Matt Bruenig

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A prolific and philosophically astute policyshop contributor formerly at Demos, a public policy organization.


Capitalism is coercive and creates patterns of deprivation, as explained by libertarian blockquotes [More...]
"[...] even a gang of libertarian and libertarian-approved thinkers -- when properly arranged -- can be marshaled to make all the usual anti-capitalist points about coercion and poverty. This is not surprising as these points are exactly correct and even libertarians sometimes tell the truth."
Capitalism Whack-A-Mole [More...] (1 link)
"There is no general framework of morality or justice that supports laissez-faire capitalism. This is a problem of course for those who wish to argue on behalf of it. When you talk to such people, a familiar argumentative pattern emerges that I have come to call Capitalism Whack-A-Mole."
Child Poverty Across Political Traditions [More...]
Nations with social democratic institutions in the developed world have much less child poverty than nations with liberal market institutions.
Desert Theory, Rehashed [More...]
The idea of "just deserts", so important to laissez-faire ideas, would not result from laissez-faire and in reality has significant problems..
Desert-Sacrifice-Utility Whack-a-Mole [More...]
Another common shifting of arguments to support capitalism is from desert justifications to sacrifice justifications to utility justifications. Each one can be shown to fail as a valid justification.
Fighting Poverty And Inequality The Proven Way [More...]
David Brooks suggest improving education to fight poverty and inequality. 40 years of history demonstrates that does not work. Transfer programs do work.
Hans-Hermann Hoppe, Libertarian Extraordinaire [More...]
"Is anyone in the libertarian community willing to denounce Hans-Hermann Hoppe as not one of them, and call him the lunatic he clearly is? Or is he still going to get an invite to the next convention?"
Hans-Hermann Hoppe, Libertarian Theoretical Historian [More...]
A review of Hans-Hermann Hoppe's From Aristocracy to Monarchy to Democracy. Hoppe seems to think a return to feudalism will result in libertarian utopia.
How a reductio ad absurdum works [More...]
Matt Bruenig points out "Libertarianism violates the NAP [non-aggression principle], as does every other theory that does not advocate the grab-what-you-can world."
Initial Appropriation: A Dialogue [More...]
Matt Bruenig explains the coercion involved in "initial appropriation". Much easier to read than Proudhon. He also ridicules the "mixing of labor" idea as being symbolic, rather than an actual description of a physical process.
It isn’t your money [More...]
It might be your money if you lived under other institutions, rather than those of a taxing nation. But you don't.
It Matters How Rich the Rich Are [More...]
"[...] the poor can be made not-poor by reducing the wealth/income of the rich in order to increase the wealth/income of the poor. In that sense, then, the richness of the rich is a cause of the poorness of the poor."
John Locke Says Everything Belongs to Everyone [More...]
Locke straightforwardly claims that the poor have a right to the surplus property of the rich when they are in need.
Libertarians Are Huge Fans of Economic Coercion [More...]
"Hale showed that all economic regimes rely upon economic coercion, laissez-faire ones just as much as socialist ones."
Libertarians are Huge Fans of Initiating Force [More...]
Matt Bruenig points out the obvious: that initiation of force is a coded term referring to the libertarian theory of entitlement. If you don't buy libertarianism, it is obviously bullshit.
Matt Bruenig: How the property is coercive violence move functions in the debate [More...]
Because property is based on involuntary coercive violence, libertarians who would oppose taxation on those grounds would have to oppose property on the same grounds.
Matt Bruenig: The other move on property [More...]
If a libertarian admits property is based on involuntary coercive violence, they often seek to excuse it on the grounds that it is generally peaceful and we can live with it. But the same is true of taxation.
No violence but personal violence [More...]
"When I use the word violence in the context of discussing theories of property, I mean a specific thing by it: acting upon the bodies of others without their consent. This is as neutral a definition of “violence” as you will find. It is the definition of violence implied by the concept of self-ownership. It is the definition of violence implied by the concept of negative liberty, which is defined as freedom from external restraint."
On Piketty's Capital: What Is Wealth? [More...]
"For Piketty, wealth and capital are ultimately socially constructed categories. [...] The pioneer of this legal constructivist account of market valuation was legal realist Robert Hale. [...] Laws do not just affect valuation of assets. Laws are the very core of asset values."
One last, short note on redistribution -- I promise [More...]
A term that assumes that there is some original (or current) distribution that should be privileged. But since all distribution is socially determined and continually changing, it is really just a statement about dislike of change.
Pareto Fail [More...]
People who claim that they base their economic justice views on the idea of Pareto Improvements are trying to pull a fast one: four reasons are described.
Property and Conflict [More...]
"That private property is extremely anti-libertarian poses a problem for libertarians, who are notable for their near worship of private property institutions. One of the ways they have taken to getting around this is to talk about the necessity of private property institutions for the avoidance of conflict [...] libertarian institutions are neither necessary nor sufficient for conflict avoidance."
Real Life Capitalism Whack-A-Mole [More...]
"I taped a TV segment today with the Ayn Rand Institute’s Don Watkins about his book “Equal Is Unfair.” My sole goal going into the segment was to see if I could produce a Capitalism Whack-A-Mole in the wild."
Reclaiming John Locke from libertarians [More...]
"Locke does support the institution of private property ownership, but not in the absolute sense that libertarians do. He thinks that justice demands redistribution from the wealthy to the very needy and checks on the coercive power that property owners have."
Robert Nozick Agrees With Thomas Piketty [More...]
"As diehard a libertarian as Nozick was, even he found himself bothered by the prospect of "patrimonial capitalism" to borrow Piketty's phrase [....]" "Like all of his prior forays into the realm of philosophy, Mankiw has this one entirely wrong."
Salvaging Non-Aggression for Egalitarianism [More...]
"[...] we can say that we should only impose such institutions [property] if we do so in a way that essentially strikes a fair deal with those whose negative liberty we are destroying. This is, essentially, what Robert Nozick has in mind when he says that you can blow up people’s negative liberty so long as you do not worsen their welfare."
Should the state support anti-gay discrimination? [More...]
Why should the state provide services using public resources to businesses that discriminate? It could remove contract and property enforcement not to mention incorporation rights. In the past it has removed tax exempt status from discriminatory universities.
Some problems with this traditionalist stuff [More...]
"The traditionalist has a formula. They write on a three-by-five card “defer to the status quo norms and traditions.” Then they also secretly scribble on the back “except when doing so conflicts with laissez-faire capitalism.” But we can leave that last part aside."
Sorry, John Stuart Mill Was Not a Libertarian [More...]
"For Mill, who gets what is a social decision. The only thing that causes anyone to ever have entitlement over pieces of the world are the laws and institutions of society. It is police violence in concert with legal rules that actually demarcate what belongs to whom, and there is no demanded-by-the-universe way of orienting those institutions."
Take Away the Entire Welfare State From Employers [More...]
"The phrase "employer-provided welfare state" might seem to be a contradiction, but it's an apt description of what we have in this country. Employers don't just pay out cash incomes to workers, but are instead tasked -- whether by law or not -- with running complex social insurance schemes among their workforce."
The endless struggle for ownership of “economic freedom” [More...]
"But just because the right-wing has strangely captured the phrase in the last few decades, that does not mean it should be conceded over to them. The idea that extreme laissez-faire capitalism can be described as economic freedom is a very new one historically, and one for which there are very convincing reasons to reject."
The Lesson of Grab What You Can [More...]
"But the Grab World baseline allows us to see that all economic institutions are restrictions and infringements on liberty. Property is the most liberty-destroying and all-encompassing of the restrictive economic institutions, but contracts, patents, copyrights, securities, corporations, and so on do the same thing."
The Libertarian Bizarro World [More...]
"If you are a libertarian who believes justice requires the following of a certain liberty-respecting process, you have to explain how anything can come to be owned in the first place. That initial move is, by any coherent account, the most violent extinction of personal liberty that there ever can be."
The myth of Big Government in the Redskins trademark case [More...]
"Government intervention is the engine that makes the economy what it is. Watching what happens when that intervention is occasionally removed, as in the Redskins trademark case, should make that as clear as day."
The Nozickian case for Rawls’ difference principle [More...]
"There is a very strong Nozickian case to be made for Rawls’ difference principle. Because the reality of scarcity causes the use of resources to necessarily infringe upon the liberty of others, it makes sense to say (as Nozick does) that you should only be able to undertake such use if it does not worsen the position of others."
There is no such thing as redistribution [More...]
"There is no default distribution. All distributions are the consequence of any number of institutional design choices, none of which are commanded by the fabric of the universe."
Two Notions of Liberty [More...]
"... liberty is a sliding scale concept that, crucially, is related directly to how much money (or whatever you want to use as the stand in for resources/stuff) you have. This means poor people have the least liberty and rich people have the most liberty."
Violence Vouchers: A Descriptive Account of Property [More...]
When a state upholds a system of property, all it is doing is issuing to owners a set of vouchers for violence against those who ignore property. Trade is similarly based on property and violence. Rents also are based on violence, ruling out just deserts and just processes arguments.
Violence, Property, Theft, and Entitlement [More...]
Libertarians do not actually care about force or coercion, but instead have strange ideas about entitlement (and then are happy to use force or coercion to protect their entitlement.)
Violently Destroying Liberty Is Important For Flourishing, Libertarian Argues [More...]
"Thus we can't ever actually be debating about whether we are for or against aggression or coercion. That's ridiculous. Folks on all sides of the debate are for using force that is consistent with their theory of what belongs to whom (called "defense") and against using force that is inconsistent with their theory of what belongs to whom (called "aggression")."
What a World Following the Non-Aggression Principle Looks Like [More...]
Matt Bruenig points out that the "grab-what-you-can world" where people freely expropriate other people’s possessions is the only one where nobody initiates force directly against another person’s body.
What do voluntary mean? [More...]
Matt Bruenig makes clear that following antidiscrimination rules for business is exactly as voluntary as following property rules for business. Because you have a choice of not being in that business. And if one violates self-ownership, so does the other.
What is limited government? [More...]
"What we are really seeing in references to limited government is our old cultural-ideological friend: the assumption that laissez-faire institutions are somehow natural, default, and don’t involve the government making intentional distributive decisions that require a great deal of resources to enforce."
What would constitute an end to the race war? [More...]
"Whites coming out every day and asserting hugely disproportionate power over blacks through the proxy of wealth is not a cessation of conflict. It is renewed daily conflict, which can either be responded to or not."
Why Property Is Theft and Why It Matters [More...]
"The reason I bring up the fact that property is theft is because most actually-existing libertarian arguments are premised upon the idea that so-called laissez-faire capitalism is somehow voluntary and liberty-respecting. It is, of course, neither."
Workplace coercion and the capability approach [More...]
Procedural liberty fails because one person's liberty forcibly excludes others. Amartya Sen's Capability Approach is an alternative.


The non-aggression stuff is the most hilarious stuff I have ever dealt with in all of philosophy. Defined neutrally to mean initiating force against other people, it generates the conclusion that basically no theories of economic justice satisfy the NAP. Defined with reference to a theory of entitlement (i.e. to include not violating “property rights”), it generates the conclusion that all theories of economic justice satisfy the NAP, at least internally. It’s a comical absurd mess. I can’t believe libertarians still pretend it does anything.
Matt Bruenig, "How a reductio ad absurdum works"
What’s amusing about libertarians and laissez-faire people (and the loose way certain economists talk) is that they will describe my choice to pay rent as non-coerced and voluntary while describing my choice to pay income taxes as coerced and involuntary. But there is no neutral construction of “coercion” that would ever support such a distinction. As Hale aptly demonstrates, coercion occurs when there are “background constraints on the universe of socially available choices from which an individual might ‘freely’ choose.”
Matt Bruenig, "Libertarians Are Huge Fans of Economic Coercion"
[...] it's clear that when the libertarians talk about not initiating force, they are using the word "initiation" in a very idiosyncratic way. They have packed into the word "initiation" their entire theory of who is entitled to what. What they actually mean by "initiation of force" is not some neutral notion of hauling off and physically attacking someone. Instead, the phrase "initiation of force" simply means "acting in a way that is inconsistent with the libertarian theory of entitlement, whether using force or not." And then "defensive force" simply means "violently attacking people in a way that is consistent with the libertarian theory of entitlement." This definitional move is transparently silly and ultimately reveals a blatant and undeniable circularity in libertarian procedural reasoning.
Matt Bruenig, "Libertarians are Huge Fans of Initiating Force"
That property violates the non-aggression principle is so obviously true that it is amusing anyone ever contends otherwise. The institution of property is the most statist, violent, aggressive, anti-libertarian, big government program in history. Through laws of one sort or another, people are violently restricted from nearly every single piece of the world around them. They do not consent to these restrictions, which are imposed from without, unilaterally and at the barrel of a gun. In the process, every shred of negative liberty and self-ownership is destroyed.
Matt Bruenig, "Salvaging Non-Aggression for Egalitarianism"
Libertarianism as it exists in the United States is basically a mid-20th century American philosophy, at least in origin. [...] basically none of the big old philosophical names can rightly be associated with this mid-20th century libertarianism.
Matt Bruenig, "Sorry, John Stuart Mill Was Not a Libertarian"
But the Grab World baseline allows us to see that all economic institutions are restrictions and infringements on liberty. Property is the most liberty-destroying and all-encompassing of the restrictive economic institutions, but contracts, patents, copyrights, securities, corporations, and so on do the same thing. With Grab World as the actual blank slate starting point baseline, it's clear that all we are debating about is what set of liberty-infringing restrictions are the best ones (unless you actually advocate the Grab World).
Matt Bruenig, "The Lesson of Grab What You Can"
So the thing to look for when reading a libertarian theory of initial appropriation is how they choose to hilariously turn all of this on its head. All of a sudden, once someone unilaterally asserts ownership of something, moving about the world freely somehow gets recategorized as violating other people's liberty. Even worse, moving about the world freely is even recategorized as aggressively attacking someone!
Matt Bruenig, "The Libertarian Bizarro World"
The problem is that this homesteading action is outrageously un-libertarian. It involves a single actor unilaterally deciding to eliminate the previously existing access every other person had to some piece of the world, doing so without the consent of those dispossessed of their access, and through the use of violence (i.e. if you try to access the object they now claim to own, they physically push you off or worse).
Matt Bruenig, "The Nozickian case for Rawls’ difference principle"
My goal, in the immediate stage, is to force libertarians to stop pretending that things like non-aggression, coercion, and force initiation do anything in the debate. They don't. Since the words get their meaning from an underlying theory of entitlement, the debate is always and anywhere about theories of entitlement. It is not about aggression or coercion or force. All arguments that turn upon those concepts are vacuous and question-begging. All of them.
Matt Bruenig, "Violently Destroying Liberty Is Important For Flourishing, Libertarian Argues"