Sam Konkin and Libertarian Theory
Recently by David Gordon: The Indispensable Raico
The late 1970s and early 1980s in Los Angeles were a thriving time for libertarians. In those years I was fortunate enough to meet many striking personalities and influential writers who lived in the LA area; and among them, Sam Konkin, or to give him his full name, Samuel Edward Konkin, III, was one of the most significant.
One could not fail to notice Konkin in any libertarian gathering. To show his anarchist beliefs, he dressed completely in black, a color associated with that movement since the late nineteenth century. Whether he ever altered his attire, I cannot say, as I did not know him well; but on the occasions that I met him, he invariably wore this color.
Konkin had a gift for coining words that attracted the libertarian public, and even those libertarians unfamiliar with Konkin use his terms. He called supporters of a minimal state "minarchists," condemned Libertarian Party "partyarchs," and warned against the undue influence of the "Kochtopus." I recall another of his coinages, which has not come into general use. This stemmed from his disdain for minarchists; in particular, he was no admirer of the leading minarchist theorist, Robert Nozick. I do not think this has made print, but he called followers of Nozick "Nozis." If this was unkind, it was at any rate amusing.
Konkin was much more than an ingenious wordsmith. Murray Rothbard, who often disagreed with Konkin, said about him, "And yet, Konkin's writings are to be welcomed. Because we need a lot more polycentrism in the movement. Because he shakes up Partyarchs who tend to fall into unthinking complacency. And especially because he cares deeply about liberty and can read and write, qualities which seem to be going out of style in the libertarian movement." (‘Konkin on Libertarian Strategy")
An examination of Konkin's main work, New Libertarian Manifesto, confirms Rothbard's high opinion of him. If his thought does not always command assent, it displays a marked originality and raises important issues. He begins with a sharp assault on the State as predatory and criminal: "Such an institution of coercion — centralizing immorality, directing theft and murder, and coordinating oppression on a scale inconceivable by random criminality — exists. It is the Mob of mobs, Gang of gangs, Conspiracy of conspiracies. It has murdered more people in a few recent years than all the deaths in history before that time; it has stolen in a few recent years more than all the wealth produced in history to that time; it has deluded — for its survival — more minds in a few recent years than all the irrationality of history to that time; Our Enemy, The State."
For readers of Rothbard, this is standard fare, but Konkin soon shows that he differed from Rothbard in important respects. For one thing, he rejected punishment for violations of the non-aggression principle: nothing beyond restitution was justifiable. "One must conclude this description of restoration theory by dealing with some of the arcane objections to it. Most of these reduce to challenges to ascribe value to violated goods or persons. Letting the impersonal market and the victim decide seems most fair to both victim and aggressor. The latter point offends some who feel punishment is required for evil in thought; reversibility of deed is not enough for them."
Konkin's real originality came out in his proposal for combating the State. Libertarians, he held, should shun political action. Instead, they should ignore the State in their daily lives to the greatest extent possible. To do so, they should conduct their business on the black or grey market. "Besides a few enlightened New Libertarians tolerated in the more liberal statist areas of the globe ("toleration" exists to the degree of libertarian contamination of statism), we now perceive something else: large numbers of people who are acting in an agorist manner with little understanding of any theory but who are induced by material gain to evade, avoid, or defy the State. Surely they are a hopeful potential." On the black market, goods that the state deems illegal are bought and sold, of course outside the state's notice. Goods that are not illegal but are traded without the knowledge of the state constitute the grey market. Konkin called transactions on these markets, as well as other activities that bypassed the State, "counter-economics." Peaceful transactions take place in a free market, or agora: hence his term "agorism" for the society he sought to achieve.
For this process to take place, an important condition must be fulfilled, and this Konkin readily accepted. A large number of people must act as independent entrepreneurs, rather than work as employees of others. The State would hardly be likely to ignore highly structured companies; only individuals, or at most very small groups, could hope to avoid its clutches. So much the better, argued Konkin. Free individuals, he thought, should in any case avoid working for others.
But can a large-scale society consist almost entirely of people who work for themselves? Murray Rothbard did not think so. He raised against Konkin a penetrating objection: "First, there is a fatal flaw which not only vitiates Konkin’s agoric strategy but also permits him to evade the whole problem of organization (see below). This is Konkin’s astonishing view that working for wages is somehow nonmarket or antilibertarian, and would disappear in a free society. Konkin claims to be an Austrian free-market economist, and how he can say that a voluntary sale of one’s labor for money is somehow illegitimate or unlibertarian passeth understanding. Furthermore, it is simply absurd for him to think that, in the free market of the future, wage labor will disappear. Independent contracting, as lovable as some might see it, is simply grossly uneconomic for manufacturing activity. The transaction costs would be far too high. It is absurd, for example, to think of automobile manufacturing conducted by self-employed, independent contractors."
Konkin responded, with characteristic dash but in my view without success; but readers may here judge for themselves. Rather than spin out the details of Konkin's agorism, I should like instead to concentrate on a lesser-known but stimulating and provocative part of his thought.
Konkin maintained that private property rights arise from scarcity. But ideas are not scarce; one person's using an idea does not preclude anyone else's use of it. "Property is a concept extracted from nature by conceptual man to designate the distribution of scarce goods — the entire material world — among avaricious, competing egos. If I have an idea, you may have the same idea and it takes nothing from me. Use yours as you will and I do the same." There was, then, no basis in natural law for property in ideas.
Konkin's work on IP deserves at least equal recognition as his better-known defense of counter-economics and agorism; and, to the extent that anti-IP views come to prevail among libertarians, I predict that Sam Konkin will be a name we shall often hear.
Revised June 30, 2011
David Gordon [send him mail] is a senior fellow at the Ludwig von Mises Institute and a columnist for LRC. He is, most recently, the author of The Essential Rothbard and editor of Strictly Confidential: the Private Volker Fund Memos of Murray N. Rothbard. See his Books on Liberty. See also his Books on War.