Of all the tropes thrown at market-anarchists by advocates of the State, “Who will build the roads?” is the most common with “What about Somalia?” close on its heels. But the relevant critique most commonly levelled by progressives, and one of the biggest hurdles in imagining a stateless society comes out in fears that Big Business will run the show. In some cases it is an outright accusation that anarcho-capitalists want Monsanto and BP and the Koch Brothers to run the world in a William Gibson-esque orgy of corporate domination. This view is partly attributable to neoconservatives and other actual Big Business advocates who use the language of free-market economics, while advocating a mercantilist system quite apart from a liberated market society. But what market-anarchists advocate is a world free of privilege – and to me, that is a world free of the corporation as we know it.
This quote by Frederic Bastiat should not be new to many:
“Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government and society. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all. We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed to any education. We object to a state religion. Then the socialists say that we want no religion at all. We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain.” – Frederic Bastiat – The Law par. L. 102.
The citation above needs a bit of a tweak to address modern concerns. Because anarchists oppose the State, and market-anarchists support private property, it is an unnecessary leap to think that they support corporations as they are in our current, state-entangled society. Well, to those detractors I say (with apologies to Monsieur Bastiat):
“Modern progressivism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinctions between government and society, and between private and corporate. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the progressives conclude that we advocate it being done by a corporation. We disapprove of state education. Then the progressives say that we advocate elitist education. We decry imprisonment by the state. They therefore conclude that we wish for corporate prisons. We object to the worship of the state. Then the progressives say that we worship of the corporation. We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say that we therefore must want corporate primacy. And so on, and so on. It is as if the progressives were to accuse us of wanting only corporations to feed us because we do not want the state to raise grain.”
This lack of imagination is not that surprising. I had my own doubts about non-state alternatives shaped by contemporary expressions of “public” and “private”. As might be expected, I ended up in a corporatist, dystopian, cyberpunk future. My own journey led me through a religious/spiritual left-leaning socialist minarchism. I wanted a minimal “nice-guy” caretaker state and I saw corporations as distinct from state power, and in opposition to it.
Three key things led me to see that the goals of a just society are best effectuated by more freedom, not more centralized regulation.
First, my analysis of power and privilege expanded to take into account the remarkable degree to which the State intervenes. I had always fantasized that one might wrest control of the State from the evil people and put it to good use. But this has never been shown to occur without a new privileged caste emerging and benefiting from the concentration of state power. Instead of a simplistic Marxian critique, I explored theory of exploitation based on coercion, of violence or the threat of violence.
Secondly, I saw the existing institutions, governmental and private, in the context of that power and privilege. The corporation is the creation of the State. Not the structure of “the firm” per-se, but the protections against liability. Such protections prevent owners (shareholders, partners) from being held accountable for the actions of their agents (officers). The State, in granting such privilege, permits certain people to avert accountability, to externalize cost, risk, blame, etc. It often does so under cover of a “benefits” argument about encouraging economic growth and investment or something similar. But these claimed benefits are not proven, they are assumed, and the immunity gives those with power and privilege a leg-up in securing further privilege.
Thirdly, I observed that corporations use state power and wondered if the State wasn’t actually the political wing of well-connected bosses. While it’s more complicated than that, a revolving door of lobbyist and politician, of consultant and executive create an incestuous mess that’s hard to split apart. The historical data was consistent with the theory. And when I looked at other interests – religious, labour, ideological, etc., these also sought out coercive privilege, and opposing factions simply attempted to gain power within the structure of “organized coercion and confiscation” that we all know as “government”.
Bastiat points out that the State is not a thing with resources of its own:
“[These socialists declare] that the State owes subsistence, well-being, and education to all its citizens; that it should be generous, charitable, involved in everything, devoted to everybody; …that it should intervene directly to relieve all suffering, satisfy and anticipate all wants, furnish capital to all enterprises, enlightenment to all minds, balm for all wounds, asylums for all the unfortunate, and even aid to the point of shedding French blood, for all oppressed people on the face of the earth.
Who would not like to see all these benefits flow forth upon the world from the law, as from an inexhaustible source? … But is it possible? … Whence does [the State] draw those resources that it is urged to dispense by way of benefits to individuals? Is it not from the individuals themselves? How, then, can these resources be increased by passing through the hands of a parasitic and voracious intermediary?” – Frederic Bastiat Justice and fraternity, in Journal des Économistes, 15 June 1848, page 319.
The reality is that the State does not furnish well-being, the members of society do through their multifarious combinations of cooperation and competition, of selection and preference-setting. When they do so through a centrally controlled entity like the State, the mechanism takes on a different character, because that entity bypasses the constraints placed on the rest of society’s members – the normal obligation to not do violence, to not coerce. Bastiat describes the resulting dynamic clearly as a cycle of corruption through a concentration of privilege and power, which becomes a high-value target for influence:
“…Finally…we shall see the entire people transformed into petitioners. Landed property, agriculture, industry, commerce, shipping, industrial companies, all will bestir themselves to claim favors from the State. The public treasury will be literally pillaged. Everyone will have good reasons to prove that legal fraternity should be interpreted in this sense: “Let me have the benefits, and let others pay the costs.” Everyone’s effort will be directed toward snatching a scrap of fraternal privilege from the legislature. The suffering classes, although having the greatest [numerical] claim [to such resources], will not always have the greatest success.” – Frederic Bastiat Justice and fraternity, in Journal des Économistes, 15 June 1848, page 319.
Bastiat’s analysis remains relevant. The State is a legal and social fiction layered on top of society to empower a few to direct the resources and actions of the many. Whether one supports or opposes this narrative, that is its nature. Corporations are certainly those groups in society “bestirring themselves to claim favours”. What anarchist, even anarcho-capitalist, is in support of that? None that I have met. Advocates of a liberated market society have no particular interest in preserving the existing patterns of wealth. They do have an interest in unburdening the new entrepreneurs, those who would improve society by discovering its desires, needs, and preferences.
It is from this political place that market-anarchists advocate an end to the State and the legitimation of coercive centralized regulation and confiscation. This is not an opposition of purely voluntary hierarchies or the firm structure, per-se, nor of flat cooperative structures, or any other arrangement that uses no coercion. By all means all forms of social structure should be the subject of such experimentation and may the most effective ones prosper. But if the power to grant favours exists, it will be used, and primarily by the powerful. Such arrangements of common ownership, joint effort, risk pooling should require no special powers if they are of any value to a free society.
Market-anarchists of my stripe oppose the modern corporation, as it currently stands, because it seeks and benefits from resources secured by the State through coercive means, and the protection by the State of its owners from the consequences of their actions. And my anarchism tolerates no such structural privilege.