By Jake Recktenwald
I recently stumbled upon this debate between Patrick Smith, a vulgar libertarian, and Mike Shipley, a comrade and libertarian who does great activist work. Smith, unsurprisingly, says some very dumb things that require rebuttal. This is not to say, of course, that Mike did an inadequate job explaining things. I just want to strike back myself, because doing so means asserting my individuality.
A main point that Smith makes early on, and the point which “anarcho-capitalists” seem fundamentally wired to repeat, regardless of how ridiculous it is, is the following one: Workplace hierarchy doesn’t exist in capitalism because the worker-capitalist interactions are voluntary. A worker who doesn’t like his conditions can quit anytime, and a boss who doesn’t like their workers can lay them off and replace them at any time. Both groups agree to the conditions and can secede from the agreement at any time. So, why is this view horribly misguided, and why does it confuse a free market with a market based on statist interference?
The Contingency of Voluntaryism
Smith’s point about the worker-boss agreement being voluntary on the part of the boss is understandable enough. After all, the labor market is incredibly vast, and there are probably many people who could fill a position if an enterprise’s manager decided to lay off a worker. But what about the worker? If we’re talking about a worker who doesn’t own capital and has no means to acquire it, yet needs capital to live and produce, then his options are really two. He can find a job and boss at all costs, or he can starve. Starvation is not a legitimate choice, and so he is effectively left with one option. It is true that he may have some decision-making power when looking for a boss to prostrate himself before (though many workers don’t even have that), and yet the choice to not subordinate himself to a boss is one he doesn’t have. Dispossessed workers have no choice in their subordination, and yet bosses have a variety of choices. They can fill an empty position with any number of people. Or they can fill the position themselves. Or they can force one of their current employees to do additional work. Or they can find a way to eliminate the need for such a position, etc. They are at no disadvantage due to the surplus of labor that resides within existing capitalism. Smith tries to make the case that the labor market is competitive, and that employers must compete harshly among one another for the workers. He equates this as being on par with labor competing for access to capital. His brain is evidently broken. The amount of laborers who need work is FAR greater, in current society, than the number of employers seeking workers. For workers, finding a job is a complicated and dehumanizing process, one that could take months and where success is never guaranteed. For employers, finding a worker is as simple as putting up a sign or an online ad. Oh how tough they have it!