Tag Archives: capitalism

The Other Half of American History

Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told

In the U.S. history I learned in school, slavery is a MacGuffin. Two powerful groups of white men spend a century struggling over it, but what the slaves actually do never seems all that important.

That’s why people who don’t like to talk about slavery can claim that the struggle was about something else entirely: Tariffs or states rights or simple regional rivalry make great substitute MacGuffins, because the conflict is all that matters. From three-fifths and the Missouri Compromise and bleeding Kansas all the way to Fort Sumter, Gettysburg, and Appomattox, African slavery is just a plot device that gives white men something to fight over. So if you want to swap in some other plot device, feel free.

The postmodern focus on diversity and multiculturalism has added sidebars to that story: Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, or a day in the life of a slave. And who was this Dred Scott that so many white lawyers argued about? Such human-interest features add emotional depth, if you’re into that kind of thing. But the real history of American history is still driven by white men: Thomas Jefferson, Henry Clay, William Lloyd Garrison, John Brown, John Calhoun, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, Jefferson Davis, Abraham Lincoln, and John Wilkes Booth.

Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism turns that approach upside-down. In his telling, slavery is the story of America. The Pilgrims’ search for religious freedom or the injustice of taxation without representation — those might make good human-interest sidebars. But the spread of English-speaking people across North America is fundamentally about profit, and the profit comes from two primary sources: land stolen from Indians and labor stolen from Africans. Bringing those two together opened a spigot of wealth that white men struggled to control. In that story, the experience of the African slaves — how they lived, the work they did, the culture they built, and how they eventually got their story out — is key. It is a story of progress but not of triumph, and the story continues to this day.

Slave Capitalism. In addition to shifting the focus to slaves [see endnote 1], Baptist fixes another mistake: We tell the triumph of the industrial North and the end of institutionalized slavery as if it were the inevitable result of the inexorable forces of progress. In that version, Southern slave society represents the last gasp of dying feudalism, while the rising tide of capitalism and freedom propels the North.

But in Baptist’s telling, the South is every bit as capitalistic as the North. To Baptist, capitalism is just a way of managing property, and property can be whatever society wants it to be. Today, property can be a copyright, a trademark, or a slice of radio spectrum. Then, property could be people. [2] Capitalism doesn’t care.

Southern slaves were managed capitalistically, not feudally. Feudalism stratifies society, but each stratum is a community that has its rights and duties. Serfs live in serf families, who intermarry with other serf families on land that has been their home for generations. Serf communities may not have much military power compared to their lords, but by appealing to tradition and communal judgment, they can exercise considerable moral force. Serfs might be bound to the land, but neither they nor the land are property in the capitalistic sense; both are entangled by moral obligations that capitalism doesn’t recognize. [3]

In the old slave country of the Chesapeake, slavery could occasionally resemble feudalism, as master families and slave families lived side-by-side for generations. But Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina — the tobacco country — saturated with slaves early. From the Revolution onward, slaves were an increasingly important cash export, whose price fluctuated with the price of cotton. They might be raised in families and communities, but they were sold as individuals — ripped away from their wives, their husbands, their children, their parents — to wherever the frontier of the cotton country happened to be: first Georgia, then Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and finally Texas.

On the cotton frontier, slaves were simply chattel. They had no families or communities — at least not until later — and could be worked without regard to any moral judgments or human rights. Depending on market conditions, they might be expensive to replace. But they were all replaceable for a price.

Slave efficiency. One of the inevitable-triumph-of-the-North myths is that slavery was inefficient. The idea that free labor is vigorous and creative while slave labor is lazy and stupid was originally British propaganda. Britain banned slavery in 1833, as the rising political power of the working class made the dignity of labor a key talking point. Northern abolitionists picked up the British line, which was then adopted by Union propagandists and eventually by post-Civil-War historians.

It’s not true, and Baptist has the numbers to prove it.

In terms of cotton-bales-per-worker, no system of free labor (prior to the invention of the mechanical cotton-picker in the 1930s) ever matched the slave-labor system of the 1850s. What’s more, cotton productivity was rising at the beginning of the Civil War. It had been rising for decades at a rate of around 2% per year. That’s comparable to the rate of increase in the textile industry of Britain and the North, where machine power was replacing human power.

How did the Southern slavers achieve that astounding managerial feat? Did they have cotton-picking research institutes and extension services that trained slaves in the latest methods? No. They set individualized measurable daily production goals for each slave, and whipped slaves who didn’t meet them. Then they ratcheted up those goals year by year.

The slavers themselves had no idea how the slaves managed to meet the goals as often as they did; most slavers couldn’t have picked cotton efficiently if their lives depended on it. But the threat of daily whipping inspired the slaves’ ingenuity, and compassion led them to teach each other their best techniques. [4]

So no: purely economic considerations wouldn’t have ended slavery at least until the 1930s. And even then, the produce-or-be-whipped motivation system might have performed well in factories, mines, and the kind of crop-picking-by-hand that undocumented immigrant workers still do. Even today, any workplace where produce-or-be-fired is the motivating principle might work more efficiently under produce-or-be-whipped slavery. [5]

The Hidden Connections. Making slavery a MacGuffin and the slave experience a sidebar leads to a one-damn-thing-after-another telling of even the white half of American history. But Baptist’s approach restores the hidden connections between events, and creates a more unified tapestry. I’ll just give just two out of many possible examples: Haiti and Texas.

Haiti. In the usual telling, the Haitian Slave Revolt is only significant because it stokes Southern planters’ fears of a slave revolt in the United States. It’s not directly connected to any other important event, so unless you look it up, it’s hard to remember exactly when it happened.

But Baptiste situates it like this: Before its revolution, sugar-producing Haiti was France’s most profitable New World colony, with exports outstripping all of Britain’s American colonies put together.

The French Revolution created an opening for the Haitian slaves to revolt, and after Napoleon came to power, recapturing Haiti was key to his North American plans. The wealth of Haiti together with the strategic domination of New Orleans over the trade of the Mississippi watershed would be the basis for the expansion of French power throughout the vast-but-untapped Louisiana Territory. Perhaps France might even push the fledgling United States back from the eastern side of the Mississippi.

So Napoleon dispatched two armies: one to recapture Haiti and the other to base itself in New Orleans and prepare for expansion. But when the Haitians defeated the first army, the second was diverted to reinforce it. It was also lost. That massive failure convinced Napoleon to abandon the New World and sell Louisiana to President Jefferson.

So the next time you hear about Americans helping Haiti in some way, don’t think of it as charity. Think of it as repaying a significant debt.

Texas. In the Alamo Myth, the Texas Revolution is a battle for freedom against the imperial domination of Mexico. But actually, the 1824 constitution established after the Mexican revolution from Spain did away with slavery. The Southern slavers who had emigrated to Texas came up with a variety of dodges to keep their slaves, and figured Mexico City was far away. But when Mexico eventually began moving to enforce the ban, slave-holding Texans organized resistance, eventually declaring independence in 1836. So the Alamo really was a battle for freedom, but Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett were on the anti-freedom side.

Around the same time, President Jackson was fulfilling two of his major goals: Getting rid of the Second Bank of the United States and ejecting Indian tribes to the far side of the Mississippi. Removing the Indians opened up large regions for new cotton plantations in Alabama and Mississippi, while getting rid of the central bank initiated a free-wheeling period of American finance.

The result was a slave bubble, much like the recent real-estate bubble. Newly chartered Southern banks sold bonds in Europe collateralized by the mortgages they held — slave mortgages rather than home mortgages — and lent money to virtually any white man with a plan to buy slaves, clear former Indian land purchased cheaply from the government, and plant cotton. When the price of slaves sky-rocketed, that just made them more valuable collateral for bigger mortgages and more mortgage-backed bonds — just like houses in 2007.

Predictably, the world economy couldn’t absorb the sudden increase in cotton production, and falling cotton prices started the Panic of 1837 (conveniently after Jackson had left office). Suddenly, everybody wanted to sell assets for cash, banks were going under, mortgage-backed bonds were in default (leaving state governments on the hook), and lots of would-be cotton magnates had negative net worth. But unlike the houses of 2008, the slaves of 1837 were mobile. And there was Texas, an independent pro-slavery republic where the bankers couldn’t chase you down. All across the south, re-possessing bankers often found nothing but empty buildings and a sign saying “Gone to Texas”.

So the new Texas settlers had stolen black labor twice: once from the blacks themselves, and a second time from the banks and European investors who held mortgages on them.

Continuing illusions. The way we tell our national story affects the way we think about ourselves and our future. It remains far too easy to romanticize the antebellum South, and to replace the brutal abuse of an entire people with a few air-brushed memories of white slavers’ affection for their nannies or valets. (I would tear down every Civil War monument in the South. No one who fought for the slave empire is a hero.)

It is too easy to give the North credit for black freedom, ignoring the slave-trade profits, the Northern land speculators who helped slavery expand, the cheap cotton that made the fortunes of the New England mills, and the markets that Southern wealth created for fledgling Northern industries. Ignoring the African role in the origins of all American wealth makes today’s impoverished blacks seem ungrateful for their food stamps and welfare checks.

And it is too easy to see capitalism simply as a modernizing, beneficent force, rather than an amoral machine that will process whatever assumptions are fed into it. Without the balancing force of democratic government, and without an electorate guided by compassion, justice, and other humane yearnings, capitalism will monetize all values and turn everything into property — including human beings.

Once people are property, they will be used like property — until some political process makes the abuse stop.

[1] In talking about slaves, I’m doing Baptist an injustice, because his terminology reverses the usual objectifications. Instead of slaves, he says enslaved people. It is their masters he de-personalizes as enslavers. He also rarely refers to the slaves’ workplaces as plantations, a word that evokes images of fair Southern belles or genteel men in white suits having drinks on the veranda. Instead, he talks about forced labor camps, presaging Nazi concentration camps and Soviet gulags.

[2] One of the creepiest things in the surviving letters of Jefferson Davis is the way he used the phrase my people. Today, my people are my community, the humans I identify with. But Davis used my people in sentences with my horses or my cattle.

[3] A big chunk of Marx’ Capital describes how the English lower classes suffered as feudal land gradually evolved into capitalistic property.

[4] It’s no coincidence that set-high-goals-and-punish-failure is still a favored policy of the American Right, and that the Right’s center of power is the white population of the old cotton country. See, for example, President Bush’s No Child Left Behind education policy.

[5] In Slavery By Another Name, Douglas Blackmon described how phony vagrancy laws created slave-like prison labor that was used in mines and factories throughout the South until World War II. I reviewed his book in “Slavery Lasted Until Pearl Harbor“.

Monopoly’s Role in Inequality

For several years I’ve been dipping into the subject of rising inequality, usually in book reviews like this one of Hacker and Pierson’s Winner-Take-All Politics. But all along a mystery has been nagging at me, and I think I’m finally getting to the bottom of it.

Inequality. The basic story is simple: Inequality in the United States has risen dramatically since the mid-70s. And the effect gets more extreme the farther out you go. It isn’t just that the top 10% is pulling away from the bottom 90%. The top .01% is pulling away from the top .1% even faster. The multi-billionaires are pulling away from the mere billionaires. (If you want graphs and numbers, look here.)

Obviously you can’t account for all that with education or competition from China. Maybe those factors explain why unskilled workers are having such a tough time, but they say little about the millionaire/billionaire divergence. Ditto for tax rates. Sure, the rich pay a much lower tax rate than they used to, but the explosive growth in their net worth is much bigger than tax rates can account for, and the mega-rich don’t get a significantly better tax deal than the ordinary rich. (Plus, tax cuts start with Reagan in 1982, not the mid-70s.)

Clearly something has happened to the structure of the market, but I couldn’t figure out exactly what.

Monopoly. Barry Lynn’s book Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism and the Economics of Destruction looks like the puzzle piece I was missing. Lynn claims our economy is now full of monopolies and near-monopolies — businesses big enough to dictate terms to their customers and/or suppliers.

In the mid-20th-century industrial economy, you got mega-rich by imitating Henry Ford: You figured out how to make things people wanted for a price they wanted to pay. Now you get mega-rich by building choke-points between producers and consumers.

WalMart exemplifies the current paradigm. WalMart makes nothing, but it is big enough to dictate how its suppliers will make things and what prices they can charge. In many of its rural markets, WalMart also dictates what people can buy. If your product isn’t on WalMart’s shelves, it’s not for sale. (WalMart also drives consolidation elsewhere in the economy, which produces big fees for Wall Street. For example, Procter & Gamble bought Gillette largely to improve its negotiating position with WalMart. In slightly different ways, Amazon and Google are trying to duplicate the WalMart model in the online economy. If your book isn’t on Amazon, it’s not for sale.)

Many near-monopolies are less visible than WalMart or Amazon. Lynn begins his book with the story of a pet-food recall, which suddenly made it obvious that many “competing” brands of pet food were actually all packed in the same factory. And Ford lobbied for the government bailout of “competitors” GM and Chrysler because it feared their common suppliers would go bankrupt. Many markets, Lynn says, are hydras: The countless brands on the shelves are just heads that spring from a common body.

The ends against the middle. Reading Lynn, I’m getting a clearer vision of how markets work. The purest form of market is what you can see at any big farmer’s market: Lots of consumers dealing directly with lots of producers. It’s rare that anybody gets really rich from these interactions, but many small producers have a chance to make a living and become independent.

Obviously the global economy has to be more complicated than that. But markets are created by rules, and the rules can be structured to favor either the ends (producers and consumers) or the middle. Producers and consumers benefit from transparent markets, where the rules force middlemen to treat everyone more-or-less the same.

But markets can also be structured to give middlemen as much freedom as possible. The most profitable way to use that freedom is to create choke-points where a toll can be extracted or one producer can be played off against another. In an opaque market, the way to get rich is not to produce things, but to build middleman power that allows you to dictate terms up and down the supply chain. (I don’t have space to go into it here, but keeping the internet transparent is what net neutrality is about, and why Comcast doesn’t like it.)

In a nutshell, what has happened since the mid-70s is that deregulation of old markets and under-regulation of new markets has made our economy more opaque. The people in the best position to take advantage of this are the very rich. Meanwhile, workers and small businessmen — the middle-class people who actually make stuff and deliver services — lose out. In the short term consumers may win or lose, depending on whether the middlemen’s advantage is in raising or lowering prices. But in the long run consumers lose options, power, and quality.

The most interesting thing politically is how the rhetoric of freedom works. Freedom for the middleman leads to domination of producers and consumers. “Freedom” seldom works out to mean more options for everybody.

One worked-out example. If you’ve watched much cable or satellite TV lately, you probably saw Viacom’s ads against DirectTV, like this one.

If you’re a DirectTV subscriber, Comedy Central (and other Viacom channels) went dark for nine days before the two corporations resolved their dispute, so you had to do without The Daily Show or watch it online.

Here’s the point: Maybe you couldn’t watch Jon Stewart for a week, but the problem had nothing to do with either you or Jon Stewart. He wasn’t asking for a raise; you weren’t balking at the price of watching the Daily Show. But both you and Jon were irrelevant when two giant middlemen had a power struggle.

Each brought a lot of power to the struggle. In most of its markets, DirectTV is the only alternative to the local cable monopoly, while Viacom is one of a handful of megacorps that dominate TV content. (Disney, Time Warner, NBCUniversal, NewsCorp, and CBS are the others. National Amusements owns a big chunk of both Viacom and CBS. Comcast plays both sides of the street, being both a cable monopoly and a partner with GE in NBCUniversal.)

Viacom thought it had the upper hand, so it was demanding a bigger payout from DirectTV and insisting DirectTV carry its new Epix channel. I haven’t sorted out yet who won.

These middlemen outweigh both you and Jon Stewart. If Jon doesn’t work for one of the six big media companies, he can’t reach a major audience. If you don’t deal with either DirectTV or a cable monopoly, your TV choices shrink considerably.

Transparent markets. But it’s not hard to imagine a TV system that works differently: Cable or satellite systems could be common carriers, making a fixed amount whenever they connect a TV producer with a TV consumer. Cable and satellite would still compete, but only by changing that fixed amount or by offering more reliable service to the consumer.

With that kind of middleman transparency, small TV companies could spring up and get their shows seen, so Jon Stewart would have a lot more than six choices. You and Jon would have more power, Viacom and DirectTV less.

Even more interesting is what happens to the profit motive: The way to make money in this transparent system is to create shows people want to watch and deliver them reliably. Wheeling and dealing to amass middleman power wouldn’t accomplish much.

Government regulation would probably be necessary to bring this system about, but it would still be capitalism. The marketplace would just be structured differently, so that the benefits and opportunities of capitalism would accrue to producers and consumers rather than to financiers and empire-builders.

Probably this restructured marketplace would lead to more small companies and fewer megacorps, more millionaires and fewer billionaires.

Picture the same transparent-market principle spreading across the economy: More small businesses, more places to look for jobs, greater variety of products, and more opportunity to go into business for yourself. Less inequality.

Citizen of the highest bidder

When a story is being spun wildly in more than one direction, it’s important to start with facts: One of Facebook’s initial investors, Eduardo Saverin, has renounced his American citizenship in favor of Singapore, where he had already been living as an American ex-patriate. Because Singapore has no capital gains tax, making the switch before Friday’s Facebook IPO may have saved Saverin many millions of dollars.

Apparently he made the switch in September, but it wasn’t widely known until his name appeared on a government ex-citizens list on April 30. That made Saverin the central figure in stories that Right and Left had been writing before they knew he was involved.

The Right’s story. The growing numbers of citizenship renunciations (up about fourfold from the Bush administration average, but still just 1800 in 2011) was already being trumpeted as cause for alarm on April 23 by the Wall Street Journal’s William McGurn. As far as I know, no one has checked who all these 1800 are or asked them why they don’t want to be Americans any more, but McGurn is sure they are rich people fleeing oppressive American taxes.

when it comes to the global inefficiencies of our tax code, these 1,800 ex-Americans are canaries in the coal mine. Our tax code—and especially the onerous reporting requirements that come with it—is turning U.S. citizens into economic lepers.

His conclusion is that the U.S. needs to become “more competitive” by not taxing money that American citizens make overseas. This is related to another popular conservative talking point, but the U.S. should declare a tax holiday to allow American corporations to repatriate profits made overseas either tax-free or at a reduced rate.

On May 8, Bruce Bartlett addressed the ex-citizen issue in the NYT, doubting that any large number of the renunciations were due to taxes, but agreeing that there is a problem. Again, Saverin did not come up.

Saverin got attached to the story sometime in the next few days. Bloomberg was on it by May 11. And then things started to get crazy: Forbes’ John Tamny declared Saverin “an American hero“.

If you’re having trouble follow that logic — how exactly does declaring that you’re not an American any more make you an American hero? —  Tamny explains:

Saverin’s decision will starve the feds of revenue they would almost certainly waste, it will force a rethink of a tax code that penalizes income and investment success, and the unconsumed dollars kept from the hands of government will reach today’s and tomorrow’s businesses. Let’s raise a glass to Eduardo Saverin. He’s a true American hero.

Tamny hopes this will lead us to see the folly of the income tax, abolish the IRS, and institute a consumption tax instead (because apparently you get out of a recession by spending less and saving more, contrary to anything those stupid economists might tell you).

And if the tax is regressive or hits low incomes at the same percentage as high ones, all the better.

And if the world loses faith in the U.S. government’s ability to meet its obligations, that’s good too.

That Saverin has chosen to avoid supporting the Leviathan is a heroic act that will hopefully make investors a little bit more gun-shy about investing in U.S. debt.

Because every patriot wants to see his government default, I guess.

The Left’s story. For the Left, Saverin put a face on the Unpatriotic Rich, who (if they are loyal to anything beyond themselves) identify with their class rather than their country. The Nation’s Ilse Hogue:

[Saverin] has made himself the poster child for the callous class of 1 percenters who are all too happy to use national resources to enrich themselves, and then skate, or cry foul, when asked to pay their fair share.

Saverin’s wealthy Brazilian family moved to Miami when 13-year-old Eduardo’s name turned up on a list of kidnap-for-ransom targets. America kept him safe, and then let him into Harvard, which was generous enough to assign him a roommate with a $100-billion idea. (I wonder who he’d have roomed with at University of Singapore.)

I’m sure Saverin will be eternally grateful for those and many other favors America did him. But gratitude is a mere sentiment, and who thinks sentiment is worth tens of millions? (Did I mention that Singapore has no capital gains tax?)

A quick segue will take you to bankers who spout libertarian rhetoric about food stamps but demand that there be no strings attached to their bailout, or industrialists who want government subsidies to help them move American jobs to China. The rich only care about America if they can make money off of it. If not, bye-bye.

Of course, switching your loyalty for money is not new — it’s what Benedict Arnold did. We used to have a name for such people: traitors.

That’s the sentiment behind Senator Schumer’s proposal to levy a punitive capital gains tax on citizenship-renouncing Americans.

To sum up the liberal point: If we’re going to continue being the kind of country where people can get rich — a country with roads and schools and courts and police and a viable currency and salmonella-free food and a communications system and medical care and sidewalks clear of emaciated corpses — rich people are going to have to pay taxes. If they regard that as an imposition rather than a duty, they’re just proving how unpatriotic they are.

Saverin may illustrate that story, but we were telling it already.

Market society. I think a more interesting conversation comes from another pre-Saverin story: Michael J. Sandel’s “What Isn’t for Sale?” from the April Atlantic.

The most fateful change that unfolded during the past three decades was not an increase in greed. It was the reach of markets, and of market values, into spheres of life traditionally governed by nonmarket norms. To contend with this condition, we need to do more than inveigh against greed; we need to have a public debate about where markets belong—and where they don’t.

There’s a pretty broad consensus that America should have a market economy. In other words: The price of potatoes and beachfront property and replacement car batteries should be determined by supply and demand rather than set by a bureaucrat. A century ago, intelligent people could disagree about whether a centrally planned economy might work better. But after the bad example of the Soviet Union, we’ll stick with markets.

The problem, Sandel says, is that more and more we have not just a market economy, but a market society, a place where everything is for sale and everything is judged by market values. The problem with selling, say, transplantable kidneys, isn’t whether the price will be determined by markets or regulated by the government; the problem is selling them at all.

Some things just shouldn’t be part of the market economy. But what things?

Let’s suppose that Saverin didn’t just fall in love with Singapore one day, but that his accountant calculated that Singapore offered him a better deal than America. Is it wrong for him to take that deal? Why, exactly? What is the proper boundary between things that ought to be for sale and things that ought not?

Sandel sees that boundary sliding and thinks we need to have a serious conversation about how far it will go. Should first class passengers have a faster TSA line or not? Should rich prisoners be able to buy a cell upgrade or not? Should you be able to hire a surrogate womb to carry your fetus or not? Should parentless babies be auctioned off or not?

Consider privatized juvenile prisons. A decade or two ago, no one would even have suggested such a thing. A decade or two before that, no one would have suggested pushing sugary drinks or fatty sandwichs in public high schools in exchange for funding from Coke or Burger King. Of course you’ve always needed money to run a school or a prison, but schools and prisons weren’t about money. Today, some of them are.

Moving from a drafted citizen army to a professional army was a step towards market society. Moving from a professional public army to a contracted private army would be another. How far should we go?

Once we named parks and arenas for heroes. Now we auction naming rights off to the highest bidder. What values get reinforced every time we go to AT&T Park or Sports Authority Field (both of which I had to correct after remembering their “old” names of Pac Bell and Invesco)?

Economists often assume that markets are inert, that they do not affect the goods being exchanged. But this is untrue. Markets leave their mark. Sometimes, market values crowd out nonmarket values worth caring about.

When we decide that certain goods may be bought and sold, we decide, at least implicitly, that it is appropriate to treat them as commodities, as instruments of profit and use. But not all goods are properly valued in this way.

Is citizenship one of those goods? Why or why not?

Why I Am Not a Libertarian

Of all the political movements out there, the Libertarians have the coolest rhetoric. No matter what the issue is, they get to talk about Freedom vs. Tyranny and quote all that rousing stuff the Founders said about King George.

It’s also the perfect belief system for a young male (and maybe, by now, young females too). You don’t need knowledge or experience of any specific situations, you just need to understand the One Big Idea That Solves Everything: Other than a small and appropriately humbled military and judicial establishment, government is bad. Protect life, protect property, enforce contracts — and leave everything else to the market.

I should know. Thirty-five years ago, I was a 19-year-old libertarian, and I learned all the arguments. Now I’m a progressive — a liberal, whatever — and these days even I have to shake my head at how often I’m tempted to quote Marx.

What happened? Well, I suppose I could stroke my white beard and pontificate vaguely about the benefits of 35 years of experience. But I’m thinking that a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires me to be a little more specific.

When you escape a sweeping worldview like Libertarianism, you usually don’t find an equally sweeping critique right away. A broad reframing may come later, but the transformation starts with a few things that stick in your craw and refuse to let themselves be swallowed.

For example, when I was leaving fundamentalist Christianity, one of the first things that bothered me was the genealogy of Jesus. The Bible contains two irreconcilable ones (in Matthew and Luke); they can’t both be the “gospel Truth”. Now, decades later, that issue is nowhere near the top of my why-I’m-not-a-fundamentalist list.

So let me start with some specific, simple things before I launch into more abstract philosophy.

Plague. I recommend that anyone thinking about becoming a Libertarian read The Great Influenza by John Barry. It doesn’t say a word about political philosophy, but it does compare how various American cities handled the Spanish Flu of 1918, which globally killed more people than World War I. The cities that did best were the ones that aggressively quarantined, shut down public meeting places, imposed hygiene standards, and in general behaved like tyrants.

As you read, try to imagine a Libertarian approach to a serious plague. I don’t think there is one. Maybe most people would respond to sensible leadership, but public health is one of those areas where a few people with the freedom to pursue screwy ideas can mess up everybody.

Global warming. There’s a reason why small-government candidates deny global warming: Denial is the only answer they have. Global warming is a collective problem, and there is no individualistic solution to it. Even market-based approaches like cap-and-trade require a massive government intervention to create the market that attacks the problem.

Property. Now let’s get to that more serious reframing.

I had to live outside the Libertarian worldview for many years before I began to grasp the deeper problem with it: property. Every property system in history (and all the ones I’ve been able to imagine) are unjust. So a government that establishes a property system, defends it, and then stops is an agent of injustice.

Libertarians tend to take property as a given, as if it were natural or existed prior to any government. But defining what can be owned, what owning it means, and keeping track of who owns what — that’s a government intervention in the economy that dwarfs all other government interventions. You see, ownership is a social thing, not an individual thing. I can claim I own something, but what makes my ownership real is that the rest of you don’t own it. My ownership isn’t something I do, it’s something we do.

[Aside: This is why it’s completely false to say that government programs primarily benefit the poor. Property is a creation of government, so the primary beneficiaries of government are the people who own things — the rich.]

Property and Labor. It’s worthwhile to go back and read the justifications of property that were given in the early days of capitalism. The most famous and influential such justification was in John Locke’s 1690 classic The Second Treatise of Civil Government. Locke admits that both reason and Christian revelation say that God gave the world to all people in common.

But I shall endeavour to shew, how men might come to have a property in several parts of that which God gave to mankind in common, and that without any express compact of all the commoners.

Locke argues that we individually own our bodies, and so we own our labor. So when our labor gets mingled with physical objects, we develop a special claim on those objects. The person who gathers apples in a wild forest, Locke says, owns those apples.

The labour that was mine, removing them out of that common state they were in, hath fixed my property in them. … Though the water running in the fountain be every one’s, yet who can doubt, but that in the pitcher is his only who drew it out? His labour hath taken it out of the hands of nature, where it was common, and belonged equally to all her children, and hath thereby appropriated it to himself.

But Locke attaches a condition to this justification: It only works if your appropriation doesn’t prevent the next person from doing the same.

No body could think himself injured by the drinking of another man, though he took a good draught, who had a whole river of the same water left him to quench his thirst

And that’s where the whole thing breaks down. Today, a baby abandoned in a dumpster has as valid a moral claim to the Earth as anybody else. But as that child grows it will find that in fact everything of value has already been claimed. Locke’s metaphorical water is all in private pitchers now, and the common river is dry.

When that individual tries to mingle labor with physical objects, he or she will be rebuffed at every turn. Gather apples? The orchard belongs to someone else. Hunt or fish? The forest and the lake are private property.

The industrial economy is in the same condition. You can’t go down to the Ford plant and start working on your new car. You have to be hired first. You need an owner’s permission before your labor can start to create property for you. If no owner will give you that permission, then you could starve.

Access to the means of production. In Locke’s hunter-gatherer state of Nature, only laziness could keep an able-bodied person poor, because the means of production — Nature — was just sitting there waiting for human labor to turn it into property.

Today’s economic environment is very different, but our intuitions haven’t kept up. Our anxiety today isn’t that there won’t be enough goods in the world, and it isn’t fear that our own laziness will prevent us from working to produce those goods. Our fear is that the owners of the means of production won’t grant us access, so we will never have the opportunity to apply our labor.

I meet very few able-bodied adults whose first choice is to sit around demanding a handout. But I meet a lot who want a job and can’t find one. I also meet young people who would be happy to study whatever subject and train in whatever skill would get them a decent job. I am frustrated that I can’t tell them what subject or what skill that is.

Justice. A Libertarian government that simply maintained this property system would be enforcing a great injustice. Access to the means of production should be a human birthright. Everyone ought to have the chance to turn his or her labor into products that he or she could own.

What’s more, everyone should get the benefit of the increased productivity of society. No individual created that productivity single-handedly. No individual has a right to siphon it off.

But instead, our society has a class of owners, and everyone else participates in the bounty of the Earth and the wealth of human progress only by their permission. Increasingly, they maneuver into a position that allows them to drive a hard bargain for that permission. And so higher productivity means higher unemployment, and the average person’s standard of living decreases even as total wealth increases.

The role of government. I anticipate this objection: “You want to go back to being hunter-gatherers. We’ll all starve.”

Not at all. I want a modern economy. But a lassez-faire economy that takes the property system as given is unjust. It is the proper role of government to balance that injustice, to provide many paths of access to the means of production, and to compensate those who are still shut out.

To prevent government from doing so, in today’s world, is no way to champion freedom. Quite the opposite, it’s tyrannical.