A Different Game
February 6, 2009
Occasionally someone has an inspired moment. Shawn Wilbur, in a post at the Forums of the Libertarian Left, sums up quite well the problem with the debates that spring up around mutualism and also offers a valuable perspective on the “key elements” behind the philosophy:
I wish we would all play a different game.
Time preference explains what it explains, and we should pay attention to the issued raised. There is no Official Mutualist Position on Austrian Economics, and I think Kevin [Carson] has shown some interesting points of contact and compatibility, while some of the historical work we’ve done shows that even some the most “objective”-looking LTV approaches could incorporate the most subjective of price theories without a burp. Most of the “debates” we have about this stuff are pointless. They get us nowhere philosophically or politically.
The mutualist predictions about rates of interest are, ultimately, almost all from other time periods. Some of them seem to me to have been very plausible, while others seem to have been the promotion of a dogma a bit beyond the situation it was supposed to address. Abstract quibbles about the right or just returns to capital and labor never seem to get beyond the slogan or anti-slogan phase.
I would think virtually everyone here would agree that privilege deforms markets, and that labor and credit markets are undoubtedly among those deformed by present privilege. Those who claim to be anarchists but don’t think the present, massive government involvement in various markets deforms those markets significantly may deserve the “vulgar” label, or there may be genuine disagreements about, say, the extent to which unions tilt the playing field, etc. There are certainly plenty of an-caps I have talked to who don’t seem to think much would change under an-capism, except perhaps that they would get some extra something that they consider their due. I think a lot of that is just personal arrogance in the place of politics, but whatever… We would probably still be better off in a world where “winners” win and “losers” lose, as opposed to one in which governmentalism and the Peter Principle have the whip hand.
With the mutual principle, which is the core of mutualism and the reason that so many of the key texts of mutualism were not “dumb,” and were able to acknowledge the circumstances under which “usury” might be appropriate — (But, hey, look! For most of us there are alternatives!) — you could really construct as wild and woolly or as damn-near-welfare-statish as you — mutually and voluntarily — wanted. And, naturally, if you think of the people around you as fellows, as naturally connected to you, and if you don’t think of cooperation as somehow an abandonment of individuality, then you have a lot more options. I’m always amazed at how the proponents of “association” and “division of labor” are almost polar opposites, although they’re working from some of the same insights about the relationship between individuals and collectives.
Anyway, I think it probably is a little “dumb” to hang one’s philosophy on an old prediction about future behavior in a free society, however necessary it is to think about that stuff. Beyond opposition to the state, the key elements of mutualism seem to me to be: 1) that individuals are “equal” in standing, in very broad terms, however unequal they are in all sorts of specific ways; 2) that individuals are inescapably bound up with one another in collective “entitities” which help to shape them, and vice versa, and that these collectives are repositories or vehicles for general, cultural knowledge, and have their own powers, for good and for ill, to mediate and moderate individual interactions; 3) that conflict and indeterminacy are a natural and necessary part of individual development and social progress; 4) that voluntary associations, based in reciprocity, have the potential to route around privilege, even before the overthrow or collapse of the state; and 5) that existing institutions (property chief among them) are merely “approximations,” generated in the clash of interests, and that if Humanity has a destiny, it is to endlessly improve those institutions, in the service of self-improvement and a kind of secular perfectionism…
This is what happens when these “debates” are reduced down to dogmatic terms. I do not, of course, have any objection to interest going away, should we not need it anymore, and I’m certainly convinced of the basic superiority of mutual models, which require no interest. But my chief concern is not to do away with any particular institution. Instead, it is to work to organize society so that no coercive institution can do much harm. Tucker’s program was first of all to eliminate monopoly, at which point the coercive institutions propped up by privilege would have no props. In a free economy, we could all charge each other a gazillion percent interest, and it would be nothing other than enormously inefficient. Freedom and reciprocity are the program. The elimination of all but purely equitable and voluntary forms of interest, rent and profit, where things like time preference might well play a role, is a probably outcome among those who lean towards reciprocity. Some other people will exercise their God-given right to charge and be charged a gazillion percent…