the historical context of the libertarian critique of the statist order. He has extended what is essentially a Rothbardian program of revisionism, and has creatively envisioned ways for “getting out from under” Leviathan.
It is unfortunate, however, that Mr. Carson went about furthering that purpose, at least in part, by holding certain other libertarian writers up to ridicule, going so far as to suggest that they are slightly demented, rather than asking them to assess the historical narrative that he favors, which was decidedly not the topic of their articles. It is a performance that had the unintended consequence of encouraging an illiberal propagandist who has no interest in improving the prospects for liberty as Mr. Carson and we understand the term.
In a book of Mr. Carson’s that Mr. Ferrara cites, the words of certain writers are quoted to illustrate “vulgar libertarianism.” Unfortunately for Mr. Carson’s (and Mr. Ferrara’s) rhetorical gambit, those writers were concerned in those articles to confute myths confabulated to justify further interference with free exchanges between property owners. Their purpose was not to morally evaluate the relationship of certain classes of property owners (e.g., multinational corporations) to any state and to its subjects. To say that Mr. Ferrara does not make this distinction is to understate things.
Specifically, Mr. Carson presents no evidence to the effect that these writers—Barry Loberfield2, Russell Roberts3, Stephen Spath4, and (as chance would have it) Thomas E. Woods, Jr.—defend either the existing level of hampering of markets or the historical evolution of such interference. That it, there is no evidence that they subscribe to what Mr. Carson mockingly refers to as a “nursery tale” of the evolution of capitalism. Their common point is that those who call for further state interference in the name of achieving a better outcome for one class of market players unwittingly work for the opposite result and thereby tend to harm the very persons their interference was intended to help.
Mr. Ferrara—and for that matter, Mr. Carson—should have charitably assumed that those writers share his moral outrage against State-facilitated robbery of the many to the advantage of the politically connected few until one has evidence that defeats that assumption. Murray Rothbard, for example, is hardly one of Mr. Carson’s “vulgar libertarians,” and that he liberally draws upon the work of that veritable anti-Christ of Mr. Ferrara’s nightmares is something else you would never know from reading Mr. Ferrara’s rendition of Mr. Carson’s thought.
With no disrespect intended to Messers Loberfield, Roberts, and Spath, we cannot relegate our comment on Dr. Woods’s Freeman article to a footnote:
Does capitalism, when left undisturbed, tend to increase everyone’s well being, or is government intervention necessary to prevent widespread impoverishment? This is what is at stake in the ongoing debate over the Industrial Revolution, and in this undertaking F. A. Hayek and Ludwig von Mises were noticeably ahead of their time.
Thomas E. Woods, Jr., “A Myth Shattered: Mises, Hayek, and the Industrial Revolution,” The Freeman November 2001, an article cited in Carson, Studies in Mutualist Political Economy, 2004 online edition, p. 140.
One doesn’t have to champion “consequentialist ethics” to assert the relevance of increased standards of living when evaluating calls for further departures from the norm of voluntary exchange. There are no grounds for insinuating, rather uncharitably, that Dr. Woods is insensitive to any injustice that may condition, accompany, precede, or succeed the voluntary exchanges that bring that material improvement about. Both parties to a voluntary exchange must, logically must, expect to benefit from it or they would not enter into it. A third party has no business making light of that  benefit.
The crucial point, against which Mr. Ferrara offers invective but no argument, is that while the result of a voluntary exchange may yet leave much to be desired from the perspective of charity, that exchange per se cannot be deemed unjust. What would be unjust, that is, a violation of the dignity of the persons involved, is a third party’s forceful interference either with that exchange, or with future exchanges in any effort to “rectify” the result of the original exchange.
(Mr. Ferrara does not explicitly support such interference, but as we shall see, he does claim that the result of a voluntary exchange can be unjust, and a claim of injustice opens the door to the use of force to [re-]establish justice.)
The desire, born of humaneness and compassion, that one party to a voluntary exchange be in a stronger negotiating position, that it have options other than what the other is offering, is logically irrelevant to deciding whether a given exchange is voluntary and therefore just.
So that there is no misunderstanding: a voluntary exchange need not be a test of the virtue of charity. It would be, of course, morally praiseworthy were each party to exercise charity toward the other, but while one may enforce justice, one cannot, logically cannot, enforce charity. Justice requires that each gives the other his or her due, but charity is due no one. (To regard charity, which springs from the heart, so to speak, as something one owes another is to misconceive, if not actually offend against, charity.) Both parties may exercise charity, but their failure to do so is not evidence of injustice.

When we encounter Mr. Ferrara's apologia for (empirical) Catholic Social Teaching, which seems to deny certain opportunities for (unenforceable) charity by insisting that they are really matters of (enforceable) justice, we will have ample opportunity to beat this simple point to death (again).

To Be Continued

1 Mr. Carson’s discourteous tag, “vulgar libertarian,” now circulating in Mr. Ferrara’s “fraternal” overture to fellow Catholics, is of Marxist vintage (i.e., Karl Marx’s contempt for the “vulgar economists” who succeeded the “classical” economists, e.g., Adam Smith). As one who, we presume, respects the versio vulgata of the Bible, rendered largely by Saint Jerome into Latin, the common language of Western Europe in the Fourth Century, Mr. Ferrara might have taken pains to distinguish his sense of “vulgar” or “common” from Mr. Carson’s (and Marx’s).
2 “. . . the [anti-capitalist] activists, among others, will demand—on behalf of the union workers—government restrictions on the importation of bananas from Ecuador, while the economist will denounce those restrictions as harmful to everyone.” Barry Lorber, “A Race to the Bottom: Who Benefits from High Prices and Low Supplies?,” The Freeman,  July 2001, an article cited in Carson, Studies in Mutualist Political Economy, 2004 online edition, p. 140. The article opposes further governmental restriction on trade. It does not comment on such restriction as already exists.
3 “If we closed our borders to avoid ‘exploiting’ the poorer nations of the world, we would face higher prices and have a lower standard of living. . . . You can see the difference by imagining more and more severe forms of protectionism in the United States.” Russell Roberts, “Does Trade Exploit the Poorest of the Poor?: Both Parties Benefit from Trade Even When There Are Gross Inequalities of Skill and Productivity,” The Freeman, September 2001, an article cited in Carson, op. cit., p. 140. The article opposes protectionism. It does not celebrate any kind of privilege that multinational corporations enjoy at the expense of any group of taxpayers.
4 “The Harvard students wanted to force multinational corporations of the West to pay a ‘living wage’ to foreign workers in the developing world, just as they were demanding of the university with respect to its custodians. . . . activists like the Harvard students who believe their protests help the world’s poorest workers actually harm them by pricing them out of the market and denying them the opportunity to develop their skills and economies.” Stefan Spath, “The Virtues of Sweatshops: The Law of Comparative Advantage Directs the Production of Goods,” The Freeman, March 2002, an article cited in Carson, op. cit., p. 141. The article opposes third-party forcible interference in trade. It does not deny, or applaud the fact, that such interference is business-as-usual in most countries most of the time.