David R. Henderson  

Scott Alexander on David Friedman's New Book

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Scott Alexander takes us through a whirlwind tour of David Friedman's book, hopefully soon to be published but available in draft form here, titled Legal Systems Very Different From Ours.

I often find myself impatient with Alexander's meandering style but either this long review doesn't meander or I find the topic so interesting that I didn't notice. The whole thing is well worth reading.

But a few highlights:

Medieval Icelandic crime victims would sell the right to pursue a perpetrator to the highest bidder. 18th century English justice replaced fines with criminals bribing prosecutors to drop cases. Somali judges compete on the free market; those who give bad verdicts get a reputation that drives away future customers.

"Anarcho-capitalism" evokes a dystopian cyberpunk future. But maybe that's wrong. Maybe we've always been anarcho-capitalist. Maybe a state-run legal system isn't a fact of nature, but a historical oddity as contingent as collectivized farming or nationalized railroads. Legal Systems Very Different From Ours, by anarcho-capitalist/legal scholar/medieval history buff David Friedman, successfully combines the author's three special interests into a whirlwind tour of exotic law.


I just realized that I picked up "whirlwind tour" from this second paragraph.

Some insightful humor:

First, something kept seeming off about all the legal systems mentioned, which only clicked into place about halfway through: they really, really didn't seem prepared for crime. A lot of them worked on a principle like: "If there's a crime, we'll call together a court made of all the town elders, plus at least three different religious leaders, plus the heads of the families of everybody involved, plus a representative of the Great King, plus nine different jurists from nine different universities, and all of them will meet on the Field Of Meeting, and a great tent will be erected, and..." The whole thing sounded like it might work as long as there was like one crime a year. Any more than that and none of the society's officials would ever have time for anything else.

More insightful humor:
Whenever I read a book by anyone other than David Friedman about a foreign culture, it sounds like "The X'wunda give their mother-in-law three cows every monsoon season, then pluck out their own eyes as a sacrifice to Humunga, the Volcano God".

And whenever I read David Friedman, it sounds like "The X'wunda ensure positive-sum intergenerational trade by a market system in which everyone pays the efficient price for continued economic relationships with their spouse's clan; they demonstrate their honesty with a costly signal of self-mutilation that creates common knowledge of belief in a faith whose priests are able to arbitrate financial disputes."


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COMMENTS (1 to date)
Bedarz Iliachi writes:

A fine article that raises many interesting questions.

The article supports the idea that justice is invariably a public or community affair and that only a community can mete out justice to the offenders. And it is the political community that can mete out justice in its fullest sense --thus limited justice systems of communities like Amish, gypsies and Orthosox Jews.

Scott Alexender writes:

Crime victims have little economic incentive to punish the perpetrator

Perhaps but they may certainly have extra-economic reasons to punish. Desire for justice or even revenge?

I tend to the view that the victim of the crime has no authority to punish a putative wrong-doer for nobody can be a judge in his own case. It is only the community with its justice system, centralized or dispersed as the case may be, that has the moral authority to punish.

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