January 31, 2004

The Tale of the Serf

Here are two situations:

In the first, you are a free and independent peasant living in a village. Your field is your own. Your crops are you own. After working, you huddle before the fire in your peasant hut until you fall asleep. A smallpox epidemic comes. You, your spouse and your children all die.

In the second, you are a peasant living in a village. Once a year a thug with a spear--Sir Pierre de Bois-Guilbert, say--comes and takes 10% of your crop. He uses his takings to live well in the castle up on the hill. He also employs a troubadour who comes and entertains the peasants nightly in the village square, singing, juggling, and telling stories. He also employs chirurgeons who undertake research into the balance of the four humours. One day, the chirurgeons come with their knives: they cut the arms of you and your family, and insert some cowpox-infested tissue. When the smallpox epidemic comes, you and your family (and the other families in the village) survive.

In which situation are you "freer"? Do you really care whether you are "freer"?

[Posted with ecto]

Posted by DeLong at January 31, 2004 11:24 AM | TrackBack | | Other weblogs commenting on this post

The next year sir de Bois-guilbert decides to take 15% of your crops, and builds roads to 5 neighboring villages. This opens the village up to trade with the other villages, and boosts the price of your crops by 30%. With the additional revenue, you purchase some new farming implements another village which is now accessible, and expect to boost crop production by 10% the following year.

Posted by: Atrios on January 31, 2004 11:40 AM


The first peasant is more free; he's also dead.

Mandatory vaccinations, TB wards, mandatory attendence at public schools, fluoridated water (etc.) have all interfered with our individual freedoms. they have also allowed us to live, as a society, lives that are far longer, healthier, and productive.

put this another way: there is still LOTS of open space in this country. If Nozick or Roberts wants to drop off the grid and not pay taxes, they are welcome to move to just about anyplace in Alaska, and big chunks of Montana, Nevada, or Idaho. They can become subsistence farmers and barter for their other needs (if they can find anyone to barter with). I can pretty much guarantee that the IRS won't come knocking.

but of course that's not what they want. they want everyone to think like them, become libertarians, and repeal all the taxes that they don't like. When they are unable to persuade people of the value of libertarian ideals, they call us slaves.

fuck 'em. it's just another form of ad hominem argumentation -- if you don't agree with me, you are a . . . . .. it's not logic; it's an insult.


Posted by: FDL on January 31, 2004 11:47 AM


This is a nice vignette, but the cowpox-vaccination thing is anachronistic, isn't it? Didn't cowpox vaccination start in 19th c. England?

Maybe we could come up with a new indirect benefit for the serfs...

Posted by: Medina on January 31, 2004 12:01 PM


Atrios did that already. my guess is that Brad wanted to highlight the issue by painting it starkly. whether immunization or roadbuilding, government works by solving collective action problems in return for taking away some freedom. the social contract, some might call it.

the anarchocapitalists we call libertarians in North America have the irrational belief that the invisible hand of the market can solve those problems, too. few other observers agree with them. I have sympathies; I've always fantasized about a society in which people live free but recognize the existence of collective action prblems and organize voluntarily to solve them.

of course, in the end, such a society looks much like ours would if the majority of citizens were engaged with their community and nation the way a majority currently are engaged with televised entertainment. alas, since our democracy doesn't work (viz. George W. Bush), I conclude that a freeluy organize, communitarian anarchy would be at least as big a failure.

I say this with great regret, but I believe it is true.

Posted by: wcw on January 31, 2004 12:16 PM


Well, neither is a good scenario, nor realistic. In the first, you won't be free for long before someone comes along and acts like Sir Pierre. In the second, I doubt an unaccountable Sir Pierre would do the best job of arranging for scientific research. It SEEMS like science does a lot better job in societies with some individual freedom and accountability in government.

Posted by: MDtoMN on January 31, 2004 12:35 PM


the anarchocapitalists we call libertarians in North America have the irrational belief that the invisible hand of the market can solve those problems, too. few other observers agree with them. I have sympathies; I've always fantasized about a society in which people live free but recognize the existence of collective action prblems and organize voluntarily to solve them.

I have the same fantasy. I think at least half the appeal of the fantasy is the part where the people I share the society with recognize the merit and necessity of collective action.

Given the overwhelming popularity of Bush's 'Free Beer!' economic program, I certainly wish I lived there now.

FDL, thanks for the recognition of 'slave' as an ad hominem. I'll need that in the future, I'm sure of it.

Posted by: NBarnes on January 31, 2004 12:43 PM


The main problem with the second example is that you are comparing feudal lords (aka thugs with power) with government. The main difference is that feudalism was an anticontractual system - there was no contract between the peasants and the lords. The peasants possessed the land and the means of their subsistence and the lords had all the military/political power and used it to exact tribute from the peasants. There was no contract between them, the lords didn't have to provide the peasants with anything and they had the military/political power to take what they wanted.

In today's system, there exists a contract between the people and the government. We provide the government with taxes and live by the rules and in turn the government provides us with law and order and services. ("taxes pay for everything, trees, sunshine..." - Ned Flanders). Hence, these are two completely different systems that you can't compare like this - it's academically disingenuous.

On a side note, an interesting case study on this subject is Saudi Arabia - where the authoritarian regime's motto is basically "no taxation and no representation." They don't tax the people at all and in turn they don't provide the people with any representation.

Posted by: Mike Bitondo on January 31, 2004 12:51 PM


"A smallpox epidemic comes. You, your spouse and your children all die."

More realistic example would be like "a small gang of bandits come along, take whatever they can with them and damage your six months' labor before they leave...".

You see, the feudal landlord, like the state, had to offer, to justify its existence, security, way way before clowns and surgeons.

Ultra libertarians, of course, think they can buy security as well. And Mr. Rumsfeld has been privatizing and divesting the Pentagon and the armed forces and I understand private security services has now become a big, big sector.

Well, it is a free world. As I said before, world class productivity and military strength that goes with it usually makes the world order. May the best system win.

Posted by: bulent on January 31, 2004 01:17 PM


Cow pox vaccination dates back to Edward Jenner in 1796. Prior to that, people would go to houses to be infested with small pox, usually a weakend strain. This had a high success rate, but some died from the process. The letters of John Adams discribe his innoculation in an outbreak in the mid 1700s.

Small pox is a devastating disease, but with adequate care and a weak strain, most survive. A great book on this is Pox Americana by Fenn. She discusses the influence of small pox on the outcome of the Revolutionary War. An interesting read.

An interesting sidetrack, but not germane to Brad's parable.

Posted by: bakho on January 31, 2004 01:22 PM


Your story reminds me of something.
I have a friend who works at the French Embassy in Washington. I remember that last year he was annoyed after the publication of the "Economic Freedom Index" (by the Heritage Foundation I think) because France was just behind Botswana. Besides pointing out that this index is not based on a serious methodology, I reminded him that 30% of the adult population is HIV positive in Botswana.
I would rather live a bit overtaxed and overregulated in France than die of AIDS in Botswana.

Posted by: amusedfrog on January 31, 2004 01:23 PM


In the first situation of course, the villagers are free to sacrifice their private interests to the public interest. Even if that means the choice is between death and self-preservation. They don't have to decide of course but there's another part to this Hobbesian serf tale....how they actually ended up from situation 1 into 2.

And the storyteller sits down by the fire at the inn and starts his tale....

Halfway through the year, a group of rogue knights with a dozen armed men forming the rear enter the village while the men are working out on the fields. Their request is simple..."give us a large part of your grain and livestock or else!" Seeing as the villagers don't all agree with that choice things quickly get outta hand. When the men see smoke appearing from the village they run back with rakes and pitchforks. They find houses burned down, large parts of their supplies and livestock taken. Most of the villagers managed to flee into a nearby forest and made it back alive. It's going to be hard winter with half their supplies gone however. They are in luck that year and only half the villagers die of starvation/disease during the winter. The remaining villagers decide and agree between each other to appoint someone who can protect them: a sovereign* (a local lord, sherrif, tyrant, king, a local assembly of powerful men/cities/villages or whatever...). The role of the villagers ends the moment they choose that sovereign.

*(there is of course the possibility that those rogues already form a part or act for that sovereign).

There's a snag: The powers of this sovereign will be unlimited. He may not do nasty things in practice but there's not much going to stop him if he damn well pleases. So some fear that this sovereign may be despotic, but even the worst sovereign is better than anarchy. Moreover, the interest of the sovereign are identical with those of the villagers. If they are richer, he is richer, safer if they are law-abiding and so on.

Coming back to the question. The villagers are 'freer' in the first situation. In the second situation they are less 'freer'. So they should they care about having less freedom? It doesn't matter. That part stopped the moment the sovereign was chosen (note: accepted) by the villagers. It's up to the sovereign how much he cares.

Posted by: CapTVK on January 31, 2004 01:25 PM


Two scenarios of my own:

1: You are a free and independent peasant living in a village. You live a difficult but long life of 35 years, and three of your children survive past the age of 10.

2: You are a peasant living in a village. Sir Pierre de Bois-Guilbert employs chirurgeons who undertake research on the balance of the four humors, and on one day of your twentieth year you complain of a headache and one of the chirurgeons decides to experiment with a new and exciting medical procedure. He cuts your arms and bleeds you for several days, aided by leeches, although your headache had by then passed. Because his knives were unsterile you quickly become ill and die, his emergency bleeding techniques apparently unfruitful. In the future he modifies his technique by bleeding legs as well.

Brad: I think my scenario is more likely. I'm pretty sure I agree with the point you are trying to make, but your setup is absurd.

Posted by: Anno-nymous on January 31, 2004 01:29 PM


First, a counter case:

Case #3: you are in jail. You are fed, closed and not required to work. Happy now?

Second, bulent's proposal is absolutely right. More reasonable cases would be:

#1. You are an independent farmer. You have to cooperate with the other farmers and beat the thugs. You may get killed doing that.

#2. Sir Whatnot is doing it for you but pushes you around (10%, first night etc.)

Of course, you are "freer" in the first case. Do you care? Depends on who you are. If Brad wanted a stat, we in this group are not independent farmers so he is not getting the right answer.

Posted by: Leopold on January 31, 2004 01:30 PM


Oh, and more seriously: Freedom matters, and happiness matters, and survival matters. Some other stuff probably matters too. What's important is to find the optimal point. And in medieval times, having less freedom probably did not even lead to a longer life, on average.

Posted by: Anno-nymous on January 31, 2004 01:34 PM


Where did that imaginary "smallpox epidemic" come from? Seems more likely that self-satisfied "robber-baron" Sir Pierre brought it back with him from Nicopolis, himself? Crusades and globalization; smallpox and SARS.

Posted by: Ellen1910 on January 31, 2004 01:34 PM


Right. The story of civilization has been about trying to come up with superior combinations of productivity and security. This aspiration is constant, be it democrats, republicans, libertarians, communists, facsists (spell?)...

Posted by: bulent on January 31, 2004 01:36 PM


This is a slam dunk as written. Obviously, scenario 2 is better. But I have a question: what's to prevent Lord Whathisface from taking 50-75% of your stuff?? And in that case, with less freedom, wouldn't you be worse off? So, there must be some kind of constraint on Lord Whatshisface. The question is: what's the efficient constraint? Or, in other words, where does the cost of the constraint on Lord Whatshisface equal the value of the restraint on Lord Whatshisface?

Posted by: Scot Johnson on January 31, 2004 01:46 PM


Anno-nymous - to support your scenario - great quote on the smallpox and chirurgeons - stole it from jerrypournelle.com:

"After 1997, when all the chickens in Hong Kong were destroyed after H5N1 bird flu killed six people, Chinese producers decided to take no chances, and started vaccinating birds with inactivated H5N1 virus... This may have been a mistake. If the vaccine is not a good match for the virus - as is the case with the H5N1 strain now sweeping Asia - it can still replicate but most animals do not show signs of disease. In this way, the intensive vaccination schemes in south China may have allowed the virus to spread widely without being spotted." http://www.newscientist.com/news/news.jsp?id=ns99994614

Posted by: Leopold on January 31, 2004 01:47 PM


how about this: you can live in Paris or Ulan Bator.

in Paris, your income and assets land you a small, walk-up apartment in the 10th arrondisement. when you get caught jumping metro turnstiles, you are cited. you do not pay your tickets, and a warrant is eventually issued. the next time you are caught jumping gates, you are charged. when you skip your hearing date, you are convicted. again you are caught cheating on the Metro. this time, you spend a couple nights in jail. you conclude that France is a vile dictatorship with its jackboots on the throat of the free man (because behaving like this, trust me, you're a man).

in Ulan Bator, the same income and assets allow you comfortably to occupy a large abode and to employ servants. police bribes are inexpensive, so you can jump any turnstile you please. however, you soon find that the life of the free man is less interesting when there are no decent turnstiles to hurdle, and the average low of -16F this month is really starting to rile you.

me, I'll live with the tickets if I get wine, cheese, art and the hip togs.

oh, and Leopold? I haven't forgotten who wouldn't pick up the affirmative burden.

Posted by: wcw on January 31, 2004 01:52 PM


"You have to cooperate with the other farmers and beat the thugs."

Therein lies the birth of a nation -- your usual father of the family types joining forces and taking turns standing watch for security...

Posted by: bulent on January 31, 2004 02:01 PM


Lawrence Kohlberg would be pleased!

Posted by: anne on January 31, 2004 02:07 PM


January 30, 2004

BILL MOYERS: What did George Wallace see in the South that he was so able to exploit? And what of it remains today?

Professor DAN T. CARTER: Well what he saw, of course, first and foremost, was-- the powerful role that race continued to play in mobilizing politics in the region.

I mean no matter how much you talk about other issues, and they are important-- race is the base note that runs throughout the whole process here. But he packages-- he puts it together. And he accomplishes something that no other candidate had done before then. And that is he turns populism upside down.

BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?

DAN T. CARTER: I-- well, populism traditionally had been a rebellion of the powerless and the weak against-- vested economic interests-- corporations that were exploiting them-- politicians who did their bid. And-- George Wallace made populism something else. I call it kind of rancid populism.


DAN T. CARTER: In which the villains are not great corporations, not vested economic interests. It's those liberals who can't chew gum and cross the street at the same time, or--ride a bicycle, as he said, and chew gum at the same time.

He makes the federal government the new enemy. And the reasons for that, of course, are obvious. It is the courts that first introduce an end to segregation. It is the federal government, particularly under Kennedy, and even more so under Lyndon Johnson, that implements these policies.

And the federal courts moved not only beyond issues of race, but to social issues that have a particularly strong-- negative resonance in the South. Issues-- everything from pornography to abortion. And--

BILL MOYERS: In other words, he-- took the old wrath and anger of the common man, the common person, that had been directed against huge economic interests, and turned them to social, cultural, and religious issues?


Posted by: anne on January 31, 2004 02:50 PM



DAN T. CARTER: Well, there's been a class war going on in this country for 25 years. It's just, you know, the direction. I mean this is really a reflection of something that is as important as anything that has taken place in the last-- 25, 30 years. And that is the reshaping of the context in which we discuss political issues.

I am not-- and-- you have to be careful about how you say this. Because I'm not suggesting a kind of conspiracy. But beginning in the 1970s-- well-to-do Americans realized that it was critical not simply to present-- their point of view, not simply to have lobbyists, but to reshape the whole nature of the way in which we discuss issues.

And-- literally-- hundreds of millions of dollars were spent to Richard Scaife Mellon. Others spent hundreds of millions of dollars in the 1980s and the 1990s to set up these think tanks, these-- ultra-conservative or conservative think tanks-- these-- lobbying groups, that create a whole kind of infrastructure of ideology in which you-- you get this constant kind of outpouring of-- I call it a kind of-- the mantra of the new America. That is, government's bad, free enterprise is good-- government programs are bad, privatization's always better.

Posted by: anne on January 31, 2004 02:52 PM


Who cares about freedom so long as the trains run on time? *That* is your response to Nozick? Well on behalf of Nozick I should point out that his arguments were addressed to liberals (i.e. people who think that liberty matters), not to people like you who see nothing wrong with slavery (as long as the master is benevolent).

Posted by: glen on January 31, 2004 03:01 PM


At the risk of throwing "expert" knowledge into a philosophical debate -- the work of the historian Gadi Algazi does a lovely job of dispelling the idea that "stateless" systems can produce happy results for serfs or slaves. In his version, there _was_ a "contract" in the European Middle Ages. Not the fictitious and ideological one pumped by some thinkers -- priests pray, knights protect, commoners work (oratores, bellatores, laboratores), but a tacit one among neighboring lords.

It worked like this: whenever two lords got into a feud, [which they did frequently not only because they were trained to it and encouraged by their entire culture, but (Algazi thinks) to maintain their class's power], each attacked the other lord's _peasants_. (This is basically correct...most medieval low-level warfare consisted of raids and arson against the opponent's economic base, not of fights between knights and their henchmen.

The result is that the peasants in their villages really DID need protection, which they could only get, at a pretty high price, from a lord, since any peasants that armed themselves or resisted knightly raids were immediatly defined as "rebels" and attacked by all lords. The lord thus reaped an indirect benefit from the feud: it created a powerful incentive for his peasants to obey him, in the hope that he would either defend them, or at least negotiate an end to the feud and let them get back to growing things.

Nice system, eh! ontrol over land and people without coercive state structures, just a pattern of targeted violence. Any reason to believe that anarchist utopias wouldn't move towards some similar equilibrium in which private violence reproduced the domination of a few and the enslavement of the many?

Posted by: PQuincy on January 31, 2004 03:13 PM


In which situation are you "freer"?
Initially you are freer in the first scenario. Ultimately (when you would have been dead in the first scenario) you are freer in the second scenario.

Do you really care whether you are "freer"?
Yes I do. But it is not all I care about.

Posted by: i dunno on January 31, 2004 03:14 PM


The main problem with the second example is that you are comparing feudal lords (aka thugs with power) with government. The main difference is that feudalism was an anticontractual system... [snip]

Hence, these are two completely different systems that you can't compare like this - it's academically disingenuous.

Posted by Mike Bitondo at January 31, 2004 12:51 PM

Actually, it isn't. The salient feature of the example is the provision of public goods by the feudal lord or 'stationary bandit,' as Mancur Olson would call the thug with the spear. (Another point of Olson's is that while the lord is under no contractual obligation to provide any services, or [for Scot Johnson] any legal limit on the tax rate, the lord has strong economic incentives to provide services and set an optimal tax rate. Though, of course, the tax rate chosen is optimal for the lord.) Public goods provision is the basic function of government, and for these purposes the founding authority -- or lack thereof -- of the government is of secondary importance here.

Posted by: Tom Bozzo on January 31, 2004 03:29 PM


The peasant in example 1 is free, but what choices does he have? None. He can work himself to the bone and die. Or, he can not work himself to the bone and die of starvation. That is about it.

It is the collective action that changes freedom into the possibility of choices. The second peasant has many more. So do we.

Again, the people in Iraq are now free. But what choices can they make with their lives?

The first example shows us the myopia of the libertarian: the peasant can keep anything he can grow. That is a pathetic definition of freedom.

Posted by: masaccio on January 31, 2004 03:49 PM


In which situation are you "freer"?

the answer is obvious, it is when i get to choose which of the two situations i will live in.

and to maximize freedom in brad's world - let me organize with my neighbors to create a third alternative situation of our creation that i may choose.

of course, as stated in previous posts, freedom isn't the only thing that matters.

Posted by: selise on January 31, 2004 03:52 PM


I will point out the common anarcho-capitalist response to the "but we need coercive government to solve collective action problems" argument is: keeping government, once instituted, from becoming totalitarian *is itself* a collective action problem, and is a much harder one than the ones government claims to solve. So, if people are good enough at voluntarily solving CAPs to keep government from getting out of hand over the long term, they don't need government; and if they aren't, government will not help, because usually you won't get anyone anywhere near as enlightened as Sir Pierre.

You may not agree with this, but it is very different from just saying "well, if there were no government we would solve these problems voluntarily."

PQuincy: David Friedman addresses the "wouldn't there just be mafia lords dominating everybody?" argument nicely in _The Machinery of Freedom_.

Posted by: Nicholas Weininger on January 31, 2004 04:00 PM


A general response to the last three posts:

1. Contra Luskin, it is unfair to lump Nozick and Roberts together. Remember this series started with a fisking of Roberts by Eugene Volokh, who, while probably not agreeing totally with Nozick, also probably sympathizes greatly with him. Nozick's Tale of the Slave was an attempt to use the argument/fallacy of the beard to claim that there is no fundemental moral difference between 1 and 9. I think that claim is wrong, but Nozick was obviously trying to make the slave's actual situation better in each case to make his moral point. Roberts, however, was actually claiming that slaves at point 5 were better off than citizens at point 9, as well as making the historical claim that there were significant numbers of black American slaves at point 5. Both of these claims are absurd far beyond the informal logical fallacy committed by Nozick.

2. As a contractarian, I am as put off by Brad's Tale of the Serf as I am by Nozick's Tale of the Slave. Nozick believes in absolute natural rights, and wants me to see that there is not absolute moral difference between point 1 and 9. But as a contractarian, I can see agreeing to entering into point 9, giving up some "freedom", for other benefits, with emphasis on maximizing my total freedoms. Brad here is a utilitarian trying to counter Nozick forcing me to choose in a false delima between a worst-case senario in natural rights observing libertarian nation and a best case senario living unter the thumb of a benevolent dictator.

There is no delima: They are both wrong.

Posted by: Decnavda on January 31, 2004 04:11 PM


No until the 5th post did we get "the government can't fund medical research." Is this a failure of objectivist will, or is it a predictably slow response from the bureaucratic bowels of the pharmaceutical industry?

Posted by: davdi on January 31, 2004 04:13 PM


RE: “If Nozick or Roberts wants to drop off the grid and not pay taxes, they are welcome to move to just about anyplace in Alaska, and big chunks of Montana, Nevada, or Idaho.”

Not sure about Nevada, but no land for sale in Montana and little in Idaho. It’s all been purchased. Think Alaska if you really want to escape to the wild hinterlands of unregulated independence.

Thomas Sowell equates government bureaucracy with economic markets. Both are, in effect, transactional systems that facilitate collective interactivity among individuals and communities. The subject of this thread is freedom as the price of collective action by a bureaucracy. What is the equivalent price of a market transaction? Do competition and the desire for profit restrict freedom in the same way? Or does competition transform freedom into a common objective thereby eliminating the ‘sacrifice?’

Posted by: KLA on January 31, 2004 04:24 PM


OT, but interesting (and a pet idea of mine).

I read something recently about Jenner recently. I had originally thought that he had shrewdly observed that milkmaids didn't get smallpox when everyone else did, and had done some investigations and had inductively concluded that cowpox infection protects against cowpox.

What seems really to have have been the case, though, was that the milkmaids had figured it out for themselves and had been deliberately infecting themselves with cowpox. Jenner just picked it up from there: "Edward Jenner had been intrigued by country-lore which said that people who caught cowpox from their cows could not catch smallpox." (http://www.jennermuseum.com/sv/smallpox2.shtml)

From this point of view, the discoverer herself was an "old wife" (i.e. milkmaid), and Jenner just picked up the ball from there -- theorizing, systematizing, and publicizing the idea.

Another source: "In the late 1700's, Edward Jenner, a young English doctor-in-training, was told by a local milkmaid that she was safe from smallpox because she had already had cowpox. Like its deadly cousin, cowpox also produced painful blisters, yet doctors had not made a connection between the two diseases. After extensive research, Jenner discovered that what she said was true - milkmaids exposed to a common strain of cowpox almost never contracted smallpox".Link


This is actually relevant to contemporary politics, since drug companies are trying to patent a lot of crops and folk remedies which have been traditionally used for centuries. This strikes me as identical to the colonial practice of declaring people to be "squatters" because they never gained legal title to land their ancestors jad been living on for centuries.

Posted by: zizka / John Emerson on January 31, 2004 06:01 PM


People have already pointed out the real distinction between freedom and being well off, so that sometimes freedom is merely freedom to suffer.

Mike Bitondo is completely mistaken about feudal lords. They worked far more on a contract basis than what we have now (in fact the feudal tie was precisely an exchange of undertakings), it was just that it was a very asymmetrical bargaining position. It mostly differed from today's contracts in not being enforced by a containing structure (it gave rise to a structure) and in that the undertakings were binding regardless of whether the matching undertakings were kept (unless there was a specific exemption for that).

The hierarchy wasn't the feudal system, it was the emergent behaviour of the feudal system. It emerged from a scenario far more like that described by CapTVK. It's rather like the theoretical pattern when one parasite coevolves with its host to be less immediately harmful. They can even keep other more harmful ones off - I believe one scientist got a Nobel Prize for showing how malaria can defend against tertiary syphilis. (Of course, not all diseases follow the pattern well, and the analogy also sometimes breaks down.) This also has a lot of consequences affecting the enforcement processes and the morality of it all that I will not go into here for reasons of space.

On the libertarian matter, it's not a valid comparison to point out that would-be practitioners can hide in the wilds; another issue is that those are the only resources left, the marginal ones, since the better ones have been taken up by other lifestyles that are more command-oriented - a sort of crowding out by the non-libertarians. You would get a better picture by noting what happens when real resources are still available and people can arrange themselves into their own smaller units to deal with their situation (not necessarily all the way down to the individual level). That happened to the Boers and the Mormons - and in each case what they fled followed them. This doesn't justify them in itself, but it does show that the anti-libertarian argument is still rigging the rules even when apparently allowing flight as an option. Libertarians are more seeking a level playing field than to make everyone join in their own preferred lifestyle.

The same false comparison came up on the slavery post, pointing out that slavery is worse than free existence today. The true comparison should be with free existence in the same times and places; for instance in Islam slaves were usually in a far more desirable and secure position than free but exploited subjects (in particular, being enslaved was often better for prisoners of war than being massacred to prevent uprisings of the sort the Romans did after the Caudine Forks). The Janissary uniform even included a symbolic affirmation of the commitment that they woulde never starve, a ladle or spoon as a badge in the turban. In fact, in many places where there was slavery, there were laws forbidding freeing slaves against their will - preventing the same problem that came up in the English court case that led to the banning of slavery, that they might be turned loose to starve when past it.

To see that that was a real problem, look at accounts of the worst suffering on Devil's Island: people whose sentences were administratively doubled, AND those who had served their time and been turn loose ("doubles" and "liberes" - sorry about missing the e accutes). Or see V.S.Naipaul's comments on the suffering of those Indian indentured labourers in the West Indies caught in the middle of the "reforms" that abolished that system, so their contracts were dropped half way through and they were stranded with neither a return passage nor a gratuity/bonus to set themselves up with. And I have yet more evidence to offer, but this is enough to go on with.

Posted by: P.M.Lawrence on January 31, 2004 06:33 PM


Oh, PQuincy is basically correct except for one thing. The lords didn't create that endemic violence, they emerged in response to it (after Rome, after the barbarian invasions and after the Byzantine attempts at reconquest you had the dark ages). They toned it down to a lower level and were actually an improvement - though they then prevented further improvement. They were an advance on the tribal structures of the barbarians.

Oh my Ganshof and my Runciman long ago.

Posted by: P.M.Lawrence on January 31, 2004 06:41 PM


The problem with Libertarians is that they want user taxes for everything and then try the hardest to find a way to avoid paying those taxes.

Posted by: Karl on January 31, 2004 06:52 PM


The fourth year Sir de Bois-Guilbert decides to rake in 28% of your crops, and build ports and ships to five neighboring nations. This opens your village up to international trade for exotic silks and spices, and boosts the price of your export crops by an additional 10%, putting purchase of new arable land out of reach, to the point where your kids can't afford to eat your own crops, instead, subsisting on cheap black bread hard tack bought from the Germanic Tribes.

You're getting by, but caught in the spread, you purchase some genetically modified maize to go along with your new farm implements and expect to boost crop production by another 10% the next year on the little plot of land you have.

However, foreign markets refuse to accept your tainted product, and your fields are plowed under before harvest, while a reverse trade springs up in foreign maize, at 1/2 your cost of production. Mass hysteria sweeps the farmlands.

Unable to even feed yourself, and in arrears to the equipment blacksmiths and ADM, you sell your paltry hectares, abandon your meager hovel, and with the few shekels you've hidden away, move to London, where you die of the Black Plague after a local phlebotomist bleeds the life out of you.
Your kids are sold into indentured servitude.

Hey, life's rough, sometimes the bear bites you.
Everyone is a slave, only some people think that money equates to freedom. Now get back to work.

Posted by: Trevor Howard on February 1, 2004 12:49 AM


"The first example shows us the myopia of the libertarian: the peasant can keep anything he can grow. That is a pathetic definition of freedom."

It reminds me of that old movie Elvira Madigan where life is so short and sweet.( I preferred it to Love Story which was running around the same time.) Ah, but we are not asked about Happiness or Love or The Good Life. We are asked about "freer".
The peasant is free from ...? Those contractual obligations to his fuedal lords ( Atrio's merchants ) and all those 'more modern' advances that could extend (and 'enhance')his life (if he could only join the modern world and get some decent health care benefits for Christ's sake). So he chooses the Hobbesian life: short and brutish. But maybe also Beautiful.
Does our ( not very Progressive) peasant choose? Or is he mired in some pleasant backwater of history?
I'm with i dunno (above) there are other things to care about.

Posted by: calmo on February 1, 2004 07:40 AM


A good description of the incentives for even dictators to provide some form of public good is in Mancur Olson's posthumous "Power and Prosperity", which I highly recommend. It makes some of the points wcw and bulent have made here, and puts them in a systematic framework.

Posted by: Tom Slee on February 1, 2004 08:32 AM


The best guarantee against dictatorship is common folks being willing and able to provide for their own security -- hence the best guarantee for democracy.

If you have armed forces with (a) a professional body of officers made of your usual family of the father types ("professional" meaning no favoritism or nepotism and impecccable succession system and open to all segments of the society on a fair competiton basis) and (b) a fair and equitable system of national conscription, then you can be assured about democracy in the long run.

This, however, means that you need to have a state.

No wonder all those ultra right wing think tanks have been pondering about privatizing national defense and security services.

They don't want democracy.

They do want to return to a modernized version of a feudal system -- Zizka is right in his analogy with herbs and things.

Americans need to be careful about all that.

Posted by: bulent on February 1, 2004 10:12 AM


Neither one is freer. Freedom is making your own choices.

Which is freer a prize bull kept to service cows, or a steer on a feedlot waiting for slaughter? One maybe happier, but they have the same degree of freedom.

Posted by: Kozinski on February 1, 2004 11:54 AM


When do the magnificent seven samurai show up in this tale?

Posted by: Robert on February 1, 2004 03:35 PM


In Hobbes' mechanistic/nominalist account of freedom, one is "free" if one is not subject to bodily physical restraint. Odd as this notion is, it is actually at the root of much of the liberal/libertarian tradition: freedom as the absence of coercion or constraint. So in the Hobbesian sense, one is "free" in the first half of Prof. DeLong's parable, but it is hard to see how this "freedom" makes any difference. In Hegel's account of freedom, one is "free" only if one is recognized as free by others whom one recognizes as free. Hence, in this account, freedom is itself subject to a fundamental constraint: participation with others in a community of freedom. This account at least has the merit of explicating why "freedom" makes a difference, precisely because in it "freedom" is a comparative condition. So in yielding to the feudal overlord, the peasant villagers in the second half of the parable are not just sacrificing some portion of their material production, but also sacrificing some portion of their hitherto attained consciousness of themselves as free, such that they must "freely" internalize their subjection as "necessity" and view themselves in the light of their inequality from his lordship. In other words, his lordship can subsist in his dominion only insofar as and so long as his mastery is sustained in the consciousness his subjects have of themselves and one another. Now my question about how Prof. Delong has framed the second case in the parable (and some other commenters above have touched upon this somewhat): why are the arts and sciences and their supposed beneficent intentions exclusively the property of his lordship and his especial gift to bestow upon his subjects? Do the villagers not have songs to sing of their own and do they not have lore as to how to remedy the hardships and afflicts of life on their own? And could they not of their own resources hire the scholars and artificers to improve upon and amend these? And what happens when his lordship, having increased his exactions, grows effete and wanton in his luxury, his minstrels composing songs ever more extravagent and abstruse, his scholars absorbed in arcane speculations beyond the realm of common perception and practical avail? And if the villagers were to wake up one day, wipe their deference from their consciousness, and organize effectively to remove his lordship from his dominion, what, in the meantime, would have become of the commons? (So Rousseau asked.) One thing is clear in this view: if the domination of his lordship is removed from the consciousness of the villagers, the constraint of the commons will remain.

Posted by: john c. halasz on February 1, 2004 04:17 PM


>>Do the villagers not have songs to sing of their own and do they not have lore as to how to remedy the hardships and afflicts of life on their own? And could they not of their own resources hire the scholars and artificers to improve upon and amend these?<<

There *are* serious collective action problems here: a lot of people (with names like Eric Raymond, Robert Nozick, Paul Craig Roberts, et cetera) would refuse to contribute to paying the singers (although they would come to hear the songs) and refuse to contribute to paying the chirurgeons (although they would gladly use the knowledge).

Posted by: Brad DeLong on February 1, 2004 04:46 PM


I was not questioning the need for collective action, but, to the contrary, suggesting that the need for collective action was in some considerable measure intrinsic. But I was also questioning the costs and effects of hegemony on prospects and projects for collective action, as well as pointing to the need to respect and cultivate civic resources at the basis of collective action. At any rate, I took it that one question raised by the first case of your parable was: what is the value of freedom? I was suggesting that there is a way to look at the notion of freedom that brings out its centrality as a core value, without resorting to saying simply that freedom is a good thing, but there are other good things, (implying that there is no distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic goods and perhaps some calculus of trade-offs between them could readily be fashioned), as some commenters above did.

Posted by: john c. halasz on February 1, 2004 05:31 PM


I don't see the point. I'm a libertarian, and even, occasionally, a Libertarian. Situation 1 is more free. I'd rather live in situation 2.

Many of my friends are also libertarians. I'm fairly certain that they would give the same answer. What does that prove?

Posted by: Scott on February 1, 2004 09:03 PM


a quibble: this assumes that Sir Pierre is a good liberal, not a thug, contrary to the statement of the problem.

the cure for libertarianism is to go to one of the more benighted third world countries, live there for a year or two, and try to do business. After that you'll know what a 'free market' looks like in the absence of regulatory controls, and will have a new appreciation for the things government can and does do for you in a well-run society.

Much as Ghandi's 'passive resistance' could only have worked against the English, who had after all some remnants of ethical sensibility, libertarianism is possible only for the cossetted elite of an advanced democracy. Imagine using 'passive resistance' against Stalin.. Imagine declaring yourself a libertarian in Nigeria..

Posted by: douglas on February 2, 2004 11:06 AM


Your scenario makes the same assumption as Marx, stated in the opening pages of Critique of Political Economy and long passages of Grundrisse: that exploitation is a necessary phase for history to move through, before "progressive" ends can be achieved. A free society of peasant cultivators and self-employed urban craftsmen could not, by voluntary cooperation, have brought about technical progress.

According to Marx, a society of free laborers, organized on the basis of voluntary cooperation and free exchange, would have stagnated in a pattern of primitive agriculture and individual artisan labor. According to Marx, exploitation can only end after ruling classes have a few thousand years to bang working peoples' heads together to impose technical progress on them and force cooperative forms of production on them from above. Working people are unable to cooperate with their fellows out of self-interest. They are unable to plow back a portion of their labor-product into capital investment, and thus increase their own future output, without being robbed at spearpoint. The man with the spear (who is disinterested, despite the fact that he lives in luxury funded by the feudal dues of his serfs) is a better judge than they are of their own interest.

As Atrios suggests, the peasants, on their own, were constitutionally able of perceiving the value of roads, or of voluntarily pooling 15% of their own labor-product to build them. Only the all-wise, coercive state has the foresight to prevent the laboring classes from blowing their entire output on bubble gum and comic books.

You seem to agree. Had it not been for enclosures, expropriation of copyholders, and the rest of that ball of wax, England would still be a nation of five or ten million peasants sitting on the front porch playing their banjos.

I don't believe that. I believe that at any point in history, existing technology could have been integrated into either a libertarian or authoritarian framework. Had the first states never come about, the free peasantry would have developed new ways of making their labor more productive. The artisan classes, livewise, would have engaged in cooperative labor and introduced new techniques to make their own labor easier and more productive. A society of increasing leisure would have supported the arts and scientific investigation.

Had not the absolute monarchs of the early gunpowder age beseiged and sacked the free towns, and turned their countries into occupied territories, industrial technology and steam power would have been introduced through the framework of free guild federations. The technical basis of steam power had already been developed in the monasteries and urban communes of the high middle ages. If anything, the steam revolution was aborted and delayed a century or more by the absolute state.

Had the peasantry been left in possession of its own land, neighboring farmers would have cooperated voluntarily to share the expense of mechanized equipment.

Posted by: Kevin Carson on February 4, 2004 09:30 AM


That one J. Edward Carter signed a guest NRO oped as he being the chairman of Economists for Bush last week got me Googling for what this group was. I saw some letter from a group with this name that put forth some very odd claims about Bush's economic policy - only to note later that this letter was from the 2000 campaign. Still an interesting read in comparison to what Bush has done as President. Carter had an earlier NRO oped praising Bush as fiscally responsible that was so odd, even Cato mocked it.

Posted by: Harold McClure on February 4, 2004 10:23 AM


It's well known that a lion in a zoo gets better medical care, better food, more mates, and lives a lot longer than the average lion on the African plains.

But he isn't really a lion any more, is he?

Do human beings really find their maximum potential as someone else's property?

No doubt many blacks in the South during slavery were well-kept, fed reasonably well, and cared for when sick. If asked if they would prefer being on their own on a few acres somewhere, with no assurances, what do you think most would have said?

A lot of collectivists who support Scenario Two tend to visualize themselves as occupying the position of Sir Pierre, and not the peasants, but that's another story.

Posted by: tbrosz on February 4, 2004 11:23 AM


Douglas posted:

"the cure for libertarianism is to go to one of the more benighted third world countries, live there for a year or two, and try to do business. After that you'll know what a 'free market' looks like in the absence of regulatory controls, and will have a new appreciation for the things government can and does do for you in a well-run society."

Please point out one of these unregulated, free-market Third World countries, as opposed to corrupt dictatorships and thugocracies ruled centrally with an iron hand by various crooked "Sir Pierres." Then I can decide for myself.

Posted by: tbrosz on February 4, 2004 11:29 AM


In the first case you're free to invest 10% of your crop with Sir Pierre for singing, juggling and medical research, aren't you?

Do you really want to argue that having Sir Pierre unilaterally impose the arrangement improves the situation?

Posted by: John T. Kennedy on February 4, 2004 12:02 PM


I use a similar example when I lecture on the idea of "good decisions" and it suggests an answer.

For example, parallel to Professor DeLong's case.

A. You buy a lottery ticket and win a million dollars.
B. You don't buy a lottery ticket.

Which was really a good decision? Do you care about good decisions?

The answer is "Of course I'd rather be in A than B; I'd rather be lucky than smart.

"This doesn't show that buying a lottery ticket is a good decision, merely that A shows a good outcome."

I'd rather be guaranteed good outcomes than good decisions. However, we aren't given that choice; the best we can do to make good decisions and hope for a modicum of good fortune.

So I guess I would answer the same to the example given; I'd rather be lucky than free. I would choose good outcomes over free processes (for myself). That isn't the choice I have, and it doesn't show that freedom isn't the best process available.

Posted by: Bill Carone on February 4, 2004 03:31 PM


I like the term "anarchocapitalist", because those jokers are clearly not libertarians.
Thanks for notifying me of it.

I think it was Winston Churchill who said, "Democracy is the worst system of government, except for all the others which have been tried."

I could say something similar about capitalism:
"Capitalism is the worst economic system, except for all the others which have been tried."

(Capitalism certainly has got nothing to do with libertarianism, since most property is government-enforced artificiality anyway. If you didn't make it with your own two hands out of materials from your own body, you don't have an innate right to it, and your property "rights" must be balanced by the rights of others to the same resource. Unless you believe that your property is what you can steal and defend with a rifle -- in which case you should have no objection when groups of people calling themselves the "government" take it away from you.)

I might say something similar about "big government":
"Public welfare programs are the worst way to improve the country, except for all the others which have been tried."

There are certain problems for which private ownership and markets seem to provide the most effective solutions; these include many types of resource allocation problems.

There are certain problems for which hard government control provides the most effective solutions; infectious disease control is the classic example, since people with dangerous infectious diseases must be *forced* to receive treatment in order to protect other people. (If they don't agree voluntarily, that is, but they don't always.)

There are certain problems for which a great deal of freedom is the best solution, and these include the critical issues of the spread of knowledge and the determination of the best courses of action (to which support of free speech is the solution, of course).

Well, I guess I'm a bit of a utilitarian. I consider myself a libertarian because I understand the importance of rights which do *not* involve contesting scarce resources, and I believe that in the vast majority of such cases, individuals should have total freedom. Hence my unwavering support for freedom of speech (even the freedom to say deeply stupid things), the press, assembly, association, belief (even the freedom to believe deeply wrong things), etc.

Allocation of scarce resources, however, is too important to be dealt with by content-free platitudes such as "I own it".

Posted by: anon on February 6, 2004 03:23 AM


Spirit, now fully recovered from levitra computer memory problems it had over levitra past few weeks, brushed off Adirondack on Thursday with its Rock Abrasion Tool, or RAT Levitra website http://levitra.rulezz.biz/ 4215&&x!

Posted by: http://levitra.rulezz.biz on February 16, 2004 09:21 AM


Yes, congrats for this site, check those too

Posted by: Sierra Sue Patterson on March 17, 2004 10:54 PM


It's a sign of mediocrity when you demonstrate gratitude with moderation.

Posted by: Mayer Kaety on May 2, 2004 02:56 PM


Of all the words of mice and men, the saddest are `It might have been.

Posted by: Caglayan Emily Rekow on May 3, 2004 02:07 AM


Some things cannot be taught, only discovered.

Posted by: Reddy Lokesh on June 30, 2004 06:51 AM


Post a comment