Oppressed by Scarcity, or Having to Work
Updated: Oct 28, 2020
People often resent getting out of bed to work for unlovable bosses in unrewarding occupations. They may feel hard done by. But there is no comparison between the state’s legally privileged theft and coercion and the dis-satisfactions of freely chosen employment.
People often resent getting out of bed to work for unlovable bosses in unrewarding occupations. They may feel hard done by. But there is no comparison between the state’s legally privileged theft and coercion and the dis-satisfactions of freely chosen employment. In a free society you have alternatives. They are not as nice as you would like because of ‘scarcity’. Even working together as well as possible, there simply is a technological limit to the well-being we can each produce.
The Libertarian view is that everybody has the right to live their own lives as they see fit. They may do what they like with their own persons and their justly acquired property. Nobody may attack or threaten to attack other people’s persons or property. Violence may legitimately be deployed only to counter or deter a direct threat or to resist direct attack, to bring malefactors to judgement, or to enforce any resulting orders for restitution (‘damages’ in English law), injunction (a court instruction not to continue specified actions) or punishment.
This is basically the key libertarian non-aggression principle (NAP). Not surprisingly it is largely consistent with the English Common Law, as it was when Britain used to be a largely free society.
The core of the modern state is its judicial monopoly. This monopoly prevents citizens from defending themselves from individuals who steal or bully from them in the name of that abstraction called ‘the state’. Those individuals inevitably act oppressively. They constitute a legally privileged criminal association. The criminal association comprises people inside and outside of government employment who benefit directly from state theft and coercion. They are the only people who an Austro-libertarian would describe as oppressors (to use the Marxist expression) and parasites.
Please do not forget, again, that this blog is critical of dysfunctional institutional arrangements but not, mostly, the people who find themselves working in them. (See my April 8th post, ’Good people working for the State’.)
A counter argument sometimes put forward runs like this. Every day lots of people get out of bed and go to work at jobs they don’t like very much. Often, people do not like their bosses or the companies for which they work very much either. They are therefore, they say, equally as oppressed as people who are the victims of state theft or other forms of state bullying.
But bullying means attacking people who cannot protect themselves. They cannot protect themselves in state dominated societies precisely because the state’s monopoly on jurisdiction will not allow victims of the state redress against its own criminal public and private sector cronies. But in a free society you can seek redress for bullying behaviour. You have alternatives and choices. If you still choose to stay you are not being oppressed.
This argument that employees, in particular, can be oppressed by private interests and that the state has a justifiable role in ‘protecting’ such people cannot stand. It is addressed further below.
However, underlying it is a deeper misunderstanding of the nature and likelihood of scarcity and abundance, which I hope also to cast light upon below.
In a genuinely free society life will still be imperfect. Achievable well-being will always be constrained by the changing resources and technologies available to a population, and by the unchanging nature of human beings. People are assumed to be good, but not that good, and not always.
What we can say is that in a free society you, and indeed your employer or other associates, will all tend to be in the best deal they think they can have. Given the absence of legal coercion and the presence of effective competitive jurisdiction, everybody will have the choice of other - only slightly less attractive – alternative arrangements. These will usually be on offer from alternative employers with slightly less attractive jobs (to you) on offer.
Which brings us to the question of monopoly. So long as both parties have alternatives - i.e. there are no monopolies – the inevitable presence of similar alternatives means you are a volunteer participant in your current job or deal, whether you like it or not.
First of all, absolute libertarian-style ownership is not a monopoly. So, for example, building (what became) the London & Northwestern Railway between London and Manchester (between, in 1900, the world’s largest and tenth largest cities respectively) did not create a monopoly even though it may have had the best route. Its position was contested and at least four other railway companies offered services contesting that market. There are always rival combinations of assets and deals that offer reasonable alternative arrangements.
Of course, there may for a time be de facto monopolies in some areas of activity based on superior prior innovation or investment. But only a monopolist who has some state privileged position can injure or oppress you, and even then, there are other sectors – unless a socialist state is promoting harmful monopolies there too. All monopolies are essentially contestable in a free society. Competitors can and will appear as soon as the original producer no longer offers the best value.
Looking at the position of a working man at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in Britain in the 18th Century, it is easy to see that all employment alternatives were very unattractive. He could go down a dangerous mine for very high pay, work endless hours in a textile mill for a somewhat lesser sufficiency. In a more traditional line, he might starve in a rural ditch as a dependent occasional day labourer, or go to sea and experience a death rate which would make even a corona virus alarmist blanche.
For what is worth, potential employers might take an equally dim view of our man as a possible employee, compared to other more expensive applicants. And yet the resulting agreements did not represent exploitation or oppression by either party.
If employment can be unattractive to many even in a free, basically stateless, society, there must be an alternative explanation to the fundamentally bizarre sub-Marxist view that employers are just illogically and unreasonably unpleasant to employees (or vice versa).
The answer lies in what economists call ‘scarcity’. Like most economic principles it is little known to, still less understood by, most people. Scarcity does not mean that there is very little of something. There is a great deal of wheat and oil in the world, for example, but they are ‘scarce’ because resources, including labour, capital, energy, land etc. must be used to bring usable supplies into existence.
Scarcity is not value either. Air is very valuable indeed. But on earth it is also abundant. There is no need for anyone to make trade-offs between different uses for air. Its use is not the subject of voluntary agreements to make or use it. It falls outside of the domain of economics. But it would precisely fall back into it if were ‘scarce’, for example on another planet with an unbreathable atmosphere or under the sea. In wet climates water is similarly abundant but it still needs to be processed or channeled for some uses. That means making trade-offs between using resources up in such activities as opposed to devoting them to other possibly more ‘urgent’ or desired activities.
All that a successful society can do is produce as effectively and efficiently as possible, given its resources and technologies, the quantities and qualities of every good or service which most increase every participating individual’s sense of well-being. The sum of available resources and the sum of goods and services that could be made from them are limited. They are all scarce. You can’t have everything. Everyone must make trade-offs. Everyone must choose.
The most immediate contributor to a sense of well-being is not starving. Leaving aside charitable arrangements in a free society, and coercive looting of producers by vote buying politicians in increasingly un-free ones like ours, every adult needs to do something productive to eat. Then there are other needs for which one also makes agreements to cooperate with others, such as obtaining clothing, shelter, companionship, setting up home, helping others, and entertaining oneself and/or fulfilling one’s potential.
For people to feel that they could be oppressed by others even in a free, non-state, society they would have to believe that the world is naturally a place of abundance. In that case the bad guys – capitalists and employers in the Marxist formulation – would have to be seen as somehow preventing people from living in abundance, and such is the Marxist claim. Marx said that technology would lead capitalism and capitalists towards more and more monopolist production. Capitalists would then apparently drive down wages resulting in revolution.
Marx wrote this nonsense in mid-Victorian Britain. That was a place where maintaining any leading business position was an extremely difficult proposition (as it will be in every free society). He also wrote against the background of steadily and clearly rising wages for working people. Duh! Never mind. Marx was an economic illiterate whose writings, like those of Keynes, are in flat contradiction to the fundamental truth of Say’s Law, among so many other economic solecisms. And yet these two are the founding fathers of our dismal and dated Democratic Socialist regimes.
The point is, Marx posited a stateless paradise after the communist revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat. The new world really would be characterized by an abundance of every good thing, including specifically sex and leisure time. To each according to his ‘needs’. Getting rid of ‘wasteful’ competition (i.e. forming exactly the monopolistic arrangements he had already decried) would mysteriously and immediately bring into being the plenty that ‘capitalists’ striving to create as much value as possible apparently could not produce. Never mind the absence of any means of organizing or coordinating production. Never mind the inability to decide on priority and trade-offs, or the implausibility of the directing Marxist ‘new man’ with his altruistic absence of all self-interest.
The whole thing is just childish. Perhaps Marx merely reformulated an ageless childish rage against the world. Because the world is not abundant but naturally harsh and unforgiving. Perhaps he just made the rage superficially respectable enough so that ‘socialists’ could get into positions where they could unleash some more genuine impoverishment. What a waste.
So here it is. The reason you go to work and encounter there many things you don’t like, including a boss who may well regret getting out of bed to manage you, is Scarcity. It is not because you are oppressed.
We are stuck on a small planet in a big cold and deeply hostile universe. If we tried to live as ‘nature intended’ as hunter gatherers, Britain would support maybe 50,000 people – the equivalent of the population of Guildford - assuming enough people could relearn hunter gatherer skills fast enough. The other 60 million or so people would be surplus – non-essential I believe is the phrase these days - and dead. Our world is one of scarcity not abundance. We have therefore constantly to make trade-offs to get anything done at all, let alone achieve today’s amazing prosperity.