Tuesday, July 13, 2010
Adam’s Rib and Anarchy: A Response to David Friedman
Previously I wrote about Milton Friedman of blessed memory and his documentaries "Free to Choose," done during the 1980s. John Stossel recently devoted an episode of his talk show to pay homage to "Free to Choose."
Milton Friedman's son, David Friedman, is also a libertarian economist. In The Machinery of Freedom: A Guide to Radical Capitalism (follow the link to read the book for free), though, he takes his libertarian logic to its anarchist extreme. After spending the first half of the book suggesting ways to sell off excess parts of government such as schools and roads (policies that I heartily support), Friedman turns to government itself and to how we might function without it. Friedman offers the following scenario:
Suppose, then, that at some future time there are no government police, but instead private protection agencies. These agencies sell the service of protecting their clients against crime. Perhaps they also guarantee performance by insuring their clients against losses resulting from criminal acts.
How might such protection agencies protect? That would be an economic decision, depending on the costs and effectiveness of different alternatives. On the one extreme, they might limit themselves to passive defenses, installing elaborate locks and alarms. Or they might take no preventive action at all, but make great efforts to hunt down criminals guilty of crimes against their clients. They might maintain foot patrols or squad cars, like our present government police, or they might rely on electronic substitutes. In any case, they would be selling a service to their customers and would have a strong incentive to provide as high a quality of service as possible, at the lowest possible cost. It is reasonable to suppose that the quality of service would be higher and the cost lower than with the present governmental protective system.
Friedman's system goes all the way up to having private court systems. When members of different systems come into conflict the protection agencies step in as arbitrators. In essence, instead of one giant nation-State, we would have numerous private States with no relation to boundaries, but simply personal choice. The advantage of this is that people would be free to choose their protection agencies and even to switch agencies as it suits their interests.
I admit that there is a certain elegance to David Friedman's suggestion and if I were to try putting together an anarchist system it would look something like Friedman's. What I particularly admire about Friedman is that he comes to his anarchism honestly, from a libertarian desire to avoid coercion, as opposed to most anarchists who come to their beliefs from a socialism based desire to use coercion to overthrow capitalism. The problem, as I see it, with Friedman's anarcho-capitalism is that it does not take into account the question of authority; mainly that States, in order for their authority to be meaningful, need their citizens to accept them as having a meta-legitimacy regardless of what they think of specific decisions. The State cannot simply be something that you accept or reject based on how you feel about it at the moment.
Take for example a woman whose husband cheats on her. To play out this alternative Adam's Rib scenario, our woman approaches the political establishment, headed by Spencer Tracy, to demand justice. Spencer Tracy, operating within the parameters of modern legal theory, suggests that this woman should be able to get a divorce on favorable terms and might be able to sue for emotional harm. Now if we are operating by standard government, the story ends here. Regardless of whether this woman believes that her honor has been violated and that it can only be redeemed if her husband and his mistress are given a more frontier form of justice, such as a bullet in the arm, she is held back by her "social contract" with the government. As long as the government protects her life, liberty and property, she is required to obey the law even when the results are not to her liking. Enter Friedman's anarcho-capitalism and all of a sudden we have an alternative to this woman going into therapy to get over her wounded sense of honor. She can break off services with Spencer Tracy's conventional modern justice protection agency and take up Katherine Hepburn's alternative protection agency, which offers its clients the option of choosing from its select line of vendetta specialists (otherwise known as hit-men) to bring them a more "personal" justice. Perhaps our woman can take a leaf from Shylock and prepare her scales to receive her pound of flesh and start sharpening her knife against her shoe. It is useless here to tell the woman that such actions are wrong, because she believes that, in this case, she is in the right, and now she has a justice system to give her what is "rightfully" hers.
Libertarianism relies on the fact that people are usually rational in their economic activities and can shrug off the exceptions. These principles break down when it comes to tort law, because it means handing decision making over to people who, in their current state, are, by definition, incapable of making rational decisions. Think of divorce cases with both parties engage in a mutually destructive conflict, consumed by a hatred for the other and egged on by their lawyers. Besides for being personal, divorce cases suffer from the fact that they lack clear expectations and rules of conduct. Allow someone to stew in their anger and they are likely to believe that they deserve nothing less than a pound of flesh and if their current venue does not give it to them, they will find one that will. Friedman's anarcho-capitalism would mean divorce style cases across the board with guns to boot.
I would also add a libertarian objection to Friedman's system. Libertarianism relies on a distinction between direct physical harm, which is the proper object of government intervention, and non-physical harm, which the government has no place in and which must be left to the individual to pursue privately through the social realm. (For example our woman might not be able to use the government to punish her cheating husband, but she can still have him publically humiliated by being thrown out of his church or synagogue.) Once we turn to anarcho-capitalism, there is no longer any distinction between the political and social; everything becomes social. As such the protection system, coming to replace the government, will no longer be bound by physical harm. People can pursue "justice" for the non-physical harm done to them and keep looking for a protection agency that gives it to them until they find one.
If I were to hone in on the difference between David Friedman and I it is that Friedman approaches the issue squarely from an economics prospective. He assumes rational behavior on the part of his participants as they pursue their monetary self interest. I come to the issue from political theory and therefore ask how it is that governments can carry innate authority. This is something outside of economics and outside of pure reason as the nature of the game is for everyone to buy into an illusion. This is strange because Friedman does not strike me as a narrow minded economist. For one thing, in addition to his father and Friedrich Hayek, he also dedicates his book to Robert A. Heinlein. Friedman has a strong interest in science-fiction and fantasy and has even written some; my challenge to him is why has he not allowed these things to come over into his political writing to transcend the mere economist in him?