Monday, July 30, 2012

A More Efficient Method?

What follows is a conditional. If you reject the antecedent, then obviously you reject the entire conditional.

Let us assume that you are a member of a large-scale libertarian socialist society. Almost all the world runs along collectivist or similar lines in some way or another, and runs well enough that no one is starving or suffering due to systemic failures. But you get a good idea. Well, two good ideas. The first is some very efficient new method for producing some desirable good or service. The other is that, since the idea is yours, you're going to see if you can't use it to benefit yourself more than other people. What's to stop you? Surely there's nothing wrong with hiring some workers on relatively exploitative terms (although probably still far, far less exploitative than those in modern society) and produce said good or service to the net benefit of all society! Why would anyone be opposed to that, so long as everyone involved agrees to the arrangement?

This was a question I was unable to answer in a recent conversation. However, having had time to reflect, I have not some several answers.

Let's start with the least obvious: if you try to create a subset of society where such exploitation is driven by anything other than survival necessity, you will inevitably be reintroducing all the problems of classism and authoritarian hierarchy — in this case, though, those are your problem, not the workers' problem. In capitalism, exploitation works out fine because workers have pretty much no other choice except to participate in a capitalist economy. If they lose or leave their job at a capitalist firm (and a magnanimous welfare state won't subsidize their unemployment) all they can do to survive is get another job at a capitalist firm (which might be a firm where they are their own boss, but that doesn't really change their relationship with the material wealth of society). In a libertarian society, if they are dissatisfied with work at your firm, they can simply leave and go work anywhere else in a voluntary organization. That is, unlike in capitalism, there is almost no cost to leaving your job, outside of purely physically practical considerations. So unless your hypothetically superior good or service is SO desirable, and SO beneficial to the people working for you (not to mention society at large), then there is little chance that people will be willing to continue working under inferior conditions. It is easy, when one holds the mistaken belief that we currently live in a free society, to forget that there are huge social and economic impediments against most people actually improving the conditions of their lives, set up both consciously and implicitly by capitalists and the institutions which they support and which support them. Such barriers would not exist in a free society, so there would be nothing to stop brain-drain (and hand-drain, as it were) away from any given exploitative firm and towards voluntary, libertarian firms.

A second reason this would be unlikely to work is illustrated best by the results of the Ultimatum Game. Expanded to a larger society, it seems highly unlikely that a group of people would be willing to bequeath to any one individual so large a share of their collective wealth that a productive firm could be established with the resources. On a smaller scale, it seems unlikely that you would find many people who would be willing to work for a firm where they would earn relatively less than another worker, even if they (somehow) earn more than workers in other firms (again, without the societal and institutionalized economic coercion of capitalism). (That this entirely begs the question of what they are earning in a largely collectivist society without large-scale fiat currencies is left aside for the purpose of this discussion.)

A final reason this is unlikely to arise is the lack of institutionalized secrecy in a free society. If you were the manager of a firm which had a superior method of production, the only way to keep it from being copied by anyone and everyone (including all the libertarian, collective firms in that particular line of business) would be to keep it completely secret — high fences, pledges of confidentiality, dark windows. But whatever facility you use to run your firm would be owned by society at large — after all, outside of a capitalist system (including state capitalism), no one seriously thinks of a factory, a storefront, or a suite of industrial machinery as belonging to a single individual for their personal use. And outside of a society with capitalist-style property rights, you would have no right to stop people entering your factory or store or whatever to observe your methods and use them elsewhere. After all, if your firm can produce SUCH excess wealth that it's worth reinstating exploitative labor relations for, then everyone else will want to use it too. And since no capitalist firm is an island, huge chunks of the rest of society will have to be involved in you establishing your firm (building your factory, supplying your raw materials, etc, etc.). So, pretty soon, workers will have no reason to stay with an exploitative firm to produce that exact good or service, and will instead move to collective ones the first instance the exploitation outweighs the benefit.

There are probably other reasons besides the idea stated at the beginning of this post wouldn't work in a free society, but those three are the ones that I was able to articulate to myself in the last couple of days. They are, like any highly hypothetical discussion like this, premised on many assumptions which not everyone agrees with, including, I'm sure, the person who raised the hypothetical scenario in the first place. But they are all, I believe, answers consistent with the view of society, politics and ethics I advance.