August 4, 2011

The Eminently Real Free Market (XXIII): Sketchy Stories (11): Lie, Rinse, Repeat

The current series of posts, “The Eminently Real Free Market,” implicitly counters the title of Mr. Ferrara’s chapter to which it replies, “The Illusory ‘Free’ Market.” Earlier in the series we explained what we mean by the reality of the free market, namely, the norm-guided, ontologically real (i.e., extra-mental) network of persons who, by trading their property, actualize the market’s “ties” and “nodes.” As long as there are human beings, the free market principle will be operative.  That is, free markets will perdure through the ethical deformations that persons who forcibly interfere with trade introduce into those networks. (The logical consequence of total deformation is the abolition of man, deformers not excluded.)
We have claimed that there is no basis for imputing to any Austro-libertarian writer any approval of such interference in any form it has taken in history, and Mr. Ferrara has shown none. His accusatory strategy trades exclusively on Kevin Carson’s polemics-driven diagnosis of the “forgetfulness” of the “vulgar libertarian.”
On the subject of illusions, perhaps the biggest is the one that Mr. Ferrara seems to labor under, namely, that the repetition of easily refuted propaganda, coupled with equally gratuitous denials of the refutation, is a winning strategy. The operative propaganda repeated ad nauseam throughout these historical “sketches” may be rendered by this syllogism:
  1. Austro-libertarians say they support the free market.
  2. But “free market” refers to an illusion, for capitalists who inordinately influence state policy systematically distort the only markets that have existed. (Exhibit A: theft of Church lands; Exhibit B: enclosure of the English field; Exhibit C: England’s Poor Laws; Exhibit D: John Locke was an investor in the Royal African Company, which traded in human beings, etc.)
  3. Therefore, Austro-libertarians are deluded. Q.E.D.
In every case the sources on which Mr. Ferrara relies either (a) have been overthrown by more recent research* and/or (b) have no bearing whatsoever on the views that Austro-libertarians hold. He keeps asking how come it’s taking us so long to get to (what he thinks) insists is the “substance” of his book, i.e., the just wage, usury, etc. It takes time to correct historical narratives and deconstruct fallacies, that’s how come. As Mr. Ferrara implicitly defines “capitalistic,” Austro-libertarians are anti-capitalistic. “In this kind of warfare,” Bishop Butler wrote, “the aggressor always has an enormous advantage.”  (See here for the citation.)
And so at last we turn to Sketchy Story Number 2: “Early capitalist laws imposing the creation of an industrial economy.” (17) Here Mr. Ferrara repeats his Hammonds-dependent tale, but not before drawing upon (but without citing in the main text) that nemesis of “vulgar libertarians,” Kevin Carson, whom we met earlier in this chapter.
Before Mr. Ferrara cites the Hammonds, however, he highlights the miserable failure, by anyone’s standards, that were the implementation of the Poor Laws and the Laws of Settlement and their draconian provisions—all of them statist concoctions. Without fear of contradiction we affirm that all Austro-libertarians repudiate these edicts. We know that affirmation means nothing to Mr. Ferrara.
Strictly speaking, we may end our discussion of Sketchy Story Number 2 here, but it would be good to separate what his propaganda conflates, namely, the distinction between the circumstances of “free labor children” and that of “parish children.” Lawrence W. Reed, in a classic article, spells out the difference: free labor children “lived at home but worked during the days in factories at the insistence of their parents or guardians,” while parish children “were under the direct authority and supervision, not of their parents in a free labor market, but of government officials.”
Private factory owners could not forcibly subjugate “free labour” children; they could not compel them to work in conditions their parents found unacceptable. The mass exodus from the socialist continent to increasingly capitalist, industrial Britain in the first half of the 19th century strongly suggests that people did indeed find the industrial order an attractive alternative. And no credible evidence exists that argues that parents in the early capitalist days were any less caring of their offspring than those of pre-capitalist times.
The situation, however, was much different for “parish apprentice” children, and close examination reveals that it was these children on whom the critics were focusing when they spoke of the “evils” of capitalism’s Industrial Revolution. . . . . Most were orphans; a few were victims of negligent parents or parents whose health or lack of skills kept them from earning sufficient income to care for a family. All were in the custody of “parish authorities.” 
Commenting on the Hammond’s culturally prestigious but superseded account, Reed notes that they
. . . report the horrors of those [cotton] mills with descriptions like these: “crowded with overworked children,” “hotbeds of putrid fever,” “monotonous toil in a hell of human cruelty,” and so forth. Page after page of the Hammonds’ writings—as well as those of many other anticapitalist historians—deal in this manner with the condition of the parish apprentices. Though consigned to the control of a government authority, these children are routinely held up as victims of the “capitalist order.” . . . [My emphasis.—A.F.]
It has not been uncommon for historians, including many who lived and wrote in the 19th century, to report the travails of the apprentice children without ever realizing they were effectively indicting government, not the economic arrangement of free exchange we call capitalism. [My emphasis.—A.F.]
In the course of acknowledging the desirability of improving the conditions under which people work, Reed makes the salient demographic as well as catallactic reality of this period, the subject of previous posts:
Though it is inaccurate to judge capitalism guilty of the sins of parish apprenticeship, it would also be inaccurate to assume that “free labour” children worked under ideal conditions in the early days of the Industrial Revolution. By today’s standards, their situation was clearly bad. Such capitalist achievements as air conditioning and high levels of productivity would, in time, substantially ameliorate it, however. The evidence in favor of capitalism is thus compellingly suggestive: From 1750 to 1850, when the population of Great Britain nearly tripled, the exclusive choice of those flocking to the country for jobs was to work for private capitalists.
Of course, Mr. Ferrara’s probable rebuttal, which we now paraphrase, is at-the-ready: “But if Henry VIII didn’t steal Church lands . . . if the English people weren’t turned off their own land through enclosure . . . they would never have had to enter a factory and subject their children to the horrors of the industrial system! They would be independent farmers or small business proprietors, denizens of Merrie Old Distributist England!”
That is, he will repeat the charge you answered last month, apparently in the hope that you’ve forgotten your answer. When you refute it (again), he will change the subject to another anti-free market canard (perhaps another one you’ve dealt with already). We went through that surreal experience in the space of five or six email exchanges back in March. We will not go through it here.
To Be Continued

* Mr. Ferrara has recently wondered out loud, and apparently without embarrassment, why we should in general favor more recent over older historical research. For an historian’s reaction to this query, see Tom Woods’s July 27, 2011 column, “Keep Digging that Hole.”