By Johnson, Charles
Freeman , Vol. 61, No. 7
We libertarians defend economic freedom, not big business. We advocate free markets, not the corporate economy. And what would freed markets look like? Nothing like the controlled markets we have today. But how often do we hear mass unemployment, financial crisis, ecological catastrophe, and the economic status quo attributed to the voraciousness of "unfettered free markets"? As if they were all around us!
The crises laid at the feet of laissez faire are the crises of markets that are nothing if not fettered. When critics confront us with corporate malfeasance, structural poverty, or socioeconomic marginalization, we should be clear that market principles do not require defending big business at all costs, and that much of what our critics condemn results from government regulation and legal privileges. As a model for analyzing the political edge of corporate power and defending markets from the bottom up, we twenty-first-century libertarians might look to our nineteenth-century roots - to the insights of the American individualists, especially their most talented exponent, Benjamin Ricketson Tucker (1854-1939), editor of the free-market anarchist journal Liberty.
Conventional textbook treatments portray the American Gilded Age as one of relentless exploitation and economic laissez faire. But Tucker argued that the stereotypical features of capitalism in his day were products not of the market form, but of markets deformed by political privileges. Tucker did not use this terminology, but for the sake of analysis we might delineate four patterns of deformation that especially concerned him: captive markets, ratchet effects, concentration of ownership, and insulation of incumbents.
Types of Distortion
Captive Markets. Legal mandates and government monopolies produce captive markets in which customers are artificially locked in to particular services or sellers that they wouldn't otherwise patronize because political requirements enforce the demand. For example, the car insurance market is shaped by laws requiring insurance and regulating the minimum service that must be purchased. Captive markets legally guarantee privileged companies access to a steady stock of customers, corralled by the threat of fines and arrest.
Ratchet Effects. Legal burdens, price distortions, and captive markets combine to ratchet up fixed costs of living far higher than would prevail in freed markets. To get by, people are constrained by the necessity of covering these persistent, inflexible costs - by selling labor, buying insurance, taking on debt - under artificially rigid circumstances. Ratchets keep many chasing the next paycheck, creating permanent states of financial crisis for the poor.
Concentration. Confiscation, regressive redistribution, and legal monopolies deprive workers of resources while concentrating wealth and economic control within a politically favored business class. Struggling to cover ratcheted fixed costs, workers are dispossessed of the means to make an independent living and enter markets where ownership of land, capital, and key resources are legally concentrated in the hands of a few. Workers therefore depend on relationships with bosses and corporations far more than in freed markets, deforming economic activity into hierarchical relationships and confining rental economies.
Insulation. Captive markets and bailouts protect big players, while legal monopolies, regulatory barriers, and anticompetitive subsidies inhibit substitutes and competition from below. Government support props up big businesses, stifling the market and social pressures that might otherwise be brought to bear. Insulated businesses can treat employees and consumers with far less consideration or restraint; meanwhile, intervention shuts out alternative solutions by blocking smaller, grassroots, or informal competitors.
Tucker's Big Four
We can, then, turn to Tucker's central idea: In "State Socialism and Anarchism" (1888), Tucker argued that "Four Monopolies" fundamentally shaped the Gilded Age economy - four central areas of economic activity where government ratchets, concentration, and insulation came together to deform markets into "class monopolies," regressively reshaping all markets as the effects rippled outward. …