Fall Right, Swing Left

Fall Right, Swing Left

The following article was written by Roderick T. Long and published on Austro-Athenian Empire, May 15th, 2010.

“I don’t try to make you believe something you don’t believe, but to make you do something you won’t do.”
— Ludwig Wittgenstein

“Over and over, you’re falling, and then catching yourself from falling. And this is how you can be walking and falling at the same time.”
— Laurie Anderson

I’ve written before about the importance of Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions for left-libertarians. Here’s another example.

Left-libertarians and right-libertarians – or mainstream libertarians, or “normal” libertarians, or whatever one wants to call them (I’m tempted by the irony of “modal libertarians” myself) – often get frustrated with each other. Left-libertarians pull their hair out when right-libertarians at one moment acknowledge the existence of pervasive government favouritism to big business, and then at the next moment lapse back into treating criticisms of big business as criticisms of the free market. (Here, for example, is Kevin Carson wondering why John Stossel, who in the past has “tipped his hat to the ideas of corporatism and crony capitalism,” suddenly “smile[s] and nod[s]” when Michael Medved “responds to allegations that big business is corrupt and exploitative, in the corporatist economy we live in, by arguing that ‘it can’t happen, because in a free market ….’”) Right-libertarians, for their part, can’t see why left-libertarians keep harping about corporatist intervention when the right-libertarians have already acknowledged its existence and badness.

I think Kuhn’s discussion of the pendulum may help to illuminate what’s going wrong here. Kuhn writes:

Since remote antiquity most people have seen one or another heavy body swinging back and forth on a string or chain until it finally comes to rest. To the Aristotelians, who believed that a heavy body is moved by its own nature from a higher position to a state of natural rest at a lower one, the swinging body was simply falling with difficulty. Constrained by the chain, it could achieve rest at its low point only after a tortuous motion and a considerable time. Galileo, on the other hand, looking at the swinging body, saw a pendulum, a body that almost succeeded in repeating the same motion over and over again ad infinitum. … [W]hen Aristotle and Galileo looked at swinging stones, the first saw constrained fall, the second a pendulum …. (Structure, pp. 118-121)

For Kuhn, the change from the Aristotelean to the Galilean interpretation represents a “Gestalt switch” associated with a paradigm shift; and I think the dispute over corporatism among libertarians involves something similar.

Aristotle and Galileo both noticed the same two facts about the swinging stone: a) it keeps swinging back and forth for a long time, and b) it eventually stops and hangs straight down. The difference, I would say, lies in what they saw as fundamental or essential. For Aristotle, hanging straight down (or getting as close as possible to doing so) was what the stone is essentially doing, while the period of swinging back and forth is an accidental imperfection – noise in the signal. For Galileo, by contrast, swinging perpetually back and forth in the same arc (or getting as close as possible to doing so) is what the stone is essentially doing, and it’s the gradual shortening of the arc until it hangs straight down that’s the accidental imperfection or “noise.”

One can imagine the Galileans shouting “But the stone keeps swinging back and forth in almost the same arc! Why do you ignore that?” and the Aristoteleans answering “I’ve already acknowledged the forces that constrain the stone in its fall! Why do you act as though I haven’t?”

Ludwig von Mises tells of a similar dispute [PDF] with his mentor Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk, when the Cantillon effects that Böhm-Bawerk dismissed as mere “friction” were for Mises an essential explanatory phenomenon in monetary analysis.

Just as Aristotle and Galileo saw different things when they looked at a swinging stone, and just as Böhm-Bawerk and Mises saw different things when they looked at the expansion of the money supply, so right-libertarians and left-libertarians see different things when they look at the existing economy.

Of course, like Aristotle and Galileo, they both notice (at some level of abstraction) the same facts: there’s a lot of more or less corporatist policies and there’s a lot of more or less free exchange. But for the right-libertarian, free exchange is what essentially characterises the existing economy, while the corporatist policies are so much friction; and just as you don’t constantly mention friction when talking about how a mechanism works, right-libertarians don’t constantly mention corporatism when talking about how the economy works. For the left-libertarian, by contrast, corporatism is a far more essential feature of the existing economy. (Though for most left-libertarians the free exchange is probably essential too, which may be part of what distinguishes us from some mainstream anarchists. So the analogy isn’t perfect. But never mind.)

Thus left-libertarians and right-libertarians are frustrated with each other because they’re arguing from opposite sides of a Gestalt shift, where what looks essential to one side looks accidental to the other; and persuading our opponents may be less a matter of getting them to assent to some specific list of propositions and more a matter of getting them to look at the world through the lens of those propositions. (One reason I find this explanation plausible is that I used to be more of a right-libertarian than I am now, and it rings true to my recollection of my own self-understanding.)

Now Kuhn often gives the impression of thinking that in cases like this neither side is more right than the other – that the Aristotelean and Galilean interpretations of the swinging stone are equally valid, and the choice between the two is a matter of nonrational commitent. It’s controversial whether at the end of the day that is precisely what Kuhn thinks, but let’s leave questions of Kuhn interpretation aside. Whether or not that’s Kuhn’s view, it’s not my view, and I don’t think that anything Kuhn has pointed out forces us to such a relativist position.

So I don’t want to suggest that this disagreement between left-libertarians and right-libertarians is a matter of a merely optional difference in perspective, like the Duck-Rabbit or the Necker Cube. Unlike Kuhn (perhaps), in such disputes I think both sides don’t recognise all the same facts, or at any rate don’t equally fully register the significance of those facts. Just as I regard Galileo’s interpretation of the swinging stone as explanatorily superior to Aristotle’s (explaining a broader range of facts, for example), and likewise Mises’ interpretation of monetary expansion as explanatorily superior to Böhm-Bawerk’s, so I think that the interpretation of the existing economy that sees corporatism as systematic and all-pervasive is explanatorily superior to the view that sees it as mere friction in an essentially free-market mechanism.

Right-libertarians could, of course, agree with the analysis I’ve just given of the disagreement, but insist that they’re the Galileo/Mises and we’re the Aristotle/Böhm-Bawerk. That would be a fair enough response; nothing I’ve said in this post supports the left-libertarian view of what’s essential over the right-libertarian view of what is so.

I do think, of course, that there’s a lot of important left-libertarian work out there that does make the case for the explanatory superiority of seeing corporatism as essential – including, obviously, Kevin Carson’ two books. (See also Charles Johnson’s recent summary of the nine ways in which corporatism operates.) But that goes beyond the aim of this post, which is simply to offer a way to think about this dispute of ours.

5 responses to “Fall Right, Swing Left

  1. As usual (these days) with a Roderick Long article it is hard to tell, specifically, what this is supposed to be about – for example what a “left libertarian” actually is.

    Ludwig Wittgenstein was a pro Soviet Union person – and also a bit of nut. For example, he went to the Soviets (to try and more to the Soviet Union) and, without any irony, stated that although he was generally on the Soviet side he thought there was a lot in what this Trotsky person was saying (it did seem to enter the head of this intellectual that supporters of Trotsky were being killed off in the Soviet Union).

    As for his philosophy – Harold Prichard dragged himself off his death bed to go and see Wittgnenstein speak on a visit to Oxford. And Prichard asked a few polite but critical questions – and Wittengenstein and his supporters replied by……

    Well by hissing and denoucning Prichard (a man who was dying and had dragged himself along to the lecture) for daring to be critical of the “Great Mind” that was Wittgenstein.

    As for libertarianism …….

    A libertarian (in a political context) is someone who supports the traditional principle of justice – to-each-their-own (no robbing, raping, or murdering). No friendship for Chicago street gangs (or the Chicago Teachers Union – which is much the same), and no support for subsidies for Goldman Sachs either (although whether Goldman Sachs is a “corporation” or is owned by a single individual should make no difference to whether Federal Reserve subsidies are a good think or a bad thing – they are a BAD thing in either case).

    A libertarian is the ENEMY of the supporters of “Social Justice” – the idea that justice is to-each-what-the-rulers-think-they-should-have, The doctrine of “justice as fairness” based on the “redistribution” of income and wealth.

    This is what a libertarian is – not a “right libertarian”, just a libertarian.

    As for the idea that libertarians (again I reject the notion of “right libertarians” and “left libertarians) see the present state of affairs as “essentially a free market” that is FALSE.

    The present state of affairs (in most Western countries) is government spending is about HALF the entire economy, and the rest of the economy is saturated with regulations.

    This has very little to do with “corporatism” (an idea of Mussolini back in the 1920s and 1930s where, as with German “War Socialism” during the First World War, government dominated business enterprises, NOT where business enterprises dominated government – as Hollywood and msm idiots appear to believe). The source of most government spending is the WELFARE STATES (which were NOT created in the “interests of the capitalists”) and the source of most regulations is the desire (by governments and “intellectuals”) to “protect the consumers” and “protect the workers” from “exploitation” by the “capitalists”.

    The idea that libertarians see the present state of affairs as “essentially a free enterprise system” is absurd. And it is certainly NOT a state of affairs that benefits most business enterprises (the “corporations”) either.

  2. Craig J. Bolton

    I agree with Paul Marks that Roderick Long more and more seems to play with ideas like a cat with a mouse, rather than simply say what he has to say. However, in this instance Paul’s remarks corroborate at least part of Roderick’s ramblings.

    Notwithstanding the continuing cult of Ayn Rand, no one with any grounding in reality believes that businessmen are “heroes” or that the whole reason that we are where we are today is an irrational lust for doing good with other peoples’ money. At least part of the reason for the situation we find ourselves in today is businessmen (including especially business professionals) doing what they have done since the beginning of capitalism – seeking monopoly control of their respective markets through government.. Often that is done by larger firms (or those already in the market) in order to cripple smaller firms (or those who seek to enter the market) through advocating for the very sorts of regulation that Paul deplores. After all, they want to be “responsible citizens of nation X.” That is what Roderick largely means by “corporatism,” as is plain from what he has said elsewhere. You don’t have to be at the end point of a spectrum of corporatism shaking hands with Mussolini to note the trend toward that end of the spectrum.

    That such businessmen may sometimes and eventually find that they have made a pact with the devil, and plead that they would like to return to the happy days when they were basking in the “benefits” of cartelization granted by government, without otherwise being subjected to the more pervasive powers of government, does not make them advocates of laissez-faire. Libertarians need to come to grips with those facts (that businessmen are not “heros” or natural advocates of laissez-faire).

    If simple and nearly universally true facts make one “left,” then (gasp) one should be left. .

  3. Mr Bolton – even Ayn Rand accepted that there are corrupt businessmen (her novels, and other writings, have many examples of them).

    However, the process tend to run as follows…. – whilst, in the early stages regulations may indeed benefit some established players, once the state is let in the door the level of regulation increases (and increases, and increases…..) till ALL enterprises (no matter how large or well established) are hit by it.

    That is the “simply and nearly universally true” fact.

    Even in the early stages of regulation the “high minded reformers” (as the late Milton Friedman called them) are the first driving force for regulation – but some businessmen (because they can see that “resistance is futile” to The Borg and-or because they can see a commercial advantage in playing ball) climb on the band wagon – to shape the regulations (“which are going to come anyway”) to their advantage.

    They bask in their influence – but then (always to the shock of these “clever” businessmen) the regulations do not stop at what will benefit them (regardless of how much they pay in campaign contributions and so on), The regulations take on a life of their own – and, eventually, strangle even the “practical” businssmen who tried to “make a deal”,

    Short version.

    The “libertarian” left (like the Marxists) think that govenrment is controlled by rich “capitalists”and “corporations”- it is not, not in the long run (for in the long run all the cosy deals get broken – because unlimited government is a monster than is under the control of NOONE.)

    Anthony de Jasey’s works may be of some help in understanding that strange that is The State.

  4. Craig J. Bolton

    Mr. Marks, your tendency to imagine “the unlimited government” as some great unitary leviathan completely separate from its purported victims is the most primitive form form of libertarianism. Government is, rather, a coalition of gangsters. This one has a “working relationship” with that segment of the broader society. That one has a “working relationship” with another segment of the broader society. Often their announced goals conflict with one another, and sometimes even their actual goals.

    Now, of course, it is possible that some of the gangsters may sometimes go too far and strangle their “clientele,” but in general they don’t. They are the cartel agent which disciplines their clientele’s market to prevent “cut throat competition,” “hacks,” “flimflam men,” etc.- that is, to preserve the dominate position of those with whom they have a relationship. Of course it is sometimes necessary to flex one’s muscles so that those who one is “protecting” don’t develop the imaginative mistake that they are in charge, but so long as the protected touch their foreheads to the ground three times and make enthusiastic sounds about how society is served by their regulators, everything is just fine.

    It is not as if members of the media were bright enough to actually worry about what is going on. They have their press releases, they can write their stories. (What a wonderful word that is – “stories.”)

  5. Mr Bolton – both local and national government are dominated by officials. “Gangsters” – if only! Then things would be so easy – kill the gangsters and all would be well. But they are NOT “gangsters” – they are ordinary people working in a SYSTEM that does work (CAN NOT work).

    Blaming “gangsters” is as wrong as blaming “capitalists”.

    By the way – even the national politcians (admittedly often more dodgy than the officials) sometimes sincerly believe they are doing good – insane though that seems.

    After all they doing what they have been taught to do – both at school and at university. The problem is not moral character (it would not be solved by getting in honest people – rather than gangsters, although there is corruption it is not the central matter) it is a matter of people havin the wrong IDEAS in their heads.

    Government is at its most dangerious when the people in it sincerely believe they are doing good.