A response to Alex Tabarrok

At Marginal Revolution, Alex Tabarrok has posted a fine review of No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart: I’ll be keeping this paragraph somewhere to cheer me up when I’m feeling gloomy:

Slee’s book is the best of the anti-market books: it is well written, serious, and knowledgeable about economics.  In fact, I regard Slee’s book as an excellent primer on asymmetric information, free riding, externalities, herding, coordination problems and identity – Economics 301 for all those budding young Ezra Klein’s of the world who think that Economics 101 isn’t quite right.

Very nice. But coming from his libertarian point of view, it’s not surprising he has some criticisms. Let’s skip right past the lesser ones to the Most Serious Of All:

The chapter on power is terrible, I did throw the book against the wall.  Perhaps in order to prepare us to welcome government as the deliverer of our true preferences, Slee wants to diminish the distinction between liberty and coercion.  But a true liberal should never write things like this:

…the formal structure of democracy and free markets is not enough to rule out exploitation and plunder – characteristics usually associated with repressive regimes.

If Tom visits GMU (I happen to know he reads MR) he should watch out because I shall kick him in the shins stating, "I refute you thus."

More seriously, repressive governments around the world threaten, rob, torture and murder with impunity.  Courageous individuals have died trying to escape such regimes while others have died fighting for their rights.  No matter how great are differences in wealth, it is morally wrong to equate what goes on in repressive regimes with capitalist acts between consenting adults.    

Strong stuff, and it hits home because I always thought that chapter to be the weakest in the book. But blogs are no place for mild-mannered agreement so let me try to return the kick in the shins.

Most of us see many problems of this world in shades of grey, but there are always a few issues that are starker and more elemental, which we see as black or white. The "shades of grey" issues are questions of nuance and detail – these are questions where reasonable people can reasonably disagree, where we look to modest reform to improve matters, and where we look for technical solutions. It’s the dichotomies where we stand our ground – these are the things that define our politics; they are matters of principle – it’s right vs. wrong and communication across these divides is difficult. So what are these fundamental, black vs white issues?

Karl Marx knew what he thought was fundamental:

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.

My brother once relayed to me a very short conversation he had in a pub with a radical feminist:

Brother: throughout history the fundamental oppression is that of one class by another.
Feminist: throughout history the fundamental oppression is that of women by men.
Imagined Next Line By Both: who else can I sit with?

Peter Singer (in "A Darwinian Left", page 8) sets out what he sees as "fundamental to the left": it is to be "on the side of the weak, not the powerful; of the oppressed, not the oppressor; of the ridden, not the rider."

Where do libertarians draw their line? It’s coercion versus liberty: the state versus markets, laws versus bargains.  That’s why a typical Cato Institute article is something like "Is the Minimum Wage Coercive?" Small wonder then, that it’s a chapter setting out to recast this dichotomy as shades of grey that makes Alex Tabarrok throw the book against the wall. You can see elsewhere in Alex’s review that this is the fundamental dichotomy he has in mind as he reads. When I talk about collective action he assumes I’m talking about government intervention in the economy because that’s where he sees me, as his ideological opposition, coming from.

It’s a mark of the success of the libertarian project that the left has bought into this false dichotomy of state versus markets. We (the left) are the victim of our own success – the post-war construction of the welfare state, the achievements of social democracy, the provision of public education, and of public healthcare. We’ve let ourselves be identified with these achievements, and so now stand as conservative defenders of the state against the market-favouring radicals. Yet things need not be so. I look on my bookshelves and see some books from the UK of the late ’70s and early ’80s: "In and Against the State", Ralph Miliband’s "The State in Capitalist Society" and so on. Those on the left have a long history of opposition to the state, and a recognition of its problems. The difference is, we on the left don’t see the state as the root of the problems. The state may be a hammer, but it’s the arm holding it we need to worry about. "The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie" wasn’t it?.

The point of my chapter is to remind us that the state is not the sole source of coercion, and that libertarians have a blind spot to coercion in the non-state sector. In the comments section of a recent Marginal Revolution post about the Cato Institute Minimum Wage article I said "My employer requires that I follow instructions from my manager or I can be fired. Is that also coercive? Yes." and another commenter responded "No, refusing to buy future labor from you is not coercive." I can see what he or she means, but you can also see the false dichotomy here – the law is coercive, everything else is a matter of choice. Tell that to (among many many examples) workers locked-in overnight at Wal-Mart stores. Was slavery coercion? Yes, and it would surely be a stretch to see slavery as a problem rooted in the state.

Alex writes "If there were no asymmetric information, no herding, no coordination problems and so forth I guarantee that there would still be plenty of inequality." True enough, but if there were no state, no laws, no public health standards, and so forth I guarantee that there would still be plenty of coercion.

We are obviously speaking from very different points of view. Are there paths across the divide? I would suggest there are. Alex claims that I have "no appreciation that what some of us MarketThink people really advocate is civil society which includes non-profits and voluntary collective action of all kinds." Compare that assertion with Erik Olin Wright’s rather wordy but still worth reading "Taking the Social in Socialism Seriously" (PDF), which also focuses on civil society as a way out of the market/state dichotomy. Or the way in which both communitarian left and libertarian right took Jane Jacobs to their hearts. There is a phrase there (voluntary collective action) that we all seem to favour, even as some of us focus on the collective and others on the voluntary. Perhaps a focus on the possibilities of that phrase would be worth exploring.

Update: Brad DeLong links to AT’s review here (but credits the review to AT’s partner in marginal crime Tyler Cowen). The comment thread has quite a different set of sympathies!

Update 2: The other day I was pleased that my amazon.com Sales Rank was around 42,000. It is now 3634 – entirely due to the review.

Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Not just on the strength of this fine exchange (I had looked at your stuff before and liked it) I resolve to buy and read you book! (as soon as I’ve finished my masters in corporate shillonomics). I have tried anti-market books before (Naomi Klein, and various anti-supermarket books) and thrown them against the wall – it’s not that i don’t sympathise with some of their points, but that they only look down one side of the argument and make no effort to evaluate the strengths of the market, and the weaknesses of the alternative (that’s being kind to some of them). Anyway, your book sounds a whole lot better.
    I thought about not posting this comment, because it says nothing of interest. but what the heck. I just wanted to say I like the look of your stuff.

  2. Tom Slee,
    I would suggest that the blind spot for some libertarians is their belief that anarchy is civilized and sustainable, which is where you then proceed to overstate your case. Not all, or even most libertarians believe this, and even the so-called anarchists almost always then propose to create “private” enforcement agencies that are completely indistinguishable from proto-states.
    To use the issue of slavery as an example, libertarians of all stripes recognize the natural right to self-ownership. That slavery ever exists is because either the state has abdicated its defined responsibility to enforce the natural right of self-ownership, or chosen to revoke the natural right for some or all of its citizens. What Libertarians don’t do is assume that only the state can coerce. You are simply mistaken if this is your belief about libertarians and don’t understand libertarianism at all. To extend this, I would point out that no libertarian has supported Walmart’s locking its employees in at night, and I fail to see how that event even informs the dichotomy you are trying to demonstrate.

  3. Tom:
    Congratulations on your book’s upward mobility. Hopefully it will engender more great discussions and $$ for you.
    ButTom… You appear to endorse as you quote, Singer’s notion: “fundamental to the left”: it is to be “on the side of the weak, not the powerful; of the oppressed, not the oppressor; of the ridden, not the rider.”
    Yet when considering the most powerful of all the Wal-Mart effects.. the tendency for Wal-Mart to push their suppliers into poorer and poorer locations…places where they will dramatically increase the local wages….you seem to quite consistently favor the relatively rich over the relatively poor. (Readers, please google Whimsley and Meleney for evidence and further discussion.)
    You often display lots more sympathy for the fellow who looses a job at $37 grand in Tennessee…. than for the gal in China who just went from $1 grand to $2 grand. If the guy in Tennessee ends up with a job at $25 grand, he still has lots of healthy food, a car with A/C, and a work schedule that allows substantial leisure time activities.
    Not so the gal in China who was just able to purchase her family’s first bicycle and also provide substantial protein for the first time to her younger siblings.
    So in your book and your blog you are able to characterize Wal-Mart as mean to the poor only by ignoring all THOSE MOST POOR…apparently because they are far away and quite used to being poor.
    Go ahead and characterize libertarians as folks who don’t care about the poor…. they only care about coercion….. But Tom, you know that’s not true about all libertarians, or even most of them much of the time, and it’s certainly not true of Alex…

  4. I haven’t read your book, but according to Alex you have fallen for the ‘QWERTY is inferior’ hoax perpetrated by Lt. Cdr. Dvorak (first) on the US Navy and accelerated by Paul David and Brian Arthur.
    Here’s the actual story: http://wwwpub.utdallas.edu/~liebowit/keys1.html

  5. Battle of the BooklyBloggers

    Alex Tabbarok at Marginal Revolution reviewed Tom Slees book No One Makes You Shop At Wal-Mart. He started off saying some very nice things.
    Slees book is the best of the anti-market books: it is well written, serious, and knowledgeable a…

  6. Thanks for the comments. A quick response to each:
    – Luis – I’m at least one person whose glad you took the trouble to post. Thank you.
    – Yancey – there are certainly a range of libertarians, from anarcho-libertarians to the Cato Institute/Austrian economist types and I wouldn’t pretend to know the differences among the various strands. But what I have seen from the pro-market libertarian strands focuses in practice almost entirely on coercion by the state. You say that no libertarian would support Wal-Mart locking its employees in at night, but I wonder what they (you?) would propose to do about it? Two remedies are the internal – collective action among employees in the form of a union – and the external – legislation and enforcement of that legislation(which has happened, in this case I believe). Would they/you support either, or am I missing something?
    Dave – your argument is a strong one; but I don’t think I am favouring the near over the far. Is it really one or the other?? How we treat those who lose their jobs is a question that stands on its own I think, regardless of any ranking.
    Patrick – I think I avoid the hoax. My mention of the QWERTY story (3 paragraphs) does not mention Dvorak and is not
    about the efficiency of QWERTY – I am happy at my keyboard – as about the market power that comes with natural oligopolies. Having said that, I’ve seen your comments elsewhere on the internets and I doubt I would convince you :-).

  7. Two remedies are the internal – collective action among employees in the form of a union – and the external – legislation and enforcement of that legislation(which has happened, in this case I believe).
    Or the employee could quit and work for one of Walmart’s many competitors who don’t lock their doors at night.

  8. Coercion, The Definite Guide

    another post in which I deplore the superficial and amateurish nature in which people choose to engage libertarian moral-political concerns. Some people define coercion (or implicitly operate with the word) as threat with u…

  9. So, why did you tell a QWERTY story?

  10. It’s the most basic of logical fallacies: “Courageous individuals have died trying to escape [repressive governments] while others have died fighting for their rights. Therefore, it is outrageous of Slee to insinuate that any courageous individuals have died trying to escape capitalist thugs, or that any others have died fighting for their rights.” Tabarrok’s libertarian outrage doesn’t even begin to follow logically from his premises.
    Once again, I’m saddened to find that a libertarian is just a “you can’t say anything mean about corporations!” corporatist. He gets his recommended daily allowance of righteousness from not liking governments.

  11. Tom says:
    “You say that no libertarian would support Wal-Mart locking its employees in at night, but I wonder what they (you?) would propose to do about it?”
    I would blog about it, write to the local newspaper, and write to Wal-Mart and explain that this specific policy will force me to shop elsewhere.
    The opinions of real customers are important.

  12. I’ve yet to read the book (have just ordered it), but am wondering whether you have read Jack Knight’s _Institutions and Social Conflict_ (Cambridge U P 1992). It’s a very nice revisionist take on the New Institutional Economics, using mixed-motive coordination games to look at how asymmetric power relations give rise to informal institutions that perpetuate inequality.

  13. Tabarrok: “The beer activists in England that Slee likes moved the process along but in the direction that it was already going.”
    If you were talking about CAMRA in the 1970s, I really don’t think so. More of an attempt to wrench the steering wheel out of the hands of those driving the process and make the process do a U turn.
    In the abstract, I can’t see why any libertarian would oppose CAMRA or want to minimise its contribution: you’ve got small group A unaccountably taking decisions which adversely affect large group B, you’ve got large group B freely choosing to come together in a self-organising grass-roots movement which protests until they listen, what’s not to like? In practice some libertarians seem to get twitchy if people express their preferences by doing anything other than spending money.
    “it would surely be a stretch to see slavery as a problem rooted in the state”
    All property rights are rooted in the state – which is why the only consistently anti-state libertarians are communists (note small c).

  14. Tom, can you parlay your coverage on these two blogs into even bigger coverage… I’d think now would be the time to give it a shot if your schedule permits.
    Our cabin in Estes Park is for sale…so on the off chance you could get your family to Colorado soon, the offer is still open for some time.
    Most recently you respond: “but I don’t think I am favoring the near over the far.” (or the rich over the poor?) Tom, suppose you and the other liberal activists succeed in greatly reducing the “build out” of the Walton methodology by 50% over the next 25 years. Wouldn’t that mean that thousand of plants will not be built in poor areas of China and Viet Nam and other countries that might soon be ready to enter the world-wide exchange of goods and services?
    So you seem to be saying to these un-named, but very poor, people…. that they and their children will just have to continue in abject poverty…. or find some way to move to a richer country…
    Do you not see that we are talking about hundreds of millions of people here? OK, they have no name or specificity… no photo I can show you. But of course there are dozens of web sites that’ll show you their pictures if you care to see.
    What am I missing here? When some Harvard-oriented federal official suggests this, (“move, or live in poverty, dude!”)to the people of Flint, you find him inhumane. Or do you somehow believe it is much easier to move from Guatemala or Chengdu than from Flint Michigan?
    It still seems your policy preferences tend to favor:
    A. My richer friends in Highlands Ranch who love to shop at Bloomingdale’s or Target, vs. my poorer friends in Englewood (many Spanish speaking) who love to shop at Walmart or Big Lots.
    B. American factory workers who make 20 to 40 grand over Chinese and Haitian factory workers who make 1 to 4 grand.
    C. Chinese workers who are already in the system and making twice what they made before, (often in Shenzen, Shanghai or Guangzhou) over workers in Harbin or Chengdu, who are still eating at the far end of the table… where consistent amounts of rice with a few vegtables is considered quite wonderful.
    It’s true you do care much more about the financial well-being of the poor of Flint, and the factory worker in Tenneessee than you do about various Harvard professors… but your book and weblog don’t impact any of them in the way they impact those who don’t get that new factory in Tanzania. Your book and the movement it is a part of directly impact those poor who will not get factories of their own… and you have to live with that knowledge.

  15. Thanks to everyone for the fine comments. Responses to a few:
    Patrick – because whether or not QWERTY outdoes DVORAK it is worth noting that we don’t have and don’t really want choice in some consumer items. I’m happy to have a choice of other parts of a computer, but a keyboard layout? Not interested. Also, what makes QWERTY a good thing for many of us is that it is public domain, of course.
    derek – yes indeed.
    RAD – there is a spectrum from collective action to individual. I certainly would not object to any of those. Would they be enough? Doubt it.
    Henry – I’ve not read Knight. Being something of an amateur my reading is a bit uneven – even crooked, perhaps? I’ll be ordering it tomorrow though.
    Phil – ‘Twas indeed CAMRA, and my impression too was that it predated significant technological change in the industry. I suspect AT would actually be sympathetic to CAMRA, although perhaps not its Trotskyist origins. He seems to have no problem with voluntary collective action. I’m not that familiar with the denominations of libertarianism to know what that makes him.
    Dave – it is difficult for my family to do much travelling, so we won’t take that offer up; but I very much appreciate its generosity. Is it really the case that the interests of Chinese and North American workers are opposed, with Wal-Mart holding the balance? You mention Haiti, which has had its fair share of corporate involvement, with nothing to show in terms of progress. Same with many Central American countries. So I don’t see pro/anti WalMart mapping onto a North American/Chinese preference (or a neglect of the real poor). That said, you continue to make me revisit my assumptions.

  16. ‘…we don’t have and don’t really want choice in some consumer items.’
    How do you know that? Certainly not from the typewriter keyboard.

  17. In the comments section of a recent Marginal Revolution post about the Cato Institute Minimum Wage article I said “My employer requires that I follow instructions from my manager or I can be fired. Is that also coercive? Yes.” and another commenter responded “No, refusing to buy future labor from you is not coercive.”
    I heard a satirical folksong last night which could have been written as a comment on this exchange. It was called “Force on the workforce”; it was sung in the person of a manager who knew that he’d done very nicely out of other people’s labour but didn’t feel guilty at all – because ‘I never used no force on the workforce…’ (Mudcat has the complete lyrics here: http://www.mudcat.org/@displaysong.cfm?SongID=2085 )
    For that singer – and his audience, to judge from the reception he got – the idea that imposed work discipline *isn’t* coercive was self-evidently absurd. Funny, that.

  18. That first paragraph is a quote, of course, and should have been in italics (or failing that underlined, quotated and in parentheses). Why does TypePad hate our HTML?

  19. Tom:
    There is little doubt that local officials, like those in Haiti and Panama have the power to quash the build out of the Walton methodology in the areas they dominate…even when they succeed in seducing some investors… or make a big show of going to outsiders for policy advice. But focusing on that seems a cop-out when spoken by modern American liberals who are part of the anti-Walmart movement here, don’t you think?
    How about we take as given that many countries like Haiti will sufficiently reject what Tom Friedman calls the “golden straitjacket”, such that little escape from dire poverty happens there.
    Still, that leaves more than a billion folk, perhaps two, living in very poor areas where their rulers are not so much like those in Haiti. How can we in good conscience restrain those who would welcome those folk and their children to the world of clean water, bicycles, and broader horizons?
    Do you largely reject my assertion that thousands of those “wage-doubling” plants may likely be prevented by what you and other anti-Walmart activists do to stop the build-out of the Walton methodology, in areas where local officials do allow it?
    all the best,
    Dave Meleney

Comments are closed