Konkin: First Significant Thinker to Get Libertarianism Totally Right

Stephan Kinsella, an excellent libertarian thinker to whom I cannot even hold a candle to, made a quick post where he declared Hans-Herman Hoppe the first significant thinker to get libertarianism totally right. In the post Samuel Edward Konkin III received an honorable mention:

One of the people I’m learning a bit more about is Sam Konkin III. From everything I know about him he was pretty solid on everything—the state, IP, everything. He was in fact one of the pioneers of the modern anti-IP movement. However, he was more of a minor figure and did not have a fully fleshed out political theory that I am aware of. He is known for “agorism” and his fairly brief (but profound and correct and perspicacious) comments on IP, but ….

But he didn’t quite top Hoppe in Kinsella’s opinion. Personally I rank Konkin at the top of my list of libertarian thinkers. There are several reasons for this. He was decidedly anti-state. If I remember correctly he lived in the United States illegally and avoided having any legal source of income so he didn’t have to pay income taxes. That’s the type of consistency that is rare to come by. More importantly though Konkin managed something that few well-known libertarians have managed: he described an entire philosophy in a few short essays.

Many people mistakenly believe that Konkin didn’t have a fully fleshed out political theory but I believe he did a better job of fleshing out a libertarian philosophy than almost anybody else. Libertarianism, when you really boil it down, tends to advocate the principle of non-aggression. Where people go from there differs wildly but the foundation is simple. Konkin, by not writing lengthy books explaining a view of the One True Libertarian Theory, demonstrated he understood something about libertarianism that few others did: libertarianism shouldn’t try to describe the single proper society.

Liberty implies individuals having the freedom to form whatever group they desire with the understanding that members are allowed to come and go as they please. Non-aggression ultimately means one person cannot coerce another person into participation. If a group of individuals want to form a collective where all goods are commonly owned they should be free to do so. Any individual in that group should be free to leave if they so desire as well. While collective ownership is almost always scoffed at by libertarians it isn’t incompatible with non-aggression so long as the people participating in the collective are doing so voluntarily.

Konkin identified the opponent of libertarianism and, through his advocacy of agorism, proposed a means of destroying it using a libertarian strategy: voluntary association. By participating in “black” markets individuals can associate with one another on their terms and keep resources out of the hands of the state. It’s a simple strategy that doesn’t need volumes of material to explain. Furthermore Konkin didn’t waste time telling everybody how to do agorism in minute detail because that really is up to the individuals participating in the “black” market.

Mises wasn’t an anarchist and Rothbard and Hoppe both invested a lot of time telling people what the One Truth Libertarian Theory was. Konkin briefly described libertarianism and left people to explore the potential societies that can arise when people are allowed to associate voluntarily. In other words Konkin basically took market anarchism to its logical extent by letting markets determine what kind of associations will succeed and what kinds will fail.

12 thoughts on “Konkin: First Significant Thinker to Get Libertarianism Totally Right”

  1. Interesting–thanks!

    As I said, I chose Hoppe not Konkin b/c Konkin was not that significant of a thinker and also because AFAIK he didn’t flesh out enough–he also did not (as far as I know) integrate serious Austrian thinking into political theory, as Hoppe has done. But I do want to learn more about konkin. Also see comments critical of Konkin in this post by Cantwell (not my favorite libertarian or thinker, but not always wrong): http://christophercantwell.com/2015/02/22/against-second-wave-libertarianism/

    1. I actually agree with Konkin when he discusses how agorism and anarcho-capitalism differ:

      He said “First and foremost, agorists stress the Entrepreneur, see non-statist Capitalists (in the sense of holders of capital, not necessary ideologically aware) as relatively neutral drone-like non-innovators”.

      Cantwell seems to have taken that quote as Konkin damning capitalists. But what I get from Konkin’s statement is not that capitalist are bad but that they are pretty much irrelevant if they’re not also entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs are commonly sources of major innovations. Their ability to innovate often leads them to obtain major amounts of capital. If they continue to use those gains for further innovations, that is to say they continue being entrepreneurs, then they’re not really non-innovators. However if they cease innovating they may still be capitalists but they really aren’t providing any innovations (but they may still be providing capital to entrepreneurs, which is valuable) so they are more or less neutrals. I believe that’s far different than Elizabeth Warren saying “You didn’t build that.” as Cantwell states.

      Konkin also wrote a nice rebuttal to Rothbard’s criticism of agorism, which can be read here. One thing I do like about Konkin is that he seemed more able to understand the ramifications of technological advancements than many others. Case in point, one of Rothbard’s criticisms of Konkin that was highlighted by Cantwell was:

      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 transactions costs would be far too high. It is absurd, for example, to think of automobile manufacturing conducted by self-employed independent contractors. Furthermore, Konkin is clearly unfamiliar with the fact that the emergence of wage-labor was an enormous boon for many thousands of poor workers and saved them from starvation.

      Now I don’t believe that all wage labor would disappear in a stateless society but Konkin does make one very valuable point in his rebuttal:

      Before I dismiss it as criticism of agorism, let me point out that a real debate is justified here between Rothbard (and many, many others, to be sure) and myself (and quite a few) on the validity of hiring oneself out. The necessity of it is in question (cybernetics and robotics increasingly replace drudgery—up to and including management activity); the psychology of it is in question (selling one’s personal activity under another’s direction and supervision encourages dependency and authoritarian relationships); and the profit in it is open to question (only the rarest skills—acting, art, superscience—command anywhere near the market reward of even low-level entrepreneurship).

      We’re seeing advancements in technology that make it easier for people to contract themselves out as well as technology that is making human labor in manufacturing less and less important. The Internet has given people a platform to advertise their skills. Other people in need of particular skills can search for people to hire for a job based on the needed skills. Since much of today’s work can even be done remotely the previous common barrier of geography is less burdensome today than it was before. This, I believe, will encourage more individuals to act as contractors instead of wage laborers.

      Manufacturing has also become increasingly automated. Rothbard mentions automobile manufacturing but that is a field that employes a lot of robotic technology today. 3D printers are advancing quickly and may soon allow people to manufacture many of the common goods they need in their own home, which would further reduce the need for laborers in manufacturing.

      Predicting the future is, of course, a guessing game. Rothbard and Konkin both predicted different potential futures in a stateless society and I think we’ll see that neither of them were entirely right. However Konkin did seem to hold a better understanding of technological advancements leading to radical changes.

      I don’t want to appear disrespectful of Hoppe. Admittedly I haven’t had the opportunity to read all of this works but of what I’ve read he makes many incredible points. But I tend to favor Konkin’s more open approach to describing some foundational material while leaving the rest open to exploration. My reason for favoring this approach probably has to do with my addiction to science fiction since it has lead me to think about the radical changes possible from advancements in technology. Labor markets are bound to change significantly if people are able to use easily accessible automated tools to manufacture most of the goods they need. Improvements in communication technology also stand to change things significantly. None of that invalidates Austrian principles. But it does make predicting how people will act in a hypothetical future difficult, especially when those predictions are based on the effects of current technological trends remaining constant.

      Wow, that went on much longer than I expected. My apologies.

  2. No problem–I actually agree with a lot of what you said. BUt I still stand by my original decision to name Hoppe, and not Konkin. I don’t mean to take anything from Konkin by this.

    1. I do appreciate that the difficulty of deciding who the best libertarian thinker is arises from the fact that both Hoppe and Konkin are top notch libertarian thinkers. It really does show libertarianism enjoys a lot of great philosophical talent.

  3. I’m going to modify my FB response Chris, so I don’t blatantly violate the NAP.
    Don’t make me choose between Hoppe and Konkin. I will buy the one, and smuggle in the other.

  4. Or, to be a bit more wordy.

    “I will trade ownership titles for the one, and smuggle in through the black market the other.”

  5. Interesting piece!

    From my point of view, Konkin certainly ranks at or near the top of any list of “great modern libertarian thinkers,” while Hoppe wouldn’t make it onto such a list. But that’s just me.

    1. Nothing wrong with that. One of the things I enjoy about libertarianism is the lively debate about what libertarianism is. While my views on libertarianism are heavily influenced by Austrian principles I admit that I tend to lean more towards the left side of the spectrum according to many. But I admire the works of many on all side of the anti-state libertarian spectrum (statist libertarians really aren’t my thing in any real fashion).

  6. I had the interesting experience of spending part of a week camped out on the floor of Sam Konkin’s Denver Hilton suite in 1981 (the year that for some unknown reason that hotel chose to host the Libertarian Party and WorldCon conventions, on back to back weekends). For those several days (up to and incl WorldCon) I got to bask in some of his reflection, and really begin to grasp some of the subtler ideas he was putting forth, well outside the boundaries of politics and conventional “libertarian” thought. His notions have stuck with me ever since, and been refined over the decades to my own purposes, but the core principles of voluntarism and non-aggression prevail. He was and still is vastly underrated for his effect on the movement.

  7. I brought SEK3 into the movement in 1969 when I organized the infamous draft card burning at the YAF convention in !969 and I regret it to this day. He constantly identified with Nazism and said that the wrong people won WW@. Although he was not anti-semetic he was an inconsistent jerk. He hated the LP and voting, largely because he couldn’t vote, but the LP and the Ron and Rand Paul movement are the dominant forms of libertarian activism to this day. He was a failure in pursuing agorism and owed and ripped off many libertarians during his life and to this day there is no way of measuring black market activities that are ideologically motivated.

    1. I’ve never heard of or seen anything linking Konkin to Nazism. However I do share his views on the Libertarian Party and voting.

      I hold nothing against the Libertarian Party, in fact I believe it’s a decent gateway for many into libertarianism, but it has proven to be entirely ineffective in politics while often deluding itself into believing it will one day be effective. During Gary Johnson’s campaign the Libertarian Party was trying to reach that mythical five where it would receive federal matching dollars. History shows though that if they got anywhere near that five percent the required percentage would have simply been bumped up. Voting to weaken the state is ineffective specifically because the state rigs the game. Rothbard didn’t see this but Konkin did.

      The problem the Libertarian Party runs into is that when your goal is to abolish the state (which, I’m not convinced, is even the Libertarian Party’s goal anymore) you can’t play by the state’s rules. As any casino will tell you, the house always wins.

  8. Donald, we have never met but one of my favorite videos is the RAW/Hess ad lib at the (I believe 1987?) LP convention. I think you were the one who supplied the medicine that helped get the conversation flowing, right? I also heard that you did some hard time for providing valuable goods in the marketplace. This may or may not have had an influence on your activism choices, but long before there was a Konkin or an -ism of the agora, there were people doing their best to live and serve one another in the voluntary marketplace. And of course, since aggregated data is questionable in the “white” market, it follows that macroeconomics would be even more silly in the black market.

    Most people will never be ideologues – thank the gods! But the trillions of people on the planet that practice to one degree or another market exchange without state interference is another evidence to me that it is useful.

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