A Few Thoughts about Anarchy

This light-hearted post is inspired by comments on “Extreme Libertarianism and the Accountable State“. I considered a long disquisition on the subject but decided that it (the subject) isn’t worth the effort.

Anarchy is a pipe dream. A state of one kind or another always exists or emerges, on a scale that ranges from the family unit to the globe-spanning empire.

If you are looking for a life in which you aren’t subject to another person — even one — you must be prepared to strike out on your own, go off the grid, and live entirely by your own wits and physical skills. If you want to take with you some things that you have acquired — things that were made by corporations that you might otherwise disdain because they are in bed with their regulators — be my guest. Sunk costs are sunk.

What about taking along a significant other or a close friend? Well, that might work if the person is your identical twin (assuming that an identical twin would share your psychological makeup). But, otherwise, you are setting yourself up for conflict. And if you value the other person emotionally or rely on his or her help to make your way through life, you will find yourself necessarily (and fairly often) acquiescing to that person; that is, being ruled by him or her in a way. Unless, of course, you are domineering and make the other person bow to your every wish, though that’s hardly in the spirit of anarchy, is it?

Oh, you’re not that kind of anarchist. You just want conflicts to be resolved and rules to be made locally rather than at some remove, so that you are a full participant in the resolution of conflicts and the making of rules. You can live with decisions with which you disagree as long as you have a direct hand in the making of them.

Well, I hate to break it to you, but that is no longer possible, and hasn’t been possible (in what is now the United States) since 1585. Yes, there is the occasional commune, and a few of them have lasted for more than 50 years. But they are the rare exceptions that prove the rule.

Small towns and villages? Well, they’re really in the same boat as the rare commune that doesn’t collapse like a soufflé after a few years. There’s nothing like the tyranny of small-town mores and ostracism. Even those (mythical) small towns and villages that are actually run in a participatory way — and not by local élites and power-mongers — are no more than microscopic nodes in the vast network of statutes, regulations, ordinances, codes, and judicial decrees that govern almost every economic transaction and far too many social transactions in the United States of America.

So, even a true believer in anarchy who actually wants to attain it must strive realistically. That means working hard just to contain (and occasionally curtail) the powers of the central government, State governments, and local governments. You won’t get far, but you will do more good than you will by preaching anarchy, which ain’t gonna happen and which only kooks like you believe in.

But maybe preaching anarchy gives you a lot of pleasure. So do other fruitless pursuits (e.g., this one), and they’re less frustrating.

P.S. If anarchy were a viable option, it would have long since thrived. If it seems to have eked out a tenuous existence in isolated cases because of state sponsorship, isn’t that evidence of its inviability? And if it hasn’t thrived because statists of one kind and another have suppressed it, isn’t that also proof of its inviability? Call it a non-existence proof. Case closed.

Extreme Libertarianism vs. the Accountable State

I left the following comment on a post at Policy of Truth:

[Another commenter] says “Most libertarians have their entire identity tied up in an a priori commitment to its never, ever being necessary or justified for the state to do anything like issuing and enforcing stay-at-home orders.” That nails it. Error and corruption are human traits, not just government traits. There is a fine line between too much government and not enough of it, and the line has been crossed in the wrong direction (too much) in many, many ways. But that doesn’t mean that there are no cases in which there isn’t enough government.

There’s a history behind my comment. It reflects a position that I staked out long ago (in blog time), and which I stated at length thirteen years ago, in “A Critique of Extreme Libertarianism“. The position is a rejection of the extreme libertarian (anarcho-capitalist) idea that the police and defense functions of government can be and should be provided by private defense agencies (i.e., security contractors). Here are some relevant excerpts (which include links to earlier posts in the same vein):

THE “GOOD” THAT ONLY A STATE CAN PROVIDE

… I have addressed that pipe-dream [private defense agencies] in several posts, including this one, in which I commented on an article by one Robert Murphy, who

assumes that if the vast majority of people agree that it’s wrong to use violence to settle disputes, then that won’t happen. Do the vast majority of people believe that it’s wrong to use violence to settle disputes? Perhaps, but it doesn’t take a vast majority to inject violence into a society; it takes only a relatively small number of renegades, who may be then be able to coerce others into condoning or supporting their criminal activities. . . .

What Murphy doesn’t entertain is the possibility that a small but very rich cabal could create a dominant defense agency that simply refuses to recongize other defense agences, except as enemies. In other words, there’s nothing in Murphy’s loose logic to prove that warlords wouldn’t arise. In fact, he soon gives away the game:

Imagine a bustling city, such as New York, that is initially a free market paradise. Is it really plausible that over time rival gangs would constantly grow, and eventually terrorize the general public? Remember, these would be admittedly criminal organizations; unlike the city government of New York, there would be no ideological support for these gangs.

We must consider that in such an environment, the law-abiding majority would have all sorts of mechanisms at their [sic] disposal, beyond physical confrontation. Once private judges had ruled against a particular rogue agency, the private banks could freeze its assets (up to the amount of fines levied by the arbitrators). In addition, the private utility companies could shut down electricity and water to the agency’’s headquarters, in accordance with standard provisions in their contracts.

Pardon me while I laugh at the notion that lack of “ideological support” for the gangs of New York would make it impossible for gangs to grow and terrorize the general public. That’s precisely what has happened at various times during the history of New York, even though the “law-abiding majority [had] all sorts of mechanisms at [its] disposal.” Murphy insists on hewing to the assumption that the existence of a law-abiding majority somehow prevents the rise a powerful, law-breaking minorities, capable of terrorizing the general public. Wait a minute; now he admits the converse:

Of course, it is theoretically possible that a rogue agency could overcome these obstacles, either through intimidation or division of the spoils, and take over enough banks, power companies, grocery stores, etc. that only full-scale military assault would conquer it. But the point is, from an initial position of market anarchy, these would-be rulers would have to start from scratch. In contrast, under even a limited government, the machinery of mass subjugation is ready and waiting to be seized.

Huh? It’s certainly more than theoretically possible for a “rogue agency” to wreak havoc. A “rogue agency” is nothing more than a fancy term for a street gang, the Mafia, or al Qaeda cells operating in the U.S. A “rogue agency” run by and on behalf of rich and powerful criminals — for their own purposes — would somehow be preferable to police forces and courts operated by a limited government that is accountable to the general public, rich and poor alike? I don’t think so. However much the American state engages in “mass subjugation” — and it does, to a degree — it is also held in check by its accountability to the general public under American law and tradition. A “rogue agency,” by definition, would be unbound by law and tradition.

Murphy’s analysis takes place in a land called “Erewhon.” He chooses to ignore the fact that he lives in the United States because he wasn’t a party to the Constitution. Yet that Constitution provides for a limited government, which in more than 200 years has yet to engage in systematic, mass subjugation of the kind practiced in the Third Reich and the Soviet Union, except in the case of slavery. And guess what? The American state ended slavery. How’s that for mass subjugation?

Anyone can conjure a Utopia, as Murphy has. But no one can guarantee that it will work. Murphy certainly hasn’t made the case that his Utopia would work.

In any event, by focusing on intra-societal violence Murphy ignores completely two crucial questions: (1) Can an anarchistic society effectively defend itself against an outside force? (2) Can it do so better than a society in which the state has a monopoly on the use of force with respect to outside entities? Murphy implies that the answer to both questions is “yes,” though he fails to explore those questions. Here is my brief answer: The cost of mounting a credible defense of the United States from foreign enemies probably would support only one supplier; that is, national defense is a natural monopoly. It is better for the American state — given its accountability to the general public — to be that supplier. . . .

A wasteful, accountable, American state is certainly preferable to an efficient, private, defense agency in possession of the same military might. Hitler and Stalin, in effect, ran private defense agencies, and look where that landed the Germans and Russians. Talk about subjugation.

THE STATE: AN INEVITABLE CREATURE OF SOCIETY

Contrary to Murphy and his ilk, there is no such thing as statelessness, at least not for groups larger than, say, hunter-gatherer bands or Hutterite colonies. Why? Because it is impossible for a group of more than a few dozen or a dozen-dozen persons to live together in pure consensus. In the end, a faction will dominate the group (a shifting faction, perhaps). And that faction will define harms that may be punished, punish those harms (i.e., administer justice), and take responsibility for the group’s defense.

The state is not a “thing” to be kept at bay; it is the mechanism by which a people enforces justice and defends itself against outsiders.The questions facing a group always are these: Upon what principles shall we found and guide the state, and to whom shall we entrust the the functions of the state?

Consider this:

A group of persons may be said to live in anarchy only if all of the rules that affect everyone in the group (e.g., where to live, how best to defend the group against predators) are made by unanimous, informed consent, which might be tacit. It follows, then, that a group might — by unanimous, informed consent — give a subset of its members the authority to make such decisions. The group’s members might delegate such authority, willingly and unanimously, because each member believes it to be in his or her best interest to do so. (The reasons for that belief might vary, but they probably would include the notion of comparative advantage; that is, those who are not in the governing subset would have time to pursue those activities at which they are most productive.) With a governing subset — or government — the group would no longer live in anarchy, even if the group remains harmonious and membership in it remains voluntary.

The government becomes illegitimate only when it exceeds its grant of authority and resists efforts to curb those excesses or to redefine the grant of authority. The passage of time, during which there are changes in the group’s membership, does not deligitimate the government as long as the group’s new members voluntarily assent to governance. Voluntary assent, as discussed above, may consist simply in choosing to remain a member of the group.

Now, ask yourself how likely it is that a group larger than, say, a nuclear family or a band of hunter-gatherers might choose to go without a government. Self-interest dictates that even relatively small groups will choose — for reasons of economy, if nothing else — to place certain decisions in the hands of a government.

All talk of anarchy as a viable option to limited government is nothing more than talk. Empty talk, at that.

EXTREME LIBERTARIANISM’S FATAL FLAW: THE “ANNE FRANK SYNDROME”

The political view that there should not be a state, if followed to its logical conclusion, would leave most Americans prey to the very real predators who lurk at home and abroad. Those very real predators care not one whit about non-aggression principles and contractual obligations, contrary to the assertions of Gustave de Molinari, a favorite of anarcho-capitalists, who wrote this:

Under a regime of liberty, the natural organization of the security industry would not be different from that of other industries. In small districts a single entrepreneur could suffice. This entrepreneur might leave his business to his son, or sell it to another entrepreneur. In larger districts, one company by itself would bring together enough resources adequately to carry on this important and difficult business. If it were well managed, this company could easily last, and security would last with it. In the security industry, just as in most of the other branches of production, the latter mode of organization will probably replace the former, in the end.

The “customers would not allow themselves to be conquered”? Tell that to those who pay gangsters for “protection,” and to the residents of gang-ridden areas. Molinari conveniently forgets that the ranks of “competitors” are open to those who, in their viciousness, will and do attack the persons and property of their rivals. If not everyone is honorable, as Molinari admits elsewhere in his essay, why would we expect private providers of security be honorable? Why would they not extort their customers while fighting each other? The result is bound to be something worse than life under an accountable state monopoly (such as we have in the U.S.) — something fraught with violence and fear. Think of The Roaring Twenties without the glossy coat of Hollywood glamour.

Molinari and his anarcho-libertarian descendants exhibit the Anne Frank syndrome. About three weeks before Frank and her family were betrayed and arrested, she wrote:

It’’s a wonder I haven’’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.

… Murphy, Molinari, and their ilk do not proclaim the jejune belief that all “people are truly good at heart,” yet they persist in the belief that the security can be achieved in the absence of an accountable state. That is, like Anne Frank, they assume — contrary to all evidence — that “people are truly good at heart.” But competition, by itself, does not and cannot prevent criminal acts.

Competition, to be beneficial, must be conducted within the framework of a rule of law. That rule of law must be enforced by a state which is accountable to its citizens for the preservation of their liberty. The present rule of law in the United States is far from perfect, but it is far more perfect than the alternative that is dreamt of by extreme libertarians.

THE PROPER LIBERTARIAN AGENDA

As I wrote here, extreme libertarianism

rests on invalid conceptions of human nature and the state. Contrary to the evidence of history, it presumes that no one would or could accrue and exercise enough power to flout the common law and treat other persons coercively. Contrary to the evidence of history — especially American history — it presumes that a properly constituted and governed state cannot increase the quotient of liberty.

There is no choice between anarchy and the state. Anarchy leads inexorably to coercion — except in a dreamworld. The real choice … is between the toughest guy on the block or a state whose actions are capable of redirection through our representative democracy.

The proper task at hand for American libertarians isn’t to do away with the state but to work toward a state that defends free markets, property rights, the common law, and freedom of contract.

Another task for American libertarians is to work toward devolution of power back to the individual States and, within the States, to the lowest possible level. The key to liberty is the ability of the individual to pick and choose among a variety of “experiments” in government. That is true federalism.

Anarcho-capitalism exemplifies a nirvana fallacy, in that it posits an unrealistic, unattainable alternative to the inevitable imperfections that accompany state rule. Anarchists have offered examples of “successful anarchies”, but the ones that I have seen have one thing in common: state sponsorship and protection (e.g., here).

Which leads me to an alternative (whose realism and attainability I will discuss) — a central government that is constrained to do the following:

  • Defend Americans and their overseas interests against foreign predators.
  • Ensure the free flow of trade among Americans without intervention, except to bar the sale or disclosure of products, service, or information detrimental to defense.
  • Guarantee due process of law, property rights, freedom of association, freedom of political speech, and free exercise of religion (consistent with the foregoing) throughout the United States.
  • Leave the rest to the States and their political subdivisions, provided that they do not interfere with or violate the preceding constraints.

That’s not an exact description of the state of affairs in the U.S. from 1789 to the late 1800s, but with a few significant (and since remedied) exceptions it is an approximate description. There was, of course, slavery and then injustice toward blacks on a vast scale. And there were many lesser failures, too, including the denial of suffrage to women.

A more perfect state of affairs would be one in which “the clock is turned back” on the central government’s myriad interventions since the late 1800s, except for those that are obviously just (e.g., the abolition of slavery, the end of Jim Crow, voting rights for blacks and women). I describe turning back the clock in that way because big-government advocates like to claim that those of us who wish to roll back the central government’s power also long for a replication of the 19th century. Balderdash!

At any rate, turning back the clock would be difficult, as evidenced by the continued growth of government power since the days of Teddy Roosevelt’s imperial presidency, despite not inconsiderable resistance and brief periods of abatement. Why is that? Because the growth of government is always rationalized as doing what’s necessary to “help” X, Y, and Z (sometimes by penalizing A, B, and C) — even though X, Y, Z, and their progeny are made the poorer for it.

But if the history of the past several decades shows anything, it shows that unremitting pressure to roll back the central government’s power can succeed in slowing its growth and even, in some areas, reversing it. The successes are due to two developments:

  • The election of Republican presidents and majorities in Congress. (Not all Republicans are devoted to smaller government, despite the lip-service most of them pay to that objective, but all Democrats, as far as I can tell, are devoted to the enlargement of government.)
  • The taming of the administrative state — the conglomeration of agencies that wields discretionary power to interpret and elaborate the broad powers entrusted to it, and then to execute and adjudicate its own interpretations and elaborations. (The taming will be done by Republicans it is done by anyone.)

The second development is as crucial than the first, because the administrative state cannot be regrown overnight, even with Democrats in charge.

A government in which the administrative state has been subdued is bound to act more like an accountable government. The acts of elected officials — and the consequence of those acts — will be more visible to the electorate if they take place in the spotlights that shine on Congress and the White House than if they are concealed in the shadows of the bureaucracy.

That’s the best that I can offer. It’s realistic and attainable, unlike the nirvana offered by libertarians.

Friedman on Anarchy and Conservatism

Friedman is David D. Friedman, proprietor of Ideas and author of (among many things) The Machinery of Freedom, which is mainly a sustained argument for anarcho-capitalism. As Friedman explains in the preface,

[t]he first edition of this book was written a little over forty years ago, the second about twenty years later. In this third edition, as in the second, I have chosen to leave the original material for the most part unchanged; references in parts I-III are to the world c. 1970, in part IV to the world c. 1988….

What I have added in this edition, aside from minor stylistic changes … is in parts V and VI. Part V contains later, I hope deeper, thoughts on my earlier ideas, part VI new material.

Friedman’s attachment to anarcho-capitalism has held for almost 50 years. That’s a remarkable record of intellectual consistency. Whether it signifies the soundness of anarcho-capitalism or merely world-class stubbornness is another matter. (In the past 50 years, my own views have evolved from collegiate “liberalism” to limited-government libertarianism to Burkean conservatism.)

Before I go further, I will say that I admire and agree with Friedman’s lucid treatment of free markets and their advantages vis-à-vis government regulations and government-provided services. But I disagree with Friedman’s view that private entities can replace government when it comes to criminal justice. I also disagree with Friedman’s characterization of conservatives as stubbornly opposed to change.

I must note, also, that Friedman’s main style of argumentation in The Machinery of Freedom is to pile assertion upon assumption, and to do so at such length and in such temperate language that the unwary or receptive reader may be lulled into agreement. The Machinery of Freedom is a long book (378 pages in paperback), so I will only offer a few examples of Friedman’s style — examples that I consider representative. The first example is drawn from chapter 29, “Police, Courts, and Laws — on the Market,” in which Friedman argues for private protection and adjudication agencies. He begins reasonably enough:

How, without government, could we settle the disputes that are now settled in courts of law? How could we protect ourselves from criminals?

Consider first the easiest case, the resolution of disputes involving contracts between well-established firms. A large fraction of such disputes are now settled not by government courts but by private arbitration of the sort described in Chapter 18. The firms, when they draw up a contract, specify a procedure for arbitrating any dispute that may arise. Thus they avoid the expense and delay of the courts.

The arbitrator has no police force. His function is to render decisions, not to enforce them. Currently, arbitrated decisions are usually enforceable in the government courts, but that is a recent development; historically, enforcement came from a firm’s desire to maintain its reputation. After refusing to accept an arbitrator’s judgment, it is hard to persuade anyone else to sign a contract that specifies arbitration; no one wants to play a game of ‘heads you win, tails I lose’.

Arbitration arrangements are already widespread. As the courts continue to deteriorate, arbitration will continue to grow. But it only provides for the resolution of disputes over pre-existing contracts. Arbitration, by itself, provides no solution for the man whose car is dented by a careless driver, still less for the victim of theft; in both cases the plaintiff and defendant, having different interests and no prior agreement, are unlikely to find a mutually satisfactory arbitrator. Indeed, the defendant has no reason to accept any arbitration at all; he can only lose—which brings us to the problem of preventing coercion.

Friedman then explains market-based solutions to the problem of preventing coercion. What follows, until I signal a new topic, are excerpts of his discussion with my commentary (underlined in brackets):

Protection from coercion is an economic good. It is presently sold in a variety of forms—Brinks guards, locks, burglar alarms. As the effectiveness of government police declines [this seems to be an assumption disguised as a fact-based assertion], these market substitutes for the police, like market substitutes for the courts, become more popular [or they could become more popular as supplements to government policing, which is limited by the amount that governments are able to extract from taxpayers].

Suppose, then, that at some future time there are no government police but instead private right enforcement agencies. [Realistically, there would be no government police — or unregulated private police — only if government itself were to disappear. I view that as an impossible event.] These agencies sell the service of protecting their clients against crime. Perhaps they also guarantee performance by insuring their clients against losses resulting from criminal acts. [How would private agencies differentiate themselves from gangsters who sell “protection”? This is an issue of trust that seldom arises with government police (or only among a small fraction of the populace), and an important reason for the retention of government police.]….

[Private agencies] would be selling a service to their customers and would have a strong incentive to provide as high a quality of service as possible at the lowest possible cost. It is reasonable to suppose that the quality of service would be higher and the cost lower than with the present governmental protective system. [Whether the cost would be lower depends to some extent on the scale of private agencies relative to the government ones they would replace. It’s premature to make assertions about quality of service before addressing the problem of inter-agency conflict.]

Inevitably, conflicts would arise between one agency and another. How might they be resolved?

I come home one night and find my television set missing. I immediately call my agency, Tannahelp Inc., to report the theft. They send an agent. He checks the automatic camera which Tannahelp, as part of their service, installed in my living room and discovers a picture of one Joe Bock lugging the television set out the door. [The security camera is a nice touch, but it strongly suggests that Tannahelp is providing a supplemental service, not merely supplanting government police. A lot of people can’t afford supplemental police services. Who do they turn to if there are no government police?] The Tannahelp agent contacts Joe, informs him that Tannahelp has reason to believe he is in possession of my television set, and suggests he return it, along with an extra ten dollars to pay for Tannahelp’s time and trouble in locating Joe. Joe replies that he has never seen my television set in his life and tells the Tannahelp agent to go to hell.

The agent points out that until Tannahelp is convinced there has been a mistake, he must proceed on the assumption that the television set is my property. Six Tannahelp employees, all large and energetic, will be at Joe’s door next morning to collect the set. Joe, in response, informs the agent that he also has a rights enforcement agency, Dawn Defense, and that his contract with them undoubtedly requires them to protect him if six goons try to break into his house and steal his television set.

The stage seems set for a nice little war between Tannahelp and Dawn Defense. It is precisely such a possibility that has led some libertarians who are not anarchists, most notably Ayn Rand, to reject the possibility of competing free-market rights enforcement agencies.

But wars are very expensive and Tannahelp and Dawn Defense are both profit-making corporations, more interested in saving money than face. I think the rest of the story would be less violent than Miss Rand supposed. [Maybe, maybe not. It’s just as likely that the most successful agency, and the eventual monopolist in a geopolitical area, will be the one that’s most aggressive, and which can afford to be aggressive because it numbers wealthy people among its clientele.]

The Tannahelp agent calls up his opposite number at Dawn Defense. ‘We’ve got a problem. . . .’ After explaining the situation, he points out that if Tannahelp sends six men and Dawn eight, there will be a fight. Someone might even get hurt. Whoever wins, by the time the conflict is over it will be expensive for both sides. They might even have to start paying their employees higher wages to make up for the risk. Then both firms will be forced to raise their rates. If they do, Murbard Ltd., an aggressive new firm which has been trying to get established in the area, will undercut their prices and steal their customers. [How convenient.] There must be a better solution.

The man from Tannahelp suggests that the better solution is arbitration. They will take the dispute over my television set to a reputable local arbitration firm. If the arbitrator decides that Joe is innocent, Tannahelp agrees to pay Joe and Dawn Defense an indemnity to make up for their time and trouble. If he is found guilty, Dawn Defense will accept the verdict; since the television set is not Joe’s, they have no obligation to protect him when the men from Tannahelp come to seize it. [An aggresssive agency of the kind that I posit above is also likely to have a monopoly on arbitration services — either overtly or through sub rosa relationships.]

What I have described is a very makeshift arrangement. In practice, once anarcho-capitalist institutions were well established [but how do we get from here to there?], agencies would anticipate such difficulties and arrange contracts in advance, before specific conflicts occurred, specifying the arbitrator who would settle them.

In such an anarchist society, who would make the laws? On what basis would the private arbitrator decide what acts were criminal and what their punishments should be? The answer is that systems of law would be produced for profit on the open market, just as books and bras are produced today. There could be competition among different brands of law just as there is competition among different brands of cars.

In such a society there might be many courts and even many legal systems. Each pair of protection agencies agree in advance on which court they will use in case of conflict. Thus the laws under which a particular case is decided are determined implicitly by advance agreement between the agencies whose customers are involved. In principle, there could be a different court and a different set of laws for every pair of agencies. In practice, many agencies would probably find it convenient to patronize the same courts, and many courts might find it convenient to adopt identical, or nearly identical, systems of law in order to simplify matters for their customers. Before labeling a society in which different people are under different laws chaotic and unjust, remember that in our society the law under which you are judged depends on the country, state, and even city in which you happen to be. Under the arrangements I am describing, it depends instead on your agency and the agency of the person you accuse of a crime or who accuses you of a crime. In such a society law is produced on the market. A court supports itself by charging for the service of arbitrating disputes. Its success depends on its reputation for honesty, reliability, and promptness and on the desirability to potential customers of the particular set of laws it judges by. [No, its success depends on selling its services to the highest bidders, who will be willing to pay for partial “justice” — as opposed to the impartial kind that criminal courts in the U.S. usually dispense.]….

Several objections may be raised to … free-market courts. The first is that they would sell justice by deciding in favor of the highest bidder. That would be suicidal; unless they maintained a reputation for honesty, they would have no customers— unlike our present judges. [This assertion conveniently disregards the strong possibility of a monopoly acquired through force and bribery. The stakes are such that war-like competition for the top-dog position, as costly as it is, can’t be ruled out. See, for example, the history of the Chicago Outfit and rivals in the days when government police were relatively ineffective.]….

Until he is actually accused of a crime, everyone wants laws that protect him from crime and let him interact peacefully and productively with others. Even criminals. Not many murderers would wish to live under laws that permitted them to kill— and be killed. [Everyone? Surely not. There are large numbers of persons, especially among the least rational and most dangerous segment of the populace, who simply don’t think like economists. And even among rational persons of means, there are many who believe that they have the wherewithal to defend themselves while getting away with murder and other anti-social acts.]

I turn now to chapter 63, “The Conservative Mistake.” This is less an apology for anarchy than it is a defense of open borders and an indictment of those who resist change. I take it up because it further illustrates Friedman’s penchant for making broad, unsupported, and (sometimes) off-target assertions — in this case about conservatism.

Critics of free immigration worry that immigrants might change the country, make it more socialist, more crime ridden, more like the places they are coming from, but offer no strong reason to expect those particular effects. Leaving the place where you grew up to move somewhere very different is, after all, evidence that you prefer the latter. [But “you” prefer the latter for particular reasons. Among those reasons is the knowledge that the new country offers a rather cushy “safety net” relative to that of the old country.] As I pointed out in one exchange, the Volokh brothers, associated with the popular libertarian/conservative legal blog the Volokh Conspiracy, are immigrants from the ex-Soviet Union. While Eugene and Sasha Volokh are slightly more socialist than I am, they are much less socialist than most of their fellow academics, not entirely surprising given that they have experienced socialism at first hand. [They are also unrepresentative of the vast numbers of immigrants who pour into the country from the south, and whose presence predictably results in higher taxes and lower wages for the many citizens who don’t reap the benefits of immigration.]

The same assumption, that change is presumptively bad, appears in arguments over global warming. [That change, in the form of unfettered immigration, will impose costs on citizens is a reasonable position for many citizens to take. Friedman glibly lumps opposition to that kind of change with the religious fervor which accompanies opposition to and fears of global warming, genetically modified foods, and fracking. The opening sentence spoils this otherwise trenchant paragraph.] It seems likely that the average temperature of the globe will go up by several degrees C over the next hundred years due mostly to increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. If I had to guess, my guess would be that the net effect of the change will be positive, for at least two reasons. The first is that human habitability is limited mostly by cold, not heat— the equator is populated, the poles are not. The second is that, for well understood reasons, global warming can be expected to increase temperatures more in cold places and at cold times than in warm. Combine those two and one might guess that a somewhat warmer world would be, on the whole, more suited to humans, not less. Yet most people discussing the issue take it for granted that the change is bad, indeed catastrophically bad. A similar pattern holds for a variety of other issues, from fracking to cloning to GMO foods.

I call it a mistake, but perhaps that is unfair. We know that the present is at least tolerable, since we are at present tolerating it. [Who is “we”? And what does it mean to “tolerate” something. I can “tolerate” a toothache, but for only as long as it takes to have the tooth treated or extracted.] A change might make things better, might make them worse, so why chance it? That sounds like a plausible argument, but it contains a hidden assumption— that stasis is an option, that if we do not have more immigration our cultural and political circumstances will remain the same, that without anthropogenic CO2, climate will stay what it currently is. [In the case of immigration, Friedman again resorts to an inappropriate collective view. There are many citizens whose lives are made worse because of immigration, even as there are many citizens who benefit from the availability of low-wage labor in yard maintenance, child care, and fast-food service.]

Both are demonstrably false. Over my lifetime the cultural and political institutions of the U.S. have changed for reasons that had little to do with immigration. [Immigration, however, imposes changes over and above those that would occur through the evolution of social norms in a more homogeneous polity.] Over the past million years, the climate of the earth has changed radically time after time for reasons that had nothing to do with anthropogenic CO2. A rise in sea level of a foot or two would create problems in some parts of the world, but not problems comparable to the effect of half a mile of ice over the present locations of Chicago and London.

The left wing version of the conservative mistake comes with its own pseudoscientific slogan, ‘the precautionary principle.’ It is the rule that no decision should be made unless one can be confident that it will not have substantial bad effects, that the lack of a reason to expect it have such effects is not enough. It sounds plausible, merely a matter of playing safe, but a moment’s thought should convince you that it is not merely wrong, it is internally incoherent. The decision to permit nuclear power could have substantial bad effects. The decision not to permit nuclear power could also have substantial bad effects. If one takes the precautionary principle seriously, one is obligated to neither permit nor forbid nuclear power and similarly with many other choices, including acting or not acting to prevent global warming.

Continuing with that example, I have long argued, only partly in jest, that the precautionary principle is a major source of global warming. Nuclear power is the one source of power that does not produce CO2 and can be expanded more or less without limit. A major factor restricting the growth of nuclear power has been the precautionary principle, even if not always under that name— hostility to permitting reactors to be built as long as there is any chance that anything could go wrong. That example demonstrates my more general point: Stasis is not an option. The world is going to change whether or not we permit nuclear power and there is no a priori reason to expect the changes if we permit it to be worse than those if we do not.

I am not arguing that there is never a good reason to fear change; sometimes a change can be reasonably predicted to have bad consequences. I am arguing that much opposition to change, across a wide range of different topics and disputes, is based on the mistaken assumption that if only that particular change is prevented, the next year, the next decade, the next century, will be more or less the same as the present. [Not so. Principled conservatives — and there are still a lot of us — understand and accept the beneficial role of evolutionary change, unforced by government policy.]

That is very unlikely. [No kidding!]

It’s not that I disagree with Friedman’s disdain for government, which is far, far more intrusive than is economically and socially healthy. But Friedman, whose high intelligence is beyond doubt, puts that intelligence to bad use in his biased argument for an unattainable nirvana and mistaken characterization of conservatism.

Bounded Liberty: A Thought Experiment

Imagine an anarcho-capitalist enclave in which membership and all interpersonal transactions are voluntary. (Assume, for the sake of simplicity, that the enclave is populated only by sane adults.) Disputes that cannot be resolved by the parties are resolved through arbitration, to which all members of the enclave subscribe as a condition of membership. As a further condition of membership, contractual obligations and adherence to the decisions of arbitrators are enforced by a  private agent, which is appointed for the sole purpose of such enforcement by the unanimous consent of the members of the enclave. In the alternative, individuals or groups of individuals would hire their own private agents to negotiate disputes. (That the agent or agents might assume state-like power or act like warlords are possibilities too realistic to be admitted by anarcho-capitalists.)

The libertarian spirit which reigns in this Anarcho-topia implies, among other things, absolute freedom of speech. There wouldn’t be laws against aggressive speech — slander, libel, harassment, and threats, for example. In fact, there wouldn’t be laws against (or about) anything because laws arbitrarily constrain the voluntary actions of consenting parties. In the absence of laws, aggrieved parties would seek relief and/or restitution through arbitration. At the direction of an arbitrator, an offending party would be expected to grant relief and/or restitution voluntarily. Failure to do so would be grounds for action by the enforcement agency, which has every person’s prior consent to act. Arbitration and enforcement would yield precedents, of course, but precedents would be informational rather than binding.

Now, suppose that a persuasive orator — one who commits no slander, harasses no one, and threatens no one — is able to convince a majority of the enclave’s denizens that the older members of the enclave should be supported by the younger members, all of whom must “contribute” to the support of the elders, like it or not. It’s true that the orator is proposing a course of action that is tantamount to aggression. But it’s entirely possible that an arbitrator would allow speech that isn’t directly aggressive, on the ground that to do so might set a dangerous, anti-libertarian precedent.

Suppose further that the majority forthwith hires a powerful agent — one even more powerful than the one designated as the enforcer of arbitration decisions — to force everyone to “contribute” to the support of elders. (Such an outcome, which effectively destroys liberty in Anarcho-topia, is roughly parallel to the demise of America’s relatively libertarian economic order because of the anti-constitutional regulatory and welfare schemes that have been enacted since the onset of the Progressive Era.)

Perhaps, in hindsight,  Anarcho-topians should have adopted and enforced a restraint on liberty for the sake of preserving it. The restraint might have been that no one could advocate or conspire in the coercion of the populace for any purpose other than the defense of Anarcho-topians.

Why an exception for defense? Imagine the long-term consequences for the enclave if it were to dither as a marauding band approached, or if too few members of the society were to volunteer the resources needed to defeat the marauding band. What’s the good of a commitment to liberty if it leads to the demise of liberty?

Here, then, is the paradox for libertarians: Some aspects of liberty must be circumscribed in order to preserve most aspects of liberty. As always, the question is where to draw the line.

Related reading: As I was polishing this post, which is a remake of “A Paradox for Libertarians” (2005), I happened upon “Libertarianism and Asteroid Defense,” by Ilya Somin at The Volokh Conspiracy. Somin’s post hits the same theme: the foolishness of rights-absolutism.

Related posts:
On Liberty
Parsing Political Philosophy
First Principles
The State of the Union: 2010
The Shape of Things to Come
I Want My Country Back

The Constitution: Original Meaning, Corruption, and Restoration
A Conversation with Uncle Sam
Does the Power to Tax Give Congress Unlimited Power?
Does Congress Have the Power to Regulate Inactivity?
Is the Constitution True?
Is the Constitution True? An Addendum

The Indivisibility of Economic and Social Liberty
Law and Liberty
The Devolution of American Politics from Wisdom to Opportunism
Tocqueville’s Prescience
Line-Drawing and Liberty
The Divine Right of the Majority

Cato’s Usual Casuistry on Matters of War and Peace
The Media, the Left, and War
Torture
The “Predator War” and Self-Defense
The National Psyche and Foreign Wars
Delusions of Preparedness
Inside-Outside
A Moralist’s Moral Blindness
The Folly of Pacifism

Economic Growth since WWII
The Price of Government
The Commandeered Economy
The Price of Government Redux
The Mega-Depression
The Real Burden of Government
Toward a Risk-Free Economy
The Rahn Curve at Work
The Illusion of Prosperity and Stability
Estimating the Rahn Curve: Or, How Government Inhibits Economic Growth