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.
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.
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
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")
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."
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."
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.
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
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."
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.
entirely intellectual property and wrote in 1986 a
penetrating article on the subject. Some readers may find
this fact surprising, as they think that the "anti-IP revolution"
is a thing of our own day; but this view rests on a misapprehension.
Many people think that most libertarians, until the recent revolution,
supported patents and copyrights. True, Ayn Rand and her followers
do indeed embrace IP, but by no means did all those libertarians
outside the rigid confines of her system agree with her. To the
contrary, anti-IP views were very much in the air thirty years
ago: Wendy McElroy stands out especially in my mind as a forceful
and effective critic of IP. Even earlier, Rothbard had in Man,
Economy, and State (1962) favored the replacement of the
state system of patents and copyrights with contractual arrangements,
freely negotiated. (If one moves outside modern libertarianism,
Benjamin Tucker rejected IP well over a century ago as Wendy McElroy
has documented in an outstanding
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.
if one denies this? Would one then not have to say that anyone
who coins a new word should hold perpetual title over it? One
libertarian notable of those days, A.J. Galambos, did not shrink
from holding exactly this, bur most IP defenders refused to press
their logic to its full conclusion. On what basis, though, do
they do so? "A. J. Galambos, bless his anarchoheart, attempted
to take copyrights and patents to their logical conclusion. Every
time we break a stick, Ug The First should collect a royalty.
Ideas are property, he says; madness and chaos result."
the argument against IP from natural law was paramount, but he
met defenders of IP on their own utilitarian terms. It was not
true, he said, that authors would not write without the protection
of copyright. Those who write for revenue would continue to find
ample financial incentives in a non-IP world: "But, alas,
the instant elimination of copyrights would have negligible effect
on the star system. While it would cut into the lifelong gravy
train of stellar scribes, it would have no effect on their biggest
source of income: the contract for their next book (or script,
play or even magazine article or short story). That is where the
money is. "You're only as good as your last piece" – but you collect
for that on your next sale. Market decisions are made on anticipated
anticipates another theme much stressed in the recent revolution.
He traces the origin of IP to state-granted monopoly privileges:
"If copyrights are such a drag, why and how did they evolve?
Not by the market process. Like all privileges, they were grants
of the king. The idea did not – could not – arise until Gutenberg's
printing press and it coincided with the rise of royal divinity,
and soon after, the onslaught of mercantilism." He concludes
in characteristic style: "It [copyright] is a creature of
the State, the Vampire's little bat. And, as far as I'm concerned,
the word should be copywrong."
not originate these arguments, but it is his singular merit to
give them a distinctively libertarian cast. Most of the considerations
favoring and opposing patents and copyrights have long been known
to economists. In Human
Action, e.g., Mises mentions that ideas or "recipes",
as he calls them, can be used by many people at the same time.
He also notes that patents began as state monopoly privileges.
Ending intellectual property might turn inventions entirely into
external economies; against this must be set the advantages accruing
to the first creator. There is no indication in Mises's brief
treatment that he thought his remarks were original. To the contrary,
he appears to be summarizing a well-established consensus on the
relevant considerations. (See Human
Action, Scholar's Edition, pp.657-658.)
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.
by David Gordon