Established 1874.

The Oberlin Review

Libertarian Ideology Protects Capital at Workers’ Expense

Jordan Ecker, Contributing Writer

Jacob Britton’s latest attempt at political debate begins, “It was only a matter of time…” Indeed, I suppose it was. I can’t help but feel that the first paragraph of Britton’s latest foray into the wide world of political economy is symptomatic of the bizarre way the right behaves on college campuses: They seem fixated on producing disagreement and then howl with joy and roll around in the mud when they find it (“Positive Rights, Not Capitalism, Require State Violence,” The Oberlin Review, April 14). Britton hilariously echoes the meme “so much for the tolerant left” by accusing me of failing to live up to the left’s “benign” reputation — for the record, I have no interest in treating libertarianism benignly in the public sphere.

Britton attempts to make a coherent case for a minimal state by distinguishing between what he calls “positive” and “negative” rights, an argument that is more familiar to the Western philosophical canon as Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between positive and negative liberty. Positive liberty is affirmative — the freedom to act — as opposed to negative liberty, which is freedom from coercive forces. Britton argues that I advocate for the former, while a just state protects only the latter. In his view, negative liberty can be secured without coercive activity on the part of the state because it is a natural right. This is absolutely historically and empirically false. Negative liberty — even understood in its most limited dimension, for instance, as the freedom to practice any religion — always requires a state apparatus equipped with police and a military ready to defend that right (heard of Europe’s 30 Year War?). No liberty is simply pre-given, found in nature; every right requires violence and coercion behind it to succeed institutionally, and so any distinction Britton hopes to secure between negative and positive rights on the grounds of naturalness is arbitrary.

Funnily, it’s not quite totally arbitrary — Britton does seem to have one criterium, to distinguish between positive and negative rights. Every freedom Britton associates with positive rights are freedoms the working class needs to resist domination. Strange coincidence — it is almost as if libertarianism’s talk of human rights is designed to be a defense of capital and not humans.

Britton says capitalism is not inherently violent because the “division of labor” ensures everyone will have a job. Not only does Adam Smith’s concept of the division of labor have very little to do with the question of full employment, but Smith himself saw a need for state intervention to help capital function. Further, Karl Marx demonstrated that the unemployed are a benefit to capital; it’s only by having an unemployed worker to replace your currently employed worker that you can push your employees’ wages down as far as possible. Unemployment is as old as capitalism. Rather than acting as though unemployment is a weird fluke, we should live up to that reality and challenge the paradigm that reproduces it.

Finally, the “big” question: Why, oh why, do those merciless lefties want to violently coerce multi-billionaires to give up their hard-earned cash? Or, as Britton puts it: “If Bill Gates has a net worth of $80 billion and my net worth is $90,000, what moral atrocity has been committed?” Let me explain. Gates made his fortune by growing his company Microsoft. That company makes money by selling computer software, among other things. In order for people to buy computer software, they have to own computers. In order for them to own computers, someone has to make the computer. The person who makes the computer is typically a worker living in gross poverty in the global south. This worker contracts with a capitalist to trade their labor for money. If this were a fair exchange, by the end of it, the worker would have money and the boss would have a commodity. In reality, by the end of the exchange, the worker has money and the boss has a commodity and profit. The profit is the difference in value between the amount of money the boss can get away with paying the worker and the amount of money he can sell the commodity for. So yes, Gates’ wealth depends on moral atrocities, and the working class’ poverty is proof.

Libertarianism is a weird ideology. It strings together a bizarre understanding of political economy and moral philosophy and forms a pastiche of entrepreneurial individualism and abstract musings about rights and the legitimate state. In the end though, with its incoherence, internal inconsistencies and empirical failures put aside, libertarianism should be measured in terms of its effects. And its primary effect is to perpetuate a capitalist regime that is built off of exploitation. Capitalism is a machine for changing hopes and dreams into toil and suffering. Libertarianism is ultimately just an abstract weapon, an ideological gear in a larger machine used by the few to dominate the many.

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3 Responses to “Libertarian Ideology Protects Capital at Workers’ Expense”

  1. Bob on April 22nd, 2017 8:53 AM

    “every right requires violence and coercion behind it to succeed institutionally, and so any distinction … between negative and positive rights on the grounds of naturalness is arbitrary.”: No, it’s not arbitrary. If you have a positive right to food, and I do nothing to provide you with food, and the state uses violence to force me to give you food, then the first act of violence is by the state.

    But if a thug is attacking you, violating your negative right to be safe, and the state uses violence against the thug, then the first use of violence is by the thug, not the state.

    If you support positive rights, you are endorsing that violence be initiated against non-violent people. If you support negative rights, you are only endorsing violence against violent people.

    “the worker would have money and the boss would have a commodity”: That’s exactly what happens.

    “the boss has a commodity and profit”: Whoa, there! The boss doesn’t have any profit until he sells the commodity. You’re leaving out a transaction! And just as the laborer was paid for his work, the boss has done work he should be paid for: he has gathered the tools and material necessary to build the commodity, he has hired and supervised the workers, and he has sought out buyers for the commodity and arranged delivery. He’s entitled to some compensation for all that.

    If I sell my labor, I get “wages”. If I’m unemployed but I build something and sell it, I get “profit”. They are different words, but there’s really no moral or even practical difference between them.

  2. Man with the Axe on April 22nd, 2017 12:22 PM

    You wrote: “In his [Britton’s] view, negative liberty can be secured without coercive activity on the part of the state because it is a natural right.”

    This is a misstatement of the libertarian view, a straw man, and that is why you find it easy to dismiss.

    The actual distinction is that B’s negative right does not compel A to do anything for B. B can have freedom of religion or speech if A just leaves him alone. But what if A won’t leave him alone? What if A dresses in black with a mask and tries to stop B from speaking, or threatens to kill B unless B converts to A’s religion?

    That is where a libertarian would say the state has a role to protect B’s negative rights. Libertarians are not anarchists, who claim that there is no role at all for the state. This is the role, to protect A’s and B’s negative rights, to ensure property rights, and to enforce contracts.

    You wrote: “Karl Marx demonstrated that the unemployed are a benefit to capital; it’s only by having an unemployed worker to replace your currently employed worker that you can push your employees’ wages down as far as possible.” This statement, if true at all, is only true for the most unskilled of workers. If an employer has workers with some amount of skill, experience, and who have shown that they are competent and good workers, they will not have their wages pushed downward by the mere existence of unemployed workers. Virtually no employer reduces the pay of good employees because he can replace them with others who will work for less. In fact, if he is lucky enough to find a good employee he raises his wages to keep him there, and to keep up his morale. In your version of reality no worker who asks for a raise would ever get one. In actual reality, workers get raises all the time. Good ones get paid very well.

    You wrote: “Capitalism is a machine for changing hopes and dreams into toil and suffering.” I wonder if you are aware of the condition of mankind through all of history until the rise of capitalism. It was misery and starvation for pretty much everyone except for the parasitical nobility, churchmen, and military. Today, because of capitalism, most of the world has been lifted out of grinding poverty, and the rest might soon be. Those places where poverty still holds sway are largely non-capitalist. They lack the protection of property rights and contract enforcement that creates prosperity. Instead there is government interference, corruption, and centralized mis-management of resources.

    The average worker is much, much better off in a modern capitalist economy than he is in say, Cuba, or Venezuela, or North Korea, or the Soviet Union and Eastern bloc before the fall of communism. Better to be unemployed in the US than a starving slave in a marxist dictatorship.

  3. Jacob Britton on April 23rd, 2017 3:38 PM

    I’m more than open to debating this in public with you. Your terms. Your rules. You have my email.


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Libertarian Ideology Protects Capital at Workers’ Expense