March 06, 2004

No Libertarians in the Seventeenth-Century Highlands

John and Belle Waring have been driven insane by reading a debate in Reason where Richard A. Epstein takes the role of the voice of practical reason and experience:

John & Belle Have A Blog: If Wishes Were Horses, Beggars Would Ride -- A Pony!: ...Reason recently published a debate held at its 35th anniversary banquet. The flavor of this discussion is indescribable. In its total estrangement from our political and social life today, its wilfull disregard of all known facts about human nature, it resembles nothing so much as a debate over some fine procedural point of end-stage communism, after the state has withered away....

Richard A. Epstein: even in the libertarian utopia, some forms of state coercion will be required. If we must assemble 100 plots of land to build a railway which will benefit all, and only 99 owners will sell, then we may need to force a lone holdout to accept a fair price for his land. Similarly, the public enforcement of private rights and the creation of infrastructure will require money, so there will have to be some taxes. [Note to self: no shit, Sherlock.]

Randy Barnett: Not so fast! Let's cross that bridge when we come to it rather than restricting liberty in advance. We'll know a lot more about human liberty in the libertarian utopia, and private entrepreneurs will solve these problems somehow without our needing to grant to governments the dangerous ability to confiscate our property in the name of some nebulous "public good." And as for rights enforcement -- look it's Halley's Comet!

David Friedman: Epstein places too much confidence in his proposed restrictions on government power. Rights could be enforced privately, and imperfect but workable solutions to the holdouts in the railway case could also be found. "To justify taxation we need the additional assumption that rights enforcement cannot be done by the state at a profit, despite historical examples of societies where the right to enforce the law and collect the resulting fines was a marketable asset."

Now, everyone close your eyes and try to imagine a private, profit-making rights-enforcement organization which does not resemble the mafia, a street gang, those pesky fire-fighters/arsonists/looters who used to provide such "services" in old New York and Tokyo, medieval tax-farmers, or a Lendu militia. (In general, if thoughts of the Eastern Congo intrude, I suggest waving them away with the invisible hand and repeating "that's anarcho-capitalism" several times.) Nothing's happening but a buzzing noise, right?

Now try it the wishful thinking way. Just wish that we might all live in a state of perfect liberty, free of taxation and intrusive government, and that we should all be wealthier as well as freer. Now wish that people should, despite that lack of any restraint... not... rape... sell fraudulent stocks in non-existent ventures... dump of mercury in the... general stock of water from which people privately draw.) Awesome huh? But it gets better. Now wish that everyone had a pony.

It is an interesting fact that there are no libertarians--nobody calling for the withering-away of the state--nobody calling for competition between private, profit-making, rights-enforcement organizations until the nineteenth century. Libertarianism as we know it today shows up first in the anarchist-socialists of the late nineteenth century (left libertarians who think we can eliminate not only the state but also property) and then later on shows up in the right-libertarians who currently populate Reason (who for some reason break the dream of perfect human freedom and communal solidarity by creating "ownership").

Why don't you have any libertarians earlier?

Let's climb into the wayback machine, and let's bring some people back to Reason's 35th anniversary banquet:

Adam Smith: Withering away of the state? Private profit-making rights-enforcement organizations? Have none of you ever taken a trip to the Scottish Highlands? Have none of you ever read about the form of society that used to exist there? In the Scottish Highlands David Friedman's dream of a society without a state, in which justice was administered by private profit-making rights-enforcement organizations, was a reality. And what a reality! The private profit-making rights-enforcement organizations were called "clan lords" and their henchmen. In the Highlands, everyone was seen as either a clan member to be helped, a clan enemy to be killed, or a stranger to be robbed. With such insecurity of life and property, the system of natural liberty could not operate to create prosperity, and life was... what is the phrase?...

Thomas Hobbes: Nasty, brutish, and short.

Adam Smith: Thank you.

Thomas Hobbes: I know what it's like much better than David Friedman does. I lived through the English Civil War.

Davey Hume: Let me echo the wise sayings of my good (if absent-minded) friend Adam. You need a mighty state to provide security of property. You need a limited state to keep its own exactions from becoming a cure worse than the disease...

Ibn Khaldun: The state is a device that prevents all injustice save that which it commits itself.

Davey Hume: Exactly. That is the key problem of governance: mighty, but limited. It is only after the state has been established and the memory of what life was like in the Highlands disappears that people can even begin to forget why the state is necessary. Under security of property, people begin to view each other--even total strangers--as possible partners in mutually-beneficial acts of exchange. The oxytocin levels in their bloodstreams rise. They feel mutual sympathy toward each other. They feel bound by the moral law, and no longer kill clan enemies or rob strangers even when they can do so in perfect safety...

Adam Smith: I have written a big book about this, which very few of you have read--although everyone here at least claims to have read my other book...

Davey Hume: And it is only after the state has enabled commerce, and only after commerce has sweetened human nature, that one can even begin to entertain the anarchist-libertarian fantasies of the withering away of the state...

Joseph de Maistre: What my good friend Davey Hume is saying, although he is too polite to put it this way, is that behind everything good, peaceful, and prosperous in human society is the shadow of the Public Executioner...

Posted by DeLong at March 6, 2004 08:22 AM | TrackBack | | Other weblogs commenting on this post
Comments

Brad Delong's writing is always good, but this is among the best.

Posted by: Lawrence Krubner on March 6, 2004 08:56 AM

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Shorter Libertarian: pipe dreams! free markets! invisible hands! utopia! ponies!

Posted by: Gryn on March 6, 2004 09:01 AM

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Reminds me of a guy I met in grad school who was writing a paper of "If the Roman's Had Jets and Airplanes, How would Roman Law Deal with Air Rights."

Posted by: Cal on March 6, 2004 09:05 AM

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The Bush/Cheney Solution to Anarcho-Socialism

First read this Pentagon paper for context: http://www.ems.org/climate/pentagon_climate_change.pdf

Of course, this end-time premise has been around since the 1970's in one form or another, mass starvation, overpopulation, resource exhaustion, but now that Bush/Cheney are in office, the Pentagon is churning up a storm of libertarian reasons why our property should become theirs, why our freedoms should become Statist reforms.

Problem: Mass starvation and dislocation of 3rd world populations in the face of global warming and the US:WTO foreign trade policies threatens the Homeland Security of America (somehow).

The Pentagon solution, first articulated in http://http://www.au.af.mil/au/2025/
is a nuclear version of the potato gun.

"Large frozen chunks of meat, vegetables, fresh water or fuel sealed in 55-gallon drums can be precisely targeted to anywhere around the globe.

A complex telecommunications system connects
refugee centers to corporate headquarters at ConAgra & Tyson Foods & Exxon-Mobil. The word flashes in by satellite phone, "100,000 new
refugees in Ghana need relief supplies!"

The UN authorizes the World Bank to wire a bank letter of credit to Con-Tyson-Exxon, who wires the launching fees to NASA, then frozen drums of food and oil roll on, then off taxpayer-funded
high-speed Amtrak train cars connecting the great
nuclear rail guns on the East and West Coast, where 24x7, with a great whoomp and red-white-blue iridescent contrails, drums of desparately needed relief aid arc through the air on their way to parachute into distant continents."

The Pentagon Bushits make Libertarians look good!

Posted by: John Belle on March 6, 2004 09:11 AM

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Are you sure you should have invited Joseph de Maistre? I mean, I love that nutty ultramontane. But I spent many agreeable years in the Catholic schools. What's your excuse?

Posted by: Chris Marcil on March 6, 2004 09:11 AM

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But there is a libertarian paradise - Somalia! Look how it is a hot bed of entrepreneurial growth and libertarians are just lining up to get there!

Oh wait, they aren't. As Will Rodgers used to say "they want to preach against the pie after they have had their slice."

But more seriously - libertarianism is, to a great extent, the intellectual equivalent of communism in the 19th century. In the 19th century industrialization, corporatization and expansion were the solutions to most problems. The philosophical analogy of a defense lawyer sprang up - to put a burden of proof.

That doesn't mean you want them in charge of anything...

Posted by: Stirling Newberry on March 6, 2004 09:15 AM

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You can throw in the second amendment people. They all think "If I've got my gun, no one will mess with me". But in the known societies within which self-protection was the rule, the clans with 500 rifles brutalized the clans with 50 rifles. Second-amendment guys (besides having some sort of hysterical fear of The Other) also always imagine that they alone will be armed and fearless in the utopian world of armed self-defense. They don't imagine that their three worst and cruelest enemies will also be armed and fearless.

Somewhere I read a report, perhaps Gellner's, from north Africa. "Our clan has fifty rifles" was the standard opening sentence of a clan self-description.

Posted by: zizka / John Emerson on March 6, 2004 09:16 AM

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" Now, everyone close your eyes and try to imagine a private, profit-making rights-enforcement organization which does not resemble the mafia, a street gang, those pesky fire-fighters/arsonists/looters who used to provide such "services" in old New York....'

But the examples given didn't exist in a libertarian utopia. Suggesting that there are some problems with traditional democracy too.

Posted by: Patrick R. Sullivan on March 6, 2004 09:34 AM

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Iain Banks has an interesting science fiction series with a well realized future anarcho-socialist state. He basically escapes all of these problems by assuming a class of superintelligent, benevolent machines that do all the work and the important planning, and don't seem to suffer from many of the human urges towards misuse of power. So they are trusted to enforce the punishment of socially isolation of people who have been violent. They make up a combined managerial-worker-military class that power doesn't corrupt because, well, they aren't human, and the humans are basically consumers. I thought it was clever in its handling of the major problem of most utopias ("Human nature? We can replace that with nonhuman nature.")

Posted by: Rich Puchalsky on March 6, 2004 09:39 AM

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Before you fully discount the existence of a pre-nineteenth century libertarianism, you might want to invite Rousseau and Locke to your party.

Posted by: ecpepper on March 6, 2004 09:48 AM

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In libertarian utopia, where the right of free association is absolute, there's nothing to stop the 99 people from blacklisting the holdout, and refusing to business of any sort with him. Most likely he'd cave pretty quickly.

So the libertarians could still have this public good, or any that a majority wants. Of course it's perfectly ridiculous to regard such an arrangement as any less coercive than ours.

Posted by: son volt on March 6, 2004 09:57 AM

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So, when the Free State Project brings the Libertarian utopia to New Hampshire, will the railroads still run? Or will someone build a house on the tracks, and no one will bother to stop him?

I can't wait to find out!

Posted by: Grumpy on March 6, 2004 09:59 AM

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Patrick has stumbled onto an important truth. If you compare the imaginary to the actual, the imaginary is always much better. In the libertarian utopia, everyone has a pony.

Unless you have a bad imagination, I guess.

Posted by: Zizka on March 6, 2004 10:01 AM

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Let's climb into the wayforward machine, and get a glimpse of civilization 400 years from now: Quantum computation has been a reality for 360 years and this has enabled humankind to practically solve innumerable distribution and production problems. We have become much less dependent on energy, food production ceased being a problem 340 years ago, there is an abundance of cultural activities including college-level courses in ancient languages such as English, Spanish and French. Putonghua has become the universal language. Unfortunately, Fibreoptic cables have been incapable of providing communication for our highly mobile civilization. We still rely on frequency multiplexing electromagnetic broadcast for communication. Ever since government regulation was abolished because it was regarded as evil or an infringement of individual liberties, bloody clan wars (using jamming to interfere with our basic infrastrcuture) have been fought over control of the precious frequency spectrum. New technologies involving frequency hopping message redundancy etc., have never been able to deal with these attacks.

Posted by: CSTAR on March 6, 2004 10:12 AM

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Many of the libertarians I talk to are blind or ignorant of the role that government has in the very infrastructure that makes their modern existence possible. I comparing intrusions into the private lives of Americans by government and business and business practices, businesses are far more intrusive. What many libertarians resent is forcing businessess that would otherwise encroach to not excessively violate individual rights.

Posted by: bakho on March 6, 2004 10:14 AM

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Actually, if you completly remove the government, (I know, sort of a strawman, but I digress) the world you would get would be very similar to the makeup of the world in the book "Snow Crash" by Neal Stephenson. However, the one problem with the background in that book, is why isn't there some sort of military outfit trying to expand and conquer?

Posted by: Karmakin on March 6, 2004 10:32 AM

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About:

However, the one problem with the background in that book, is why isn't there some sort of military outfit trying to expand and conquer?

I am reminded of 14th century France, where private armies were such a problem that absolute monarchy looked good by comparison.

As to:
" Now, everyone close your eyes and try to imagine a private, profit-making rights-enforcement organization which does not resemble the mafia, a street gang, those pesky fire-fighters/arsonists/looters who used to provide such "services" in old New York....'

But the examples given didn't exist in a libertarian utopia. Suggesting that there are some problems with traditional democracy too.


Some of us think that the problems given existed more or less to the extent that the societies in which they took place did resemble a libertarian utopia. In any event, the soluctions that worked in the real world certainly weren't liberterian. Now if only the Mafia would really go away...

Posted by: Jonathan Goldberg on March 6, 2004 10:44 AM

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as an aside, I amended the proverb many years ago to:- If wishes were hondas, beggars would ride.

Posted by: big al on March 6, 2004 10:47 AM

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You forgot the other important component of libertarian reasoning: the hasty generalization.

In other words, find one single example, maybe TWO, of say, government annoyance, and use it to conclude that all instances of government behavior should be stopped.

For example, did you know that when the a government in Florida banned a certain kind of detergent containing phosphates, people started wanting it even more, and would smuggle and stockpile huge amounts of it? (mentioned here). Clearly, regulation NEVER works! People will ALWAYS evade the ban? Don't you see that? Does the "Boston Tea Party" ring a bell?

Of course, when the government declares a child safety seat unsafe, I don't see people lining up to buy that model off the black market. They may exist, but I've never know anyone to stockpile a lifetime supply of the Firestone Wilderness AT tires that the government forced recall beacuse of all those deaths.

Single examples prove very little, and are certainly not relevant to the kinds of empirical claims needed by libertarians to make their case. You may have shown a clear example of government overreach; yet you have to prove that this is representative of all instances of government behavior in order to reach the the libertarian conclusion. You have to show that cost > benefit for every government function you want to eliminate. Of course, that's a lot harder to do than to trot out a few single examples that might present an illusion of establishing that.

Posted by: taktile on March 6, 2004 10:53 AM

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Thanks for this nice post. I think the radical libertarian influence should be countered. They don't have much electoral influence -I think most people recognize that there is something strange about their arguments, so they never get more than a few percentage points in an election. But they have a large influence through think tanks and whatnot.

But maybe I shouldn't be so negative, since I don't understand what they say, and do still occaisionally wonder if is because there is something I don't understand, rather than that they make no sense.

I think DeLong made a very important point in his recent posts on Nozick. It is very difficult for libertarians to make a coherent argument that there vision would work in the real world. The contractarian radical libertarians want to say that everything should be based on entitlements and contracts, but then they have to argue that contracts are complete, and there is decision process that will resolve disputes regarding property rights under all sorts of unexpected scenarios. This is very hard to do so very often they sneak in utilitarian arguments so they can escape absurdities or have some kind of social dcision process where entitilements thinking produces a big question mark.

Then there what I think of as the optimality radical libertarians. They say that the results of free choice are always optimal because of the magic of the market (and everything is a market) or that this conclusion is an logical implication of the moral nature of man as an rational animal that can exercise free choice. The results of this thinking are revealed preference arguments gone stark raving mad, basically saying that everything is optimal otherwise something else would have happened.

Paul Samuelson has an article on how to separate revealed preference arguments that have some empirical content from those that are facile tautologies. He even has a little mathematical programming example to make his argument concrete. Its in one of the first three volumes of his collected papers. And Bishop Buter I said something on this point with respect to what would nowadays be called revealed preference arguments to prove that we must all be selfish egotists.

And then when you get to the any anarcho-radical libertarians... then I give up completely.

And... none of the founding fathers were libertarians. No, not even Jefferson. Embargo. Majority rule. Rights have spheres of influence and are to be interpreted in an overall social vision of human beings and society.

Posted by: jml on March 6, 2004 11:03 AM

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". . . . . Life and liberty are generally said to be of more value, than property. An accurate view of the matter would nevertheless prove that property is the main object of Society. The savage State is more favorable to liberty than the Civilized; and sufficiently so to life. It is preferred by all men who have not acquired a taste for property. . . . . . [The savage state] was only renounced for the sake of property, which could only be secured by the restraints of regular Government... If property then was the main object of Government, certainly it ought to be one measure of the influence due to those who are to be affected by the Government."

--Gouverneur Morris, who drafted the US Constitution

Posted by: Roger Bigod on March 6, 2004 11:07 AM

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You forgot the other important component of libertarian reasoning: the hasty generalization.

And don't forget its close cousin, the ubiquitous slippery slope--meaning the capacity to find in, say, seat belt laws, sure evidence that we are headed straight towards totalitarianism.

Posted by: Thersites on March 6, 2004 11:40 AM

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nice quote, Roger Bigod, but I don't quite get your point. Jefferson has a similar view regarding the relative virtues of savage versus civilized life, but he did not emphasize private property quite so much as the purpose of civilization.

Anyway, you will have to explain this quote to me. The point is that anarcho libertarianism is incompatible with stable property rights and civilization? So this is the same point that DeLong is making?

Or am I misunderstanding? Not enough context for me to understand the quote.

What was Governour Morris on the spectrum anyway? He was a pretty aristocratic, and wanted the govt to have what was called in those days "a very high tone" -against too much democracy. Certainly was big on property rights. But was big supporter of, and I think helped oversee, building of Erie Canal -that was a public works project financed by the state of New York. Got so pissed at one point over Madison's policies during War of 1812, advocated New England secession. That sounds pretty anarcho-libertarian, at least in regards to federal govt. Very anti-slavery too, so that is libertarian.

But on balance he doesn't sound very libertarian to me. Is that your point?

Posted by: jml on March 6, 2004 11:59 AM

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What was the book Smith's dialog referred to? "The Wealth of Nations" was the one everyone's claimed to have read, but I can't decide for the other between "Lectures on justice, police, revenue, and arms" which has an appropriate title but is actually a set of lectures, and "The theory of moral sentiments" which seems to be an actual book.

Posted by: Alex on March 6, 2004 12:02 PM

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(Comment crossposted from Calpundit, and apologies to those who, like me, frequent both Brad's and Kevin's blogs.)

Back to the primary topic -- snark about the perceived unrealism of many self-identified libertarians -- in connection with which, I would fain offer a point of perspective.

Consider the analogy of the environmental movement and public perceptions thereof.

The majority of environmentalists are people who have made their peace with science and industry, and who recognize that the fruits of technology are not all bad. They would like to see the worst side effects and externalities of industry mitigated, and would also like to see the niches for raw nature rather more well-defended than they now are.

The environmental movement is also home to a very small number of people who self-identify as Deep Green and the like. These are what I would call neo-Rousseauites, people who loathe and abhor most technology beyond the late Neolithic stage.

A friend used to work for Greenpeace. At one point he stopped and asked one co-worker, "Hey, in your personal view, where are we going with all this? What's the desired endpoint you are trying to get to?"

She replied that her personal goal was to produce a world in which humans essentially were reduced to glorified hunter-gatherers again (albeit without yucky hunting), and spent their entire lives being what my friend referred to as "caring nature bunnies".

I don't think that her goal is realizable without having at least three-quarters of the global population eliminated. Nor do I consider it particularly attractive as a goal; if you were to propose it to a certain sort of fuzzy-minded person, they might at first consider it a fine idea, but almost no one would want to go through with it once realizing how painful and difficult life can be in the suggested condition.

Nature has a lot of sharp edges on her that 21st century urbanites have long since forgotten about. And people who have lived with machines to do the heavy lifting plus medicine to soothe their fevered brows aren't likely to enjoy living without machines nor medicine.

Yet there are people on the extreme fringe of the environmental movement who do still seriously believe in trying to attain this goal. My friend, whom I would consider a sensible moderate environmentalist as described above, left Greenpeace a few months after having the conversation in question.

There's an epiphenomenon here that bears witnessing. It's common on the right to caricature mainstream environmentalism by picking out extreme views such as the ones my friend encountered firsthand -- and then presenting those extreme views as though they were commonly held among typical self-identified environmentalists.

And that's a brutally inaccurate and dishonest canard. If you were to poll self-ID'd environmentalists, you would almost certainly find that Deep Green sentiment is very rare among them.

Here's where I as a libertarian see certain parallels. My personal goal would be to reduce the sphere of government oversight and intrusion to, say, half of what it is today.

That would be a BIG change, mind you, from the current state of affairs, and would be sufficiently radical as to require us all to pause at that level and assess whether it's at all feasible and desirable to go any further.

However, again, as a self-identified libertarian, persons like myself who are aiming to cut the reach of government by fifty percent get lumped in with people who are hoping to cut it to *five* percent of what it is now. Or 0.005%.

I don't think that those goals are necessarily desirable, and I think they're also impossible to attain.

It doesn't really make any more sense to suggest that my views are of a parcel with theirs than it does to imply that Deep Green sentiments are widespread among environmentalists.

Yet, if I demur from the War on Certain Drugs, I find myself saddled with the charge that I approve of having crystal meth sold to preschoolers.

If I defend Second Amendment rights, it is routinely assumed that I must think anyone should be able to buy a .50 caliber heavy squad machine gun over the counter with no ID.

It's a frustrating condition to be in, constantly fighting the fallacy of composition, to wit, "Some X are Y, therefore, all X are Y."

Some libertarians are moony-eyed theoreticians fond of describing an unworkably free world -- therefore, all libertarians are.

And since libertarians are nuts by definition, any necessity of addressing libertarian argument, however moderate and temperate and factual that argument might be, is automatically removed.

Posted by: marquer on March 6, 2004 12:05 PM

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just googled Morris. Was a high Federalist -more Hamilton than Hamilton. Can't be a libertarian!
The bio said this:
"[Morris] was appointed (1792) U.S. minister to France. During the French Revolution his sympathies lay with the royalists; he even helped plan a scheme to rescue Louis XVI."

Wow, and I thought Jefferson was the biggest meddler in the revolution.

Not a libertarian.

Unless informed otherwise, I will assume your quote supports my position.

Posted by: jml on March 6, 2004 12:09 PM

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marquer,
Well, I specified radical libertarians, and I think from the quotes DeLong put up, that is what he was talking about.
My exerience is that there is higher proportion of very extreme radical people among some groups that others. I have met many more extreme radicals among libertarians than I have in environmental groups. But I don't lump them all together, and wouldn't jump to conclusions just because you dislike the current drug laws or are big on right to bear arms.

Posted by: jml on March 6, 2004 12:18 PM

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I'm surprised no one here has mentioned the number one influence on Libertarian thought---at least in the US: pot. Libertarians are pot-smoking hippies who don't want to be considered
leftist---I think it's their own special brand of mass market "non-conformism. It's no wonder they can't think straight.

Posted by: marky on March 6, 2004 12:18 PM

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The "other book" is _The Theory of Moral Sentiments_.

Posted by: Brad DeLong on March 6, 2004 12:33 PM

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Nice dialogue! My favourite line:

"Adam Smith: I have written a big book about this, which very few of you have read--although everyone here at least claims to have read my other book..."

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct on March 6, 2004 12:35 PM

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"Lectures on justice, police, revenue, and arms" which has an appropriate title but is actually a set of lectures,"

That's *Lectures on Jurisprudence*, based on two sets of student lecture notes (the first discovered in the late 19th century, the other in the 1950s).

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct on March 6, 2004 12:38 PM

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I quoted Morris as a point on the spectrum, what an extremely intelligent, realistic guy thought at the time. He believed the US Constitution was a good idea, but he thought it wouldn't work in France because the citizenry wouldn't exercise power responsibly. He thought extending the franchise too far was self-defeating, since the rich would simply buy the votes of the many (hmmmmmm!). Vote buying would be acceptable for a libertarian, no?

I'll have to think about it, but Morris would probably be a social libertarian. The quote about property is one of the few general statements I know of. I think he'd be happy to see some functions of the state wither, but he recognized that some projects like the Eirie Canal needed government backing.

Posted by: Roger Bigod on March 6, 2004 12:45 PM

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Great post brad. I'd like to add that I am, myself, a descendant of a practicing 20th century (or perhaps I mean late nineteenth century) libertarian/leftist. I just finished reading my great grandfather's memoir of his failed (alas) anarchist/libertarian farm commune in Michigan. I highly recommend it for its prototypical jewish humor, and the amazing array of ways in which the libertarian/anarchist dream goes bad (inevitably) when the people running the show are really, really nice and really, really well meaning and the greater mass of co-workers are not. Its called "Quest for Heaven." by Joseph Cohen.

Kate

Posted by: Kate Gilbert on March 6, 2004 12:58 PM

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"But the examples given didn't exist in a libertarian utopia."

Which libertarian Utopia are you talking about - the one that exists at the Hoover Institute or the American Enterprise Institute?

Posted by: Stirling Newberry on March 6, 2004 01:10 PM

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A comment on a post waaaay before: Locke and Rousseua are not particularly good candidates for libertarianism. One of Locke's key points, in the Second Tretise, is that we form government precisely because the state of nature cannot adequately proptect our life, liberties, and estates. Rousseua ain't a right-libertarian (propety as a terrible thing and all that), and he isn't much of a left one either (making ones own chains, instantiating the general will, and all that).

Posted by: dn on March 6, 2004 01:10 PM

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The best that can be said of Libertarianism is that it's a path, not a destination.

And I speak as a guy with some deep Libertarian sympathies.

Posted by: Brian on March 6, 2004 01:26 PM

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I agree with above writer that this has to be one of Brad's best postings ever. There seem to be a fair number of conservatarian tax scrooges who post here, and interestingly enough they never do seem to want to deal with the endpoint of their purported policies. As for Brian above, I would argue that one has to keep an idea in mind of where your policies might take you. If you want 19th century Victorian England, then maybe that is a reason to be a right libertarian. I tend to favor a 1950-1970 New Deal-style America, myself.

Posted by: non economist on March 6, 2004 01:39 PM

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non-economist:
I'm not sure 19th century Victorian England was libertarian. Maybe late Roman Repubic? (-except for the grain dole) Haiti? some one mentioned Somolia?
One grand, the others squalid. Both violent and unstable.

Posted by: jml on March 6, 2004 01:50 PM

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I would pay well to read a debate between Brad and David Friedman on the subject of anarcho capitalism.

P.S David's historical example of choice Iceland

"M]edieval Icelandic institutions have several peculiar and interesting characteristics; they might almost have been invented by a mad economist to test the lengths to which market systems could supplant government in its most fundamental functions. Killing was a civil offense resulting in a fine paid to the survivors of the victim. Laws were made by a "parliament," seats in which were a marketable commodity. Enforcement of law was entirely a private affair. And yet these extraordinary institutions survived for over three hundred years, and the society in which they survived appears to have been in many ways an attractive one. Its citizens were, by medieval standards, free; differences in status on rank or sex were relatively small; and its literary output in relation to its size has been compared, with some justice, to that of Athens. "

David Friedman (1979,400)

Posted by: Rob Sperry on March 6, 2004 01:53 PM

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Yes, Medieval Iceland was no doubt an attractive place. A hotbed of scientific and technical innovation. One of the centers of the renaissance and enlightenment. Second to none in the artistic creativity and splendor represented in the huge number of famous icelandic sculptors and painters. Not to mention the powerful pre-industrial economy that made Iceland such a dominating medieval nation-state. Indeed, sod farming next to glaciers would be an attractive lifestyle for any of us in the modern world.

Posted by: non economist on March 6, 2004 02:16 PM

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Libertarians take a half truth -- freedom -- and run it into the ground. But then, many leftists take a half truch -- justice -- and run it into the ground.

The trick is to get these two half-truths to live together. But easier said than done. They can't live with each other, and they can't live without each other.

Life is full of delicious paradoxes.

Posted by: Luke Lea on March 6, 2004 02:33 PM

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And what look what happened to poor Iceland!

"Iceland's Scandinavian-type economy is basically capitalistic, yet with an extensive welfare system (including generous housing subsidies), low unemployment, and remarkably even distribution of income."
from CIA factbook...

Let libertarians weep! It was corrupted somehow. But it must be better now because the current state is "revealed preferred" to their medieval state. They could always go back -medieval technology is available, or could easily be developed. But but... that can't be right. No, the revealed perferredness is corrupted by some kind of collective decision process, and therefore that revealedness is not admissible and must be bad somehow.

But seriously, I question some of Friedman's thinking in that quote. Many traditional societies accept monetary compensation for death, and private law enforcement, they are not particularly libertarian concepts.

And I do not remember reading that there was an *organized* market for seats in the parliament. And if not, how was it different from other legislatures, including ours? (but I may be wrong, maybe you could legally sell a seat, I need to look it up.)

One thing I do find very odd, and that is the love that some *radical* libertarians have for things like turning murder into a property crime, and private law enforcement. How conceptually does that match with everyone having equal inalienable rights to life and liberty? I need to ask a libertarian about these issues. My hunch, when I am feeling nasty and ungenerous, is that behind the facade of rationality and respect for human rights, radical libertarians who advocate these things may be really worshiping nothing but nihilistic power. Whoever has enough money to buy some one off, or beat some on up is right, as long as it is not a result of an organized collective decision making process. In which case it is evil, for some reason or other.

They may not be aware of that, but that is what I think when I am in a bad, uncharitable mood.

Posted by: jml on March 6, 2004 02:34 PM

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But in a more charitable spirit, there is something inspiring about medieval Iceland, at least I thought it was cool when I first read about it, and I thought it might be one of the nicer places to live in Europe at that time. The question is whether its libertarian nature was a product of a specific historical situation and very specific cultural values of the inhabitants. That does not mean it should be recommended for other situations and other peoples.

But what about this business of medieval Icelandic parliament seats for sale? Anyone know? I to not remember reading that.

Posted by: jml on March 6, 2004 02:40 PM

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Let's see, prices fixed by vote, required joining of a social group which redistributed wealth, feudal requirement of sole employer in return for protection.

Looks like regular early feudalism of the 800-1000 period, made possible by a lack of threat of invasion from the outside preventing a single lord from demanding fealty from the other lords. And, as soon as there was such outside pressure, the common wealth collapsed.

Icelandic law of the medieval period is like evolution on New Zealand, the lack of external pressure created the possiblity of pure plutocracy, which is what happened.

Posted by: Stirling Newberry on March 6, 2004 02:45 PM

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As for Iceland: its civilization came into being when a bunch of Norwegian chiefs refused to yield to the growing power of the king and preferred to emigrate, together with their followers, to Iceland. They did indeed create an interesting political system and a great literature as well: NJAL's SAGA is a magnificent work, right there with the greatest pieces of prose literature Western civilization ever produced. Yet, this "egaliterian libertarian" civilization led to the centralization of power in the hands of a very few clan-leaders, who fought each other to a terrible deadlock, bled Iceland white and in the end forced the Icelanders to beg the Norwegian king to take them back under his rule. The Icelandic experiment proved ultimately a failure.

Posted by: Thomas T. Schweitzer on March 6, 2004 02:57 PM

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Well yes, it is also marked by the very "protection racket" style of police power which theory predicts should occur.

After all, one's life is worth just about everything one has.

Posted by: Stirling Newberry on March 6, 2004 03:07 PM

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So what's the libertarian concept of private enforcement of intellectual property? Or are libertarians only interested in tangible assets?

Posted by: ogmb on March 6, 2004 03:07 PM

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Same as their concept of anything - as soon as they decide you've violated their rights, they peacefully and non-coercively hire someone to blow you away.

Posted by: Stirling Newberry on March 6, 2004 03:08 PM

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"Libertarians take a half truth -- freedom -- and run it into the ground. But then, many leftists take a half truch -- justice -- and run it into the ground."

I would claim that the ideal leftists run into the ground is equality, not justice.

Posted by: ogmb on March 6, 2004 03:15 PM

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Explaining libertarianism to a leftist is a lot like explaining flight to a goldfish ("how on Earth can you possibly have a society if better and wiser people aren't telling the rabble the right thing to do?). Hell, one can't even broach the subject of schools being private without making their brains start to smoke.

But it's worth noting that many reasonable liberarians are not anarchists, but limited-government libertarians. Very limited.

For a more reasoned outlook on this concept, try Ayn Rand's "Nature of Government:"

http://www.ccsindia.org/lss/2nature_of_govt.pdf

Take note of her opinions on anarchy.

Posted by: tbrosz on March 6, 2004 03:25 PM

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Yeah, well, before it got nasty, medieval Iceland seemed like a cool place to be.

Like many starry eyed readers of history, I was not planning to be alive for the following part:

"[they] bled Iceland white and in the end forced the Icelanders to beg the Norwegian king to take them back under his rule."

But it was the result of free individual inconstrained choice so it was optimal, or moral, or both, by definition.

Sorry, I have to work today, so am grumpy. And the idea of liberty while working on Sat incites me to keep logging on and coming back to this thread in horrified fascination.

Posted by: jml on March 6, 2004 03:25 PM

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Thersites: "And don't forget its close cousin, the ubiquitous slippery slope--meaning the capacity to find in, say, seat belt laws, sure evidence that we are headed straight towards totalitarianism."

Laugh it up. Going beyond seatbelts, it is now illegal for me to buy a car that doesn't have airbags, the deployment of which kills about 1 person for every 30 that is saved, and prevents me from carrying children anywhere near these bombs. Try and imagine the outrage at a private manufacturer of, say, life vests, where about 1 in 30 of them would, if you fell in the water, fill up with water and drop you to the bottom like a rock.

And I have heard serious proposals for speed governors on car engines.

Posted by: tbrosz on March 6, 2004 03:33 PM

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non economist,

You misunderstood my post. I don't say Libertarianism is a path to itself, but a path to an enlightened future. Which won't _be_ Libertarian but will (one hopes) provide as much personel freedom as possible.

It has something in common with late 19th, early 20th century Socialism. While (for example) America is _not_ Socialist, much of what Socialists, then, wanted from the future is a part of our culture _now_.

Above all else I choose politics of the possible, not the ideologue.

Posted by: Brian on March 6, 2004 03:35 PM

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Marky
"I'm surprised no one here has mentioned the number one influence on Libertarian thought---at least in the US: pot. Libertarians are pot-smoking hippies who don't want to be considered
leftist---I think it's their own special brand of mass market "non-conformism. It's no wonder they can't think straight."

Are you troll or do you honestly believe this? I have Libertarian tendancies but I've never smoked pot. The most intense mind altering 'drug' that I've taken was Soju and once was enough.

Your post _reads_ like Establishment Victorians dismissing all Socialists as opium-smoking Free Love proponents.

Posted by: Brian on March 6, 2004 03:44 PM

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"Libertarians take a half truth -- freedom -- and run it into the ground. But then, many leftists take a half truch -- justice -- and run it into the ground."

And moderates think that by lying about the whole problem that it will just go away.

Posted by: Stirling Newberry on March 6, 2004 04:07 PM

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T Hobbes - Poor, solitary, nasty, brutish and short.
Thom was a smart guy, but didn't bother much with history. people are almost never willing to be solitary no matter how horribly they treat each other. This is true also when there is empty land.

I see a connection between medieval Iceland and Nozick. The idea that there is only one just and legitimate price as found in feudal societies like medieval Iceland is necessary for his argument. He has profit maximizing security providors gaining 100% membership in their territories. He somehow concludes that they must sell security at cost. The idea that they might charge more and give some of the surplus to the poor doesn't seem to enter his head. In any case, he would have to conclude that natural freedoms do not include the freedom to charge what the market will bear.

Posted by: Robert Waldmann on March 6, 2004 04:10 PM

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"What does government produce?", the economizers always ask. Security. Government has one of its principle roots in the organization of violence for external defense (or for the aggressive acquisition of territory) and, as such, there is always a residue of violence at the core of government qua sovereignty, government as the organized monopoly of legitimate violence. But governments must needs come to understand that the establishment of security requires the securing of its relations with its citizens/subjects. Hence it comes to understand that it must provide the means of securing those relations, some of which go by the name of "rights". And thus security comes to evolve into trust, which is what we mean by "legitimation". But it is not just security and trust between government and its citizens/subjects that is thereby produced, but security and trust between those citizens/subjects independent of government operations, which can evolve into spheres of activity outside the direct control of the state and even into activities directed against the state.

Now the function of government, aside from the maintenance of means of defense by which the collective existence and interests of the nation can be secured in a world of other sovereign states, is to balance out conflicting and competing interests and groups within the subject society and integrate them within an overall framework of agreed-upon policy, thus providing some overall steering capacity for that society, in which, in principle, all citizens have an equal potential to participate. To be sure, governments have interests of their own and they are subject to capture, wholely or in part, by particular interests that do not necessarily correspond to the interests or the good of the public as a whole- (though this latter conception is a highly differentiated and cantankerous beast.) But it is only within the framework of politics generated by the security and trust producing function of government that such matters can come into the light of day at all.

Hegel and Marx both thought that politics was pre-eminently a realm of alienation. But for Hegel, this was basically a good thing, something to be evaluated positively, as, through alienation, we rise above our narrow and particular selves and our pre-occupation with self-interest into a consideration of the universal perspective. (And we should all be reading those Greeks, so as, by passing over into the land of fabulous otherness, we return to ourselves with a deeper, higher, more impersonal and universal understanding of ourselves.) Marx, by contrast, thought such alienation, which Hegel had provided a "false", idealististic reconciliation for in the state, needed to be abolished and could only be done with through a socio-economic revolution which would re-absorb the state back into the horizons of civil society. I myself come down in the middle here. I think politics is inerradicably a realm of alienation, which is why resentment, suspicion and determined ignorance play such a large part in it. ("Politics", said Karl Kraus," is what a man does to conceal himself and what he does not know.") But I don't think government can be meaningfully dispensed with, for all its well known evils, since that would be tantamount to vanquishing the civil society, whose existence it provides for. It is a matter of struggling to bring about a mode of governance that is responsive and responsible to a strong, differentiated and pluralistic public sphere- (differentiated because matters are complex and there is a problem of overburdening with information overload and pluralistic because not all matters effect all people to the same extent and in the same way.) But we are far gone into the alienation, whereas, in matters of the public sphere, we only continue to regress.

Libertarians and liberals, in my view, both hold on to an unreflected account of human agency- ("freedom")- which, to some extent, is their common ground, and which is the basis from which they make their doctrinal deductions. The difference is that, while libertarians absolutize "freedom" as a magical, metaphysical property, liberals constrain its exercise by the recognition of the equal right of others to its exercize. But, in my view, both fail to recognize how human agency is, in fact, actually generated out of human interaction, and thus is already a common and conflictual property, and is, by the very same token, a limited and conditioned "thing"- perhaps especially when it is a matter of exercizing "choice". It is because human agency is a limited and conditioned matter, and thus one that is highly vulnerable in its practice, that it needs to be protected and safeguarded by the institution of rights, not because it is such a grand and glorious thing, the metaphysical wonder of the universe. Both liberals and libertarians interpret human agency qua freedom in terms of "autonomy", literally, self-law, and I think it would be good to reflect upon the Greek metaphysical origins of the notion of autonomy. (I did post a bit about this last week at "Crooked Timber" on the "Passolini" thread.)

Posted by: john c. halasz on March 6, 2004 04:13 PM

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Doesn't the word "bezerk" come from the Icelandic Sagas?

Posted by: john c. halasz on March 6, 2004 04:24 PM

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Libertarianism is highly phony for lots of reasons. There's the problem of original justification of the dominion rights of private estates, no more clearly warranted than the powers of governments (Sure, there's farming, which ought to get you something, but what are all those realtor's signs doing outside plots of trees and grass?) Like I say: If taxation is theft, then so is rent. Then there's the fact that corporations are granted artificial recognition as legal persons with limited liability for the investors, a privilege that the grantor (the public, ultimately!) can require conditions and compensation for (like, how much to pay the rest of us who work there.) Then, there's the modern monetary system. You can't really have a "free economy" when new money has to be created to support expanding credit and productivity - unlike the trading of goods for hard currency, a political decision has to be made on how to allocate the new money. (The current system of monetizing the debt from private banks is a welfare system for financiers.) Indeed, government has more right to control money than anything else, it being the ultimate public and socially-conditioned item (It's physically made by the government - wouldn't a private company that made something that useful charge us to use it? The acceptance of it is conditioned on collective agreement, it's expanded and that is like giving it away in various degrees to some persons and institutions, so we can ask for more back from them, and so on. Get over it.) That's a start, and there's more. The only credit I give them is some specific proposals to get some things done in better ways, but not the overall perspective, which is based on evasion of the whole issue of validating *anyone's* claims to power, whether nation or ranch. (This point was brought up by Dr. DeLong in a previous discussion started by him.)

Posted by: Neil Bates on March 6, 2004 05:15 PM

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"Laugh it up. Going beyond seatbelts, it is now illegal for me to buy a car that doesn't have airbags, the deployment of which kills about 1 person for every 30 that is saved,"

It is terrible that we prevent you from removing yourself from the gene pool, but, being the inventive sort you ar, I'm sure you will find some other means to do so.

Posted by: Stirling Newberry on March 6, 2004 05:27 PM

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I'm amazed that Law Professor Epstein doesn't understand contracts -- he uses the term to refer to an immediate exchange, while contracts actually involve the exchange of promises of future performance. Contracts add the temporal dimension, and involve *giving up* one's freedom to act other than as promised, so they require enforcement mechanisms, like courts.

I'm not so surprised that Epstein doesn't understand taxes. He favors a flat tax as a limit on government power to unfairly pick on one segment, but the choice of what to tax and when is surely more important than whether to allow surtaxes or brackets.

Posted by: gwailo on March 6, 2004 06:40 PM

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With all due respect, you folks realize that you are looking at one end of the libertarian spectrum while making generalizations about the whole, right?

This, from Mr. Halasz, strikes me as a wholly inaccurate infantilizing of the positions of most libertarians I know: "The difference is that, while libertarians absolutize "freedom" as a magical, metaphysical property, liberals constrain its exercise by the recognition of the equal right of others to its exercize."

The short answer to that charge is that for those who argue from an ideological point of view, as opposed to a consequentialist one, liberty is a value of great weight. Now, one can clearly hold other values and weigh them differently, but the first axiom of libertarian thought is hardly that Freedom exists independent of human interaction. It is infact inherent in the libertarian notion of negative freedom that freedom depends PRIMARILY on the actions of others. One does not say that one is coerced by the law of gravitation, for example. Of course freedom means freedom from harms imposed by other humans.

In other words, nearly every libertarian I personally know would agree that rights are necessary in large part because of the consequences of their absence. The more compelling question for the libertarian is, once we make a consequentialist argument for the existence of any rights at all, how do we determine what those should be? Some libertarians at this point engage in the exercise of deriving rights from axioms such as self-ownership and meaninglessness of The Common Good, while a great many others continue along the path of consequences to say that a right to serve its purpose must look like thus and so, must be constrained in such and such a way, and so on.

At the end of the day, is the fairy of human liberty more of a mythological creature than the will of Society?

Posted by: Jason Ligon on March 6, 2004 07:10 PM

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Stirling shows an all too common disregard for opportunity costs. It really doesn't matter to you that the previous poster would have done something else with the money that he spent on an airbag that to him is valueless?

Posted by: Jason Ligon on March 6, 2004 07:15 PM

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Picking on Libertarians is like beating up quadraplegics.

Posted by: rps on March 6, 2004 07:57 PM

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"Stirling shows an all too common disregard for opportunity costs. It really doesn't matter to you that the previous poster would have done something else with the money that he spent on an airbag that to him is valueless?"

Well, since making airbags mandatory reduces their unit costs (under standard economies of scale/standardization assumptions) this is really mostly a wealth transfer from those who want to give their kid a 1/31 chance of survival to those who want to give it a 30/31 chance. A tax on recklessness, so to speak.

Posted by: ogmb on March 6, 2004 08:14 PM

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Just curious.

Is there any political philosophy which, when taken to its logical extreme, is not patently ridiculous?

Maybe Aristotle was on to something – Moderation in all things.

Posted by: TexasToast on March 6, 2004 08:37 PM

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another good example of libertarianism ... though obscure to those not versed in central european history ... would be poland during the 17th and 18th centuries. at the beginning of that time, poland was one of the super-powers of central/eastern europe and even at one point had soldiers in moscow and a puppet on the russian throne (think of the story of mussorgsky's opera boris godunov). sometime thereafter, the polish parliament (the "sejm") instituted the "liberum veto," wherein any legislation could be defeated if just ONE member of the sejm voted against it. this helped to make poland ungovernable, its government unable to effectively respond to changing circumstances (such as cossack revolts, the schemes of rival neighboring states like russia and prussia) -- leading to the country's power and wealth being dissipated over time. by the end of the 18th century, poland had been partitioned between the austrians, the prussians, and the russians.

Posted by: Cincinnatus C on March 6, 2004 08:44 PM

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Sterling: Sorry, I have two kids, so I'm already pretty well along in the gene pool. I have no idea how smart you are, or what qualifies someone like you to decide for me what safety features--features that affect only the driver's safety, nobody else's--I need in a car. I'm talking airbags, not headlights.

As for myself, I'm an aerospace engineer, and I'm getting a little tired of asshats in Washington, most of whom are lawyers, and probably don't even know how an internal combustion engine works, making my decisions for me.

I understand that the need to control others is almost irresistable in some people. I also understand that there are far too many people who are just fine with letting others make their decisions for them. It's beginning to show in our society.

Posted by: tbrosz on March 6, 2004 08:47 PM

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"But there is a libertarian paradise - Somalia! Look how it is a hot bed of entrepreneurial growth and libertarians are just lining up to get there!"

Obviously you have no idea how nucking futs libertarians (or at least, the hardcore "zero government" anarcho-capitalist variety) are.

I took a philosophy course in anarcho-capitalism in university. The professor (who was one) proceeded to argue that Somalia isn't all that bad. Sure it was chaos and warfare, but tribes out in the boonies did just fine without the state. [This is because they still have a surviving old-style tribal social organization].

David Friedman, an anarcho-capitalist who unfortunately hangs around the same newsgroups I do, has been known to argue against government by comparing it to the mafia. Then whenever someone says that "private security firms" would be much like the mafia, he says the mafia actually isn't all that bad, keeps down the level of criminal violence, and so on.

I am not kidding. Apparently you really do have to be that twisted to be an anarcho-capitalist. All of them I've encountered are quite remarkable for their utter lack of critical thinking skills, possession of stupendously biased standards of proof, and so on. None of them were ignorant - in fact they were usually very well educated and fairly intelligent. They just happened to be utterly atrocious at what I would consider basic reasoning and critical thinking skills, and plain common sense. Having met a number of people who are honest-to-god Marxists even today, I have to say that even they have a lot more sense than the anarcho-capitalists.

Posted by: Ian Montgomerie on March 6, 2004 08:55 PM

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Tbrosz

Three points on the safety features
1) The need to have enough volume to make the safety feature affordable in a mass produced product - i.e. if you could “opt out” of air bags, the production line would be more complex and the cost of production more expensive. Your “choice” makes my car more expensive.
2) The cost to society of mass opt outs – most people would opt out of pollution control equipment on cars if they could, and we would have deadly air in most of our cities on a much more frequent basis. A short term benefit to you, a long term cost to me and most everyone else.
3) The increased cost of my automobile insurance because you and drivers like you would skew the accident statistics in an unfavorable and more expensive way – why should you be able to force my insurance premium to go up?

Robert McNamara in “Fog of War” talks about Ford’s introduction of the seat belt. There is NO doubt it saved many lives. Is that not a good reason to accept some minimal limits on your freedom?

Posted by: TexasToast on March 6, 2004 09:12 PM

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"As for myself, I'm an aerospace engineer, and I'm getting a little tired of asshats in Washington, most of whom are lawyers, and probably don't even know how an internal combustion engine works, making my decisions for me."

Yet another government employed libertarian. Some jokes just write themselves.

Has anyone figured out why libertarians are disproportionately concentrated in industries which would not exist without government demand? And why they use the internet - an industry created by government demand and researched at government expense? And why they do a huge amount of work to evangelize for libertarianism - for free?

There has got to be a nobel prize in biology for the person who can figure out how a group of people can be so self deluded.

Posted by: Stirling Newberry on March 6, 2004 09:14 PM

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Brad Delong:

"...the right-libertarians who currently populate Reason (who for some reason break the dream of perfect human freedom and communal solidarity by creating "ownership").
Now, everyone close your eyes and try to imagine a private, profit-making rights-enforcement organization which does not resemble the mafia, a street gang, those pesky fire-fighters/arsonists/looters"


Human freedom is impossible without the right to ownership of property! Close your own eyes Brad Delong, and just try to imagine a free people without the individual right to ownership of property.

But, you don't have to imagine the monumental human tragedies that have been part of the history of States that have disallowed ownership because there are many real world examples since you never find the latter without the former.

Lets see Brad; Pinkerton's, Wells Fargo, etc, sure don't seem much like the mafia, or street gangs.

Posted by: Rick Barton on March 6, 2004 09:57 PM

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Call me cruel, but I'm willing to let Tbrosz take care of his two little contributions to the gene pool any way he wants to.

Posted by: zizka / John Emerson on March 6, 2004 09:59 PM

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Don't fret, Texas Toast. There was a previous thread on Social Security where Tbrosz stated he wanted to make SSI voluntary as well.

Personally, I think Libertarians go to the extremes of their delusional thinking patterns in otherwise reasonable intellects due to a pathological reaction to paying taxes. They are fundamentally fairly greedy, and would just prefer to not pay taxes and have everything be just the way it is in the US (i.e. low crime rate, relatively good infrastructure, governmental supported technology research, etc.)

The impulse for greediness is what distorts the thinking, such that they can not see that taxes are what make all of the rest possible.

As far as individual rights, I have yet to meet a libertarian who values them over their tax burden. They would almost exclusively rather vote for a conservative republican who is more likely to restrict freedoms but reduce tax burdens than liberal democrats who would be more likely to allow personal freedoms but increase tax burdens in exchange for more social services. That, more than anything else, shows where their true motivation lies- not in utopia, but in greed.

Posted by: non economist on March 6, 2004 10:04 PM

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"Thomas Hobbes: I know what it's like much better than David Friedman does. I lived through the English Civil War."

It was a civil war between the forces of the crown and those of parliament. The contest was over who could be the government. The winning general made himself a military dictator. How does this reflect on David Friedman views?

http://easyweb.easynet.co.uk/~crossby/ECW/history/index.html

“The tension between Charles and Parliament was still great, since none of the issues raised by the Short Parliament had been resolved. This tension was brought to a head on January 4th, 1642 when Charles attempted to arrest five members of parliament. This attempt failed, since they were spirited away before the king's troops arrived.

Charles left London and both he and parliament began to stockpile military resources and recruit troops.

Charles officially began the war by raising his standard at Nottingham in August, 1642. Robert Devereux (3rd Earl of Essex) was made parliamentary commander.”

Posted by: Rob Sperry on March 6, 2004 11:06 PM

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On the laughable examples of private enforcement agencies of the past, throw in also Chinese banditti, Italian condotierri, German mercenaries of the Thirty Years War, etc.
Beyond that, the more anarcho or quasi-anarcho versions of libertarianism offer no protection against a major fear of the Founding Fathers -- the tyranny of the majority.
To claim that the Founders were by and large libertarians is a crock.

Posted by: Steve Snyder on March 6, 2004 11:27 PM

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"Beyond that, the more anarcho or quasi-anarcho versions of libertarianism offer no protection against a major fear of the Founding Fathers -- the tyranny of the majority.
To claim that the Founders were by and large libertarians is a crock."

I dont know of anyone who claims that the founding fathers were anarcho capitalist libertarians. The claim instead is that several of them resemble minarchist libertarians in beliveing "That government is best which governs least."

Posted by: Rob Sperry on March 6, 2004 11:41 PM

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Reaction from a backslidden libertarian:

http://www.livejournal.com/users/michaelduff/118163.html

Posted by: Michael Duff on March 7, 2004 12:05 AM

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Oldstyle Republicans like myself have found this Adminstration to be generally horrifying in its completely oblivious blend of mendacity and corruption. Even the initiatives that we did support where conducted and executed in a fashion that seemed designed to both offend the greatest number of people possible and wreak the greatest possible long term damage to American interests. This takes the cake. While I think that those who claim that this Administration is the worst in American history have a history deficit, it is true that this damage comes at a historically sensitive period that magnifies the harm done to American interests.

One could imagine these fellows trying to defeat Hitler and deal with Stalin in WWII. The terrifying thing is that even after all of this, apparently Bush has even up odds of winning the November election. If he should win ... it will almost essentially ensure further terroist disaster in the States, America's financial bankruptcy, a failed structural economic modernization, and a transformation of the United States into an impoverished crony capitalism run by economic oligarchies.

It is easy to mock individuals like Chavez or Mugabe for their victimization rhetoric, unfair politic tactics, and populist demagogery that allows them to persist however unpopular in power. However, it is significantly less amusing to contemplate that the most powerful nation in the recorded history of the world may also have produced an inbred leadership of pronounced mendacity. Reading about the 'Let them eat Cake,' days of the stratified aristocratic governments that fell because of failure to adapt and perform minimal government functions makes interesting bedtime reading.

Then there is the less sanguine contemplation that we too may be living through such times, fastforwarded on the timeline of human history. This is of course the other side of the coin of Brad Delong's otherwise brilliant criticism of Libertarianism. Yes, anarchy is a fool's choice and property dependent upon the stability of the rule of law provided by institutional style governance. However, the other end of the spectrum is factional paralysis, corrupt bureacracies, and entrenched incompetent elitist oligarchies that practice demagogery and militarism in order to seize political control.

Seen in that light, the criticisms of Libertarianism can make a great deal of sense as a form of ultra-cynicism regarding the nature of the man. Lord Archon's summary of the proportional corrupting influence power is well advised. While we bash the neo-Republicans today, it shouldn't be forgotten that it was stagnation and abuses by Congressional Democrats over a period of decades while they controlled the Federal Legislature that helped spawn the admittedly greater excesses of the current neo-Republican regime.

I call them neo-Republican because as far as I can tell they actually don't represent the interests of rank and file Republicans or classical conservative tenets. Very few Republicans are rich. Most are working or middle class Americans who prefer social traditionalism, a strong nationalist attitude, fiscal prudence, and a military posture dedicated to direct national security threats rather than neo-liberal or neo-conservative nation building. Alas, we have all been betrayed by the men in power.

That's why even though I voted for the Bush Senior, I voted against the Bush Junior in 2000 ... and am working with Democrats for a electoral defeat of Bush43 in November. We are at a crucial junction in history. This cannot be allowed to continue, or less we will all suffer for it.

Posted by: Oldman on March 7, 2004 01:03 AM

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Back from work now and just to respond a bit to Jason Ligon:

A metaphysical notion of freedom would be, e.g., "freedom is the pure upsurge of the for-itself from the sheer inertness and inertia of the in-itself." But human freedom derives from the condition of language, which involves both a relation to the other qua other and interaction with such others. This is a non-metaphysical conception of freedom because it relies upon undeniable fact rather than arbitrary postulation. And it means the freedom is always as much a collective and cross-implicated condition as an individual one. The other is always there, at the very inception of one's freedom, obtruding upon one, and this weighs upon one's freedom with a pressure of decision. From this, freedom, as a limited and conditional reality, is generated. To claim that there is a set of social arrangements, in which unfettered freedom is possible without any implication of coercion, without people yanking on each other's chains, is question begging, to say the least. What if coercion and constraint are what render freedom possible? (The case is similar to those nominalists who claim that language means whatever one wants it to mean. Lewis Carroll had his fun with that. Just try to construct a language from such a principle.)

I was basically agreeing with Prof. DeLong in my post, restating his case in somewhat different terms and then adding some twists that would not accord with his presumed preferences. The issue was: is there a condition of freedom that does not depend on narrow ties of kinship and locality and to what extent does such a condition depend upon the existence of a government? Libertarianism, in my view, is not so much a political ideology,- (for one thing, it fails to make a distinction between public and private, whereas its best effects are precisely in emphasizing a public right to privacy)- as an anti-political ideology, a self-satisfied fantasy of dis-alienation that alienates all the further and generates preposterous claims in the process. But politics is precisely a condition of alienation, of passing over into otherness, of existing in a realm of differences held in common, a condition of plurality. Can there be really existing freedom amongst strangers without structures of governance? I am claiming that, no matter how deplorable or disappointing empirical, i.e. actually existing, governments may be, it is the condition of governance that provides for the political realm, in which, unavoidably, the potential of human freedom is to be realized.

Is freedom a weighty value? I am of mix opinion about that. Certainly, it can be held quite lightly. But value predicates do not apply to beings who are not free.

Posted by: john c. halasz on March 7, 2004 04:05 AM

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Oh! As to Rick Barton's claim that freedom is to be closely associated with the right to own porperty:

Freedom is an attribute of human agency. Even in the most oppressive regimes, freedom, qua human agency, does not cease to exist. (This is a terrible thought.) Property, whatever its forms, is a socially instituted convention. To identify human agency with the possession of property is a profound self-reification. We never dispose over ourselves as we dispose over our property.

Posted by: john c. halasz on March 7, 2004 04:29 AM

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Though really, Prof. DeLong, Joseph de Maistre? And a good friend of David Hume?

Posted by: john c. halasz on March 7, 2004 04:44 AM

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When I was a ten-ager, in the 1950's, I was amused by the fact that the policies of the Socialilst International were pretty much the same as the values Eisenhower and Readers Digest claimed to espouse.

Deja vu all over again: here we have American liberalsm trying to bring in balanced budgets, protection of the Constitution, support for the Armed Services... All that Reublican stuff.

* * *

Moving right along now, how's this for a new politics: we define the Right as tha party which robs the young to provide sllekness to the old; we define the Left as the party which taxes the productive to subsidise infants and children.

The Right, then, is the consumers of wealth; the Left is the party of investors in the future.

Up against the wall, AARP.

Posted by: David Lloyd-Jones on March 7, 2004 05:16 AM

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Good post Brad, but I think you'll find that there were many "libertarians" (given the term's change in meaning it is probably more accurate to call them anarchists) before the 19th century.

The first Christian communities and many Jewish sects including the Essenes are thought to have been anarcho-socialists in organization.

As well the 16th century Anabaptists repudiated all law and believed that an anarchist utopia would arise if people's actions were guided by the Holy Spirit.

Back in 1649, the True Levellers, better known as the Diggers, were an agrarian communitarian movement that attempted to eliminate the system of enclosures that existed in Britain at the time.

The philosophical position was first codified by William Godwin (1793) who wrote what may have been the first philosophical anarchist treatise.

However, I think you're right about individualistic anarchism. The reasons you give--I think--are exactly correct for the absence of the individualist strain until the 19th century. That was a hybrid of anarcho-socialism and laissez faire liberalism that found strongest expression in the US.

Unlike individualistic libertarianism, socialist or communitarian anarchism was thought to be one of the solutions to the "clan lord" problem (by that point, the landlord problem) as seen by the actions of the Diggers. Sadly, since the government was largely controlled by the landowners, both private and public might were turned against those anarchists. And that experiment in human organization ended quite poorly.

Posted by: Patrick Taylor on March 7, 2004 05:42 AM

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Quoting tbrosz: "As for myself, I'm an aerospace engineer, and I'm getting a little tired of asshats in Washington, most of whom are lawyers, and probably don't even know how an internal combustion engine works, making my decisions for me."

Tbrosz: you're assuming the alternative to having Washington lawyers (who are subject to some set of pressures and constraints, of course, ideally "democratic" ones) making such a choice is YOU making it. But would't a brief look at the world we in fact live in suggest that the alternative is automobile manufacturer marketing departments making the decision. And of course, marketing departments are subject to various pressures and constraints, too...and it's hard to argue they are very democratic at all. Yes, they are very much subject to "market" pressure, but unless you ideologize markets into an unconditioned "good" -- one typical fallacy of positions ranging from libertarians to neo-liberals--that simply leads to the conclusion that we need to scrutinize the value, consequentialist or ideological, of the constraints that different decision-makers about airbag availability are subject to. What we can't simply assume is that the alternative to government choice is unconditioned individual choice, I think.

Posted by: PQuincy on March 7, 2004 06:56 AM

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Off topic!

1. Has anyone else noticed that "oxytocin" appears to be a rising new meme? Just don't confuse it with Oxycontin!

2. Kudos to Brad or Moveable Type for (apparently) finally fixing the "posting bug" -- may this be the end of stutter posts!

Posted by: PQuincy on March 7, 2004 07:01 AM

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john c. halasz:
"Oh! As to Rick Barton's claim that freedom is to be closely associated with the right to own porperty:"
"Freedom is an attribute of human agency. Even in the most oppressive regimes, freedom, qua human agency, does not cease to exist."

This is an attempt to refute my comments @ March 6, 09:57 PM by limiting the definition of freedom to an affirmation of free will. But, what we're talking about here of course is political freedom.

That's what Brad Delong's comments were concerning, the content of which I thought was incorrect so I made mine. One may replace the word "freedom" with "individual liberty" and the case for the necessity of the right to property still obtains.

Posted by: Rick Barton on March 7, 2004 08:08 AM

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> The "other book" is _The Theory of Moral Sentiments_

Thanks, Brad.

Posted by: alex on March 7, 2004 08:10 AM

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I find the liberatarian-bashing quite humourous coming from people taking advantage of the best of libertarianism in our society: The Internet.

Ignored in the arguments at the top is that libertarians don't believe in a utopia - not a socialist one, and not a libertarian one. Libertarians know that perfection is not an option.

Live and let live.

Posted by: Peter D on March 7, 2004 10:45 AM

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"I find the liberatarian-bashing quite humourous coming from people taking advantage of the best of libertarianism in our society: The Internet."

Yeah, Internet the product of government and academe is the best of libertarianism?

"Ignored in the arguments at the top is that libertarians don't believe in a utopia - not a socialist one, and not a libertarian one. Libertarians know that perfection is not an option."

What they believe is that you do not have to think to do thing always right. Do not think and you achieve perfection. It is not an option: by not thinking you cannot avoid perfection.

"Live and let live."

As long as you cannot kill...

DSW

Posted by: Antoni Jaume on March 7, 2004 12:03 PM

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For a long time I have wondered how much of the debate we now see is a product of economists teaching the perfectly competitive model in introductory economics. So we actually turn out a large number of people that took only the one economic class
and than believe the perfectly competitive model really describes reality or a desirable outcome?

Posted by: spencer on March 7, 2004 12:13 PM

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Calling the Internet a "product of government" is not accurate. Although in it's infancy some of the first research was done by the Rand corporation on a government grant, there were private initiatives as well. Today, and for a long time, it has been largely without government taxation and regulation, which is why it is so wonderfully vibrant.

Posted by: Rick Barton on March 7, 2004 12:22 PM

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Rick Barton

Your assertion "Calling the Internet a "product of government" is not accurate." is surely subject to debate. The original ArpaNet was funded largely by ARPA, part of DOD, which is the government. Rand had a node on the the initial ArpaNet, but research on the whole concept of a time multiplexed communication system implemented at several layers of abstraction (e.g. physical layer IP layer TCP layer) involved many organizations, universities and places such as Rand, with much of the funding coming from---the government.

The internet is vibrant, but we shouldn't be so confident that it won't be spammed out of existence without regulation. And I wouldn't be too happy with Bill Gates doin' the regulatin'.

Posted by: CSTAR on March 7, 2004 12:57 PM

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Spencer, I've often had the exact same thought. No one takes the class where they tell you about externalities, for example.

And Rick, you simply do not know what you are talking about. The Internet is based on Arpanet, which was created by the U.S. DoD's Advanced Research Projects Agency. Its first node was at UCLA. Can I assume you at least know know that UCLA is a public, not private university? Or would that be jumping to conclusions?

Posted by: Seth on March 7, 2004 01:53 PM

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I believe Rick Barton is referring to the Internet's current form, not its creation. After all, the technology that came from the early government research could have turned into something like France's Minitel, which is controlled by France Telecom. The Internet backbones are all privately owned, and the flow of information comes from agreements between networks. It's not like there's a law saying you must use protocols or standards like TCP/IP or HTTP. Can you imagine an Internet where every website required an FCC license?

Posted by: dragoon on March 7, 2004 02:37 PM

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In the Highlands, everyone was seen as either a clan member to be helped, a clan enemy to be killed, or a stranger to be robbed.

No fair on the C17 jocks. The clans recognised lots of social obligations, particularly with respect to hospitality to be offered to strangers. That's why the Glencoe massacre came as such a shock; it was a breach of the obligation of hospitality.

(John Campbell to Jack Campbell: Och, Jack, haggis for tea again!
Jack: Och, aye, I could murder a McDonalds!)

Posted by: dsquared on March 7, 2004 03:21 PM

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Freedom is the right to own poetry,
when the law is Starve Without Alms.
Arbeit Macht Frei, uber alles, even
if we can't pay down our plastic...

Posted by: Lara Grast on March 7, 2004 03:28 PM

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dragoon: Ah les français. Ils sont toujours la pour les flinguer; Que ferait-on sans eux!

Certainly this discussion on the internet is somewhat off-topic.

-- "The Internet backbones are all privately owned"

You're right, that's been true for quite a while. However, for many years the backbone was not a private affarir (it may have been run by private companies e.g. BBN, but under contract to the gov't). Do you remember "fair use policy"?

-- "It's not like there's a law saying you must use protocols or standards like TCP/IP"

No, but you wouldn't get far unless you had enough market influence to attempt to impose your own lower level protocols, which MSoft tried and failed to do in the early 90's

-- "HTTP"

This is an application level protocol. At this level, you can more easily do whatever you want. All you need is peers. (This is also technically true of the lower levels, but not ture in practice)

--"Regulation"

This does not require every website to have an FCC license. It does require the regulation of a commodity market for frequency (fourier multiplexing) or a commodity market for intervals (time multiplexing).

Nota Bene: Regulation does not require control of content (we do have good enough encryption to prevent uncontrolled snooping) but of course our government would like to make this a crime (or may have already done so).

Posted by: CSTAR on March 7, 2004 03:36 PM

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>

I don't think that's exactly it...

Libs believe that you should act in your own self-interest (while doing no harm to others), based on the best information possible (a free press and freedom of speech are important) and that the synergy of millions doing this in a society leads to productivity and prosperity for all.

"Not thinking" seems to imply a disregard for information that may influence you and therefore may change your decisions about what is in your best interest.

It's not perfection because no one will have access to all information and therefore will never be 100% able to know what is in their interest. But libertarians know that utopia is not an option.

Posted by: Peter D on March 7, 2004 04:18 PM

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Sorry, the quoted text from the post above got lost. Here is the quote I was referring to:

"What they [libertarians] believe is that you do not have to think to do thing always right."

Posted by: Peter D on March 7, 2004 04:20 PM

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Some interesting comments here.

non economist wrote: "I would argue that one has to keep an idea in mind of where your policies might take you"

Yesbut. Yes, but true minarchist libertarianism is so far away from current policies. If libertarians had political power I believe they would very gradually change society. They might, for example, start a gradual 10 or 20 year process of reducing down to zero, in dollar terms, all the trappings of 'big' government: business subsidies, welfare programs, government involvement in the arts, sciences, etc. The detailed effects of this have been argued endlessly, often by the libertarian think tanks.

This would be step #1. If you could order the 100 areas of government change libertarians would want, privatizing the system of roads (which even I have a hard time with) would be about #95. If we got to step #94, and then figured privatizing the roads wouldn't work, we wouldn't do it. As you move down the steps, things get better and better; at any point you can stop.

taktile wrote: "Single examples prove very little, and are certainly not relevant to the kinds of empirical claims needed by libertarians to make their case. You may have shown a clear example of government overreach; yet you have to prove that this is representative of all instances of government behavior in order to reach the the libertarian conclusion. You have to show that cost > benefit for every government function you want to eliminate. Of course, that's a lot harder to do than to trot out a few single examples that might present an illusion of establishing that."

I disagree. It can be viewed as a cost/benefit tradeoff. But it can also be viewed as a moral issue. And libertarians generally feel that a libertarian society is the only moral one. Ayn Rand did, imo, a great job with justifying capitalism on a moral basis.

A lot, maybe most of it, comes down to freedom to engage in commerce, or, capitalism. Libertarians are as passionate about this as most Americans are about our 1st amendment rights, which in this country are very well protected. In China, there is less protection of freedom of speech, in exchange for greater 'social and political stability' (they might say, e.g., speaking out against the government causes problems). Would you try to convince a Chinese communist that our free speech is better on a cost/benefit basis? You could, but you can also argue that that is irrelevant. People have the right to free speech, even if it does cause a political mess.

non economist wrote: "As far as individual rights, I have yet to meet a libertarian who values them over their tax burden. They would almost exclusively rather vote for a conservative republican who is more likely to restrict freedoms but reduce tax burdens than liberal democrats who would be more likely to allow personal freedoms but increase tax burdens in exchange for more social services. That, more than anything else, shows where their true motivation lies- not in utopia, but in greed."

It's not so much worrying about 'tax burdens', its the desire for the freedom to engage in commerce, and not just for greedy purposes (though we feel that greed is good! ;-) ). After all, we feel that taxes do violate our individual rights. Libertarians (especially admirers of Ayn Rand) enjoy, at a deep personal level, being productive people, who take great pride in their chosen profession, and resent constant government intrusion.

Of course, the current batch of Republicans aren't doing very well at advancing capitalism, I'll admit.

Posted by: Rodger on March 7, 2004 04:21 PM

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Just to add: if you even claim to have read _The Wealth of Nations_ but not _The Theory of Moral Sentiments_, then you have no claim to being able to discern Smith's position with any accuracy.

Posted by: nick on March 7, 2004 04:32 PM

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Mr. Halasz writes about the absence of metaphysical freedom, then asks:

"Can there be really existing freedom amongst strangers without structures of governance?"

Libertarians of two stripes have two answers: the anarchist says, yes, freedom requires only voluntary action, but the minarchist says, the government is necessary, BUT the measure of its worth is entirely the extent to which it enables negative freedom to function. Some coercion and some constraint are of value, but only to the extent they serve the only function of a government, which is to create an environment in which individuals have maximized freedom.

Again, I don't think any of this is more ridiculous than the claim that the government serves the people, and it is far safer.

Posted by: Jason Ligon on March 7, 2004 05:20 PM

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The Theory of Moral Sentiments was actually written by Henry James in a time machine. No criticism intended.

Posted by: Luke Lea on March 7, 2004 06:54 PM

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"Let's climb into the wayforward machine, and get a glimpse of civilization 400 years from now: Quantum computation has been a reality for 360 years and this has enabled humankind to practically solve innumerable distribution and production problems. We have become much less dependent on energy, food production ceased being a problem 340 years ago, there is an abundance of cultural activities including college-level courses in ancient languages such as English, Spanish and French. Putonghua has become the universal language. Unfortunately, Fibreoptic cables have been incapable of providing communication for our highly mobile civilization. We still rely on frequency multiplexing electromagnetic broadcast for communication. Ever since government regulation was abolished because it was regarded as evil or an infringement of individual liberties, bloody clan wars (using jamming to interfere with our basic infrastrcuture) have been fought over control of the precious frequency spectrum. New technologies involving frequency hopping message redundancy etc., have never been able to deal with these attacks."

You should stop ragging on the guys that try to make whatever you're smoking legal.

If libertarians get their way, spectrum becomes property, to be bought and sold; the owner of a slice still gets exclusive use of it, the same way that an owner of a slice of land gets exclusive use of it; the difference is that the user has irrevocable ownership rights to it and is not subject to content restrictions "in the public interest".

My own nightmare from the "wayforward machine"... everyone's still using groundcars because FAA regulations haven't allowed the development of flying cars, the entire solar system (except for Earth) is still deserted, people are still subject to slow, painful deaths before reaching the age of 100, and the National Health Service is promising that an anti-aging treatment is "under development" and should be ready any day now, just like they've been promising for 100 years or so.

"I agree with above writer that this has to be one of Brad's best postings ever. There seem to be a fair number of conservatarian tax scrooges who post here, and interestingly enough they never do seem to want to deal with the endpoint of their purported policies. As for Brian above, I would argue that one has to keep an idea in mind of where your policies might take you. If you want 19th century Victorian England, then maybe that is a reason to be a right libertarian."

Resuming 19th century policies isn't going to cause 20th century technology to disappear. If you can point to shortcomings of 19th Century policy that weren't ultimately the result of deficient technology (improvements in which were ongoing and showed no signs of stopping), feel free.

"Well, since making airbags mandatory reduces their unit costs (under standard economies of scale/standardization assumptions) this is really mostly a wealth transfer from those who want to give their kid a 1/31 chance of survival to those who want to give it a 30/31 chance. A tax on recklessness, so to speak."

What are you talking about? An airbag increases the risk facing a child who sits near it.

"1) The need to have enough volume to make the safety feature affordable in a mass produced product - i.e. if you could “opt out” of air bags, the production line would be more complex and the cost of production more expensive. Your “choice” makes my car more expensive."

On the other hand, the government's choice with respect to airbags makes my car more expensive and more dangerous for my children to sit in the front seat.

"3) The increased cost of my automobile insurance because you and drivers like you would skew the accident statistics in an unfavorable and more expensive way – why should you be able to force my insurance premium to go up?"

Skew what accident statistics? If some cars have airbags and others don't, and your car has airbags, then your rates are governed by accident statistics of cars with airbags. The rates generated by accident statistics of cars without airbags are paid by those other guys that don't have airbags.

Posted by: Ken on March 7, 2004 08:03 PM

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I take back my earlier radical libertarian bashing. I think that there are many reasons to be a radical libertarian. Some are dreamers (they fear that government regulation will hinder medical advances that will enable us to be quasi-immortal). Others are people who require a tidy moral universe (freedeom to engage in minimally constrained free choice, preferrably in market transactions is the moral essence of being human and anything else is wicked). Others enjoy the peace of mind given by the scientism of the optimality of free choice in unregulated markets -(See, that drunk wanted to end up a penniless TB-ridden mess lying in the gutter, otherwise... he wouldn't be there, would he. Any government efforts to prevent that would reduce welfare.)
Sometimes I try to look at things from a radical libertarian perspective, but I can never make much sense of it. Especially the economics.
I think they do have influence, and mainly a bad one -and I think that their ideas are used by people who are not libertarians at all to bad ends (eg, current US admin). Some of the ideas that I think have leaked out and which have a bad influence
-the idea that human beings are completely and solely atomistic autonomous individuals,
-the idea that the concept of the common good or society is incoherent or illusory
-the idea that the only moral state for humankind is the ability to indulge onself in egoistic selfishness
-the near-religious deification of the concept of human freedom that banishes any critical thought about its ambiguities and the difficulties in implementing a workable system of diverse human freedoms in society
-automatic hatred suspicion and contempt for any government

Of course, I am talking about radical libertarians here. I think I can and have had constructive dialogs with moderate ones.

Posted by: jml on March 7, 2004 08:59 PM

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Why can't we have descriptions of Adam Smith (and for that matter Locke, Mill and Hayek) by people who have actually read them carefully. Smith by Smith was a bane to greed and greedy businessman. In his defense of public education for the workingman's sons you find the core of the modern economist's defense of public involvement given beneficial externalities. All--Locke,Smith,Mill and Hayek--found taxation congenial to their beliefs in principle. Locke supported the English poor laws to benefit the poor from the public purse. Hayek saw social security and even universal social health insurance as consistent in principle with liberalism. You have to read them. Arguably, "libertarianism" in modern day has gone astray; but, don't take it out on the genuine intellectual lights of the liberal tradition.

Posted by: Sherm Folland on March 7, 2004 09:43 PM

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Jason Ligon:

I might not be always clear and I belong to that most recherche' and tiniest of cults, the left-wing communitarians, so clearly my terms of reference are not the same as yours. But what exactly is "maximized freedom"? Is freedom a discrete quantity that can be maximalized, without being subject to diminishing returns? And why should it be the sole, pre-eminent value that is to be maximized to the exclusion of all other considerations determining social arrangements?

I said the root of human freedom qua the volitional capacity of agents is the condition of language. Now, I believe that many animal species have neurally embedded systems that generate consciousness and some animal species have fairly high-order learning capacities relatively unchained from fixed instinctual behavioral programs, based on the implicit grasp of rules. But they can only respond to environmental events or cycles of such events in their behavioral selections. (From "Philosophical Investigations: "It may very well make sense to say that a dog expects its owner home this afternoon, but it does not make sense to say that a dog expects its owner home in a fortnight.") Only with symbolic language is the environment reproduced recombinantly, such that, from a given interpretation of an environmental state of affairs, alternatives can be considered and selected from counterfactually, to causally effect a change in the environment by intervening in its causal nexuses. This is the root of the phenomenon of human freedom qua volitional agency, though, obviously, there is much more to be said on the matter, much more complexly and elaborately. Now language is a public and collective "institution", though it is logically prior to any actual institution, and the rules that govern its usage are at base constitutive rather than regulative in nature,- (i.e.no such rules, no such language). One can say any number of sensical things in human natural language, but one can only do so by being subjected to the constraining and structuring force of its rules. Given the close connection between language and human agency qua volitional capacity, one can argue by analogy that this latter too is a constitutively constrained phenomenon, that it involves competencies and skills and knowledge and know-how that have to be integrated as well as differentiated with each other and distributed over different areas of provenance, while requiring a capacity to recognize consequences and distinguish between compatible and incompatible actions in considering courses of action. All this involves quite a bit of structuring and, considering that it is inextricably tied to the pre-eminent medium of relations to others, all human action is directly or indirectly a form of interaction, (defined as the connection of action a by agent x to action c presupposing action b by agent y who connects b to d by presupposing c.) So, from this point of view, "freedom" is best defined as "optimal constraint", where too much and too little constraint are equally derelictions from such "freedom". (Consider that it is possible to be overly articulate in language, such that, by attempting to render everything completely explicit, one collapses into nonsense, by losing the point of what is said, as well as the function of reference, which operates pragmatically.) And this view does at least have the merit of showing how human agency is possible in "naturalistic" terms without resorting to metaphysical premises.

Of course, in emphasizing the limited and conditioned nature of human agency and the inevitably cross-implicated nature of human action, I have set my own little trap, for this view permits the consideration of different conditions obtaining in the formation and exercize of volitional agency and how such conditions may operate to quite coercive effect, inspite of the fact that the agency exercized is entirely voluntary and, even equally agreed upon, from a formal perspective. For some of us believe that, in this world of overabundance and scarcity, coercion plays a role in economic affairs fully as much as in governmental, political or legal matters and we even believe that market exchanges are not the primary sourrce of wealth, but rather productive activity accounts for the generation of wealth, especially when augmented by scientific knowledge and technological know-how. And that these large-scale orchestrations of human activities, in their distributional outcomes and environmental effects, have a large impact on both collective and personal well-being, not to mention the operations of political power, which can not be reduced to a schema of purely private appropriations. And we think that the largest threat from sovereign governments comes not from their routine domestic policy operations and regulations, but from their massive accumulations of means of military violence and the potential catastrophes that might ensue therefrom. But al least such views, no matter how lamentable they may, in fact, be, have the merit of focusing on real world issues, taking account of how the real world actually operates, and addressing the potential of political means for their redress, instead of drifting off into an imaginary land where the human potentiality for being, which, no matter how it is differentiated and divided up, is always a shared potentiality, is to be subject to alternative arrangements whereby it can be privately appropriated by individuals who are merely accidentally related to one another.

At some point, libertarians have simply slipped the skids of the grammar of natural language,-(which is another way of saying that they are spouting unrecognizable nonsense, sometimes to pernicious effect.) "Self-ownership" is either a tautology or implies some sort of bizarre notion of the establishment of human boundaries. The notion that one "owns" even one's own body is oddly schizoid and seems to imply a a baseline consideration such practices as slavery and prostitution. I once encountered on a thread someone claiming the cause of "personal sovereignty" and typed back to ask what that meant, but received no reply. A personal monopoly on the means of legitimate violence? Is that some sort of intra-psychic notion? A few weeks back, Prof. DeLong featured on this site a prominent rightwing libertarian- (as his name Craig Roberts?)- claiming the taxation was tantamount to slavery! The annoyances of taxes and regulations are always presented as if, in their putatively well-off existences, these were the worst oppressions known to mankind. This all is really just run-of-the-mill political cynicism, dressed up as if it were heroic optimism and resistance, when it is really infinitely self-referential self-pity and resentment that is at stake. And why, may I ask, is consideration of human freedom to be restricted to "negative liberty", in the end a purely formal and abstract notion? Personally, I find what people actually do with their freedom to be of far more interest.

Posted by: john c. halasz on March 7, 2004 11:31 PM

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Hobbes lived throught the English Civil War, a relatively gentlemanly affair except in Ireland, during which civil order did not generally break down. But he had also witnessed the much, much worse disaster of the Thirty Years' War in Germany, where the competing armies degenerated into bandss of predatory thugs inflicting atrocities on the starving peasantry to extract every last morsel of food or piece of booty - see Jacques Callot's series of etchings The Horrors of War, the best anti-war art before Goya. It was the Thirty Years' War that led to princely absolutism in Germany.

Posted by: James on March 8, 2004 01:41 AM

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PS on Jacques Callot: images of the series at http://www.adh.bton.ac.uk/schoolofdesign/MA.COURSE/16/LCallot.html

Posted by: James on March 8, 2004 02:41 AM

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What is really remarkable is that this post on libertarianism has generated 111 comments. Do you think my social security may be affected?

Posted by: Handy Fuse on March 8, 2004 03:08 AM

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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 shreds of decency even in their colonial incarnation), libertarianism is conceivable 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 March 8, 2004 10:15 AM

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What seems to have been missed in this discussion is the concept of human nature.

Naturally, if humans are left to their own devices, cruel and wicked things will follow (read "Lord of the Flies"). However, true libertarian philosophy (excepting anarcho-libertarianism) does not advocate this.

In political philosophy, one must begin with the purpose of government and of law. Frederic Bastiat, in his treatise "The Law," argues against "legal plunder," which is the result of one group of men governing through the law over another group by making illegal those activities those who hold the reigns of power want to restrict to themselves. This type of power finagling can happen in any system, even an allegedly libertarian one if there aren't checks and balances.

That's why I advocate a Constitutional Libertarianism that upholds the individual right to life and property. There must be some law in order for social order to exist. There must be some authority who is responsible for enforcing the law. To be sure, there must be some authority for determining what the law should prohibit. But when that authority is exercised on ill-conceived assumptions or from a world view that denigrates individual rights, then the basis of all authority is undermined.

This is the defining foundation of true libertarian philosophy. From that foundation springs the legitimate concern that sometimes even the best intentioned government can overreach its power. When that happens, the people governed by that authority have a right to alter their government and its authority to protect themselves from tyranny – and, yes, even anarchy. It is this principle-centered approach to political philosophy that birthed the American experiment. In the (paraphrased) words of Benjamin Franklin, if we are to keep it we must never sacrifice the notion of individual liberty.

Posted by: Allen Taylor on March 8, 2004 10:37 AM

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Explaining libertarianism to a leftist is a lot like explaining flight to a goldfish ("how on Earth can you possibly have a society if better and wiser people aren't telling the rabble the right thing to do?).

I think you are confusing Leftism with Leninism; even a strict Marxist needn't hold that better and wiser people need to tell the "rabble" what to do, that was an adaptation by Lenin to try to make Marxist theory applicable to a society which failed to meet the prerequisites Marx saw for Communism.

Posted by: cmdicely on March 8, 2004 01:56 PM

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The first Christian communities and many Jewish sects including the Essenes are thought to have been anarcho-socialists in organization.

Most descriptions of the early Christian communities I've seen haven't been all that "anarcho", although "socialist" sounds about right. And many of them had several other layers of 'secular' (although it might well have its own, non-Christian, religion) government above them, and received services of some kinds -- both infrastructure and civil order, for instance -- from them; while early Christian tradition did frown on using the law courts, for instance, to settle disputes among members of the community, I know of no similar reluctance to use them in settling disputes outside of the community.

A community that exists within a broader, non-libertarian society and declines to impose additional rules (even if such really described the Christian communities, which had considerable rules of their own) is not "libertarian" in any real sense.


Posted by: cmdicely on March 8, 2004 02:06 PM

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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 shreds of decency even in their colonial incarnation), libertarianism is conceivable 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 March 8, 2004 10:15 AM

Cheers, Douglas, for nicely resuming this thread after 100-odd posts and many philosophical wanderings. Funny how libertarians never seem to mention the third world...

Posted by: non economist on March 8, 2004 02:40 PM

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Real-world politics, social organization, is pragmatic, ad hoc. "Politics is the art of the possible." We find out what increases value by trying stuff and observing the results. If we like the results, then that's great, that stuff we tried worked. If we don't like the results, then, hey, that thing didn't work; so let's try something else. Real political theory is descriptive, not prescriptive. The problem with libertarianism and other fundamentalisms is that they start with some theory or other, take it as unchallengeable revealed truth, and try to construct a politics or society based on this supposed truth. Such efforts always fail because they exclude the possibility of making adjustments in response to empirical observation of results.

Posted by: dougpercival on March 8, 2004 03:28 PM

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An earlier poster brought up Ian Bank's "Culture" as an example of a libertarian society that works.

Yabbut,I think a strong case can be made that the only true citizens of the Vultue are the superintelligent, benevolent Machines that run things. Humans seem to ccupy a slot comparable to dogs and cats in modern American life: Mostly indulged pets, with a generous sprinkling of working animals.

Posted by: Steven Rogers on March 8, 2004 03:51 PM

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Sherm Folland,

Not all "radical libertarians" today are apologists for "greedy businessmen." Left-Rothbardians and individualist anarchists (like me) are quite critical of the existing system of corporate capitalism. Many of them (see especially Rothbard and Joseph Stromberg) have relied heavily on New Left analyses of "corporate liberalism" as a system in which the government cartelizes the economy and subsidizes the operating expenses of big business.

This strand of libertarianism can be traced back to the free market Ricardian socialist Thomas Hodgskin; it has since been developed by Benjamin Tucker and Franz Oppenheimer, among others.

Central to this tradition is the idea of coercion as a mean of benefiting some at the expense of others. Government is a mechanism for creating externalities. Under corporate capitalism, big business is not forced to fully internalize all the costs of its decisions, along with the benefits. Instead, the government externalizes the inefficiency costs of large-scale organization, and shifts them to taxpayers.

For example, because of subsidized transportation, big business is able to externalize much of the increased distribution costs of a centralized economy--which makes them artificially competitive against smaller firms engaged in production for local markets.

Government subsidies to R&D and technical education cause big business to introduce high-tech, capital-intensive forms of production far beyond Pareto-optimal levels; the result is technological unemployment.

The government subsidizes the export of capital by funding infrastructure projects overseas that are necessary for Western capital investments in the Third World to be profitable. The result? More export of jobs.

The government creates a cartelized and over-accumulated economy whose output can't be absorbed at cartelized prices. So it creates a military-industrial complex to absorb excess productive capacity, and uses force to open foreign markets.

Most important, from my free market socialist perspective, the government protects the special privileges of capitalists, bankers and landlords against market competition. Because of government-enforced entry barriers (restrictions on mutual banking, enforcement of absentee landlord title to land), owners of land and capital are able to draw monopoly returns on them. Because labor was robbed of its rightful property in the means of production in the original primitive accumulation process, and restrained from access to the means of production by the landlord privilege and restraints on working class self-organization of capital, workers are forced to sell their labor in a buyer's market.

Posted by: Kevin Carson on March 8, 2004 04:36 PM

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Neil Bates,

A major subset of libertarians agrees with the equation of rent to taxation in all circumstances; and most principled libertarians agree with it in many circumstances.

The vast majority of landed property is illegitimate even from a Lockean standpoint. One Lockean anarcho-capitalist, Murray Rothbard, argued that the only legitimate rule for initial appropriation was the mixture of one's own labor with the land. The large tracts held in the U.S. by land speculators, agribusiness, etc., are the result of the state's preemption of land, followed by special grants of land to favored clients of the state. Such privileged clients, in turn, by charging individual homesteaders for right of access, are imposing a kind of tax. Any large tracts of land held by the state's landlord friends, which were not directly appropriated by human labor, should be treated as unowned. As Mises wrote, one finds large tracts of land under a single owner only in circumstances where the state preempted ownership and then parcelled the land out to its clients.

But that's just the Lockean/Rothbardian position. The mutualist and Georgist strains of libertarianism are even more radically anti-landlord. For mutualists like me, personal occupancy and use is the only legitimate means of establishing ownership of land.

It isn't radical libertarians like Rothbard and individualist anarchists who are apologists for landlords. It is, rather, libertarian-lite types like Milty Friedman and the Randroids who instinctively apologize for the interests of the land barons and big corporations. (The same people, come to think of it, whose idea of "free market reform" is jackbooted thuggery by Pinochet and the Salvadoran death squads).

Posted by: Kevin Carson on March 8, 2004 04:48 PM

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John Halasz:

"I might not be always clear and I belong to that most recherche' and tiniest of cults, the left-wing communitarians, so clearly my terms of reference are not the same as yours."

Ahh. We need to tread lightly. If we find much in the way of agreement, I'm fairly certain our respective cults will banish us, and we will be forced to be main stream. I have similar concerns when I discuss politics with the Kevin Carson I see above.

"But what exactly is "maximized freedom"? Is freedom a discrete quantity that can be maximalized, without being subject to diminishing returns?"

We are going to continually trip over the word freedom, since you are dedicating so much text to convincing me that it has no metaphysical meaning. At the end of the day, we have to settle on a meaning of the word. When I speak of the thing that is to be maximized, I am speaking of the minimization of coercion - force applied by other human beings to the end of restricting the choice of the individual. I know we can come up with all sorts of Wittgensteinian reasons why we need to be careful of our words, but as is always the problem with applications of Wittgenstein, we have to be equally careful that we don't simply define each other to be wrong. I can't help but notice, for example, that while you argue against the isolated existence of freedom, you move to argue that freedom is DEFINED to be optimal constraint. You have simply changed the question to "What do you mean by optimal?" I am fine with the definition so long as you identify that the value to be optimized is negative freedom, in which case you have a tautology. If you don't agree, the value to which you are referring imiplicitly when you say 'optimal' is the new subject of discussion. It could be equality or any other value.

My experience with communitarians is that they seek to define ownership out of language so as to avoid having to discuss it. I see the beginnings of this here in your comments regarding self ownership. To put it to you bluntly, what do you mean when you say 'own'? If someone is torturing natural language, I don't think it is the libertarian who observes that in use the word does not refer to a social or legal arrangement only, but that such arrangements reflect the reality that one's product is one's time is one's life is one's self in the sum. In other words, in natural language, we say that 'OUR time is valuable,' invoking the possessive. Don't use a semantic argument to dismiss the point.

Similarly with taxation = slavery. I need you to define slavery. If it is the legal owning of the minutes of one's life, and product is another unit of measurement of the ticks of my life, the seizure of 30% of my product is identical to the seizure of 30% of my productive life. As a more moderate libertarian, by the way I don't disagree that the argument is used to silly ends by some who argue that taxes are immoral. I would caution, however, that taxation IS a measure of the level of slavery we find acceptable. It is useful to remind people that when they increase levels of taxation, they are increasing the amount of time the beneficiaries of the taxes collected lord over serfs. Arguments about 'he can afford it' are not very persuasive in this context.

Finally, negative freedom is the only type to be considered because it is the only type that has meaning. On an island of two people, who owes whom a job? Retirement? Medicine? Whose 'freedom' is being violated by the inaction of the other? If you want to discuss a strain on natural language, positive freedom is a fine example.

Posted by: Jason Ligon on March 8, 2004 05:47 PM

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Neil,

Please understand that our friend Kevin Carson is waaaaay down the spectrum from a moderate libertarian position.

A largish portion of libertarians like hold that effective propery rights are only possible in the presence of state protection. The state enforces title for the same reason it enforces any form of property right. Namely, there is no other way to keep me out of Kevin's kitchen. The initial allocation of land is a problem, but it is fantasy to act as though we all simply agree on who should be using the desirable bits in the absence of title. It is a resource, and we advocate a system of willingness to pay as the best way to allocate it, just as we do with bread and beer. And, oh yes, it is definitely on the libertarian-lite platform to support death squads whenever possible.

Posted by: Jason Ligon on March 8, 2004 06:03 PM

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It is annoying to read about "maximization" etc. in phrases such as "maximizing freedom" which have been bandied about with as much license as a volleyball and with much less skill than displayed by a mediocre volleyball team. Please, you need to specify an ordering on what is being maximized. If economists have failed in their pedagogic mission, it is not as the impolite "Dan Galt" has suggested, because they teach 'em the wrong stuff, but rather it's leading them to believe they can make the kinds of arguments proffered here without any hint of what any of any this means. Semantics, please pay attention to semantics.

And maximalization -- do you really mean finding maximal elements? (Um maybe one needs to apply Zorn's Lemma here? -- constructivists beware!).

Perhaps this thread is really a trap laid out by Brad de Long to ask as "flypaper" for libertrarians and let them die harmlessly debating here with each other. In this case
"Fuimonos"

Posted by: CSTAR on March 8, 2004 06:41 PM

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Don Galt-

I think it's time for you and your doctor to talk about adjusting the dose of your medication. Clearly whatever you're on now isn't cutting into your delusional paranoid fantasies one bit.

Posted by: non economist on March 8, 2004 07:11 PM

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CSTAR:

I am in the position of being a mediocre volleyball player who plays with some joy for all my lack of skill.

I am not an economist and was not intending the term 'maximized' to have a definition especially pertinent to set theory. At least, I have never thought of it in those technical terms. I meant, in the common usage, 'to make as great as possible'. Government's sole purpose is to make as great as possible, across all individuals under its laws, the existence of negative freedoms. This structure came about as a result of Halasz's insistence that the laws create the freedom.

Posted by: Jason Ligon on March 8, 2004 08:52 PM

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The flaw in using that fictitious dialogue is, real history came up with the opposite result. For instance, if you consult the dialogue based on fact in Spenser's "View of the Present State of Ireland", you will find him registering irritation at the tendency of English settlers to go native. Clearly the clan system was preferable to the alternative, something which is confirmed by the fact that in both Scotland and Ireland it was destroyed by outside influences, not by people freely choosing to give it up (I don't call emigration after eviction as a free choice of a new life, in either Scotland or Ireland).

From this perspective, Adam Smith et al are the outsiders, and the truth that we wouldn't like that lifestyle says more about what we were brought up to able to cope with (our own lifestyle) than about any intrinsic merits of modern ways. The thing is, the endemic violence was kept within bounds most of the time, and to judge by the extremes when things broke down is only fair if we do that for our own ways too; certainly life was easier in 1746 Scotland than in 1946 Germany, in conditions of rebuilding - or if we compare them in 1733 and 1933 respectively, come to that.

The reasoning Brad Delong used rests on premises which happen not to match the historical experience. It's easy enough to check.

Posted by: P.M.Lawrence on March 8, 2004 09:10 PM

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I confess that, as Jason said, I am "waaay down the spectrum." My arguments should not be taken as representative of the libertarian movement as a whole.

In fact, there IS no "libertarian movement as a whole." Even the closest thing to a libertarian shibboleth, the non-aggression principle, is not adhered to by all self-described libertarians.

Posted by: Kevin Carson on March 8, 2004 11:31 PM

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Jason Ligon:

When I said I belonged to a cult of leftwing communitarians I was being ironical. I don't blame you for missing this, since it is often difficult to tell when I am being ironical and when I am being simply dumb. I myself have trouble telling the difference.

I was not attempting to define "freedom". As may be clear from the Wittgenstein reference, I do not believe in definition as a basis of a priori arguments; we already use language prior to any definitions. I was attempting to make plain something of the root of what we call "freedom" or volitional agency and to show some of its concommitances. But if you insist on a definition then I offer the following on an ad hoc basis: "freedom" is the capacity to choose and realize ends on the basis of determinations of value. When I spoke of "optimal" constraint, I meant that there is growth and maturation required for the development of such capacity, but that there is always limitation in the matter, especially when considered from a purely individual perspective. I don't see how there can be any determination of value without encountering, indeed, being thrown upon, the otherness of others and, in the shock of such collision, coming to recognize mutual limitation in a real and shared world. But I don't believe it is possible to entirely separate out what is coercive and what is volitional in human relations and an effort to apply the "law of the excluded middle" to the matter, in my view, amounts to a denial of fact and an attempt to substitute a theoretical fantasy for a call to responsibility- ( as well as evincing a phobia of the other who contaminates one's "ownness".) To be sure, coercion is not to be praised as a "positive" value, but the really embedded nature of human agency as a phenomenon in the world is to be appreciated- ( if for no other reason, then as a matter of moral honesty for thinking reeds.) And I do not believe there is any possible human condition without power relations, which are generated out of the inevitably collective nature of human existence. What is at issue for me is the distribution of and access to power, and, in this respect, yes, I am an egalitarian- but not because equality is an arbitrary value, but because it is in my view a condition of the realization of value.

I do not like the distinction between "postive" and "negative" freedom. It was made, as far as I know, by Isaiah Berlin, from the vantage point of a rather Anglo-Saxonized liberalism in the context of the Cold War, to deal with thinkers, such as Hegel, Rousseau and Vico, whom he had trouble fitting into his framework. But I do view freedom "positively" as a capacity to be realized and, as such, an engagement with concrete projects determined by judgments of value, even as I emphasize its limitedness and the deflectedness of its realization. The abstract notion of freedom as a faculty of choice leaves me cold. For surely the weight of choice is in its self-formative implication, but such an implication is bound up in the self-formative implications of others and thus in the acknowledgement and formation of a world that must needs be shared in common. The idea that the world could be rendered commensurable with individual freedom and appropriated as such is to my mind patent nonsense, for it is the individual that exists always already in the world.

I am not aware of having argued that "the laws create the freedom". (I am content to be quite cynical about matters of law.) I think I argued that freedom is an inerradicable existential fact and that this applies equally, mutatis mutandis, to the most primitive as to the most modern human beings. And I did argue that political freedom is conditioned by the existence of the polity and that how it stands with such political freedom is tantamount to how it stands with the polity and its complexion. And I did argue- (not without some irony and mischief)- that politics is pre-eminently and inerradicably the domain of alienation, of passing over into otherness, and that this accounts for the machinations and resistances that ensue within that domain. In that context, I would offer my diagnosis of libertarianism as an ideology.

But enough of my ponderousness. I will simply revert to the post of jml (3/7, 8:59 pm) that was posted while I typed my last post. He states the case with an ease and elegance of which I am not capable.

Posted by: john c. halasz on March 9, 2004 02:31 AM

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Actually, come to think of it, I did not "define" freedom as "optimal constraint". I characterized it as constitutively constrained, given its rudiment in rule governed behavior. From that was derived the best case notion of agency as optimally constrained. Such a notion of "internal" constraint allows agency to be hooked up to "external" constraint, deriving from social structures, whether institutional or informal. And I think such a perspective is useful in considering how human agency is ingredient in the world as it is and in its prospects for transformation.

Posted by: john c. halasz on March 9, 2004 04:23 AM

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It has happened again. You can't discuss anything with a Wittgensteinian. You don't believe you can distinguish the voltional from the coercive? That there is no possible human condition without power relations is the basis of the desire to structure governance in such a way as to limit the coercive acts on some over others. Let us not treat the influence on choice that is the inevitable result of human interaction and a shared world as though it were identical with coercion. No one has argued that free choices are not made in the context of society. I just don't see why that is especially relevant. You say that you are interested in an egalitarian allocation of power, but to paraphrase:

"The idea that the world could be rendered commensurable with egalitarianism and appropriated as such is to my mind patent nonsense, for the individuals in the world are not equal in capacity."

My only point here is that in 'rendering the world commensurable with liberty', we must create social structures with such goals in mind and have no hope of absolute success - but as with the goose, so with the gander of equality.

The distinction between positive and negative freedom is not a cold war relic created out of an Anglo need to take over the world, or whatever the implication was there. It is a necessary distinction that arises out of the observable fact that product is not sitting in nature to be collected. To be used, product must be created. To argue that we have freedom to goodies is to argue in the face of this simple fact of nature.

Some thoughts, then on jml's criticisms:

-the idea that human beings are completely and solely atomistic autonomous individuals,

There is no more social a construct than the market. That humans make decisions as individuals within a social context is a necessary observation, but no libertarian I know argues that humans are better off considered as atomic units. Why would we spend so much time talking about market cooperation?

-the idea that the concept of the common good or society is incoherent or illusory

It is not society that is illusory, but the concept that society has a will or that there is a common good. Society is a description of summed individuals. Practically, the will of society is the will of 51%. When policy is implemented 'for the good of society', it is really being implemented for some fraction, and ususally at the expense of the other fraction.

-the idea that the only moral state for humankind is the ability to indulge onself in egoistic selfishness

I have never understood this criticism. Moral action requires the freedom to choose good. If I help a homeless person, I am performing a good, but if I stick a gun in your ear and demand you help a homeless person, my moral clarity is lost. I very seriously doubt that you would find libertarians as a whole give less to charity than anyone else, for example.

-the near-religious deification of the concept of human freedom that banishes any critical thought about its ambiguities and the difficulties in implementing a workable system of diverse human freedoms in society

I doubt that any other group thinks about the amibiguities of freedom more than libertarians. The issue for most is that the alternative is pretty bad. When in doubt about the correct policy, which is 99% of the time, err on the side of letting individuals choose rather than letting some choose for all.

-automatic hatred suspicion and contempt for any government

It depends on who you ask. Middle of the road folks like me like protections against murder, theft, and fraud. It should always hover at the back of your mind that any law can result in a human being in a cage, and laws should always be formulated in such a way as to make this clear: "We feel that people should lose their livelyhood and be thrown into a cage because they did X." If you are comfortable with the law written that way, fine, but don't pretend that you are saying anything else when you write one.


Posted by: Jason Ligon on March 9, 2004 07:10 AM

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Steve Snyder writes, "To claim that the Founders were by and large libertarians is a crock."

No. That is the exact OPPOSITE of the truth. To claim that the Founders were closer to ANY modern U.S. political party than they were to the Libertarian Party is a complete and utter crock.

This can be seen by simply reading the Constitution (a new experience for most Democrats and Republicans!). The Libertarian Party is the ONLY party in the U.S. whose membership is interested in returning the U.S. to government according to the Constitution. That's an unarguable fact. So deal with it, Democrats and Republicans.

...But if you ARE so foolish as to argue the unarguable, lets look at:

1) Federal war on drugs: Democrats and Republicans support it, Libertarians oppose it, Constitution forbids it.

2) Federal miniumum wage: Democrats and Republicans support it, Libertarians oppose it, Constitution forbids it.

3) Social Security: Democrats and Republicans support it, Libertarians oppose it, Constitution forbids it.

4) Medicare and Medicaid: Democrats and Republicans support it, Libertarians oppose it, Constitution forbids it.

5) Federal ownership of land outside of Washington DC and army bases (e.g., national parks, national forests, national wilderness areas, national fascist/communist congregation areas, etc.): Democrats and Republicans support it, Libertarians oppose it, Constitution forbids it.

6) Permanent stationing of U.S. troops in foreign lands: Democrats and Republicans support it, Libertarians oppose it, Constitution forbids it.

7) Tenth amendment: Democrats and Republicans piss on it (if they know of its existence at all). Libertarians consider it to be the MOST IMPORTANT part of the Constitution...just like Thomas Jefferson did.

I could LITERALLY name 100 more things. It isn't even close, Mr. Snyder! You and anyone else who says the Founders were NOT closer to the Libertarian Party than any other modern U.S. party, simply reveal your complete ignorance of the Founders and their ideals.

Mark Bahner (Libertarian Party...WITHOUT QUESTION, the modern party closest to the ideals of the Founders!)

Posted by: Mark Bahner on March 9, 2004 08:52 AM

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It's hilarious to see the mixture of dishonesty and ignorance that saturate this entire discussion. Given the fact that the Libertarian Party is less than 1% of the registered voting population, and that the core principle of libertarianism is non-agression, it's amazing how frightened y'all are of Libertarians!

Boo!

:-)

Posted by: Mark Bahner on March 9, 2004 08:58 AM

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"Of course, when the government declares a child safety seat unsafe, I don't see people lining up to buy that model off the black market."

And of course, when Consumer Reports judges a child safety seat unsafe, they immediately start flying off the shelves. People can't get enough of them.

And lets not forget the booming market in products labeled: "Not approved by Underwriters Laboratories."

Posted by: Mark Bahner on March 9, 2004 09:06 AM

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"The majority of environmentalists are people who have made their peace with science and industry, and who recognize that the fruits of technology are not all bad."

You obviously don't get WorldWatch Magazine.

Mark Bahner (environmental engineer...just got my WorldWatch Magazine subscription renewal card...sorry guys)

Posted by: Mark Bahner on March 9, 2004 09:15 AM

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"They don't have much electoral influence -I think most people recognize that there is something strange about their arguments, so they never get more than a few percentage points in an election."

Of course, Democrats (and their Republican friends) trampling on the First Amendment by passing laws to imprison people who publish the "wrong" kind of ads near elections will help to keep small parties from inserting dangerous ideas into public discourse.

Zieg Heil!

Posted by: Mark Bahner on March 9, 2004 09:27 AM

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"You can throw in the second amendment people. They all think 'If I've got my gun, no one will mess with me'. But in the known societies within which self-protection was the rule,..."

You mean like Switzerland, where virtually every house has an assault rifle?:

http://www.biggerhammer.net/sigamt/550/idr550/

http://www.nationalreview.com/kopel/kopel103001.shtml

Posted by: Mark Bahner on March 9, 2004 09:40 AM

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Brad DeLong writes, "It is an interesting fact that there are no libertarians--nobody calling for the withering-away of the state--nobody calling for competition between private, profit-making, rights-enforcement organizations until the nineteenth century. Libertarianism as we know it today shows up first in the anarchist-socialists of the late nineteenth century ..."

No, Brad, that's libertarianism as you mischaracterize it. Not libertarianism as it truly is. Libertarianism, as it truly is, was well-defined by Thomas Jefferson (and probably more before him):

"No man has a natural right to commit aggression on the equal rights of another, and this is all from which the laws ought to restrain him."

That is the very ***essence*** of libertarianism! In fact, it could be used to replace the Statement of Principles that is on every Libertarian Party membership card:

"We hold that alll individuals have the right to exercise sole dominion over their own lives, and have the right to live in whatever manner they choose, so long as they do not forcibly interfere with the equal right of others to live in whatever manner they choose."

The simple fact is that the Founding Fathers of the United States were far, FAR closer in ideology to the Libertarian Party than any other modern political party.

Posted by: Mark Bahner on March 9, 2004 03:10 PM

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Jason Ligon:

"That there is no possible human condition without power relations is the basis of a desire to structure governance in such a way as to limit the coercive acts of some over others." Agreed. But I obviously think there is much more moral ambiguity in the matter than you and that no recourse to an artificial theory about ideal, alternative arrangements can wish that ambiguity away. And my view on this is rooted in a critical refusal to countenance an atomistic account of individuation as at all a tenable conception.

I think you missed the force of my point about the incommensurability of the world to individuals. In the notion of "world", I am including non-human nature and the entirety of the material world, social or natural, as well as the issue of its interpretability and knowability, not just formal social arrangements. Individuals qua individuals do not produce this world, but, to the contrary, are dependent on a collective and common context by which they receive it. But as for your tergiversations about equality, there is no such singular thing as "capacity", but rather different capacities and to announce that it is a fact that individuals differ in these is no more surprising than the observation that individuals are of various ages. But such a factual consideration does not tell against the norm of equality, which concerns an equal regard for the potential of individuals and their capacity for development. And it is especially in this respect, that the notion of "freedom of choice" should be granted some considerable latitude, together with the acknowledgement of failure and resposibility. But once again, this potential for development does not exist without communities: there are simply no individuals without communities. And if I do not regard freedom and equality as incommensurable "values" that must be traded off against each other, it is perhaps because I don't hold to such an inflated conception of freedom and its powers.

Your consideration about "market cooperation" has a faintly comical air, for, though dependent on an agreed-upon legal framework, markets are supposed to be competitive. At any rate, markets are a particular social institution designed to address specific problems of allocation and distribution and the primary functional "virtue" is their capacity to aggregate highly dispersed forms of decision-making. This mode of collective decision making works for some matters and doesn't work for other matters, where it may be injurious both to the rationality and normative integrity of decisions, which require deliberation about common ends. But market activity is not the sine qua non of human freedom, nor is it a metaphor that can be inflated into a totalized model of human society. And wealth is primarily really produced by productive activities, not market transactions, which require the combination of several inputs and activities, irreducible to purely individual appropriations, that do require co-operative behavior, and that must be systematically coordinated, whether mediated by markets or otherwise, to ensure that the overall social process of wealth production occurs, if not increases. (I am in favor, by the way, of a mixed economy, with a fairly large and strong public sector, capable of effectively regulating market externalities and making some fundamental collective decisions about allocations and investments, with respect to e.g. the development of scientific knowledge, the provision of education, public goods and infrastructure investment and the maintenance of full employment equilibrium and the assurance of an equitable distribution of resources among the citizenry.)

I agree that the notion of a collective will is a nonsensical metaphysical hypostasis, though it can be considered for heuristic purposes. But community is a necessary human good, for without it, there are no individuals, hence no individual goods. And I don't believe that the notion of common goods is entirely indescernible, nor that collective ends can not, after due deliberation, be legitimated. And human individuals do grow precisely from one another, such that individual goods can not be defined in an entirely negative or exclusive manner, as if to imply that the inevitability of human conflict results in perpetual antagonism, without any possibility of resolution, such that all human goods, being solely individual in nature, must be separated and safeguarded as "property". And I do think that individuation can and should only be based on natural differences, since individuation is only a "moment"- (i.e. in the logical, rather than the temporal, sense)- in the actual existence of human beings, and the exaltation of individuality based on the production of artificial differences to preserve a narcissistic fantasy of "uniqueness" soon enough collapses into nonsense, whether of a ridiculous or a pernicious sort. The factitious appeal of "freedom" is obvious, since no one likes the encumbrances and annoyances that interfer with the supposed sheer continuity of one's intentions and plans, and to partake of freedom is to endow oneself with a certain prestige, especially if it is dressed up in the vaunted notion of "autonomy", the last refuge of the stoic. Autarchic self-sufficiency, for all the sturdiness of relying on one's own capacities, simply begs the question of the sources of human sufficiency. Such notions elide the actual dependency of the existence of human agency on the mutual recognition of other human agents. (The word "individual", by the way, etymologically means "undivided" and human beings are anything but undivided, but this self-dividedness is also a condition of sociality.) I have been at pains to stress the limited, almost pitiful, nature of human freedom, against the grain of most modern thinking, whether liberal, libertarian, "liberationist", or even socialist. But this is not for the sake of exalting the existence of the collective, but rather in the name of a certain sort of realism, whereby human freedom can be focused and brought to bear on our inevitably collective circumstances and our shared potentiality, so as to bring about conditions which safeguard human freedom and its contributions and realizations from the potentially crushing force of collective conditions.

Isaiah Berlin was by origin a Lithuanian Jew, who in assimilating to Anglo-Saxon culture, with its particularist and individualist notions of "liberty", nonetheless, tended to traffic with the ideas of continental thinkers. But an exaltation of individual liberty against the supposed evils of collectivism was a standard part of the ideological armament of the Cold War, in which Berlin was thoroughly complicit.

I am not simply a Wittgensteinian, who is thereby incapable of discussing anything. On occasion, I do think for myself. But I do find that there is much that is very insightful and useful in the old bugger.

In the end, I think we are just playing somewhat different games of amateur volleyball, with somewhat different rules.

Posted by: john c. halasz on March 9, 2004 04:34 PM

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Oh! I forgot this. "Society", whatever it may be- (and it is notoriously difficult to define)- is precisely not " a description of summed individuals". That is a very fundamental conceptual mistake.

Posted by: john c. halasz on March 9, 2004 04:42 PM

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Jason L, and like commentors:

I think you misunderstand the criticisms made by thinkers like Brad DeLong, Carson, and myself. It isn't private property itself that we say is phony, considering the social give and take and our needs, etc. - it is the (type of) libertarian theory that comes out of assuming its inherent rightness versus that of the commons and the government that expresses the will of the people. We are mostly saying: this situation empowers us to set conditions and controls on the private agencies, not that they aren't "legitimate" per se. But that of course is sufficient rebuttal to typical forms of libertarianism. I must say I am intrigued and more favorable towards the Mutualist and Georgist versions, which acknowledge the defects of privateer-fascist libertarianism (neo-feudalism), while still seeking greater liberty regarding other issues. I will not allow the Gilded Age to return, but I'm game for other creative solutions to governmental excess, which does exist.

Posted by: Neil Bates on March 9, 2004 05:49 PM

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Neil Bates:

"... it is the (type of) libertarian theory that comes out of assuming its inherent rightness versus that of the commons and the government that expresses the will of the people. We are mostly saying: this situation empowers us to set conditions and controls on the private agencies, not that they aren't "legitimate" per se."

A key point of difference in our views lies in the notion that 'we' are regulating private interests on the grounds that the government expresses 'the will of the people'. There is no 'we', there is only a majority. A more precise way of discussing this is to say that some of us reserve the right to regulate others of us because some have more power than others. As a minarchist, I am not arguing that this is always an invalid position, but I am arguing that 'we' had better be very careful about how frequently and to what extent this argument is employed.

With regard to neo-feudalism, I think that there is an element of pie-in-the-skyism to the position that the absence of title results in cooperation, just as I would take issue with the notion that the government directly allocating any resource is more just than the distribution that results from willingness to pay.

I am curious, too, what is meant by the legitimacy of a private institution that can be voided to any arbitrary extent at any time by an act of government. Is government legitimacy similarly defined?

John Halasz:

"In the end, I think we are just playing somewhat different games of amateur volleyball, with somewhat different rules."

That about sums it up. In a spirit of good humor, I will also note that I am happy to have found someone whose writing style is even more, er, densely worded than my own. I believe I may have won a bet as a result of this thread ...

Posted by: Jason Ligon on March 10, 2004 10:23 AM

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Jason -

I see that we meet again! Well - use of "we" in the policy context is another one of those fuzzy logic problems where we (hah!) just don't have an exact fix, but people go ahead and make calls on when to talk about "enough" and "almost" and whether the media have a "liberal bias" without a slew of exact numbers (see my reply to Hubris on Calpundit on Sullivan vs. Sullivan) Well, we do vote but of course through representatives and not directly, and there are standards to keep it from being "whatever the majority wants" (BTW, what shows us absolutely just where one property line ends and the other one begins, given it is not a measurable physical reality and each side wants to claim a maximum, leading to overlap? Could it be, those maps certified by the *government*? Why can't I disagree on where the lines are, etc?)

Remember that someone claiming to own property is *regulating* me when I walk onto "his" ranch, and what recourse do I have about that? I often write: "I will not accept power claimed over me unless I have a role in controlling the excerciser back in return." - that goes for governments, private estates, and whatever.

You write:

"I am curious, too, what is meant by the legitimacy of a private institution that can be voided to any arbitrary extent at any time by an act of government. Is government legitimacy similarly defined?"

No, You misunderstand. Read my reply at www.calpundit.com. This is the confusion of the absolutist who can't get the feel of the sloppy give and take of classic liberal democracy. He must falsely imagine massive polar exemplars being realized due to "principle" despite the effective centripetal pressure to a moderate balance of actions in most "normal" societies of reasonable, self-interested but sympathetic and realistic persons and groups. This leads to straw man problems, such as worrying about voidings of title (which I didn't advocate), the "dissolving" private estates to an arbitrary extent, etc. (That cheesy slippery slope, which I don't let anyone put over on me - because it tends not to happen, which is what matters.)

Final word of advice - all this pretense that pure system can suffice, instead of most of it being about the sort of people who can get along without aggravating each other badly - is bunk. No system is good enough: it's the people, stupid.

Posted by: Neil Bates on March 10, 2004 04:01 PM

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Neil:

I didn't realize you were also N-E-I-L, a killing machine that, oh nevermind.

I posted over at calpundit, too. The short version here.

Pure system is bunk. I agree. The problem comes when you have no system to define upper limits. If it is the people, stupid, and that is the end of the story, we have a tyranny of 51%. I know that you really believe that nobody will do anything too bad to you even if they can, but I'm perhaps more cynical. It has to be the people operating within a structure that creates incentives for them not to loot and pillage, and that is ESPECIALLY true of the government with its monopoly of legitimate violence.

You asked over in California why shouldn't we look out for our self interests without regard to strict ideals about rights? That is a terrifying concept to me, all the more so because your tone was very blase. The thief says the same thing, as does any single violator of any human right you can think of. Putting a nice dress called democracy on the same activity doesn't comfort me any. The will of the majority is the greatest threat to human liberty in these messy liberal democracies.

Posted by: Jason Ligon on March 10, 2004 07:38 PM

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So, approximately how many people would you say died in the twentieth century as a result of state action? Fifty million? One hundred million? More than died in the Scottish Highlands, at any rate.

Seriously, the level of historical argumentation in this thread has been quite low. There have been many examples of societies without states (as opposed to societies with weak states, or racked by civil war). Only one of these, Iceland, has been cited, or two if you consider that the Scottish Highlands were effectively stateless, as my have been the case (I don't know). And as P.M.Lawrence pointed out, very little evidence has been given to back the claim that life in these societies was "nasty, poor, brutish and short." (The ills from which stateless Iceland suffered don't sound any worse to me than what was happening elsewhere in Europe at that time.)

Which is not to say that these stateless societies were libertarian utopias: afaik, they weren't. (There's a book about such societies, entitled "People without Government" iirc, but I haven't yet gotten around to reading it.) Nor is it to say that there can't be good historical arguments against libertarianism. But they haven't been made here.

Regarding the Thirty Years' War: it was states which brought about the Thirty Years' War and paid for the soldiers who fought it, and states which were responsible for its lasting thirty years. While some bands of mercenaries went in for free-lance pillaging at times, again it was states which provided the "market" which brought such bands of mercenaries into existence. The same applies to the Italian condottieri and to mercenaries elsewhere.

Posted by: Adam Stephanides on March 11, 2004 08:19 AM

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Jason:

I do think there should be a system to define upper limits, but I believe in a higher bar than you do - not the opposite extreme. Both the people and the system matter (what does complaining about single fixation mean - again, not the opposite extreme), so it's a matter of given a fairly good system, the people must be reasonable appreciative of all interests (Libertarians seem hung up on polarities, or else I wouldn't have to do all this centrist apologetics.) One statement of yours shows more misunderstanding in this vein: "You asked over in California why shouldn't we look out for our self interests without regard to strict ideals about rights? That is a terrifying concept to me, ..."
Well, again I do think we should have ideas. You confuse "strict" in the sense of being taken seriously with "strict" in the sense of being stingy and at the low end of government scope. It doesn't mean the same thing.

Posted by: Neil Bates on March 12, 2004 05:34 PM

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Neil Bates,

Which Carson are you referring to? Surely not me. I'm even more anti-government than Jason.

I thought I made it clear that I do NOT believe government represents us: "the government protects the special privileges of capitalists, bankers and landlords against market competition...." "Government is a mechanism for creating externalities...."

Don't let that reference to "greedy businessmen" throw you off. I'm no advocate for government intervention. Those "greedy businessmen" can only exploit by acting through the state. The government is not just "all of us working together." There's a soccer mom born every minute.

You don't need the historical analyses of the New Left, or the case studies on corporate liberalism in the Progressive Era and New Deal, or the theoretical apparatus of public choice theory, to show the rent-seeking behind the regulatory-welfare state. You only have to look at the people like Gerard Swope, and the army of corporate lawyers and investment bankers on FDR's Business Advisory Council, for the suspicion to sink in that their main concern wasn't fighting "economic royalism" or "malefactors of great wealth."

Posted by: Kevin Carson on March 17, 2004 10:19 AM

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