Last week I discussed a recent interview by Noam Chomsky, where I pointed out some of his confusing views on libertarianism and anarchy. The view Chomsky holds has been around for quite some time, and it’s been referred to as “anarcho-syndicalism”, left-libertarianism, or libertarian socialism. Essentially, this view is theoretically against government and for free association, and yet is against the theory of private property that later libertarians or “anarcho-capitalists” such as Murray Rothbard would hold as vital to a free and prosperous society.
This view seems paradoxical to me, as if property is not privately held, then surely the only other alternative is some sort of central governing authority. While the “anarcho-syndicalist” claims to support free association, for a society to be run in the manner which they seek – which involves collective ownership of the means of production- a coercive, central authority would be necessary. This philosophy seems to essentially be communism under another name, and holds fear of some mythical “private power” over the very real, very destructive power of the State.
Murray Rothbard offered his own critique of the “anarcho-syndicalist” philosophy over four decades before Chomsky’s interview twisted my brain in knots. In fact, Rothbard believed this “syndicalism” idea was even more destructive than straight up socialism! From a 1971 article in the Libertarian Forum:
Of the three major proposals for running an advanced industrial society — socialism, syndicalism, and free-market capitalism — syndicalism is the most blatantly unworkable and most rapidly disastrous. For in such a society, there must be some rational mechanism for allocating resources efficiently, for seeing to it that the proper amounts of labor, land, and capital equipment are employed in those areas and in those ways most efficient for satisfying the wants and desires of the mass of consumers. Free-market capitalism not only provides the most smoothly efficient way; it is also the only method that relies solely on voluntary inducements.
This gets to the heart of the economic problem with anarcho-syndicalism. Without private property rights a free market is not able to properly function. Sans price signals resulting from profit and loss, and how does the “anarcho-syndicalist” believe that resources would be allocated? Without a market, the only other answer is a central authority. As a central authority operates outside of profit and loss signals, the best it can do is make guesses as to how resources should be doled out to the “community”.
Rothbard goes on to describe how this “syndicalism” concept would be unable to achieve what the free market can achieve by simply allowing for voluntary associations and transactions in society:
Syndicalism, on the other hand — i.e., full worker “ownership” of “their” industries — does not even attempt to achieve a rational allocation of resources. Both the free method of market allocation and the coercive method of central dictation are eliminated. And what is to take their place? In effect, nothing but chaos. Instead of a coordinating mechanism there is now only the chaotic will of groups of brawling monopoloid syndics, each demanding parity and control regardless of economic law.
Does anyone think for one moment that the horse-and-buggy workers would have permitted higher wages in the budding automobile industry? Or have permitted the dismissal of workers? All one need do is to observe the arrogant behavior of unions with monopoly power to know the answer. But the problem lies deeper than bad will on the part of union syndics. The problem is that, even in a community of “saints,” even in an improbable world of meek and altruistic union monopolists, there would be no way for the syndics to make their decisions on wages, employment, or allocation of production. Only a system of market pricing and wage rates, guided by profit-and-loss considerations for market firms, can provide a mechanism for such decisions.
I love how Murray uses the word “chaos” to rightly describe what would result from the ideas of the syndicalist. This word is usually used by the detractors of anarcho-capitalism to describe the breakdown of civilized society that would surely occur without a central authority at least providing for defense and legal systems (check out my series on anarcho-capitalism for a refutation of this).
Rothbard then relays an interesting interview that Bill Buckley had with Karl Hess, an anarcho-syndicalist. Buckley’s question is almost as silly as Hess’s answer:
In a recent Firing Line interview, Bill Buckley asked Karl Hess the elementally silly question: in an anarchist society, if one group of workers wanted to work from 8 to 4, and another set in the same plant wished to work from 9 to 5, who would decide? Karl, trapped in an anarcho-syndicalist framework, could only lamely reply that the workers would come to some sort of agreement. The proper and swift answer would have been that the stockholder-owners would decide, just as they are doing now. Anarcho-capitalism is an easily explainable system, precisely because its configuration would be very similar in most ways to the society that we have now.
Rothbard then addresses Chomsky himself, who was touting these views long before they confounded my feeble brain:
Take for example one of our most distinguished socialist-anarchists, Professor Noam Chomsky. Professor Chomsky has recently expressed a great deal of worry about the recent rise of our “right-wing” libertarian movement; apparently he is — I am afraid unrealistically — concerned that we might succeed in abolishing the State before the State has succeeded in abolishing private property! Secondly, Chomsky has written that the anarcho-capitalist society would constitute “the greatest tyranny the world has ever known.” (What, Noam? Greater than Hitler? Than Genghis Khan?)
Whether or not anarcho-capitalism would be tyrannical is here irrelevant; the problem is that, in so expressing his horror at the possible results of complete freedom, Professor Chomsky reveals that he is not really an “anarchist” at all, indeed that he prefers statism to an anarcho-capitalist world. That of course is his prerogative, and scarcely unusual, but what is illegitimate is for this distinguished linguist to call himself an “anarchist.”
Murray nails my biggest issue with the “anarcho-syndicalist” crowd. It’s not that I don’t understand the ideas of “anarcho-syndicalism”, it’s that I heard them the first time when it was called “communism”. No matter what the label, advocating a society run by collective ownership – thereby necessitating a central authority – is advocating for tyranny. The word “anarchy” – meaning “without rulers” – does not belong anywhere near a philosophy that advocates such a thing.
As usual, Rothbard wraps things up with his usual dry wit:
It is indeed fortunate for liberty that the left-anarchists have about as much chance of victory as some of our conservatives have to restore the Bourbon dynasty. For if they did, we would soon find that the embrace of left-anarchy is the embrace of death.
To paraphrase Patrick Henry…”give me anarcho-capitalism, or give me death!”
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Check out our past editions of Mondays with Murray!
5/27/13 – Rothbard on America’s “Two Just Wars”
5/20/13 – Do Animals Have “Rights”?
5/13/13 – A Further Insight on IP
5/6/13 – The Boston Lockdown
4/29/13 – The Problem with Empirical Studies
4/22/13 – The Real Story of the Whiskey Rebellion
4/15/13 – What is an Entrepreneur?
4/8/13 – Rothbard on Intellectual Property
3/11/13 – Rothbard on Lysander Spooner
3/4/13 – Rothbard on Statism
2/25/13 – Rothbard on John Bolton and Ann Coulter
2/18/13 – Rothbard vs. Krugman on $9 Minimum Wage
2/11/13 – Time To Hoard Nickels
2/4/13 – The Death of Keynesian Economics
1/28/13 – Competition and Monopoly
1/21/13 – Rothbard Down The Memory Hole?
1/14/13 – We Are Not The Government
1//7/13 – Why Does Someone Become A Statist?
12/10/12 – Rothbard on Conspiracy Theory
12/3/12 – Rothbard on Secession
11/26/12 – Rothbard on the Drug War
11/19/12 – Rothbard on the Euro Crisis
11/12/12 – Rothbard on the Lions of Liberty
11/5/12 – Rothbard on Voting and Gas Lines
10/29/12 – Mythbusting the “Free Market Cartel”
10/22/12 – Rothbard on the Two Party Charade
10/15/12 – Rothbard on Private Roads
10/8/12 – Rothbard on Private Law
10/1/12 – Rothbard on Ron Paul
9/24/12 – Rothbard on QE