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The Machinery of Freedom: Guide to a Radical Capitalism

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A book by David Friedman

This book argues the case for a society organized by private property, individual rights, and voluntary co-operation, with little or no government. David Friedman's standpoint, known as 'anarcho-capitalism', has attracted a growing following as a desirable … see full wiki

Tags: Books, Cafe Libri
Author: David Friedman
Publisher: Open Court Publishing Company
1 review about The Machinery of Freedom: Guide to a Radical...

"soft"-core anarchocapitalism.

  • Feb 21, 2010
You can put this book in the "anarchocapitalist" camp of libertarianism (as opposed to the "limited" government type of libertarianism), but this is probably the least inspiring anarchocapitalist book of them all. This is because Mr Friedman bases his arguments not in moral principles (i.e. he does not argue why anarchocapitalism is morally superior to any alternative social order), but instead relies on wishy-washy utilitarian arguments.

To me this is a rather weak form of analysis, and comes down to "X is better because it would 'work' better." While this is _interesting_, it is not decisive because what "works" depends on subjective valuation. Strong ethics would take the approach that, basically, "It doesn't matter what 'works', whatever that means, because X is morally superior because of 1, 2, 3..." (Of course, it is only natural that what is just _is_ what 'works' best, but I digress.) Nowhere in the book does Friedman make the "hard"-core case for libertarianism -- that the State is truly nothing more than a gang of criminals with better public relations (to paraphase Walter Block), that private property rights are morally justified, and that free markets organize society in the most peaceful, prosperous manner that respects the freedom of all people.

Now it is true that psychologically utilitarian arguments might be more successful at converting people to libertarianism, for all I know. But there are issues. As an example, consider the chapter on national defense. Here Mr Friedman caves completely to the "public goods" argument, saying that it is probably not possible for the free market to provide better protection than the State. He does not tackle the tissue of fallacies that is public goods theory or dispute any credible challenges to this dogma. (Instead he seems to say that public goods theory is not perfect and in actuality, government can underproduce public goods as well -- again, this is just about the weakest approach I could imagine for a libertarian argument.) Or consider his chapter on public transportation -- here he tries to imagines what seems to me a contrived example of what a free market of transportation might look like, instead of really hitting the issue where it counts.

That said, Mr Friedman's book does have some interesting elements to it. Numerous naive objections to libertarianism are of the breathless sort, "Well, how will THIS be possible in a libertarian society???" Many of Friedman's answers are pretty standard among libertarianism, I guess his advantage is some particularly interesting historical examples to support his depictions of how free markets and private property resolve ostensible problems. Y'know, the sort of stuff where people say, "Oh of course, why didn't I think of that?" and figure a free market in a given area isn't as crazy as they thought at first. Friedman has a very strong argument against democracy, asking us with a thought experiment whether car companies would be better or worse if, instead of competing more or less freely, we simply voted for a monopolist car company every four or five years. Also, perhaps most interesting of all, interesting is the work he has done on Medieval Iceland in showing a historical example of a nation that existed for a few centuries with a decentralized political order. (Some people have read too much into this -- it is not meant to show that a libertarian society would be just like Medieval Iceland and that because Medieval Iceland didn't last forever, libertarianism is somehow invalidated. Instead, it is simply to show the possibility of how a polycentric legal order can arise and function, without claiming this particular example was a utopia.)

But overall the variety of arguments are so much weaker and less potent than what some other writers have offered for libertarianism. Consider how he says he's uncomfortable with the non-aggression rule (i.e. violence only in defense, never in aggression) and its implications. For example, he says it would violate the non-aggression rule if one were to steal a gun to save someone's life, and that would not 'work' in Friedman's terms, but his analysis essentially stops there. He does not explore the morality of such a situation with any rigor.

I recommend people new to writings on anarchocapitalism or "hard"-core libertarianism try something by Murray Rothbard, either the more scholarly _The Ethics of Liberty_ or the more popular _For a New Liberty_. In fact, I would also contend that Dr. Mary Ruwart's book _Healing Our World_ is a good, uncompromising defense of libertarian-anarchism that derives its conclusions from moral arguments (more popular tone than scholarly one, and IIRC it never comes out and says it favors anarchism, it is just implied). For a well-rounded, scholarly defense of truly free markets (pure capitalism/anarchocapitalism) morally and economically, the best book is probably Hans-Hermann Hoppe's concise, groundbreaking, and logically rigorous _A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism_. After reading books such as these, Friedman's book seems empty.

I will conclude with the concession that I am perhaps being unfair. Mr Friedman claims from the outset that he wishes to analyze these issues from an economic viewpoint rather than, say, "natural rights" or what-have-you, and possible advantages with this approach. Taking it for what it is, the book is not too bad. But I still can't get past the feeling that it's all too weak. If one considers _Theory of Socialism and Capitalism_ or Rothbard's economic treatise _Man, Economy, and State_, we see that the economic arguments for anarchocapitalism in THIS book seem pretty weak. So I would say overall _Machinery of Freedom_ is a decent book to add to your libertarian bookshelf, but only after you've picked up some better ones.

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