Anthony Gregory — Contra Kevin Carson on the Humanity of Corporations and Government Teachers

From Center for a Stateless Society.



Mutual exchange is the Center’s goal in two senses—we favor a society rooted in peaceful, voluntary cooperation, and we seek to foster understanding through ongoing dialogue.

That’s why we’re inaugurating this new feature of our site. Mutual Exchange will provide opportunites for conversation about issues that matter to the Center’s various publics. A lead essay, deliberately provocative, will be followed by responses from inside and outside C4SS. Contributions and comments from readers are enthusiastically encouraged.

We begin with Anthony Gregory’s essay, “Contra Kevin Carson on the Humanity of Corporations and Government Teachers,” which raises some critical questions about aspects of Kevin Carson’s project. Responses from Carson, Gary Chartier, and others will follow.

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Not in a million years would I have expected to agree with Mitt Romney and disagree with Kevin Carson. Although I am not a mutualist, I acknowledge that Carson is a radical anarchist, and I regard Romney as a fascist. I have appreciated much of Carson’s critique of state capitalism as a welcome corrective to a libertarian movement too often enamored of the corporatist status quo and economic conservatism. And yet I disagree so much with what seems the main thrust of his recent article, “Corporations Are People? So Was Hitler,” that I am moved to respond in partial defense of what was uttered by Romney, a man I have criticized in many writings and do not in any way see as an ally in the struggle for anything I value whatsoever.

Carson’s main point is that Romney’s assertion that “corporations are people” is trivial and hides the institutional evil involved. The fact that corporations comprise people is “technically true, of course. The money a corporation makes at the expense of consumers and workers through state-enforced unequal exchange is all distributed to people.”

Right away, Carson assumes the premise that corporate profits generally result from “state-enforced unequal exchange.” Surely workers and consumers often face state-imposed burdens that reduce their chances for optimally beneficial exchange. But does this mean that corporate profit makers benefit at their expense? Isn’t it possible for both sides even of an “unequal” transaction to be worse off, at the margin, because of the state involvement, and yet be better off for having made the trade? What about the many entrepreneurs who profit one year only to lose plenty the next? Was it at their expense that consumers and workers profited?

Here I must agree with the Austrian insight that if two parties come to make a deal, especially if they both walk away satisfied, their demonstrated preference is that the deal was not at their expense but at the overall improvement of their situation, and this should not be undermined by third-party observers. Typically, it is true, workers’ and consumers’ exchange would have been even more fruitful for them if not for the state. Sometimes the state even creates captive labor and consumer markets for corporations. But the sheer productivity in even the hampered market economy, whereby workers and consumers have in many ways improved their lot over the years, even if not as much as they should have, would seem to indicate that not all their interactions with corporations come at their net expense. They may benefit much less than they should, due to the state, but surely the typical experience of consumers or workers engaged even in a corporatist system is not one of overall victimization, as Carson implies here:

[E]very system of class exploitation in human history has served the interests of some group of human beings. In every society in history, no matter how brutally exploitative, of course the ill-gotten gain was consumed by “people.” Roman patricians who lived off the sweat of slaves were people, and so were feudal landlords who gouged rents from the peasantry.  I suspect it was “people” — evil people — who profited from the gold teeth extracted at Auschwitz.

Now, I for one always enjoy a good comparison to the Nazis, and am on record in opposing Godwin’s Law. But this comparison appears very unreasonable. If the idea is that there is a fair parallel to be drawn between those who profit off corporations and those who thrive on slave states and concentration camps, I find much to protest here. I know this is a reductio ad absurdam argument, but it seems fatally flawed even in its fundamental conception. A consumer walking into a Wal-Mart and buying a new stereo and CD might have been much better off if the state didn’t impose protectionist barriers to foreign electronics producers, increase the cost of recorded music through copyright, and impose a hundred other costs on the buyer. Yet he is hardly a victim of the exchange itself. He can choose not to buy these goods at all, and still get along fine in the world. He really is choosing to give his money to corporations, however flawed the underlying structure of the economy. Moreover, although any given corporation may benefit from state intervention, it might suffer as well.

To apply Carson’s analogy, if the Wal-Mart customer is the man whose gold teeth are being extracted at Auschwitz, Wal-Mart isn’t the Nazi sadist doing the extracting – it’s the merchant who sold him the teeth. Maybe the inmate was disadvantaged unfairly, perhaps because of state intervention, in that he needed to buy the teeth in the first place. But the real parallel in our mixed economy is not someone losing what he has to enrich a corporate profit seeker. It is, more often, someone not gaining as much as he should, due to regulations.

I do agree that corporate personhood can pose problems and that only individuals have rights. Ron Paul, himself not an anarchist, has also made this point in response to Romney’s choice of words. But Carson seems to be going much further in his critique, not simply questioning the categorization of corporate fictions as “people,” but in fact agreeing that they constitute people while harshly judging the ethical status and productive role of these people being discussed.

Do corporate profits often rely on state intervention? Of course. But they are not necessarily exploitative. They are certainly not always at the expense of consumers and workers. We actors in the marketplace, even one tainted by state involvement, do not always fall neatly into these categories of being consumers and workers or corporate beneficiaries. And many people who profit from corporate enterprises do so at great risk, putting everything they have on the line, without which entrepreneurship and thus economic growth and therefore civilization itself would be impossible. Surely big business has thrived on the state. I have made this point many times myself [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9]. But support from the state is not a necessary element to corporate profits, nor are all corporations even in our world on balance predatory institutions whose gains always come at the expense of workers or consumers. In the end, people who choose to buy from corporations or work for them, when in fact there are alternatives out there, do so because they stand to benefit themselves. In a truly free market, certainly many more good alternatives would be available. But this doesn’t mean the economic choices people actually make in our flawed world are themselves exploitative or oppressive.

Although hostile toward corporate profiteers, Carson is much more nuanced in discussing other people who thrive on institutions of privilege and state-supported exploitation — ones who, in my opinion, tend to be at least as disrespectful of human rights in practice. He wrote on the labor controversy in Wisconsin this March:

Education would no doubt be different in many ways in a free society — no compulsory attendance laws, and no processing of human resources for the corporate state.  But teaching children is an important function in any society, and much that public school teachers do now would probably carry over without much change.

In my own view, corporate profits would exist in abundance in a free market, so long as there is inefficiency for entrepreneurs to identify and address, thereby benefiting society as a whole. I believe this will always be the case. Maybe this is part of the reason why I’m a capitalist and Carson is not. But regardless of the question of corporations in a free society, I strongly disagree that much of what public school teachers do would “carry over without much change” in a free society. Within a generation or so in a stateless world, I very much doubt that the majority of children would be subjected to something resembling conventional school at all. Homeschooling, lecture programs where teachers truly serve students and parents, online learning coupled with freer, more humane social interactions, would more likely dominate, I would think and hope. Our Prussian, imperialist public school system is an outrage, and the private schools are near carbon copies of the state model, due to accreditation laws and statist cultural inertia. Most jobs at corporations are in fact paragons of humane treatment compared to what many pupils in public schools suffer. If anyone should be able to appreciate this, I would think a left-leaning market anarchist would.

But even without knowing exactly what a free society would look like, it is hard for me to see on what libertarian grounds Carson is more willing to humanize public school teachers than corporate beneficiaries. After all, in actual fact, public school teachers regularly conspire with administrators (their supposed class enemies) and police to enforce attendance. Carson does point out that attendance laws are a problem, but surely they poison the entire system as much as state interventions tarnish corporate life. Most teachers also happily engage in state-sanctioned civic brainwashing. They even impose homework, further burdening young people who are already forced to endure nine or so long hours sitting in torturous chairs staring at mind-destroying blackboards, such that they go home not to a reprieve or a chance for individual flourishing, but rather additional, mind-numbing abuse. Public teachers tend to be better paid than their counterparts in the private sector, and tend to whine louder every year for higher pay and better benefits at the expense of the taxpayer.

The amount of state privilege involved in propping up the child indoctrination racket is surely comparable to, if not far exceeding, what is entailed for the average corporation. Yet public school teachers tend to be more directly involved in coercively enforcing the destructive program of government brainwashing, abuse, and humiliation of the most vulnerable members of society, than are most corporate beneficiaries directly involved in serving the state where the coercion meets the individual. Sure, we should humanize the public school teachers, recognize their job in some cases somewhat resembles something that might exist on a free market, realize that many of them are good people who resent the system as much as we do, and not view them all as the equivalent of Nazi war criminals. Yet this is even truer of entrepreneurs reaping corporate profits.

It would seem that Carson is using a proxy to determine who deserves animus and who warrants sympathy, and that proxy is based on a rough conception of leftist class analysis, rather than classical liberal class analysis. It is true that conservative-leaning libertarians often oversimplify matters by finding all “private sector” parties to be victims and all “tax consumers” to be parasites. Yet a proxy that tends toward vilification of the capitalist class and empathy for the proletarian class—which is what Carson seems to be doing—is at least as flawed. Not that he is defending government cops, but Carson even makes sure to note: “Even some of what police do, like stopping violent crime and apprehending aggressors, would still be necessary” in a free society. Sure enough. But in practice, I’ll take almost any corporate beneficiary over almost any police officer, regardless of the worker-capitalist class division that seems to serve Carson in his decision on whether to humanize an individual working in our flawed system, or compare him to a Nazi.

I admit some of my resistance to the Carsonian conception of corporations as people stems from personal experience. For years in Berkeley, I myself began saying, “corporations are people,” when arguing with lefties of all types – from social democrats to social anarchists – who spent significant time attacking corporations for all their evils, but had much less hatred for the state. Some of these people, even the so-called radicals, would sometimes respond to my anti-state fundamentalism with the point, “governments are people,” and I would argue back much as Carson has done in response to Romney, deconstructing what exactly that meant. Yet I found that most people who railed against corporations didn’t give one whit about liberty or even peace, when it came down to it.

Now I concede there is something approaching a logical fallacy in my sentiment, if not the pure reasoning I use, in these arguments involving the phrase “corporations are people”—I admit part of my reaction is emotionally charged, a revulsion at those who would take some of the positions Carson takes—and yet Carson would seem to be going even further down this line of judging someone’s position based on where they’re coming from. Carson writes in “Corporations Are People?”:

[J]ust before I heard about Romney’s latest blooper, I was reading about a study by psychologist Dacher Keltner. The life experience of the rich, he says, makes them less empathetic and more selfish than ordinary people. Part of this is willful obtuseness; legitimizing ideologies not only inure the exploited to getting the shaft, but enable the expoiters to sleep at night by reassuring themselves that the poor really deserve it.

The rich justify their relations with other social classes with the help of the Americanist ideology, whereby they exaggerate their own perceived rugged individualism and see their wealth as the result of character: “They think that economic success and political outcomes, and personal outcomes, have to do with individual behavior, a good work ethic …”

In other words, fake “free market” ideology — as opposed to the real thing — is the opiate of the elites.

Aside from the shaky psycho-analysis, this comes too close for my taste to resembling the Marxist polylogism that Ludwig von Mises roundly refutes in his brilliant works including Human Action. “Americanist ideology,” Carson argues, resonates with people based on class, rather than on philosophical principles of potentially universal appeal. He is not saying that class determines one’s philosophical reasoning, but it comes close.

For one thing, I think Carson is off the mark if not simply wrong. Plenty of poorer Americans buy into vulgar, fake free-market ideology, and plenty of rich people denounce the free market—whether the real thing or its counterfeit—all the time. Poor people vote Republican to protect themselves from “socialism.” And there are those, including me, who oppose corporatism vehemently and yet still prefer it to the state socialism often advocated by most factions of the left. Meanwhile, there are about half a dozen lavishly wealthy anarchists who come to mind whose market radicalism is pretty damn genuine. Then there are the rich socialists, and the poor socialists, and everything in between. Moreover, Romney, if we are going to try to read his thoughts as Carson appears to be doing, probably doesn’t believe any of his own rhetoric. He isn’t defending “fake ‘free market’ ideology” to sleep better at night—but rather to win votes.

But most important, it is a mistake to take this route in critiquing someone’s point. If Romney is wrong to humanize corporations in the way he did, and I don’t think his point was nearly as trivial as Carson does, it is not necessarily a reflection of Romney’s class. This Marxian way of looking at the world is poor theoretical analysis. I’ve heard people from all across the economic spectrum sound like Romney talking about corporations.

Corporations are people too. And yes, governments are as well. Do all people who make profits off big business deserve what they make? No. Do all government workers deserve our hatred? No. Yet a balanced approach based on respect for the individual’s dignity and liberty in a society too often regimented by the brutal machinery of institutional coercion will yield a much more nuanced view than Carson has given in condemning corporate profit makers, and probably a much more critical view of public teachers as a class. Most corporate beneficiaries are not as bad as Nazis. Many of them are heroic benefactors of humanity. And most of them are at least as defensible and admirable as the average public teacher taking a government paycheck, even if this person appears to be a member of the “working class.”

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Anthony Gregory is research editor at the Independent Institute. Visit him at AnthonyGregory.com.

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