Come See the Violence Inherent in the System

United Airlines violently removed a passenger from an airplane earlier this week. The company had overbooked the flight, which is standard practice in the airline industry, and then failed to entice enough people to give up their seats by offering as much as $800 to anyone who would volunteer. The final solution to the conundrum of too many passengers and not enough seats was to demand certain passengers give up their seats. When one man refused, he was forced out.

The video of the event, which showed the man being beaten and bloodied by the police, went viral and attracted nearly universal condemnation. But the condemnation that I’ve seen so far is very unclear about what the problem is. The video is violent and repulsive, but only insofar as all property and contract enforcement is. The forceful removal of the passenger is not an extraordinary aberration from our civilized capitalist order. Rather, it is an example of the everyday violence (and threatened violence) that keeps that capitalist order running.

To see what I mean, let’s consider two of the objections prominent commentators have made to the video to see how they stand up.

1. Offer to pay the man more
This argument, especially prominent among economists on Twitter, says that the airline should have resolved the problem by continuing to increase the amount of money it was offering for volunteers to give up their seat until it had a taker. This, it is argued, would have avoided the disturbing violent outcome.

Although it’s likely true that, at some price level, a passenger would have volunteered to get off the plane, it is not clear why the airline should have to offer any of the passengers any money. The property rights in this case are clear: the plane belongs to United Airlines and the passenger’s ticket does not entitle him to a seat on the airplane in a situation like this where he is commanded to give it up due to overbooking. Thus, he is, according to prevailing thought on this matter, engaged in trespassing.

Do small-l liberal economists really think that, every time someone is trespassing, the owner should have to bribe them to leave? Imagine the incentives that will create. Anyone low on cash could just squat Bill Gates’ house until he paid them enough to go away. Surely this is not what Coase’s theorem imagines.

2. The police involvement was wrong

Over at the libertarian Reason magazine, Brian Doherty somehow avoided an obvious contrarian libertarian take here and decided instead to write that the episode was bad because the police should not have gotten involved.

While there may be something to be said for the ability for private businesses to summon the help of the police to remove people from their premises if they refuse to leave peacefully and their presence is unwanted, there is no excuse for the police to cooperate when the reason their presence is unwanted is not “causing a disturbance” or being violent or threatening to other customers, or stealing goods or services, or doing anything wrong at all, but rather wanting to peacefully use the service they legitimately paid for.

Two things here.

First, Doherty’s ad-hoc theory of when the police should not enforce an owner’s property rights is not actually applicable in this case. Doherty concedes that normally it would be OK for a private business to call in the police muscle to enforce its property rights, but then says that this case is special because the passenger was merely “wanting to peacefully use the service they legitimately paid for.” But the terms of the ticket did not entitle the passenger to refuse to leave when he is asked to because of overbooking. According to the rules of the game, his sit-in protest was not legitimate and he was obligated to leave the airplane and catch the next flight.

Second, whether it was the police who did the removal or private security guards does not really seem to matter here. If it was wrong to violently expel this man, then surely it would have been wrong even if UA staff did it. On the flip side, if it is the case (and it is) that the man had no contractual or property right to remain on that plane after being told to leave, then surely the police are authorized to enforce the property rights of the airlines. That is, after all, how the system works.

The Point
No matter how you cut it, there does not seem to have been anything wrong with what happened here, under the logic of capitalist institutions. It may not have been a good PR move for the airline. They probably could have avoided it all by gratuitously offering more money to get the trespasser to leave. But none of these points turns the thing into a violation of capitalist ethics. It wasn’t.

Instead of soothing ourselves with the idea that this particular application of violence was illegitimate or extraordinary, we should instead confront it head on as a necessary feature of capitalist society. This kind of violence (or threats of it) is operating all the time.

Why does the homeless man sleep in the doorway of an empty office building instead of inside the building itself? Because the police has threatened to attack him just like they attacked this airline passenger. Why does a poor family go to bed hungry when they could just grab food from the supermarket a few blocks away? Because the police has threatened to attack them just like this passenger.

Of course, these threats of capitalist violence are so credible that few dare to act in ways that will trigger them. But the violence is always there lurking in the background. It is the engine that makes our whole system run. It is what maintains severe inequalities, poverty, and the power of the boss over the worker. We build elaborate theories to pretend that is not the case in order to naturalize the man-made economic injustices of our society. But it is the case. Violent state coercion like what you saw in that video is what runs this show.

  • Brian Wantz

    One major flaw with this piece: United was in the wrong and the law is on Dao’s side here. Dao was actually entitled to certain legal protections once he had already boarded with his ticket. That these rules were disregarded is hardly surprising, unfortunately. Interesting analysis here:

  • np

    Eh, we can (1) acknowledge that the capitalist system of property/contract is based on violence/threats of violence and (2) argue that contract law/airline regulations should require the airline to bid up the cost it must pay until a passenger voluntarily leaves and (3) think that airlines should be more heavily regulated, broken up (through antitrust law) and/or nationalized AND (4) think that all capitalists should be more heavily taxed to provide a better welfare system so that access to air flight (and other goods and services) is more evenly distributed.

  • Spill_Erix

    Bruenig would agree with all four of your points.

  • np

    “Although it’s likely true that, at some price level, a passenger would have volunteered to get off the plane, it is not clear why the airline should have to offer any of the passengers any money.” I know he meant under the current system when he said that, not necessarily under a different system, but it seemed to me like he was sort of poo pooing a perfectly good solution to this situation. I my point was just that we can push more for systemic reform and still argue/acknowledge that in this particular case there was a perfectly good piecemeal solution that could have easily resolved this before it became violent or even was really unfair to any consumers.

  • j r

    Right… Capitalist systems are enforced by violence and coercion. Unlike socialist systems, where the rules are enforced purely through compassion, man’s fidelity for his fellow citizens, and the the pure joy that one feels when contemplating Joe Stalin’s mustache.

  • s r

    Wooooosh! Any system of rules over resources apart from the grab world is coercive. The point is that libertarian mythology tries to shy away from that reality. Once that fact is acknowledged such rules must be evaluated through other criteria.

  • j r

    Spare me the “Wooooosh!” Nothing went over my head. There is a reason why Bruenig deploys the word “captialist” six times in a piece of no more than a couple of hundred words. And I don’t really know what you mean by “libertarian mythology.” Sounds like something that people arguing on the internet say.

    Personally, I believe in liberal democracy, with a robust set of guaranteed individual rights, and private ownership of the property. To what extent any given society is tilted more towards the small government/nightwatchman/libertarian model or towards the robust welfare state/social democratic model should be a function of a deliberative process. The idea that we can make some sort of a priori determination of which system will work and which system is corrupted is… well, it’s the kind of dumb stuff that people say on the internet.

  • Spill_Erix

    “[W]e can make some sort of a priori determination of which
    system will work and which system is corrupted […]”

    How good then that this is not any of Bruenig’s ideas. Someone is saying dumb stuff on the internet, but that someone is not Bruenig.

    So far you haven’t been able to come up with any counter to anything that Bruenig argued in the article.

  • j r

    Sure. Bruenig has offered a deep and profound criticism of the capitalist economy. A few more of these articles and I’m sure the proletariat will raise up and seize the means of production. See you on the ramparts, comrade!

  • Max

    I blame crony capitalism.

  • I think this post ignores the extent to which “nonviolent,” socially-enforced psychological coercion underpins our capitalist order as well.

  • Not like Bill Gates example AT ALL….the people on his porch did not pay admission to Gates to come do so. In the airlines case, they did. And so it is NOT trespassing if they paid for their right to be there. The ILLEGAL action here is overbooking the flight. United should have to bear the financial consequences of doing so. Their choice has already cost them FAR MORE.

  • Derek R

    Well, I may be wrong but as far as I can see

    1) FAA regulations on overbooking allow the airline to refuse to board a passenger. They do not authorize it to eject a passenger who is already boarded.
    2) The plane was not overbooked. It was fully booked, so overbooking regulations did not apply in any case.
    3) Other FAA regulations do allow the airline to eject or restrain a passenger for reasons which are specifically listed. None of those reasons appears to apply in this case.

    So the passenger was completely within his rights to insist on staying in his seat. In no way did he deserve the treatment meted out to him.