Monday, October 24, 2016

The calvinist roots of american anti-intellectualism

the calvinist roots of american anti-intellectualism

People sometimes say that they like Trump because he speaks his mind and because he talks and thinks like they do, and this is often read as code for people liking his racism. But it is more than that. Trump sounds familiar because he is doing on a grand stage what they are told to do every day from pulpits across America. They are told to stick to their guns and to reject the evolution crap and the carbon dating crap and more generally the logic and inductive science crap, and they know that it is HARD. But here is Trump, a man who can proudly, unashamedly, stand up to Renaissance and Enlightenment-forged principles of rational inquiry and rational discourse.‘

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Elinor Ostrom's 8 Principles for Managing A Commmons

Elinor Ostrom's 8 Principles for Managing A Commmons:

  1. Define clear group boundaries.
  2. Match rules governing use of common goods to local needs and conditions.
  3. Ensure that those affected by the rules can participate in modifying the rules.
  4. Make sure the rule-making rights of community members are respected by outside authorities.
  5. Develop a system, carried out by community members, for monitoring members’ behavior.
  6. Use graduated sanctions for rule violators.
  7. Provide accessible, low-cost means for dispute resolution.
  8. Build responsibility for governing the common resource in nested tiers from the lowest level up to the entire interconnected system.

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Democracy, socialism, and (anti-)capitalism

In Democracy. Capitalism. Socialism. Choose Any Three of the Above, Steve Roth argues that all three of these ideas are embedded in modern society and necessary for a decent, prosperous society. Roth observes that there are people who oppose each of the three, and argues that these opponents are misguided.

Roth seems to use "socialism" to mean collective responsibility for at least some aspects of individual well-being, and notes that empirically, prosperous countries all engage in socialist activities, such as "government-provided retirement and health care/insurance systems, free public education, government spending on infrastructure and research, programs for economic security, and . . . huge redistribution programs." That they have not declined into totalitarian dystopias decisively rebuts at least the most purist and reductive Hayekians. But other than his support for (minimal) socialism, Roth's article fails to explore the connections between anti-socialism and anti-democracy, and thus entirely misreads anti-capitalism.

Roth claims that while anti-socialists "stand at the very pinnacles of power," anti-democrats are entirely marginalized, "invisible and voiceless." However, he fails to observe that opposition to socialism (in Roth's sense) necessarily entails opposition to democracy. When people are organized and powerful, of course they will vote themselves collective responsibility for individual well-being.

Roth seems to think that anything short of outright authoritarianism is democracy, and that anti-democracy can be found only only proponents of political philosophies such as Libertarianism, which at best only thinly veil their advocacy for authoritarianism. But democracy entails more than just letting people periodically vote. A democracy requires that the people have not just nominal but actual sovereignty, and that we have our own institutions, institutions that maintain our organization and power to direct events and exercise our sovereignty. The institutions we actually have, not only the Republican but also the Democratic party, the structure of our explicitly governmental institutions, and even the constitution itself, serve to limit and marginalize the people's democratic authority. All Roth observes is that most everyone with an actual voice endorses the illusion of democracy; he does not see them opposing its substance. And, to oppose socialism, they must oppose the substance of democracy.

Since Roth cannot see the erosion of substantive democracy by the anti-socialists, he cannot comprehend anti-capitalism, and his straw-man thumbnail portrait of anti-capitalism falls flat. (Roth can be excused somewhat from moral responsibility: True Socialism (tm), collective ownership of the means of production and, more importantly, "dictatorship" (political primacy) of the proletariat, has been so thoroughly crushed that effective expression is limited to the odd corners of academia.) But still, anti-capitalism does not, as Roth asserts, hinge on making sure people don't sell their Kenny Loggins records for a profit.

Roth does make an accurate point, that "the notions of 'anti-capitalists' inevitably envision the eradication of institutions that are ubiquitous in (and hence presumably necessary to) thriving, prosperous economies." Yes indeed! Capitalism is a collection of institutions, and surprisingly enough, anti-capitalists, being against capitalism, necessarily advocate dismantling many of these institutions.

One obvious error is that Roth explicitly conflates ubiquity and necessity. Anti-capitalists reject Roth's presumption: ubiquity does not entail necessity. We argue precisely the opposite, that many capitalist institutions retard economic (as well as social and psychological) prosperity. These are precisely the institutions that place anti-socialists at "the very pinnacles of power," that make every incremental gain in the kind of socialism that Roth supports the painful work of a generation of citizens. Worse yet, over the last four decades, we have witnessed few gains, mostly in cosmetic issues, and many losses for the people's political and economic power and well-being. Anti-capitalists argue that we are becoming less socialist precisely because of capitalism.

It is worth quoting Roth's polemic against anti-capitalism at length:
[I]t’s completely unclear exactly what laws [anti-capitalists] want to get rid of, or replace.

They might concede, for instance, somewhat reluctantly, that you will be legally allowed to own your Kenny Loggins records. (That’s kind of them.) You might even be free to buy and sell records. But are you allowed to make a profit doing so? Or should we pass laws to make that illegal? If you run a record store or a plumbing business, are you allowed to hire employees for hourly wages? Are you allowed to “own” that business? Are you allowed to make profits based on the sweat of those employees’ brows? Crucially, if not: is jail time the punishment for doing so? If we’re going to “end capitalism,” what laws are they suggesting we should actually put in place, today? Despite (or because of) all those tomes and tracts, their answer remains radically unclear.

I think that Roth is overstating the unclarity of anti-capitalism: I don't think it is "completely" or "radically" unclear. But there is a wide variety of conflicting opinion among anti-capitalists. However, this breadth can be attributed to the destruction of anti-capitalism as a political force, surviving, as mentioned above, only in academia. And that's what academics do: take a tiny little piece of a problem and wrestle with it in print; once they publish, they are done. And of course they often explore topics that seem silly. First, academics, especially philosophers, use seemingly "silly" examples for their clarity and simplicity, not their relevance. Roth might as well argue that epistemology is concerned with whether barns in Philadelphia are real or whether someone in your office owns a Ford. (Note that to find this example, I googled "epistemology gettier example" and took the first link that wasn't an encyclopedia.) The article Roth cites about Kenny Loggins records is subscription only; without reading it, I have no idea how the author is using the notion.

But even t is the nature of the institutions of academia that there is very little centralized control over a "message"; by design, academics radically dis-organize and decentralize academia. It is not "they", it is not anti-capitalists in general, it is Bhaskar Sunkara the individual who explores the issue in an article, and he is in no position to either legalize or criminalize anything.

A coherent, practical program arises from real people wrestling with real problems with at least some power to effect solutions, and capitalist institutions marginalize from practical politics — often by imprisonment, murder and assassination — anyone who shows even a hint of effective anti-capitalism. An academic who uses Kenny Loggins records to explore the notion of private property is very different from a political organization that actually advocates putting people in jail for selling their records, which, of course, no political organization would actually do.

But Roth's questions are worth answering. As to his most "crucial" question, repeated twice: would anti-capitalists jail dissenters? Before I answer for anti-capitalists, let me turn the question around: would capitalists jail people who don't have a place to live? Well, yes, they actually do. Would capitalists jail people for being poor and black, to maintain a hyper-exploited underclass? Again, yes, they actually do. Would capitalists put people in jail for infringing on physicians' monopoly on prescribing drugs? Yet again, yes, they actually do. Worrying about others' possible advocacy for jail time in the most notorious modern carceral state seems hypocritical. But of course incarceration is a capitalist institution, not only invented by the capitalist state but is also "ubiquitous in (and presumably necessary to)" capitalism: Does Roth with one hand accuse anti-capitalists of wanting to dismantle this "necessary" institution out of one side of his mouth and accuse of wanting to preserve it out of the other?

But of course anti-capitalists (those not engaged in a desperate existential struggle for national and cultural survival) are generally against incarceration on principle, even for activities such as murder that are unequivocally strongly objectionable. (It is not that we condone murder, it is that incarceration is not a productive way to prevent or respond to murder.) So no: regardless of any theoretical inquiry, anti-capitalists are not going to put people in jail for selling their Kenny Loggins records, nor even put people in jail for exploiting their workers, because putting people in jail for anything is a dumb idea in the first place.

And if you want to sell your Kenny Loggins records, go ahead and sell them. If you get more money (or whatever we use to account for consumption) than you paid, whatever. It's trivially stupid to worry about that sort of thing at a practical political level.

Roth finally escapes triviality when he asks if, under some hypothetical anti-capitalist system, businesses can hire employees at an hourly wage. And the answer is obviously no (and, since businesses cannot "hire" "employees", they cannot exploit them). The employer-employee relationship, a relation of domination and subordination, is one of the most critical capitalist institutions anti-capitalists seek to dismantle. We wouldn't put people in jail for that, for the same reason we don't put people in jail for buying slaves at Wal-Mart. "Hiring" an "employee" simply becomes incoherent because the institutions of anti-capitalism would make it so that no one would ever have a reason to find an "employer" to "hire" them. Instead, anti-capitalists have proposed any number of alternatives to the capitalist dominant employer and subordinate employee, such as worker-owned cooperatives and democratizing access to capital. Why would anyone want to subordinate herself to someone who is an "employer" only because of privileged, undemocratic, access to capital when she can just as easily set up her own record shop or plumbing business? Of course, someone could choose to join up with someone more experienced, and choose to defer to their judgment, but they would not be an "employee", subordinating their economic survival to another.

If Roth's thesis were correct, then we should see not just steady but accelerating progress in both socialism and democracy under capitalism. We have all the capitalism we can possibly have, but progress in socialism is not accelerating, and not even steady, but other than a few sporadic and isolated gains, actually regressing overall: western capitalist societies are becoming less socialist, less democratic. Since we have a lot of capitalism and little socialism or democracy, it is not trivially stupid to conjecture that the former just might well be the cause of the latter; barred from actual political engagement, all we can do is speculate academically. If people like Roth take anti-capitalism seriously, not as a finished program but as a theoretical starting point, perhaps we could put this speculation to the test.

Friday, September 09, 2016

Prices and exchange

By definition, a socialist economy is one in which we don't produce enough so that even within reason, people can have all the stuff they want. A socialist economy, is, hopefully, moving toward such an abundance economy (which capitalism can't do after a certain point), but our consumption is still restricted. Because consumption is restricted, we have to account for what each person consumes in considerable detail. This means we have to attach consistently determinable numbers to a lot of things that people consume, and use these numbers to determine exchange from producers to consumers. Thus, goods and services have prices. "Prices" in this sense follow only from the fact that we do not yet have enough stuff and must therefore account for our consumption. Furthermore, it makes absolutely no sense to just hand everyone exactly the same basket of goods and service, so whatever method of exchange we choose, we have to take into account people's preferences, which we can know only when people make actual choices.

If we call the above a market, then we have defined the term so broadly as to be useless, at least for any philosophical or rational use: in this sense "market socialism" is just socialism.

However, this broad definition does have an important rhetorical use: Socialists are against markets, but markets encompass every reasonable method of distribution and exchange that could work for more than a handful of people. Thus, socialism is unreasonable; therefore capitalism. In addition to the fallacy of the excluded middle (between unreasonable socialism and capitalism), this argument rests on an equivocation fallacy. The market under capitalism does not have the very broad meaning in the first paragraph.

Capitalist markets mean a specific kind of number, determined by a specific procedure, is a price, and capitalist prices have a specific way to motivate choices. The equivocation between the broad and specific definition lets capitalist apologists argue what Dagood aptly labels hopping from foot to foot. On one foot, socialists argue against specifically capitalist markets, so they are against markets. Hopping on the other foot, the broad definition of markets encompass everything, so socialists are against any form of number- and choice-based exchange and distribution, which is absurd.

But really, a socialist form of exchange is not rocket science, and there are any number of different solutions. One super-simple solution is that we estimate the amount of socially necessary labor time (average or marginal) for each good and service we produce, a tractable process. These numbers are the "prices" of the various goods and services. Second, we have some sort of democratic social process such that each person gets a number — which might or might not vary from person to person — every period (month, week, two weeks, whatever); that number is the amount of socially necessary labor time they consume in that period. They go to the store, they buy hamburgers, buns, and toilet paper, and the socially necessary labor time for the toilet paper is deducted from their periodic allocation.

Coordinating the actual production process is more complicated, connecting exchange and production is at least conceptually simple: if we consistently have a lot of good X unsold, we make less of it; if we consistent run out of good Y, we make more.

The above is a "market" in the broad sense, but it is not a capitalist market. First, labor and labor power are not commodities. Second, the socialist prices above are relatively concrete, as opposed to more abstract capitalist prices. Firms do not arbitrarily set prices to maximize profits; prices reflect actual costs of production.

All the above really does is let people do math to do what we economists call budget-constrained utility maximization, which is an ineluctable consequence of using math to make people as happy as possible under external limitations, regardless of the institutional forms of exchange and production.

Socialist exchange is trivial. We don't have to solve massive linear equations. Capitalists (and, sadly, any number of soi-disant socialists) make a lot of noise about the "calculation problem", but it's just not an issue, at least not in the sphere of exchange. One key is that we never have to calculate the whole economy from first principles. An economy is dynamic, and we already have a set of "prices" and "social allocations of consumption"; all we ever need to do is adjust the status quo, and if it's too difficult to do it quickly, we do it slowly.

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Smashing the bourgeois state

Smashing the bourgeois state is always a priority of any good communist revolutionary. Fortunately for my tired old ass, The Republicans are doing it for me, and the Democrats seem unable to resist. Oh, Clinton will win, of course, but she won't be able to govern.

This development is doubleplusgood. No Democratic government will ever be legitimate to the Republicans. No Republican government will ever be legitimate to the Democrats. The bourgeoisie is tearing itself apart. And I don't have to lift a finger. Yay!

If any socialists can pull their head out of their ass long enough to pick up the pieces, we might have a chance at progress. However, socialists' heads are pretty firmly wedged (I'm just observing: it took me 40 years to pull my head out of my petty-bourgeois ass, so I'm in no position to criticize), so it'll probably be the fascists who gain.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Civility and professionalism (yeah, right!) in internet comments

Internet comments are subject to creative conjugation: I am telling it like it is; you are abrasive; he is an asshole.

Burt Likko is unhappy with the response of several commenters on a recent (now withdrawn) post on Ordinary Times. Among other issues, Likko laments,
Toxins brew in our comments threads — seemingly forgotten is the principle of charitable interpretation, commenters labor to frame others’ statements in the worst possible light, and then demonstrate smug self-satisfaction in having done so.
Likko wishes,
This site ought to be the online equivalent of a dinner party amongst interesting friends. A college bull session, fueled by beer and fellowship and the thrill of sharing newly-learnt things. A re-creation of a symposium from classical times, where we fill each other’s wine glasses even while we debate. An environment where a multiplicity of different ideas are aired, heard, discussed, and shared. A place where people can engage in intellectual explorations, learn about new things, and try on new and different thoughts for size. For quite a while, and when the community is at its best, that’s a thrilling and exciting sort of place to be, a joyous bazaar of the mind where all manner of wares may be found on display.

I spent a few years as a contributor, moderator, and administrator of the now defunct Internet Infidels Discussion Board, as a contributor to the Straight Dope Message Board, and of course, I have this blog, so I know exactly what Likko is talking about. I've also had experience a college instructor, especially in political science. Likko wants, I think, something close to the environment I have to create in my classroom.

I could talk about rules and regulations, procedures, standards, but that's not the point. The point is to understand the attitudes and purposes of people who comment on the internet, and act to reconcile those attitudes with the desires of the publisher.

It seems too obvious, but the vibe of a dinner party between interesting friends presumes that the participants are already, you know, friends. I give my actual friends much more benefit of the doubt than I give to strangers or acquaintances. If one of my friends says something apparently dumb, I'm inclined to at least think for a moment. And even if my friend really does say something dumb, I also have an investment in the relationship, so I'll try to gently persuade them, or at least just ignore it and maintain the relationship. In contrast, if a stranger says something dumb, then I usually just write them off. There are a lot of people in the world, and I don't have time to dig into everyone's mindset to determine if they really are smart despite appearing dumb.

Second, people really really really want to be heard, and for some people, internet comments are the only way they think they can be heard. Also, everyone thinks they're right about everything (if they didn't, they would have already changed their mind), and they view contrary opinions as something wrong in need of correction. It takes enormous personal discipline to view even the best contrary opinions with charity, and even more discipline — and usually an alternative creative outlet, as I have here — to simply disengage with the worst.

The closest I've come to participating in and creating a collegiate environment among people who are not already friends is, well, in college. The college environment depends on both the ethics and substantial authority of the instructor. The instructor has not only power over the class discussion, but power over the students in assignment of grades. Furthermore, the scope and limitations of the instructors' power is pretty consistent across any student's experience, so they develop internal habits of what they can and cannot say, and how they can and cannot say it. When they come into my classroom, they already know their role and my own in the process.

A site like Ordinary Times has neither of these features. The commenters are not all friends with each other, they often have not developed or do not exercise the discipline to be charitable or silent (and why should they? I'm not making any universal normative claims for this kind of discipline), and the moderators of a site have little actual power over the commenters. Moderators can edit or delete comments or ban commenters, but that's the extent of their power; unlike instructors, moderators do not have something that the commenters desperately want and have paid a lot of money for.

I think for blogs and websites, there is no middle ground. Either you go the old PZ Myers route* and allow pretty much all comments besides spam and harassment, or you go my route and pretty much eliminate comments**. You can make all the rules you want, but people want to have their say, and they always believe they themselves are being perfectly reasonable and polite; it's the other guy who's being an asshole... and sheesh! do they get pissed off when the moderator disagrees.

If you want a friendly, collegiate environment, I don't think there's anything to do but hang out with your friends or go to college.

*I have no idea if Myers still has this commenting policy. I stopped even reading his comments a long time ago.

**I still permit comments, but I am deliberately rude to people I don't like, so they will leave, and I ban them quickly if they persist. I get very few comments, especially compared to the early days of my blog, which suits me just fine.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

It's all about the Benjamins

In The Red and The Black, Seth Ackerman (2012) notes that a key feature of capitalism is that firms are autonomous. True: in a capitalist economy, both firms and households are autonomous in the sense that they need not ask permission of anyone outside the firm before taking economic action. However, to coordinate the vast, global machine of capitalist production, there must be a constraint on this autonomy, a severe constraint; otherwise, firms and households would just do things willy-nilly, and there would be no coordination.

I will let Herr Marx do the heavy lifting on the critique of capitalism, but I will observe that the severe constraint is that everyone needs money: yes, anyone can do whatever they like, but if they don't bring in the money, they are well and truly fucked.

Capitalism needs every household, every firm, thinking about money every waking moment. Everyone has to be trying to get their hands on as much money as possible all the time and and all the time spending all of the money as usefully to themselves as possible.

The capitalist system needs money to be constantly moving: it's bad if households or firms hold onto large stacks of actual money for a long time; Thus, for "keeping score" in the long term, instead of accumulating money itself, people accumulate wealth, legal ownership of streams of money. To use a biological metaphor, money is blood, wealth is blood vessels, the supply of blood.

Workers need money, so they work for wages. They need more money, so they work harder and try to find better paying work. Firms need money, and more money, so they please their customers and are always trying, even absent direct pressure, to increase revenue and cut costs (or increase market share). Similarly, the bourgeoisie, the legal owners of streams of money — profits, interest, rent — are always trying to increase their wealth, accumulating more and bigger streams of money.

"Markets", at least capitalist markets, work only to the degree that everyone is motivated to get and spend money and accumulate wealth. Take out this pillar, remove the constant and desperate need of every individual to get and spend every possible dollar, and capitalist markets collapse.

A corollary to this money motive is that money as a product of wealth requires no work, so it is absolutely necessary that only a few have real wealth; if everyone had wealth, no one would, because no one would be working to produce stuff (goods and services), which is finally what money is about.

Capitalism requires a great deal of "central planning". First, a capitalist society must have a legal regime to make people always desperately need money and have to work to acquire it but keep them from just shooting each other for it. This legal regime requires central planning: there must be no "market" alternative to markets.

Furthermore, there must also be centrally planned international force used to shut down socialist alternatives. It is instructive to note that although capitalists proclaim the inherent superiority of capitalism over socialism, capitalist powers are quick to use every means at their disposal, not only military force but also torture and terrorism, to instantly destroy any attempt at socialism. If socialism is so inferior, would it not be better to simply say, "Y'all want socialism? Go for it; we won't interfere. When you start starving, come talk to us, and we'll fix you back up." Ain't gonna happen.

More importantly, because of the critical importance of money, the money itself must be carefully centrally planned and managed. "Free banking" is up there with the stupidest, anti-capitalist Libertarian and right-anarchist ideas. If a capitalist society fucks up the money itself, the drive to acquire money and streams of money collapses, and the economy collapses. When capitalist economies lose a big chunk of physical productive capability, in earthquakes and other natural disasters, the economy quickly recovers. When the money gets fucked up, such as in the Long Depression, the Great Depression, or the current Great Recession (a.k.a. the Lesser Depression), the effects are severe, and it takes a long time to recover. Whether it's a carefully curated private banking system or a state-regulated central bank, a capitalist society must keep careful track of the money itself.

I will examine Ackerman (2012) in more detail later, but the centrality of the money motive to capitalist markets is a severe defect in Ackerman's market socialism. Markets don't work by magic, and labeling some system as a "market" doesn't make it one. Matthijs Krul (2013) correctly uncovers the contradiction: "Ackerman’s solution is to propose a market socialist alternative, which would have prices (and thereby evade the calculation problem), but not profits — a handy solution if ever there was one, having one’s cake and eating it too."

I won't say that one cannot use the word "market" and "prices" except in the context of the capitalist central money motive, but as I noted, for some number to be a "price", the number has to matter, it has to in some way affect people's economic behavior. Take out the constant, desperate, and urgent need for money, and you have to give some alternative account of how prices affect behavior.


Ackerman, Seth. December 2012. The red and the black. Jacobin 8. Retrieved August 13, 2016 from

Krul, Matthijs. 2013. On communism and markets. Notes & Commentaries. Retrieved August 14, 2016 from

Monday, August 15, 2016

Quiggin on Locke: Against freedom

According to John Quiggin's 2015 article, John Locke Against Freedom, John Locke’s classical liberalism isn’t a doctrine of freedom. It’s a defense of "expropriation and enslavement."

In fine deconstructionist form, Quiggin (2015) argues that Locke's specific historical situation informs a reading of his works, especially the Second Treatise on Government and Letters on Toleration. Quiggin (2015) claims that it widely known that Locke justifies slavery and denies property right to indigenous people, but that these elements are peripheral to the main themes of Locke's writing, but Quiggin (2015) argues these themes are central. Quiggin (2015) reports that Locke "was intimately involved with American affairs," drafting the constitution of the Carolinas, serving on American trading boards, and, most importantly, was "a major investor in the English slave trade." Quiggin (2015) argues that an interpretation of the latter in light of his supposed advocacy of liberty as mere hypocrisy is "too charitable." Instead, Quiggin (2015) argues that the contradictions between liberty and slavery finds its way into Locke's work: they
are designed to fit his political positions both in England, where he supported resistance to the absolutist pretensions of the Catholic James II, and in America, where he was part of the slave-owning ruling class (albeit from afar).

Quiggin (2015) observes that Locke's argument for religious toleration in Letters on Toleration excludes "both Catholics and atheists"; Locke does not argue for toleration per se, but rather for tolerating only good ideas, i.e. his own. Similarly, given Locke's deep involvement in the colonization of North America and expropriation from the indigenous people, Quiggin (2015) argues that Locke's theory of "original acquisition" is not just a benign historical fiction but an active justification of expropriation: a property right lies not just in temporal priority, but in best economic use. Quiggin (2015) compares the idea that agriculture is a superior economic use to hunting-gathering, justifying American colonial expropriation, and Kelo v. City of New London, where superior commercial use justified the exercise of eminent domain over Ms. Kelo merely temporal priority. Locke does not stake out truly universal standards; he simply universalizes his own specific interests.

Quiggin (2015) reinterprets Locke's "oft-quoted statement": “SLAVERY is so vile and miserable an estate of man, and so directly opposite to the generous temper and courage of our nation; that it is hardly to be conceived, that an Englishman, much less a gentleman, should plead for it” (Locke, 1821, book 1, ch. 1. § 1). Quiggin (2015) denies that Locke does not categorically condemn slavery; instead, Locke condemns slavery only for Englishmen, and only the "slavery" of submission to an absolute monarch. Locke approves of "the perfect condition of slavery, which is nothing else, but the state of war continued, between a lawful conqueror and a captive [emphasis original]" (Locke, 1821. book 2, ch. 4. § 24). Alexander Mosely (N.d.) describes Locke's extension of this argument to enslaved Africans as "defending, if somewhat naively, colonial slavery," but Quiggin (2015) rejects the apologia of naivete. Quiggin (2015) argues that all these positions fit a consistent pattern: rights, freedom, liberty are only for people like Locke, with his particular interests situated in his particular historical context.

(I hope soon to summarize the next two installments in Quiggin's polemic: John Locke’s Road to Serfdom and Locke’s Folly, with Quiggin's summary.)


Locke, John. 1821. Two treatises on government. Retrieved August 15, 2016 from

Moseley, Alexander. N.d. John Locke: Political philosophy. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved August 15, 2016 from

Quiggen, John. 2015. John Locke against freedom. Jacobin. Retrieved August 15, 2016 from

Sunday, August 14, 2016

An introduction to prices

Curiously, the three systems of economic organizations that Seth Ackerman (2012) investigates in The Red and the Black all feature something called "prices". Prices are uncontroversially (I hope!) a key part of standard market capitalism, but Ackerman reports that both the alternative systems he examines, presumably Albert and Hahnel's (1991, 1992a, 1992b, 2002)* "participatory economics" as well as Soviet-style central planning, also have prices. According to Ackerman (2012), Albert and Hahnel's plan uses a democratic process to set prices; similarly, the economic task in the former Soviet Union after 1989 was to "Get Prices Right": not to introduce a price system, but to correct an already existing price system (which they found to be already correct). Thus, it is clearly not the case that prices per se are the critical factor; every economic system seems to have "prices." Differences in economic systems consist not of whether or not some system has "prices," but of what prices represent or do, and how these prices interact with human behavior.

*It is perhaps the fault of Jacobin (the online version of the magazine is very difficult to correctly cite), but Ackerman infuriatingly fails to completely cite many of his sources. Hopefully the citations here will assist future scholars.

An economic system consists of a collection of institutions that has three primary functions. First, a quantity and mix of stuff (goods and services), constrained by the available labor and natural resources, must be produced and distributed. Second, the institutions themselves must be reproduced: the human beings who participate in the institutions, and the quantity and mix of stuff will change over time. I use the passive voice above purposefully, because the third and most important function of an economic system is designating which people in which institutions have how much and which control over the production, distribution, and consumption of stuff, the supply of labor offered by the people, and the reproductive future of the institutions.

In On Communism and Markets, I think Matthijs Krul (2013) gives these last two functions special emphasis. It might (or might not) be more "efficient" in some sense to have some system of distribution, but so long as that system reproduces capitalist relations of production, it's not socialism.

However, I think a stronger argument is possible. For Marx, a necessary presupposition for a socialist revolution is that capitalist relations have become fetters on human productive powers. If that is indeed the case, then preserving any kind of specifically capitalist relations is at best dodgy, and requires a much stronger positive case than Ackerman (2012) makes. It is insufficient to argue that capitalism has kept the grocery stores stocked, capitalism uses some unspecified price system, therefore we should preserve this unspecified price system to keep the grocery stores stocked.

These issues are certainly important, but the technical problem of producing and distributing the right quantity and mix of stuff under labor and resource constraints still remains.

I want to construct a minimal definition of price. All three of the systems have something called a "price": to understand how they differ, I want to understand what is common between them all. In the general form, a price is a number attached to some definite, objectively determinable quantity of stuff. The number must be directly observable by and exactly the same for every relevant actor. The number must directly affect the actors' economic decisions: if the number were nontrivially different, the actors would make different economic decisions just because of that difference in price.

Thus the differences between different economic systems consists of how a society attaches these observable numbers to definite quantities of stuff, how these numbers affect people's economic behavior, and how the institutions and individuals reproduce these mechanisms of attachment and effect. In addition to briefly describing the capitalist theory of prices, I will examine each of the systems Ackerman (2012) and Krul (2013) discuss: market socialism, Albert and Hahnel's (1991 etc.) participatory economics, and "Soviet-style" central planning.


Ackerman, Seth. December 2012. The red and the black. Jacobin 8. Retrieved August 13, 2016 from

Albert, Michael, and Robin Hahnel. 1991. The political economy of participatory economics. Princeton University Press.

---. 1992a. Participatory planning. Science & Society 56.1: 39-59.

---. 1992b. Socialism as it was always meant to be. Review of Radical Political Economics 24.3-4: 46-66.

---. 2002. In defense of participatory economics. Science & Society 66.1: 7-28.

Krul, Matthijs. 2013. On Communism and Markets. Notes & Commentaries. Retrieved August 14, 2016 from

Friday, August 12, 2016

Central planning and market socialism

What should a socialist economy look like? I'm somewhat in agreement with Marx: we should not be "writing [recipes] (Comtist ones?) for the cook-shops of the future."1 Indeed, to a certain extent, I'm completely in agreement. The point is not to design a socialist economy at all; what the economy looks like, even in its broad character, is not the main point. The main point is to establish the "dictatorship of the proletariat": a society of the workers, by the workers, and for the workers. Economic issues are a means to that end; they should be evaluated by how they move society towards or away from the dictatorship of the proletariat. Because the dictatorship of the proletariat is so far away from my experience, it is difficult to imagine how the proletariat, given real power, will choose to organize their economic life. But difficult is not the same as impossible.

A number of people have discussed ideas for how a socialist economy might work. Chris Dillow describes "his" socialism, directing us to Seth Ackerman's sketch of "market socialism" by way of Matthijs Krul's response. I agree with Krul that Ackerman does not locate the fundamental issue of socialism as located in the relations of production, rather than distribution. Although Krul catches that that Ackerman yada yadas over all the good parts, I don't think Krul really nails down the specific problems with Ackerman's ideas.

Krul hints at the contradiction of the idea of prices without profits, but his objection is mostly Marxobabble. In order to analyze Ackerman's proposal, and why they will fail, we'll need to delve deeply into the nature of "prices" and "markets". Buckle in and hang on to your hat: it's going to be a bumpy and extremely wonky ride.

1"Preface to the Second German Edition", Capital vol. I