Underground Agorism: A Contradiction That Needs Fixed
Posted by PintofStout on March 21, 2007
On Thursday of last week NPR ran a series of stories about the undercover economy in poor urban and immigrant communities, getting paid “off the books,” and various legal and economic analyses of such activities (Story 1, Story 2, Story 3). I was excited that it got so much coverage and was (mostly) portrayed in a positive light.
Of all the literature I’ve read about stateless societies and how they may theoretically operate, much of it had one major shortfall: the giant gap between the present reality and the theoretical society was hardly addressed, let alone bridged (see note below). Of course, the best way to bridge that gap is to leave it for the market to do. While lots of people write the theory of why the market – a really, truly open market – would work best, it was kind of assumed that the really, truly open market would have to be legislated into being, or more precisely, the restrictions on the market would be legislated away or the enforcers would somehow disappear. But when SEK3 laid out the plan to build the bridge, he didn’t wait for the so-called market to be freed, he let the market do it itself. Agorism would duck the controls artificially put on the market and utilize black and grey markets to undermine authority. The entire theory is scalable and, rather than requiring sacrifice, as open revolution often does, the players involved usually stand to gain beyond simple ideological goals; in fact, the players involved may not even be conscious of the role in undermining the state, and only be participating for the profit motive.
Imagine my surprise when I heard NPR, of all people, drawing attention that could be perceived as positive to such a seditious creature as underground economies. The operations were presented as moderately cloak-and-dagger, yet they were efficient, well concealed, and quite expansive. The snippet about the tailor who had another whole shop that operated “off-the-books” suggests that, in some situations, what is seen is only a small proportion to what is not seen. The variety of products and services were broad as well. The services of a tailor could be added to car repair, babysitting or daycare, house cleaning, and a plethora of other things that the man in the newsstand directed you to like a phone directory. To my ears, the sounds of underground commerce were sweet and harmonious and perfectly natural.
The coverage didn’t completely satisfy me, though. When the reporter, and/or the author of the book being reported, made moral judgments about what should be bought, sold, and traded, and how such transactions should go down, I smelled the golem of state creeping in; the moral basis for the reporter’s judgment were nothing more than legislation. When stating, with what I pictured as a scowl, that much of the activity is illegal, he showed himself to be wholly inside of the realm of state judging everything outside to hideously immoral.
The conclusions seemed a little misguided as well – my impressions of the conclusions of all three pieces, anyway. The small underground economies were portrayed as a last resort for desperate poor people, and that was interpreted as a gap that the government should somehow fill to supplement what the market wasn’t providing for. It apparently wasn’t even considered that the gap, and the larger market itself, is all a government construct. Legislating away paths naturally open to people doesn’t change the destination, only the route taken.
The manner of doing business in the small underground markets, through personal relationships, reputation, and trust, were seen by the reporter as a hindrance to constant expansion in the aboveground market; thus projecting his perceived, state-sanctioned vision and goals for businesses onto people who turned their back on that same state or vice-versa. Imagine the reporter’s surprise to find that not everybody wants to control more than is immediately important and relevant to them.
The last conclusion presented, and aided by the hot air of an “expert,” was that these illegal activities, such as small gambling polls, were legally insignificant so long as the scale and scope remained small; similar to driving a few miles over the speed limit. The laws that force these parts of the economy underground are selectively enforced at the enforcer’s discretion, for whatever reason. I, and probably Mary Ruwart also, would equate that with having a loaded gun to your head at all times and tip-toeing the line of the enforcer so that they won’t pull the trigger. Simply because the gun hasn’t gone off doesn’t make the gun go away. Equal justice selectively enforced (maybe that should be on our money!) is far from any meaning of freedom I’ve ever heard.
Overall, I’m hopeful because of the existence of underground markets; there seems to be more and larger ones every time I look. As the construction of the bridge across the gap from current reality to possible desired future continues, I constantly look for my place on the construction crew and gaze longing into the darkness toward the other shore. In the end there will be no “other shore,” though. Since life is a journey and not a destination (excuse the phrase), so the building of this bridge becomes more about the means of living rather than the end result. For many, those means are independent of state mandate and design, and only when they encounter an arbitrary legal roadblock are they forced to go underground. Those people are building my kind of bridge.
NOTE: I first read Mary Ruwart’s book Healing Our World: The Other Piece of the Puzzle, which was rather elementary in introducing me to the ideas of force and their applications throughout life where previously unnoticed. I don’t remember much of a philosophical base to it other than the Non-Aggression Principle, but it may be there. I later read Rothbard’s For a New Liberty, and found the philosophical base, and maybe more complex analysis, of the ideas in Ruwart. Many of the same themes were repeated, such as criminal justice, public infrastructure, and the interaction of free people. It wasn’t until I read A New Libertarian Manifesto by Samuel Edward Konkin III (SEK3), which also covered similar themes as the other two, that I found the bridge from present to desired future: Agorism.