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.

Class and the Discourse

When it comes to accessing the mainstream media discourse, academic discourse, or any similar prominent discourse that reflects on justice and politics, poor people face a double-bind that ensures their voices are permanently erased. If you grow up poor and you remain poor, your access to any of these discussions is basically nonexistent. If you grow up poor and then become educated and established enough to access and even influence these discussions, that generally means you are not poor anymore and so your perspective on class can be dismissed on identitarian grounds.

This double-bind is not true of any other identity because no other identity disappears at the same point at which you are able to meaningfully engage in the discourse. A person of color doesn’t cease to be a person of color just because they acquire the credentials and ability to become a successful writer or academic. Nor does a woman cease to be a woman when they do so. But a poor or working class person does, in a direct material sense, cease to be poor and working class once they’ve won a professorship or a stable writing gig.

Given that identitarianism is a generally liberal political grouping that has no real interest in class politics, this is not that big of an internal problem. But when practitioners of identitarianism run up against those who do have an interest in class politics, the contradictions create incredible havoc. This is especially so because identitarianism is so heavily intertwined with certain discourse norms demanding deference to (even bourgeois) members of various demographic groups. And the last thing someone interested in class politics should ever do is hesitate to harshly criticize any bourgeois discourse participant with bad arguments and opinions, especially when those arguments and opinions concern class issues.

Real Life Capitalism Whack-A-Mole

A couple of years ago, I introduced the concept of Capitalism Whack-A-Mole. Capitalism Whack-A-Mole is an argumentative habit of libertarians where they shift between various mutually incompatible philosophical frameworks in order to deal with successful critiques of capitalism.

I taped a TV segment today with the Ayn Rand Institute’s Don Watkins about his book “Equal Is Unfair.” My sole goal going into the segment was to see if I could produce a Capitalism Whack-A-Mole in the wild. Initially, after he passed on my baiting about the authoritarianism of private property, it seemed like I wasn’t going to be able to make it happen. But, eventually, it did.

Being a Randian, Watkins advocates for the government to create economic institutions that distribute the national income solely to “producers.” This is a standard desert theory line about how distributive justice requires that each person be distributed that which they produce. At some point in my standard critique of desert theory, I got to the part where I explain that the existence of capital income — rents, interest, dividends, capital gains — violates desert theory because it provides capitalists income even though they did not produce it. Capital income is definitionally income from owning not income from producing.

From there, the glorious Whack-A-Mole began.

Watkins first rebuttal effort was to say that in fact capitalists do produce the income because they match capital with talented labor and such. So, at this point, he was endorsing the basic idea that income is only justified by production, but saying that capitalists do actually produce.

I then clarified that he has mistaken entrepreneurs for capitalists. It is entrepreneurs who match capital with labor, not capitalists. And entrepreneurs receive labor income for doing so. To illustrate the difference, I used my own retirement account as an example. Last quarter, I had $200 of capital gains in my retirement account, but I clearly did not produce anything to earn that income. It just came in passively from the index fund.

Confronted with the fact that desert theory cannot justify capital income, Watkins then shifted. His new argument was that capital income is a reward for abstaining from consumption. The experienced will understand this as the “wages of abstinence” argument. I called him on the shift, noting that abstaining from consumption is not producing and that he had said people are only owed what they produce.

At that point, he shifted again. His third argument was that capital income was necessary to incentivize savings and capital investment. Why would you save your money and put it up for capital investment if you did not get a return for doing so? I called him again on the shift, noting that he has now made a utilitarian argument for why paying rents to non-producing capitalists is good for general prosperity. But, once again, this does not show that the capitalist earns their rents through production.

From that point, the last word swung to him and he actually shifted yet again, focusing this time on the “voluntary” nature of the manner in which the capitalist secures his unearned, passive rents. I was not able to respond to this, but it’s obvious how one would do so. As with the other shifts, the voluntarism argument still fails to deal with the problem that capital income is unearned. Randians promise that they can show capitalism distributes out according to the principle “to each according to what they produce.” But they can’t show it because it isn’t true. Also, capital income is not derived through voluntary means, but instead extracted through coercive property relations.

So, by the end of the little back-and-forth, Watkins shifted from desert to “wages of abstinence,” from “wages of abstinence” to utilitarian incentives, and then from utilitarian incentives to voluntarism. As always, the erratic philosophical shifting on the matter of capital income is a solid indicator of the fact that libertarians have no way of justifying it coherently. Marxists have always been right on this. The best shot they have is the utilitarian framework, but that framework also supports the welfare states that they loathe.