February 24, 2007

Libertarianism and violence

Over at Pandagon, Chris Clark has a nice post up about the history of libertarianism, that pro-capital anarchism so popular among upper middle class teenagers of a certain intellectual and rebellious stripe. And, of course, a certain stripe of political philosopher, including a few of my own fellow grad students.

I wanted to highlight this bit of Clark's in particular:

Libertarian Cranial Detonation Technique #3: Mentioning Libertarianism’s blindspot.

That accumulation of serious political power is the end result of the Libertarian political wankdream, and yet somehow boss-based coercion escapes the Libertarian scrutiny to which municipal zoning boards and feminist bloggers with itchy banning fingers are routinely subjected.

Arguing with some libertarian colleagues a time or two, I've developed a hypothesis, which I'm neither going to defend or critique here.

The hypothesis is that libertarians are working with an excessively narrow understanding of violence. Ask a libertarian about, say, taxation, and you'll suddenly find yourself in a rhetorical whirl of gun-toting IRS agents kicking down your door. But try to draw a parallel with the threat of economic violence -- the kind, say, Wal-Mart uses to keep its employees in line -- and the libertarian will look at you as though you're speaking Martian.

For libertarians, I suspect, physical violence is real, and the state is suspect because it is the only agent authorized to use physical violence, or the threat of physical violence, as a means of coercion. (The idea that the state is an agent is also, I think, suspect, but that's far too complicated an issue for this little note.) Economic violence is not real, `because you can also go get another job', so the use of economic violence, or the threat of economic violence, is likewise not real, and hence there's no reason to be suspicious of the wealthy.


Andrew Bailey said...

The notion of 'economic violence' sounds like a misnomer to me. But I'll note only this: while the "defining coercion" literature is as sticky as any (see Nozick's credible threat theory), there are arguments for a theory of coercion according to which Wal-Mart doing what it does need not be violence while the state doing what it does is. =)

Noumena said...

So, basically, I'm exactly right: libertarians don't consider what I call economic violence to be violence. I guess that means `all' I need to do is convince you that it should be considered violence.

Drew said...

I'm not remotely a libertarian, and I don't consider "economic violence" to be violence, except possibly in a very loose metaphorical sense. What Wal-Mart does to its employees is horrendous and utterly contemptible, but it isn't violence in any sense that I recognize.