Occupy Times (London) Interview
Subject: My interview for The Occupy Times of London
Subject: My interview for The Occupy Times of London
You’re not fan of ‘administrators’. Do you think we are heading down a
path towards even more administration & interference from technocratic ’experts’? Why are we beginning to accept this?
Well, there is a danger in using “we” here. Many do accept such developments, in part because they hold that science–”techne”–is the answer to everything (a la the late B. F. Skinner) and the mantle of science is awfully impressive in the modern age; the humanities have failed to address the most important issues, such as what should be the values people ought to pursue, embrace; religion simply doesn’t convince the educated among us, etc.
You wrote in a recent article (which we’ll link to in the website version of the Occupied Times) that commerce has had a very bad press for hundreds, even thousands of years – tracing back anti-business sentiment to Plato, Aristotle and the Bible. Could you describe this a little for our readers. Is it a legacy of this thinking why most anti-corruption protests like Occupy frequently blame ‘capitalism’ itself as the root of the problem? (which, by the way, is not the view of everyone taking part in these protests!) Who or what should we be blaming instead?
From the start commerce or business had been linked to soulless materialism, a value free approach, and thus has done battle with the more spiritualist views of human life. (False alternatives in my view!) Still, living well has always been an attractive prospect. So spirit and matter, as it were, have done battle and business/commerce has been on the materialist side of it and thus has lacked the respectability that those who demean doing well in life happen to have acquired over the centuries. Intellectuals, today, are a kind of clergy who scoff at wealth, technological progress, economic growth, etc. The Occupy people fashion themselves as today’s humanists and there isn’t enough solid intellectual, philosophical criticism of this (to my mind misguided) outlook.
The film and book, The Corporation, puts forward the thesis that corporations are psychopathic because they have a duty to their shareholders to make profit over and above all other concerns. This over-riding motivation means they are amoral as for them profit is more important than the human or environmental cost. Could you comment on this? We’re very interested to hear your thoughts on the morality of corporations…
Sadly this is very misguided. Corporations are what people organize in order to prosper, economically, which is a very fine thing but because of some of what I said above, it has not gained respectability among the intellectuals, clergy, pundits. Also, the general hostility that’s still very much part of our culture against freedom of choice–e.g., “ordinary people don’t handle freedom properly and need to be directed by politicians and educators, etc., etc.”–infects the attitude toward corporate commerce. Yet, corporate commerce is very much part of life but it has acquired this reputation of being amoral, ethically deaf and dumb. The false notion that the right ethics is altruism, a life of relentless self-sacrifice, supports this since commerce and its institutions are clearly aiming at creating wealth for their agents.
In the free-market, which you advocate, some Corporations have become all-powerful – putting small and medium sized companies out of business. Is there a way to rein in their abuses of power? How can a free market work which is not dominated by ruthless corporations? Or is that just what will happen in part of the natural process. What in your view is the difference between commerce and business as practiced on a corporate multinational scale and trading carried out by small and medium sized local or national businesses and how can we even the playing field (or should we even try?)
When commerce has a bad reputation and is under constant legal, regulatory scrutiny (with the attitude that it is guilty before having been proven so), companies have to be huge to carry on, with especially large legal departments that can fend off the government regulators. It is nothing natural–small people and large people are both people, after all! The notion of an even playing field is a false ideal. It is a mistake to try to cut everyone to the same size. (Here the best lesson comes from George Orwell’s Animal Farm, in my view.)
If we are socialising the losses of banks and other companies, then currently we do not have a free-market. How would you best describe the global economy as it is characterised now with these enormous bail-outs and various other perks which are given to certain corporations (for example, I understand that in the US certain companies do not have to subscribe to Obama-care).
It is as my friend Tom G. Palmer points out, a humongous welfare state with its inevitably attendant tragedy of the commons on innumerable fronts. With this sort of situation everyone seems to just want to beat everyone else to the various public treasuries (which tend to contain only borrowed monies now).
Do you think protectionism is ever justified (if for example, the government is attempting to protect small and medium sized businesses from competing multinationals which will bankrupt them).
Protectionism is cheating and can only be justified very rarely as a well-targeted retaliatory measure, and only temporarily.
Do you see a problem with corporate land grabbing, and the concentration of land ownership? (or do you think ‘land grabbing’ is loaded term for ’enterprise’?)
If land is acquired honestly, if government doesn’t enter and pick winners and losers, there is no harm here. Whatever is of value, people will wish to have some of it and so long as this is done on the up and up, objecting to it is prejudicial.
You say: “taxation is essentially a relic of feudalism”. Is there anything at all you would allow the state to tax? Some people believe land tax is a fairer tax as wealthy landowners own tracts of often undisclosed land and resources which they simply pass onto the next generation, whereas income tax penalises the entire population – even those who do not possess assets such as land.
I know of the Henry George position on this and have addressed it–no, it doesn’t have any justice in support of it. Moreover, even if some land is owned undeserved, it is a non-sequitor to believe that this entitles others to confiscate it. It should be adjudicated in a court of law, not by bureaucrats. The case against taxation is complex but ultimately taxation is extortionist.
You describe Robin Hood as a hero of ‘repossession’. Are you a Robin Hood economist? (Presumably those advocating the ‘Robin Hood’ tax should be cast more as the Sheriff of Nottingham – the FTT is a subject of heated debate in Occupy London by the way – could you share any thoughts on it.)
I do not know what Robin Hood economists are and suspect the term is used in its normal, misguided fashion here–i.e., “soc it to the rich.”
What measures do you think would start to solve this global crisis?
Well, I am a convinced libertarian. Ever since I was smuggled out of communist Hungary or shortly afterward I have championed the fully free society where no one gets to order anyone else about (apart from children an some invalids). I have debated the matter with innumerable statists and never found any of them convincing. I have written some 35 books on the topic and considered criticisms, objections galore, so freedom is my answer to most of the world’s human made problems.
What would you do if you were elected Prime Minister of Greece?
I would ask for people at the Mises Institute or the old Chicago School of economics to come in and help straighten out the mess.
What issues do you think Occupy should best focus on? Occupy seems to me too diverse, too unfocused, and too emotional to do any good other than perhaps call attention to some problems. It isn’t the way to be civilized and productive.
If you had a banner to wave yourself at a financial protest, what would you paint on it? ”Assert yourselves but very thoughtfully!”
How would you encourage an anti-austerity protestor to embrace classical libertarianism?
I am not sure because it appears that so many of them refuse to see that one cannot get blood out of a turnip. That is, ours and previous generations have demanded that governments drain the treasury completely and they do not appear to find it immoral to take from future generations, to take what isn’t theirs. These folks, sadly, think there is some kind of bottomless well of wealth in every country. Or they just believe that if money is needed, just rob the few who have been lucky and worked hard. What can one do with such folks but protect oneself from them when they are around the corner. Most of us learn from our parents to be frugal, thrifty and such but there are, sadly, millions who do not. Who believe they have a right to everyone else’s savings and earnings. Until they unlearn this futile doctrine, I think we are cooked!
I think you might be finding some common ground with the Occupy movement when you criticize the corporate bailouts: ‘we refuse to pay for the banks’ crisis’ is in the initial statement of Occupy London. Does that sound to you like a libertarian slogan?
Certainly bailouts are wrong, But people who are willing to soak the rich when they have run out of funds have no logical rights to complain about bailouts. It is a Hobbesian world out there; it appears, with everyone getting what he or she can get.
Can you expand on what you mean by the global bailouts functioning as a ‘humongous welfare state’.
Welfare states practice the perverse Robin Hood doctrine. You are entitled to get whatever you need, never mind your contribution to the commonwealth. It is not unwed mothers who soak the government for welfare but mostly businesses, farms, banks, etc., what with their subsidies and protectionist laws keeping others away from the free market!
Do you sympathise with the Occupy movement’s desire for transparency in government?
Of course I am for transparency.
You associate the “humanists” of Occupy with the intellectuals who “scoff at wealth” but isn’t the Occupy critique at heart a materialist one? – they don’t “scoff” at wealth, they want those of it who lack it to have more. And they say that the (undeniably extreme) distribution of wealth in our world which keeps building on itself due to compound interest and other factors is – somehow – improper. To criticism a distribution of wealth isn’t to criticise wealth per se, is it?
There is a lot of inconsistency about the views among those who have joined the Occupy movement. You say: “corporations are what people organize in order to prosper” but you’d presumably agree that there’s more than one-way to prosper? (the Mafia are fairly prosperous). Can you think of any examples in which the ‘urge to prosper’ manifested by a corporation has got out of hand? Of course I meant prosper peacefully!
If the only limit to economic action is the law (including, presumably, certain bits of necessary regulation – e.g. about pollutants), how do you protect the law & regulation from the business interests they’re meant to regulate?
Interesting but sadly the only answer I have is education. Also, let’s be clear that pollution and other negative externalities are the result of the lack of full protection of private property rights.
When corporations have the freedom to become as huge as they currently are they become immensely powerful and start lobbying government to change laws in their favour, so they can continue to prosper within in the law – but that law no longer works in the interests of the majority of the population. Could you comment on this? What is to protect the people against malicious and predatory corporations if not the government (although govt. doesn’t seem to be doing a very good job of it at the moment..). For example GMO or products like bovine growth hormone might be associated with massive health risks, but governments allow corporations not to label foods incorporating them – how can the individual be protected?
Sadly those who have power will try to make it work for them, so the law and morality need to be widely enough implemented and taught to restrain them. Government is always captured by the powerful in the land!
You criticize “the false notion that the right ethics is altruism” but the opposite of unrestrained profiteering doesn’t have to be “relentless self-sacrifice”. Can’t you imagine a criticism of corporate excesses and predatory practices coming from a place of pro-business, pro-prosperity, pro-capitalism?
Calling it “predatory” shows it really isn’t capitalist at all! Predation is doing violence of people and their property.
You say “It is a mistake to try to cut everyone to the same size” – would you then oppose measures to break up ‘too-big-to-fail’ institutions – for example, those institutions (most of them banks) deemed ‘systemically important’?
Yes, if they got big peacefully, they must be left alone. Just as very tall basketball players need to be kept within the rule, that is. (No handicapping except when the fans demand it and that’s in a game, after all, not in life.)
A good example of a ‘human made problem’ in the world would be the BP oil spill. How might ‘freedom’ answer the problem of the Gulf of Mexico? As BP seems happy to simply pay a fine and disperse the oil as quickly as possible using a toxic product like corexit (incidentally manufactured by a company owned by Goldman Sachs).
The criminal law needs to be adjusted to the modern age and its technology!
Where do you stand on monopolies? How can we have a world in which small and medium sized businesses are able to prosper alongside corporations? Or would a totally free world mean they will inevitably go out of business as they cannot compete?
The Beatles were a monopoly, as was Elvis, for a while. All successful endeavors tend to involve some monopolists. Again, the issue isn’t size but peacefulness!
If the world is a “humongous welfare state” then why are so many people living in poverty? It wouldn’t seem to be a particularly ‘efficient’ welfare state. Do you see libertarianism as a way for people to escape poverty? Welfare states pretend to serve the poor but in fact serve fat cats (who capture the government routinely)! If the governments acted like referees do at a game, staying out unless someone violates the rules, they would do the job for which liberal theorists like the American Founders supported them, “to secure our rights.”
*FINAL* FOLLOW UP QUESTIONS…
You say: “they do not appear to find it immoral to take from future generations, to take what isn’t theirs” – I was wondering how you feel about nation debts, and the fact that future generations will be born pre-indebted?
Vile stuff, that’s how I “feel”. (Really, what I take it to be true! Sadly they aren’t here to defend themselves. It is also rank violation of the prohibition of “taxation without representation”.)
You speak of a “Hobbesian world” – with everyone out to get what they can. I worry that this sounds a slightly joy-free, unsympathetic world! Do you believe in the ultimate selfishness of mankind?
It doesn’t have to be this way! But a great many people seem to find that to be desirable since they believe they will be among the powerful, the majority. As to what is right, that would be a world in which individual rights are fully respected and competently protected. BTW, true selfishness, prudence, is healthy. Check out what Socrates and Aristotle thought about promoting one’s true self-interest! It is the rapacious sort that is vicious.
What would be your first step in campaigning against “protectionist laws”?
Education! The minds of people ultimately fashion institutions, policies, and laws.
You mention, I think rightly, the importance of “education” – I was wondering, do you believe in state-funded education? (for anyone?)
I don’t believe that the state may get involved in anything apart from adjudicating disputes and protection of individual rights (including from foreign and domestic aggressors). No one has the moral or should have the political authority to rob Peter to supposedly benefit Paul, be it through education, medicine, the arts, and sciences, whatever. Such aggressive policies underlie corruption, wielding of power of some over others. (I do not believe economic “power” or wealth is aggressive if it is come by peacefully!)
Of systemically important institutions: “Yes, if they got big peacefully, they must be left alone.” I presume, left alone to fail as well to thrive? (but what if their failure causes a bigger collapse?)
Exactly. None should be deemed too big to fail if the risks are assumed voluntarily.
You talk about businesses being left alone to “prosper peacefully” – what about arms companies? (or would you withdraw ‘morals’ from the field of economics, and leave it to ‘law’?)
Morality applies in all voluntary human affairs–whenever people do what they choose to do, their conduct it open to moral assessment, for better or worse. Arms companies that trade with criminals are themselves criminal. Only trade with defensive customers is legitimate. It is like trading with murderers, child-molesters, rapists, robbers and the like–all criminal!
You talk of fat cats who “capture the government routinely” – I wonder if you could give me any examples, from your experience, of this?
Huge drug companies have politicians they pay off, including bureaucrats in the FDA (food and drug administration). This is what economists call “capturing the regulators” through a process of hiring them when they move back into the private sector. The education industry has many politicians seduced into thinking that universities, colleges and such may be funded from confiscated funds, funds obtained through the extortion process called taxation (which comes to us from feudal times when monarchs took “rent” from their subjects at gun point).
I wish to add that although there are numerous nuances one must add to the points I am making, answering your questions succinctly doesn’t make room for these.* It must be left to the intelligence of people to translate the general points into subtle implications.
If there is no tax, where does the money come from for the state itself? For basic policing and for all the ‘adjudicating’ and ‘refereeing’ that the state needs to do to ensure that corporations and individuals all have their rights upheld and people still obey the law…
As a consistent libertarian I do not use the term “state” but “government” to label the institution established to protect individual rights (as per the American Declaration of Independence). In any case, government or the administration and maintenance of law can be funded by a contract fee. [See http://www.liberalia.com/htm/tm_minarchists_anarchists.htm.] Since contracts need to be backed by law, a fee can be charged when they are entered into. Of course, one would be free to rely on a handshake but no sane person would do this with major economic transactions. The funds raised this way would suffice to fund the kind of minimal government that a just society requires.
*This is why folks like me write big, unwieldy books!
Comments are closed.