I’ve been reading through a great debate of sorts, first encountered in a C4SS anthology. I’m sharing it here, as it’s not everyday that one encounters a semi-live issue getting hashed out by giants in the field.
It starts with Robert Nozick. (Precious little starts with Nozick — we have Randians, Hayekians, Rothbardians, but no Nozickians, and no Nozickian tradition. Although he energized libertarianism as a respectable political philosophy for academics, his narrow scope and silent response to critics seem to have killed his staying power.)
Nozick famously claimed in Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974) that “Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights).” A first reading of Anarchy in the context of institutionalized philosophy makes it seem like a defense of libertarianism from big government, socialistic ideology. But, when Nozick’s connection to the Austro-libertarian anarchists is uncovered, the first part of Anarchy looks much more like a defense of small government from the anarchists.
Nozick tries to deal with the problem of law and police on the marketplace. In Chapter 2 of Anarchy, State and Utopia, he envisions a market model of competing rights-enforcement agencies. Eventually, in the service of their customers, two or more protection agencies will clash. They will fight. This results in the destruction of one (to the immediate monopoly of the other) or the relocation of the customers of each (to the territorial monopoly of each in different jurisdictions). If they choose not to fight because of the high expense, even arbitration can’t prevent a legal monopoly: consolidating to the top through voluntary contracts, government emerges anyway above the agencies. Thus, concludes Nozick, a purely free-market society will evolve into a state through an invisible hand process.
Collected in Free Markets & Capitalism?, published by C4SS, Roderick Long makes an argument against Nozick’s conclusion on the basis of different models of a post-state society (“The Return of Leviathan: Can We Prevent It?” (2013)).
Long points to another argument, this one from Tyler Cowen, that there is no way to save anarchy from collusion leading to monopoly (“Law as a Public Good: The Economics of Anarchy” (1992)).
David Friedman responded to Cowen’s argument the year afterward (“Law as a Private Good: A Response to Tyler Cowen on the Economics of Anarchy“), and Cowen responded back (“Rejoinder to David Friedman on the Economics of Anarchy“). Bryan Caplan, in an unpublished manuscript, critiqued Cowen’s position as well (“Outline of a Critique of Tyler Cowen’s ‘Law as a Public Good’“).
This is a showdown between Nozick and Tyler Cowen on the one hand, and Roderick Long, David Friedman and Bryan Caplan on the other. The whole extended debate is fascinating, but I’m not sure it has a conclusion. Was Nozick correct about the natural emergence of a state? Maybe it will take a NOL writer to finish it off…
Last week, the Trump administration announced it would be pursuing a federalist approach to cannabis legislation, effectively allowing states to create their own rules about how the drug is classified and sold.
This is a big change in American drug policy. One common opinion of the Obama era is that the federal government took a relaxed approach toward policing states that were decriminalizing marijuana. The 2008-2016 administration shifted the financial language of the drug war from a law-and-order crackdown to a public safety effort, and placed a low priority on intervening in states with medical legality. Real reform was introduced like the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment which prohibited the Department of Justice from policing medical marijuana states with federal funds. However, DEA raids and reconnaissance missions continued — like in my home state, where counter-economizing Californians sold a whopping five times more weed than they consumed (often to states where it is illegal).
Under Obama, it looked like, with a president less enthusiastic about beating up stoners, American drug policy might start to approach the 21st century. Some skepticism was reintroduced when Senator Sessions was appointed Attorney General under President Trump. Jeff “Good People Don’t Smoke Marijuana” Sessions is explicit about supreme federal authority for drug laws, and supported overturning Rohrabacher-Farr. This, indeed, would be a return to normalcy. For the last half century, it has not been characteristic of the federal government to stay out of drug use — rather than the Trump administration being a Republican re-installation of the war on drugs, we would be witnessing a general return to the 20th century status quo. However, Trump’s announcement makes it seem like we can finally welcome the unexpected.
Trump’s representatives have positioned this move to give up cannabis regulation to the states in a philosophy of states’ rights. Whether or not Trump cares about dual federalism, the repeal of marijuana prohibition — medical, recreational and federal — sweeping across states the last decade is a big win for individual liberty, and, since neither Party has been particularly friendly to cannabis, would seem to point to mainstream party acceptance of libertarian ideas.
What is the Party’s track record on cannabis? The Libertarian Party explicitly opposed drug laws in its first 1972 national platform. Now, in our present day, drug decriminalization is not a radical stance but something more mainstream. Failed or ex-politicians from either party have made a habit of coming out in support of legalizing marijuana the last few years, and up north, the Canadian Liberal Party may now endorse wide-scale reforms. Just yesterday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer announced he would introduce a bill to directly decriminalize marijuana as a federally classified substance. We’ll see how it goes. But it is now clear that in the same way Libertarians supported gay marriage decades before either partisan establishment now does, one doesn’t have to seek out a minarchist anymore to find someone who opposes drug laws or mass incarceration. (One mainstream policy position that hasn’t budged — war.)
So although we see radically unlibertarian moves nearly every day in Congress and the executive (e.g., FOSTA and Syria), some of the ideas of liberty have spread and reached mainstream status.
This raises some questions about the state of the philosophy and the Party, and more than just drug policy. What does it mean when our more eccentric ideas gain traction in the bigger political world? This question is tied to the purpose of an embedded libertarian political party in the first place.
Economist David Friedman made the point in the postscript to Machinery of Freedom that the purpose of the Libertarian Party is to not have a Libertarian Party. David’s argument is not the same thing as Austin Peterson’s brand slogan, to “Take over government in order to leave people alone.” Instead, David’s argument was built around a public choice understanding of political institutions, but the same conclusion follows from several different premises about the nature of third parties and especially those with a goal of mitigating or eliminating politics.
For American institutional reasons — codified in law and practice — a third party is almost certainly never going to win an election. David thinks, therefore, the purpose of a fringe political party is aspire to the legacy of the Socialist Party of the early 1900s. The Socialist platform in 1928 has succeeded in infiltrating establishment policy, even if the Party last election drew less than a tenth of 1% of the vote. Fringe parties are more successful as beacons of alternative policy than legitimate political competitors. The Party does not pursue political success but influence; hopefully, we will one day not need it to affirm liberty.
So, let’s return to cannabis decriminalization, where we are seeing a libertarian idea achieve mainstream political support.
Legalizing weed is a victory for libertarian ideas and a defeat for the Libertarian Party. Part of the simplistic draw of Libertarianism is “fiscal conservatism and social progressivism,” which, as a one-liner, allows recruitment from both the Republican and Democratic Parties. Now, however, if the progressive leaders, and the Republicans, are co-opting drug decriminalization, there is a lot less draw for social liberals to vote for Party alternatives more aligned with their radical agenda. (I know this, for instance, because drug legalization as an issue first drew me from Democratism to libertarianism in high school.) Hillary Clinton could have partially avoided her image as a crony neoliberal if she adopted more social freedoms, which would only leave her smears on the Left as an imperialist and capitalist.
A recent, rather strange video by AJ+ took aim at libertarianism (read: the Libertarian Party) as “ultra far-right” and spent seconds noting that libertarians are, on the flip side, “anti-NSA, anti-intervention and anti-drug laws.” These are not the only policies that small government people have to offer to the Left if they properly understand themselves. But, as libertarians, we should actually hope this list grows smaller and smaller; the more it shrinks, the more it means that establishment parties are appropriating libertarian positions. Pretty soon, being “anti-drug law” may disappear from the elevator pitch. Subsequently, the “worthwhile aspects” of the Libertarian Party fade to the back, and the draw of the Party (to the left, or the right) decreases until it looks heavily status quo.
So, we could expect that the influence of the Libertarian Party shrinks with the increasing influence of libertarian ideas in general society, as the general electorate pressures establishment politicians to adjust their policy space.
However, a lot of things are being taken for granted here. Do politicians actually respond to the general public consensus and public desire? Is it the case that “libertarian” ideas are spreading to the mainstream, or is it more “progressive” or “traditionalist” ones that are moving it in ostensibly similar directions? Can the ideas alone move policy positions without backing money?
We also know that the power of the Libertarian Party has greatly increased since its humble beginnings (whether or not its reputation has improved). My hypothesis is that the influence of libertarian ideas in society at large pressures the estabishment parties to adjust their positions, which in turn makes the Libertarian Party more irrelevant. This is not disproved by an increase in Libertarian Party power. The ideas, even if libertarian, still need to be seen as “libertarian” for it to hurt the Party. For instance, Chuck Schumer said “Looking at the numbers” guided him toward decriminalizing cannabis at the federal level and cited the ACLU. These “numbers” have been available for decades, from a potpourri of alternative political thinktanks. Citing them from the ACLU will not embed the bill — also faux-embedded in a philosophy of states’ rights — in libertarianism, but in the context of mass incarceration, criminal justice racial disparity and THC research opportunity. These are all good contexts. But the individual freedom element key to libertarianism will be missing, and of course it is, because Schumer says nothing about the other plethora of federal drug laws which prohibit freedom. Recognition of the libertarian aspect of ideas which are libertarian, I think, is essential for them to harm a Party which bases itself around the philosophy.
All of this means that there will be perverse incentives in third-party leadership. Politicians want job security like the next guy, and organizations in some sense want to “survive,” so the interests of libertarianism and the Libertarian Party are in one way opposed (or environmentalism and the Green Party). Liberty is more advanced by incumbent politicians (who are liberty-advancing, of course) than defeated politicians. And the mainstream parties are successful, the fringe parties are not. Thus, liberty is better spread when our ideas take off and get mainstream acceptance, but this will only serve to weaken the Libertarian Party itself, as its attraction as a political outlier fades. This must be obvious: no Libertarian Party candidate is going to claim the White House in our lifetime, and the best hopes of libertarian success are in influencing other parties. So, even when we gain more percent of the vote, the success is in getting people to hear about libertarianism, not in actually convincing people to vote Libertarian.
Conflicting incentives (working in the Party and advancing liberty) means that the Party could be taken over by bad actors like any other political organization, and indeed David predicts this with the increase of political clout. Parties with political power have plenty of favors to dish out, and it only takes a few non-ideological Party members to break ranks. As some of the ideas become more mainstream, this is one possibility. Another is disintegration: there might be no reason for the Libertarian Party to continue, given that its unique draw has suffused into larger bases. A third option is that more radical contingents, like the Mises Caucus, achieve ideological supremacy as the moderate libertarians leave for the newly-libertized Democrat and Republican parties.
In any case, libertarianism faces a conundrum in its Party format. Much of the problems apply to other third parties, but some are unique to libertarianism. One brutal confrontation is the acknowledgement that legalizing cannabis will advance liberty and simultaneously hurt the liberty movement. To this end, Saul Alinsky’s reflection in Rules for Radicals is potent.
The Woodlawn Organization in Chicago is trying to stop the University from bulldozing the black ghetto. The activists issued five demands for the city council, grew in power, and defeated the construction project. Eight months later, the city crafts a new policy on urban renewal to the frustration of the Woodlawn Organization, who barge into Alinsky’s office denouncing the policy statement. But “Through the tirade it never occurred to any of the angry leaders that the city’s new policy granted all the five demands for which the Woodlawn Organization began. Then they were fighting for hamburger; now they wanted filet mignon; so it goes. And why not?”
The solution to one problem creates a new problem, and there are always future problems to work on. Liberty will just have to keep trucking through the victories, and learn from our friends the Socialists of 1928 and Saul Alinsky, who never joined a political party.
For reasons both inexplicable and ordinary much of my prepubescent memory is off-limits. I can remember leaving Washington for Northern California, in limbo in the back of what might have been a Toyota Highlander, watching streetlights illuminate every fifth second. I remember combing through my mom’s boyfriend’s horror collection, and then biking breathlessly through my neighborhood, conjuring up xenomorphs, Yautjas and Predaliens on my tail for a few hours every day. I remember capturing lizards and salamanders outdoors, sneaking them into my room and losing them in the house, never to be found again.
And, just recently, I remember being extremely bored.
Most of my friends could quote me as claiming that I never get bored. Apparently, I used to be. But it was only one thing: I was bored with school. It got a little better when my teacher suggested I skip third grade. (And a little better recently, when my sister took a year-long break from studying in Santa Barbara: we will now graduate the same year although she’s two years older. I expect to never let her forget it.) But by and large, I wanted out.
I remember excelling on my tests but having essentially zero interest in what the board had determined to be necessary cirricula. And the classes that they pressed on me, I only wanted to snoop the outskirts. Although math is probably my weakest subject now in middle school it was my best. My professor, Mr. Sharp, would play Apocalyptica until everyone took their seats. He wanted to expose us equally to the Pythagorean theorem and the versatility of the cello. I would challenge him to explain the philosophy behind what we were learning, to just below his breaking point. In the beginning I would ask questions because I thought mathematics was too abstract to be saying anything at all useful or real; in the end, I would ask questions mostly because my classmates got a kick out of it. Much of the time I was trying to understand the context of the formula, an approach which, I think, made reading Thomas Kuhn so fulfilling to me later. Mr. Sharp both loved and loathed me. Once a week we wouldn’t complete the lesson. Nothing quite compared to that environment and I haven’t enjoyed a math class since.
What I remembered just this morning was the real sense of a lack of freedom. Not only in school but in pre-adolescence as a whole. I was allowed to watch R-Rated films, sure, and go on the computer to play Neopets. I could ride my bike at night sometimes, and if I wasn’t allowed I could sneak out. But what I wanted was that radical freedom, the kind that Sartre says I already had. There were too many authority figures and not even the freedom to choose between them. Choice is limited, and American democracy itself didn’t extend to me. And where were my representatives? I couldn’t vote for them. They governed me regardless of my input.
Maybe it’s a good thing that 9 year olds don’t vote. That would be a massive voting bloc for whichever candidate is willing to promise an extra hour of television before bed. Yet I remember feeling powerless as a kid, and astonished that no politicians were out trying to represent us. I realized that people must forget as they get older, and they must think, erroneously, that it’s good that children don’t have the same set of freedoms as the adult population once they join the latter. I remember promising myself with as much moral force as I could muster that when I became an adult, I wouldn’t forget: I would represent kids and fight for their freedom from the servitude of parents and teachers.
Well, I forgot. Until now. And my younger self was right — it now seems perfectly right to me that the youth be granted less freedom than the elder. Does this make me a class traitor of sorts? So be it.
But, what I do see now is that the education system is not serving young people very well. The people in my classes still do not want to be there. The incentives are all messed up for test-taking. Although I went to a very creative and nurturing high school, much of my time in higher education has been “unlearning” things I was taught in lower levels and am being taught concurrently. This has not been so much learning that what I was taught was false, though there has been some of that, but moreso learning that what I was taught was an incomplete picture, open to questioning, and often tainted with ideological bias. The things I have studied outside of class have made me better informed and, I would say, more genuinely knowledgeable than the textbooks inside of class.
The story David gives about “unschooling” his children provides one alternative to the standard model. I have friends, though, that demonstrate the non-universality of this option. Part of the solution lies in fostering an independent mind, and part of it on behalf of the child. David describes learning more about English from reading Kipling’s poetry in his free time than in class. I had read the entire Stephen King pre-2011 corpus before entering high school, and I don’t think any sort of class on writing could have improved on that. David also criticizes the idea that there is a single subset of knowledge that ought to be taught to all people, as our education system performs now. For a more extensive criticism of this, and even more radical, I suggest Feyerabend.
I don’t share the sentiment of my much younger self in radical freedom for children. I have effectively broken that promise, but a promise to oneself is, I have to think, less binding if one person is 10 and the other is 20 and the two persons are the same. The solution to the problem, though, at least of boredom in education, is much clearer now. Though of course, the clarity came from reading material outside of school.
I was just reading David Friedman’s The Machinery of Freedom. He published the first edition in 1973. Amidst the wild ride of the contemporary American university (Evergreen State College being the most heinous single episode), one passage seems especially prescient.
From chapter twelve in the third edition:
The modern corporate university, public or private, contains an implicit contradiction: it cannot take positions, but it must take positions [sides]. The second makes the demand for a responsible university appealing, intellectually as well as emotionally. The first makes not merely the acceptance of that demand but its very consideration something fundamentally subversive of the university’s proper ends.
It cannot take positions because if it does, the efforts of its members will be diverted from the search for truth to the attempt to control the decision-making process. If it takes a public position on an important matter of controversy, those on each side of the controversy will be tempted to try to keep out new faculty members who hold the other position, in order to be sure that the university makes what they consider the right decision. To hire an incompetent supporter of the other side would be undesirable; to hire a competent one, who might persuade enough faculty members to reverse the university’s stand, catastrophic. Departments in a university that reaches corporate decisions in important matters will tend to become groups of true believers, closed to all who do not share the proper orthodoxy. They so forfeit one of the principal tools in the pursuit of truth — intellectual conflict.
A university must take positions. It is a large corporation with expenditures of tens of millions of dollars and an endowment of hundreds of millions. It must act, and to act it must decide what is true. What causes high crime rates? Should it protect its members by hiring university police or by spending money on neighborhood relations or community organizing? What effect will certain fiscal policies have on the stock market, and thus the university’s endowment? Should the university argue for them? These are issues of professional controversy within the academic community.
A university may proclaim its neutrality, but neutrality as the left quite properly argues, is also a position. If one believes that the election of Ronald Reagan or Teddy Kennedy would be a national tragedy, a tragedy in particular for the university, how can one justify letting the university, with its vast resources of wealth and influence, remain neutral?
The best possible solution within the present university structure has been not neutrality but the ignorance or impotence of the university community. As long as students and faculty do not know that the university is bribing politicians, investing in countries with dictatorial regimes, or whatever, and as long as they have no way of influencing the university’s actions, those acts will not hinder the university in its proper function of pursuing truth, however much good or damage they may do in the outside world. Once the university community realizes that the university does, or can, take actions substantially affecting the outside world and that students and faculty can influence those actions, the game is up.
There is no satisfactory solution to this dilemma within the structure of the present corporate university. In most of the better universities, the faculty has ultimate control. A university run from the outside, by a state government or a self-perpetuating board of trustees, has its own problems. A university can pretend to make no decisions or can pretend that the faculty has no control over them, for a while. Eventually someone will point out exactly what the emperor is wearing.
With an activist culture in place, the university endures more and more blows to its truth-seeking abilities. UC Berkeley spent an estimated $600,000 on security for Ben Shapiro a couple months ago, after the chaos and protests of the past year. Staff cut seating in half, worried that protesters would dismantle chairs and throw them onto the audience on the bottom floor. Now, so I hear, student clubs are having difficulty hosting evening meetings on campus, as the administration makes up for the expenses by cutting down on electricity usage and janitorial services. Club stipends, of course, are down. All of this damages the educational environment.
My friends went to see Ben, and watched a woman with a “Support the First Amendment! Shalom Shapiro!” sign get dragged into a crowd and beat up. (Not reported by major media; falsely reported as a knifing by right-wing media.) David identified the internal problem of the corporate university, which I believe we see escalating; the external problem is when outsiders — most of the violent rioters in Berkeley since the beginning of 2017 — understand the political power of the university and the speech that goes on there, and seek to control the process of intellectual conflict through physical force. Both are advanced in accordance with the political involvement of the students as well as the teachers.
The goal of this post is to discuss the purpose of a NOL Foreign Policy Quiz. It is the first in a series of posts discussing the details of how to actually devise and distribute this quiz. Reader input is encouraged.
The Nolan Chart is a short political quiz developed by David Nolan, the Libertarian Party founder. The Nolan quiz plots individuals along two axes, asking them their preferences towards issues of personal and economic freedom (both Rick and Warren have blogged about the Nolan Chart here at NOL, too). Libertarians are those individuals who favor both personal and economic freedom.
The benefit of the Nolan Chart is that it moves us away from the left–right spectrum and towards a two-dimensional understanding of politics. The limitation of the Nolan Chart is that it only views politics through these two limitations. The Nolan Chart at best tells us what end policies we favor, but it fails to address how to achieve these goals.
This is problematic, as even political groups that agree on end goals differ substantially on how to best achieve them. Among libertarians, the largest debate is probably between those who believe a minimal state is needed (minarchists), and those who believe no state can be tolerated (market anarchists) to achieve maximum liberty. There is also, to a lesser extent, a debate on the form of government* and foreign policy.
It is possible to be a libertarian and believe that monarchy is superior to republicanism or democracy in upholding the law and maximizing liberty. Likewise, it is possible to be a libertarian and desire an active foreign policy beyond promoting free trade agreements. I know that I stir controversy with my latter comment, but give me a moment to defend it.
The standard libertarian foreign policy is one of non-intervention. It is a policy of wishing to sever military ties with foreign nations and instead promoting free trade with all. It is a policy consistent with the non-aggression principle.
However, this standard policy is not the only policy consistent with libertarianism. It is possible to believe that, although the loss of any human life is horrible and that the state is illegitimate, the best option to minimize human life and protect liberty is to attack, embargo, or annex another state.
I do believe that there are several tests that must be met before one adopts a foreign policy beyond the standard libertarian creed. Specifically:
- Loss of human life and liberty must be weighed for both sides.
- Discounting should not occur on national basis.
- All reasonable peaceful solutions must be acted on beforehand.
- The long-term consequences of the action must be considered and weighed for both sides.
Additionally, if actions are taken, then all precautions must be taken to minimize loss of human life and liberty on both sides.
Minarchist libertarians may see the state as a tool to maximize freedom, but I do not believe this grants them the authority to kill others. There may be a scenario where the murder of one man is outweighed by it leading to the protection of ten men, but the one man has still been murdered and his death must be felt as a regrettable action. The value of a man is not dependent on whether he was born in New York City or Tehran. A libertarian cannot be a jingoist.
At no point may a foreign policy action be taken if a reasonable peaceful action is still available. If a man enters your home with a gun and clearly intends to harm you, by all means it is justified to attack him, even if he has not yet shot or aimed at you.
And finally, the long-term consequence of a foreign policy action must be considered. Even if the first two rules are met, if there is not a long-term plan that is likely to succeed, no action should be taken.
For a long time, I wrestled with my stance on the Iraq war. I believed in the past that the first two requirements had been met and that the US invasion of Iraq was justified despite the loss of life and liberty on both sides. The Iraq war did not, however, meet the third hurdle. There was no viable long-term plan, and the latest consequence of this is the rise of ISIS and other militant groups in the MENA region.
Meeting these three conditions is difficult, but possible.
For example, I believe that expanding the US to include South Korea and Japan would be a proactive foreign policy stance consistent with my the rules I outlined above. Such an expansion would harm Okinawan residents, whose land is currently used for US bases. Such an expansion would also lead to retaliation from the PRC and North Korea. It would, however, lead to a net win for liberty. South Koreans and Japanese residents would have a stronger defense against a rising PRC seeking to dominate the region militarily. US residents would benefit from having defense costs, both in monetary and human life terms, more equitably shared. Although I am hopeful the PRC will liberalize in the future, its actions towards Hong Kong makes me doubtful that that will occur in the foreseeable future.
It is possible that I am wrong of course, and that adding South Korea and Japan would lead to a great loss of life and/or liberty. I am still a libertarian, however. I am not discounting the lives or liberty of non-US residents. I am not ignoring another peaceful solution – the current foreign policy scenario in East Asia is not sustainable for much longer, the PRC has clear intent to assert itself in the region, and it’s extremely doubtful that it will liberalize in the foreseeable future. I am considering the future: the PRC and North Korea are sure to retaliate, but I do not see either of them going to war over it. I do see the PRC being more likely to go to war over annexing Taiwan, even if not immediately, or otherwise I would promote Taiwanese annexation as well.
Hopefully I have successfully shown that it is possible to be a libertarian and favor a policy beyond the standard libertarian foreign policy. In which case, there is merit in discussing foreign policy beyond this standard.
There have been proposals to incorporate a foreign policy dimension to the extant Nolan Chart, but these proposals take it for granted that a non-interventionist policy is the only libertarian prescription. Over at FEE, Richard Fulmer proposes the following five questions:
- The United States should cease serving as the world’s policeman.
- The United States should not engage in nation building.
- The United States should not pledge to defend other countries.
- The United States should withdraw its troops currently stationed around the world.
- U.S. foreign policy should not be tied to that of the United Nations.
Unless one believes only a non-interventionist foreign policy is compatible with libertarianism, it is clear that these questions are insufficient. They also highlight that a NOL foreign policy quiz should seek to complement, but be independent of, the Nolan Chart. Otherwise, any attempt to add a foreign policy dimension will end with in fighting over who is a libertarian and who is a statist.
Again, the standard non-interventionist libertarian foreign policy view is a consistent and legitimate view point. It is however possible to favor foreign policy interventions under certain conditions and still be a consistent libertarian.
In the next post I will be proposing the foundation for a NOL foreign policy quiz.
*Even market anarchists who reject the need for a state debate on what type of organizations would exist and how the law would operate. For example, Murray Rothbard’s early vision for market anarchism presumed that a unitary law would exist, and that private defense associations (PDAs) would compete to best to carry out this unitary law. This unitary law would be based on ‘natural law.’ David Friedman’s vision for market anarchism does not presume a unitary law, and instead imagines competition for the law, as opposed to competition for the application of the law itself. My understanding is that there are also Rothbardians who have moved away from PDAs and towards dispute resolution organizations (DROs). It has been quite some time since I actively followed this debate among market anarchists, so I will defer to anyone who has more up-to-date information.
Ian Bremmer’s American Foreign Policy Quiz [NOL Post] – The post that initiated the idea of a NOL Foreign Policy
A Three Dimensional Nolan Chart Extension Focusing on Form of Government (e.g. Anarchy v. Monarchy)
David Friedman writes:
Accepting the views of experts on a question you are not competent to answer for yourself, assuming that you can figure out who they are and what they believe, is often a sensible policy, but one can sometimes do better. Sometimes one can look at arguments and evaluate them not on the basis of the science but of internal evidence, what they themselves say.
He goes on to give examples of inconsistent claims made by global warming alarmists. His (short) post is worth the read. Here are my 2 cents:
First, (in response to the block quote) deferring to experts is sensible but requires a certain degree of expertise in picking out who they are which is a difficult task. We’re all human, and it’s hard to hold something in your head without thinking it’s true. That makes it hard to not be arrogant. We need to emphasize strongly that interpreting information is hard, and the outcomes are not at all obvious. Those concerned with anthropogenic climate change (myself included) are better served by stressing the uncertainty involved and making arguments centered on appropriate risk management.*
Second, The issue of climate change boils down to a series of sub-issues that need to be considered carefully:
We need to think about costs and benefits. A warmer world would be a boon for many people. If we could set the average world temperature, we would want it to be higher than 0 Kelvin. We might even want it to be warmer than it is today.
We need to think about the uncertainty surrounding what’s happening, as well as what we can do about it. We should be particularly skeptical about cost estimates for any effort to try to control the environment.
(This one’s a bit of a non sequitur.) We should use this as an excuse to do things that would help reduce the costs of climate change that we should be doing anyways. Specifically, we need to liberalize immigration policy in wealthy nations. Let’s say there’s a 0.00001% chance that climate change has a bad outcome, and that specifically that outcome is that the entire country of Bangladesh will catch fire and kill everyone. That’s a good excuse to let Bangladeshi’s come to America, but we should be doing that anyways. It’s a low cost (actually a negative net-cost) solution to a potential problem of climate change.
Here’s one that I think the smarter alarmists/deniers already recognize: this is a political discussion. Politics and the truth don’t mix. But recognizing this point and making it widely known may allow people to tone down and argue something closer to the truth.
Both sides like to think of themselves as skeptical (as demonstrated by that masthead which warns that we might have to suffer through the addition of a habitable continent (?)), and good for them. We should value skepticism in this. But that skepticism shouldn’t lead us to make bold claims on one side or the other. It should lead us to ask a lot of “what if?” questions. This is a risk management issue, not a social engineering one.
* I like Taleb but I’m not as worried by GMO’s as he apparently is, but I haven’t read that paper either.
A first in this series, a discussion of literary texts rather than a text covering political ideas through philosophical, historical, legal, or social science writing. One good reason for the new departure is simply that the sagas of Iceland have become a focus of debate about the possibility of a society with effective laws and courts, but no state.
It has become a celebrated case in some pro-liberty circles largely because of an article by the anarchy-capitalist/individualist anarchist libertarian thinker David Friedman (son of Milton) in ‘Private Creation and Enforcement of Law: A Historical Case’, though it has also been widely studied and sometimes at full book length by scholars not known for pro-liberty leanings. I somewhat doubt that Iceland of that era could be said to have purely private law, but I will let the reader judge from the descriptions that follow.
Other important things also come up in discussing the sagas. There is the issue of how much political ideas, political theory, or political philosophy just reside in written texts devoted to theories, institutions, and history, and how much they may reside in everyday culture, collective memory, and the literature of oral tradition. This becomes a particularly important issue when considering cultures lacking in written texts, but nevertheless has ethics, law, and juridical practice of some kind. The modern discipline of anthropology has provided ways of thinking about this, but rooted in older commentaries on non-literate societies, as in the Histories of Herodotus (484-425 BCE) and indeed the texts by Tacitus, considered here last week, on ancient Britons and Germans.
The Icelandic sagas present the ‘barbarians’ in their own words, though with the qualification that the sagas were largely from Pagan-era Iceland and then were written down in Christian-era Iceland. You would expect some alterations of a kind in the sagas as they are transferred from memory and speech to writing, and the religious transformation may have led to some element of condemnation of the old Pagan world colouring the transcription.
Nevertheless we have tales of Pagan warrior heroes in a society with very little in the way of a state, written down only a few centuries later (maybe three centuries), which is a lot closer in time than the absolute minimum of seven centuries between whatever events inspired the Homeric epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, and the writing down of the oral tradition in the eighth century BCE.
The comparison with Homer is worth making, because the Sagas present warrior-heroes whose extreme commitment to the use of individual violence to maintain and increase status echoes that of the heroes in Homer. The all-round enthusiasm for inflicting death and injury as a way of life, and a basis of status, may of course lead us to regard these as more action heroes than moral heroes. In the Homeric context, and discussions of other pre-urban societies dominated by a warrior aristocracy, the word ‘hero’ often has a descriptive political and social aspect, which is more relevant than any sense of moral approbation in the term hero.
The classic discussions of warrior ‘hero’ societies since Homer and Tacitus are Giambattista Vico’s New Science (1744) and Friedrich Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality (1887), and these should be seen in the context of Enlightenment writing on ‘savage’ and ‘barbarian’ stages of history. Nietzsche’s contribution comes from the time in which anthropology is beginning to emerge as a distinct academic discipline, tending at that time anyway to concentrate on ‘primitive’ peoples.
The Sagas give a literary impression of a society in which the state has not developed as an institution, which could be regarded as evidence of ‘primitiveness’. However, the Icelanders had originally left the monarchical state of Norway, which features heavily in the Sagas, and they were in touch with the monarchical state of England, in a sense which could include Viking raids, as well as warrior service to Anglo-Saxon kings. So it would not be correct to say that the Icelanders were at some early, simple stage where they did not know anything different, as they had chosen to reject monarchical institutions, or at least had never found it worth the trouble to go about creating a monarchy with a palace, an army, great lords, taxes, and law courts appointed from above.
What the Icelander had was a dispersed set of rural communities, in which there were no towns. The centre of the ‘nation’ was not a capital city, but an assembly known as ‘althing’, which combined representative, law making, and judicial functions, with the judicial function predominating. There was not much in the way of political decision-making since there was no state, and the laws were those that existed by custom, not through deliberate law-making.
The judicial function was exercised through judgements, which were essentially mediations on disputes that could also be brought before lower level assemblies-courts. The right to participate in the assembly with a vote was restricted to a class of local notables, though not a hereditary aristocratic class.
Judging by the Sagas, the judgments of the Althing may have been influenced by the numbers present on either side, particularly if they were armed. Only one person was employed by the Althing, a ‘law speaker’, whose compensation was taken from a marriage fee. At least in the earlier years of the Icelandic community, from 870 to 1000, there seems to have been nothing else in the way of a state. Conversion to Christianity in about 1000 led to tithes (church taxes) and a good deal more institutional interest in what religion Icelanders might be practising. In the thirteenth century the tendency towards more, if still very little, state was completed by incorporation into the domains of the King of Norway.
The Sagas do not give a complete institutional description, but are a large part of the evidence for what is known about pre-Christian Iceland. The stories of warrior-heroes and families often takes us into the judicial life of the community, as violent disputes arise. There is no police force of any kind, so disputes initially dealt with by force, including killing.
Sagas which concentrate on warrior heroes suggest that considerable property and local influence could be built up through individual combats in which the winner kept the property of the loser, that is the person who died in the combat. The more family based sagas suggest that at least some of the time, combat might lead to the loser ceding some land rather than having to fight to the death.
Presumably, in some cases, the warrior honour culture led to anyone challenged to combat being forced by custom to agree to do so, which gave particularly effective warriors a chance to become major land owners through willingness to issue challenges. The warrior-oriented sagas really suggest a society in which some part of the population were constantly using deadly violence to protect and advance their status, or simply in reaction to minor slights on honour, and the use of such violence could lead to the killing of a defenceless child.
The use of murderous violence against those unwilling, or unable, to fight back was deterred and punished to some degree by a system of justice which was in large part voluntary. There was no compulsion to attend the Althing, or lower assemblies, and no means to enforce attendance except the violence of those wishing to make a legal complaint, should they wish the accused to be present. The punishments, even for the most extreme violence, were never those of physical punishment, prison, or execution.
Judgments required economic compensation, or at the most extreme outlawed the guilty party, who appears to have been largely given the time and opportunity to leave Iceland unmolested before the most severe consequences out outlaw status could be applied. Outlawing of course removes legal protection from the person punished who can therefore be murdered, or s subject to some other harm, without a right to legal complaint. Outlawing often seems to have been the result of non-payment of compensation demanded by the court.
The judicial system was essentially voluntary, and judging from the sagas a lot of disputes were settled by private violence, which could include murder of supposed witches and torture of prisoners. Victims of violence, or other harms, were only protected by law as far as they or their friends, neighbours, or families, were willing and able to go to court, demand an official judgement authorising punishment, and enforce it.
Slavery was normal, but there was some legal protection of slaves, in so far as anyone in their community was interested in ensuring enforcement. Jealousy and competition between neighbouring families may have helped produce legal protectors for the socially weak, but this is maybe not the most reassuring form of protection.
For liberty community fans of the example of Iceland from 870-1000, it is a example of how anarchism can work; that is, it is an example of how there can be law and a judicial system without a state beyond judicial assemblies and the one employee of the most important assembly.
Medieval Iceland was a functioning society, which was perhaps not as sophisticated as England, France, the German Empire (Holy Roman Empire), the Byzantine Empire (which appears in the Sagas as the Greek Empire), or caliphate of Cordoba, just to name the most powerful European states of the time, but did leave a significant literary legacy in the Sagas, as even the most violent warrior-heroes wrote poetry some times. It was a rural seagoing trading community, in which violence was no more prevalent than other parts of Medieval Europe, and a tolerable existence was maintained in the face of a very harsh nature.
The arguments for a less enthused attitude toward Iceland as a liberty-loving model include the very simple nature of the society with no towns, the existence of slavery, and the lack of comprehensive enforcement of law. In general there is the oddity of taking as model of anything a situation in which there was no protection from violence, and no other harms, unless someone or some group with some capacity to exert force, brought a case to the attention of the court and was able to enforce any decision.
Medieval Iceland was a society in which violence was not always punished and where those inclined to use violence for self-enrichment could live without consequences, either through ignoring laws, or making use of laws and customs, which created opportunities to take property on an issue of ‘honour’. The courts and laws of Medieval Iceland were maybe adequate for creating some restraint on a community containing a significant proportion of Viking raiders regarding murderous violence on a systematic scale as legitimate and even as an honourable way to increase wealth.
On the whole I lean more in the second direction, I certainly see no reason to see near-anarchist Iceland as better for liberty in its time than the self-governing merchant towns of the Baltic, the Low Countries, and northern Italy. There is no evidence that Medieval Europeans were ever inspired to take Iceland as a great example of anything. The intermittently contained violence of slave owning landholders is not a great justification for the semi voluntary legal system, and near non-state.
Having said that, the emphasis on justice as mediation, and on punishments limited to exile and compensatory payments, does have something to say to those who prefer to limit the power of the state over individuals, who wish to prevent the punishment of crime become the reason for an incarcerating state, trying to extend that model of power into every aspect of social life.
The system of law without state compulsion did not succeed in sustaining itself beyond a few centuries, but that is enough to suggest that there are some possibilities of viable modern national communities existing with less of a centralised state and coercive judicial-penal-police apparatus than is now normal. The limitations of Saga Icelandic liberty apply to the antique slaveholding republics, and in some part to European states and the USA when some forms of liberty were increasing while plantation slavery was expanding. The Icelandic Medieval example is at the very least worth contemplation with regard to the possibilities of limiting the coercive state.
Note on texts. As with other classics, many editions are available and I usually leave readers of these posts to find one in the way that is most convenient for them. In this case though, I would like to point out the following extensive and scholarly edition, which includes some useful historical background as well as literary discussion.
The Sagas of the Icelanders: A Selection, Viking [hah Viking!]-Penguin, New York NY, 2000.
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