Michael Moore: A Teachable Moment for Libertarianism?

Sheldon Richman at the website of the Foundation for Economic Education sees Michael Moore excoriating elements of state capitalism in his new movie Capitalism: A Love Story and thinks he sees someone who ought to admire true free markets. Richman is here enmeshed in the thinking of Kevin Carson, who believes that a "vulgar libertarianism" that doesn't properly distinguish between the propriety of true free markets and the practices and results of current "state capitalism" in which monied interests use the state for special privileges is hobbling the purity of the free market message. Richman thinks this vulgar libertarianism helps Moore confuse interventionism with actual free markets.

There is something to this point. Certainly a lot of what Moore is complaining about in this movie, most egregiously an example of a corrupt judge condeming kids to juvie hall in exchange for payoffs from the private operators, a story familiar to careful readers of Reason before they saw this movie, are indeed examples of the state used as a tool of corporations.

But too much of the rest of the film is merely anger or dudgeon at practices of corporations and "the rich" that, while doubtless in some way tracable to some nexus of state action (as almost everything is, including my typing and posting this on Al Gore's Internet), are clearly hated by Moore mostly because he sees an advantage going to someone richer than he thinks his audience is.

What motivates Moore most in this movie is pure class envy and resentment, on behalf of not himself, doubtless more well off than most specific agents of the banks or financial institutions he's slamming, but his imagined audience. There is no principled concern with property or justice behind Moore's presentation in the movie, if justice means anything other than "I want who I think is the 'advantaged' person in the transaction to lose."

When he shows workers acting like capitalists, for example, as in a bread-making co-op--investing in machinery, controlling private property, using it to sell an object for a profit--he thinks its OK, even commendable. But it isn't the principle of private property and profit he admires. It's the vague idea that "the working man" is coming out ahead.

He doesn't notice, for example, that the logic and justice of two of his framing set pieces--a man in debt on a home who has it occupied by the bank that holds the loan, and a company in debt to its workers who have that factory occupied by workers--are the same: a group or institution claiming what is their property. But he is appalled by the former, thrilled by the latter. And the state is not the difference. The movie drops the phrase "mortgage fraud" a lot without ever defining it, implying that if someone ever can't pay their debt to a bank on a home, fraud must somehow be involved. But it isn't so.

Both quoted dialogue and his images state or imply that if anyone has more than anyone else in this society, theft must be involved. Is he against the notion that someone can get a loan to afford something he couldn't afford from his own savings? Is he against the notion that one can ever lose possession of that thing if one can't then pay off the loan? Does he care what institutionalizing this principle would do to people's ability to obtain resources now without having to save up for them entirely beforehand? No, as his jokey/absurd attempt to "find capitalism enshrined in the Constitution" proves, Moore can't think in political principles, and doesn't want to.

There's a lot of trying to figure out what Moore must be implying when thinking about this movie, and all his works. That's because the only legible throughline is generally, no matter what the movie is supposed to be about or what point it's supposed to prove, that: here's a story that's apt to strike lots of viewers as aggravating or sad, and I'm going to make the average viewer blame it on whatever villain I've chosen to target. What larger point about the world one is supposed to glean is often uncertain.

In Capitalism: A Love Story, he is pretty ham-handed about a moral: he hates capitalism, thinks it's an evil that must be destroyed, and wants it replaced with "democracy"--which means the use of the machinery of state to control property, wealth, and decisions. He's already shown that that state is often an agent of pure theft, though he implies, again without stating it because no real fact could support this, that this is all changing because Barack Obama was elected, although nothing Obama has done or seems apt to do will ameliorate any of the evils or crimes Moore focuses on.

If "democracy" as aggrandizement of state power is what he wants (and a ridiculous and I suspect invented [[not being able to doublecheck the film, I'm pretty sure Moore had the wording wrong, but the sentiment appears to be genuine, see comment thread]] quote from Benjamin Franklin in the credits in which the ol' kitemaker says that beyond property for personal use, "all else belongs by right to the state" or somesuch--no fascist theoretician could have said it better--indicates that's so), it isn't "vulgar libertarianism" that has confused him; it's his own confusion of class resentment with political principle.

Previously at Reason, Sean Higgins wrote of the premiere of Capitalism: A Love Story at an AFL-CIO convention; John Stossel agreed with Sheldon Richman that Moore is confusing capitalism with statism; Damon Root blogged on how a George Washington University student got Moore to admit that corporatism is probably the real problem; and I noted similar lacks of intellectual coherence in past Moore flicks Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 911.

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  • Some Guy||

    Richman is here enmeshed in the thinking of Kevin Carson, who believes that a "vulgar libertarianism" that doesn't properly distinguish between the propriety of true free markets and the practices and results of current "state capitalism" in which monied interests use the state for special privileges is hobbling the purity of the free market message.

    I believe they prefer to be referred to as "Republicans."

  • Death||

    This is just silly. Moore is nothing other than a brilliant businessman. He's figured out that you can hack together a garbage left-wing argument, sell it to idiots and make millions in the process. No one notices the beautiful irony of making a big profit by SELLING a movie to people bashing capitalism? Who cares what nonsense he says! The man is a multi-multi-millionaire from peddling this crap to morons. More power to him, but rather less to Reason for pretending to take him seriously.

  • ||

    Mr. Death is correct. All you folks who honestly think Moore believes word #1 of his own piffle are the funniest of all. He's a focused entrepreneur exploiting a niche market.

    Heck, I've been thinking of shopping around the outline for a book called "Those Republicans Sure Are Dumbasses".

    Hey, a book calling Rush Limbaugh an idiot led to Senator Al Franken. Why should those fat bastards rake in all the take? ;-)

  • @||

    SELLING a movie to people bashing capitalism

    Wasn't it Lenin who said that capitalists would sell him the rope to hang them with? A real capitalist, one who understands the morality of truly free enterprise, probably wouldn't sell him the rope, but far too many so-called "capitalists," who value a buck over their own souls, would, and have. In this regard, capitalists have often been their own worst enemy. Simply replace Lenin with government favors, sanctioned monopolies, back-room deals, tariffs, etc.

  • ||

    Google says the phrase "all else belongs by right to the state" appears nowhere else except this blog post. And it certainly doesn't sound like Franklin.

  • dfd||

    He's probably referring to this.

    All the property that is necessary to a Man, for the Conservation of the Individual and the Propagation of the Species, is his natural Right, which none can justly deprive him of: But all Property superfluous to such purposes is the Property of the Publick, who, by their Laws, have created it, and who may therefore by other laws dispose of it, whenever the Welfare of the Publick shall demand such Disposition. He that does not like civil Society on these Terms, let him retire and live among Savages. He can have no right to the benefits of Society, who will not pay his Club towards the Support of it.


    Benjamin Franklin, letter to Robert Morris, December 25, 1783

    If he did in fact write it, it is certainly not the only thing he was wrong about.

  • ||

    Interesting. Is what he means by "the Publick" exactly what we mean by "the state," though?

  • hurlybuehrle||

    Not clear to me that "the Publick" = the state here, either. This quote reminded me of the Austrian idea (circa Rothbard and Reisman, anyway) that property only becomes private when a person first takes possession of it and then makes some economically beneficial use of it.

  • ||

    So, when is Michael Moore going to cough up his excess assets to "the Publick"?

  • Invisible Finger||

    Context matters more to this quote than anything else. Do people think there was some modern, formal title system in the US in 1783??

    Essentially, the quote means that if a claimant to unoccupied land isn't working it/improving it, he has no claim to title in a title system. It's a lot closer to what Hernando deSoto writes about than any specious concept of eminent domain.

  • Brian Doherty||

    Moore had the wording wrong, but that's the basic idea, yes. I didn't realize how annoying ol' Ben Franklin really was....

  • dfd||

    From the same source as above, he also apparently said this (which I suppose Michael Moore would be less likely to include in his movies):

    I am for doing good to the poor, but I differ in opinion of the means. I think the best way of doing good to the poor, is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it. In my youth I traveled much, and I observed in different countries, that the more public provisions were made for the poor, the less they provided for themselves, and of course became poorer. And, on the contrary, the less was done for them, the more they did for themselves, and became richer.

    Benjamin Franklin, On the Price of Corn and Management of the Poor, November 1766
  • ||

    Franklin also wrote this nice little piece...

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A.....a_Mistress

  • ||

    You can do this kind ofbthing with any founding father on any issue from church/state to military spending to capitalism/socialism. It proves nothing except that the popular notion of the founding fathers as infallible fonts of wisdom second only to Jesus and The 12 apostles is pure bunk. They were the greatest minds of their era, but couldn't possibly have anticipated the modern incarnation of what they helped create. It's ok to look to them for inspiration, but it's long past time to stop turning to them for validation.

  • ||

    I haven't seen the film, but this desciption makes me think that Moores pollitical philosophy is little more than second-hand Marxism.

    It has the basic elements of "surplus value" theory, Marx's notion that capitalists make money by paying laborers less than the value of their labor. That theory is (naturally) based on the labor theory of value. That seems to underly Moore's preference for worker-run cooperatives. Yet Moore apparantly doesn't actually attempt to explain the concept of surplus value. That plus the general class envy and resentment suggests he's really never *actually* read Marx or made any serious study of socialist economic theories. He's just inherited vague, degenerate versions of these ideas from listening to other socialist-leaning types.

  • ||

    (and a ridiculous and I suspect invented [[not being able to doublecheck the film, I'm pretty sure Moore had the wording wrong, but the sentiment appears to be genuine]] see comment thread quote from Benjamin Franklin in the credits in which the ol' kitemaker says that beyond property for personal use, "all else belongs by right to the state" or somesuch--no fascist theoretician could have said it better--indicates that's so),

    Also ... someone needs to clean up this double sidetrack within an aside, cause I have no fraking clue what it means.

  • ||

    Oh I see the correction in the closing square bracket fixed it ... much more intelligible.

  • The Chad||

    It still makes no sense to me. read it three or four times and am still confused

  • The Man||

    Does anyone here think that any purpose is served by debating Moore's views? His audience consists of economic creationists. You could discuss poetry with a clam with more effect. Is there some object lesson to be learned? Is there some germ of true he has exposed? Or is this just PMS on my part?

  • ||

    Yes. Things that seem obvious to us, because we have studied an immersive background of economics and political theory, do not seem obvious to others. Marxism was pretty convincing to many academics and intellectuals for over 100 years. Moore's degenerate Marxism may not have that power, but he's appealing to a very ignorant audience.
    The vast majority of people going to see Moore's films have probably never taken a basic economics class. They know nothing of market theory except what they hear from popular television and film.

  • The Man||

    With respect, they're not reading your post either Hazel.

  • DADIODADDY||

    Are you saying Michael Moore is a poetic clam? I'd say he's more a confabulating douchebag, but that's just MHO.

  • ||

    Not everything has to have some grand purpose. Some discussions I participate in merely for amusement.

  • Gene Berkman||

    It is not "vulgar libertarianism" that confuses state capitalism (or the mixed economy) with the free market, it is vulgar socialism. Michael Moore is pretty explicit about his own commitment to socialism.

    Kevin Carson's attempt to separate "the free market" and "capitalism" seeems like a throwback to a strategy to dupe New Leftists into allying with libertarians in the 1970s. For me, the mood has passed.

  • Ebeneezer Scrooge||

    I've read Franklin's autobiography and other books about his life. I call him The Original Baffling American.

    Born to poverty, he worked his way to wealth in his younger years. What I've seen of his thinking during this stage of his life contains some decent stuff that I still admire.

    But then something happened......how does it come to be, that so many self-made wealthy people become socialists? This I find baffling. But I know more than a few of them in the world today. They are the ones who vote people like Pelosi and Obama into office, and consider it a great thing to be in conventions where they get to personally sit down and talk to Jimmy Carter (gag-barf-vomit!).

    Marx wasn't born yet, but Franklin's policy prescriptions increasingly leaned socialist as he grew older. Why has that happened to so many through American history, right up to today?

    I think, America inherits this from Europe. But I don't understand why it happens there either.

  • MJ||

    Franklin was ambassador to France in the years leading up to their revolution. Perhaps he was influenced by the first rumblings of the Jacobins?

  • ||

    But then something happened......how does it come to be, that so many self-made wealthy people become socialists?

    "I've got mine, time to pull up the ladder."

  • Ebeneezer Scrooge||

    Does anyone here think that any purpose is served by debating Moore's views?

    No. I wouldn't have bothered posting if someone hadn't brought up a much more interesting subject.

    The MSM may love and promote him, but I'm not convinced Michael Moore has any more of a real following, than the Libertarian Party does.

    His movies hit the shelves at or local Blockbuster. Somehow, they're always right there, on the shelves at our local Blockbusters.

    Meanwhile the stuff I want to see is never on the shelves at the local Blockbuster. I've wondered, is Blockbuster actively trying to go out of business? By refusing to provide enough of the products their customers actually want.

    This is a way more interesting question than any thoughts anyone has about Michael Moore Or Less.

  • ||

    Dude. Netflix your life already. The 21st century is awaiting you with open arms and a mailbox full of cinematic goodness. :-)

  • Ebeneezer Scrooge||

    [big sigh] :) Well, yes.

    I have to stay on the bleeding edge of at least certain aspects of computers as part of my job. Somehow as I've gotten older, I've gotten a little lazy on the home front. I suppose any day now I'll be done with _driving to the store_ and putting my hands on a _real live movie_. Or cursing my way back home because they didn't have the one I wanted. Again.

    Maybe I'm getting older. Or who knows maybe I just like cursing.

    But I'd be glad to discuss clams any time you like.

  • ||

    Moore's stories are like horror films. You like to be scared, and you like to see people hacked up, but that doens't mean you actually want to be held in a phsycotic killer's torture dungeon or kill people yourself. Moore panders to that class resentment that people feel.

    He knows his audience, though. He calls what he wants "democracy," knowing full well its actually communism/socialism, but that the later wouldn't sell well to the emotion-driven audience he needs. He can bust capitalism, but only so hard. He's essentially the anti-Gail Wynand

  • Ebeneezer Scrooge||

    You could discuss poetry with a clam with more effect.

    Now that's not being fair to clams. Someone could, for example, eat a clam.

    Why they would want to is beyond me. If you bought a super ball for a quarter out of one of those gumball machines and took a nice bite, you'd get precisely the same experience as you would from eating a clam.

    But there are people who eat clams, so clams have this much virtue.

    We cannot say as much for Michael Moore.

  • ||

    The clams I like enjoy getting eaten.

  • Harry May||

    This reminds me of when my dad would tell people that he would call them an asshole, but an asshole is a functional part of the human anatomy.

  • Ebeneezer Scrooge||

    The Man,

    I have to retract my earlier statment. It is at least perhaps slightly amusing to spend a few moments like this, pondering the true objective value of Michael Moore in this world.

    But only a few moments.

  • ||

    Jebus Brian, what ever happened to the 'more' feature?

  • ev||

    If I could talk to anyone in history it would be Franklin, I think. Although Jesus would be interesting just to tell him what "his" faith has become.

    Franklin and Jefferson are America's only true Renaissance Men---those that knew everything about what was known then in the world.

    Scientist, printer, created an instrument, founded the first public lending library, pretty much won the Rev. War by getting French aid...and the motherfucker when a-whoring as a young lad.

    Not only was he a badass intellectually, he was just a cool, suave dude.

    Sigh. *End bromantic rant*

  • ||

    You know, Hitler flew kites too...

  • Ebeneezer Scrooge||

    If I could talk to anyone it would probably be Machiavelli.

    I've been called a cynical bastard too.

  • monolith||

    I claim them as british.
    Well probably not Jesus.

  • ||

    MM is an assclown grown fat feasting on the suffering of others.

  • The Man||

    But maybe we're being too hard on Mr. Moore. Suppose he's a pure, but cynical, libertarian who's decided that a guerrilla marketing campaign is the way to personal riches. Who are we to judge? Pure, but honest, libertarians are as poor as church mice. Anyway, is it always wrong to pander?

  • The Man||

    Death made this same point earlier but I missed it. I guess it is PMS and me with no Midol.

  • ||

    I am glad to know that I am not the only poor, honest, pure libertarian around... One of these days, I've got to figure out a way to be a rich, honest, pure libertarian, it definitely would be better!!

  • MJ||

    That would be plausible if his solutions to the problem of the Corporate was not a more powerful State.

  • Kevin Carson||

    Apparently there are a lot of vulgar socialists at the Adam Smith Institute and FreedomWorks, then.

  • Ahmed||

    Marx considered the state the executive commitee of the rulig class. Was Marx a libertarian?

  • Anonymous||

    No.

  • monolith||

    always thought that Marx would have been a libertarian if he had seen the soviet union.
    He did change his views quite a lot.
    Think he would have been surprised that a "religion" would have been created out of his writings.

  • Anonymous||

    He would have not been a Marxist if he had bothered to read anything published at the time about economics. But he didn't, and he was, so there you have it. He changed his views as it suited him, not as he learned from reality.

  • ||

    Wouldn't whatever he was have been a Marxist?

  • Attorney||

    LOL.

    Didja hear the one about Lou Gehrig going to the doctor to find out what's wrong with him, and the doctor tells him he has Lou Gehrig's Disease?

  • robc||

    IIRC, Keynes made a comment after meeting with FDR and staff that he was the only non-keynesian in the room.

  • ||

    I have to agree with Death. He's making a mint. Sadly for Moore, I never saw any of his movies, so he never got a nickel off of me. Sadly for me, I have to listen to (some)people's praise for him.

  • ||

    Moore is important enough to both follow and refute for one simple reason: His feeble and facile arguments are the same ones our rotating crop of trolls will be parroting endlessly any time now. Much like the childish and ill-reasoned The Corporation taught leftists to whine about "Teh Corporashuns shouldn't be legally considered people!", Sicko, a breathtakingly simplistic and blinkered take on the state of health care, has provide most of the language to the health insurance "reform" movement.

    As I've said before: Documentaries are the leftist equivalent of church--it's where they go to get biases confirmed, harden the edges of their orthodoxy, and receive talking points/marching orders. Think about all the recent documentaries, especially the big ones. Scroll through the Sundance channel listings. How many are liberty oriented? How many are even not-hard left? About the same amount as liberal voices on FOX News, maybe even fewer.

    Moore is a bell-shaped bellwether of the liberal tripe to come and we'd all do well to pay attention to him.

  • ||

    Moore and his print counterpart Thomas Frank are the Mount Rushmore of Liberal economic tripe.

  • Attorney||

    Much like the childish and ill-reasoned The Corporation taught leftists to whine about "Teh Corporashuns shouldn't be legally considered people!"

    Hell yeah. I rented that piece of crap just to see what people were talking about. What a load of misleading tripe.

  • Sheldon Richman||

    [Extricating self from Carsonian mesh]: Of course, I wasn't suggesting that Moore commits vulgar libertarianism. Nor can I read his mind. I merely said he is likely influenced by all the devotees of the alleged essence of the prevailing system ("capitalism") who believe that once the thin layer of anti-business interventionism is scraped away, a free market would be revealed. Bah!

  • DADIODADDY||

    "Nor can I read his mind"...I'm convinced that it would consist of one word, lunch or maybe two with desert.

  • Robert||

    "Vulgar libertarianism" is actually a form of conservatism, and does not spring from the Enclosure Acts or wherever else you think. It's just that when gravity is pulling things so hard toward the "left", those who would resist such development are practically forced to catch their anchor on whatever's around, namely the status quo.

    Plus, Taco Bell, let alone their customers, has no power to amend the immigration laws, for instance, or to ameliorate gov't policies in Latin America. Don't criticize as "vulgar" those who argue the point at hand rather than spewing forth a history book on how society got to that point.

  • Sheldon Richman||

    "'Vulgar libertarianism' is actually a form of conservatism,..." Who said otherwise? Of course Taco Bell can't do what you said. But it can lobby to obtain someone's land by eminent domain or have the taxpayers pay for some infrastructure "improvement." Sure, a governmental body has to make it happen, but the companies ofter initiate the process and give it support. I am all for arguing the point at hand, but that doesn't mean we should forget the larger context.

  • Xeones||

    My wife confessed recently that i have destroyed her previous youthful appreciation of Citizen Moore's films. SUCCESS

  • Lefty||

    if anyone has more than anyone else in this society, theft must be involved

    What, that's not true?

  • Sheldon Richman||

    It's at least a gross overstatement.

  • ||

    This is a more complete and accurate version of Franklin's letter to Morris. While seeming a bit socialist, given the time and historical context, it is merely a Federalist argument in favor of giving the central government the power to tax. As this letter was written during the early days of our country, while it was enduring the Articles of Confederation, it is only one piece of a larger debate over the role of the Federal government. I'd be willing to bet that Moore took it out of context, but I refuse to see his crap any more so I'm not really sure. Franklin did have a bit of a socialist bent during his latter years (this came after he sidelined the Quaker establishment that he had railed against for years, of course), but he was always a strong believer in self-improvement and do-it-yourself/hard work to get rich. Franklin was never as blatantly pro-strong government as Hamilton (though I truly believe that even Hamilton would be appalled by the current level of Federal control in daily life), but he saw the danger of national collapse that the weak Articles of Confederation nearly ensured. He is basically saying that if you want the services and security provided by the government you should help pay for them, barring that go off and live like in the wilderness like a Native. Sadly, we no longer have that later option.

    "The Remissness of our People in Paying Taxes is highly blameable; the Unwillingness to pay them is still more so. I see, in some Resolutions of Town Meetings, a Remonstrance against giving Congress a Power to take, as they call it, the People's Money out of their Pockets, tho' only to pay the Interest and Principal of Debts duly contracted. They seem to mistake the Point. Money, justly due from the People, is their Creditors' Money, and no longer the Money of the People, who, if they withold it, should be compell'd to pay by some Law.

    All Property, indeed, except the Savage's temporary Cabin, his Bow, his Matchcoat, and other little Acquisitions, absolutely necessary for his Subsistence, seems to me to be the Creature of public Convention. Hence the Public has the Right of Regulating Descents, and all other Conveyances of Property, and even of limiting the Quantity and the Uses of it. All the Property that is necessary to a Man, for the Conservation of the Individual and the Propagation of the Species, is his natural Right, which none can justly deprive him of: But all Property superfluous to such purposes is the Property of the Publick, who, by their Laws, have created it, and who may therefore by other Laws dispose of it, whenever the Welfare of the Publick shall demand such Disposition. He that does not like civil Society on these Terms, let him retire and live among Savages. He can have no right to the benefits of Society, who will not pay his Club towards the Support of it."

    Benjamin Franklin to Robert Morris

  • Invisible Finger||

    Excellent, Mr. Lecrone. Basically, if you want a title system and government protection of property rights, the system isn't likely to run on an honor system - so pay a maintenance fee.

    On the other hand, there's a little bit of naiivete on Ben Frankiln's part is assuming that the Publick's agents aren't corruptable as all get out. Franklin's town meeting's weren't much different that today's in this respect - a few don't want any taxation whatsoever but most are simply complaining about excessive taxation (aka not getting their money's worth). To that end, Franklin was indeed a statist, probably the Michael Moore of his day. (Well maybe not THAT stupid.)

  • Sheldon Richman||

    It's still odious.

  • Tony||

    his own confusion of class resentment with political principle

    So Moore is a hypocritical millionaire who has class resentment?

    Or is it merely all of his viewers you're pop psychoanalyzing?

  • ||

    Well, I learned something about Benjamin Franklin today - he believed there were no property rights in anything except the clothes on your back, and maybe a hut.

    He moved down several notches in my estimation.

  • Attorney||

    His mind was probably addled from STDs.

  • Scott Bieser||

    So you're saying Franklin was ultimately confused by his own vulgar libertinism?

  • ||

    Any libertinism that is not vulgar isn't worth having.

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