David Friedman is a Hoot

The December issue of Liberty Magazine arrived today, and I'm glad to see portions of it are already online.

This month's edition contains a transcript of a panel discussing the question, "Does Freedom Mean Anarchy?" at the May Liberty Editors' Conference in Las Vegas. The participants were Charles Murray, David Boaz, David Friedman, and R.W. Bradford.

The debate reminds me of Reason's March article between Richard A. Epstein, Randy Barnett, David Friedman, and James P. Pinkerton. Just as Pinkerton does not really engage the relevant arguments, and seems either unaware or uninterested in what everyone else is talking about, so too here, Murray goes off on a tangent of his own. For some reason, Murray thinks that human nature is terribly important -- which it is, don't get me wrong -- but doesn't explain exactly how it relates to his argument for small government. What is it about the nature of man makes small government the best possible system? Murray does not say.

David Friedman, as usual, is a delight. Earlier in the discussion, Murray said the following:

I want to make two main points. The first goes back to the 18th century and a line of thinking exemplified by Adam Smith. Other thinkers were a part of this tradition, but Adam Smith said it best in "The Theory of Moral Sentiments." Anybody in this room who wants to talk about anarchism and limited government has to read that book. It is a wonderful book. You don't have to read it cover to cover — it's sort of like my books in that way. You can dip into various parts of it and skip long sections that deal with 18th century Scotland and England. It is an absolutely brilliant book.

He then goes on for another few minutes discussion approbation and the relationship between the distribution of intelligence and the incidence of violent behavior. Interesting stuff, I guess, but at best only indirectly related to the argument at hand.

Friedman, though, starts off with a zinger:

Unlike Charles, I try to write books all of which are worth reading.

Oh, snap!

He goes on,

Usually the argument on anarchy vs. minarchy consists mostly of people trying to argue that an anarchist system can't work and other people arguing that it can work. I'd like to take the other side and discuss why limited government is obviously a utopian scheme that cannot possibly work.

To begin with, the supporters of institutions that are supposed to give us governments that respect and protect rights regard all of history as experimental error — we have after all done the experiment a couple of times — and they believe that if only this time we got it right, if only we wrote the right constitution, or somehow tweaked the system, we could actually get a government which was given a monopoly of the ability to use force on other people and, of course, only use it to protect people's rights. Some of them believe you can do this with the right constitution. I was discussing this with my wife on the phone last night and she said, "Yes, the minarchists have a touching faith in constitutions." And I thought H.L. Mencken put it much better, as he put most things, when he said, "In nothing did the founders of this country so demonstrate their essential naivete than in attempting to constrain government from all of its favorite abuses, and entrusting the enforcement of these protections to judges; that is to say, men who had been lawyers; that is to say, men professionally trained in finding plausible excuses for dishonest and dishonorable acts."

The other variant of minarchism is the one held by those who don't think you can do it by writing the constitution right, and think you can do it by only having the right philosophy for the society. This is a view I especially identify with followers of Ayn Rand, a woman whom I greatly admire and frequently disagree with. I spent a number of years as a very active participant on a Usenet news group, where a bunch of the participants are hard-core Objectivists, some of them going all the way back to more or less the beginning of the movement, and one of the striking things was the amount of disagreement on that list. I can point you at intelligent and thoughtful people who consider themselves Objectivists, who believe that they accept the basics of Rand's philosophy, and essentially believe that you are morally obliged to obey the laws of the War on Drugs. I know one such person; he's one of the people on that list I have more respect for, because he at least follows through the logic of his position, which is a sort of a version of a social contract theory. He thinks there shouldn't be a War on Drugs, of course, but that once there is, you are obliged to obey. And there were other people with a wide range of other views — so judging just by my empirical observation starting with a reasonably commonly held philosophy, one whose founder thought it was the solution to the problem of government abuses, you can generate all of the arguments necessary, if you want, to make Mencken's plausible excuses for dishonest and dishonorable acts. To put it differently, the fundamental mistake in the view of the people who believe you can have a long-term, stable, rights-respecting government, is that they think the evidence is all a mistake — that there is no consistent reason why governments behave the way they do, it just happens because sometimes they have the wrong constitution and sometimes the wrong philosophy.

But government behavior is not an accident. If you give people a monopoly over the use of force, like any other sensible people, they will use it in a way that best achieves their ends, and that will very rarely involve protecting individual rights. There is a whole branch of economics called public choice theory which attempts to explain the behavior of governments. And it's not a finished job — there's lots of stuff we can't understand. For instance, I'm a little puzzled that they don't take 99% of our income but rather satisfy themselves with 30 or 40% — well 99% is too high, we'd die, so 94%. But it turns out that if you think through the logic of political systems, including democratic ones, the use of government to transfer money from poorly organized interest groups to well-organized interest groups and in the process take a cut is a predictable outcome. And if you had an Objectivist government and waited a few years for people to think up plausible excuses, it would happen there too. That's a prediction made with some confidence.The idea that the way you restrain people's desire to use force is to give it all to one person was famously argued by Hobbes, and I didn't realize there were that many Hobbesians left in the building.

Finally, observe that the whole minarchist position depends on the idea that though the government can't do a competent job of building automobiles or delivering the mail or producing food, somehow it can design a legal system. This is not the world's easiest problem, I can assure you.

In my view there really is only one solution to government behaving the way government behaves, and that's not to have one.

There's much, much more, and I encourage you to read the whole thing.

Boaz and Bradford have interesting positions. Boaz comes across as an ex-Randian, without the unpleasent dogmatism. He recognizes the importance of consequences, unlike many other natural-rights libertarians, and he grants Friedman's point that limited constitutional government doesn't have a very good track record.

Unfortunately, as an audience member points out later in the question-and-answer period, Boaz fails to recognize the contradiction between his proposed means and his desired ends. Boaz believes in a form of "rights-utilitarianism" (although he does not call it that): an ethical system which grants moral legitimacy to government rights-violations so long as those violations are necessary to minimize private-rights violations. Robert Nozick, in Anarchy, State, and Utopia notably rejected this doctrine, on the grounds that rights are properly understood as side constraints on individual action, and not as something to maximized.

I'm not sure if Nozick's argument is dispositive, but it does seem strange to mix natural rights and utilitarianism so. Most of Boaz's arguments, as he himself admits, are based on intuition and introspection, so if you don't find them initially convincing, there's not much else to chew on.

Bradford definitely presents the most unique position. He begins with an attempt at establishing his libertarian street cred:

David asked me earlier whether I was an anarchist or not, and the only response I could give was that at Libertarian Party picnics, I always played on the anarchists' softball team. [Laughter.] I got into a long discussion of this with Murray Rothbard once. He asked me how I would describe my political philosophy and I said, "Well, it's ultimately statist." And he asked me to describe what it was, and after a long discussion he told me that he thought my position was more or less tantamount to his own. Murray, of course, considered himself to be an anarchist.

What follows, though, is more of an attempt at minimizing the differences between anarchists and minarchists than a defense or lucid explanation of his own position. Bradford defines the term "government" in such a way as to be compatible with anarchist requirements, but this is only helpful if we accept his claim that

this issue is not as important as it seems. What we're talking about here is end-state libertarianism. We're talking about where the evolution of a free society eventually ends. All libertarians share a certain vision, but we have a wide variety of ideas about how to implement our vision, about how liberty can progress.

Now, this is true as far as it goes. Anarchists and minarchists have much in common, and we shouldn't spend too much time focusing on our differences when we are so far from what either of the two groups want anyway. But I think there are good reasons to discuss the issue every now and then. First, we do disagree on what kinds of institutions are just and unjust, or what kinds of institutions are more likely to generate good consequences, and we would both like to convince the other side of the error of their ways and the correctness of our own position. Second, when arguing with non-libertarians, both sides feel that the other is a liability. Minarchists don't want to be accused of being anarchists nor do they wish to defend the anarchist position when they don't believe it themselves. Anarchists don't want to give non-libertarians the impression that they believe there is a categorical difference between state provision of "some sort of police system, some sort of court system," and the provisions of "roads or schools or any of those other services that are sometimes called public goods," as David Boaz claims. I always found this to be a major weakness in minarchism, and it is one the main reasons why I eventually abandoned that position.

All in all, though, an interesting debate and one I wish I could have attended in person.

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Yeah, I was busy finishing

Yeah, I was busy finishing up my own talk, so I got to go to very few panels, and missed this one.

My comment has turned into a

My comment has turned into a post, so a post it shall be...

This bit at the end was a

This bit at the end was a good consequentalist, anti-utopian closing:

Audience Member: Okay, I'm not an economist, but let's say I agree with Mr. Friedman that basically, those agencies that resort to violence to solve their problems will eventually fail. In a different sense the same thing is happening now: Enron cheated, and Enron lost. But Enron got away with it for a while, and what was at stake there was money, but what's at stake here is force.

Friedman: But I think that I'm describing the equilibrium, and sometimes we make mistakes, and sometimes occasionally there may be violence; but after all, in the world we live in, violence happens too: between states and within states. I'm not a utopian. I've never been a utopian. I assume that even in the best institutions we can arrange, rights will sometimes get violated, bad things will sometimes happen. I'm only arguing that a decentralized market approach to the enforcement of rights and the settlement of disputes is likely to result in fewer bad things happening and rights getting violated less often than any of the others.

To anybody who is willing to

To anybody who is willing to answer this.

Think about this one carefully, its more loaded then it looks.

Realisticaly, what is the difference between a government and a company on the free market? Both maintain a monopoly of power over a specific area and in both cases if you are disatisfied you can freely leave and maintain relations with a competitor. Sure it could be said that government maintains force over a physical area in which ones property is loacted, but how is that different from a large property developer? In both cases one has to physically leave if they dont like the rules. And in both cases contracts dont necasserily have to be by direct consent.

Jake: I believe the


I believe the differences are probably in the end largely arbitrary, but nevertheless, two significant ones I can think of are 1. most governments are much bigger than private property developers, and 2. people voluntary move onto the land of the private property developer, whereas governments tend to be imposed on people after they already live somewhere.

I once asked David Friedman the same question, and he pointed me to one of his articles, Capitalist Trucks. I'm going to follow his lead and do the same thing.


And just for the record, Patri, if you read this: tell your Dad he kicks so much ass. His comments were just awesome.