Responding to Klein and Rothbard on Agorist Organization

Peter Klein wrote a blog post yesterday on the Mises Economics blog continuing the agorist vs. anarcho-capitalist discussion on organization. In his post, Klein summarized his contribution to the discussion followed by a quoting Rothbard’s assessment of agorists view on organization. But both Klein and Rothbard make unsupported general conclusions that they seem to base on some agorists’ personal preferences rather than agorist theory.

It is true that agorists in general do not fancy “organization, hierarchy, leaders and followers, etc.”, which is a common preference among anarchists of all varieties. Rothbard (and Klein) is right in that there is not necessarily anything wrong with voluntary organization or voluntary “membership” in hierarchical structures where one is subjected to the rule of majority vote or the whims of a ruler. But as good economists both Rothbard and Klein seem to assume too much: there is nothing wrong with making an informed decision to take a low-level position in a hierarchy ceteris paribus.

Ceteris paribus should here be understood as choosing in a situation where the only thing that distinguishes the hierarchical position from the non-hierarchical is hierarchy. But this is hardly ever the case in State society. Rather, individuals have to choose (if at all) from a very limited set of alternatives, where hierarchy and submission is part of all or most of the alternatives. Vietnamese children working in a Nike sweatshop are better off than as child prostitutes, ceteris paribus. But one cannot take the choices as exogenous to the political situation in the area, the region, the country, or the world. A political theory such as agorism needs to take into account the effect of political rule in the choices people make.

Agorists do just that: they realize that the limited options for a child, i.e. working in a sweat shop or becoming a prostitute, are not the result of the market but of political institutions. The choice in itself may be easy, but the context certainly isn’t. The person making the choice is subjected to political oppression through the unavailability of choices due to political regulation, rule, and coercive institutions.

This is not the same as making choices “subject to” alternatives made available in a free(d) market. The market measures costs to benefits and awards individuals with alternatives to the extent economically feasible. Political rule, however, causes imbalances in the marketplace which forcefully (directly or indirectly) removes alternatives that should have existed were it not for political oppressive rule. The choice between a sweat shop and prostitution is a choice only because of politics; it is not a “real” choice set, since it is forcefully limited.

The same is true with any choices we make today, and agorists, compared to other anarcho-capitalists, tend to put more weight on the choices that have been forcefully taken away from us. While many libertarians would compare a choice to status quo, an agorist would compare the choice situation with that which should obviously have been real in a free market. It is not an economic analysis, it is a political analysis based on a radical passion for justice.

This is relevant to the debate on organization, since agorists have a slightly different perspective than anarcho-capitalists, especially economist anarcho-capitalists. There is of course nothing supporting any counter-factual view on what would have been the case under different circumstances. But it is reasonable to draw some conclusions: the child would have more alternatives in a free market than sweat shop work and prostitution, of which some would likely have been better than both.

Only the better alternatives are important to our analysis, but it is safe to say that we can remain fairly confident that such better alternatives (subjectively identified and valued) would exist. State oppression has therefore deprived the child (in this case) from the choice he or she would have made were it not for State oppression. An economic analysis, at least using the tools commonly taught in academia, is too limited: it does not take into account the fundamental and far-reaching effect of the State on institutions and individual as well as collective behavior.

From this perspective, it is not necessarily the case that people in a freed setting would organize the way the presently choose to. It could be the case that people organize in large corporations, but it is unlikely. Why? Because people in general tend to dislike being “bossed around” by others, and they tend to very often dislike management because it is management or because they believe management’s decisions are incorrect or improper. Ask yourself: in a free(d) market, would more or fewer people choose to work in large structures where their actions are subjected to the decisions/management by others?

The answer isn’t necessarily obvious, but considering the multitude of organizational solutions that would be available were it not for the State, as well as the cost of e.g. corporation-like limited liability if fully internalized by the individual actor/organization, the answer becomes clearer. Agorists don’t despise or dislike organization per se, but I believe it is reasonable to say their analysis takes more facts into account. In quantitative economics lingo, agorists tend to control for many more variables.

So how does this relate to Klein’s post and the Rothbard quote? It provides the reason agorists, on average, are more skeptical than other libertarians to contemporary organizational structures. Agorist theory does not dismiss organization, but agorist class theory identifies, comparatively speaking, a great many more State-caused and State-inflicted problems with severe effects on the very bases on which choices are made. This makes agorists more skeptical towards organizational choices in contemporary State society.

If it were indeed the case that agorists were opposed to organization in and of itself, they would abstain from organize themselves. But this is not the case: agorists organize their efforts in the Molinari Institute as well as the Center for a Stateless Society and the Agorist Action Alliance.

Furthermore, agorists are strong proponents of voluntary organizing of free markets to create individual wealth while withdrawing support for the state to the greatest degree possible and providing real and viable free alternatives to State-controlled institutions. Agorism provides a theory for how to set the world free through liberating yourself and thereby fully take advantage of the economic incentives naturally provided in a free society. So-called counter-economics is a cornerstone in agorist theory and practice, and arranging or joining a counter-economy is voluntary in a sense no choice made in the State sanctioned market ever is. This is perhaps what distinguishes agorists from anarcho-capitalists the most: that they define “voluntary” in a much more absolutist sense.


Cross posted as a comment to Klein’s blog post. For more information, see my articles Saving the World through Saving YourselfA Strategy for Forcing the State Back, and my previous blog post The Savior Complex.