Capitalism is coercive and creates patterns of deprivation, as explained by libertarian blockquotes

I have a piece in The Washington Post that argues for a Universal Basic Income. The piece is part of a general UBI forum with lots of participants. I was solicited to provide a left-of-center perspective, and so that’s what I did.

The piece identifies two problems inherent in capitalist economic systems — employer coercion and deprivation — and then argues that a UBI might be able to fix them. The article is written so as to be as critical of capitalism as possible for having these defects because I thought that would be funny. The title was a bit misleading (so it goes in the publishing world) as it implies the argument is that a UBI would supplant capitalism, when in fact all I argue is that it would fix two discrete problems in capitalism.

Whenever you accuse capitalism of being coercive and causing patterns of deprivation, certain people lose their shit. This is especially true of the libertarian crowd, which is extremely invested in insisting that capitalism is actually super-duper freedom with no coercion at all.

People who don’t like this message (in my experience) like to dismiss it as some kind of fringe Marxist thing, but you can actually piece it together entirely from libertarian and libertarian-favored thinkers. Watch me do this below.

In the coercion section, I start by arguing that the initial appropriation of property is built upon violent threats of force. Here is libertarian philosopher Matt Zwolinski making this exact same point:

If I put a fence around a piece of land that had previously been open to all to use, claim it as my own, and announce to all that I will use violence against any who walk upon it without my consent, it would certainly appear as though I am the one initiating force (or at least the threat of force) against others. I am restricting their liberty to move about as they were once free to do. I am doing so by threatening them with physical violence unless they comply with my demands. And I am doing so not in response to any provocation on their part but simply so that I might be better able to utilize the resource without their interference.

I then argue that this sort of appropriation destroys freedom of movement. This point is contained in the quote above. You can also find Nozick making it in Anarchy, State, Utopia:

It will be implausible to view improving an object as giving full ownership to it, if the stock of unowned objects that might be improved is limited. For an object’s coming under one persons’s ownership changes the situation of all others. Whereas previous they were at liberty (in Hohfeld’s sense) to use the object, they now no longer are.

Nozick puts it in terms of using an object, but when applied to land, you get the idea that coming into ownership of land removes people’s previously-existing liberty to roam across that land.

In many ways, the coercion point is very basic. In fact, libertarian Zwolinski in a recent paper claims that it’s totally uncontroversial, and goes on to briefly note that only Marxists truly oppose coercion:

I take it to be relatively uncontroversial that all systems of property rights are by their very nature coercive. It is an essential part of the point of property rights to be coercive—without that coercion, the right to exclude that is at the core of property rights is meaningless, and such rights could not provide the sort of stability and protection that makes them attractive in the first place.

Unlike Marxists, however, I do not believe that property rights’ coercive nature renders them necessarily unjust. Systems of property rights can be unjust if they fail to satisfy the Lockean proviso. But systems of property rights that satisfy the proviso are not unjust.

After pointing out that property is itself a violently coercive institution, I pivot to claiming that this ends up infecting employment relationships, causing them to be coercive as well. The argument here is pretty basic: when you own no productive property, you have no choice but to submit yourself to a propertied employer in order to live. Here is John Locke literally comparing this type of deprivation-fueled servanthood to slavery in the First Treatise:

And a man can no more justly make use of another’s necessity to force him to become his vassal by withholding that relief God required him to afford to the wants of his brother, than he that has more strength can seize upon a weaker, master him to his obedience, and, with a dagger at his throat, offer him death or slavery.

This is basically identical to the Marxist concept of wage slavery, except since it’s old-timey, Locke talks about vassals and lords instead of wage workers and bosses.

In the piece, I claim that capitalism creates persistent patterns of deprivation and focus specifically on those whose circumstances make it difficult or impossible to work. Here is Herbert Spencer (dubbed a “protolibertarian” by libertarians) making the exact same point in Social Statics:

The poverty of the incapable, the distresses that come upon the imprudent, the starvation of the idle, and those shoulderings aside of the weak by the strong, which leave so many “in shallows and in miseries,” are the decrees of a large, far-seeing benevolence. It seems hard that an unskilfulness which with all his efforts he cannot overcome, should entail hunger upon the artizan. It seems hard that a labourer incapacitated by sickness from competing with his stronger fellows, should have to bear the resulting privations. It seems hard that widows and orphans should be left to struggle for life or death. Nevertheless, when regarded not separately, but in connection with the interests of universal humanity, these harsh fatalities are seen to be full of the highest beneficence—the same beneficence which brings to early graves the children of diseased parents, and singles out the low-spirited, the intemperate, and the debilitated as the victims of an epidemic.

According to Spencer, capitalism will bring deprivation upon the unskillful artisan (unemployed people), laborers incapacitated by sickness (disabled people), and widows and orphans (survivors). Spencer thinks this is good and hopes the chronically unemployed, sick, disabled, widowed, and orphaned die, arguing that this would be beneficial for humanity. But what’s important here is only that he has identified a very specific pattern of deprivation: capitalism consistently impoverishes those whose capacity to work is quite limited.

Spencer was an obviously disgusting human being, but he was not a dummy. As I pointed out in Vox a few weeks ago, populations that are work-limited shoulder almost all of the market poverty (i.e. poverty without counting welfare benefits) in the US.

Taken together, 87.8% of those poor at the market distribution of income in the US are either children, elderly, disabled, students, carers, or the involuntarily unemployed (at least for part of the year).

In terms of poverty rates, you can see the Fully Employed (those working 50+ weeks a year) do quite well. Everyone else does very badly, with disabled people especially feeling the pain.

So Herbert Spencer was very correct. Capitalism does create very persistent patterns of deprivation that are directly related to the way the market distributes income (i.e. not to disabled people, retired people, those facing unemployment, etc.). This is why welfare benefits, which go almost entirely to these classes of people, exist.

So, you see, even a gang of libertarian and libertarian-approved thinkers — when properly arranged — can be marshaled to make all the usual anti-capitalist points about coercion and poverty. This is not surprising as these points are exactly correct and even libertarians sometimes tell the truth.

The Problems of Identity Policing and Invisible Identities for Identitarian Deference

Conservative website Breitbart accused racial justice activist Shaun King of misleading people into thinking he is black when he is actually white. This accusation pushed King to write a gut-wrenching piece unfolding his personal story and details of his childhood in order to explain that Breitbart was wrong and that he had a black father. Many were rightly disgusted by the whole affair. That King had to reveal such private, and presumably painful, information should strike most people as inhumane.

In confronting this horrifying spectacle, it’s important to understand some of the underlying dynamics that contribute to these types of episodes. There are many causes, but one of them is surely that the modern politics of Identitarian Deference (ID) creates the necessity of identity policing and effectively forces those with less visible identities to share the private details of their lives.

Identitarian Deference
As I explained a couple of years ago: “identitarian deference is the idea that privileged individuals should defer to the opinions and views of oppressed individuals, especially on topics relevant to those individuals’ oppression.” ID is both a theory of political knowledge and a theory of prescriptive politics.

ID’s theory of political knowledge is that people who belong to identities that are most proximate to a particular issue have the most knowledge about that issue. It is thus a theory of expertise. It differs from other theories of expertise in the way that it determines what makes someone an expert, but it is similar to those other theories in that it ultimately concludes that those with lesser expertise should defer to those with greater expertise.

ID’s theory of prescriptive politics basically maintains that those with lesser expertise (so defined) should generally adopt the political and policy ideas of those with greater expertise. This means those belonging to privileged identities should adopt the ideas of those in oppressed identities, at least where the oppressed identity is more proximate to the issue in question.

Identity Policing
One of the problems of ID is that it makes identity policing necessary. As with any other theory of expertise, ID needs a way to separate the experts from the non-experts. Because ID bases expertise on identity, that necessarily means separating those in the identity from those outside the identity. On the prescriptive political level, identity policing is necessary in order to determine precisely whose ideas should be deferred to and adopted by others.

In concrete terms, it matters for the politics of ID whether Shaun King is white or black. If he is white, then he has no particular claim to wisdom on racial issues. That doesn’t mean his views are automatically wrong, of course. It just means they don’t receive any particular deference from others. If he is black, then the opposite is true: his identity gives him a special insight into what is necessary for racial justice. What side of the line he ultimately falls on has huge implications for whether he is himself a source of racial justice truth or simply a dedicated ally to those who are.

The identity policing issue expands to all identities, not just race. For instance, even in the gender realm where there has been great efforts made against gender policing, you still have such concepts as “transtrender” floating around (see e.g. here and here). This epithet, which comes out of trans communities, is targeted at those who allegedly identify as trans because they think it is trendy to do so. There are many concerns with such “fake” self-identification, but one of them seems to be that such people don’t have the authentic knowledge about trans and gender issues that they may claim to have. Put simply: such imposters don’t deserve identitarian deference and take away from those who do.

Even in the much more nebulous realm of queerness, you see some queer people frustrated with people they think are imposters. A noteworthy xojane article from earlier this year titled “If You Only Date Men, You Don’t Get to be Queer” sliced into those the queer-identified author said were using queerness for “cachet” and “social capital” without actually being queer in any meaningful way. In the article, the author is more concerned about someone usurping all the good parts of the queer identity (as she sees it) while avoiding all the bad parts of it. This folds directly into the ID problem as well: such opportunistic people would presumably lack the identity qualifications to be an authentic source of wisdom on queer-related issues.

The issue of identity policing comes up in other adjacent realms too. For instance, in an extremely uncomfortable segment on the MSNBC show “All In with Chris Hayes,” Nancy Giles essentially accused vlogging star Jay Smooth of cultural appropriation because of his use of rap music and particular mannerisms in his videos. The light-skinned Smooth had to inform Giles that he is actually black, something Giles clearly didn’t realize. Here, as with ID, whether Smooth is black or not is critically important to whether or not his videos are offensive. If he is white, then he is engaging in impermissible appropriation, as Giles observes. If he is black, then he is not. So, as uncomfortable as the question of Smooth’s “true” identity is, it must be determined in order to know whether his vlogging is good or somewhat racist.

Identity policing is also an issue in diversity counts. Especially in the media, counting the diversity at workplaces has become a much more common thing and is often written about. For reasons discussed below, these counts are almost always constrained to gender and race diversity. But even in that narrow range, there is going to at least be the question of who counts towards which race. One interesting case where this issue has arisen is Vox, which a few years ago was derided as being part of a host of white-led new media start ups. This criticism was likely driven by the perception that Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein are white. Maybe they are ultimately white (however defined), but you also could easily categorize both as Latino. Thus, whether Vox is the rare Latino media start up or just another white media start up turns, once more, on how you police identity boundaries.

Invisible Identities
ID works the most smoothly for identities that are readily apparent. Most of the time, you can tell what someone’s gender and race is just by looking at them. But when the identity is less apparent, or indeed totally invisible, the only way to establish yourself as belonging to a particular identity is by revealing all sorts of private details about your life, as King had to do here.

Yasmin Nair has written extensively on this topic and the demands it places on people:

I’ve been thinking a lot about confession, lately, and the ways in which the world I occupy—a putatively radical one, where there’s a great deal of confessing and revealing to do, where people are constantly standing up and trying to outdo each other in what they can reveal about themselves—exerts a constant pressure to always be the Confessional Subject. I feel like I’m constantly dancing on the precipice of Confession.

Ah, to confess, always to confess, to reveal, always to reveal, to always, always be She Who Will Bare Her Literal and Metaphorical Breasts and Speak Grand Truths. This is the Neoliberal demand, especially of women of colour: “Oh, baby, don’t you have a story? Of abjection, ruin, despair? Did you lose a child? A lover? Were you not raped? Beaten? Oppressed? How could you possibly go through all that and not confess, confess, confess? How can we possibly think of you as real if you don’t confess? No tragic dramas? Make them up! But, always: Confess and Reveal.”

If you want to command ID for yourself on topics related to your invisible identities, there simply is no other way to do it than confess about your life. This is a problem because it puts people like King in really bad situations. It’s also a problem because those who are not willing to hash out their personal life to establish their identities can be locked out of the discourse altogether.

Why Have Property At All?

So I’ve been reading this paper from libertarian philosopher Matt Zwolinski about why a basic income is both consistent with, and even required by, libertarian precepts.

What’s interesting about Zwolinski basic income advocacy is that the way it works is by first establishing that property is anti-libertarian, in the sense that it clearly relies upon the initiation of coercive aggressive violence to restrict bodily movements of others:

If I put a fence around a piece of land that had previously been open to all to use, claim it as my own, and announce to all that I will use violence against any who walk upon it without my consent, it would certainly appear as though I am the one initiating force (or at least the threat of force) against others. I am restricting their liberty to move about as they were once free to do. I am doing so by threatening them with physical violence unless they comply with my demands. And I am doing so not in response to any provocation on their part but simply so that I might be better able to utilize the resource without their interference.

From here, Zwolinski’s move is basically to say that a basic income is what you need to put in place to make this kind of liberty destruction permissible. This argument proceeds by appealing to a Nozickian-like formulation of the Lockean Proviso (which is to say, not the actual proviso, but a made up version of it said to capture its essence). The short of this is you need to fork over enough resources to everyone so that they can have a basic standard of living if you are going to fence them off from all the resources. Otherwise, your fencing off the resources from them is literally killing them.

As regular readers here will recall, I think this style of libertarian argument (from Nozick on down) is way off the mark. For starters, this Lockean Proviso approach basically tries to ensure people are at least as well off as they would be in the alternative without property (hence neutralizing any harm the introduction of property has caused). But if all your resource-use institutions need to do is make sure everyone is better off than an alternative world without resource-use institutions, then basically any set of resource-use institutions will do. I can just as well declare all resources will be used according to social democratic institutions and then justify the liberty infringements that entails by pointing to the Lockean Proviso and noting that I’ve clearly ensured everyone is better off than they would be in the alternative without any resource use rules. In short, basically every economic system passes the Lockean Proviso.

Beyond this point though, what astonishes me about the way Zwolinski proceeds (not just here but elsewhere) is that he starts already with the view that property must exist. But there is little explanation or why this is so. Surely the natural reaction of a libertarian committed to the abstract principles of liberty above all else should be to reject property period once they realize it is liberty-infringing. Why is there any effort, coherent or not, to even try to salvage the institution of property from the brutally straightforward conclusion that libertarian precepts forbid it because it is a form of violently coercive liberty restriction?

In asking these questions, I certainly know of some answers people can give. But all of these answers pose severe problems to libertarians. You can say property is good because it’s solid for human flourishing and that kind of thing, but this is precisely the argument, say, social democrats make about the welfare state and they have really good evidence to support themselves on that. You can say it’s necessary so that people may be able to get what they produce (a kind of “sweat of the brow” argument), but this naturally falls apart with complex capitalist development where huge portions of the national output flows each year to landowners (who don’t deserve it), capitalists (who arguably don’t deserve it, at least under strict labor-desert), and to people more generally from accumulated technology/knowledge that nobody alive made and therefore nobody really deserves the output from.

The strong move for libertarians here is to actually go back to the origination of the term “libertarian,” which had to do with anarchist communists. The anarchist communists so loved liberty that when they realized property infringed it, they said to do away with property. These propertarians who masquerade as lovers of liberty, however, just walk themselves into increasingly weird logical circles and corners trying to salvage an inherently anti-libertarian institution with exaggerated hand waving.