Social Justice vs. Liberty


The original position is a central feature of John Rawls’s social contract account of justice, “justice as fairness,” set forth in A Theory of Justice (TJ). It is designed to be a fair and impartial point of view that is to be adopted in our reasoning about fundamental principles of justice. In taking up this point of view, we are to imagine ourselves in the position of free and equal persons who jointly agree upon and commit themselves to principles of social and political justice. The main distinguishing feature of the original position is “the veil of ignorance”: to insure impartiality of judgment, the parties are deprived of all knowledge of their personal characteristics and social and historical circumstances. They do know of certain fundamental interests they all have, plus general facts about psychology, economics, biology, and other social and natural sciences. The parties in the original position are presented with a list of the main conceptions of justice drawn from the tradition of social and political philosophy, and are assigned the task of choosing from among these alternatives the conception of justice that best advances their interests in establishing conditions that enable them to effectively pursue their final ends and fundamental interests. Rawls contends that the most rational choice for the parties in the original position are two principles of justice: The first guarantees the equal basic rights and liberties needed to secure the fundamental interests of free and equal citizens and to pursue a wide range of conceptions of the good. The second principle provides fair equality of educational and employment opportunities enabling all to fairly compete for powers and positions of office; and it secures for all a guaranteed minimum of all-purpose means (including income and wealth) individuals need to pursue their interests and to maintain their self-respect as free and equal persons.

Samuel Freeman, “Original Position,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,
February 27, 1999, with a substantive revision on September 9, 2014

Rawls, like many moral philosophers, presumes to judge all and sundry with his God-like mind. He uses it to fabricate abstract, ideal principles of distributive justice. Thus the real and possible world is found wanting because it fails to conform the the kind of world that’s implicit in Rawls’s principles. And thus the real and possible world must be brought into line with Rawls’s false ideal. The alignment must be performed by the state, whether or not Rawls admits it, because his principles are inconsistent with human nature and the facts of human existence.

There can’t be an original position. Human beings are already in myriad “positions,” of which they have extensive knowledge. And a large fraction of human beings wouldn’t willingly act as if they were “deprived of all knowledge of their personal characteristics and social and historical circumstances.” Why? because they wouldn’t deem it in their interest. The original position and the veil of ignorance are therefore nothing but contrivances aimed at justifying Rawls’s preferred social, political, and economic arrangements.

Further, there isn’t — and never will be — agreement as to “general facts about psychology, economics, biology, and other social and natural sciences.” For example, many of the related entries in this blog are representative of deep divisions between respectable schools of thought about such subjects as psychology, economics, evolution (as it applies to race and “natural rights”), criminology, etc. Rawls writes blithely of “general facts” because he assumes that they point to the kind of world that he envisions.

Similarly, there’s Rawls’s “list of the main conceptions of justice drawn from the tradition of social and political philosophy.” I doubt that Rawls is thinking of the conception that there is, or ought to be, an absolute rejection of any kind of social-welfare function wherein A’s gain is “acceptable” if it (somehow and by some impracticable measure) offsets B’s loss. But that position is implicit in the idea that there ought to be “a guaranteed minimum of all-purpose means (including income and wealth) individuals need to pursue their interests and to maintain their self-respect as free and equal persons.” This is nothing but cover for redistribution. Who decides how much of it is enough? Rawls? The social engineers who buy into Rawls’s conception of justice? Well, of course. But what justifies their stance? Their only real recourse is to impose their views by force, which reveals Rawls’s philosophical rationalization for what is, necessarily, a state-enforced redistributive scheme.

And who says that a person who accepts state-enforced handouts (the fruit of theft) will thereby maintain his self-respect and is a free and equal person. In fact, many recipients of state-imposed handouts are lacking in self-respect; they are not free because as wards of the state they subject themselves to its dictates; and they are equal only in an irrelevant, rhetorical sense, not in the sense that they are the equal of other persons in ability, effort, or moral character.

Rawlsian equality is an empty concept, as is the veil of ignorance. The latter is a variant of Kant’s categorical imperative: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” The categorical imperative is a vacuous bit of philosophical rhetoric that doesn’t get around reality: Human beings often act as if there were a “law” for everyone else, but not for themselves.

The “veil of ignorance,” according to Wikipedia (as of July 2010) requires you to

imagine that societal roles were completely re-fashioned and redistributed, and that from behind your veil of ignorance you do not know what role you will be reassigned. Only then can you truly consider the morality of an issue.

This is just another way of pretending to omniscience. Try as you might to imagine your “self” away, you can’t do it. Your position about a moral issue is your position, not that of someone else. Rawls’s position is Rawls’s position, and that of persons who like the redistributive implications of his position. But who are Rawls and his ilk to set themselves up as neutral, omniscient judges of humanity’s moral, social, and economic arrangements? Who died and made them Gods?

In the end, justice comes down to the norms by which a people abide:  They can be voluntarily evolved and enforced socially, or in part by the state (e.g., imprisonment and execution). They can devised by clever theorists (e.g., Rawls) and others with an agenda (e.g., redistribution of income and wealth, abolition of alcohol, defense of slavery), and then imposed by the state.

There is a neglected alternative, which Michael Oakeshott describes in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays:

Government…as the conservative…understands it, does not begin with a vision of another, different and better world, but with the observation of the self-government practised even by men of passion in the conduct of their enterprises; it begins in the informal adjustments of interests to one another which are designed to release those who are apt to collide from the mutual frustration of a collision. Sometimes these adjustments are no more than agreements between two parties to keep out of each other’s way; sometimes they are of wider application and more durable character, such as the International Rules for for the prevention of collisions at sea. In short, the intimations of government are to be found in ritual, not in religion or philosophy; in the enjoyment of orderly and peaceable behaviour, not in the search for truth or perfection….

To govern, then, as the conservative understands it, is to provide a vinculum juris for those manners of conduct which, in the circumstances, are least likely to result in a frustrating collision of interests; to provide redress and means of compensation for those who suffer from others behaving in a contrary manners; sometimes to provide punishment for those who pursue their own interests regardless of the rules; and, of course, to provide a sufficient force to maintain the authority of an arbiter of this kind. Thus, governing is recognized as a specific and limited activity; not the management of an enterprise, but the rule of those engaged in a great diversity of self-chosen enterprises. It is not concerned with concrete persons, but with activities; and with activities only in respect of their propensity to collide with one another. It is not concerned with moral right and wrong, it is not designed to make men good or even better; it is not indispensable on account of ‘the natural depravity of mankind’ but merely because of their current disposition to be extravagant; its business is to keep its subjects at peace with one another in the activities in which they have chosen to seek their happiness. And if there is any general idea entailed in this view, it is, perhaps, that a government which does not sustain the loyalty of its subjects is worthless; and that while one which (in the old puritan phrase) ‘commands the truth’ is incapable of doing so (because some of its subjects will believe its ‘truth’ to be in error), one which is indifferent to ‘truth’ and ‘error’ alike, and merely pursues peace, presents no obstacle to the necessary loyalty.

…[A]s the conservative understands it, modification of the rules should always reflect, and never impose, a change in the activities and beliefs of those who are subject to them, and should never on any occasion be so great as to destroy the ensemble. Consequently, the conservative will have nothing to do with innovations designed to meet merely hypothetical situations; he will prefer to enforce a rule he has got rather than invent a new one; he will think it appropriate to delay a modification of the rules until it is clear that the change of circumstances it is designed  to reflect has come to stay for a while; he will be suspicious of proposals for change in excess of what the situation calls for, of rulers who demand extra-ordinary powers in order to make great changes and whose utterances re tied to generalities like ‘the public good’ or social justice’, and of Saviours of Society who buckle on armour and seek dragons to slay; he will think it proper to consider the occasion of the innovation with care; in short, he will be disposed to regard politics as an activity in which a valuable set of tools is renovated from time to time and kept in trim rather than as an opportunity for perpetual re-equipment.

Such was the wisdom of the much-violated and mutilated Constitution of the United States. Its promise of liberty in the real world has been dashed by the Saviours of Society — idealists like Rawls, opportunists like FDR and LBJ, and criminals like the Clintons.

*      *      *

Related posts:
Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice
What Is Conservatism?
Utilitarianism, “Liberalism,” and Omniscience
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
Accountants of the Soul
Rawls Meets Bentham
The Meaning of Liberty
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
On Self-Ownership and Desert
Burkean Libertarianism
Nature Is Unfair
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
Utilitarianism and Psychopathy
Merit Goods, Positive Rights, and Cosmic Justice
More about Merit Goods
Liberty, Negative Rights, and Bleeding Hearts
Why Conservatism Works
Defending Liberty against (Pseudo) Libertarians
Defining Liberty
Conservatism as Right-Minarchism
Getting Liberty Wrong
Romanticizing the State
More About Social Norms and Liberty
God-Like Minds
The Authoritarianism of Modern Liberalism, and the Conservative Antidote
Individualism, Society, and Liberty
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty (II)

An Addendum to Asymmetrical (Ideological) Warfare


I published “Asymmetrical (Ideological) Warfare” almost six years ago. I must say that it holds up well. In fact, I wouldn’t change a word of it. It’s fairly long, and I won’t try to summarize or excerpt it, except to repeat the opening sentence:

This post could be subtitled: “Or, why the left — Democrats and so-called liberals and progressives — enjoy a rhetorical advantage over libertarians and fiscal conservatives.”

In a few words: Leftists have the advantage of saying the kinds of things that people like to hear, especially when it comes to promising “free” stuff and visions of social perfection. There’s a lot more to it than that. Please read the whole thing.

What I didn’t say then, but will say now is that leftists have another advantage: they’re ruthless. Unlike true conservatives (not Trumpsters) and most libertarians, leftists can be ruthless, unto vicious. They pull no punches; they call people names; they skirt the law — and violate it — to get what they want (e.g., Obama’s various “executive actions”); they use the law and the media to go after their ideological opponents; and on and on.

Why the difference between leftists and true conservatives? Leftists want to rearrange the world to fit their idea of perfection. They have it all figured out, and dissent from the master plan will not be tolerated. (This is very Hitleresque and Stalinesque.) Conservatives and libertarians want people to figure out for themselves how to arrange the world within the roomy confines of simple morality (don’t cheat, don’t steal, don’t murder, etc.).

If Trump wins in November — a very big “if” — it should be an object lesson to true conservatives and libertarians. Take the gloves off and don brass knuckles. This isn’t a contest for hockey’s Lady Byng Trophy. To change the sports metaphor, we’re in the late rounds of a brutal fight, and well behind on points. It’s time to go for the knockout.

Another Look at Political Labels


Arnold Klng’s three-axis model is a good place to start:

My model of political language is that it is driven by heuristics. The standard definition of a heuristic is that it is an aid to learning or problem-solving. I think of heuristics as mental shortcuts.…

…I claim that progressives, conservatives, and libertarians each use a different heuristic. Because they use different heuristics, they speak different languages.Each heuristic sets up an axis of favorable and unfavorable. Ps [progressives] use the heuristic of the oppressed-oppressor axis. Ps view most favorably those groups who can be regarded as oppressed or standing with the oppressed. They view most unfavorably those groups who can be regarded as oppressors. Cs [conservatives] use the heuristic of the civilization-barbarism axis. Cs view most favorably the institutions that they believe constrain and guide people toward civilized behavior, and they view most unfavorably those people who they see as trying to tear down such institutions. Ls [libertarians] use the heuristic of the freedom-coercion axis. Ls view most favorably those who defer to decisions that are made on the basis of personal choice and voluntary agreement, and they view most unfavorably those people who favor government interventions that restrict personal choice.

For the sake of grammatical consistency and accuracy, I would use characterize the three axes as follows:

  • Ps — privileged-underprivileged
  • Cs — civilized-barbaric
  • Ls — free-oppressed.

How Ps Think

Privilege, for Ps, implies that the possessors of certain positive attributes (high intelligence, good looks, high income, access to political power) have come by those things undeservedly, and even at the expense of those who lack them: the underprivileged. Ps believe implicitly in a state of nature wherein everyone would have equal endowments of intelligence, looks, etc., if only it weren’t for “bad luck.” Ps believe it necessary to use the power of government to alleviate (if not eliminate) unequal endowments and to elevate the “victims” of inequality.

As Kling puts it elsewhere, “Progressives tend to believe that we just need the right leaders to bring out the good that is in everyone,” as if nature were subject to the dictates of government. Thus the push for the “living wage,” “affordable housing,” “free” college education, access to the restroom of one’s choice, and the suppression of uncomfortable ideas that reflect traditional mores and morals — and the facts of life (e.g., gender isn’t “assigned,” it just is). The realization of such desiderata justifies (for Ps) the power of government to nullify and override constitutional and social norms, including property rights, freedom of speech, freedom of association, and freedom of conscience.

How Cs Think

Cs don’t view endowments (intelligence, looks, etc.) as matters of luck; they just are, and no blame attaches to anyone for his endowments or lack of them. Cs recognize “bad luck,” but only as a transitory phenomenon from which its recipients can rebound — with the voluntary help of family, friends, and other members of their (true) society — if they adhere to traditional mores and morals, that is, behave civilly.

Civility is manifested in three essential traits: respect for others (including their rightful possessions), self-reliance, and self-control. As Kling puts it elsewhere, “Conservatives tend to believe that we need traditional institutions and restraints to control the evil impulses that are in everyone.” Cs  view economic cooperation as part and parcel of social comity, which requires civility and is damaged by the divisive identity politics fostered by Ps.

Privilege, for Cs, is the status or wealth that accrues to a person who has earned it through self-reliance and self-control, while being respectful of others. That kind of privilege is earned, and it doesn’t come at the expense of others. Cs, unlike Ps, don’t view the world as a zero-sum game, in which someone’s “good luck” somehow causes “bad luck” for others. Rather, Cs view persistent “bad luck” as arising in large part from a lack of self-reliance and self-control. Such behavior, to Cs, is barbaric and shouldn’t be countenanced, let alone encouraged as it is by the unrealistic worldview of Ps.

How Ls Think

Ls are like Cs in the value that they place on respect for others, self-reliance, and self-control. But Ls are more sanguine than Cs about the distribution of those traits, and they see traditional mores and morals as unnecessarily burdensome. Ls believe that the world would be a more prosperous and happier place if people were free of the governmental restraints that deny them the full exercise of their powers. As Kling puts it elsewhere, “Libertarians tend to believe that we just need smaller government to bring out the good that is in everyone.”

Ls and Ps Compared

Most Ls and Ps adhere to traditional mores and morals themselves, but nevertheless view some of those mores and morals as oppressive. Thus abortion and same-sex “marriage” are widely favored among Ls and Ps, and drug use one of their “victimless” crimes.

Most Ls, unlike Ps, would refrain from using the power of government to adjust economic inequalities, except to remedy “crony capitalism” and perhaps to replace a host of welfare programs with a simpler income guarantee. Many Ls also favor government actions meant to attain “equality” (e.g., public-accommodation laws), even though such actions actually restrict freedom.

Ls, in other words, are selective in their abhorrence of government action. And Ls are like Ps in that they presume to know precisely how to rearrange the social and economic order to make everyone happier.

Introducing Os

Ps, Cs, and Ls — persons who actually have the somewhat coherent views sketched above — are in the vast minority of Americans. To the extent that the views of Ps, Cs, or Ls hold sway, it is because of the backing of non-philosophical citizens whose votes and influence tip the balance in favor of one philosophy or another. I will call them Others (Os).

Why Ps Usually Prevail

Ps have a great advantage over Cs and Ls when it comes to attracting supporters among the Os. There are all of the “free” goodies, of course, and the various “equality” policies that attract identity groups and people whose self-esteem is boosted by thinking and saying “nice” things.

The economic and social effects of the progressive agenda are only indirectly and slowly realized through stagnation and moral decay, and so Ps need not fear the wrath of voters for the consequences of their policies. In fact, every dire consequence of government action (e.g., economic stagnation, reduced labor-force participation, rising medical costs, higher housing costs, financial crises) is seen by Ps as a reason for yet more government action — and most of the Os go along with it.

Cs also have the disadvantage of being associated with groups who hate the groups that are privileged by Ps. The backing of such groups (e.g., “rednecks”) puts Cs on the defensive, and leads many of them to compromise with Ps in the (vain) hope of seeming “compassionate.” Calvin Coolidge was the most recent truly conservative president, and probably the last one.

Ls are just Ps who don’t offer “free” goodies. (The Ls who favor a guaranteed income are clear that it should replace other welfare programs, and despite that come under fire from other Ls — which is most of them — for their naive belief that guaranteed income wouldn’t be added to the other programs.) Further, when Ls insist that government should be smaller, they are attacking the god (or Santa Claus) so beloved by Ps and most Os. Ls, in other words, don’t stand a snowball’s chance of making a serious electoral dent.

*     *     *

Related posts:
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On Liberty
Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare
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Democracy and Liberty
The Interest-Group Paradox
Parsing Political Philosophy
Inventing “Liberalism”
Civil Society and Homosexual “Marriage”
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Utilitarianism, “Liberalism,” and Omniscience
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The Indivisibility of Economic and Social Liberty
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Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
The Left and Its Delusions
The Golden Rule as Beneficial Learning
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Burkean Libertarianism
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True Libertarianism, One More Time
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Utilitarianism and Psychopathy
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Merit Goods, Positive Rights, and Cosmic Justice
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The Eclipse of “Old America”
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Liberty as a Social Construct: Moral Relativism?
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Defining Liberty
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The Culture War
The Pseudo-Libertarian Temperament
Parsing Political Philosophy (II)
Modern Liberalism as Wishful Thinking
Getting Liberty Wrong
Romanticizing the State
Governmental Perversity
Libertarianism and the State
“Liberalism” and Personal Responsibility
Ruminations on the Left in America
My View of Libertarianism
No Wonder Liberty Is Disappearing
Academic Ignorance
More About Social Norms and Liberty
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The War on Conservatism
A Dose of Reality
God-Like Minds
The Authoritarianism of Modern Liberalism, and the Conservative Antidote
The Technocratic Illusion
Winners and Losers
Equal Protection in Principle and Practice
Society, Polarization, and Dissent

Friedman on Anarchy and Conservatism


Friedman is David D. Friedman, proprietor of Ideas and author of (among many things) The Machinery of Freedom, which is mainly a sustained argument for anarcho-capitalism. As Friedman explains in the preface,

[t]he first edition of this book was written a little over forty years ago, the second about twenty years later. In this third edition, as in the second, I have chosen to leave the original material for the most part unchanged; references in parts I-III are to the world c. 1970, in part IV to the world c. 1988….

What I have added in this edition, aside from minor stylistic changes … is in parts V and VI. Part V contains later, I hope deeper, thoughts on my earlier ideas, part VI new material.

Friedman’s attachment to anarcho-capitalism has held for almost 50 years. That’s a remarkable record of intellectual consistency. Whether it signifies the soundness of anarcho-capitalism or merely world-class stubbornness is another matter. (In the past 50 years, my own views have evolved from collegiate “liberalism” to limited-government libertarianism to Burkean conservatism.)

Before I go further, I will say that I admire and agree with Friedman’s lucid treatment of free markets and their advantages vis-à-vis government regulations and government-provided services. But I disagree with Friedman’s view that private entities can replace government when it comes to criminal justice. I also disagree with Friedman’s characterization of conservatives as stubbornly opposed to change.

I must note, also, that Friedman’s main style of argumentation in The Machinery of Freedom is to pile assertion upon assumption, and to do so at such length and in such temperate language that the unwary or receptive reader may be lulled into agreement. The Machinery of Freedom is a long book (378 pages in paperback), so I will only offer a few examples of Friedman’s style — examples that I consider representative. The first example is drawn from chapter 29, “Police, Courts, and Laws — on the Market,” in which Friedman argues for private protection and adjudication agencies. He begins reasonably enough:

How, without government, could we settle the disputes that are now settled in courts of law? How could we protect ourselves from criminals?

Consider first the easiest case, the resolution of disputes involving contracts between well-established firms. A large fraction of such disputes are now settled not by government courts but by private arbitration of the sort described in Chapter 18. The firms, when they draw up a contract, specify a procedure for arbitrating any dispute that may arise. Thus they avoid the expense and delay of the courts.

The arbitrator has no police force. His function is to render decisions, not to enforce them. Currently, arbitrated decisions are usually enforceable in the government courts, but that is a recent development; historically, enforcement came from a firm’s desire to maintain its reputation. After refusing to accept an arbitrator’s judgment, it is hard to persuade anyone else to sign a contract that specifies arbitration; no one wants to play a game of ‘heads you win, tails I lose’.

Arbitration arrangements are already widespread. As the courts continue to deteriorate, arbitration will continue to grow. But it only provides for the resolution of disputes over pre-existing contracts. Arbitration, by itself, provides no solution for the man whose car is dented by a careless driver, still less for the victim of theft; in both cases the plaintiff and defendant, having different interests and no prior agreement, are unlikely to find a mutually satisfactory arbitrator. Indeed, the defendant has no reason to accept any arbitration at all; he can only lose—which brings us to the problem of preventing coercion.

Friedman then explains market-based solutions to the problem of preventing coercion. What follows, until I signal a new topic, are excerpts of his discussion with my commentary (underlined in brackets):

Protection from coercion is an economic good. It is presently sold in a variety of forms—Brinks guards, locks, burglar alarms. As the effectiveness of government police declines [this seems to be an assumption disguised as a fact-based assertion], these market substitutes for the police, like market substitutes for the courts, become more popular [or they could become more popular as supplements to government policing, which is limited by the amount that governments are able to extract from taxpayers].

Suppose, then, that at some future time there are no government police but instead private right enforcement agencies. [Realistically, there would be no government police — or unregulated private police — only if government itself were to disappear. I view that as an impossible event.] 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 would private agencies differentiate themselves from gangsters who sell “protection”? This is an issue of trust that seldom arises with government police (or only among a small fraction of the populace), and an important reason for the retention of government police.]….

[Private agencies] 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. [Whether the cost would be lower depends to some extent on the scale of private agencies relative to the government ones they would replace. It’s premature to make assertions about quality of service before addressing the problem of inter-agency conflict.]

Inevitably, conflicts would arise between one agency and another. How might they be resolved?

I come home one night and find my television set missing. I immediately call my agency, Tannahelp Inc., to report the theft. They send an agent. He checks the automatic camera which Tannahelp, as part of their service, installed in my living room and discovers a picture of one Joe Bock lugging the television set out the door. [The security camera is a nice touch, but it strongly suggests that Tannahelp is providing a supplemental service, not merely supplanting government police. A lot of people can’t afford supplemental police services. Who do they turn to if there are no government police?] The Tannahelp agent contacts Joe, informs him that Tannahelp has reason to believe he is in possession of my television set, and suggests he return it, along with an extra ten dollars to pay for Tannahelp’s time and trouble in locating Joe. Joe replies that he has never seen my television set in his life and tells the Tannahelp agent to go to hell.

The agent points out that until Tannahelp is convinced there has been a mistake, he must proceed on the assumption that the television set is my property. Six Tannahelp employees, all large and energetic, will be at Joe’s door next morning to collect the set. Joe, in response, informs the agent that he also has a rights enforcement agency, Dawn Defense, and that his contract with them undoubtedly requires them to protect him if six goons try to break into his house and steal his television set.

The stage seems set for a nice little war between Tannahelp and Dawn Defense. It is precisely such a possibility that has led some libertarians who are not anarchists, most notably Ayn Rand, to reject the possibility of competing free-market rights enforcement agencies.

But wars are very expensive and Tannahelp and Dawn Defense are both profit-making corporations, more interested in saving money than face. I think the rest of the story would be less violent than Miss Rand supposed. [Maybe, maybe not. It’s just as likely that the most successful agency, and the eventual monopolist in a geopolitical area, will be the one that’s most aggressive, and which can afford to be aggressive because it numbers wealthy people among its clientele.]

The Tannahelp agent calls up his opposite number at Dawn Defense. ‘We’ve got a problem. . . .’ After explaining the situation, he points out that if Tannahelp sends six men and Dawn eight, there will be a fight. Someone might even get hurt. Whoever wins, by the time the conflict is over it will be expensive for both sides. They might even have to start paying their employees higher wages to make up for the risk. Then both firms will be forced to raise their rates. If they do, Murbard Ltd., an aggressive new firm which has been trying to get established in the area, will undercut their prices and steal their customers. [How convenient.] There must be a better solution.

The man from Tannahelp suggests that the better solution is arbitration. They will take the dispute over my television set to a reputable local arbitration firm. If the arbitrator decides that Joe is innocent, Tannahelp agrees to pay Joe and Dawn Defense an indemnity to make up for their time and trouble. If he is found guilty, Dawn Defense will accept the verdict; since the television set is not Joe’s, they have no obligation to protect him when the men from Tannahelp come to seize it. [An aggresssive agency of the kind that I posit above is also likely to have a monopoly on arbitration services — either overtly or through sub rosa relationships.]

What I have described is a very makeshift arrangement. In practice, once anarcho-capitalist institutions were well established [but how do we get from here to there?], agencies would anticipate such difficulties and arrange contracts in advance, before specific conflicts occurred, specifying the arbitrator who would settle them.

In such an anarchist society, who would make the laws? On what basis would the private arbitrator decide what acts were criminal and what their punishments should be? The answer is that systems of law would be produced for profit on the open market, just as books and bras are produced today. There could be competition among different brands of law just as there is competition among different brands of cars.

In such a society there might be many courts and even many legal systems. Each pair of protection agencies agree in advance on which court they will use in case of conflict. Thus the laws under which a particular case is decided are determined implicitly by advance agreement between the agencies whose customers are involved. In principle, there could be a different court and a different set of laws for every pair of agencies. In practice, many agencies would probably find it convenient to patronize the same courts, and many courts might find it convenient to adopt identical, or nearly identical, systems of law in order to simplify matters for their customers. Before labeling a society in which different people are under different laws chaotic and unjust, remember that in our society the law under which you are judged depends on the country, state, and even city in which you happen to be. Under the arrangements I am describing, it depends instead on your agency and the agency of the person you accuse of a crime or who accuses you of a crime. In such a society law is produced on the market. A court supports itself by charging for the service of arbitrating disputes. Its success depends on its reputation for honesty, reliability, and promptness and on the desirability to potential customers of the particular set of laws it judges by. [No, its success depends on selling its services to the highest bidders, who will be willing to pay for partial “justice” — as opposed to the impartial kind that criminal courts in the U.S. usually dispense.]….

Several objections may be raised to … free-market courts. The first is that they would sell justice by deciding in favor of the highest bidder. That would be suicidal; unless they maintained a reputation for honesty, they would have no customers— unlike our present judges. [This assertion conveniently disregards the strong possibility of a monopoly acquired through force and bribery. The stakes are such that war-like competition for the top-dog position, as costly as it is, can’t be ruled out. See, for example, the history of the Chicago Outfit and rivals in the days when government police were relatively ineffective.]….

Until he is actually accused of a crime, everyone wants laws that protect him from crime and let him interact peacefully and productively with others. Even criminals. Not many murderers would wish to live under laws that permitted them to kill— and be killed. [Everyone? Surely not. There are large numbers of persons, especially among the least rational and most dangerous segment of the populace, who simply don’t think like economists. And even among rational persons of means, there are many who believe that they have the wherewithal to defend themselves while getting away with murder and other anti-social acts.]

I turn now to chapter 63, “The Conservative Mistake.” This is less an apology for anarchy than it is a defense of open borders and an indictment of those who resist change. I take it up because it further illustrates Friedman’s penchant for making broad, unsupported, and (sometimes) off-target assertions — in this case about conservatism.

Critics of free immigration worry that immigrants might change the country, make it more socialist, more crime ridden, more like the places they are coming from, but offer no strong reason to expect those particular effects. Leaving the place where you grew up to move somewhere very different is, after all, evidence that you prefer the latter. [But “you” prefer the latter for particular reasons. Among those reasons is the knowledge that the new country offers a rather cushy “safety net” relative to that of the old country.] As I pointed out in one exchange, the Volokh brothers, associated with the popular libertarian/conservative legal blog the Volokh Conspiracy, are immigrants from the ex-Soviet Union. While Eugene and Sasha Volokh are slightly more socialist than I am, they are much less socialist than most of their fellow academics, not entirely surprising given that they have experienced socialism at first hand. [They are also unrepresentative of the vast numbers of immigrants who pour into the country from the south, and whose presence predictably results in higher taxes and lower wages for the many citizens who don’t reap the benefits of immigration.]

The same assumption, that change is presumptively bad, appears in arguments over global warming. [That change, in the form of unfettered immigration, will impose costs on citizens is a reasonable position for many citizens to take. Friedman glibly lumps opposition to that kind of change with the religious fervor which accompanies opposition to and fears of global warming, genetically modified foods, and fracking. The opening sentence spoils this otherwise trenchant paragraph.] It seems likely that the average temperature of the globe will go up by several degrees C over the next hundred years due mostly to increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. If I had to guess, my guess would be that the net effect of the change will be positive, for at least two reasons. The first is that human habitability is limited mostly by cold, not heat— the equator is populated, the poles are not. The second is that, for well understood reasons, global warming can be expected to increase temperatures more in cold places and at cold times than in warm. Combine those two and one might guess that a somewhat warmer world would be, on the whole, more suited to humans, not less. Yet most people discussing the issue take it for granted that the change is bad, indeed catastrophically bad. A similar pattern holds for a variety of other issues, from fracking to cloning to GMO foods.

I call it a mistake, but perhaps that is unfair. We know that the present is at least tolerable, since we are at present tolerating it. [Who is “we”? And what does it mean to “tolerate” something. I can “tolerate” a toothache, but for only as long as it takes to have the tooth treated or extracted.] A change might make things better, might make them worse, so why chance it? That sounds like a plausible argument, but it contains a hidden assumption— that stasis is an option, that if we do not have more immigration our cultural and political circumstances will remain the same, that without anthropogenic CO2, climate will stay what it currently is. [In the case of immigration, Friedman again resorts to an inappropriate collective view. There are many citizens whose lives are made worse because of immigration, even as there are many citizens who benefit from the availability of low-wage labor in yard maintenance, child care, and fast-food service.]

Both are demonstrably false. Over my lifetime the cultural and political institutions of the U.S. have changed for reasons that had little to do with immigration. [Immigration, however, imposes changes over and above those that would occur through the evolution of social norms in a more homogeneous polity.] Over the past million years, the climate of the earth has changed radically time after time for reasons that had nothing to do with anthropogenic CO2. A rise in sea level of a foot or two would create problems in some parts of the world, but not problems comparable to the effect of half a mile of ice over the present locations of Chicago and London.

The left wing version of the conservative mistake comes with its own pseudoscientific slogan, ‘the precautionary principle.’ It is the rule that no decision should be made unless one can be confident that it will not have substantial bad effects, that the lack of a reason to expect it have such effects is not enough. It sounds plausible, merely a matter of playing safe, but a moment’s thought should convince you that it is not merely wrong, it is internally incoherent. The decision to permit nuclear power could have substantial bad effects. The decision not to permit nuclear power could also have substantial bad effects. If one takes the precautionary principle seriously, one is obligated to neither permit nor forbid nuclear power and similarly with many other choices, including acting or not acting to prevent global warming.

Continuing with that example, I have long argued, only partly in jest, that the precautionary principle is a major source of global warming. Nuclear power is the one source of power that does not produce CO2 and can be expanded more or less without limit. A major factor restricting the growth of nuclear power has been the precautionary principle, even if not always under that name— hostility to permitting reactors to be built as long as there is any chance that anything could go wrong. That example demonstrates my more general point: Stasis is not an option. The world is going to change whether or not we permit nuclear power and there is no a priori reason to expect the changes if we permit it to be worse than those if we do not.

I am not arguing that there is never a good reason to fear change; sometimes a change can be reasonably predicted to have bad consequences. I am arguing that much opposition to change, across a wide range of different topics and disputes, is based on the mistaken assumption that if only that particular change is prevented, the next year, the next decade, the next century, will be more or less the same as the present. [Not so. Principled conservatives — and there are still a lot of us — understand and accept the beneficial role of evolutionary change, unforced by government policy.]

That is very unlikely. [No kidding!]

It’s not that I disagree with Friedman’s disdain for government, which is far, far more intrusive than is economically and socially healthy. But Friedman, whose high intelligence is beyond doubt, puts that intelligence to bad use in his biased argument for an unattainable nirvana and mistaken characterization of conservatism.

America’s Political Landscape


REVISED 03/26/16 to incorporate the 9-question survey from Arnold Kling’s book, The Three Languages of Politics. The item linked in the earlier version of this post was an older, 10-question version of the survey, which doesn’t match the scoring key in Kling’s book that’s reproduced here.

Here is the estimable Arnold Kling, writing in The Three Languages of Politics:

I claim that progressives [Ps*], conservatives [Cs], and libertarians [Ls] each use a different heuristic. Because they use different heuristics, they speak different languages.

Each heuristic sets up an axis of favorable and unfavorable. Ps use the heuristic of the oppressed-oppressor axis. Ps view most favorably those groups who can be regarded as oppressed or standing with the oppressed. They view most unfavorably those groups who can be regarded as oppressors. Cs use the heuristic of the civilization-barbarism axis. Cs view most favorably the institutions that they believe constrain and guide people toward civilized behavior, and they view most unfavorably those people who they see as trying to tear down such institutions. Ls use the heuristic of the freedom-coercion axis. Ls view most favorably those who defer to decisions that are made on the basis of personal choice and voluntary agreement, and they view most unfavorably those people who favor government interventions that restrict personal choice.

I find a lot to like in Kling’s trichotomy. If you wonder where you stand, take Kling’s survey. Here it is, followed by a discussion of the scoring key and the key itself:

1. Late in 2012, in Newtown Connecticut, about two dozen school children were murdered in a shooting incident. What this indicates is

a) the need for teachers to be empowered and armed to fight back

b) the need for society to exert more control over the mentally ill

c) the need to reduce the power of the gun lobby 2. In the latter half of 2012, UN Ambassador Susan Rice went on news programs as an Administration spokesperson and described the deaths of Americans

2. In the latter half of 2012, UN Ambassador Susan Rice went on news programs as an Administration spokesperson and described the deaths of Americans at the Libyan consulate in Benghazi as resulting from a protest demonstration. The media should have assigned more significance to the fact that

a) Islamic militants were to blame for the murders

b) Politicians were seeking to assign or deflect blame

c) Susan Rice is a female African-American

3. In the 1940s, ordinary Germans participated in atrocities against Jews. This shows us

a) The dangers of a totalitarian system of government

b) The dangers of a collapse of moral values when a country’s institutions have failed

c) The dangers of anti-Semitism

4. When the issue of changing the tax code comes up, what question is most important?

a) how will the change affect the reward that people get for hard work and thrift?

b) does the government spend money more wisely than individuals?

c) how will the change affect inequality?

5. What is notable about the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is that

a) Israelis share American values much more than do Palestinians

b) Palestinians are an oppressed people

c) The government of Israel, Arab governments, the governments of other nations, and the UN are all at fault.

6. In 1992, a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston found a high rejection rate for mortgage applications by African-Americans. What explains this?

a) racial discrimination

b) African-Americans were more likely to have poor credit histories or insufficient incomes to qualify for mortgages

c) the officials who directed the study had an agenda

7. The wave of mortgage defaults known as the “sub-prime crisis” was caused by mortgage loans that were

a) given to unqualified and undeserving borrowers

b) government-induced

c) predatory

8. The large number of unwed mothers with low income reflects

a) lack of economic opportunities, education, and access to birth control

b) cultural decay, which over-values sexual gratification and undervalues marital responsibility

c) incentives built into our tax and welfare system

9. Since 9/ 11, Presidents have employed controversial powers, such as warrantless surveillance and targeted killing. What do you think of the use of these powers?

a) Because Islamist terrorism is such a difficult and dangerous problem, I support the use of these powers to protect the American people.

b) I am totally against the use of these powers.

c) I am not sure about these powers, but I definitely trust the Obama-Biden administration to use them more judiciously than the Bush-Cheney administration.

Before we score the quiz and interpret your score, please answer one more question. Remember, the answer is not how you would respond. Instead, have in mind someone who agrees with you on many political issues. Which of the following paragraphs best describes how this person feels?

X) My heroes are people who have stood up for the underprivileged. The people I cannot stand are people who do not seem to care about the oppression of working people, minorities, and women.

Y) My heroes are people who have stood up for Western values. The people I cannot stand are the people who do not seem to mind the assault on the moral virtues and traditions that are the foundation for our civilization.

Z) My heroes are people who have stood up for the individual’s right to his or her own choices. The people I cannot stand are people who want government to impose their value system on everyone….

The first dominant heuristic is the one I associate with progressives (henceforth Ps). Ps, who are likely to respond X to the basic question, are most comfortable with language that frames political issues in terms of oppressors and oppressed.

The second dominant heuristic is one I associate with conservatives (henceforth Cs). Cs, who are likely to respond Y to the basic question, are most comfortable with language that frames political issues in terms of civilization and barbarism.

The third dominant heuristic is one I associate with libertarians (henceforth Ls). Ls, who are likely to respond Z to the basic question, are most comfortable with language that frames political issues in terms of freedom and coercion.

In short, my hypothesis is that someone who picked X on the basic question will tend to give corresponding progressive answers to the other nine questions. Someone who picked Y will tend to give conservative answers. Someone who picked Z will tend to pick libertarian answers. Now, go back and score your quiz to find out how many Ps, Cs, and Ls you picked. Match your answers as indicated below.

Give yourself one P for each of the following: 1c, 2c, 3c, 4c, 5b, 6b, 7c, 8a, 9c.

Give yourself one C for each of the following: 1b, 2a, 3b, 4a, 5a, 6c, 7a, 8b, 9a.

Give yourself one L for each of the following: 1a, 2b, 3a, 4b, 5c, 6a, 7b, 8c, 9b.

My guess is that progressives will have at least 6 Ps. My guess is that conservatives will have at least 4 Cs and fewer than 3 Ps. My guess is that libertarians will have at least 4 Ls and fewer than 3 Ps.

You may not agree in every case with Kling’s alignment of an answer with a political point of view (I don’t), but the overall result is probably in the ballpark. I chose Y for the basic question, and scored 6 Cs, 2 Ls, and 1 P (which I attribute to an error in Kling’s scoring scale); my actual score is 7 Cs and 2 Ls.** Inasmuch as traditional conservatism (my brand) is tantamount to true libertarianism (e.g., this post), I’m pleased to be classified as a conservative with libertarian leanings.

As for sorting progressives, conservatives, and libertarians, here’s my take: Someone with a lot of (i.e., 6 or more) Cs is unlikely to have even 1 P. (I don’t, really.) Someone with a lot of Ps is unlikely to have even 1 C, though he might have a few Ls. Someone with a lot of Ls is more likely to have some Ps, than some Cs.

But Kling’s survey is unlikely to be encountered by a more typical denizen of the United States. Such a person doesn’t think deeply or consistently about politics, but is more likely to be preoccupied with paying a mortgage or the rent, raising children or ignoring them to the extent possible, boozing with buddies (male and/or female), reading trashy novels (if anything), watching TV fare on a par with Dancing with the Stars, and so on. Such a person would probably weigh in with a mix of Cs, Ps, and Ls — and would prefer to give more than one answer to most of the questions. Such a person would be an adherent of America’s dominant political strain, which I call wishy-washy.

In short, I think the political landscape boils down to this:

  • A fringe of true Conservatives, some of them with a libertarian streak
  • A larger fringe of all-out progressives
  • A minuscule fringe of all-out libertarians
  • A microscopic fringe of left-libertarians, whose oxymoronic belief in libertarian communitarianism leads them to sympathize with progressives rather than conservatives
  • The wishy-washy masses in the vast middle, who go with what seems “nice” or “in style.” (Some wishy-washiers like to call themselves “centrists,” which is the verbal equivalent of putting lipstick on a pig.)

Conservatives and progressives are irreconcilable, as are conservatives and all-out libertarians. I also see no way of reconciling left-libertarians with all-out libertarians or conservatives.

But none of that matters much. Wishy-washiness dominates, which is why election outcomes seem to careen from one extreme to the other.
* “Progressive” and its variants set my teeth on edge. There’s nothing progressive about so-called liberalism. I suspect that Kling uses “progressive” instead of “liberal” because he would otherwise have L for liberal and L for libertarian. I follow his usage here only to avoid confusion.

** Regarding question 6, Kling says that answer a) is libertarian, but pinning the blame on racial discrimination strikes me as progressive (racial discrimination is a kind of oppression, and blacks are victims of it). Kling says that answer b) is progressive, but answer b) — my answer — is a realistic but unfavorable  appraisal of the economic status of blacks, which strikes me as conservative (i.e., attributing to blacks an “uncivilized” or negative trait that stems from their generally lower intelligence and greater dependence on the welfare state). Kling says that answer c) is conservative, but it really pins the blame on government, which is a libertarian response. My two libertarian responses were to items 1 and 7.

Political Philosophies in Brief


The libertarian wants everything to be legal and nothing to be free.

The conservative wants some stuff to be illegal and nothing to be free.

The fascist wants to tell everyone what they should like because it’s the “national will.”

The socialist wants to tell everyone what they should like because it’s “good for them,” and he’ll make the rich pay for most of it.

The modern liberal is a socialist who tries to hide it by calling himself a progressive.