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.