Guest Column: Listening to Koch Astroturf on Capitalism, Coercion, and Child Labor

Musician and thinker Joe Berns of Aberdeen went to the Koch Brothers’ free pizza and propaganda show here in Aberdeen last Thursday. Here’s his report on the event:

Joe Berns
Joe Berns

The organization Americans for Prosperity (AFP) hosted a presentation, “Making the Moral Case for Capitalism,” in Aberdeen last Thursday evening. AFP, as mentioned on Dakota Free Press, is the “grassroots” arm of the infamous Koch Brothers. Curious as I was about the contents of this event, I honestly had no intention of attending until two words flashed before my eyes: free pizza.

Free pizza? AND a two-hour presentation on capitalism? Count me in!

Let me clarify that I am no capitalist. I’m a dues-paying public school teacher who voted for Bernie in the presidential primary and who has recently taken to reading Eugene Debs for fun. However, I do love expanding my knowledge base and I find the idea of capitalism fascinating.

The Presentation

The slide-show presentation covered a few key points including, verbatim, some anecdotes about panties, Sam Walton, milk, and Communist China I had heard in a YouTube video the previous night. Here are the points I got from the show:

  • The free market eliminates poverty and raises living standards for all.
  • Coercion is impossible in a free market system.
  • Capitalism lets you keep the fruits of your labor.
  • The only moral economic option possible is free-market capitalism.

As far as actually “making the moral case” for capitalism, they had a few points which made up a generic formula for “making the moral case for X.” Basically: appeal to emotions, refute the opposition’s premises, be polite, and go on the offensive by establishing the moral high ground first.

Very interesting stuff. And they sure sold it. By this point even I was feeling pretty good about all the free-market sunshine and rainbows. I still had a few nagging questions, but I took their advice and politely waited until after the presentation wrapped up to begin refuting their premises.

Civil Discourse part 1: Wage Theft, Magic Numbers, and Swimming Pools

Although the AFP reps offered to take questions at the end, the crowd did not seem particularly talkative or curious. The newly-baptized “activists” filtered out, and I approached the three polo-clad men with my questions.

We discussed the “fruits of labor,” to which I questioned the fairness of employers keeping the profit gained from increased worker productivity. (A concept known as “wage theft” in socialist circles.) When I asked about the disparity between worker productivity and median pay in the last few decades, I was told “Yeah, you can make the numbers say whatever you want.” I thoroughly agreed, considering AFP had just used the following chart to contend that capitalism reduces income inequality:

We touched on profit-sharing, which they supported—provided it was “voluntary” (they repeatedly used the terms “coercion,” “threat of force,” and “at the point of a gun” whenever government was mentioned). I was curious. For whom it was voluntary, and would the workers get any say? However, before I could ask, one AFP rep unveiled his exciting and sure-fire solution for increasing wages: simply increase economic growth. Mr. AFP launched into a short diatribe about the slow growth under Obama. Meanwhile, my mind envisioned filling up a swimming pool, but with only 10% of the water from the hose making its way into the pool. Sure, increasing the water flow would fill up the pool faster, but that’s not really fixing the problem. I shared my analogy and then let the conversation quickly switch gears.

Civil Discourse part 2: Cocercion, Slavery, and Child Labor

I was also not satisfied with the assertion that coercion is impossible in a free-market system. Their logic was that all interactions here are mutually beneficial trades; if I’m buying a gallon of milk, I value the milk more than my four dollars. The store owner values my four dollars more than that gallon of milk. Therefore the trade is win-win. Likewise, workers trade their time and labor for wages in a similar win-win scenario.

Except, sometimes for the worker it’s lose-lose. I see people stuck in under-paying jobs which they can’t leave because there’s nowhere else to go. The economic “choice” they get is either a low-wage job or no means to support their family. The standard AFP answer seems to be that workers in a bad situation should simply find a better job. I’d sure like to visit this magical land where these fabled better-paying job openings abound.

The conversation moved briefly to workplace conditions. AFP claims that under capitalism (which is definitely never exploitative in nature), workplace conditions improve naturally; factory owners strive to maintain worker-friendly environments, which in turn keep workers happy. This is important because mistreated workers aren’t as productive.

Interesting. Just for fun, I made a correlation to plantation owners’ treatment of slaves as farm tools. AFP responded that most slave owners actually treated their slaves quite well, because again, they would not have been productive otherwise. Exactly my point. Their “nice” treatment did encourage higher slave productivity, in addition to helping justify an inherently exploitative system. (They made sure to mention, for the record, that AFP does not endorse slavery!)

Last stop, child labor. According to AFP, child labor laws are unnecessary; capitalism began curbing the practice of hiring child workers long before such laws ever went into effect (a claim that appears partly true but severely lacking*). At one point, as I reasserted my support for child-labor laws, an AFP rep actually asked, “What would you rather see: a child working in a factory or a child starving?” As if to ask how I (or the dreaded State) could have the gall to legislate this poor, hard-working child into starvation. Not until later did the train of logic really hit me—a system which can force such an ultimatum on a child can hardly claim to be coercion-free.

Closing Thoughts

Free trade and markets do some pretty phenomenal things. I am just as amazed as the next guy (though I will admit, a bit disturbed) that I can go up to Kessler’s and buy a tropically-grown coconut at 2:37 am on a Sunday. However, I still see the system which provides all this as imperfect and open to critique.

Americans for Prosperity, the organization which last Thursday boasted of their lobbying success in repealing IM22, promoting “school choice,” and fighting Medicaid expansion, delivered what was ultimately a successful presentation. Their goal was neither to inspire community action nor to seek truth, but rather, to equip their disciples to better preach their hard-line dogma of free-market capitalism—a doctrine which damns innovation and influence from impure (“social-democratic”) or heretical (“collectivist”) schools of thought. They provided a message people wanted to hear and gave them some tools to spread that message whilst sidestepping some logic and real-life facts.

Another small victory for Charles and David Koch.

*Editor’s note: One historian contends that through its reliance on the division of labor, “the unregulated system of capitalist production inherently tends toward substantial employment of children.”

12 Responses to Guest Column: Listening to Koch Astroturf on Capitalism, Coercion, and Child Labor

  1. Porter Lansing

    From one union guy to another … great article Mr. Berns.
    Now, who in Aberdeen would benefit from institutional “wage theft”, low wage jobs that workers keep only for the health insurance, exploitation of workplace conditions (Trump Admin. just removed many regulations from OSHA making workplaces more dangerous, again) and underpaid child labor? Oh … I don’t know.
    ~ And a side note to Mr. Dobson. There’re better places in Aberdeen to spend your recreational money than driving go-carts at Wiley Park. State amusement park laws have been manipulated so that if you should get injured good damn luck trying to sue the proprietors.

  2. mike from iowa

    This was a fun exercise and koch bros are still full of bull. They must believe no one has access to government records and editorials that dispute every word the koch bros tools spit out.

    Thanks to you, Mr Berns for taking a big one for the team and to Cory for providing the forum necessary for me to get my chuckles for the day.

    koch bros and rad Muslims- kill ’em all. Maybe Muslims can be redeemed.

  3. We kill no one here, Mike. We just refute them mercilessly.

    Porter, good connection to the local market and local politicos!

  4. mike from iowa

    Spoil sport, Cory.

  5. Roger Cornelius

    The concept of capitalism and free-markets once made America an economic power, but now they are lost to history.
    When the federal issued the first subsidy check to farmers, made its first oil subsidy check out to the oil companies and started to allow tax breaks for business and industry the concept of free-markets went away.
    It is impossible to have free-markets when businesses are unfairly subsidized.
    I’m not certain what we would label capitalism and free-markets now, maybe something like socialized business.

  6. mike from iowa

    No offense and maybe it is just me, but Mr Berns looks like a red-headed Steve Guttenberg from Police Academy movies. Now back to our regularly scheduled blogging.

  7. Don Coyote

    joe berns: “We discussed the “fruits of labor,” to which I questioned the fairness of employers keeping the profit gained from increased worker productivity. (A concept known as “wage theft” in socialist circles.)”

    Yikes!! There are still proponents of the thoroughly repudiated Labor Theory of Value lurking about? Perhaps instead of reading Eugene Debs “for fun” you would benefit from reading Carl Menger with his Subjective Theory of Value where Menger rebuts Karl Marx’s asinine logic.

  8. Mike, trust me, Berns is far more talented than Gutenberg. But stay tuned—we’ll have him on the podcast this week so you can listen for yourself!

    Roger, you make a good point. If AFP feels the need to make the case for capitalism, they need to start by making the case to their own party, the Republicans who have riddled the economic system with what our friend Senator Stace Nelson would call crony capitalism. Adam Smith would agree with us and with Berns that the free market requires fair regulation with an eye toward morality; the Kristi Noem GOP instead has created a Frankenstein’s monster of deregulatory madness to allow excesses in favor of corporate raiders and government subsidies that unfairly pick winners and losers.

  9. Dan Coyote, thanks for the recommendation – I’ll make sure Carl Menger makes it on my summer reading list.

  10. Don, to your point: Although I am no expert in theories of value, I’d like the chance to clarify my line of thought.

    I don’t believe I was ascribing a particular value to anything being produced in this scenario. AFP had used the “fruits of labor” point in their presentation to assert that free-market capitalism allows individuals to keep everything they work for (assuming the premise that people are entitled to that which they produce). I was simply posing the question of who is entitled to the goods being sold and the profits obtained. For example, if 9 line workers and 1 supervisor produce 100 widgets, who actually did the producing and who is entitled to what?

  11. Donald Pay

    AFP spokespeople are hypocrites. It’s nice to have a little seminar on the major points of capitalism and the free market, but not even AFP wants a truly free market. Here in Wisconsin they have supported government handouts to their favorite business interests, for example, and they always lobby for tax credit for the powerful elite, while disparaging the earned income credit. Basically, they are corporate tools, seeking every advantage for the wealthy and every way to stick it to the poor and middle class.

    The truth is every society has some mix of a free enterprise and a quasi-socialistic economy, and we have regulations to establish how both should operate.

    Let’s give a South Dakota example. In the 80s and 90s we were trying to figure out how to get a private enterprise market-based recycling industry started. At that point all garbage went to the landfills, which were socialist enterprises run by cities or counties. But there were resources in that garbage that could be separated from the garbage and sold to various processors and recyclers, most of whom were private enterprises. In order to encourage that private recycling industry we imposed certain regulations, taxes and subsidies. It was all meant to reduce the costs incurred when landfills filled up and new sites had to be opened, thus saving taxpayers money down the road. A new industry was created by creative use of “socialist” mechanisms and private enterprise.

  12. I really enjoyed where that discussion of the fruits of labor led us in our podcast discussion, Joe! Thanks for bringing up that issue from the AFP program!

    Don, I like the point about the practical mix we use in every society versus the absurdly abstract vision the AFP speakers offered. Even Adam Smith would not support AFP’s absolute demonization of government.