David R. Henderson  

Will David Friedman Revise his Book?

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David Friedman's The Machinery of Freedom is one of my favorite all-time books making the case for freedom. I like it on at least four grounds: (1) it's tightly written, which reflects David's tight thinking, (2) it shows a great sense of humor, (3) it's got good numeracy, and (4) in it, David is just as critical of his own positions as he is of those of other people's, something that is rare.

In his chapter, "National Defense: The Hard Problem," he especially puts (4) above on display. David is an anarchist and he uses this chapter to argue against . . . anarchism. He points out that advocates of anarchism, himself included, don't yet have a good solution to the problem of national defense.

David writes:

These arguments suggest that it may be possible to defend against foreign nations by voluntary means. They do not prove that it will be; I am only balancing one imperfect system against another and trying to guess which will work better. What if the balance goes the other way? What will I do if, when all other functions of our government have been abolished, I conclude that there is no effective way to defend against aggressive foreign governments save by national defense financed by taxes--financed, in other words, by money taken by force from the taxpayers?
In such a situation I would not try to abolish that last vestige of government. I do not like paying taxes, but I would rather pay them to Washington than to Moscow--the rates are lower.

When David wrote that in 1973 and revised it in 1989, his last statement was true. Implicit taxation in the Soviet Union, given that the government claimed ownership of almost everything, was very high. Now it's false. Russia has a flat income tax rate of 13 percent, far below the U.S. rate. What would David say now. :-)

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CATEGORIES: Public Goods

COMMENTS (12 to date)
Bob Murphy writes:

Awesome! You totally surprised me, David (Henderson). I was sure you were going with a pirate angle on this one.

Daniel writes:

Their income tax is 13%. What about other taxes?

The real issue is how much of their GDP is eaten up by government spending of various sorts.

Les writes:

It is numerically convenient to measure the rate of taxation by the official tax rate, or by government spending as a ratio to GDP.

But these ratios of taxation understate the real tax rate in countries like Russia, where corruption is rife (so one should add bribes to actual tax payments) and where government can toss oligarchs into prison on trumped-up charges. In these cases, government exacts amounts from firms than can vastly exceed actual tax payments.

By the same token, it appears that U.S. government interventions into industries like banking, autos and insurance (and soon into healthcare) are no longer measurable simply by official tax rates.

Dan writes:

His example still stands, because he's dealing with the hypothetical that our taxes have been radically slashed so they provide only for national defense: "if, when all other functions of our government have been abolished... In such a situation I would not try to abolish that last vestige of government." I imagine the Washington he's referring to is his hypothetical minimal state Washington?

Jayson Virissimo writes:

Please convince Bryan Caplan to choose The Machinery of Freedom for his next book club discussion! It would be doing a great service for your fellow man. Better yet, it would be great if you both would comment on each of the chapters so we could get multiple perspectives. Thanks.

Franklin Harris writes:

Regardless of this one question, I think "The Machinery of Freedom" is past due for a third edition, anyway. More time has passed between the second edition and now than between the first and second editions.

Wlodek writes:

I second Jayson's comment. The Machinery of Freedom book club would be awesome.

Less Antman writes:

I love the twist on tax rates (although we know there is an ability-to-pay issue, and many governments ranked very low on the Economic Freedom of the World index rank well on size of government because of the blood-turnip principle).

Friedman's book is the one that convinced me to prefer anarchism, and the honesty you mentioned as point (4) was an important reason. I would love to see him revise the book to incorporate some of Roderick Long's thoughts on overcoming the public goods problem with respect to national defense, not to mention Jeffrey Rogers Hummel's articles on the role of ideology in defense and the identity of the problems of defending an anarchist society against governments and achieving one in the first place, since the latter means finding a successful defense against the government that currently dominates the territory of America. Both have referenced Friedman's book in developing their points, and I'd be surprised if he didn't have some fascinating thoughts on both.

Add me to the list of people who'd love to participate in The Machinery of Freedom book reading and discussion.

Eric H writes:

I'm not sure if anyone is following this thread anymore, but what the heck...

I'm interested in Friedman because of his lineage; I haven't read any of his work, though I've seen him briefly on the "Free to Choose" 90's remake. I'm sure my reason for interest in him will change once I do.

I am curious how someone who considers himself an anarchist squares his membership in the globe-spanning ranks of the Society for Creative Anachronism with anarchist principles. It's kind of funny that an anarchist would align himself with a global organization, even if there is nothing about anarchism that precludes free association. What if I formed a Society for the Destruction of the Society for Creative Anachronism? In a state of anarchy, assuming the SCA could even exist, to what authority would Friedman appeal to keep me from marshaling forces against the SCA and destroying it?

Friedman is a nominal anarchist; in a state of anarchy, the only way he would be able to choose whom to pay taxes to would be by establishing himself as the one to pay taxes to, i.e. through force of arms. Within the context of a relatively free society, it strikes me as supremely naive to declare oneself an anarchist.

How does Friedman address the likelihood that, absent the rule of law, our choices would be just as vulnerable to direction by third parties as under totalitarian rule?

Alex J. writes:

Eric, read the book. The relevant bit is even online.

Karl Gallagher writes:


You'd be stopped the same way the SCA does everything else. Someone who sees a need calls for volunteers. The volunteers come together and organize, following leaders on basis of seniority and previous accomplishment. Once your SDSCA is shattered they all go home and await induction in the Order of Eric Banes at the next royal court. If the volunteers don't come out then the SCA goes away, a fact which is true every day.

Eric H writes:


Would that I could one day inspire an Order of Eric Banes!

But seriously...

I like your explanation; it describes the type of spontaneous organization I would imagine possible within an anarchy containing a critical mass of human dignity. Everything seems to work out,except for the last sentence:

"If the volunteers don't come out then the SCA goes away, a fact which is true every day."

Implicit in your last sentence is the assumption that my SDSCA is a good alternative to the SCA. Or maybe the correct way to word it is that you assume my SDSCA has as much or more right to exist as the SCA since it has defeated it in combat. But that's not a given. What if my intentions upon defeating the SCA are to kill all survivors and turn them into a legion of undead warriors?

I'm taking the metaphor a bit far, perhaps.

Your explanation works well if we are talking about the free market. Brand name loyalties are absurd to me, and I suppose they are absurd to you too because of your explanation. Should Campbell's or Levi's or Nike meet their matches in market combat, I wouldn't shed a tear; the resources they were using would get bought up by those interests ready to use them and we would have replacements for their products lickety-split (we already do in fact: Progresso, Wranglers and Adidas).

Political organizations are a different matter. They can be based on ideas of good that are actually good, like human dignity and freedom, or they can be based on ideas of the good people think are good but actually are not, like collectivism. Collectivism sets out to enshrine human dignity but eventually degrades it. Individual will is first subjugated and then eradicated by collectivism. How can the collective be viable in the face of dissent? (In this I am reminded of an interesting dialogue between Michael Polanyi and Carl Rogers. In it Polanyi notes that the Hungarian revolution of 1956 was instigated by Communist writers who refused to consent to the idea that "the minds of people, the thoughts of people, are superstructures of the economic process. Since the party controls the economic process, the thoughts are under the necessary control of the Party, and properly so.")

Anarchism offers similar results. In an effort to enshrine individual will, it degrades the good idea that empowers individual will: respect for other individual wills within the context of liberty. Absent that context of liberty, the SCA and the SDSCA are interchangeable; only we both know they are not. The SCA is a benign organization of individuals in flamboyant dress who like to gather in empty soccer fields and beat each other with rubber halberds :) while the SDSCA is an evil cohort bent on annihilating them and turning them into a legion of the undead.

My feeling is that David Friedman's idea of anarchy is under-girded by a respect for the liberty of other people. The SCA is a good example of this. There are the rules you alluded to that allow for its defense, and I assume from my limited knowledge of it that there are codes of conduct agreed upon by its individual members that make the SCA work and continue to exist. Would someone who only superficially promised to obey those rules be allowed to break them and continue to be a member? Probably not. If so, then how would the SCA continue to be the SCA? Sure, the SCA could be transformed into SCA 2.0, but I'm guessing, based on your explanation, that that would only happen if enough of its members agreed to it, not if some loser kept intentionally mucking things up. That's probably how the SCA came to be what it is today, through organic coalitions forming and dissolving and reconstituting themselves into new coalitions.

There's no implicit respect for the rights of others in the definition of anarchy. The word simply means "without a leader," not "the organic development of social organizations guided by respect for individual liberty."

I don't mean to turn this into a debate about the merits of the SCA, though as you explain it it sounds like a fascinating living experiment in organization! Nor do intend to impugn Friedman's output because he is a member. What concerns me is the semantics of the word "anarchy". It seems to me, and I'm fully prepared to admit I'm wrong, that when Friedman calls himself an anarchist, he's talking about something else.

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