Liberty is the Mother, Not the Daughter, of Any Market Worth Having

I haven't weighed in much on Wikileaks because everything I'd write has been written by better writers. Readers here shouldn't need to resort to wild speculation as to my position: Wikileaks is in the absolute right on each and every matter, and the government as per usual in the wrong. Cablegate is just the latest in a series of heroic and perilous pantsings administered by Assange et al. The weakness of the lumbering, bureaucratic monolith of the U.S. government is exposed for all to see if they choose; it remains to be seen whether Americans care.

My interest today has more to do with's booting of Wikileaks from their web services hosting. The Amazon Web Services statement explains the supposed motivations are not the result of Joe Lieberman's bullying - the tone suggesting outrage that anybody would dare think would cave to such pressure. Instead, they provide two reasons for their decision:

  1. Wikileaks' supposed violation of their terms of service because they do not own the content they are publishing (even though the public pays for it)

  2. the danger the unredacted material poses to certain individuals around the world (even though Wikileaks reached out to the government for help in identifying names to redact in the past and was rebuffed).

It's merely a coincidence that Amazon found all these reasons to kick Wikileaks off their services right around the time it became politically convenient to do so. Also, pay no attention to the fact that another company providing software to Wikileaks pulled their support - only they acknowledged the role of government pressure. No smell there at all.

I expect a corporation to act in a spineless manner without regard to the larger issues of justice and accountability. After all, they are not designed to take any other matters into consideration but maximization of profits for shareholders. This makes them perfect collaborators in the conspiracy that is the state. However, what I find extremely grating is the way some libertarians trot out all manner of excuses to justify it. For example, there's this post from Lew Rockwell that deifies the market as beyond reproach:

Back in my days in the conservative movement, I was always urged to boycott goods from communist countries. I never did. I don't like boycotts. Commerce is a blessing. We need more of it.

You're entitled to your own opinion - please read the rest of the post - but I find this position absolutely bizarre. Ostensibly, the colonists' boycott of the East India Trading Company was a huge mistake; we should have resisted their monopoly by flooding them with money, I suppose! A boycott is not some extra-market construct that works against commerce; a boycott is a form of market activity. In order for a market to be free, it has to be just as valid to abstain from a purchase as it is to make it. Equally so, it has to be just as valid to coordinate demand among consenting parties (i.e. a boycott) as it is to coordinate the production of supply among willing business partners (i.e. a firm).

But Rockwell's position goes beyond this, and it's illustrative of a trend among libertarians to deify the market and turn it into something above and beyond the constituent people - a kind of disembodied platonic force for good that bends us to its will. The idea that any commerce whatsoever is a "blessing" elevates market economics to an unimpeachable position. The criterion ceases to be the free nature of this market, or that market's meeting the needs of its individual participants - simply the fact that it's called a market is enough to exempt it from scrutiny. Might as well call the market "God" and start praying for its blessings if we're going to be that absolutist and irrational.

In fact, markets are not supernatural beings; they are a tool, a social construct people employ to efficiently allocate goods and services. As such, they operate within the constraints of a social context. But as wonderful they can be, there's nothing inherently good, just, or laudable about markets qua markets. They can mediate supply and demand, but they can't speak to what we ought to supply or demand. All kinds of examples of markets allocating goods and services of questionable validity can be found throughout history and in the present day.

What about the age-old markets for slaves? What about markets in endangered animals, or hitman services, or for that matter political influence? What about competitive bidding for cushy government contracts? What about the sale of tax collection privileges? These are all examples of markets doing their job: distributing information about supply and demand to consumers and producers within a given market, however desirable or moral. The fact that they involve various levels of thuggery and fraud doesn't change their utility to those participating in them.

Of course, one could claim these markets are not free - that they violate rights in some way, and therefore they shouldn't be treated the same as free markets. But my point is not to dictate the rules by which libertarians should accept or reject given markets. Simply understand that raw supply and demand, divorced from the social context, is no moral imperative, and particular rights are not necessarily required for commerce to function.

It suffices to say that we need more than merely efficient price signals to producers and consumers; a social context for justice and values. Of course, normally libertarianism has indeed been understood in terms more fundamental than its economic implications in isolation from other concerns. These fundamental terms provide guidance on the social context that can inform the execution of market economics in ways that promote human flourishing.

In order for markets to emerge that can reflect the values we cherish, we must articulate and enforce those values by not accepting the perversion of our markets by illegitimate actors by violent criminals such as the state. One of these perversions, I'd argue, is the corporate form, which grants privileges to certain legally recognized aggregations of capital and manpower. As legally chartered, these corporations must pursue the maximization of shareholder profit as their number one priority - other concerns, such as social justice, environmental quality, community health, etc. must be subordinated to sheer accumulation. It is a recipe for our current pragmatic political economy where we convince ourselves there is a realm of business that can be isolated from the imminently human struggle for peace and justice.

A great example of this artificial demarcation of amoral business territory is Stephan Kinsella's assent to Rockwell's post. Kinsella is a frequent defender of the corporate form so his position here does not surprise me. But his argument on Amazon's victim status here only carries weight if you assume that the rules governing Amazon's corporate behavior are valid rules in the first place:

Amazon's managers have an obligation to the shareholders; they have no right to risk or waste shareholder money for political grandstanding. It's not their money they would be risking. I also think that in addition to the anti-war libertarian activists who are up in arms about Amazon's pursuit of profits instead of activism, a number of left-libertarians are using this as an excuse to pile on Amazon because it's big, a corporation, and profitable.

Of course it's not the management's money with which to take moral stances as they please. But that's kind of the point: the creation of huge economic bases in our society having no values to defend except endless accumulation is the reason for the spineless pragmatism evinced by Amazon's decision. You could not concoct a more clever way to ensure that the economic engines of the country maintain allegiance and subservience to an agenda than by chartering these organization in such a narrow manner. Give them privileges like limited liability, personhood status, special tax rules, regulations that prevent entry by smaller competitors, etc. and they will keep their nose out of Daddy Government's dirty business. There may be a different kind of capitalism possible, but we haven't seen it yet.

Kinsella does argue that taxpayers do the same thing: by supporting the government's crimes with our money, aren't we complicit? That may be true, but at least in our case we are flesh and blood, rational, responsible human beings - not legally constructed and constrained, artificial systems designed for a single economic purpose. We can weigh moral matters, make compromises, and consider deeply our actions. We can be appealed to as moral actors, even if we don't always exercise our responsibility to do so. Contrast this capacity for conscience with the corporate prerogative to subordinate the many nuanced concerns a healthy human society must address to the bottom line. Such an impersonal system could not assume duties unable to be accounted for in a ledger book even if it wanted to.

Also consider that this isn't the first time that corporations have assisted the U.S. government in nefarious deeds, claiming to be victims powerless to resist their pressure. Remember all the telecom companies who helped the government secretly eavesdrop on Americans' conversations? Is there some important difference between corporate behavior in these two cases? I'm not suggesting that spying on Americans is exactly the same as stifling Americans' access to information necessary to hold their government accountable for serious wrongdoing. But in both cases, the familiar defense of "protect the shareholders at all costs" leads these government-created artificial constructs to take actions devoid of conscience. Again, humans do not always follow their conscience, but at least we have one - we have the potential to do the right thing, unlike corporations.

Furthermore, the pragmatic, "it's just business" political economy that emerges from this corporate consensus encourages apathy and inattention to deep political issues on the part of individuals, who are impelled instead into a safe, comfortable, and distracting consumerism. It's precisely because this economy is rigged to artificially benefit capital at the expense of working people that we are inclined to ignore far-off foreign policy matters as unimportant and accept mainstream, government-friendly constructions of political issues (which organizations like Wikileaks are barely able to challenge). The more we accept the premises of this system, the more it traps us in a sense of powerlessness. The key is to question these premises by rejecting corporatism as any sort of acceptable excuse to duck these tough political and moral realities, and to demand in the meantime that the humans running these government-chartered and -privileged fictions serve our interests rather than the government's. Boycotts are one way to hit corporations where they can be hurt: the bottom line that provides the basis for their entire existence.

In the end, did the right thing for their shareholders. That's the problem; a society composed of large, artificial actors pledged to serve narrowly defined interests divorced from the wider health of the human condition cannot build the kinds of markets that reinforce free and prosperous societies. Libertarians should concern themselves first and foremost with the pursuit of freedom and justice, with markets being a natural outgrowth of these core values. To do otherwise, as many market fundamentalists do, not only puts the cart before the horse; it strengthens our enemies and weakens the civil society for which we advocate.

Written on Thursday, December 02, 2010 | Tags: libertarianism, markets, economics, censorship, wikileaks, cablegate