DWR (4): Navigating the False Alternatives

This is part four of my ongoing dialogues with my friend Ryan Neugebauer (my DWR series, as I call it). In today’s Facebook posting, Ryan stated:

There are two significant perspectives that compete with each other and are in contrast with the dominant Liberal Democrat and Conservative Republican visions: Free-Market Right-Libertarian and State Socialist.

The former wants to reduce everything to market competition to the greatest extent possible (including in its purest form with police, courts/law, and national defense being provided by competing market entities). The other (State Socialist) wants to shrink market competition to the greatest extent possible and sees “public control” (read nationalization) as preferable in all cases but will simply cede to the market if it doesn’t look likely to go well to them.

I reject both of these positions, never having defended the second but having defended the former for a solid 5 months and having some affinity towards it (though not all out acceptance) for several years.

I accept F. A. Hayek’s defense of markets in “The Use of Knowledge in Society” (1945) and am not convinced you could completely replace them if you want a modern, technologically advanced society (and I do). I could be wrong but that would take a change in humans and technology that no Socialist/Communist has successfully argued or demonstrated at this point. I’m just not ideologically committed to markets. If they could be replaced in an anti-authoritarian way, you’d get no tears or fuss from me.

Similar to Hayek, I don’t think all societal mechanisms or norms should or could be market-based. I’m also not hostile to all welfare and regulations, just as he wasn’t in The Road to Serfdom (1944). If we could produce a society without the state or with the state greatly more constrained that achieves the goals I have in the human welfare and environmental preservation dimensions, then I would be very fine with that. I’m an Anarchist at heart and a philosophical Anarchist at an absolute minimum. But, I admit the pragmatic difficulties with bringing an actual Anarchist society (whatever that would look like) about and believe instead in a never-ending evolving process towards increasing freedom and flourishing with no end point.

My framework is what I call “Dialectical Left-Libertarian”, though I’m not big on terms and always see them as unnecessarily limiting. The dialectical portion comes from my dear friend Chris Matthew Sciabarra who states that “dialectical” is about context keeping and whose “dialectical libertarianism” seeks to bring about freedom and flourishing through the utilization of this process of context keeping. This process involves examining the world from different vantage points and modes of analysis. I state similarly in my Facebook political beliefs section: my perspective subjects all facets of society to critique (state/governance, business/economy, school, social norms, etc.) and seeks to reduce hierarchy and increase autonomy wherever possible. This latter portion speaks to my Left-Libertarian dimension that wants to increase freedom & well-being in a comprehensive manner that doesn’t just reduce things down to state vs market like the Right-Libertarians do.

I’m not convinced that the State Socialist framework, even in its more benign Social Democratic forms, is the way to go long-term. Firstly, normalizing a relation of dominance and subservience, ruler and ruled, is always problematic. It allows massive war crimes and levels of abuse to occur that couldn’t as easily without them. But as Frederic Bastiat shows with “the seen and unseen”, governments and their supporters tend to miss all the ways in which their policies lead to bad outcomes and turn out to be very problematic. They simply deal with their immediate expectations and not unintended consequences. Then there is the problem of cronyism and regulatory capture that a state with a class structure will always be prone to, as Marx himself would note. There are also forms of governance that are not nearly as unaccountable and bad like ours like Libertarian Municipalism. So even if some form of government turns out to be necessary, we can do much better than the current modern nation state model.

So there you have it. I could say so much more, but this speaks to my (in my view) balanced approach to libertarian and left-wing thinking.

This article by Jason Lee Byas helps highlight the significance of markets from a Left-Libertarian perspective, even if I don’t hold a commitment to the larger specific framework that he holds to. A nice complement to this in a similar but different spirit is this article by Nathan Goodman.

In response I stated:

As always, I applaud the ways in which you articulate your position—trying to work through all the limiting conventional ‘isms’ of our era. I find myself in agreement with so much of what you say (especially the stuff about that Sciabarra fellow). At the core of your perspective is your rejection of what I think has become a false alternative between a certain form of anarchism that embraces a reductionist “market” resolution of the perceived duality between state and markets, and a certain form of statism that embraces a reductionist “state” resolution to that same duality. What neither side is addressing is the larger context of authoritarian social relations that can stretch across the state-market divide; what neither side is addressing is how culture contributes to hierarchical and oppressive social relations, serving as both the foundation for and reflection of political domination.

I do think that your own affinity with Hayek’s path-breaking essay (“The Use of Knowledge in Society”) is key to whatever social change eventuates. Which is why I think that societies will likely never dispense with markets. Hayek made a “semiotic” case for prices as a reflection of the division and specialization of labor and knowledge. Prices are ‘signals’ as interpreted in an agent-relative manner; that is, they mean different things to different people, given their own context of knowledge (and knowledge here applies not merely to quantifiable data, but to tacit ‘know-how’).

I’m not reifying ‘markets’ or ‘prices’ here; I’m not saying they are categories that have always existed and therefore must always exist. But I take “markets” to be part of a broader category of social relations of exchange, whatever shape they have taken in the past or in the present. Such social relations will exist as long as our infinitely complex world becomes more globally interconnected. Whether we are talking about prices or some as-yet-to-be-manifested system of “non-monetary” signals, Hayek’s argument stands, and is a bulwark against the social relations of dominance and subservience, ruler and ruled that we both oppose.

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