A Conversation With David Friedman – part 8: Bringing the Machinery of Freedom Into Fruition

Here is an edgy one. Dusan Miljevic asks:
Why does this system that you advocate as superior still isn’t succeeding in winning
in the market? Do you have some ideas as to the realization of your theory? Do you agree that your son Patri has outdone you, especially because he insists that it is a theory without
serious ambitions to becoming reality, to say the least? Quite a long time ago, I gave a talk on Robert
Nozick’s book ‘Anarchy, State and Utopia’, with Nozick in the audience. And we had an
exchange afterwards. And he did not try to defend the argument against anarchy that he makes in that book, which is what I was criticizing. He instead made the argument that if what
I was describing was a viable set of institutions, why didn’t we observe it. Which I think in fact is the strongest argument against my position. I think the answer I gave, the answer
I usually give is to imagine that it is 1800. and somebody is proposing a really wildly
crazy, impossible political system, in which all adults get to vote, even women. In which the legal rights of men and women are the same, where blacks and whites are the same. Furthermore, one of the less attractive features of this imaginary system is that governments are so large they spend thirty or forty percent of all the income. No such society ever existed
in the history of the world. And yet that’s now the normal arrangement for developed societies. So things do change, and they change for a variety of reasons that we don’t understand very well, but the constraints that determine what’s politically stable vary quite a lot over time, depending on culture, economics, and technology and a lot of other things. So I don’t think you can rule out something because it doesn’t exist at the moment. Now beyond that, I think the most likely context
for my ideas to be implemented is in cyberspace, not in real space. I have written various
things pointing out that public key encryption makes possible a cyberspace which is protected
by very strong privacy, in which the state cannot observe what you are doing. Nobody can observe what you are doing except the people you voluntarily associate with. And in that context you could end up with essentially something like anarcho-capitalism online, although enforcement would be by reputation
rather than by force in that system. And stay in real space. And that if things develop so that enough of our life is in cyberspace, then people become very mobile. Because you
could move your geographic location and keep the same friends and the same job because they are all online. And the more mobile people are, the more governments have to act like firms competing for customers in order to keep their taxpayers, and that might give you a substantial shift towards a freer society. But I’m not in the prophecy business. I don’t know if what I’m doing will work or not. I think Patri is certainly correct that you
want to think about whether the institutions you want will come to existence. I should point out that his seasteading proposal comes out of an example in the ‘Machinery of Freedom’, where I discuss what would happen in a world where people were perfectly mobile. I think seasteading is a neat idea. Like most new ideas it probably won’t work but it might. And if it did, it would produce very attractive outcomes. And there may be other ways of getting
to what we want, but I haven’t really thought about. So, you know, the world is a very
complicated place. One of my books is called ‘Future Imperfect’, and it explores the implications over the next few decades of a variety of technological revolutions that might happen. One of the conclusions is that future is much less certain that most people assume. That the world in even thirty years from now, or certainly fifty or seventy years from now,
is likely to be very different from the present world, and we don’t really know in what ways. Which is one reason why it is worth thinking about alternatives. There’s an argument my father made a long time ago, which had been distorted by various critics. Which is, that it is worth putting into circulation ideas that are not politically viable at present. And one reason is that when a society gets into serious trouble, then people are willing to look in
a wider range of alternatives, and they may implement ideas that were outside of the range of plausible things at an earlier time. So from that standpoint really, I view what I’m doing as trying to work out and put into circulation a set of ideas of how societies might
run, and there may or may not be circumstances that those ideas get implemented. What paths do you see as helpful to achieving
a free society that you envision: through political action and even violent revolution, or through government avoidance such as bitcoin, seasteading, and excetra? I think violent revolution is usually a mistake,
unless you have a very bad situation. Because most people think of the fundamental function of government as protecting them from getting killed, beaten up, raped, robbed, and so forth. In a violent revolution, lots of people are getting killed, robbed, and so forth, and that tends to make people want more government rather than less. So I could imagine a situation where government is bad enough that you’ve got no alternatives, but I think the general rule that’s not a sensible strategy. On the other hand, I don’t think there is a one correct strategy. I think one of the mistakes… If you look at political movements, not just libertarians, they spend an awful lot of time fighting themselves. Libertarians fighting other libertarians who have it wrong, Trotskiites fighting Stalinists, fighting
other kinds of Trotskiites, and so forth. And part of that comes of the idea that the
movement has some pool of resources that have to be used in the right way. So if you are advocating the wrong strategy, you want to waste the resources that should be used for my strategy. And that’s wrong. That if you think about the real world, there aren’t libertarian resources. There are only the resources of individual libertarians. Their time, energy, and money. And if what you are good at, you want to do is politicking, is running candidates, whether in the hope of getting them elected or of using them to spread ideas, and if I say: that’s wrong, what you ought to be doing is education, you won’t do education, you’ll do nothing. Similarly, if I don’t like running for politics, and I don’t, but I like educating people and writing books, and you say: that’s no good, what you gotta do is run candidates, I won’t do anything. So the right way, it seems to me, is that libertarianism itself ought to be a decentralized project, in which different libertarians propose different ways
of improving the world. And some libertarians are convinced by one and some by another. Each of them does those things that seem right for them, or they think they are good at doing. So I would say that on the one hand the creation of the United Parcel Service (UPS) and the
Federal Express was the big step in favor of libertarianism, because it became much harder to say if we didn’t have a government post office, the mail wouldn’t be delivered, when you know that there are private firms doing exactly the same job. Similarly, I would say that in a country where all the universities belong to the government, if you could successfully
create a private university, that’s a step towards a more libertarian society. Both because of what it will do directly and because people will be less incline to say we have to have
government or we won’t be educated. So the creating of institution is a way. But, Ayn Rand did a great deal in favor of libertarianism by writing novels that people read and were inspired by. George Bernard Shaw did a good deal against libertarianism by writing plays that people were convinced and inspired by. If your ability is writing fiction, then writing
fiction that embeds your ideas might be a good way of doing it. If you are good at running political candidates, then one of the things you might do is to work for candidates who can get elected, and who are not really libertarian, but a more libertarian than the alternative. A different thing you might do is to run candidates who can’t get elected, but to use their campaigns as ways of spreading ideas. So you definitely see value in political action? Not like some anarcho-capitalists that are bashing their fellow libertarians. I see value in lots and lots of different
things that you can do. That’s right. The thing I don’t see value for under most circumstances is violent revolution. I think that’s likely to make things worse rather than better. The other strategies that people advocate, I think are generally all ones that are of some use, and different ones are probably of use for different people. Dr. Friedman, thank you for your time. Thank you.

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