Poverty and Libertarians, Old and New

by M. George van der Meer

Poverty and Libertarians, Old and New

Early last week, one of many creepy U.S. bureaucracies reminiscent of the Ministry of Truth released new statistics on poverty, among various other metrics that it sees fit to keep track of. If we’re to accept the government’s data as true (and this is hardly an argument for that conclusion), nearly a third of all American counties saw a “significant increase in poverty” during the four years leading up to 2012.

In an essay on poverty especially relevant in light of the new data, John Beverley Robinson confronts the notion “that anybody can go to work that wants to,” that the impoverished are so due to their lack of desire to labor. In Robinson’s monograph, the expositor of that shallow myth is a “man in [a] thousand-dollar sealskin overcoat,” privileged and ignorant enough to sincerely believe it. The myth is of course still with us and is particularly sturdy in these United States. Unfortunately, many of today’s self-styled libertarians hold it up, either consciously or not.

The old individualists, free market libertarians of a different sort, opposed this idea and with it capitalism, resisting it as a system of arbitrary increase, one in which capital was granted a special privilege to demand tribute. This special treatment to capital, particularly to land and to currency, was established through laws giving its holders special treatment by protecting them from competition.

Because these anarchists did not regard capital as anything unique in itself, as anything other than another stage of product (and the reverse, they argued, was also the case), they refused to accept the claim that it was entitled to payment in the industrial process. They instead argued that if a truly competitive system should ever prevail, one without invasive class legislation to protect capitalists, that the price to be paid for a given item would settle in due course at its labor cost.

As Benjamin Tucker once argued the case, of course the owner of a plough should be free to rent it out to his neighbor — having made the sacrifice of time and energy to build it — but without privileges to protect the builder of ploughs from the competitive process, the owner simply would not be able to demand such rents. In short, the absence of privilege would make everyone an owner of capital, and so capital would lose its ability to compel tribute, which anarchists like Tucker saw as just another tax on the productive.

The old libertarians were therefore not very much different from their contemporary counterparts; they very much opposed the welfare idea, the idea that one man ought to be able to live at the expense of another. The pivotal point of department, then, is that the old libertarians understood political economy well enough to detect the fact that it was the rich, and not the poor, who lived parasitically on the hard work of others. From principles the same as those of today’s libertarians — a level playing field, free competition, individual rights and private property — they reached very different, indeed socialistic, conclusions.

It is of course a matter of speculation what effect full economic freedom of the kind urged by libertarians would have. We don’t have a free market, which, as the Center for a Stateless Society’s Kevin Carson often points out, is a fact routinely forgotten (or otherwise ignored) by both the ostensible opponents and advocates of “the free market.” Something about the twentieth century inclined those disposed to advocating economic freedom to identify their views with capitalism. There are arguments to be had about the myriad historical reasons why that might be the case. But the old libertarians, logical and consistent, understood the difference and actively opposed capitalism as utterly inconsistent with libertarian principles.

We’re left with a rather confused and convoluted set of phrasings that are not particularly well adapted to the factual nuances of the present historical moment. Libertarians must cut through language and attempt to take on principles, a process that certainly ought to give a renewed importance to the question of poverty within the free market movement.

flattr this!

One response to “Poverty and Libertarians, Old and New

  1. The basic principle of classical liberalism (and of libertarianism) is the harmony of long term economic interests between rich and poor – the rejection of the socialist (and interventionist) doctrine that landowners and factory owners have different long term economic interests from other people.

    If people want to read 19th century American writers on economic matters they should read A.L. Perry (the “American Bastiat”) who sold more books than any other American economist of the late 19th century.

    Just as if people want to understand land – they should read Frank Fetter (the man who refuted Henry George on land).

    Poverty is the natural state of humanity – it is not caused by greedy capitalists or grasping landowners.

    And both land and capital are rare by nature (not by a plot).

    Government interventions to “reduce the rate of interest” do not, in the end, reduce poverty over what it other wise would have been – they increase the level of poverty over what it otherwise would have been.

    Rates of interest should be decided by the time preferences of borrowers and REAL SAVERS.

    Nor do government efforts to “break the land monopoly” (i.e. undermine private ownership of land) mean that long term poverty is less than it otherwise would have been – again, on the contrary, they make poverty worse than it otherwise would have been.

    Whatever his other faults Murray Rothbard (and the other anarchocapitialists) understood that the central principle of both Classical Liberalism and Libertarianism is the harmony of the long term economic interests between rich and poor – between land owners and factory owners and farm workers and factory workers (and everyone else in the productive economy.

    If someone loses sight of this basic insight – they lose sight of what is really important about Classical Liberalims and Libertarianism, and what makes these things different from socialism and interventionism.

    What is needed to reduce long term poverty is a dramatic roll back of the state. In the interests of rich “capitalists” as well as that of the poor. For the rightly understood economic interests of all economic (not politcal) “classes” are THE SAME (that is the central insight of Classical Liberalism and Libertarianism).