Thursday, October 03, 2013

The Levellers as Left Libertarians

High Speed Rail
High Speed Rail (Photo credit: loudtiger)

Apart from being an interesting historical essay about the common political goals of two groups active during the English Civil War - the Levellers and the Diggers - the above article also has a number of practical applications for the contemporary economic and political context.

Although the author Julio Rodman writes primarily for an American audience, the practical policy areas addressed are relevant to many developed western economies in which state regulation is widespread, and disproportionately beneficial to large corporations rather than small business owners. Three areas are mentioned that, if reformed, could contribute to a significant re-balancing of the economic playing field in pursuit of the author's stated aim of a Jeffersonian model of a republic of property-owning citizens: 

1. National transport infrastructure

The subsidising of the costs of national rail, road and communications infrastructure, it is argued, disproportionately benefits large national and global corporations at the expense of small landowners, farmers and business owners. Kevin Carson has made a similar arguement with more in-depth economic analysis of the cost benefits to various parties of the state subsidy of national railways in C19 America.

Comparisons with the UK government's goal of building a High Speed Rail Line between London and certain northern cities is inevitable. If Carson and Rodman are correct, the HS2 proposal - with a price tag of around £50 billion - will effectively transfer wealth from tax payers (many of whom are non-asset holders) to large corporations such as the engineering and rail companies who will build and run the network.    

2. Professional Licensing

The ever-growing  tendency to seek state-backed licensing of various sectors of business professionals (the author cites the extreme examples of florists and fortune tellers!) is a further barrier to individuals entering profitable trades and businesses, according to the article.

Earning a living as I do in one of the last license-free areas of professional activity, I note with some alarm the voices being raised in favour of state-sponsored registering of private educators and tutors. Although voluntary professional bodies are to be welcomed as a means of ensuring high ethical and professional standards, and although appropriate criminal background checks are an essential part of safeguarding children,  I agree with the above article that the state's involvement in further licensing represents a barrier to small business owners. 

3. Restrictions on street vending

An economic mainstay in many countries, the restrictions on selling goods on the public highway is a further barrier to individuals getting started in business. Although such prohibitions are often cited as being in the interests of consumers, protecting them from unethical traders, Rodman in my view correctly analyses the actual reasons for such trading restrictions: 

"This is largely at the urging of immobile business owners who sell the same or substitutable goods and thus have an interest in eliminating competition, and at the pressure of various powerful economic actors seeking to maintain a bourgeois aesthetic in the urban environment surrounding their place of operation which is incompatible with the street vending ambiance."

Street vending provides, potentially, a great economic opportunity for those without assets to get a foot on the ladder of owning their own businesses and becoming economically self-sufficient. The restriction of the practice is to the disadvantage of such groups within society.

Rodman's article highlights areas that do not often receive attention in macro-economic discussions, but which, if implemented, have the potential to empower groups of individuals to become asset-owners through self-employment. The economic and social benefits of such a model are considerable, in my opinion.   

 


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