Reading “A Strategic Green-Libertarian Alliance”

[I’ve asked the students in my Great Ideas Honors class to respond to Kevin Carson’s recent post, A Strategic Green-Libertarian Alliance. What follows is an attempt to put that proposal in a context for the students. I trust my other readers will help clarify what’s at stake in all of this.]

Kevin Carson, in the Mutualist Blog, has posted a possible 10-point “statement of shared principles” for “a strategic alliance of DFC Democrats, Libertarians and Greens.” View his entire post here. Some background: back in July, 2005, he had posted some thoughts about a “green tax shift” which would involve “Shifting taxes away from human initiative and onto monopolization of natural resources, pollution and government-granted privileges instead.” As a free-market anarchist, Carson sees this as a possible “intermediate step” towards a genuinely libertarian society. And he notes that, “Even in the end state, arguably, some of these charges would continue to exist as part of a libertarian property system that internalized cost in price: as access fees to socially-regulated commons, or common law penalties for inflicting harm on one’s neighbors.” This caveat is important, as it gives some clues to how Carson would (and probably will) answer some of the more obvious objections (from libertarians, greens, and others) to what follows.

Now consider the proposed alliancein a United-States context: the “DFC” is the Democratic Freedom Caucus (see their platform here), the principles of which include: personal and economic liberty, limited government and social responsibility; Libertarians in this case might well include members of the Libertarian Party as well as others, such as the Movement of the Libertarian Left; and, while the Green Party of the United States is the dominant electoral faction within the Green movement, we should probably take “Greens” in this case to include other groups such as the old GPUSA, the Left Green Network, and the large number of greens who have opted out of the factional fighting in the movement. We’re talking about a diverse and potentially fractious group. And perhaps there are still even some small-government, ecologically conscious Republicans that might see the sense in attaching themselves to such a movement. (I would certainly like to think this is the case.)

So what’s the proposal? Generally, this “Contract with America” for the rest of us would start here:

The basic principle of all the planks would be that all parties agree to first withdraw existing state policies that promote the polarization of wealth, the concentration of corporate power, pollution and excess consumption of resources, etc., before even considering further augmentation of the state:

If you’re not already well initiated into libertarian or green thought, or into Carson’s particular “free-market anticapitalist” version of anarchist mutualism, some explanation of the planks may be necessary. (For a more general debate about Carson’s economics, see the most recent issue of the Journal of Libertarian Studies. For an intelligent, general response, check out this post on Social Memory Complex.) In general, Carson assumes that many of the world’s ills can be addressed if government is no longer allowed to muck about in the market, propping up otherwise unsustainable corporations with various sorts of subsidies. He is, in part, a follower of Benjamin R. Tucker, the most prominent individualist anarchist of the 19th century. Tucker argued that the identification of capitalism (of the “actually existing,” historical variety) with “free markets” was a bit of a stretch, as existing capitalist institutions were supported by government (or government-granted and -defended) monopolies in the realm of currency and banking, intellectual properties, tariffs, and land titles. He wanted to do the prevailing laissez faire approach one better, to create genuinely free markets. This is all reflected in the first point of Carson’s proposal:

1) eliminate all corporate welfare spending, and translate this and all other budget savings (e.g., a radical scaling back of the drug war) into income tax cuts on the lowest brackets; eliminate all differential corporate income tax benefits, including deductions and credits, and lower the corporate income tax rate enough to make it revenue neutral;

Tucker was influenced by our old acquaintance William Batchelder Greene, and shared (with some variations) his concern with making credit generally available, and the reference to “banks engaged solely in providing secured loans against property” ought to bring to mind the colonial land banks we have studied, as well as Greene’s “mutual banking.”

2) eliminate all credit union regulations more restrictive than those on ordinary commercial banks; eliminate capitalization requirements and other entry barriers for banks engaged solely in providing secured loans against property;

The third point addresses infrastructure as a “public good.” Carson argues that treating transportation infrastructure as a general good actually amounts to a subsidy for corporations, promoting otherwise impractical and unprofitable forms of distribution. You can see parts of his arguments here and here.

3) fund federal highways and airports entirely with tolls and other user-fees, with absolutely no subsidies from general revenues, and no use of eminent domain;

The pattern should be fairly clear now. Eliminating obstacles to free exchange and negotiation in the realm of labor relations is something of a no-brainer from a strict free-market perspective. If you have questions about the need to address the proper limits of “intellectual property” rights in the realm of agribusiness, check out the story of Percy Schmeiser, who has been battling Monsanto over contamination of his canola crop by Roundup-ready genetically engineered seed.

4) repeal Taft-Hartley, all legislation like the Railway Labor Relations Act which restrains specific categories of workers from striking, and all legal restrictions on minority unionism in workplaces without a certified union;

5) repeal all food libel laws, liberalize or eliminate restrictions on alternative medicine, and radically scale back or eliminate the so-called “intellectual property” of the agribusiness, infotainment, and drug industries; radically scale back or eliminate patents in general;

The sixth point is, perhaps, one of the most controversial:

6) devolve control of federal land to states, counties and municipalities, with those governments replacing much or all taxation of income and sales with severance and resource extraction fees as a source of revenue;

Carson is concerned with the inefficiencies and outright inanities of too-large organizations. You could probably make a good case that many federal agencies fall into that category. But the question may not be a simple one. Recall that Carson has left open the possibility of a “socially-regulated commons” in place of current federal lands. Any scheme of government, including those that are radically decentralized or downright anarchistic, still has to address in some way a range of ecological concerns that aren’t strictly local, or are difficult to tie to the standard of operating at our own (rather than the other guy’s) expense: scarce and non-renewable resources, biodiversity, local contributions to global climate change, run-off, the whole range of possible conflicts related to water and water rights, etc. A strictly local focus is not adequate to many of these concerns. Carrying the costs of our actions can be difficult, even if we have the best of intentions, when those costs may appear at some distance in time and space. Federal land-use and environmental agencies are required to think in more global terms, which is, of course, the reason they appear to err so often where local rights are concerned. But can we be certain the local control will be any better? Carson attempts to address some of these concerns in this way:

7) restore the common law of liability to its full vigor, in preference to the regulatory state, as a way of forcing pollutors and other corporate malefactors to internalize the costs they impose on society; make civil damages directly proportional to the harm done;

I would like you to ask yourself, at a purely practical level, what this might mean, and how it could be turned into part of a defense of environmental concerns.

8) at the state level, drastically scale back the drug war and translate the savings into eliminating the sales tax and cutting income taxes on the lower brackets; at the state and local levels, eliminate all corporate tax incentives, public spending on industrial parks, and the like, and reduce income taxes on the lower brackets accordingly; at the local level, shift all current taxes on buildings and improvements and personal property, and all sales taxes, onto the unimproved site value of land;

This is, at the local level, essentially a geolibertarian or anarcho-Georgist single tax proposal, and a minimization of taxation at the state level.

9) at the local level, accept some portion of taxes in LETS notes and other alternative currencies;

LETS are local exchange trading systems, largely based around labor-for-labor exchange. Allowing portions of local taxes to be paid in local currency merely extends the basic premise of this sort of currency.

10) eliminate all local zoning restrictions on mixed-use development like neighborhood grocers in subdivisions, and walkup apartments downtown; fund all urban freeway systems with tolls; require real estate developers to pay the full cost of extending roads and utilities to new subdivisions, instead of passing on the cost to tax- and ratepayers in old neighborhoods.

In short, as Tom Knapp put it, cut taxes from the bottom up and welfare from the top down. (Note that this list consists entirely of economic and pocketbook issues; civil liberties issues like the drug war are brought in only to the extent that they affect government expenditures or revenue.)

As you’re putting together your responses to this platform, concentrate on the adequacy of the ideas–which means making sure you understand what’s being said well enough to judge. We’ve been talking about how to respond to extreme positions or ideas which seem to put their presenter out on a limb. Kevin Carson has undoubtedly exposed himself in that fashion here. In doing so, however, he’s posed a set of challenges for us, and done us the service of actually laying out an alternative to current systems. In your responses, I would like you to be as critical as you can, but also to engage as carefully and with as much respect as possible.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2419 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.

11 Comments

  1. I appreciate your giving my post such careful consideration–I just hope it doesn’t turn your class off of individualist anarchism!

    One minor detail I’d add is that the Democratic Freedom Caucus is primarily Georgist or Geolibertarian, or at least treats land as “different” from other kinds of private property in a free market.

    While I enthusiastically support all the items on my list, on closer consideration I agree with Joshua Holmes (in the comment thread to my post) that some of them aren’t really a “sixty-percent” agenda. That is, they aren’t immediately appealing on their face, without tying them to some sort of educational effort. But I still believe the general principle stated of cutting taxes from the bottom-up and welfare from the top-down would be spectacularly effective as the basis of a 60% agenda.

  2. It looks like I’ll be the first from class to go at this, so I’m pretty much meandering here. I have a fair grasp on most of this proposal, but without much exposure to many of these concepts and only Shawn’s links as a guide, I am admittedly a novice here. If I’m off base in my skepticisms feel free to educate me because it is absolutely possible I have missed or overlooked something. That being said, I’ll have at it.

    On the third point, I’m wondering if tolls will be enough to fund airports and federal highways. I also wonder if tolls would act as a deterrent for use of such infrastructure. My own experience with toll roads is quite limited being from southern Ohio, but avoidance of such conveniences because of annoying tolls might be a legitimate concern.

    On the eighth point, I would love for Carson to expand on his ideas for the scaling back of the drug war. It perhaps isn’t pertinent enough for this essay, but an expansion of what he means here would be much appreciated. Is he calling for the legalization of drugs or just for a decriminalization or even less? Legalization could bring in more funding through taxable revenue, but it also opens up a new ethical debate as well. I would be interested to see where Carson stands particularly on this issue and how it would be implemented specifically into this plan.

    On the ninth point, I am a bit confused about LETS. I do not understand why these and other alternative currencies would be an advantage. It seems like one standard currency is a great convenience, as was shown by the disparity between the articles of confederation and US constitution. Perhaps I just need a bit more information about LETS and their applicability to Carson’s plan. This may be clarified by anyone online or Shawn in class. I’m just a bit confused here.

    Ultimately, while I support many of these theoretical measures, I question the plausibility of their implementation. It would, of course, require a steady transition, which I believe Kevin supports (from what Shawn says), but this plan does not clearly establish a time frame or a plan for this transition. Carson lists measures he feels are in need of implementation, but not necessarily how the nation will move to meet them. This plan requires a responsible government to decentralize itself, as well as a responsible public to maintain its power. I am skeptical on both of these matters. The decentralization of the federal government would require a dramatic shift in ideology. The government seems to be moving towards quite the opposite direction that Carson has in mind. This is not to say this is right of them to do, but it will make the transition to Carson’s model all that more difficult. To make this type of ideological shift, even if the people supported it, would require great changes in personnel. It is fairly obvious that the current administration disregards the public’s will or capacity to make decisions. Again, I believe this is wrong of them to feel this way, but it does make the transition to Carson’s model all that much more difficult. Many of the ills and inequalities Carson is seeking to expurgate are deeply rooted in our politics and economy. I am fully for the scaling back of corporate powers in Washington and the equalization of opportunities for smaller business, but if we look at our political scene it is evident that corporate interests are those that control many decisions made on the federal scale. My concerns aren’t really with Carson’s plan, but how we will transition from here to there. It is perhaps an unfair expectation for one single essay, but perhaps another piece is required to show how we will even get ourselves in a position to make these types of changes.

  3. Kevin,
    Thanks for posting. It’s nice for the class to be able to talk to the author for once.

    Hey, Chris. If you saw my second post on this subject, you know who is meandering. . .

    Thoughts: in market terms, if there isn’t sufficient demand for the use of airports and highways to actually pay for them, what does that mean? Are they actually a “public good” that ought to be propped up by public funding? Under current conditions, I’m very much of two minds about this sort of thing. “Market forces” are the reasons given for the increasing absence of passenger trains and bus lines in rural America. Would throwing all transportation services “on the market” check this trend or intensify it? These are the sorts of calculations we have to attempt to make. Again, what would be the general effects of the sort of decentralization that seems to be one of the values embodied in the platform?

    Where local currencies are concerned, perhaps the place to start is with the fact that there has been a demand for local, supplementary currency schemes since at least the 17th century. As long as we’ve had anything like a modern financial system, we’ve had calls for “public loan offices,” “land banks,” “mutual banks,” and the like. Kevin may approach this question a little differently, but I see two positives involved. First, local currencies supplement the money supply in relatively stable ways, without interfering materially with the convenience of national currency. Second, local government acceptance of local currencies (as for taxes) signals a commitment to a genuinely local economy.

    I’ve talked quite a bit in the newest post here about markets and how we imagine they work. We talked some about this in class as well. But the basic premise of this transitional program is that if enough people agree to shift the incentives and disincentives embodied in the structure of the government towards a situation where people are required to count and carry their own costs to a greater extent, then we’ll simply have to learn to be more responsible.

  4. I heard a line from the movie Murder By Numbers. “Man cannot live freely without embracing suicide and crime. A pact made with relentless fire that says, while some live, others must die.” For crime is an act of freedom, free from the laws of government and free from the natural laws that govern our life. It as much as a freedom to abide by the laws as it is to act against them. Where my concern lies is where is the distinction between self and community. For if I am a part of the community I can be considered the community, to an extent. Therefore if one would have concern for the self they could just be expressing it differently in terms of the community. Man can not live freely without accepting that death is eminent and to be free you must not live by the book. I also find the words painted on the sidewalk on BG grounds “Exist to die,” helpful here.

    -Meredith

  5. chris,

    Thanks for the comments.

    Shawn has beat me to my answers on a couple of your questions.

    On #3, the whole point of it is there wouldn’t be a demand for highway and airport infrastructure on the present scale if the users actually had to bear the cost. Subsidies for anything generate excess demand; in the case of transportation infrastructure, they generate artificial distance between things and encourage transportation-reliant economy. If highways and airports were funded on a cost basis, we’d be buying a lot more stuff made in small factories 20 miles away, instead of in large ones 1000 miles away.

    On #8, I’ll take whatever I can get. Seriously, the ultimate goal is an end to all legal restrictions on what one adult can sell to another or put in his or her own body. But every incremental step in that direction is a good thing, some progress toward dismantling the police state and restoring the common law standards of due process that have become so eroded over the past 20 or 30 years.

    On #9, LETS systems are a good way of enabling people to transform their skills into use-value in a local network, without being dependent on wage labor or the vicissitudes of the national economy.

    The larger and more anonymous commodity markets are, the more likely supply and demand are to be mismatched from one year to the next, with boom-bust cycles and other instabilities.

    As a counter-example, consider a small truck-farmer who lives next door to (say) a weaver. If they barter their services with each other, neither one (obviously) will have a reliable market for his entire output. But the two of them will have at least a reliable market for the portion of their output consumed by the other, and both will have a reliable source of both vegetables and clothing. Their dependence on wage labor and the money economy is reduced to that extent. The more trades are brought into such an exchange system, the larger the portion of each member’s consumption needs can be met with a high degree of stability and security, and the higher the proportion of his own output he will have a dependable outlet for. It’s a secure way of transforming one’s own skills to satisfy consumption needs directly, without the intermediation of an employer’s whims.

    Concerning your general remarks in conclusion: the main issue for me is what the priorities would be. Once those priorities are determined (i.e., scaling back the kinds of intervention that benefit the rich at the expense of the poor), we should simply push as far and as fast as possible. The main thing is not to allow the corporate apologist kind of libertarian to set the agenda, which is all too likely to resemble Thatcher’s UK or Pinochet’s Chile.

  6. 5) repeal all food libel laws, liberalize or eliminate restrictions on alternative medicine, and radically scale back or eliminate the so-called “intellectual property” of the agribusiness, infotainment, and drug industries; radically scale back or eliminate patents in general;

    I decided to focus on this part of the platform. I did a little research on food libel laws and it basically says that if you say something bad about my food I can sue you. The intellectual property is the ability to keep certain ideas secret. This is very dumb down, but this is the basic understand that I got. Anyway, obviously both of these laws are used so corporations can get away with certain things maybe they shouldn’t. I am a strong believer that you should know everything about the food that enters your mouth. To me this isn’t just an issue of free market, but an issue of health.

    Now is it practical? People will piss and moan I have a feeling. Honestly, I don’t see that harm though. People have the right to know what you are feeding them. Also, even if they say bad things about your food, if it isn’t true, you shouldn’t care. It’s only when it is true that they get all huffy.

    That’s my two cents. hurray.

  7. food libel laws are a microcosm of a gargantuan set of libel laws that protect corporations and their products from slander. while perhaps well-intentioned to support integruous competition, they have ultimately been perverted to prevent disclosure of pertinent information, often regarding the safety of a product. a prime example of this is the secrecy surrounding the carcinogenic effects of Monsanto’s bovine growth hormone, Posilac. Monstanto had embellished test results and the FDA failed to thoroughly check the corporation’s findings. investigative journalists discovered the harmful effects the drug has when consumed by humans. under libel laws Monsanto was able to suppress this information. libel laws cannot be allowed to prevent the public from gaining necessary information about a product. libel laws are not even effective in the areas they seek to protect. through the use of fake tv news spots called video news releases (VNRs), corporations have been allowed to disguise advertisements as product reviews by journalists by actually staging these reports to resemble the newscast. these spots are shown during news shows like regular reports, but it is generally not mentioned the spot is funded by a corporation. often these reports are done by rival corporations to slander one another’s products, disguised as objective journalism. ultimately, we should be in the business of protecting people. this includes their rights and security. contrary to the belief of the current administration, security and civil rights are not mututally exclusive. when libel laws stop protecting the people, which i believe they have, and solely begin protecting the interests of corporations, they must be amended, if not completely abolished

  8. wow–Kevin Carson posted! Now that’s cool–to have the author’s perspective in the discussion… ok, now…
    I myself don’t understand much about economics, but some pluses and minuses to consider:

    + 60% is economic, so if these could get fixed (and presumidly could) all else would slowing increase, eliminating poverty and other differences
    + the environment would probably get a lot better! If there was a tax on roads, not a lot of people would be driving, unless they could afford it. Just like the cost of gas, some people would find alternate means of transportation, such as public transportation, that would be better for the environment. The environment is getting worse and worse, and not a lot of the top political parties do much about it… it needs more press, and action needs to be taken in order to make the earth a better and safer place

    – Obviously the costs of such a project relies on the ability for the individuals to do what will benefit everybody, not just themselves. If the government no longer controls the land or other aspects, its hard to say that everyone’s own agenda would not be conflicting… factions all have their own ideas, and I think it’s brave to try to satisfy the majority, but how would you ensure everyone cooperates?

    – Cutting down taxes might make it more difficult to enact certain social programs

    in summary, I think that the world needs to have different parties and factions in order to ensure that everyone is represented. conflict and political tension is a “necessary evil”, and as the federalist papers (5 i think) say, the groups will be so divided as to makre sure none are abused. Of course this is not the case today, with only two ruling parties for the last hundreds of years, and perhaps it is time to try to find a meeting place where these ideas of market and government can be discussed.
    Heather bergseth

  9. Kevin I am confused on your policies about education? I wondered if you could explain how you feel about education if it should be public or individal? Thanks
    Laura Schlosser

  10. I appreciate Mr. Carson posting a response it’s great to see an author take part in a discussion such as this. The point I’d like to address is point 8 specifically about the drug war. I know that it’s been widely criticized, but wouldn’t drastically cutting the funding have some major potential issues down the road? Issues that would then be so severe that it would take a lot of time to reverse? Thanks again.
    -David Wells

  11. Sorry I didn’t come back to read the follow-up comments. The thread has probably long moved on, but I’ll respond anyway.

    Heather Bergseth,

    On tax cuts reducing the revenue for social programs, my idea was to cut taxes on the poor first, and cut spending on things like welfare last. We can see how a reduction of privilege works to reduce poverty, by enabling labor to obtain higher wages, before we get around to addressing cuts in welfare.

    Laura Schlosser,

    On education, I think the basic principle should be that it’s a voluntary private activity that can be voluntarily delegated to collective institutions. But the voluntary basis is always central. When it starts being something that the state requires, and organizes from the top down, it’s time to get out the guillotine. (Guess I ought to put in a smiley emoticon after that last– 🙂 ).

    David Wells,

    Legalizing all drugs would have significant social effects, I’m sure. But not severe–there’d probably be more casual experimentation on the margin without the threat of having your door kicked in, but most people who don’t do meth don’t do it now mainly because they think it’s stupid. And there are horrible, horrible evils involved in the current drug war that it would be pretty hard for the hypothetical evils of legalization to match. The drug war has created an explosion in organized crime, turned half the Bill of Rights into toilet paper, and made many police forces themselves barely distinguishable from organized criminals. Police forces are militarized, the Fourth Amendment is virtually a dead letter, and many aspects of society have been corrupted to the core because of it.

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