Saturday, February 9, 2008

Corporate Libertarians

One of the paradoxes of Robert Heinlein was that he wrote one of the two sacred texts of libertarianism (The Moon is a Harsh Mistress), believed firmly in individualism, and also held the belief that military service was an essential part of that individualism.

To be sure, Heinlein explicitly stated that a healthy society was essential to the individual, so he believed that individualists must also include the social good as part of their own. It’s a sophisticated position, and I only disagree on practically all the details, especially when it leads to things like the belief that Napoleon was some sort of triumphant individualist (a position sometimes attributed to Nietzsche, or that Cesare Borgia was a paragon of enlightened self-interest (Machiavelli).

Current libertarians are less keen on their own personal membership in the military, but they do often identify with collective behavior and groups. However, for a good many libertarians, group identification seems to be with the modern corporation, sometimes called “private enterprise.” I’ll also note that “value” is often assumed to be monetary, and nothing more. For commercial enterprises, of which the public corporation is a good example, that is pretty easy to understand. It’s not quite as clear-cut for individuals, but that mistake is obviously not limited to libertarians.

This “corporate libertarian” critique does not hold for all libertarians. There is, after all, no secret libertarian handshake, no membership card, etc. Anyone can call themselves a libertarian. Still, the most annoying ones are those who fail to understand that the limited liability corporation is a profoundly privileged beast, one whose existence weakens such things as the individual right-to-contract, and individual property rights in general. I will stipulate at the outset that I think the corporation is a very powerful and useful invention, but it does require certain sorts of regulation if it isn’t to seriously harm individual rights, and often corporate libertarians seem more interested in eliminating those essential regulations than upholding the underlying individual rights.

Let’s consider how this can work with an extreme case: contract murder. I’m sure pretty much everyone would recognize that a contract to perform an illegal act is itself an illegal contract, and totally unenforceable. Furthermore, it’s pretty easy to see that both parties in a contract hit (the killer and the one who pays for the killing) are guilty of criminal conspiracy.

What would be the effect of making such contracts legal, and absolving the one who takes out the contract from penalty? Obviously this would weaken criminal law, but less obviously, it would also weaken contract law, since it would set civil law against criminal law. In a similar way, the institution of slavery weakens the institution of property, by putting property rights into opposition to human rights. Property rights in the South during the Civil War were often pretty shaky, what with the armies marching through and all.

The limited liability corporation puts many decisions behind a financial “firewall.” Stockholders and their agents (corporate boards and management) can undertake actions that, potentially, have far greater adverse consequences than they would deem acceptable if their whole net worth was at risk, as it would be in a proprietorship. This means that when individuals enter into contracts with corporations, the exchange is even more one-sided than if it were a matter of an individual contracting against someone with greater resources.

The anti-environmentalism exhibited by many corporate libertarians is another symptom of psychological projection and identification. If, for example, individuals do not have a property right on the air they breathe, then property rights (and individual rights generally) are pretty much meaningless. Similarly, if I own real property that has a stream running through it, I possess certain rights that preclude those upstream from having absolute authority over that stream as it passes through their property. In common law, this would be an easement; Federal and State laws are usually even more explicit and restrictive—to the fury of anti-environmentalists.

Similar easement rights surely exist for such things as migratory animals, flood control, protection of ground water, ecological integrity and so forth. I have an interest in all of these that is best expressed (in my view) as a property right. However, since such things are difficult to monetize, they do not show up in corporate thinking. Generally, only individuals value such things, and since corporate “rights” trump individual rights, then the corporate libertarian inevitably leans toward anti-environmentalism. For that matter, so does anyone who cannot imagine any value except insofar as it can be measured in monetary terms.

3 comments:

black dog barking said...

I find it stunning that the exact group that benefits the most from the way our financial game is structured is the group the complain the loudest about the rules. Just as youth is wasted on the young — wealth is wasted on the rich.

How does outsourcing the use of deadly force fit into the contract murder scenario? If a Blackwater employee is contracted to provide security for a State Department official in Iraq and in the conduct of those duties kills a carload of Iraqi citizens, is that murder? Or is it collateral damage? Or maybe it justed never happened.

black dog barking said...

And who waives the application of murder when a soldier kills? Long custom says that the state and or the church can do so but the existence of PTSD argues eloquently that these powers may be overreaching.

James Killus said...

I suspect that the "complains the loudest" is a mere reflection of the wherewithal to purchase megaphones. The law, in its majesty allows both the rich and poor to bribe Congressmen.

PTSD, plus other remnants of what is sometimes referred to as "conscience" do make slaughter at times a difficult prospect. That is why a good sociopath is worth his weight in gold, militarily speaking. It is something of a tribute to socialization that so many do not wish to get away with murder, even when offered the opportunity.