Posts tagged Rothbard

Column on Capitalism & Socialism Rightly Understood

Capitalism & Socialism Rightly Understood

Tibor R. Machan

In a recent Op Ed for The New York Times, Professor Gar Arperovitz of the University of Maryland, who teaches political economy there, has written that “something different [from what OWS wants] has been quietly brewing in recent decades: more and more Americans are involved in co-ops, worker-owned companies and other alternatives to the traditional capitalist model. We may, in fact, be moving toward a hybrid system, something different from both traditional capitalism and socialism, without anyone even noticing.”

Well, this comment shows, among other things, a profound misunderstanding of both capitalism and socialism. In the formers system there is no prohibition of pockets of communitarian associations, kibbutzes, communes, cooperatives, and so forth. This is a point made emphatically by one of the 20th century’s foremost philosophical defenders of capitalism–or, as he put it, “capitalist acts between consenting adults”–the late professor Robert Nozick, in his famous book Anarchy, State, and Utopia (Basic Books 1973).

Nozick pointed out that in the libertarian system he presented in his book there is every chance to experiment with a great variety of human associations–he called the “utopias”–provided these do not sanction the coercion of some people by others. And since the kind of associations that “worker owned companies” are need by no stretch of the imagination involve any kind of coercion, they are entirely compatible with capitalism wherein the major element is freedom of association, not the pursuit of any particular goal (including profit).

It is odd that Professor Alperovitz would not be up front about this. Is he perhaps intent on misrepresenting the nature of a capitalist political economy, making it appear to be something it isn’t, namely, limited to promoting only certain types of human associations such as business firms? What about the thousands of churches in the semi-capitalist system of America which are on record promoting various spiritual goals? What about the Amish, the Moonies, the Roman Catholics, the Salvation Army, the Red Cross and many others, including clubs, fraternal organizations, and so forth, that have nothing to do with seeking the ends that most business enterprises seek? All these are fully compatible with the basic principles of capitalism but not so much with socialism. None of these are permitted in countries like North Korea or Cuba, let alone in the former Soviet Union which attempted to implement socialism, namely, the state ownership of the major means of production and the total abolition of the right to private property, a right that indeed facilitates the variety of ways people may freely associate with one another.

Professor Alperovitz is a teacher of political economy so he must certainly know about the point Nozick made and about how a near-capitalist society such as the United States of America and many other Western countries are hospitable to, indeed promote, the great variety of communal associations he misleadingly identifies as socialist? Why would he do this?

If Professor Alperovitz wants to defend socialism or some hybrid of true capitalism and true socialism–whatever that might be–he should do this up front. He should acknowledge that socialism involves state coercion, especially on the economic front, and capitalism doesn’t. The various non-economic human associations he misidentifies as socialist do not involve coercion, which makes them fit within a capitalist but not within a socialist political economy.

But I guess Professor Alperovitz isn’t really willing to put his money where his mouth is, to come out four square for a genuine socialist/capitalist hybrid. He is, instead, defending something no bona fide capitalist or libertarian–e.g., Milton Friedman, F. A. Hayek, Ayn Rand, Murray N. Rothbard, Ron Paul et al.–opposes. Every one of these champions of capitalism accepts that in a genuine free country there can be innumerable human groupings and these include worker owned firms and farms.

Column on Individualism Isn’t Rediculous

Individualism Isn’t Ridiculous

Tibor R. Machan*

Some critics of individualism propose an alternative social philosophy and defend it so it is then possible to compare their case to the individualist position. But more often than not what critics do is caricature individualism, suggesting that individualist believe that people are autonomous, meaning, exist all on their own with no need for anyone else. Or they claim individualism means that no one has any moral responsibilities toward anyone else. Or that everyone is basically self-sufficient or should be.

Now clearly very young people have to have the support of their parents, at least, and their intimates so as to get on in life. As they grow up the support they enjoy can gradually be made optional–some support will be rejected by them, as when they refuse to follow their parents’ religious or political guidance. Yet, how would one acquire something as important as one’s language and other skills if there were no teachers about to lend a hand?

Our obvious connections to many, many other people certainly cannot reasonably be denied; so by alleging that individualism requires one to believe in people’s radical independence the critics have their victory via distortion, without actually having to make out a better case. Moreover they leave the impression that their preferred alternative, whereby we all belong to society and owe everything to it, is the only one and is trouble free.

But the kind of individualism that sensible individualists champion isn’t some ridiculous notion that people can grow up and live as hermits. Even if in some very rare cases this were possible, it is surely not the sort of individualism that is promoted in social political philosophy (e.g., by the likes of John Locke, Murray Rothbard and Ayn Rand). Such individualism focuses on the moral and intellectual sovereignty of people; they need to make choices, and be free to do so, about how to act in much of their lives which they are normally equipped to do. And they need to be able to assess ideas propounded to them by others, make sure these are sound ones and not have them shoved down their throats as is done in more or less Draconian tyrannies.

This is the kind of individualism that’s advanced by reasonable individualists and if it is a good idea, it implies that a decent human community, a just one, needs to be so conceived that people can indeed enjoy sovereignty, that when they join others in various endeavors they do this of their own free will, voluntarily and not be treated like military conscripts (or termites or ants whose identity consists entirely of being tied to others of their species).

A very important point to keep in mind is that individualism isn’t at all the same as forswearing the company of others. What individualism implies is that everyone needs to be free to select those with whom one will associate, be this in adult family life, in friendship, in professional life, in sports and in recreation. Unlike the associations typical of a place like North Korea–and the military of many Western countries–as the individualist sees it adult human beings ought to exercise discretion when they join up with others. Some of this, of course, can misfire–e.g., when one let’s oneself be guided by irrational prejudices such as race or national background (although at times these are mere easy options for some folks, with no malice involved). Or when one chooses to join criminal gangs.

The central point is that individualism prizes more than other social philosophies the personal, private input of all those who take part in adult human associations. These must all be voluntary, in large part because they amount to vital moral decisions on everyone’s part which one would be deprived of making if one were herded into groups one hasn’t chosen to join. True, there will always be some gray areas, as when one is “pressured” by one’s peers or family to be part of some assembly of people one would ideally wish to be free of. There must be an exit option for free men and women but it may take some doing to make use of it.

As with most matters in human life, we aren’t dealing here with geometrical exactitude, just as Aristotle observed over 2500 years ago. But all in all the individualist alternative is far more accommodating of human nature and social life than are the collectivist alternatives that get a lot of support from social philosophers–communitarians, socialists, or social democrats–these days.

*Machan is the author of Classical Individualism (Routledge, 1998). He teaches at Chapman University, Orange, CA. He blogs at

Column on Egalitarian Straitjackets

Egalitarian Straitjackets

Tibor R. Machan

In numerous areas of human life treating people in nearly exactly the same way may make sense. Thus, for example, when you go to your dentist, you are probably implored to floss–and so is everyone else who visits dentists. Other doctors, too, will prescribe practices one should adopt, such as eating nutritiously, exercising, getting regular sleep and so forth, which virtually all other patients are also told they will benefit from. Although at this point diversity starts kicking in quite evidently. We don’t all need the same number of hours of sleep; our age difference will invite different diets, forms of exercise, and so forth. Men and women require different diets, too. The dosage of medication we need to take in cases of illness also varies widely. And all this is in an area one might think needs to be approached uniformly. But no, variations begin to emerge in our lives at nearly every point. Even at the level of our similar DNA, individuals differ sufficiently that each of us has a totally unique measure which today serves to differentiate us as finger printing used to in the past.

But once we got to such areas of human life as what kind of career suits us, what kind of significant other will promise greater happiness, where we will enjoy our vacations most, what sort of apparel is most attractive for us to wear, what it the kind of weather that suits us best–in these and innumerable other areas variety is the rule. No wonder they say it is the spice of life!

So when one runs across those who have enormous faith in centralized planning and economic regulation, one is facing people who are, to borrow a term from the late Austrian economist and libertarian Murray N. Rothbard, in revolt against nature. And this holds for nearly all aspect of one’s economic life, including the sort of financial instruments we should utilize as we prepare for our future. Yet, when the great variety of such instruments is confronted by enthusiast of government regulation, based in large measure on their explicit or more likely implicit embrace of egalitarianism, what they want to do is cut out the variety and implement, by force of law and regulation, a wholly unnatural uniformity.

In financial aspects of one’s life, as in many others, there are innumerable ways to go. Some people are adventurous for a while, then more conservative, based on not only such facts about them as the size of their family, the circumstances of their career, their hopes and plans for the future, etc., but also on personality and style. Some folks I know are fabulous speculators who also realize the hazards of going about their financial affairs that way; others do some speculation and some conservative investing; others give very little thought to all this, may even find it too bourgeois to fret about such things and proceed to live on the edge and would not have it any other way. Not unlike it is with other aspects of their lives!

Are some of the variations in all these approaches people take to different aspects of their lives unwise? You bet they are. But very few can tell–one would have to be an intimate for that kind of knowledge about a person. And even if one knew how a friend or pal or neighbor ought to carry on about his or her finances, all that is available among civilized people is to offer advice, suggestions, maybe a bit of nudging. But for adults it is up to them how they ought proceed about such matters, with a little help from their friends.

Sadly when the likes of Goldman Sachs executives are drilled by a bunch of self-important petty tyrants in our government, these folks are not really prepared to answer the bullies unleashed at them. Most of us know about all of the above implicitly, without writing it down, without articulating it, even when we are smack middle of the businesses which address it. That behind all the government regulation hysteria lies an old fashioned political and social philosophy the implication of which is, well, the kind of society they are trying to impose in North Korea–where even the public symbols wreak of equality for all (what with all those blue pajamas on display during mass parades)–does not seem to make such difference to the enthusiasts. They just follow their sentimental desire for all of us to be placed under the same rules, for all of us to submit to a one-size-fits-all policy in every sphere of our lives, with them at the helm implementing it all.

Maybe this is what the Tea Party folks sense better than all the intellectuals at our universities and prominent newspapers and magazines and just don’t want to accept as the norm. I am with them on this, all the way.

Interview by The Daily Bell (URL)