This post began as a comment on Sheldon Richman’s article On Work. I’ve never been much of a blogger, preferring to comment on other blogs, but I’m trying to break the habit of leaving long comments at other blogs and establish a habit of posting longer, libertarian arguments here. So far I’m failing, but here’s another attempt to climb on the wagon.

“Thankless, nonremunerative work” is a contradiction in terms in my way of thinking. “Work” does not describe any vigorous alternative to idleness. A few professional snow boarders may exist, but snow boarding is not work per se. As Richman notes with reference to Rothbard, for most snow boarders, this vigorous activity is recreation rather than work. “Work” in my lexicon rather describes a mutually beneficial exchange of labor for other goods, and this sort of exchange is never “thankless”. What others exchange for my labor is their thanks. [Someday I’ll explain why I reject the commodity theory of money on this basis.]

Every exchange of labor for other goods is not created equal, but the critical, distinguishing characteristic is not the arduousness of the labor. A libertarian rather asks, “How voluntary is the exchange?” If a party to an exchange possesses the goods exchanged by writ of entitlement to monopoly rents, we may think less of the exchange because it is less voluntary, not simply because the more entitled party works less arduously for the goods. Rent seeking can be very arduous, even if it doesn’t merit the honorable title of “work” in libertarian terms.

Unfortunately, many libertarians take many monopoly rents for granted and simply assume that every exchange is “voluntary” because no one seems to compel a particular exchange at a particular time and place, ignoring a context full of monopoly rents. For example, I hear Tom Woods say things like, “A rich man’s yacht costs me nothing. It has no effect on me whatever.” He makes this statement regardless of any context.

If a rich man owns a yacht by holding an office in or shares of Lockheed Martin, a corporation receiving practically all of its revenue from selling “goods” exclusively to states, while these “goods” serve almost exclusively to destroy other goods in internecine conflicts between states, then both as a taxpayer and as a person finding fewer goods in the market following this destruction, Tom in fact does experience a bit of the cost of this yacht with no exchange of goods to show for it. He simply ignores these costs in his formulation, because they are spread across many rent payers and affect his exchanges only indirectly.

I typically agree with Tom and admire his work accordingly, but I cringe when I hear these conservative statements escape his lips. He may argue that these costs are exceptions to the rules he presumes, and I believe him, but the costs are not exceptional in reality. They are the rule in reality, and Tom’s presumptions are exceptional. Demonstrating this fact quantitatively is not difficult. Last time I checked, the value of all U.S. Treasury securities roughly equaled the value of all shares of all of the S&P 500 companies, and the market cap of the S&P 500 was 80% of the market cap of all publicly traded companies in the U.S.

Furthermore, this division of “property” into “public” and “private” categories places many assets controlled by states in the “private” category. An S&P 500 company like Lockheed-Martin receives the overwhelming majority of its revenue directly from the U.S. government and other states, so it’s practically a state agency, yet this division counts all of its market cap as “private”.

The last time I calculated these statistics, the Bush and Obama “stimulus” packages following the “financial crisis” had not occurred, and U.S. Treasury securities and “privately held”, quasi-state agencies do not remotely exhaust the property that libertarians want freed from state control (and thus redistributed). They are the tip of an iceberg including much property held directly by the Federal government, other entitlements to tax revenue imposed at the Federal level, everything else the Federal government controls through its spending of both tax revenue and expanding liquidity from the Fed, patents and other state granted monopolies of ever growing scope, competitive advantages granted to established proprietors by a massive regulatory state erecting ever steepening barriers to market entry, a housing stock effectively owned more by Fannie Mae (now wholly owned by the Federal government) than by common people, all the fiat money in Federally insured bank accounts circulating by writ of its status as a monopoly legal tender … and on and on.

Deconstructing Federal enactments in the United States alone would redistribute wealth on a scale unprecedented in human history, if only because the United States still accounts for so much more of the world’s wealth than historically less liberal states have managed to accumulate, and I haven’t even mentioned state and local governments.

Face it. Libertarians are not champions of established propriety, not remotely. We advocate a radical redistribution of wealth. Without the dizzying myriad of monopoly rents affecting practically every exchange in reality, balance sheets change radically. Titles to yachts, production of yachts and the consumption of existing yachts changes radically. More common consumers might consume more yachts, by sharing them with other consumers, but market forces freed of the vast array of statutory constraints may also reorganize resources to produce more, smaller boats to satisfy the vastly altered demand. Many other consequences of this redistribution are conceivable as well, and libertarians do not know (and should not know) precisely what the consequences would be. We certainly cannot know that Bill Gates would keep his yacht (assuming that he has one).

Free exchange may arise out of a wish to be spared labor, but this fact has little necessary relevance to the leisure of a man on his yacht. States spare their title holders labor by imposing monopoly rents on others. A common laborer, with little entitlement to rents, may accept the terms of an exchange to avoid more arduous acquisition of the good, but the person on the other side of this exchange may have already exchanged his labor or other goods for more valuable entitlement to rents, and libertarians (distinguished from Orwellian “libertarians” and “liberals” and others laboring for rents as much as anyone else) are most concerned with this feature of the exchange, not with the labor saving and leisure purchasing nature of freer exchange.

Technological advancement can substitute the less costly services of artifacts (rather than Nature) for human toil, but advancement has this effect only if states do not effectively impose correspondingly costly rents, excessive entitlement to patent royalties for example. This advancement can also increase the leisure and luxurious consumption of a few title holders disproportionately, increasing their consumption of more common labor for example. This change implies no more leisure or luxurious consumption of the less entitled, and it certainly implies no commensurate increase.

But though we advocate a radical redistribution of wealth, we need not (and I do not) advocate the sort of revolutionary overthrow of established proprietors that might seem necessary to accomplish this goal. Intentional communities may instead withdraw their consent from the statutory enactments concentrating so much wealth by channeling it systematically toward constituents of the state. Rather than seeking to overthrow the state through internecine conflict, we can seek gradually to secede from it, one free person at a time.