[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;
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.