30 August 2016

Libertarian communism

We professors were talking over a "mental map" to help students see the different characteristics of the power structures that affect our lives. Although there are many elements that one might focus on (religious? formalized?), we wanted to compare and contrast centralized to decentralized and coercive to free. We agreed that "the state" is a centralized and coercive (i.e., possessing a monopoly on violence) and that the opposite would be markets, which are characterized by competition and voluntary trade.

Taking those two anchors as given, we got into the harder off-diagonals. Yes, it does make sense that a community would be decentralized and coercive (otherwise you're thrown out), but what would be decentralized AND non-coercive?

Those two terms imply voluntary as well as centralized, which makes no sense when you think of any example combining two or more people. How can you centralize AND be free? Although my peers were not exactly pleased with my answer (the individual), I think it fits the definitions as well as provoking the correct philosophical questions: An individual is free to act according to their whim and capable of motivating action ("eat that carrot!") by command and control.

Indeed, we spend most of our days obeying these whims, and we certainly notice when we are coerced (forced to do other than our first choice) or when we are exchanging with others on a voluntary basis.

Bottom Line No man is an island, but we all live on reefs.


  1. The thing about markets is that they inevitably contain bigger and smaller players ('competitors'). Generally, being bigger makes it easier to realise competitive advantages, so bigger players find it easier to get bigger still. In the absence of 'disruptive' players (those who undermine the norms of trust on which the civil 'free' market is built), a developing market tends to differentiate into 'classes' of players - a small number of large players and a large number of small players. The economic power of the large players allows them to exert economic coercion on the smaller ones. Thus their economic power turns into political power and a 'free' market engenders its own coercive structures. One function of government, as an authority trusted by all players, is to regulate the market to prevent such coercion.

    Of course, any number of free-market economists could argue that is all wrong. The proof is in what we can observe empirically.

    1. ...and it is wrong, on two accounts. First, product differentiation and innovation make it hard for a "large" player to control a COMPETITIVE market for long. Second, it's common for those with political power to cooperate with large players to protect their market share (e.g., give protection in exchange for bribes). The answer, as you point out, is to have "good" regulation. Where does the fault lie when it's missing? With politicians... as THEY have the market power (police power) to decide how the market should work!

  2. Hello David,

    I suggest that the "centralized" but "free" part of the matrix should be filled by voluntary cooperatives with their own internal hierarchy, such as companies or, if we prefer, the seemingly pejorative term "corporations". A corporation is "centralized" in that it is structured around a hierarchy of command, and yet it is also "free" in that people are free to apply to join or leave the corporation and free to buy its services or not to buy them.

    I'm not sure that this has anything to do with "communism".

    1. Hi Mike,

      That makes sense, saying that companies are centralized yet free in terms of relations among employees, but you'd have to divide those into hierarchical and flat structures of authority. Most corporations are coercive (top down) in terms of work performed, even if they are "free" in terms of joining or leaving. So that's perhaps a partial answer, except in some radical associations where anyone can commit the organization without restraint from others.

      The "communism" is merely a pun to refer to community :)


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