As expected, the Professor’s reply to my analysis of his avoidant tendencies is also avoidant, taking the form of a condescending remark that indirectly manifests his discomfort by wishing him onto a therapist’s couch, with a Scotch and Soda.1 Yet even though the Professor re-asserts his refusal of serious dialogue, he returns, or had already returned, to my argument, merely in a different place. Alternatively, sustaining the pscyhoanalytical mode, we could say he returned to the argument and to me by way of a second displacement. I am grateful either way for the resultant second (quasi-)reply, since it provides an opportunity to delve further into a matter of broader interest than a comment-thread spat between two internet nobodies: How and why the argument for liberty, or negative freedom, turns against itself into the facilitation of tyranny.
1. Who controls, governs (is the one who really governs)
In a long comment that the Professor addresses to friend-of-the-blog Michael Drew, my name comes into play in the third paragraph (emphasis added, typos corrected):
But what if protective regulation was simply not available? Then, the libertarian argues, there’s no–or dramatically reduced–incentive for business to control government. If they can’t seek favors from government, and don’t have to fear heavy regulation from government, then what gains would be available to them that would be worth controlling it? This is where CK’s emphasis on “control” of government misses the libertarians’ point by being over-broad–he doesn’t break down what parts of government they want to control, so he doesn’t, as far as I can tell, understand the argument very well.
When the Professor describes a supposed emphasis of mine, and puts a word in quotation marks, one might presume that I had actually used that word. Yet nowhere did I refer to “control” of government, and it is not my argument that a weakened government must fall more easily under the “control” of private interests. Nor is the argument that the Professor is addressing my argument. I was and had been specifically arguing that the problem is not control of government, but displacement of governing power. From this point of view, governing power remains power, and finally the same power, whether exercised by so-called “public” institutions, or by so-called “private” institutions.
The distinction between “public” and “private” is obviously useful, but it remains a conventional usage, not an eternal or natural necessity. Politics and economics – or “political economy” – can equally or perhaps best be seen as constituting a single sphere, one that in alternative modes of social organization also cannot be distinguished meaningfully from “religion” and “culture.” Other, more pro-social radicalisms than economistic libertarianism have also of course tried to remind us that “the personal is political,” while the deeper unity of public and private spheres is evident in the history of the “corporation” itself, which goes back to the Middle Ages and is anticipated in Roman law and administration. Quite typically, in the British colonies and in the early history of the United States, “corporations” were “chartered corporations,” under a formalized sharing of dominion by the existent state power.
In relation to the Professor’s misinterpretations, and to put the matter simply, government is never really controlled. Who controls governs, under whatever name, and regardless of the social-economic sector to which that governing power is conventionally assigned. Put differently, the disempowerment of governing institutions through the elimination of their ability to grant “favors” or impose “heavy regulation” – i.e., to offer meaningful positive and negative incentives via law and administration – turns the word “government,” when applied to public institutions, into an empty phrase.
When the power of the nominal government recedes, the real government or really governing power will be assumed by someone else, somewhere else. Without interference from the old regulator, the new freely self-regulating regulator is even more free to do what it chooses with its lands, its factories, its workers. When the government abdicates, its prerogatives will be assumed by the successor states. In case of conflict or grievance with the Duchy of Exxon, or the Republic of Apple, a citizen of the defunct State of California or United States of America might, out of confusion or nostalgia, look to the latter entities for help, but any real hope for redress would depend on the corporation’s governors, not, for example, a so-called Governor residing in a state capital.
This narrative is not science fiction or alternative history: This process occurs wherever “government” is undeveloped, weakened, or overthrown. “Regulatory capture,” the Professor’s main interest in these exchanges, would be merely a stage in such a process, which, as in other matters that may at first appear un-connected, the libertarian and the progressive may both decry and initially on the same basis, but with radically opposed further intentions – i.e., destruction of public institutions vs. improvement of them.2
2. No true libertarians or the pretty low question of the non-existence of successful libertarian experiments in history
The Professor finds it unfair to put the historical question to libertarians:
As to the historical examples CK asked for, it’s a lousy trick question. We’ve never really tried the libertarians’ experiment of disallowing business regulation due to refusal by liberals and conservatives alike. Their refusal is legitimate, of course, and I don’t imply otherwise. But it’s… pretty low to demand historical examples when none have been allowed.
It is true that those confronting libertarian utopianism often turn to this “pretty low” “lousy trick question.” It is asked usually with the confidence that the libertarian, even the professional libertarian pitching reform rather than radicalism, will be unable to supply an example of the “libertarians’ experiment of disallowing business regulation” ever working anywhere.
There are at least three ways of looking at the question: It could be that, as the Professor says, 1) the experiment has never been tried at all due to “refusal by liberals and conservatives alike.” It could be that, 2), the experiment has never been tried at all because it in some fundamental way is contrary to human nature or nature itself. Or it could be that, 3), the experiment has actually been tried, or is even in some sense a natural initial state of any enterprise – business in the broadest as well as the narrow sense – but that it never produces what the faithful libertarian believes it should produce, so remains unrecognizable to the libertarian as that experiment (no true libertarians, no true libertarianisms).
On further reflection, however, it will become clear that 2 and 3 are really two ways of saying the same thing, and that they would also fully explain number 1: In other words, history seems to suggest overwhelmingly that there is something inherently wrong with or perfectly impractical or undesirable about the libertarian concept at least as understood by libertarians. Since, however, the Professor has previously, and repeatedly, declared himself allergic to, or at other times incapable of, the kind of philosophical inquiry implied by any question of the inherent, of the humanly possible3, it is left to the rest of us to consider whether the reason that there are no historical examples of libertarian-approved libertarianism is that the libertarianism of the libertarians is self-falsifying or un-actualizable.
This problem would not prevent libertarianism or particular libertarians from sometimes providing for, as noted, a reform impetus, a libertarian impulse or sentiment that can be made to seem attractive because it is at bottom entirely attractive, even universally attractive: “just like things are, but more liberated.” All the same, sustained criticism of libertarianism as an ideological stance will still produce absurdities, absurdities that the libertarian may find “astoundingly stupid,” because any libertarian determined to remain a libertarian at all costs must do so. As mere reformers, the libertarians produce suggestions for others to consider by their own lights and, one might say, at liberty, as free of libertarianism and libertarians as “conservatives and liberals alike” tend to prefer to be. Typically and indicatively, libertarianism also produces a political party of no significance, and politicians whose authenticity as libertarians comes into doubt to the precise extent they start becoming truly significant: The decreasingly libertarian successful politician is the infirmity of libertarianism realized, or conceptual incoherence in action.
Similarly, all of those bad historical examples, all of those not really authentic libertarianisms in Somalia or after reform of Glass-Steagall or in the imaginary libertarian slave states conjured by frankly state-democratic political liberals4 are authentically what ideological libertarianism achieves: brute anarchy, destructive unintended consequences leading to anti-libertarian corrections, and, in the realm of ideas, paradoxes.
3. Libertarian Repression
The Professor does not believe that he is an ideologue.5 He associates himself with an in-between position, acknowledging complementary flaws in the anti-statist libertarian and pro-statist liberal positions6: Libertarians, he thinks, tend to underestimate externalities, while liberals overestimate them, and in turn underestimate the harms of over-regulation and the dangers of regulatory capture.
This position may strike many as appealingly moderate and balanced. It can be taken as an outline of the liberal-democratic state concept sketched in relation to economics. Yet when the Professor returns to his argument on regulatory capture, more popularly discussed under the headings of “cronyism” and “corruption,” he continues to express it one-sidedly:
It seems to me that the libertarian argument rests on two important assumptions. One: in the absence of regulation there is not much businesses want from government (aside from gov’t contracts, which may or may not be a severable issue). Two: It’s impossible to have regulation without the potential for protective regulation, hence regulation inevitably leads to rent-seeking, regulatory capture, and collusion with government.
There may not seem to be much wrong with this description, but it reflects those same prejudicial assumptions, the un-articulated ones underlying those that the Professor does articulate.
Under “One” we have a problem of redundancy. “Regulation” and “government” refer conventionally to different concepts, to particular exercises of power as opposed to the seat of power, but on a more fundamental level they are synonymous. To regulate is to rule, to manage: to govern. A true absence of regulation, or the disallowance of regulation, would be true absence of government, and would convert the Professor’s statement into an apparent absurdity that also happens to be a truism: In the absence of government (regulation) there is not much businesses want from government (regulation). From a different point of view, the libertarian hopes to replace “government regulations” with a truly governing regulation against “regulation.” It is, in short, the pure substitution of the will of the business owner for any other source of authority.
The Professor likely has in mind, or would like for us to have in mind, the conventional understandings of the two key terms: Government as public officials and appointees, regulation as particular forms of regulation, contained in weighty books full of precise codes and sub-codes and sub-sub-codes. Yet, as I have been struggling to explain, the removal of “regulating power” from the nominal “government” is always the transference of actual governance to some other entity, to the Somalian or feudal warlord, or to the slaveowner, or to the derivatives shops at AEG and Goldman-Sachs, or, for that matter, to the manufacturer of toilet seat covers (which last entity will happen, by practical necessity, to produce and operate in accordance with much more detailed codes and sub-codes, and so on, for the manufacture of toilet seat covers). Without this power, this governmental power that is always a regulating power, government not only lacks anything to offer, it is no longer government at all: In the Professor’s version of the libertarian experiment, businesses are or will have become the real government, the real powers on Earth and in the Heavens, even more so than they are already.
Again – I repeat myself with emphasis because, as we have seen, this thought is hard for people like the Professor, as for most of us long habituated to the more conventional categories of the public and the private, to process – in libertopia, even if it is a mere experiment run under the theory of “just like things are, but more liberated,” business free of what is always called “burdensome regulation,” or of government, becomes the government. Business will be in theory subject only to the natural self-regulation of the market and the unknown limits of social and ecological tolerance, as per 19th Century liberalism in theory and practice, and as further explicated for our era by the 20th Century prophets of libertarianism and neo-liberalism.
Under the Professor’s “Two” point we have another one-sided truism: The Professor names “rent-seeking, regulatory capture, and collusion” as ills of government involvement in the economy, but these are just three terms for bad government. The government can “collude” or it can cooperate. It can provide for “rent-seeking” or it can pay reliably for services rendered. It can defend the nation or it can oppress the innocent. The descriptions will largely depend on how we feel about the particular examples of the collusion or cooperation, etc., or where we sit in relation to them or their results.
Following from the two-pointed passage quoted above, the Professor produces a syllogism: “If these assumptions are wrong,” he says, “then perhaps reducing government’s regulatory power would lead to more corporate control of government.” As we have seen, however, “government’s regulatory power,” properly understood, is a multiple redundancy. The three-word phrase could translate as “power’s powerful power,” “government’s governing governance,” or “regulation’s regulatory regulation,” and the main clause amounts to pure self-contradiction – viz., “then perhaps reducing the value of government institutions would make them more valuable.”
The further conclusions that rely on such flawed premises are of course also flawed, though they do somewhat inadvertently raise or return us to more profound questions. The Professor continues from the sentence on government’s regulatory power as follows:
But a) an argument for why businesses would [seek control of a non-regulating government] is necessary, not the simple assertion, as CK limited himself to and b) it would be false to infer that therefore libertarians actually desire that outcome (which I do not imply that CK did here, but which I have seen others do on this blog)…
Setting aside the Professor’s failure, perhaps based on lack of interest, perhaps based on self-interest, to understand the argument he is attempting to summarize, we can turn to the remark in parentheses, apparently intended to be generous, and can observe that CK might in fact be quite willing to entertain the possibility that libertarians and libertarian sympathizers do, in some manner secretly to themselves, desire an “outcome” different from the one they advertise.
The outcome in question would not be “control” of “government” by “business,” though at some stage in the process matters might give that appearance. The outcome, put simply, would be greater relative power for the libertarians themselves or for those with whom libertarians identify. In other words, in this context at least, there really is “will to power and nothing else besides.” Questions of conscious motivation and therefore of moral responsibility, and to repression in a psychological as well as political sense, naturally arise at this point. They may become unavoidable, especially if the higher aim of further inquiry would be to rescue the libertarian ideal from libertarians, in relation to the original libertarian dilemma: That the rule of the the ideal individual, the free will to power of the separate and equal person, is always the concretely determined rule of very particular, decisively unequal persons.
For now, we can observe that the existence of a public authority at all is perceived as an implicit limitation on or subtraction from the libertarian’s own power, just as any reduction of this alien power would constitute his or her own relative increase in power. In the libertarian imagination or, as Professor Hanley prefers, the libertarian psyche, the reduction in the power of government (or “government”) means an increase in power for each libertarian or for the individual, which latter, as individuality, is presented as an ideal, but which each individual knows exclusively and therefore universally only through and as him- or herself. The libertarians do not recognize popularly sovereign liberal-democratic government as an extension of themselves, or, put more precisely, of this self. They may exploit or even admire democratic impulses and particular constitutional traditions, but their views are in this sense profoundly anti-democratic and constitutionally anti-constitutional.
- Professor Hanley’s comment in full:
Wow, CK, your insight into my soul and psyche is fascinating,. Can I come lie on your couch for a full psych workup? I’ll bring the scotch and soda, you supply the unintentional humor.
- From my comment under discussion of the “surveillance state” controversy that led to this skewed colloquy :
A democratic and also leftwing or progressive stance identifies democratic government as the key to defending the weak as well as the people in general against various forms of oppressive power, including but not limited to unlawful violence. The libertarian or hijacked libertarian tendency thus helps to destroy the positive freedom of workers, minorities, and everyone else, or to make it more difficult to stop polluters, corporate interests, and so on – in addition to terrorists and other outlaws.
What this means is that liberal-progressives and libertarians might take the same initial positions on different issues, but with different objectives: The progressives seek greater government openness in order to root out corruption and make government more effective. The right-libertarians seek greater government openness in order to expose corruption and make people even more skeptical of government. Their answer to corporate corruption of government is to make government even weaker, and thus put the entire state even more firmly in the hands of the wealthy and powerful.
The fashionable libertarianism or left libertarianism of this moment doesn’t seem even to be aware of the problem. Liberals and progressives cooperate – sometimes enthusiastically – against their own interests in spreading alienation from government itself, rather than from bad or undemocratic or illiberal government. They have good intentions, but can’t figure out the day after the latest feeding frenzy why the Tea Party attitude and various forms of insane and obscene conspiracism remain popular enough to get elected and re-elected.
- Thus our necessary resort to psychological explanations: Whatever the explanation, or whatever explanation The Professor happens to report, it is clear that, if philosophy reveals fundamental, obvious, and somewhat invariable flaws in the concept he is professionally committed to examining and developing, he would have every reason to avoid that investigation. Of course, avoidance of philosophical investigation is not the same as avoidance of philosophy itself. It is always a commitment to naive or simply bad philosophy. If the Professor had even enough philosophy to understood what he was doing, or could allow himself to understand, he would face something of a crisis, but he is, as we have seen, a stone on these matters, and committed to remaining one. [↩]
- I am referring here again to the article that the Professor called “astoundingly stupid”: “We Already Tried Libertarianism – It Was Called Feudalism” by Mike Konczal, at the Next New Deal blog. [↩]
- The Professor asserts that it is not his purpose to “push the libertarian case” (before proceeding to a multi-comment defense of it in the context of recent economic history). He says he is interested merely in questioning “a critic’s level of knowledge.” He has also clearly indicated that by “critic” he means myself, but he has never explained why this critic’s “level of knowledge” is relevant to the assessment of an argument. In point of fact, that critic is happy to confess that his level of knowledge on topics of very high interest to the Professor is vastly inferior to the Professor’s. That critic is confident that an attentive student in one of the Professor’s no doubt very informative courses will attain a level of knowledge, or expertise in the relevant literature, far greater than any to which the critic aspires. Yet regardless of the or any critic’s qualifications for saying so, the problem remains that the Professor’s arguments on libertarianism are ill-formed, and they will remain ill-formed also regardless of the Professor’s or anyone else’s good or merely moderate intentions or expertise on particular specialties. [↩]
- See, e.g., the Professor’s comment:
I sort of stand in the middle, thinking both sides are not careful enough with their assumptions. E.g., I think libertarians are too often too dismissive of externalities, but liberals too often too sensitive to minor externalities. And of course, since I’m splitting the difference, I must be right!