Musings on Mercantilism
by L. Neil Smith
Attribute to The Libertarian Enterprise
All of our lives, we Baby Boomers and those who have come after us, have been loftily informed by the culture’s intelligentsia, by the literati, by the cognoscentithat the way we live—we children of the Productive Class—where we choose to live, mostly in the suburbs, is all wrong, hideous, like something out of a horror movie.
If we choose, instead, to live out in the country, then it’s even worse. We become—in the hallucinations of the intelligentsia, the literati, the cognoscenti, those who imagine themseves superior to us (but who, in fact, can be reliably gulled by sleazy con-men pushing one transparently ridiculous scam after another, hoaxes like global warming, overpopulation, ozone depletion, acid rain, and the Sacred Advent of Barack Obama)—we become inbred, toothless, gun-toting, Bible-thumping cannibals, all of it played to the tune of “Duelling Banjos”.
The fact is, the places where these specimens prefer to live—the intelligentsia, the literati, the cognoscenti—the once- great cities of a once-great America, have become rotting piles of manure, due to the policies they advocate: extortionate taxation, rent control, victim disarmament, professional licensing. Before it’s over, every single one of them will look like Detroit, refashioned in the spiritual likeness of the intelligentsia, the literati, the cognoscenti, and the bloodsucking political vampires who cater to them.
We gaze on the wreckage of the civilizations that came before us, on the ruins of ancient Uruk, Thebes, Persepolis, Athens, Rome, Tikal, and we wonder how such a thing is possible, why the inhabitants of these cities failed to stop what was clearly happening to them. In some cases—Tenochtitlan, Carthage, Cuzco, disaster was brought to them by their enemies. In some cases—notably the Minoans—it was nature.
Our society suffers a number of deadly confusions—conflations—in which one thing, innocently or not, is associated with another. A minor instance—which can help explain a major one—is when horror stories get slapped together inappropriately, in bookstores, on paperback racks, on TV, or in the movies, with those of science fiction.
In fact, as Stephen King mentioned in his book of critical essays, Dans Macabre, they are opposites. It’s a matter of epistemology, the philosophical disciplne that asks us how we know what we know. In horror, nothing works, people are stupid, the mind is helpless, and the universe is unknowable. In science fiction, the universe is consistent, lawful, and knowable. The human mind is efficious, and people can solve problems with it and acnieve great things.
A confusion that may well spell the end of our civilization is the conflation—almost always quite deliberate—of mercantilism with capitalism.
Mercantilism is an ancient economic and political arrangement under which certain businessmen acquire and use their influence with government to suppress their competition and offer customers fewer choices in terms of quality or price than they would have in a truly free market. It’s the same system that Adam Smith complained about in his 1776 book Wealth of Nations, when the King granted special favors—powers and immunities—to groups (like the British East India Company) for some consideration they offered, whle interfering with others who hadn’t bought the King’s divine permission to do business.
Unfortunately, for almost all of its history, America has been a mercantilist, rather than a capitalist country, and it is mercantilism—aided by its political lackeys—that remains the greatest enemy of freedom today. Almost everywhere you look, it is businessmen and their companies, expecting to profit by restricting our liberties, who are the real problem. Generally, the politicians are only along for the ride.
And free drinks.
By contrast, capitalism is an economic system in which members of a Productive Class (as distinct from the Parasitic Classes under fascism) compete non-violently with one another to produce the best possible goods at the lowest possible prices. Creative individuals are free, either working for themselves or for others, to make economic or technological innovations that keep quality ever-rising and prices ever-falling. Or they may discover or invent new goods or services altogether.
When capitalists get rich it’s because they’ve earned their wealth by making life better or more enjoyable for others. Everybody’s living standards rise exponentially. And as capitalists get rich, so does everyone else around them—not that it’s the purpose of capitalism, but it is the most efficient distributor of wealth in history.
Other words for mercantilism have been coined over the centuries: corporatism, corporate socialism, state capitalism, and fascism, which most people don’t understand is an economic theory, rather than a nasty form of bondage and leather fetishism. Whereas private capitalism is the economic and political expression of individual freedom.
Seminarist Robert LeFevre taught his students that fascism in its present form was born when German political and economic theorists in the 1920s observed that in places like Mexico (which most people are unaware had the first Marxist Revolution in 1910) and in sovietized Russia, communism didn’t work. Whenever the “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” expropriated assets—the “means of production”—it assumed liabilities its bureaucrats didn’t know how to handle. Absent capitalist incentives within the system, with no way to obtain the all-important data that economists call “price”, production lagged or collapsed, and couldn’t be restored by imposing quotas or threatening managers and workers with firing squads. People starved, and had to be shot by the tens of thousands when they complained or threatened to revolt.
Under newly-invented fascism, originally advertised as a benign partnership between business and government, certain individuals were permitted the illusion that they owned the means of production, and gladly bore all of its liabilities—payrolls, physical upkeep, the costs of energy and materials—while government actually controlled everything through regulations, and skimmed the profit off through taxation.
In some places, government maintained the upper hand in this “partnership”, while in others, business eventually controled the very forces that had sought to control them. That’s what gives fascism so many names and faces. One thing is clear, however, conflicts like World War II weren’t fought between the proponents of individual liberty and those of authoritarianism, but between competing brands of fascism.
As useless as the old-time right-left political spectrum may be as a tool for understanding what’s going on politically, as useful as the Nolan-Fritz diamond may be in analyzing the political territory, the only “diagram” that means anything is a line with individual liberty at one end, and a total lack of individual liberty at the other. Anyone who chooses to stand anyplace but for freedom, at the extremest end possible, is choosig to be less than free, in an attempt to compromise with evil. But any compromise with evil is evil, in and of itself.
What was it Barry Goldwater said, in a quote variously attributed to Cicero, or Henry Jaffa, or Karl Hess? “Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue; Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.”
Anything less than freedom is not freedom, but something else.
And while we’re on the subject (more or less) of compromise and conflation, let’s get something straight, once and for all. There is no such thing as “left-libertarianism” or “right-libertarianism”. Nor can there be. There is only libertarianism. Which is to say, you either look for justification to initiate physical force against other human beings—or for advocating it or delegating it—or you do not.
You are either for freedom or you’re not.
To hold otherwise is a hoax, a transparently self-serving attempt to inject inaccuraties and irrelevancies—possibly for political or monetary gain—into an otherwise remarkably uncluttered argument. (Or you may just want childishly to appear trendy to your cute little socialist girlfriend and wear a beret or a Che Guevera shirt.) This is why so many individuals who fraudulently call themselves libertarians of one kind or another hate, loathe, and despise the vital and revolutionary notion that lies at the core of libertarianism, that constitutes its very heart and soul: the amazing concept of Zero Aggression.
If you do not hate, loathe, and despise the Zero Aggression Principle, if you are willing, instead, to live by it, then you are a libertarian—whether you realize it or not. If you detest it, and the limits you may feel it imposes on you, then you are something else.
I was once lectured in my own home by a petitMarxist, when I was a college Freshman, on the subject of coercion. (I had already been a a libertarian more than a year, and had learned about the Zero Aggression Principle from the writings of Ayn Rand.) It was coercion, I was informed, that, in order to remain living in the world, we are all cruelly expected to work, in order to earn the necessities of life.
We were forced, asserted my minimarxist acquaintance, to do so, and, somehow, it was all capitalism’s fault, even though it was mostly capitalism that supplied the work for people to do in order to survive.
This was quickly followed by psychology courses, in which it was asserted that commercials forcepeople to buy things they wouldn’t otherwise purchase, even though a massive psychological experiment, conducted at the national level, using advertisements shown during the first Super Bowl, proved only a few years later that the assertion was absolutely false. Commericials, the experiment proved, can make us aware of a new product, or remind us that an old product continues to exist.
For this and a host of other reasons, I became a stickler when it comes to defining libertarianism and especially the nature of force. For example, I don’t believe—as many individuals appear to—that fraud is the moral equivalent of assault, a maleum in se. It’s unquestionably a violation of contract, a breach of honor, a reason to take someone to civil court. It is not physical force or anything like it. It’s also something that a truly free market can take care of very well.
Another swamp in which libertarians lately find themselves mired—and for no good reason—is the question of intellectual property rights.
In my experience, the anti-intellectual property rights splinter consists of mediocre writers and artists—and pseudointellectual purveyors of philosophical garbage—who wish to expropriate all or part of the works of better writers and artists, against whom they couldn’t otherwise hope to compete, or even to suppress their work altogether.
They invariably assert, nonsensically, that copying the works of their betters deprives their victims of nothing, when in fact, for most writers and artists, it obviates the second most important reason they may have for working, to earn a livelihood, feed their families, and improve their condition by selling what they create—and what I am increasingly convinced they own in perpetuity—exclusively to others.
Yes, the customer may own the physical book, wood pulp and cloth. But he does not own its intellectual content or the right to reproduce it and sell it to others. Contrary to the coercive position of certain government-backed mercantilists, whose goal appears to be destroying free communications, he should be free to quote it, giving proper credit.
It’s extremely cynical—and tells people a great deal more about you than you may wish them to know—to assert that, simply because one’s property may be difficult to defend, it somehow mysteriously ceases to be one’s property. The clear implication is that people act honorably only out of fear of getting caught, and that your rights are to be defined for you by the worst, lowest elements in society, the thieves.
Enemies of intellectual property rights assert—utterly without logical or factual foundation—that the desire to defend one’s work is the same as a willingness to call government into the conflict (an illusion of which any student of Robert LeFevre could easily disabuse them). At the same time, asked what they would do if someone stole their car—wouldn’t they call the police?—they pusillanimously skitter for the baseboards just like cockroaches when you turn on the light.
One of them recently claimed that more and more people are joining their side. It looks quite the other way to me. It looks like they were making great headway—until somebody they were stealing from noticed them. I was warned by weaker spirits that these thieves and their intellectual bodyguard were the “irresistable wave of the future”, that standing up to them would ruin me professionally. But since I did, my hits on Google have increased by two orders of magnitude.
In the end, the difference between “fair use” and plagiarism—the theft of intellectual property—has nothing to do with the nature of the property being considered. Exactly like the difference between sex and rape, it is a matter of consent. This isn’t brain surgery, it isn’t rocket science. It’s something that we all knew when we were only five years old, but which some few of us seem to have forgotten.
What’s even more fun is that I declined—and still do—to debate the matter with them. I never debate, and neither did Ayn Rand, for exactly the same reasons. In the first place, skill at debate has nothing to do with being right or wrong. It always comes down to who yells loudest or who has the cutest dimples. Moreover, socialists—and that’s what they are—are infamous for engaging their victims in endless argument, based on their assumption that “What’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is … negotiable.” When you come home to find a burglar rifling through your possesions, do you engage him in a debate?
It’s something to think about.
Four-time Prometheus Award-winner L. Neil Smith has been called one of the world’s foremost authorities on the ethics of self-defense. He is the author of more than 25 books, including The American Zone, Forge of the Elders, Pallas, The Probability Broach, Hope (with Aaron Zelman), and his collected articles and speeches, Lever Action, all of which may be purchased through his website “The Webley Page” at lneilsmith.org.
Ceres, an exciting sequel to Neil’s 1993 Ngu family novel Pallas is currently running as a free weekly serial at www.bigheadpress.com/lneilsmith/?page_id=53
Neil is presently at work on Ares, the middle volume of the epic Ngu Family Cycle, and on Where We Stand: Libertarian Policy in a Time of Crisis with his daughter, Rylla.
See stunning full-color graphic-novelizations of The Probability Broach and Roswell, Texas which feature the art of Scott Bieser at www.BigHeadPress.com Dead-tree versions may be had through the publisher, or at http://www.Amazon.com where you will also find Phoenix Pick editions of some of Neil’s earlier novels. Links to Neil’s books at Amazon.com are on his website