Can government be reduced without limiting hours of Labor?
Is it possible to get rid of government, either by abolishing it outright or gradually reducing it, without, at the same time, ridding society of Labor? This is a question posed by libertarians and marxists who declare their opposition to abolishing one or the other.
First, let’s define what I mean by Labor. As I am using the word, Labor is not work; I define work as any form of productive activity during which we create some useful object by mixing our human effort with natural objects. It is the metabolism of life: the exchange between nature and humans which is essential to life itself. Labor, on the other hand, does the above as well, but the aim of the activity is to create value — a commodity with a price.
Among Marxists, one would think this question had already been settled by the experience of the Soviet Union. There, despite Marxist expectations that the State would whither away once wage slavery was thought to be abolished, the State never even shrank. It continued to expand up until the point it collapsed entirely. Even if we accept the idea that the Soviet Union was confronted by an implacable enemy, it is hard to accept this as an explanation for the Soviet occupation in Eastern Europe, its massive accumulation of troop and military power, and the willingness of Moscow to sacrifice basic material standards of living of the country, when the United States is presently bogged down and slowly being defeated by isolated bands of mostly illiterate guerrillas in the mountains of Afghanistan — much as the USSR was previously. How, under any reasonable scenario, was the US supposed to occupy and pacify a population of freely associated, well-educated, highly skilled persons, spread over one sixth of the planet’s surface and eleven time zones?
But, marxists seem unable to absorb this lesson of history. Among libertarians, I am often in conversation with, and reading the posts of, those who are quite seriously opposed to the State, but fierce opponents of any limitation on hours of Labor.
In all honesty, folks, how is this supposed to work?
Total federal, state, and local government employment (not including the military) in 2008 stood at 22.46 million persons according to the Census Bureau (pdf). At the same time, total employment in the US stood at 145.36 million persons (pdf). Government provided approximately 15 percent of all direct employment — and this does not even begin to take into account those persons who owed their jobs directly or indirectly to government expenditures: those employed as a result of contracts with various agencies of federal, state, and local bodies — Blackwater, GE, Raytheon, and the entire Fortune 500 come to mind — and those whose jobs are at least in part the result of demand generated by various transfer programs, like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, school lunch programs, etc.
If we could remove all of these expenditures overnight by means of a magic wand, what would happen to the economy and the tens of millions of other jobs only indirectly affected by this? Where would all of the goods produced for this massive body of entirely superfluous laborers be sold? Even if we did not remove it entirely, but only limited it by refusing to raise the debt ceiling and preventing the expenditure of some 3 trillion additional dollars by Washington over the next two years, what now fills that void?
If libertarians and others who are seriously determined to get rid of the State have no answer to these questions, what answer will your congressperson have when Obama and Boehner grab them by the lapel and show them, in very graphic terms, exactly what their vote against raising the debt ceiling will do to employment?
The argument can be made that any limitation on hours of labor requires State coercion and limitations on the individual’s right to enjoy her property — every wage contract is a voluntary agreement between two property-owners, even if one of the parties has no choice but to make the agreement. However, thirty, forty, or fifty percent unemployment is also the coercive application of market competition. If some make the argument that capitalist coercion is somehow more “natural” than State coercion, I need only remind them that the State, having been around for thousands of years longer than Capital, is clearly far more “natural” than the latter.
I am not for coercion in any form — political or economic. I am not trying to abolish State coercion in order to allow the mechanisms of economic coercion room to expand, further intensifying the already Hobbesian environment of Civil Society. The vast majority of the population of the United States is dependent on selling their Labor Power — even those who are self-employed. The idea that they will come to see Washington as a greater threat to their well-being than the Koch brothers, WalMart, or BP is laughably naive. Start abolishing regulations, reducing the minimum wage, breaking pension plans, and slashing Social Security, and you will see how little love folks have for a stateless society that leaves them at the mercies of the owners of capital.
This really doesn’t require a doctorate in economics: those who are really serious about a stateless society, and not simply using it as a screen to advance their own agenda, will understand that State coercion cannot be abolished without also abolishing the coercion of the market in Labor Power.
Update: Courtesy of Zero Hedge, a list of Russell Index companies that generate 50 to 100 percent of their revenue from the federal government.
Update 2: Someone asked me a good question: Am I suggesting there should be no reduction in the size of government until hours of work can be reduced? Absolutely not. It would be a mistake not to do the two together, but the biggest mistake would be to do nothing until both can be done together. If the debt ceiling increase can be voted down today, it should be voted down; in time it will be obvious that hours of work must also be reduced.