Liberty red in tooth and claw

I’ve always been kind of attracted to libertarianism. Not in the philosophical, well-read, intellectual sense. More in practical terms: I don’t think it’s any of the state’s business what I choose to stick in my veins or into another consenting adult. My biometric data is mine, not for them to treat as their own. I’ll swap the licence fee for a BBC subscription and my taxes for health insurance, should the ideological Right embark on their preferred trail of public vandalism.

Most of all, though, I like the idea that the free market and largely unregulated business will find a way to benefit us all. Not that business behaves altruistically (though that would occasionally be nice), but that where supply meets demand, unfettered by bureaucratic intervention, utility is maximized and all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Curves magically bisect and all will have prizes, just like the textbooks say.

The trouble is, I’ve had a technicolour taste of the unregulated market. Not as part of a case study, or from an ivory tower perusing newly published data, or points-scoring in a doctrinaire blogswarm, but as a way of life, a way to make money, feed my family and survive. It wasn’t quite anarcho-capitalism, but certainly a darkness that minimum wages, job security and EU regulation don’t penetrate. If you live in London, it’s right under your nose. It’s the kind of job even leisure and theme park attendants can look down on, and it’s not just for illegal immigrants: a few years ago I was a bicycle courier.

You might be wondering how such a peerless wordsmith ended up delivering mail for a living. Of course, there’s a back-story, just like there was for every colleague. The borderline alcoholic forced into early retirement when he fell asleep next to a stove and set his leg on fire. The Hungarian caught riding the kerb by City police and deported (this was pre-enlargement). The strident anti-Yank, pro-Milosevic Serb who saw the bombs falling on Belgrade in three dimensions. Plus native Brit benefit fraudsters, Poles on student visas (for a fee, marked 90% present on their courses without turning up), and regular, hard-working joes. Oh, and me: the Oxford PPEer with five years of corporate careering and a mission-critical loss of direction.

So, my insight into the ‘free’ market comes from doing business at the sharp end, the wrong end of the sharp end. For a start, every ’employee’ in the industry is actually self-employed, even one who has been working the same job at the same company for ten years. That means no employer NICs for the pension, no paternity or maternity leave, no holiday pay. Worst of all it means no sick pay in a dangerous job where accidents are common, and several riders have been killed. In two years, I broke a bone in my leg and damaged ligaments in my wrist when I was hit by an unmarked police car. The company called once each time to see when I would be back. It wasn’t unusual.

Pay is administered by piece rates, which means no minimum wage. Some days I could earn 80 quid the hard way (2.50 at a time…), if I was lucky. All too often, some of us (especially the novices) went away with under 30 for a day’s work.

To add insult to occasional injury, even though we were self-employed in name, the company treated us like employees. Actually, scrub that: they treated us like subjects. Hours were set (10 per day, no lunch, the Working Time what?), piece rates were set and non-negotiable, jobs allocated were only optional if you wanted an early bath and a trip to the job centre. Pay rises were never.

Discipline was arbitrary, including unilateral 25 quid fines for taking unauthorized lunch breaks or leaving early. Sacking was arbitrary and without appeal, completely at the controller’s discretion and in their gift whether you got your back pay. Unions were not welcome, neither did any make the effort to recruit.

Now, one or two of you will have spotted a way out of this feudal system of employment. Why not just leave, eh? It’s a free world, a free market after all. Economists would be screaming at us to show a bit of labour mobility. But in truth, while such theories sound great on paper or blog, there are a hundred reasons why labour is sticky – why, in the real world, workers will take a huge amount of shit before unleashing their ultimate (and only) weapon, and depart stage left. Kids still have to be fed, the human will to self-reliance is strong. Bonds of friendship and family in the workplace put homo economicus on hold. Nebulous feelings of loyalty to fellow workers, of having ‘invested’ in a place, are no less real for being unquantifiable on a graph. There was a pool of desperate labour just waiting for us to jump, and I know my employer was no worse than any other. I had a path out, even though it took a while to locate. Most didn’t, don’t.

So, if you want to believe in unfettered free markets, go ahead. Shout from the rooftops that social protection is doomed Euro-mollycoddling. Preach your economic libertarianism and the evils of red tape. Belittle the rights culture and pour scorn on the postwar consensus. But don’t kid yourself. Unregulated business behaves like this. You believe in a system that works like this. I’ve seen your future, friends, and it’s ugly.

  1. Phil said:

    I’ve always been kind of attracted to libertarianism.

    I’ve always been a libertarian – I think it’s downright weird that people who ostensibly want to maximise individual freedom promote social institutions which constrain far more than they liberate. I take a lot of my bearings from the 60s/early 70s counter-culture (not that I was old enough for it myself), and back then the word ‘libertarian’ really meant ‘libertarian left'; it’s a great loss if it’s been commandeered by the free-marketeers.

    I don’t think it’s any of the state’s business what I choose to stick in my veins or into another consenting adult. My biometric data is mine, not for them to treat as their own.

    On a more mundane level, is there any incompatibility between those positions (which I share) and believing in the renationalisation of Railtrack, for example?

    You young people, I just do not know…

  2. Re our previous conversation – looks ok to me.

    Anyhow, yes, you make some good points. Capitalism is a messy affair, and to pretend otherwise is stupid (stupid things aren’t uncommon, of course).

    Hayek, by the way, wouldn’t disagree so much with you either. Hayek could be scathing about business and lamented the tendency to rationalise capitalism as ‘just’ in its outcomes. As he put it, declaring market results to be perfectly in keeping with just desserts (Law, Legislation, and Liberty, p.74): “leads to an exaggerated confidence in the truth of this generalisation which, to those who regard themselves (and perhaps are) equally able but have failed must appeare as a bitter irony and a severe provocation.” Hayek had seen enough of life to realise the critical importance of plain ole’ luck (for this reason, he was not unsympathetic to Rawlsian veil-of-ignorance thinking).

    For Hayek, even though he accepted this, there remained two reason to support free markets. First, economic: there was no alternative. Second, political and moral: that any other institutional arrangement would be unjust in its process.

    On the latter point, remember that Hayek was more classical-liberal than libertarian (a label he explicitly rejected, after all), and didn’t advocate a minimum state. He defined liberty in terms of the rule of law – universal rules of just conduct, with the emphasis on the ‘universal’ (i.e., equally applied) aspect. For him, any specific economic interventions (detailed laws on specific trades, for example) were potentially unfair in application, and therefore not just. On the other hand, he was perfectly willing to accept some form of welfare system as long as it was a ‘uniform minimum’. If I were a Lefty (hey, it might happen), I’d start by going back to Hayek – he’s got a lot to teach, even if his English is not exactly the most elegant. Don’t judge him by his readership – Hayek was without doubt a great liberal thinker.

    But, political philosophy aside, the economic point holds: there’s no alternative to markets. That’s not to say there’s no room for fetters on market freedoms – some to secure tangible goods (environmental, equity, etc), and some simply for aesthetic reasons, to slow the pace and make capitalism a more pleasant phenomenon. But the point is that all such fetters have consequences, typically impeding the wealth and opportunity creation of markets.

    The difference, then, between market-fundie libertarians and those (like yourself) who aren’t so convinced is perhaps less one over policy than over priorities. Libertarians place a higher priority on the opportunity to be richer; you prefer to limit caprice and untidyness, but possibly at the expense of some opportunity. I wouldn’t necessarily disagree, but I think we should be clear that we’re dealing with trade-offs here.

  3. Phil – what you’re saying is really part of my point. But the renationalisation of the railways, for example, absolutely would violate the principles of economic (as opposed to social) libertarianism. Collectivism and state power beyond the minimum required is anathema to economic libertarians.

    B – Interesting… if you’re prescribing a course of ‘lefty’ Hayek maybe I’ll just have to take my medicine…as I said, my libertarianism is one of instinct, not of intellect. On one point: regulation as an ‘efficiency’ v equity trade-off, I absolutely agree. It then comes down to how highly you value equity, and how you approach it with the minimum impact on efficiency. The trouble is, most market fundamentalists don’t seem to value equity at all, except as a pseudo-meritocratic stick to bash the unfortunate or unlucky with.

  4. Hayek gets an unjustified rep. He certainly wasn’t a market fundamentalist and went out of his way to damn nineteenth century laissez-faire (see the essays in Individualism and Economic Order), and saw a positive role for government (see Constitution of Liberty). If you go all the way to the Fatal Conceit, his last work, he became very conservative in many ways that would be uncomfortable to libertarians.

    Leaving aside politics, his approach to social and economic phenomenon (start here with articles like the Use of Knowledge in Society or Economics and Knowledge, but there’s lots to go on to from there) can benefit anybody. He was a great systematiser and his work, while very dry, does force you to think through The Way The World Works, and to do so without recourse to convenient simplifying assumptions about hidden forces, but to the chaos of human interaction.

    Re efficiency vs equity – quite so. But then libertarianism seems to me just another form of Gnostic heresy, much like socialism was. It’s just that for socialists, heaven-on-earth would be equal in material outcome, while for libertarians it would distribute material outcomes according to (very unequally shared) merit. Far more difficult to contend with being between extremes – recognising that scarcity necessarily requires inequality, but recognising too that necessity shouldn’t be sanctified so that it can’t be traded at all against other goods.

  5. Alex said:

    But why is it that you rarely ever encounter libertarians in civil life, but in the blogosphere the buggers are everywhere?

    Personally, my objection to libertarianism is summed up by something one of the Crooked Timber team said: the problem with libertarianism is that the societies closest to it are Somalia and the DR Congo.

  6. N.I.B. said:

    This fella knows his onions.

    It’s important to remember we don’t have many of the choices (in how to earn and what to buy, for example) that a *really, truly* free market would bring.

  7. Or, as someone put it, in a world ostensibly full of choice, some people have no choice but to make certain choices.

  8. Personally I just long for the days when I thought a “free market” was a Marxist utopia where nothing cost a penny. After all, if we’re going for left-wing interpretation of Hayek it’s only fair that we have a right-wing interpretation of Marx – and the final stage of communism is basically some kind of free market libertarian ideal where supply and demand are so perfectly balanced that everyone’s happy. Or something. Ho-hum… I always preferred Plato myself. As long as I get to be the enlightened despot.

  9. Don’t knock it, Nosemonkey. The greater the thinker, the less they should be monopolised by partisan interpretations. Tocqueville’s the best example of that.

    Not that I am a Marxist, but historical materialism is a way of seeing the world which has no necessary policy implications. Remember once there were Right Hegelians and Left Hegelians, and Marxism grew out of the latter – but there’s no reason why not to have Right and Left Marxists. After all, there’s still a big, big question about whether Marx himself .

    A mode recent thinker, but one committed to historical materialism of a particular sort (Alexandre Kojeve) was ambivalent – for him, the matter of which side won the Cold War was a relatively uninteresting fact to be settled by progress, so long as someone won it and we could continue to be carried forward to the End of History.

    So, two cheers for Free-market Marxism!

  10. Gawd knows what happened with the link on that one – it was supposed to be at the end of the second paragraph, “whether Marx himself… gave a stuff about the justice of capitalism.”

  11. Chris Williams said:

    Left Hayekians? Sound like True Smithians to me. Maybe we should start a non-stop picket outside the Adam Smith Institute, or at least give them all copies of Ormerod’ _The Death of Economics_.

    On the matter in question, y’all could do worse than shell out £1.50 for this pamphlet – if only to appreciate the tranparent pseudonym:

  12. Katie said:

    Jarndyce, I assume you’ve read this?

  13. Anonymous said:

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