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Anarchism Left and Right

April 4, 2006

As many of our readers will know, anarchism comes in both free-market and socialist varieties. Free-market anarchists (or “anarcho-capitalists”) like Gustave de Molinari and Murray Rothbard favour replacing the monopolistic state with competing private services in a fully capitalistic social order based on private property and free exchange. By contrast, socialist anarchists like Mikhail Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin regard private property and the state as twin sources of oppression and propose to abolish both.

But what, then, could free-market socialist anarchism possibly be – other than an oxymoron?Well, a number of nineteenth-century anarchist thinkers, such as Benjamin Tucker and Lysander Spooner, were “socialists” in the sense that they by and large accepted a labor theory of value; condemned the wage system as oppressive; called for workers’ control of industry; and interpreted profit, rent, and interest as forms of exploitation – but they were “free-market” in the sense that they regarded the evils of “capitalist” society as the product not of the unhampered market but of governmental intervention, and so recommended abolishing not private property but the state.


Individualist anarchist Kevin A. Carson’s recent book Studies in Mutualist Political Economy seeks to rehabilitate the free-market socialist anarchist position – as the portrait of Benjamin Tucker gracing the cover might suggest. The latest issue http://blog.mises.org/archives/004869.asp(20.1) of the Journal of Libertarian Studies is a symposium issue devoted to an appraisal of Carson’s book from an Austro-libertarian standpoint.

The symposium begins with a reprint of Murray N. Rothbard’s 1965 article “The Spooner-Tucker Doctrine: An Economist’s View,” in which Rothbard expresses his intellectual debt to Spooner and Tucker on matters of political theory, but argues that in economic theory, especially monetary theory, they were fundamentally confused. Rothbard also expresses dissent from Tucker’s rejection of the legitimacy of absentee land ownership. (Rothbard seems to have thought that Spooner held this position also, but it now appears not.) While obviously not directed specifically at Carson’s particular statement of the position (which is in many ways more nuanced than his predecessors’), Rothbard’s discussion may serve as a useful introduction to the some of the chief commonalities and differences between the Austro-libertarian and free-market socialist anarchist traditions.

Carson defends the labor theory of value, but in a subjectivized form, holding that the price of a good tends to correspond to the subjective disutility of the labor needed to produce it – since a higher price would be whittled away by competition while at a lower price the good would not be produced at all. In “The Labor Theory of Value: A Critique of Carson’s Studies in Mutualist Political Economy,” Robert P. Murphy finds Carson’s book impressive in many ways, and concedes that Carson’s statement of the correspondence between price and disutility of labor is essentially correct; but Murphy denies that this constitutes a genuinely explanatory theory of price formation. Murphy argues for the superior explanatory power of the Austrian approach, and also defends Böhm-Bawerk’s critique of the labor theory against Carson’s objections.

In “Kevin Carson as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” Walter Block charges Carson with confusing laissez-faire capitalism (the absence of government interference in the market) with state monopoly capitalism (government interference on behalf of owners of capital). Block applauds Carson’s critique of state monopoly capitalism, which he finds to be excellent and properly libertarian; but in Block’s view Carson then illegitimately slides into a critique of laissez-faire capitalism as well. The result, Block concludes, is a book that alternates frustratingly between an insightful libertarian Jekyll and a confused anti-libertarian Hyde.

For George Reisman, by contrast, Carson’s book is all Hyde and no Jekyll. In “Freedom Is Slavery: Laissez Faire Capitalism Is Government Intervention: A Critique of Carson’s Studies in Mutualist Political Economy” (see the introduction here), Reisman maintains that Carson’s position is essentially Marxism with a libertarian veneer. Reisman argues that Carson’s preference for local, worker-managed industry ignores the scarcity of entrepreneurial skill and the importance of the division of labor, and that Carson’s hopes for a lowered interest rate through credit expansion in a free-banking system run afoul of Misesian monetary theory. Reisman also criticizes Carson’s historical arguments for the claim that the present-day separation between labor and capital is the result of illegitimate government intervention.

In “Land-Locked: A Critique of Carson on Property Rights,” I defend a Lockean or Rothbardian theory of land ownership against Carson’s arguments for Tucker’s proposed prohibition on absentee land ownership. Carson maintains that the principle of self-ownership alone provides no basis for choosing between the Lockean and Tuckerite positions, so that the choice must instead be based on utilitarian considerations (which he thinks favor the Tuckerite option). I argue, to the contrary, that the Lockean position can be derived from the principle of self-ownership, while the Tuckerite position cannot.

In “Carson’s Rejoinders,” Carson offers rebuttals to the above criticisms. For example, he maintains that Rothbard’s and Reisman’s interpretation of Tuckerite monetary theory as inflationary is a misreading, and that Tucker’s banking proposals in fact resemble Rothbard’s recommendations for deregulating the insurance industry; as for Murphy’s and Block’s proffered counterexamples to the labor theory of value, Carson contends that these are in fact exceptions predicted by the theory rather than true counterexamples. To my critique of Tuckerite property theory, Carson responds that the Lockean and Tuckerite theories differ only as regards what counts as abandoning property, a difference that mere appeals to self-ownership do not appear to adjudicate.

To the charge of being Jekyll and Hyde (or just Hyde), Carson responds that it is not he but rather Block and Reisman who have confused state monopoly capitalism with laissez-faire, sliding from a proper defense of the latter to an improper defense of the former; he also charges them with downplaying the significance and/or injustice of the enclosure acts (which Carson sees as the coercive governmental origin of the separation between workers and ownership) and with a number of misinterpretations of the claims in his book.

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