Sunday, September 5, 2010

Sunday/Labor Day Question for Libertarians

Let's see if I have anyone who will bite on question is: how do you, as libertarians, understand the half-century of labor agitation preceding the New Deal? 


  1. I'm not a libertarian, not even by a long shot but I'd be interested in hearing about this to. I've never actually found any libertarian that took any shot at putting labor agitation and worker advocacy in the libertarian context in a serious manner. At best, you find at best a patronizing attitude that worker's were being misled by well-meaning idiots who did not understand the power of the free market. At worst, the attitude is kill all workers who dare challenge capitalism in even the most minor fashion. I suppose that labor agitation really doesn't fit into the libertarian framework well and so they try to ignore it.

  2. I consider myself more libertarian than anything else, but had never really considered this question. My own admittedly uneducated guess would be that society prior to, say, 1900, wasn't economically diverse enough for the sort of free market economics that libertarians today espouse.

    For example, much of the nation outside of a few Eastern and Midwestern cities didn't have enough population and were too disconnected to enable individuals to easily move from job to job until they found one that they found satisfactory.

    As a result, they were more or less stuck in whatever job they managed to land. Miners in Rockies and Appalachians, textile workers in the South and meatpackers in Chicago didn't know much outside the small area they called home. There often weren't more than a handful of potential employers in many parts of the country, meaning workers had few options. Without the option of leaving a tyrannical boss or company, agitation was a logical course of action.

    Today, we have a much more diversified economy, which means someone who doesn't like their employer can pick up and find a job somewhere else. That doesn't mean it's easy to do, but it's a whole lot easier than it was 100 years ago.

  3. I'm not libertarian, but I'll offer an argument a hardcore, post-office-hating libertarian might not buy. Law at the turn-of-the-century wasn't so much laissez faire as crony capitalist. Putting aside collective bargaining, workers lacked many rights to freely contract and lacked adequate state protection (police, fire, access to courts, etc.) The elites and power-holders exacted steep rents and excluded average citizens from full political participation. Thus, labor unrest exploded because workers lacked the safety valves of full economic and political liberty.

    Eventually, a libertarian might argue, rent-holders bought off these workers through social benefits and bloated labor unions, which were ultimately cheaper for them than creating the unfettered free market that would have threatened their power.

  4. Anonymous - I don't know that I'd disagree with your assessment.

    Compared to today, or even 50 years ago, there's no doubt workers in the 19th century lacked many rights to freely contract and lacked adequate state protection. While I don't know what the status of rents were back then, I wouldn't be surprised if elites kept the common man under their thumbs through high rents.

    I would say that notwithstanding the de facto disenfranchisement of blacks in the South (and many other parts of the country) the average male saw their ability to participate in politics increase as the 19th century went on.

    However, that alone would not be enough to provide any sort of adequate safety valve, giving rise to strife and unrest.

  5. I'm a libertarian. I can't speak for other libertarians, and I don't know what it means to answer 'as a libertarian', as opposed to just answering as myself.

    My understanding is that, absent compulsory collective bargaining laws, there's a greater need for vigilante violence to prevent 'scabs' from undermining unionization.

  6. "Compared to today ..."

    I'm not a libertarian. But I"m shocked so many people here seem to think that today's workers have anything close to a free market for their labor. We're as much a crony capitalist system today as we were pre-New Deal. I live in Tennessee -- "right to work" state and all that -- and we have 10% unemployment statewide, some counties with 20% unemployment.

    Yet we have companies who still make use of cheap "guest worker" labor from south of the border, not to mention the under the table use of illegal immigrants in our meatpacking plants and agricultural sectors. Nashville just went through a bitter fight over using public money to buy land to construct a new convention center, and the big selling point everyone was given was jobs, jobs, jobs, including construction jobs. As soon as the Metro Council voted aye, the next morning construction began. But now it appears (shocker!) that the companies contracting for this work aren't hiring locals. They're bringing up their own workers from Georgia and Alabama.

    Now, how is this possible, in a state with high unemployment? How is it possible that companies like Dell Computers--which received generous tax incentives to move their call center to Nashville--hire people for 3 months then get rid of everyone just as they become eligible for promised benefits?

    Anyone who works with the working poor hears the stories. Single moms working two and three jobs and they still can't make ends meet. How is this possible, save we're still a nation addicted to cheap labor, the free hand of the market has failed all but the Ruling Class. There is no stability for workers in a "right to work" state which really is just code for "right to cheap labor."

  7. I love the answers here, five thus far saying I'm no libertarian, but if I played one on TV; one self-identified libertarian, saying:
    I'm a libertarian. I can't speak for other libertarians, and I don't know what it means to answer 'as a libertarian', . . .

    Pitch perfect.

  8. "The rights and interests of the laboring man will be protected and cared for -- not by the labor agitators, but by the Christian men of property to whom God has given control of the property rights of the country, and upon the successful management of which so much depends."
    --Geo. F. Baer, spokesman for the Anthracite Coal Assn. during the 1902 coal strike.
    Question: is this a statement libertarians can believe in?

  9. I would say the rights of laboring people are not to be protected by agitators or 'men of property' (of any religion), but by a legal system that equally protects the rights of all.

  10. Jon Rudd, take away Christian and I think you have a quote that neatly sums up the libertarian position. Libertarians tended to view any sort of labor advocate from the relatively moderate Samuel Gompers to outright anarchists like Emma Goldman as false prophets that are deceiving working people from the benefits of free market capitalism. The most common view of the labor agitation that existed before the New Deal was at best it was terribly misguided because it interfered with the free market and thus delayed the prosperity that would come from it eventually.

  11. What I have heard from libertarians recently is that labor unions pushed for stuff like the minimum wage to keep away competition from women and the unemployed. So they might view the union violence and the Pinkerton employer violence as two anticompetitive forces fighting over rents.

    I imagine they'd also advance the same argument as with slavery: not every country that achieved abolition/the eight-hour workday did so with violence, therefore the union was just pushing too hard too soon for something the benevolent free market would have given them anyway.

    Suggestion: try asking these questions in open threads on libertarian blogs instead of your own.


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