Not going Galt

by John Quiggin on August 12, 2010

Henry’s post linking to Charlie Stross reminded me of one I was planning to do on the question – why has there never been a serious attempt at a real libertarian utopia? Most other utopian ideologies have inspired at least someone to attempt a practical implementation. On the face of it, libertarianism seems ideally suited to the belief in a fresh start, with no messy pre-existing claims. All sorts of ideas have been floated – island buyouts, sea-steading, co-ordinated moves to New Hampshire and so on, but none has gone anywhere. The only explanation I’ve seen, that libertarians are too independent and ornery to organise a utopia doesn’t convince me.

Thinking about the discussion we had though, it strikes me that there is a simple explanation: Actually Existing Libertarianism (see below) offers a better economic deal for nearly all libertarians than any feasible version of Galt’s Gulch. Once you do the math on going Galt, it’s not hard to see why no self-respecting libertarian would actually do it.

Let’s start with our oppressed libertarian, paying a 50 per cent tax rate, and waiting every year for Tax Freedom Day (July 1). Say that half this money is spent (highly inefficiently) on public services and the rest is given to the undeserving poor, bureaucrats and so on. I’ll make him (gender assumed advisedly) a computer programmer, so he can continue to earn his living from the comfort of his cruise ship, island or whatever. So, immediately he makes the break for Libertopia (island, ship or whatever), his disposable income doubles.

But then the problems start. The state may not do a great job providing services of all kinds, but those services have to be replaced. Libertopia doesn’t sound like a very appealing place for schoolteachers, nurses, and so on, so most public services would probably have to be supplied by external contractor. The cost of that would wipe out any savings from eliminating government inefficiency. So, the net gain in disposable income falls to 50 per cent.

More generally, you have the Stross problem. Suppose a starting population of 10 000. That’s too small to provide more than basic goods and services, so everything else would have to be imported in small quantities. As everyone who has spent time on an island (even one close to the mainland), or a small remote community, knows, that means everything costs more (often double) and most things aren’t available at all. Even if all the registered Libertarians in the US (about 250 000) moved en masse they would still be heavily dependent on high-cost imports. Almost certainly, that would more than wipe out the gain from tax freedom.

Finally, while our hero would never become disabled or unemployed, it’s bound to happen to some people. That means either budgeting for organised charity or putting up with lots of beggars. Randians might appreciate this daily testimony to their own superiority, but I suspect others would prefer that these losers move elsewhere.

All things considered, it seems pretty clear that Libertopia would yield its residents a greatly reduced standard of living, compared to what they could get from a government. Of course, the ideal would be a nearby government jurisdiction that would provide the large-scale industry needed for a ready source of consumer goods, a home for contracted-in service providers, support for losers and so on, but would not be able to tax the Libertopians.

But once you think that you realise that a partial approach to this outcome already exists, and has millions of inhabitants across the US. They’re called suburban Republicans. The suburbs benefit from urban centers, but resist paying for them, mostly successfully. It’s not exactly Libertopia, but it’s obviously close enough to be more appealing than going Galt.

{ 262 comments }

1

Myles SG 08.12.10 at 8:42 am

The suburbs benefit from urban centers, but resist paying for them, mostly successfully. It’s not exactly Libertopia, but it’s obviously close enough to be more appealing than going Galt.

Not sure if this analogy works. On the East Coast the hedge fun industry, which is probably the most value-intensive industry there, is concentrated in Stamford, CT, and surrounding areas rather than in NYC. On the West Coast Orange County is pretty much co-equal economically with LA. Around the Beltway a big employer is located in Arlington County, VA (the Pentagon), and another employer (the CIA) is located in Langley. In the Bay Area the value is generated in places like Cupertino, not really an urban area.

In most places in the world, it’s the urban centers where all the value is produced. But in the U.S. I think we have gone beyond that point; some services and industries are simply not that geographically constrained, and so they are located in the most pleasant areas, with more greenery and trees and more spacious parking and so on.

2

JSM 08.12.10 at 9:09 am

I need education about this “hedge fun industry”. Is it some kind of highly specialised gardening? Or does it relate to those “holiday camps” you used to see films about, where young blonde folk would play volleyball (behind strategically placed hedges)?

3

John Quiggin 08.12.10 at 9:30 am

I think it involves the recreational use of deliberately ambiguous language.

4

Cian 08.12.10 at 9:45 am

“…most public services would probably have to be supplied by external contractor. The cost of that would wipe out any savings from eliminating government inefficiency”.
If you’re saying the government supplies these services “highly inefficiently”, I don’t see how it automatically follows that replacing them with external contractors will cost the same, unless this comes from the high cost of importing goods/services you discuss further down. Could you elaborate?

5

Nick 08.12.10 at 9:53 am

“All sorts of ideas have been floated – island buyouts, sea-steading, co-ordinated moves to New Hampshire and so on, but none has gone anywhere.”

A couple of successes in NH: http://www.kniferights.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=99&Itemid=79

But your point most definitely stands. All I would do is caste it a little differently. The tremendous network effects provided by currently existing nation states means that people can afford to put up with a hugely wasteful Government at the centre of it. I don’t think social security would be any more of a problem than it is in contemporary states in libertopia. The vast majority of people would be able to afford some sort of voluntary insurance against disease and disablement, and personal savings would be higher.

6

JSM 08.12.10 at 10:01 am

Tricky stuff this ambiguous language – I’m just relieved I noticed it might be unwise to refer to “strategically placed bushes” in that comment.

D’oh!

7

Idiot/Savant 08.12.10 at 10:23 am

why has there never been a serious attempt at a real libertarian utopia?

There has. But the people who owned the land in Tong aand the Bahamas that they wanted to steal to make their tax haven wouldn’t give it up, while their military coup in Vanuatu failed.

Of course, now no-one will ever be able to watch MacGuyver again without wondering why he’s working for a bunch of crazies.

8

Roger 08.12.10 at 10:29 am

Although I generally agree with Charles’s article, you are not using the best arguments to support it here:

Firstly lets talk about the teachers, nurses etc.

Your Libertopia (pop 10,000) is clearly not going to be inhabited exclusively by computer programmers – and if it were they would be a) relatively young and thus as healthy as any geek can be and b) predominantly single, male and childless – which greatly reduces their need for such services anyway.

In fact while I can’t imagine there are that many nurses and schoolteachers who are registered members of the Libertarian Party, given the likely demographics of Libertopia (few children, only rich elderly people allowed in) you are not going to need more than a handful of each – and given that there will be a market for such skills somebody within the community will provide them at a market rate without any compulsion required on parents or patients.

And lets remember that our would-be John Galt probably already pays very considerable sums over and above his taxes for private schooling and private medicine – and is positively happy to do so as long as his money is going to other John and Jane Galts and not the parasitic lower orders.

In fact ask any libertarian if he’d rather pay $20,000 p.a. to Libertopian Healthcare Inc. or $10,000 in taxes and mandatory insurance for ‘socialised medicine’ and they’d all plump for paying more money

For them its really not a zero-sum game – freedom is something that they are well aware has to be paid for.

And as for imports why must Libertopia be an autarky?

Because he is an SF writer Stross is really addressing the loony fantasies of the Heinleinian Space Cadet elements within the Libertarian sub-culture who actually do think that we can one day build such utopian autarkies on the Moon, Mars or Lagrange colonies.

However some giant libertarian cruise ship or an island micro-state that gets taken over by some libertarian millionaire (which actually was attempted in New Caledonia back in the 1970s) is a far less implausible concept .

But why is that a problem? – they believe in free markets and will buy and sell whatever they need in them – nowhere in the works of Rand, Rothbard, the Friedmans or Heinlein does it state that you absolutely cannot enter into commercial transactions with non-libertarians.

Even John Galt himself doesn’t run off into the forest and live off the land rehearsing his impossibly prolix speeches in front of an audience of birds and squirrels like some Randian Tarzan – IIRC (its been a long time since I battled through Atlas Shrugged) he and his disciples just take their bags of money to some rustic retreat and presumably use it to buy the stuff they need in the local general store until society collapses because they are not entrepreneuring away.

So unless every government and company on earth resolves to blockade Libertopia and refuse their money (which is SO going to happen) I can see no logical reason why their standard of living should suffer severely – they either will only accept millionaires who will live off their accumulated pelf or people with valuable skills who can support themselves doing much the same shit as they did back in London or New York.

In fact the greatest long-term threat to Libertopia would in my view be sheer boredom – what would these people do if they didn’t have the parastitic lower orders and their monstrous impositions to kvetch about and if having achieved their hearts desire it actually turns out to be not that different from the Republican suburbs and exurbs they fled from (good call there BTW).

Incidentally if you want an interesting alternative SF take on how Libertopias might co-exist with other forms of society in a world that has devolved into micro-states I highly recommend Ken McLeod’s Fall Revolution series and particularly The Star Fraction which opens it (the third volume in the series The Cassini Division also has the best visualisation of a hi-tech socialist utopia I know of).

9

JulesLt 08.12.10 at 10:41 am

Myles – on the other hand, these areas are all located within striking distance of major urban cultural centers. The same applies to UK tech zones like Bracknell and the M4 corridor (close to London), those on the outskirts of Cambridge, etc.

Young people without families often want access to entertainment outside of the home – even if they don’t take advantage of it every night. What that entertainment is may vary (food, music, art, cinema) but locating near to a city ensures variety, which in turn ensures a good pool of potential employees – important when you are recruiting for enormously specialised skills.

I can think of some exceptions (small towns like Nevada City or Hebden Bridge in the UK, where hippy colonies in the 70s have led to them punching above their weight in terms of culture) but at the same time they still lack variety (i.e. they are interesting places to live IF you enjoy the local culture).

Anyway, surely the Libertarian Utopia exists? It’s Somalia.

10

Roger 08.12.10 at 11:05 am

Re-reading your final paragraph this does neatly encapsulate the most fundamental problem for Libertopia: the rich and would-be rich already get a pretty good deal from the evil socialist states they live in.

Proportionately they actually pay far less of their income in taxes than the poor, they can be daily whisked in chauffeur-driven limousines from the gated community where their McMansion stands to the offices where they do business without ever having to rub shoulders with the lower orders, they can rest assured that their countries will probably bankrupt themselves to bail out their riskiest investments and that the bill will be met by the little people who pay taxes and not them, they can already spend as much time as they like sailing their yachts in international waters sniffing cocaine off the silliconised breasts of their trophy wives or the highest class hooker, at least in the US their wealth buys them effective immunity from the law from all but the most heinous crimes and misdemeanours, the accumulation of enough money assures that they will be idolised by the mass media – and so on…

In comparison living in Libertopia represents a real risk – if the mega-cruise ship hits a sufficiently large iceberg or a neighbouring dictatorship decides to invade and plunder their island micro-state (or it finally sinks under the waves thanks to the climate change they don’t believe in) they are pretty much fucked.

Plus imagine being trapped in an effectively sealed environment with spotty geeks who fantasise endlessly about space colonisation and with not a single liberal neighbour or relative available to bait and patronise …

11

Charlie 08.12.10 at 11:05 am

I don’t see how it automatically follows that replacing them with external contractors will cost the same

Because that’s the market price? Note: these are external contractors.

12

Brett Bellmore 08.12.10 at 11:15 am

You do realize that you’re implicitly assuming that living in a libertarian society has absolutely no advantages, aside from a lower tax rate? Like, maybe, nobody kicking in your door at 2 AM on chance you might have the wrong pharmaceuticals?

Which actually clarifies the real problem: It’s widely understood among libertarians that, were you to actually somehow put together a real libertarian nation, it would immediately be invaded by the non-libertarian nations, unless you made it substantially non-libertarian by cooperating with the war on drugs.

It’s hard enough to try to put together a new country when all the land is already either in use, or subject to international agreements that it NOT be used, how do you manage to start out with a military capable of deterring an attack by the US military? Short of maybe developing nuclear weapons before starting your new country, and getting labeled international terrorists if anybody catches you at it.

The regulatory advantages of a libertarian society aren’t likely to be of any value unless that society is large enough to sustain a fair degree of industry. Which implies that the minimum feasible starting size for such a society is implausibly large.

So it doesn’t happen, and most libertarians who’ve thought about it understand why.

13

Cian 08.12.10 at 11:22 am

@Charlie
Why the same though? It’s not like the external contractors are going to be competing with the previous government to supply services to Libertopia.

14

Charlie 08.12.10 at 11:46 am

No, but they’ll likely be either competing with or the same as the suppliers to the inefficient looter government. (For argument, I count each state employee as a supplier.) If you want a real world example, look at the wages Dubai, say, has to offer to tempt away engineers, school teachers, etc.

15

JK 08.12.10 at 12:03 pm

Trotsky’s criticism of Stalin’s theory of socialism in one country:

‘The productive forces are incompatible with national boundaries. Hence flow not only foreign trade, the export of men and capital, the seizure of territories, the colonial policy, and the last imperialist war, but also the economic impossibility of a self-sufficient socialist society. The productive forces of capitalist countries have long since broken through the national boundaries. Socialist society, however, can be built only on the most advanced productive forces, on the application of electricity and chemistry to the processes of production including agriculture; on combining, generalizing, and bringing to maximum development the highest elements of modern technology. From Marx on, we have been constantly repeating that capitalism cannot cope with the spirit of new technology to which it has given rise and which tears asunder not only the integument of bourgeois private property rights but, as the war of 1914 has shown, also the national hoops of the bourgeois state. Socialism, however, must not only take over from capitalism the most highly developed productive forces but must immediately carry them onward, raise them to a higher level and give them a state of development such as has been unknown under capitalism. The question arises: how then can socialism drive the productive forces back into the boundaries of a national state which they have violently sought to break through under capitalism? Or, perhaps, we ought to abandon the idea of “unbridled” productive forces for which the national boundaries, and consequently also the boundaries of the theory of socialism in one country, are too narrow, and limit ourselves, let us say, to the curbed and domesticated productive forces, that is, to the technology of economic backwardness? If this is the case, then in many branches of industry we should stop making progress right now and decline to a level even lower than our present pitiful technical level which managed to link up bourgeois Russia with world economy in an inseparable bond and to bring it into the vortex of the imperialist mar for an expansion of its territory for the productive forces that had outgrown the state boundaries.’

http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1928/3rd/ti03.htm

16

Jacob T. Levy 08.12.10 at 12:21 pm

I know this is just a setup for the suburb punchline. But FWIW:

The size and scale that are just-right for experiments in utopian socialist living are either too hot or too cold for the purpose here. For anyone whose image of libertopia involves a shotgun to keep the revenoors off my land, any island-community would be too crowded. For those of us who think that the diverse commercial modern city looks more like freedom, any island-community would be far too small.

(Note that I don’t know how Rand squared the circle here: she wrote one novel in which the great urban skyscraper was the triumph of the human spirit, and then another in which the great spirits went off to subsistence farm in the woods, or something. I’ve never read Atlas Shrugged– is anyone out in Galt’s Gulch building giant manly skyscrapers even though they make no sense without population density?)

At a more fundamental level: as far as I’m concerned part of the libertarian sensibility is that there are more important things in life than politics. All the island-colonizers and seasteaders and so on have always seemed to me profoundly unlibertarian in their conviction that whole lives should be reordered around the quest for political perfection.

17

Tom T. 08.12.10 at 12:40 pm

why has there never been a serious attempt at a real libertarian utopia?

Marxism? Withering of the state? Hello?

Seriously, the problem with a libertarian utopia is that you can’t get there from here. The transition of society will always offer too many opportunities for power grabs and rent-seeking.

And it’s not just Marx. Most of the Enlightenment revolutions purported to be for the sake of liberty, but they ended up in oligarchy (US), anarchy/reaction (France), or despotism (Russia). There’s no stable libertarian polity. (Which I guess is why it’s a utopia).

18

stostosto 08.12.10 at 12:43 pm

Interesting Trotsky quote not because his insight is unique, but because he shares it with most mainstream economists.

It did btw seem for many years that the Soviet Union was too big to fail, relying in particular on its enormous natural resources. Which were utilised in the production of end products that, according to some analysts, in the aggregate were worth less than the raw resources would have fetched on the world market – consistent with Trotsky’s logic that autarky spelled economic and technological backwardness…

19

Irrelephant 08.12.10 at 12:57 pm

Wait a minute, I thought we did have a close approximation to a libertarian utopia?

US under the Articles of Confederation?

What about pre New Deal America? The “Gilded Age” of robber barons, with its monopolistic gouging (because competition is inherently inefficient – for the producers), gunboat diplomacy (because a “virtual empire” is so much easier to manage than actual occupation), filth in our air, water, food, medicine (not my property, not my problem), slavery and labor oppression (if you can’t stand up for yourself, you got no rights), etc.

Oh, yeah, goes against the “no first harm” principle. (once I’m done laughing…) So? Is the Cult gonna give the Injuns their land back?

20

Earnest O'Nest 08.12.10 at 1:02 pm

I thought we were already living in Libertopia and that it proved to be what others Utopias had always promised to be: hell.

21

Mr_ Punch 08.12.10 at 1:05 pm

Actually, even the uncoordinated movement of tax-avoiders to New Hampshire (pretty much everyone who moves there) achieves the same end.

22

Steve LaBonne 08.12.10 at 1:15 pm

…why has there never been a serious attempt at a real libertarian utopia?

Haven’t they heard of Somalia? They’re welcome to go there, in fact I’d cheerfully bear a tax increase so the government can buy them one-way plane tickets there.

23

Jack Strocchi 08.12.10 at 1:20 pm

Pr Q said:

why has there never been a serious attempt at a real libertarian utopia?

Well, the US revolution was “a serious attempt at a real libertarian utopia”. Its founder, T. Jefferson, reputedly summed up the libertarian philosophy of government: “That government is best which governs least.”

Of course the US failed to guarantee individual rights to most of the people under its jurisdiction: blacks were livestock, women were chattel, natives were pests, unions were gooned. The libertarian aspects of the US were wound back as the lesser folk started to gain individual rights.

Thats probably a feature of utopias, they only work by making the elect the true citizens. The idyllic vision starts to crumble once the founders start to share power and make compromises with different folk.

24

Joshua Holmes 08.12.10 at 1:52 pm

Libertopia doesn’t sound like a very appealing place for schoolteachers, nurses, and so on

Why? Libertopia might create private schools similar to Actually Existing Private Schools. There are plenty of these in America, and they find teachers without too much trouble. Is your contention that the industrial schooling model isn’t likely to appear in Libertopia? Do you think that’s bad?

In Libertopia, because there is no licensing distinction between “doctor’s work” and “nurse’s work”, nurses would probably do even better. Experienced nurses could provide some medical services that doctors provide now (obviously not gall bladder surgery) without having to pay for medical school.

Is it a cultural thing, then? Libertopia has too many dorky white guys who look down on female service providers? Otherwise I don’t see why teachers and nurses would find Libertopia unappealing.

ObTopic: Bellmore has hit on the main problem with building Libertopia. A place with perfectly legal trade in heroin, prostitutes, and shoulder-mounted rocket launchers is going to attract investment from criminal syndicates. The American state will crush that pretty quickly; no one muscles in on its business.

25

Bill Kristol 08.12.10 at 1:59 pm

I don’t think social security would be any more of a problem than it is in contemporary states in libertopia. The vast majority of people would be able to afford some sort of voluntary insurance against disease and disablement, and personal savings would be higher.

But you still have the Strossian Rubicon – a big problem for insurance schemes. Not being an actuary, I have no idea what sort of baseline-cohort you need to profitably provide for those who lose their Roarklike ability, but you have to factor in (a) the fact that this smaller cohort will be paying more for goods and services overall, (b) won’t benefit from the marginal services provided by the leech economy, (c) some of those going Galt will also go Galt against insurance, either out of wealth or a misplaced sense of invincibility, thus shrinking the cohort and increasing risk, thus costs, further.

So it seems to me that the cost of such insurance would be substantially higher than in the land of Ellsworth Tooey. (Any lesson about national healthcare is strictly a parasitic fantasy in the mind of the reader.) Anyone with actuary experience have an idea of what sort of population size one needs to support, say, something Medicaid-like, without Social Security, but structured more like insurance, and costing less than, say, housing for your average participant?

26

TR 08.12.10 at 2:05 pm

Didn’t a lot of Heinlein’s stories have Galtian supermen as space pioneers, making their fortunes with just the contents of a Conestoga wagon at the furthest reaches of interplanetary travel, well beyond the influence of useless academics and moochers? Or is libertarian paradise supposed to be something beyond subsistence, that is, more than that which you can build with your own two hands, those of children your wives bear, and your herd of sentient pack-animals?

27

Jonathan 08.12.10 at 2:08 pm

I don’t know if the folks at Language Log run an “atrocious use of eye dialect” contest, but I’d nominate “shotgun to keep the revenoors off my land” if so.

28

Marc 08.12.10 at 2:11 pm

Josh: there may indeed be some people enthused about going to a remote island to work in low-wage service jobs, in an environment with minimal public services and social net. But they will be few, and you’d have to jack the salaries up considerably to attract a critical mass.

29

Seth Gordon 08.12.10 at 2:15 pm

Utopian communities in general are a 19th-century phenomenon; once the Industrial Revolution got going full tilt with factories taking advantage of economies of scale, it became much harder for a commune to remain economically viable and keep members from defecting.

Communes still exist, of course, but they can’t serve as scale models of How We All Will Live After The [insert flavor here] Revolution. The economic system that Twin Oaks uses among its 100 members is not going to scale up to a country of 300 million citizens.

30

onymous 08.12.10 at 3:18 pm

Myles SG wrote:

some services and industries are simply not that geographically constrained, and so they are located in the most pleasant areas, with more greenery and trees and more spacious parking and so on.

Because we all agree that Sand Hill Road is more pleasant than San Francisco, Berkeley, or Oakland, as is obvious to anyone who — wait, what?

31

geo 08.12.10 at 3:26 pm

Let’s start with our oppressed libertarian, paying a 50 per cent tax rate

Minor point, John, but shouldn’t you set a good example by saying “50 per cent marginal tax rate”? After all, nobody pays anywhere near a 50 percent effective tax rate. In the US, the top 1 percent pay something appallingly close to the national average — remember that famous NYT column by Warren Buffett acknowledging that he paid a lower effective tax rate than his secretary?

Libertarians already feel quite sorry enough for themselves — poor overtaxed things. Don’t indulge them, even inadvertently.

32

Metamorf 08.12.10 at 3:36 pm

Hey, a few actual insights here! I don’t, though, see a recognition that utopias are fantasies, and that attempting to situate them in the real world is like trying to keep a bubble from popping — for reasons that Brett touched upon, for example, as well as Trotsky in JK’s quote. Of course, in the last century, those serious utopians, the socialists and fascists, made determined efforts to keep their bubbles intact, regardless of the costs, but this tended to reflect badly on the utopian aspects of their respective experiments.

A couple of other observations: @13, as I recall, “Galt’s Gulch”, while having certain utopian characteristics, was not intended as an alternative to society, but just as a kind of summer camp for those who had withdrawn their labor from society (i.e., for the strikers).
@20, nice to see a recognition, in Crooked Timber, of American exceptionalism, even if accompanied by the requisite signaling of one’s own moral superiority. In contrast to utopian fantasies, this was a political/social experiment that actually advanced the human condition.

33

toxicafunk 08.12.10 at 3:45 pm

It’s not the government services that need to be replaced, but the goods and services made possible by a large-scale, highly specialized, division-of-labor economy

34

Joshua Holmes 08.12.10 at 3:56 pm

there may indeed be some people enthused about going to a remote island to work in low-wage service jobs, in an environment with minimal public services and social net. But they will be few, and you’d have to jack the salaries up considerably to attract a critical mass.

I confess I don’t know much about nursing salaries, but as I understand it, they are not paid poorly. Perhaps Libertopia would value their services less, but I can’t think of any particular reason why off-hand. Your argument would seem to apply much more to, say, Wal*Mart check-out clerks (assuming Wal*Mart can make it in Libertopia; I am deeply skeptical).

As for private school teachers, they are definitely not paid well, but I wouldn’t describe what they do as a “low-wage service job”, and I doubt most other people would either. They’re not janitors (a far more serious issue for Libertopia, imo). While you might attract them to Libertopia by jacking up the salaries, consider that most private school teachers are probably intelligent enough to work in some other field and make far more money already. Money’s probably not their primary motivator in the first place.

35

More Dogs, Less Crime 08.12.10 at 4:16 pm

Brian Doherty discusses some of this stuff in “Radicals for Capitalism”. More popular in the 60s/70s, with one variant called “Vonu” involving hiding out in a hole in the woods, and blindfolding invited guests so they couldn’t report your position. Murray Rothbard attacked such tendencies as “libertarian Zionism”. Call me pro-Zionist then, of any tendency, because like Paul Romer I prefer setting up a kind of community people can opt into rather than trying to fight against the entrenched structure of existing ones.

Bret Bellmore, Patri Friedman plans on allowing the importation and consumption of narcotics, but not their export. His other no-nos are WMDs and banking (but I repeat myself!).

Irrelephant, Ye Olde America is old hat. Medieval iceland is the hip new thing for libertarians to fantasize about. And whaddayaknow, it’s an island!

I think there were some Georgist communities which were set up in America and still persist to this day in some form. Georgism isn’t exactly the same thing as libertarianism, but significant parts of the modern American libertarian movement can be traced back to it.

Stalin’s socialism-in-one-country strikes me as sustainable, if not particularly desirable (while Trotsky’s international version fizzled out quickly). With different Soviet leaders, it might have lasted until today and onward.

36

8 08.12.10 at 4:19 pm

wow…..it’s time for the usual crooked T. meme: “Im against scum like Ayn Rand; therefore Im a hip progressive”! which is to say, the typical frat-boy economist hustle, aka strictleee commercial.

37

Medium Dave 08.12.10 at 4:25 pm

The suburbs benefit from urban centers, but resist paying for them, mostly successfully.

Yep! Which explains why the Reason Foundation folks (in case anyone was wondering) hate mass transit but love the interstate highway system, suburban zoning regs, etc.

38

hilzoy 08.12.10 at 4:36 pm

“why has there never been a serious attempt at a real libertarian utopia?”

What was 1980s Lebanon outside Beirut, or large swathes of present-day Somalia: chopped liver?

39

David 08.12.10 at 4:46 pm

To say nothing of the un-washed masses they need in order to feed a sense of superiority.

40

JK 08.12.10 at 4:59 pm

More Dogs, Less Crime

‘Stalin’s socialism-in-one-country strikes me as sustainable, if not particularly desirable (while Trotsky’s international version fizzled out quickly). With different Soviet leaders, it might have lasted until today and onward.’

So North Korea (and if we buy into the truth of Juche ideology) is only ordinarily desirable? I’m not about to get into a Stalin vs. Trotsky debate, but I will defend T’s reputation on this point: while he was seen as the dreamer of world revolution against the practical Stalin, Trotsky repeatedly made the correct point that progress meant material progress and that required a world division of labour. For all the nuttiness of his later followers associated with the slogan ‘World Revolution!’, Trotsky was quite right that this was the more practical option, if one was interested in progress. (And, incidentally, that social progress without material progress is necessarily curtailed.)

Whether radical global change is possible is of course another question but this, I think, does bear on questions raised in the thread.

41

Bill Kristol 08.12.10 at 5:00 pm

Yep! Which explains why the Reason Foundation folks (in case anyone was wondering) hate mass transit but love the interstate highway system, suburban zoning regs, etc.

Hey, there’s no wealth transfer like a wealth transfer to me!

Although my own personal favorite silly Reason self-refutation is how quickly they flip from the OMB being something like “smart, non-partisan, tell the gritty truth” to “easily manipulated career bureaucrats doing the bidding of their partisan masters”.

I like to imagine that have a little widget on their intranet similar to “the doctor is in out” signs. Right next to the “____ days since a Rand Paul footbullet” one.

42

L2P 08.12.10 at 5:03 pm

“As for private school teachers, they are definitely not paid well, but I wouldn’t describe what they do as a “low-wage service job”, and I doubt most other people would either. They’re not janitors (a far more serious issue for Libertopia, imo). While you might attract them to Libertopia by jacking up the salaries, consider that most private school teachers are probably intelligent enough to work in some other field and make far more money already. Money’s probably not their primary motivator in the first place.”

I know it wasn’t the intent of the comment, but this sounds like parody Randism. I can just see a Libertarian think tank debating something like:

In a true Libertarian paradise, the real question is whether private school teachers will work for minimum wage out of a sense of respect for themselves and their mental superiors, or instead because of the vastly lower cost of other services and the freedom to teach as they will once we lift the dead hand of government.

In the real world, I feel very confident that teachers accept lower pay because they feel part of a social compact in which people are valued for more than their monetary worth. In any Libertarian society, where people pay market value, look out.

43

bianca steele 08.12.10 at 5:12 pm

I’ve been developing a theory that you can tell which towns lean libertarian by whether or not the potholes are fixed (though my research is still in a rudimentary stage). Contrary to the Galt’s Gulch example, though, it turns out that towns where the potholes in the street aren’t fixed are towns where the potholes in commercial/retail sites’ parking lots and driveways aren’t fixed either.

44

Anderson 08.12.10 at 5:16 pm

Anyone smug enough to be a libertarian is already living a pretty utopian lifestyle, since the premise of their political philosophy is “I already got mine, now you go away.”

The main difference a utopia would make is putting their philosophy to an actual test. Paying an accountant to cheat on your taxes, and bitching about socialism in the White House, is preferable by far.

45

Keith 08.12.10 at 5:40 pm

In Libertopia, because there is no licensing distinction between “doctor’s work” and “nurse’s work”, nurses would probably do even better. Experienced nurses could provide some medical services that doctors provide now (obviously not gall bladder surgery) without having to pay for medical school.

That right there pretty much sums up everything wrong with Libertarian arguments. They all end up offering horrible ideas as a solution to problems we’ve already solved. Only in Libertopia is it considered a good idea to let unlicensed nurse practitioners perform most of the medical procedures. This is right up there with privatized fire fighting and abolishing the FDA. Between the barber-surgeons, arson gangs and strychnine in the guacamole it’s hard to tell if libertarians want to go back to the 1830s or the 1500s.

46

bianca steele 08.12.10 at 5:48 pm

The suburbs benefit from urban centers

Suburbs (or libertarians) also benefit from an ideology, like the one L2P described, which ensures hospitals are staffed 24/7/365 and schoolteachers don’t quit no matter how difficult the pupils are, while privately and not-so-privately disparaging that ideology (and quitting themselves, by moving to as-yet undeveloped locales when things get too crowded where they started out).

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8 08.12.10 at 6:01 pm

given a choice between hangin’ with schoolmarmie liberals (generally on Team…Sappho, least in CA) , and their collectivist janitor-coolies, OR say poker playin’, booze swillin, pot-puffin’ gat-packin’ libertarians, some might say….cut the cards, Doc, and don’t be bogartin’ that joint….

48

MPAVictoria 08.12.10 at 6:07 pm

Keith:
I think you would be surprised at how effective Nurse Practitioners can be at providing basic medical care. Would I want one preforming brain surgery on me? No. Are they perfectly qualified to prescribe antibiotics, bandage a wound or refer someone to the appropriate expert. Yes.
I would encourage you to look into this more.
MPAVictoria

49

Ken 08.12.10 at 6:24 pm

Joshua Holmes at 21: Experienced nurses could provide some medical services that doctors provide now (obviously not gall bladder surgery)

I’m missing the “obvious” part. If the nurse is willing to perform the surgery for a fee, and I’m willing to pay that fee for the services, what would prevent us from forming a contract in the ideal libertarian state? For that matter, why a nurse – surely a dentist, or a plumber, or a sewer worker should also be able to offer to perform gallbladder surgery. A proper market would develop, with hundreds of people offering the surgery at different prices, and hundreds of buyers choosing based on their own preferences of price and perceived value.

In my case, I would tend to lean more toward the surgically-trained end of the scale, and for that matter to the most competent among that smaller group. Of course, to figure out who was surgically trained, I would have to investigate the people on the list. This represents a cost to every buyer of surgery in this free market setup. One can imagine some sort of certification company that does this investigation. There are difficulties in their business model, as with any company that is selling information, but it can be made to work; e.g., charge the surgeons, as they benefit from being able to advertise the mark of approval. Of course, that just puts the evaluation problem off a level, since anyone (even the surgeons, or perhaps more pertinently the ophthalmologists) can found their own certification company, or even falsely claim to be certified. One can imagine certification companies for the certification companies and so on, but this multiplies into a lot of overhead.

One alternative is for all involved to agree to a single company, and provide it with monopoly power to provide this certification. Or you could make it a government agency, which is the solution that the US chose back when the problem of fraudulent medical services and products was much larger. Apropos of this, I recently read “Devil in the White City,” and serial killer H.H. Holmes both falsely posed as a doctor, and set up a business to sell fraudulent cures for alcoholism; but back in the 1890s he was hardly alone in this very lucrative field.

50

Keith 08.12.10 at 7:04 pm

MPAVictoria: I’m well acquainted with nurse practitioners. But the suggestion put forth was that unlicensed NPs could fill most of the roles of a doctor and that in Libertopia, this would be just dandy. It wasn’t the nurse practitioner part of that equation that has me worried, it’s the unlicensed part. My point was that this is why we have licensing boards and regulations, so that you don’t get butcher’s who’ve glanced at a medical book setting up shop as an outpatient surgeon. In Libertopia, this is not just a possibility but the ideal.

51

Tim Wilkinson 08.12.10 at 7:13 pm

Libertarians of the ‘not only must justice (or the second-, third-,… best available approximation) be done, but it so happens that nothing counts as the heavens falling’ variety derive tremendous satisfaction, in an adolescent, icosahedral-dice sort of way, from devising more or less ingenious ways of treating transaction costs, crime, war, pestilence and famine as markets waiting to happen (a.k.a. opportunities for humanity to realise the highest good of entreprenuerial flair) rather than as central problems political philosophy is supposed to address. After all, the state itself depends for its existence solely on war and crime. Teh Market subsumes everything and instantly disappears up its own notional equilibrium.

One might as well say that the world as it is now is how the libertarian utopia, with a free market in everything including punishment, information and protection, and a currency in anything you can think of, looks after it’s been going for a few million years. There are a lot of strange ‘unlibertarian’ preferences and metapreferences, as libertarians allow there should be, and there’s a big component of non-ideal behaviour – the rich history of uncompensated and incompensable rights-violations – that one would expect, and everything continues to proceed according to the iron rule of Shit Happens.

Or something. Well, anything follows from a contradiction.

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Tim Wilkinson 08.12.10 at 7:14 pm

sp: entrepreneurial

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Greg B 08.12.10 at 7:31 pm

Isn’t a goal of ‘libertopia’, in terms of a society (sorry, an aggregate of individuals) where all are free of interference, irrelevant to libertarianism? Why would a self-interested actor care about establishing the conditions under which others would be free, so long as said actor was free? The exception would be if increasing the freedom of others had some tangible benefit to the self, but there are plenty of times it won’t. In other words, if I identify as a libertarian, and manage to accrue sufficient means to realize my will without obstacle, then libertopia has been realized. Once a person can consistently utter “screw you, got mine” and back it up, that person is in libertopia. This is almost achievable within current conditions, so there is little incentive to trot off to an island and build a new society.

Now, when others are subjugated or unfree a libertarian might wish to rectify that injustice, much like one might wish to give to charity, and this is consistent with principles. But that action, in libertarian terms, has to be free. To say that the libertarian is obliged to increase the freedom of others and relieve them of the ‘initiation of force’ is to say that the libertarian has to follow rules imposed from without, and thus subject to interference, contra the principles of the utopia.

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8 08.12.10 at 7:35 pm

Of course the US failed to guarantee individual rights to most of the people under its jurisdiction: blacks were livestock, women were chattel, natives were pests, unions were gooned. The libertarian aspects of the US were wound back as the lesser folk started to gain individual rights.

For Vegas-style libertarians at least, utopia means controlling human livestock of various sorts, and opposing unions. Then rich westside liberals generally are in agreement, and for that matter, the casino business (and casino livestock) usually has been tied to Democrats.

Most reasonable people oppose Ayn Rand’s quack economics (or vegas libertarians). Yet… Aynnie praised Jefferson & Co at one point, objected to the bloated US DoD budget, and took on religious zealots (christian, jewish and muslim)—moreover Rand’s sort of pop-Nietzschean thoughts on socialism and union power are not completely without merit—given……… Stalin and Mao. Rand and her acolytes may have been buffoons but more authentically liberal than most current democratic politicians.

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8 08.12.10 at 7:36 pm

Of course the US failed to guarantee individual rights to most of the people under its jurisdiction: blacks were livestock, women were chattel, natives were pests, unions were gooned. The libertarian aspects of the US were wound back as the lesser folk started to gain individual rights.

For Vegas-style libertarians at least, utopia means controlling human livestock of various sorts, and opposing unions. Then rich westside liberals generally are in agreement, and for that matter, the casino business (and casino livestock) usually has been tied to Democrats.

Most reasonable people oppose Ayn Rand’s quack economics (or vegas libertarians). Yet… Aynnie praised Jefferson & Co at one point, objected to the bloated US DoD budget, and took on religious zealots (christian, jewish and muslim)—moreover Rand’s sort of pop-Nietzschean thoughts on socialism and union power are not completely without merit—given…Stalin and Mao. Rand and her acolytes may have been buffoons but more authentically liberal than most current democratic politicians.

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Spaghetti Lee 08.12.10 at 7:47 pm

For the same reason that libertarians insist that their personal economic beliefs must be enshrined in the constitution, or that governmental gridlock is a good thing because it stops the government from actually operating: they’re so terrified of their ideas failing that they won’t give them that chance, and would rather force their ideas on others in a way that prevents removal, or obfuscate and make excuses until people grow sick of arguing with them.

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bianca steele 08.12.10 at 8:02 pm

@46
But this is, obviously, anarchism: requiring either (1) a culture providing for everybody to get along without felt or perceived conflict, or (2) an acceptance that markets will provide what’s desired for every individual within the “aggregate,” or won’t, as the case may be. There is no third alternative.

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Joshua Holmes 08.12.10 at 9:10 pm

L2P @ 36:

I know it wasn’t the intent of the comment, but this sounds like parody Randism.

One thing I definitely don’t care about is what Ayn Rand thinks. My comment was not a mustache-twirling “How can we get teachers on the cheap?!?” but more like “If they already value something more than money, I don’t see money as the issue to getting teachers in Libertopia.” If there ever were a Libertopia, most of the early adopters would have to love liberty much more than money anyway.

Ken @ 42:

If the nurse is willing to perform the surgery for a fee, and I’m willing to pay that fee for the services, what would prevent us from forming a contract in the ideal libertarian state?

I’m not saying nurses would be prevented from doing so, only that gall bladder surgery is not something I would expect a nurse to provide. I put that comment in to forestall “Right, we’ll have the nurses remove the gall bladders in Libertopia!!”, which was the next response out of some idiot or other.

Greg B @ 45:

Why would a self-interested actor care about establishing the conditions under which others would be free, so long as said actor was free?

Perhaps libertarians are not as blindly self-interested as you think. Invert your comment, and your question becomes “Why don’t comfortable leftist professors sell all that they have and give it to the poor?” The answer is that leftists and libertarians have a political philosophy, not just a personal ethic. Not every leftist is Jesus and not every libertarian is Thoreau.

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Bernard Yomtov 08.12.10 at 9:16 pm

Patri Friedman plans on allowing the importation and consumption of narcotics, but not their export. His other no-nos are WMDs and banking (but I repeat myself!).

Banking? Doesn’t sound like libertopia is going to be a great place to operate a business, or buy a house, say.

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Greg B 08.12.10 at 10:06 pm

@Joshua Holmes
Perhaps libertarians are not as blindly self-interested as you think.

It doesn’t matter whether a libertarian is crassly self-interested or chooses to be altruistic. Libertarianism permits altruism (like I said) but cannot prescribe it without contradicting itself. This returns us to John’s original point: Actually Existing Libertarianism offers a better economic deal for nearly all libertarians than any feasible version of Galt’s Gulch. There is little material incentive to build libertopia and within its political framework there is no moral obligation to do so. A libertarian can say “it is unjust for me to pay taxes; I shouldn’t have to” and try to bring about that state of affairs. However, said individual is entertaining no contradiction or failure if he or she doesn’t try to bring about that state of affairs for others, that is to say, if the libertarian doesn’t want to extend the perimeter of libertopia beyond oneself. The whole point of Galt’s Gulch is that it’s okay to drop the world and turn your back on whatever those left behind do. (Unless one is talking about some non-Randian version of libertarianism, at which point the discussion of Going Galt is misplaced.) So yes, ‘leftist professors’ can fail to meet the obligations they assert people have towards each other. Libertarians cannot since they articulate no such obligations – inaction is the sovereign right of the individual. Why bother making a group utopia when you can just try to carve one out for yourself?

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Metamorf 08.12.10 at 10:28 pm

Libertarianism permits altruism (like I said) but cannot prescribe it without contradicting itself.

That only makes sense if you think that moral prescription requires state enforcement. Of course, if you’re a leftie, you probably do, but libertarians don’t, and so there’s no contradiction in a libertarian prescribing altruism. Of course, that’s not Rand.

… inaction is the sovereign right of the individual. Why bother making a group utopia when you can just try to carve one out for yourself?

“Inaction” is the right of the individual, regardless how sovereign it is, as even most lefties will allow — apart from the real totalitarians for whom anything not forbidden is mandatory.

As for the “group utopia”, I’ve already explained how utopia itself is a mere fantasy, for which libertarians have little time. But the reason for wanting to make society more free is because that makes them more free — no man is an island, etc. The “whole point of Galt’s Gulch” was simply that it provided a temporary social refuge for those on strike against their exploitation.

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Keith 08.12.10 at 11:03 pm

In other words, if I identify as a libertarian, and manage to accrue sufficient means to realize my will without obstacle, then libertopia has been realized. Once a person can consistently utter “screw you, got mine” and back it up, that person is in libertopia. This is almost achievable within current conditions, so there is little incentive to trot off to an island and build a new society.

So Libertopia is not a specific place, but a state of being, like a Temporary Autonomous Zone, only not temporary, extra autonomous and the zone only extends about 6 inches outside the skin of the individual.

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Greg B 08.13.10 at 12:22 am

@Metamorf
[Saying libertarianism can’t prescribe altruism without contradicting itself] only makes sense if you think that moral prescription requires state enforcement.

Really? So it is meaningful to say that ‘libertarianism prescribes altruism, it is a moral ought under that political philosophy’? No wonder I’m confused.

But the reason for wanting to make society more free is because that makes them more free—no man is an island, etc.

Ah yes, of course, no man is an island, truly the best characterization of libertarian principles.

@Keith
Yes, that’s the conclusion, but it makes it sound like Libertopia is ridiculous, which couldn’t possibly be true, because

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Irrelephant 08.13.10 at 12:26 am

My Exclusive Economic Zone extends 200 inches from my skin.

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5150 08.13.10 at 12:48 am

wow…the CT liberal lites paused on..altruism. Yet they seemed to think it was…OK (without exactly proving it whatsoever..or for that matter, defining it).

Holy Hume is-ought distinction, ratman (which is to say, the pro-policy wank knows what arguments to avoid).

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Metamorf 08.13.10 at 12:53 am

So it is meaningful to say that ‘libertarianism prescribes altruism, it is a moral ought under that political philosophy’? No wonder I’m confused.

Yes — that is, it’s certainly “meaningful”, and neither contradictory nor, so far as I can see, confusing. Libertarianism as such simply aims to reduce state coercion to its minimum.

Ah yes, of course, no man is an island, truly the best characterization of libertarian principles.

There are certainly other characterizations of libertarian principles — I’ve given one above, for example — but “no man is an island” is entirely in keeping with libertarian principles.

67

Robert 08.13.10 at 1:28 am

I think propertarians do not understand economics. Economics these days is allegedly formal, that is expressed in mathematics. And mathematics is close to logic. Somebody who understands mathematics can formulate and recognize a valid argument.

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sg 08.13.10 at 1:33 am

Once again Brett Bellmore delivers many carats of comedy gold:

You do realize that you’re implicitly assuming that living in a libertarian society has absolutely no advantages, aside from a lower tax rate? Like, maybe, nobody kicking in your door at 2 AM on chance you might have the wrong pharmaceuticals?

I’m not sure what’s funniest here: the idea that those white libertard nerds will all start jacking up once it becomes legal; the idea that Brett himself is or wants to become a heroin user; or the notion of a society of junkies trying to not only just get along but also to prosper. Yet more proof of the fact that libertards know zero about drugs, and have a self-inflated view of their own rebelliousness. Brett, mate, the US govt isn’t going to carpet bomb your libertopia just ’cause you had a few tokes, and we sure as shit know that you and your pasty-faced keyboard warrior mates aren’t going to do anything more serious.

But then this is backed up by further hilarity from Joshua Holmes (though maybe this was intended lightly):

Bellmore has hit on the main problem with building Libertopia. A place with perfectly legal trade in heroin, prostitutes, and shoulder-mounted rocket launchers is going to attract investment from criminal syndicates. The American state will crush that pretty quickly; no one muscles in on its business.

Just a little hint for the reader: the key threat to this society lies not in America’s concern for its moral decay or its criminal syndicates, but in the possibility of a society full of junkies and heroin dealers resolving their differences using shoulder-mounted rocket launchers.

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Salient 08.13.10 at 2:24 am

Don’t get me wrong, this thread has been delivering the laugh-out-loud hilarity with satisfying consistently, but wow. That detour discussion of Nurse Practitioners sent me falling out of my soft Corinthian leather seat in laughter-paroxysm.

…Not to spoil the humor by explaining it, but as I’m in a pedantic mood and anticipate raised eyebrows, let me spoil the humor by explaining it: ‘Nurse Practitioner’ is a licensed legal status established by government-regulated board-authority. At least with the word ‘doctor’ a libertarian can claim to be intending ‘person who provides medical assessment/care’ and get away with having people who are designated doctors in their libertarian society, eliding complicating issues of training and certification, etc. But Lord Almighty, if you have Nurse Practitioners providing medical care in your Libertopia, YOU ARE DOING IT WRONG.

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Salient 08.13.10 at 2:30 am

God, the bit about private schools, too. There wouldn’t be private schools. In terms of financial investment/expenditure and return/utility, sending your kid to one would be a tremendous stupid waste of resources, even at artificially low cost.

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KCinDC 08.13.10 at 2:50 am

sg, I’m surprised to find myself in the position of defending Brett, but I suspect that he wasn’t referring to a desire to use heroin, but to the not insignificant number of people in the United States who have had nothing to do with drugs but nonetheless have found police with guns mistakenly breaking down their doors as part of the war on drugs.

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sg 08.13.10 at 3:00 am

so instead they’ll have heroin users, armed with shoulder-mounted rocket launchers, kicking their doors down at 2am to steal their stuff.

A society with open borders, free access to drugs and weapons, and a bunch of computer nerds who don’t know how to defend themselves from the predatory elements of our present society? If they’re contiguous with any state that has a drug problem, they’ll be begging for the US to intercede very fast.

73

Jamey 08.13.10 at 3:00 am

“Thinking about the discussion we had though, it strikes me that there is a simple explanation: Actually Existing Libertarianism (see below) offers a better economic deal for nearly all libertarians than any feasible version of Galt’s Gulch. “

That’s pretty much what I would say except I would say it nastier. They’re humongous hypocrites. Most people who claim to be libertarians aren’t really libertarians. They are fantasists. They are the Walter Mittys of politics. Their libertarianism amounts to little more than “I don’t want to pay taxes” while at the same time imagining that in such a world they still get all the stuff that taxes pay for without having to either give such stuff up or actually having to pay for it out of their own pocket from the private sector.

My theory is that an actual libertarian society would quickly degenerate into something resembling HBO’s TV series Deadwood with Al Swearengen as the King of All Rackets. One of the big mistakes that most utopians make is that assuming all folks, or most folks out there are like them. They design their ideal society for an ideal citizen based on their own idealized vision of who they are. And it works for a while until Al Swearengen shows up after having fled civilization, not for reasons of ideology or taxes but because they were about to hang him for very good reasons, he takes a good look around and says, “I could own them all.” Just like free love and acid and peace worked for a while until Charlie Manson showed up and said, “What a bunch of gullible dumbasses. I think I’ll use them for my own sociopathic purposes.”

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herr doktor bimler 08.13.10 at 3:27 am

I need education about this “hedge fun industry”. Is it some kind of highly specialised gardening?

Utopiary.

A place with perfectly legal trade in heroin, prostitutes, and shoulder-mounted rocket launchers is going to attract investment from criminal syndicates. The American state will crush that pretty quickly; no one muscles in on its business.

Sounds a bit like Kosovo to me, which was not so much crushed by the American state, as established by an American intervention.

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sg 08.13.10 at 3:27 am

I think you give them too much credit, Jamey. I think most libertarians worship people like Al Swearengen, and think that they would be useful to a man like him, so would profit. It’s not that they haven’t predicted his existence (or the existence of the robber barons); it’s just that they think they would benefit from it. A rare few probably fancy they might be Al Swearengen, but scanning the libertarian world one sees an awful lot of worship of strongmen, so I imagine that type of fantasist is rare.

I also note that Al Swearengen had one or two redeeming features (his regard for “the gimp” and the preacher spring to mind as good points). The online fantasists like the people at Red State and the Michelle Malkins of the world don’t appear to have any.

I particularly like the model of private healthcare in Deadwood. I think it’s something that all libertarian utopias can aspire to. As far as I can tell, the only people in Deadwood who had access to healthcare were Swearengen’s staff – everyone else got it for free because the Doctor was a nice guy.

With Calamity Jane as Nurse Practitioner, obviously…

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Metamorf 08.13.10 at 3:28 am

Remember those guys in high school (well, and up through sophomore college) who would speckle their argumentative blurts with convulsive, affected, braying laughter, followed by some arcane, nitpicking fussing that just missed the whole point? Yeah, the nerds. And not the brighter ones.

fwiw, KC has already corrected sg. And Salient, for all his yelling in bold, has corrected himself — for “Nurse Practitioner”, see “doctor”. (The “private school” bit is just, well, wacky.)

Jamey isn’t a nerd, at least, and I don’t think he’s as nasty as maybe he thinks he is. The problem is just that old one of first constructing a straw man that you then knock down — it’s easy, but pointless. It’s an understandable temptation though, and I’ll admit I’ve succumbed to it myself, in dismissing leftists as — surprise! — mostly humungous hypocrites too, who pretend to care for the underprivileged when all they’re really after is other people’s money at best, power at worst.

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sg 08.13.10 at 3:32 am

so what kcindc and metamorf are trying to tell me is that all those libertarian puff pieces on how evil the war on drugs is were never about the poor souls being locked up for using drugs, but the good white folk who got caught up all unsuspecting in the crossfire.

Colour me unsurprised.

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KCinDC 08.13.10 at 3:39 am

Yes, I’d say the problem, for those who’ve watched more than the first few “Deadwood” episodes, is that even if you’re Swearengen, then Cy Tolliver shows up, and then George Hearst.

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mcd 08.13.10 at 4:05 am

Libertarians would find Libertopia to be hell on earth. Any proposed colony would start from an ethnic cleansing fantasy. (“If can just get rid of the inferiors and only have alpha people in our colony all will be perfect.”) But libertarianism, like all rightwingery, is the seeking of maximized inequality. Some faction of colonists would coalesce to try to be the Uber-libertarians dominant over the Unter-libertarians. Especially when people confront the age-old problem of Who Will Do the Dirty Work. And since there will be no Unlibertarian Police Force to keep the peace, eventually somebody would win, and then caste society starts.

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Metamorf 08.13.10 at 4:25 am

But libertarianism, like all rightwingery, is the seeking of maximized inequality.

Actually, no. It’s the seeking of maximum equality in the formal or status sense, but it sees substantive equality — a goal distinct from simply helping others — as neither here nor there (forced substantive equality, in fact, is seen as a moral wrong). See this, including comments especially, for a further discussion.

Some faction of colonists would coalesce to try to be the Uber-libertarians dominant over the Unter-libertarians

No again. That does happen in socialist societies, it’s true, but such factions would have no means of asserting dominance in a libertarian society.

Especially when people confront the age-old problem of Who Will Do the Dirty Work.

That age-old problem is easily solved by the equally age-old market.

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yeliabmit 08.13.10 at 5:05 am

@Metamorf:“…but such factions would have no means of asserting dominance in a libertarian society.”

No means except violence and coercion. For there is no state monopoly on these in Libertopia. So private violence would rule.

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Eli 08.13.10 at 6:01 am

So it appears the big duck by Libertarians so far here has been to simply assume that Libertopia can’t exist because everyone else sucks so much – not because their system has any internal design flaws.

So maybe we ought to lower the bar a bit. How about just taking existing US and state government down a few pegs. But they have to be some of the good stuff. So, no, we’re not talking about your knife collections. How about we do away with… oh say, public schools, street cleaning, and the USDA. (I’d like to add prison guards, since that’s such a tax bugaboo – but I’ve never seen much coherence between the apparent libertarian penchant for retributive justice and the idea that someone has to process all the offenders.) But oh, you can have legalization too.

83

Jack Strocchi 08.13.10 at 6:14 am

Pr Q said:

Once you do the math on going Galt, it’s not hard to see why no self-respecting libertarian would actually do it.

Obviously the Galt maths were more attractive to the first Libertarian utopians. The Founding Fathers got the best of both worlds – inheriting a more or less consolidated national infrastructure, plus a lowered tax rate. And the a strong claim to the most valuable bit of real estate in the world.

The hard institutional work of nation building and state forming had already been done by the Puritan pioneers and the British Empire. The Libertarian revolt succeeded (I suppose) in lowering the overall tax-rate, possibly through economies of scale from national defence. As well as improving national accountability (“representation”) for the A-class shareholders.

And the Puritan founders, of all people on Earth, were least likely to require welfare state and wealthfare state hand-outs to make their state hang together: padded welfare rolls, rotten boroughs, no-bid contracts, insider trading, crony capitalism. These institutional accouterments of decadent post-modern capitalism only evolved after lobbying lawyers, media marketing and demographically divided publics got added to the mix. Not really the WASPs cup of tea.

Even then the Revolution was a damn close run thing, which they only managed to pull off with the aid of the French. What are the odds on that set of circumstances being repeated today?

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Metamorf 08.13.10 at 6:51 am

No means except violence and coercion. For there is no state monopoly on these in Libertopia. So private violence would rule.

No again. Sigh. You people should really do your homework a little better. Libertarianism isn’t anarchism — that’s for lefties. Most versions of libertarianism have a state that does just what states, as such, have to do — monopolize violence in order precisely to prevent one person or one faction from dominating others.

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Metamorf 08.13.10 at 7:06 am

Oh, and btw:

What are the odds on that set of circumstances being repeated today?

Not so good, probably, but they’d be improved immensely if the decadent, post-modern liberal-left reformed itself, liberals dropped the regressive left, and once again became the spokespeople for the emergent, modern individual.

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Guido Nius 08.13.10 at 7:09 am

73- monopolize violence to do what exactly? Preventing the lefties faction to dominate the libertarian one? You see, the clue is what one would use state violence for in Libertopias – or do you suggest that in Libertopia violence can be used in a non-coercive fashion?

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garymar 08.13.10 at 7:31 am

I love the typos in this thread, which seem to taking part in the conversation themselves.

Myles SG’s “the hedge fun industry” – because there’s nothing more fun than hedging your financial bets!

Nick’s “All I would do is caste it a little differently” – yes, with yourself as a Brahmin!

JK quoting Trotsky: “the national hoops of the bourgeois state” – is that what they made the proletariat jump through?

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Metamorf 08.13.10 at 7:36 am

monopolize violence to do what exactly?

Let me repeat myself: “monopolize violence in order precisely to prevent one person or one faction from dominating others.” I could make that a little more explicit by adding “by force or violence” to the end, which I thought was understood.

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Anarcho 08.13.10 at 8:16 am

What do you mean? There has been plenty of libertarian social experiments.

The most famous, of course, was the various collective during the Spanish Revolution of 1936. Workers kicked out their bosses and peasants kicked out their land-lords and managed their own work. And did so very successfully, so showing that we don’t need bosses. This massive social experiment, I should note, was inspired by the libertarian communist vision set out in the CNT’s 1936 congress.

Then there was the Makhnovists during the Russian Revolution, who fought against both Red and White dictatorship for libertarian goals. Again, workers and peasants kicked out the landlords and bosses and did very well.

Other examples include the Paris Commune, the 1956 Hungary Revolution contained libertarian elements, and so on.

Oh, wait, sorry. You are using the term “libertarian” not in the original sense of libertarian socialist, or anarchist, but in the sense of propertarian. Oh, of course these people are not “going Galt” — because no one would notice they were gone.

As the genuine libertarian social experiments of the past 150 years show, while the bosses need us (to work for them) we don’t need them (to boss us about and keep the product of our labour). Funnily enough, while genuine libertarians have always argued that freedom does not stop at the workplace door (property is both theft and despotism), the propertarians have always been keen to defend workplace hierarchy and wage-slavery. Unsurprisingly, their visions of “utopia” involve varying degrees of dictatorship (with the property-owners becoming, literally, lords of the land).

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ajay 08.13.10 at 8:30 am

And the Puritan founders, of all people on Earth, were least likely to require welfare state and wealthfare state hand-outs to make their state hang together: padded welfare rolls, rotten boroughs, no-bid contracts, insider trading, crony capitalism. These institutional accouterments of decadent post-modern capitalism only evolved after lobbying lawyers, media marketing and demographically divided publics got added to the mix.

I think that sounds better in the original German.

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bad Jim 08.13.10 at 8:50 am

Didn’t Brecht & Weill already do the definitive study in “The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny?”

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Zamfir 08.13.10 at 8:56 am

Metamorf, what happens if the people vote that the violence-monopolicing agency also starts a public education system, and a welfare system? That’s what happened before, you know.

Do you ignore those votes, because of freedom? Are you sure no one will vote that way, not even the grandchildren of the original people? Do you split off to found a new libertarian state?

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Clay Shirky 08.13.10 at 9:06 am

Coming in late as the boxcar comment to note that the thing that puts the fun in the hedge fun industry, and the thing that puts said industry in Greenwich CT is *exactly*, *precisely* the logic Quiggin starts with, which is that CT has no income tax, but close proximity to New York City.

Far from being a counter-factual, the emergence of a satellite banking center in the NYC metro region but outside the ability of said region to tax is Exhibit A in suburbs benefiting from urban centers but resisting paying for them.

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alex 08.13.10 at 9:16 am

According to the internet, “the national hoops of the bourgeois state” is an accurate quote. Hoops as in the things that keep a barrel together…

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Jack Strocchi 08.13.10 at 10:08 am

Pr Q said:

Most other utopian ideologies have inspired at least someone to attempt a practical implementation. On the face of it, libertarianism seems ideally suited to the belief in a fresh start, with no messy pre-existing claims.

Nozick had a crack at dreaming up the evolution of a utopian libertarian state. But characteristically for libertarians he got it back to front, simply assuming the territory and infrastructure were already in place and all that remained was properly setting up the state, without violating anyones rights. Obviously he spent too much time gazing in awe at economic models.

A nation of Libertarian settlers would be a movement where the ideological desires of libertarians would be starkly at odds with the anthropological needs of settlers. Thats why it will never get off the ground.

Its interesting to compare Libertarian foundational fantasies (“the harsh mistress Moon”!) to the foundation of an “actual and existing” utopian state which was started more or less from scratch: Israel. Despite the fact that most of the Zionist founders would have been sympathetic to the British liberal tradition they just had to trash it to survive.

Israel was utopian in that it was the Zionist dream come true, coming hot on the heels of a pretty rough patch for the Jews. But its constitution was probably the furtherest thing possible from “Libertarian” in that its ideological justification was race-religionist and its institutional incarnation was authoritarian-collectivist. Old-fashioned liberals were pretty thin on the ground in the post-war Middle East.

Many of the founders were commies, with a smattering of crypto-fascists, led by outright terrorists. I don’t have a problem with that as that was what it took to win. Although it was tough luck for the Palestinians who really didn’t know what hit ‘em.

Of course Israel, like most settler states, its foundation was based on a primeval act of dispossession. NTTIAWWT, says me sitting on land probably nicked from some poorly armed Aboriginal.

More generally, settler nations don’t work, or at least don’t make it past the critical teething stage, unless the pioneers are more or related by kin and creed. Sacrifices have to be made for the common good to survive under adversity. And human beings are more prone to make sacrifices for their families, or at least for someone who can bequeath them an inheritance. Thats just Darwinism 101.

Self-serving Libertarians, whether rugged individualists or free-wheeling hedonists, do not strike me as the types to fit that self-sacrificial anthropological profile.

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Alex 08.13.10 at 10:55 am

…and the state the Israelis set up was not, in fact, characterised by libertarianism. In fact, it was widely considered to be the closest thing to democratic socialism going.

Going back to the original economic point, I think it’s worth pointing out that “being allowed to take whatever drugs you like” may be good, but it’s not a solution to your economic problems. You can’t offer part of your right to do so in exchange for imported goods or services.

And the economic problems are very real; the cost of transport tends to go up with distance (duh) and down with scale. The scale effect is so powerful it often outweighs distance – the container lines’ Europe-Far East loops being exhibit A. The additional cost to the final customer of the transport is negligible. However, it’s common for goods to cost much more over short distances if there’s not much of a market at the far end of the trip, and even more so if there’s a large imbalance of trade and hence no chance of a backload.

Also, if you’re trying to recruit non-libertopians to go and work there, it’s trivially certain you’ll have to pay over the odds – they have to relocate. Relocation is a cost. Therefore, bargaining over their contract, they’ll want that reflected in the consideration they get for it.

The thing about these two points is that they are absolutely certain. Efficiency gains in public services and whatnot are bullshit and ponies until you’re actually holding the cash in your hand. It’s as if you were trying to recognise revenue against forecasts of future sales growth.

If, structurally, you need to pay more for imports, and you’re by definition a small economy relative to the world, this is equivalent to getting paid less. The libertopians will need to put in more time programming or lawyering or growing drugs or being Netvocates in order to maintain their standard of living.

But they’ve actually got bigger problems. Their island will be small (obviously), it will clearly be an open economy (no tariffs), and because they’re libertarians, it will probably have a balanced budget clause and a currency on gold. Small, open economies with a fixed exchange rate are notoriously unstable, and islands are a near classic example of this. Money pours in; credit expands; everyone buys a Chevy Suburban on a yen loan; money pours out; everyone goes bankrupt and libertopians abroad find that their Visa cards don’t work.

I mentioned that there is a way to convert the right to shoot off whatever infantry weapons you like and shoot up whatever drugs you like into foreign exchange. It’s called tourism, and a lot of small islands depend on it. Unfortunately, this implies Libertopia’s streets will be permanently full of hyuking stag-do tourists out of their heads and armed to the teeth, and the Libertopians will simply have to suck it up and call them “sir”. Also, adding a business with notoriously high operational gearing and highly procyclical demand to their economy is…brave.

If I was the Libertopian Central Bank, I’d want to stick to the reliably defensive impunity-services market. Again, this has consequences for the kind of people who will seek the place out, but then you wouldn’t go there if you were looking for congenial company, would you…

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PaulB 08.13.10 at 11:12 am

Someone up there described Stamford CT as one of the most pleasant areas. I’ve been there, it isn’t. Greenwich, maybe.

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amit 08.13.10 at 11:14 am


No again. Sigh. You people should really do your homework a little better. Libertarianism isn’t anarchism—that’s for lefties. Most versions of libertarianism have a state that does just what states, as such, have to do—monopolize violence in order precisely to prevent one person or one faction from dominating others.

There are certainly people, who call themselves libertarians, floating around the internet who state that all tax is theft therefore they espouse abolishing state controlled anything (including the police). I can accept that you don’t agree with them but thats not the same thing as saying that every flavour of libertarianism automatically wants the state to keep a police force and army.

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Brett Bellmore 08.13.10 at 11:15 am

“So it appears the big duck by Libertarians so far here has been to simply assume that Libertopia can’t exist because everyone else sucks so much – not because their system has any internal design flaws.”

We’re allowed to assume that, until it’s tried. Should somebody set up a “Libertopia”, and the result is 50-100,000,000 dead, THEN you can files us in the same category as communism and fascism. Right now, unlike those clowns, we’re entitled to think our ideas might work.

And, yeah, I have no interest in personally using any drug stronger than caffeine. That doesn’t mean I don’t think self destructive idiots aren’t entitled to drill holes in the tops of their heads and pour in battery acid, if that’s how they get their jollies. Any effort to stop them from doing that is just going to harm less self-destructive people, too.

In fact, I’d say that’s the biggest thing non-libertarians don’t grasp about libertarianism: Unlike most political/moral philosophies, libertarianism distinguishes between what people ought to do, and what they ought to be compelled to do, what they ought not do, and what they ought to be compelled not to do. It’s a hard distinction for the “all that’s not compulsory should be forbidden” crowd to grasp.

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Roger 08.13.10 at 11:29 am

Ken McLeod’s Fall Revolution novels look at the evolution of libertopia in a rather different way.

Written in the early 90s when it briefly did appear that not just ramshackle empires like the Soviets but nation states in general might just carry on literally disintegrating into smaller and smaller units, he just visualises the gated community and the corporate office block (and the neo-hippie commune or socialist collective or religious community) gradually taking on more and more state functions.

As he is not shackled by the absurd concept that each of these new entities must be completely self-sufficient, then as long as somebody outside has those goods and services that they need and is willing to trade there is obviously no ‘anarcho-capitalism in one country’ problem (we are talking here about capitalists for fucks sake).

While the post-Soviet crisis was a false alarm (or dawn – McLeod himself is properly ambivalent) and the nation state recovered, the idea that some states can literally disintegrate without the wholesale destruction of infrastructure you saw in say Somalia is not an inherently implausible one.

Whether such a world could be in any sense sustainable is another question: in McLeod’s future history its not – the real anarcho-capitalists flee to Mars (which is colonisable due to nanotech handwavium) and eventually we get a real anarcho-communist utopia on earth.

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JK 08.13.10 at 11:37 am

I’m afraid I’m one of those who’s finding the libertarian distinction between what people ought to do and what people should be compelled to do hard to grasp. Perhaps you could use an example, like ‘respect for private property’? Which side does respect for private property fall under?

(I’ve never knowingly met anyone who thinks ‘all that’s not compulsory should be forbidden’, though)

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Ollie 08.13.10 at 11:50 am

The closest to a libertopia I’ve seen is some 3rd world countries. Picking one name out of the bag based on experience I’d say Nigeria. taxes are low, and the government doesn’t come kicking down your door when you don’t pay taxes. You can mostly do whatever the f*+! you want so long as you don’t try to contest power from those who wield it.

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Guido Nius 08.13.10 at 11:51 am

77- see 80.

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Salient 08.13.10 at 12:20 pm

(The “private school” bit is just, well, wacky.)

File under lay comma space let sleeping dogs. Do you really want to give me a valid excuse to whinge about insufficiently imaginative manifestations of abstract educational theory in a CT thread?

I pay taxes. These taxes pay

This would still be true if I had a kid. The social value of education, to me, is not that my kid receives it. It’s that your kid receives it.

They’re taken out of your home and placed in a regularized environment, over the conduct and character of which I have some say, as a citizen. They’re expected to conform to social norms that are roughly homogeneous across public

I don’t help pay for public education for the benefit of my kid: in fact, in terms of the rat-race, my kid would comparatively benefit if I helped defund and destroy public education and schooled my kid in private, teaching them tricks to getting ahead in a dog-eat-dog world, and teaching them to exploit the comparative ignorance of others for their own financial benefit.

I help pay for mandatory public education because it gets your kids away from you, and into an environment where, I hope, they are favorably exposed to ideas that are more progressive/liberal/socialist than you would think to provide them at home.

I help pay for mandatory public education because it homogenizes the population-to-be, and I like social stability

I help pay for mandatory public education because I have input, as a citizen, regarding the character of that homogeneity– the schools may currently be doing a blastedly terrible job teaching the importance of the 14th amendment, but at least I can have hope that this will change, with concerted effort and pressure.

The public school system is the one hope I have to help ensure your kids grow up to be a little more like me, and a little less like you.

(Umm, this would be a good place for me to mention that the ‘you’ here is not directed at anyone in particular.)

So, the schools are the most effective medium through which we may wage long-term political warfare on each other. And that — the combination of social stability/homogeneity and social orientation that they are uniquely able to provide to a growing population — is the principal social role of schools, whether private (and therefore subject to restrictions of class) or public.

In a world without public schools, there’s little need for private schools, except as a class-signaling device, e.g. the boarding schools of yore: and in a libertarian utopia there ought to be no need for class-signaling devices.

I’m being a bit obtuse and provocative here, especially in that last sentence, but only because a very basic point is getting ignored or called “wacky.” I don’t pay taxes so that there are teachers available to teach my kid. I pay taxes so that there is a system in place to yank your kid out of your home for several hours a day, to get taught about lives and lifestyles that you might or might not expose them to, in ways that will help make your kids, on average, more progressive than y’all are.

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Roger 08.13.10 at 12:22 pm

Brett,

Once you get beyond the hang-up about Libertopia having to be a self-sufficient autarky – which is only a problem for the Heinleinian Space Cadets amongst you – I can’t see what stops you from creating your Libertopia right here and now.

Some of you form a corporation, buy a shit-load of land in Wyoming or Montana , put a big fence around it and move there.

Sure you’ll have to pay some taxes, but if you use the best lawyers and acountants money can buy this can be reduced to a minimal amount and you can all pretend its a subsidy you pay a foreign power so you don’t have to provide your own defence or whatever.

OK if you insist on your right to re-institute good old fashioned traditions like duelling, paedophilia and incest or someone decides that what you really need is the West’s biggest crystal meth lab then you’ll have other legal problems – but if there are enough of you then you get to elect the Sheriff – so you’d have to go a pretty long way before the Feds go all Waco on you.

Set sensible internal standards for behaviour – they don’t have to be laws, just contractual obligations you freely enter into to belong to the community – and there is no reason why you can’t co-exist with regular US society on the same basis as the Amish.

What I really can’t understand is how your lives out there in Galt Gulch or Randville WY would be that different from those already enjoyed by wealthy Americans – you/they already pay next to no taxes, the police will never smash down yourMcMansion doors at 2AM in the morning to shoot your dog and take your stash, you can literally get away with murder as long as you can afford to hire Johnny Cochrane and so on.

If your real complaint is that you are not rich enough to enjoy those freedoms then what sort of libertarian are you? Man up and make those millions!

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Salient 08.13.10 at 12:26 pm

…somehow the paragraph that would have continued “these taxes pay for the schooling of other people’s kids” got caught off there. (The CT comment box software would like to point out it did what it could there to spare you some bit of my whinging, and would like to apologize for not being more successful.)

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Zamfir 08.13.10 at 12:39 pm

and in a libertarian utopia there ought to be no need for class-signaling devices.

Why not, because it is a utopia?

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bianca steele 08.13.10 at 12:44 pm

KCinDC@67: You’re probably forgetting the gangs of highwaymen Swearengen finances and controls, the ones who slaughter innocent families of migrants.

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Irrelephant 08.13.10 at 12:51 pm

Being a relative newcomer here, I’m sure this has been discussed, but it seems to me a huge stumbling block for a real Libertopia is intellectual property rights.

My understanding is there is no established Cult consensus as to how these (patents, copyrights, etc) are treated. As ultimately physical property doesn’t really mean all that much if you don’t have people doing shit to it with their labor and ideas. (This will become especially important in the future when universal constructors, replicators, fabs, make the recipe of a product more valuable than the product itself ).

So, with no agreement about the most important part of your economy, intellectual capital, Libertopia is destined for civil war.

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ajay 08.13.10 at 12:51 pm

Salient, that’s an… interesting approach to public schooling. You sound, to be blunt, like an imaginary socialist who has escaped from the inside of the head of a deranged right-winger and emerged into the real world.
“I help pay for mandatory public education because it gets your kids away from you, and into an environment where, I hope, they are favorably exposed to ideas that are more progressive/liberal/socialist than you would think to provide them at home.”
Good grief.

Personally, I help pay for public education because I like living in a rich, advanced nation, and I believe that educating everybody is a good way of ensuring that my country continues to be one.

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novakant 08.13.10 at 1:07 pm

I pay taxes so that there is a system in place to yank your kid out of your home for several hours a day, to get taught about lives and lifestyles that you might or might not expose them to, in ways that will help make your kids, on average, more progressive than y’all are.

If you pay your taxes in the US or UK, your taxes also financed the Iraq war, so you might want to add: “I pay taxes to wage pointless wars of aggression that kill lots of brown people”.

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roac 08.13.10 at 1:32 pm

And, yeah, I have no interest in personally using any drug stronger than caffeine. That doesn’t mean I don’t think self destructive idiots aren’t entitled to drill holes in the tops of their heads and pour in battery acid, if that’s how they get their jollies. Any effort to stop them from doing that is just going to harm less self-destructive people, too.

I nourish the recurrent suspicion that a certain kind of libertarian is against any concerted effort to discourage self-destructive behavior in others because such behavior helps weed out the competition.

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sg 08.13.10 at 1:37 pm

Brett continues with the funny:

That doesn’t mean I don’t think self destructive idiots aren’t entitled to drill holes in the tops of their heads and pour in battery acid, if that’s how they get their jollies.

Brett, if you’re living in a society with free access to guns and rocket launchers, they won’t be drilling holes in the tops of their own heads.

Which is another example of how Actually Existing Libertopia works better than the dream. You live in the suburbs away from anything resembling a junkie, the police force makes sure they stay in the areas most in need of urban renewal, and you get to sit at the keyboard worrying about your right to have a few tokes.

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Guido Nius 08.13.10 at 1:39 pm

97- as long as the self-destructive people do not use the battery acid of the less self-destructive people; if they would try to do that they would save themselves the trouble of drilling holes and such as holes will be drilled in them for them.

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Uncle Kvetch 08.13.10 at 1:48 pm

Right now, unlike those clowns, we’re entitled to think our ideas might work.

You’re entitled to believe anything you like Brett. Contrary to what you might have heard on Glenn Beck the other night, the Obama administration hasn’t developed the necessary technology to control your thoughts. Yet.

Beyond that, I have to applaud the sheer awesomeness of “no one’s ever tried it, so it might work” and “it probably won’t result in tens of millions of deaths” as arguments for a political program. You really do have to wonder why libertarianism doesn’t get more traction.

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sg 08.13.10 at 1:48 pm

they can take my battery acid from my cold, dead frontal lobes.

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Metamorf 08.13.10 at 1:50 pm

Metamorf, what happens if the people vote that the violence-monopolicing agency also starts a public education system, and a welfare system?

Let’s imagine that Libertopia is not a democratic despotism, but has something like a constitution that limits what the state can do legally or legitimately. Of course, as we’ve seen, that doesn’t prevent constitutions from being “interpreted” out of existence, and any such thing can always be amended anyway. Like any political/social arrangement, even imaginary ones, Libertopia lasts only as long as its people can keep it.

JK: I’m afraid I’m one of those who’s finding the libertarian distinction between what people ought to do and what people should be compelled to do hard to grasp.

E.g., if you think people ought to be polite, you also think they should be compelled to be polite?

Salient: So, the schools are the most effective medium through which we may wage long-term political warfare on each other.

Well, as others have said too, I find that just wacky, not to mention nasty. Chairman Mao might have liked it though.

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Guido Nius 08.13.10 at 2:05 pm

102- so, Libertopia is constrained by the unfortunate fact that most people do not want to have any of it; that’s about right, I guess.

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roac 08.13.10 at 2:07 pm

E.g., if you think people ought to be polite, you also think they should be compelled to be polite?

At all times and in all places? No. When the external costs of rudeness reach a certain level? Yes.

Case in point: I think the police, at least in congested cities, ought to be able to write a ticket to any driver who blows his horn for any reason other than to prevent an imminent accident.

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Greg B 08.13.10 at 2:10 pm

@Metamorf
Libertarianism as such simply aims to reduce state coercion to its minimum.

Yes, I agree, the point of libertarianism is to keep coercion in private hands where it can be exercised most efficiently.

@Brett Bellmore saying
libertarianism distinguishes between what people ought to do, and what they ought to be compelled to do

In other words, under libertarianism a moral ought is a ‘moral if you feel like it, but it’s cool if you don’t, so it’s not really an ought at all’. (Unless ‘compelled to do’ means ‘forced to do through violence’, but then libertarianism hardly has a monopoly on the above distinction.)

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Metamorf 08.13.10 at 2:22 pm

At all times and in all places? No.

Then it turns out that the distinction between what people ought to do and what people should be compelled to do isn’t so hard for you to grasp after all, is it?

Greg B: … the point of libertarianism is to keep coercion in private hands where it can be exercised most efficiently.

See #77.

In other words, under libertarianism a moral ought is a ‘moral if you feel like it, but it’s cool if you don’t, so it’s not really an ought at all’.

I don’t think you understand the meaning of “in other words”.

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Tim Worstall 08.13.10 at 2:48 pm

“Efficiency gains in public services and whatnot are bullshit and ponies until you’re actually holding the cash in your hand.”

Just to go wildly off topic that’s not good news for paying for Obamacare through cutting Medicare reimbursement rates then…..

Back to topic…Libertopia might well be more expensive than current not Libertopia arrangements. So? Different people value different things and perhaps there are some (dunno how many of course) who would value the perceived liberty of Libertopia more highly than the increased financial cost (or lower material living standards that such would imply).

It’s not exactly unusual that people are willing to give up purely physical living standards for some held to be greater value: I’d expect all of the contributors here at CT and most of the commenters would sign up to the idea that we should give up a little economic growth in return for a little greater equality, just as one example (just for the sake of the argument, assume that there is such a trade off).

So I’m not sure that the trade off, living standards for liberty, is such a killer argument against Libertopia given that all sorts of people are willing to trade off living standards for all sorts of things.

123

Francis 08.13.10 at 2:57 pm

yah know, there are big chunks of Montana, Idaho and West Texas where people get to live pretty much as they like. But Internet libertarians never seem to be posting from there about the joy of either burning/burying their own garbage or hauling it to the (long way aways) dump.

Instead, what people like Brett seem to want is to force us (by rule of law) to live under the set of rules he wants (fewer laws). I am amused.

124

piglet 08.13.10 at 3:04 pm

Brett 9:

It’s widely understood among libertarians that, were you to actually somehow put together a real libertarian nation, it would immediately be invaded by the non-libertarian nations, unless you made it substantially non-libertarian by cooperating with the war on drugs.

What you are describing is the Netherlands, an island of resistance against the worst excesses of the war on drugs that is regularly pressured and threatened (though not yet invaded) by the US and its drug war allies. And as you notice, it is a liberal, not a libertarian example. I hate to get into this fruitless libertarianism debate again but the fact is that most US “small government” types are perfectly happy with the war on drugs. If US libertarians really care about drug freedom, they should really stop hanging around with conservatives.

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Charlie 08.13.10 at 3:08 pm

There may be a Libertopian aesthetic, even. This, for example. Not entirely a snark; Ilakaka has some life to it. Borders are pretty much transparent too; apparently you can fly a helicopter in directly from Mozambique if you strap on some extra fuel tanks. Your untaxed sapphires go by the return trip (they don’t weigh much).

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Metamorf 08.13.10 at 3:16 pm

Libertopia is constrained by the unfortunate fact that most people do not want to have any of it;

No more so than any other utopian fantasy. Back to the real world of incremental, pragmatic progress.

127

rea 08.13.10 at 3:23 pm

128

Gregory 08.13.10 at 3:42 pm

Libertarians are not the rugged individualists they fantasize themselves to be. Film at 11.

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Doctor Science 08.13.10 at 3:48 pm

why has there never been a serious attempt at a real libertarian utopia?

I’m surprised that no-one has yet mentioned the factor that jumps out at me.

You can’t have a functioning human society that isn’t *at least* 1/3 female. Unless the libertopians include a lot of women, they can’t possibly establish anything that isn’t basically a club instead of a society.

More broadly, I think it supports my personal definition: Libertarians don’t believe that humans are social animals. Trying to put together even a small human society that doesn’t take account of our social nature is of course highly problematic. If you think, as many libertarians apparently do, that the foundation of human society is private property, you’ve already turned your back on anything anthropology and the history of religion can teach you about how humans actually operate in small societies.

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00001001 08.13.10 at 3:56 pm

Galt –strawman .

Hillarynomics, or rather Larry Summersnomics– differs from vegas-libertarianism merely in degree– say some differences on capital gains tax rates. For that matter, the libertopia of vegas gambling was built by Demos—Bugsy Seigel style demos, that is. Larry Summers wanted de-reg; ergo, he’s a libertarian.

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william u. 08.13.10 at 3:59 pm

Well, there was the underwater city of Rapture, but it was destroyed by factional fighting and proletarian revolt.

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piglet 08.13.10 at 4:02 pm

Now that us librals have mostly agreed on the unlikeness of libertarian utopia, who would like to debate why we aren’t doing more, and being more successful, in putting liberal principles to practice? Of course, we won’t even try calling it utopia. After all, who still believes that even the idea of a better society can be brought up in polite company without instantaneous ridicule.

133

roac 08.13.10 at 4:29 pm

What you are describing is the Netherlands, an island of resistance against the worst excesses of the war on drugs that is regularly pressured and threatened (though not yet invaded) by the US and its drug war allies.

This seems to suggest that there are elements of the US government which have as a policy objective the invasion the Netherlands because of its tolerance of drugs. I suspect and hope that you have gotten a little carried away here. But if you have evidence, please share it, as that should certainly go on the lists of things that urgently need to be resisted in an organized fashion.

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Brett Bellmore 08.13.10 at 4:45 pm

“More broadly, I think it supports my personal definition: Libertarians don’t believe that humans are social animals. “

What libertarians believe is that social animals can cooperate in non-coercive ways. Trade, and other voluntary forms of interaction.

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Metamorf 08.13.10 at 4:47 pm

Libertarians are not the rugged individualists they fantasize themselves to be. Film at 11.

Sure they are. Better film at 11:30.

Trying to put together even a small human society that doesn’t take account of our social nature is of course highly problematic.

Ahh, the old “human nature” argument. Well, it certainly works against socialism, but not against libertarianism. That’s because libertarians actually do think human beings are social animals — they just don’t think “social” is incompatible with “individual”, nor that “social” is identical with “the state”. As well, libertarians tend to think that we can do better than emulate the “small societies” that anthropology studies, private property being just one example of such an improvement.

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Theophylact 08.13.10 at 4:55 pm

All this libertopian fantasy of the wonders of unregulated health care reminded me of this story in the Guardian. It seems that

One in five Italian dentists is unqualified, along with an estimated 10,000-15,000 doctors, it was reported today.

More than a thousand people were charged in Italy last year with unauthorised exercise of a medical profession. They included fake doctors, spurious dentists and even a few sham nurses.

In an average year, according to police figures, about 1,000 people have been convicted of the offence. But the penalty is only a fine of up to €516 (£440).

“We catch phoney dentists who laugh in our face,” Captain Marco Datti of the carabinieri told the daily La Repubblica. “They say: ‘I’ll just pay €500, change premises and start again’.”

One “dentist” found by his officers in Rome was a plumber who had been filling and extracting teeth for 20 years.

Italy , with its near-anarchic regulatory system, may be close to the libertopian ideal. I’ll take France or Germany, thanks.

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Theophylact 08.13.10 at 4:56 pm

(sorry about the spacing)

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Ollie 08.13.10 at 5:10 pm

I’d extend Quiggin’s question. Has anyone ever known any naturally evolved libertarian society that existed before the emergence of libertarianism as an ideology or thought system.

I’ve known of societies that could be called, socialist, communist, capitalist, fascist etc. which evolved naturally and organically.

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Guido Nius 08.13.10 at 5:21 pm

111- the kind of progress which you described before as re-interpreting a constitution in a non-libertarian way ;-)

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More Dogs, Less Crime 08.13.10 at 5:34 pm

Jefferson shouldn’t be considered representative, he was just one guy and unusual for his time. A revolutionary war soldier was interviewed decades later about his reasons for fighting. When asked if the writings of Locke or Paine had anything to do with it, he said nobody he knew read anything other than the bible, almanac and hymnal. The reason he gave for fighting was that they had always governed themselves and the redcoats were trying to change that. A sort of communal* version of “Screw you, I’ve got mine”.
*I believe he was a New Englander, so Albion’s Seed suggests that the corresponding ideal is “ordered liberty”, contrasted with reciprocal liberty of quakers, hierarchical liberty of cavaliers and uppity cussedness of hillbillies.

Some libertarians (the majority, I believe) are minarchists, but some really are anarchists (at least according to them, if not other folks who call themselves anarchists).

Ollie, medieval Iceland is again the primary example. I’ve heard medieval Ireland was similar. What’s really striking is the absence of any libertarian society created by ideological libertarians. Even in modern times, anarchic Somalia had nothing to do with ideology. Colonial Pennsylvania also went through a period when governance failed, though that again wasn’t the intention.

Theophylact, would you say that the black market for drugs is also close to the libertarian ideal? There are some libertarians who believe not only that, but that it’s the way to build the new society within the shell of the old (whle dismantling the latter). They call themselves “agorists”.

I’m sure Patri would tolerate normal banks servicing seasteaders, he just doesn’t want to arouse any anger from other countries by laundering money or assisting in tax evasion/avoidance/whatever.

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John Protevi 08.13.10 at 6:03 pm

What libertarians believe is that social animals can cooperate in non-coercive ways. Trade, and other voluntary forms of interaction.

Even simple forms of trade have norms and norm-enforcement. Why is such norm enforcement not “coercive”? It doesn’t have to go through a state, but why does knowing that if you trade me something that sickens me or my family, that will result in me and / or my kin punishing you somehow, not count as “coercion”? It restricts your freedom by threat of punishment, no?

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novakant 08.13.10 at 6:20 pm

This seems to suggest that there are elements of the US government which have as a policy objective the invasion the Netherlands …

Well, there is the Hague Invasion Act

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Metamorf 08.13.10 at 6:22 pm

111- the kind of progress which you described before as re-interpreting a constitution in a non-libertarian way ;-)

No, the kind of progress which builds upon the constitution toward greater individual freedom, less state intrusion, and the enrichment of each individual’s social existence :-)

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Doctor Science 08.13.10 at 6:38 pm

Brett Bellmore:
What libertarians believe is that social animals can cooperate in non-coercive ways. Trade, and other voluntary forms of interaction.

Libertarians who try to build non-coercive societies are leftists or anarchists, and they don’t think of *trade* as the quintessential non-coercive interaction. Lefty libertopias have often been attempted (with varying degrees of success, of course), but they generally take “family” or indeed “love” as their grounding metaphor. They never (that I know of) are structured around private property as a first principle.

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roac 08.13.10 at 6:49 pm

@124: I had somehow managed to miss that one. Thanks for making my day even worse.

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John Protevi 08.13.10 at 6:57 pm

Doctor Science, putting your remark and mine together, and with the caveat that IANAN (I am not an anthropologist, but I did do some concentrated reading a few years ago on the origin of war controversy [e.g., Kelly, Warless Societies and the Origin of War]), my impression is that you can say that in small groups you get sharing inside the group (“love” as you say) and you get trade between groups (and there’s always been trade as there have always been multiple groups). But trade between groups requires coercion in the sense of threats of violence. Of course cooperation w/in groups has that threat too (“if you keep hurting people, we’re going to exile you or kill you”).

Kelly distinguishes between individual violence as either norm-breaking or norm-enforcing — which can happen in-group and between-group — and group violence or war, which requires what he calls the “logic of social substitution” that is, it’s no longer “you killed my father, prepare to die” but “kill him, he’s somebody from the group that invaded our land.”

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John Protevi 08.13.10 at 6:58 pm

Should be “IANAA”!

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nnyhav 08.13.10 at 7:53 pm

I prefer going Bartleby.

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Lee A. Arnold 08.13.10 at 9:00 pm

It seems like libertarians can never draw the definite line about coercion. There is also coercion by necessity and coercion for efficiency. Inside a business firm things happen by coercion — from the boss. Why? For an excellent reason: if every process inside a business firm were instead performed as market transactions among independent individuals, then the transaction costs of that production would be exorbitant. It would cost more than necessary for search, bargaining, decision, and contract enforcement (i.e. the basic transaction costs) to get it done. Basically all of us would be coerced into wasting time and energy (and therefore enjoy less liberty) if we performed the interior functions of all business firms by market transactions. So, one of the two major reasons that business firms exist is because it is possible to reduce transaction costs within a certain perimeter of activity, and thus be more efficient in the production of goods and services. (When that is no longer the case, then the business firm will break up into two, more specialized, business firms, which sometimes happens.) This is the most basic idea of Coase. And the exact same thing is true of government, only it is to save costs at the next hierarchical level of scale (for this reason, Coase called government a “sort of super-firm”.) Government reduces transaction costs in the production of certain things which the private economy overall cannot produce, or would be inefficient at producing: defense, safety nets, environmental regulations, etc. If it did not do so, then we would all be coerced into wasting our own time and energy (i.e. have less liberty) to provide these specialized goods and services by negotiating around the market failures from which they arose in the first place. So the question is: where do you draw the line? Why is coercion by the state necessarily worse than coercion by necessity? We would all like to do things better, but Libertarians insist upon a preference that they never define in any coherent way. It always seems to come down to some personal emotional decision, and to hinge on an ignorance of the theory of transaction costs.

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John Quiggin 08.13.10 at 9:04 pm

PIglet@116 You have guessed my awful secret I think.

I’ve planned a series of well-argued pieces on the Way Forward for Social Democracy (not to mention the PhD thesis I have to examine, the pile of article revisions on my desk and the lecture notes for the course I’ve promised in two weeks time). So of course, this is the time I feel an urgent need to write mildly snarky posts about libertarianism, before I get started on the real work.

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Salient 08.13.10 at 9:20 pm

You sound, to be blunt, like an imaginary socialist who has escaped from the inside of the head of a deranged right-winger and emerged into the real world.

Well at least you caught on. I think Metamorf’s still taking me half-seriously.

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roac 08.13.10 at 9:27 pm

I have been brooding on the arresting example put forward by Bellmore @86, and have formulated the following thought experiment (the kind that involves parallel universes):

On NonLibertarian-Earth, NonL-John Doe is standing on a street corner with a cordless drill and a bottle of H2SO4 (and, I will stipulate, a notarized affidavit around his neck saying IAM DOING THIS ENTIRELY OF MY OWN FREE WILL). Just as he raises the drill to his skull and presses the trigger, a policeman comes along, knocks him down, takes away the drill and the bottle, and hauls him off to the pokey.

On LibertarianEarth, the same thing takes place – but since the cop is bound by the Prime Directive, he watches in silence as L-John Doe drills a hole in his skull, pours in acid, and falls down dead.

The question is: Which is worse off, NonL-Doe, who has been deprived of his liberty, or L-Doe, who is dead? If you vote for the former, I guess you are a libertarian all right.

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Eli 08.13.10 at 9:46 pm

“What libertarians believe is that social animals can cooperate in non-coercive ways. Trade, and other voluntary forms of interaction.”

I’ll push back on this too. Trade can certainly be non-coercive and voluntary. But is more often coercive and non-voluntary.

As a simple example, when resources (human, social, etc.) are distributed evenly among a group of people, trade will tend to be non-coercive and voluntary. But as soon as you introduce inequality, that begins to change. Now, in modern social democracies, we have a lot of institutional protections that go a long way towards guaranteeing equality, and so a good deal of trade is non-coercive and voluntary. But you remove those institutional protections and the imbalances start to really play out in terrible ways.

What’s interesting is that many of these institutions were created in order to meet some social need that was not being achieved. So public parks, schools, libraries, roads, etc. are guaranteed to all in order to compensate for what would otherwise be a a system of very coercive and involuntary trade.

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piglet 08.13.10 at 10:26 pm

roac 117:

This seems to suggest that there are elements of the US government which have as a policy objective the invasion the Netherlands because of its tolerance of drugs. I suspect and hope that you have gotten a little carried away here. But if you have evidence, please share it, as that should certainly go on the lists of things that urgently need to be resisted in an organized fashion.

I didn’t think of invasion myself although novakant makes a good point. But you don’t dispute I hope that the US and other countries have been known to exert pressure on the Netherlands to force them to give up their liberal drug policies that American “leaders of the free world” decry as outrageous? I can’t cite direct examples of that, I’m not following these issues that closely, but I do remember the US officially trying to intervene in a recent referendum in Switzerland on assisted heroin treatment. That is perhaps not coercive but it is an act of intervening in domestic affairs that is normally taboo (well it all depends… it is normally taboo between members of the rich countries club). So the point is, yes, US leaders do, for purely ideological reasons, single out countries that they feel are too liberal in their drug policy and try to change these policies.

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John Protevi 08.13.10 at 10:56 pm

I guess what I was trying to say was that even in the simplest social situations I’ve read about in anthropology (bands) trade only takes place within a coercive framework. Nothing forces one band to trade with another (although they always seem to do), but when they do, there are threats of violence that limit what can be traded. That’s not the FDA, but it’s not nothing. But maybe that’s not the sort of “coercion” Brett Bellmore means though.

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Doctor Science 08.13.10 at 11:16 pm

John Protevi:

Your comments clarify for me that the sort of trade Brett is talking about — strictly fair, balanced, and freely-chosen — does not naturally occur inside human communities. Most basically, what I think I’m saying is that under what you might call “natural” conditions humans do not survive on their own. We live with each other because we *must*, because otherwise we (generally speaking) die.

So on the one hand, we are ecologically coerced to live in groups, that is our niche. On the other hand, our nature is adapted to our natural niche, so we need to live in a group to be happy. We need other people emotionally, in a way that libertarian trade and freely-chosen contracts cannot satisfy; we also ecologically/economically need other people if we are to survive. That’s what I mean by libertarians not believing that humans are social animals.

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Metamorf 08.13.10 at 11:17 pm

As a simple example, when resources (human, social, etc.) are distributed evenly among a group of people, trade will tend to be non-coercive and voluntary. But as soon as you introduce inequality, that begins to change.

Resources are never distributed evenly, and hence inequality is never “introduced”, it’s inherent. Given that, there remains an important difference between looting and trading.

John: I guess what I was trying to say was that even in the simplest social situations I’ve read about in anthropology (bands) trade only takes place within a coercive framework. Nothing forces one band to trade with another (although they always seem to do), but when they do, there are threats of violence that limit what can be traded.

From what I’ve read, trade is actually not a natural form of social relationship at all, and is difficult in the absence of trust. Since simple social situations typically lack such a trust context between disparate groups, “trade” is often replaced with simple raids and looting. Even within the group, trade as such is usually replaced by sharing or gifting, with the latter quite a complex and fraught social arrangement. Trade, when it can be accomplished, and in comparison with other forms of social/economic interaction, is actually quite free of violence.

See this for a further discussion.

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Oka 08.13.10 at 11:19 pm

“it’s not hard to see why no self-respecting libertarian would actually do it.”

But if you are committed to Nozick style libertarianism then you believe in (near) absolute negative rights. Then taxation of yours or anyone else’s property is right violating theft. If you gain economically from that system or not is then irrelevant. You MUST not be a part of rights violations. So any real libertarian MUST immediately move to libertopia regardless of the economic prospects there.

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Metamorf 08.13.10 at 11:21 pm

We need other people emotionally, in a way that libertarian trade and freely-chosen contracts cannot satisfy; we also ecologically/economically need other people if we are to survive.

But there’s nothing about trade per se, whether “libertarian” or any other kind, that precludes needing other people emotionally. Trade and freely-chosen contracts supplement such needs — they don’t replace them.

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Idiot/Savant 08.13.10 at 11:21 pm

Piglet @116: who would like to debate why we aren’t doing more, and being more successful, in putting liberal principles to practice?

Speak for yourself, American.

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John Protevi 08.13.10 at 11:32 pm

Trade, when it can be accomplished, and in comparison with other forms of social/economic interaction, is actually quite free of violence.

A stable framework of repeated trade can produce individual episodes of violence-free trade, but that’s because, I would think, you don’t cheat me because you know me and my boys would come looking for you if you did, or your boys would come looking for you, since you’ve hurt the fairness reputation of the band and that not’s going to help future trade opportunities. Again, IANAA, but that’s my sense of how things work.

As far as the ratio of inter-band raiding to trading, I think that’s going to vary by circumstances. But what I’ve read suggests pretty widespread inter-band trading, but no real intra-band trading. Again, this is mostly reading done in the context of the debates as to the origins of war, so other anthropology work might have different takes on things.

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Doctor Science 08.13.10 at 11:43 pm

Metamorph:

Thank you for the link, that is *extremely* well-put.

I think your essay clarifies what right-libertarians like Brett are looking for: market-like social relations, because they simplify cost/benefit calculations, and thus can be more easily extended over a wider range of social contexts. As you say, traditional donation and obligation are both, by comparison, vague, difficult to predict, and prone to the stress of free-riding, for both sides of the exchange.

Now, those of us who’ve read any anthropology know that the description of a culture traditionally begins with a chapter on kinship — relationships that are not freely-chosen, so in libertarian terms they must be coerced. Because Right-Libertopia wants market-like, freely-chosen social relations, I have *no idea* what their kinship system would be. Without a kinship system, is there any surprise that there is no Libertopia?

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John Protevi 08.14.10 at 12:14 am

Yes, that is a good post, Metamorf, but AFAICT, there has always been non-market inter-band trade (barter). It’s not just inter-band looting and intra-band gifts.

Which brings me to Doctor Science, with whom I agree very much, though I think we need also to say that while humans have to live in groups, groups are always in contact with other groups. Kinship relations being very often inter-group (they have to be inter-band, I think, as bands are too small to have intra-group kinship).

Finally to come back to MM, the Israeli episode of having market relations destroy non-market social forms is a big point made by Elinor Ostrom. She’s precisely against the free market / big central state exclusive dichotomy (which she shows is the dichotomy governing Garrett Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons thesis), but that’s in favor of multi-centered and multi-level government organizations as providing the framework for non-market social relations, which she studies extensively and intensively in _Governing the Commons_.

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Metamorf 08.14.10 at 12:32 am

A stable framework of repeated trade can produce individual episodes of violence-free trade, but that’s because, I would think, you don’t cheat me because you know me and my boys would come looking for you if you did, or your boys would come looking for you, since you’ve hurt the fairness reputation of the band and that not’s going to help future trade opportunities.

Okay, but this looks like a very fragile framework at best. My point is just that, in the absence of a trusted institutional framework — e.g., a justice system — that can act in lieu of this sort of feud-like retribution, real trade, in an on-going, commercial sense, is going to be difficult or impossible to sustain. The larger point is that commercial trade is not something to be despised, but is a significant achievement of human civilization.

To Doctor Science, thanks for the kind words. I’d only say that, just as trade — i.e., a freely chosen economic relationship — doesn’t preclude human feeling, neither does it preclude kinship, a form of human relationship that isn’t dependent on coercion in any sense that libertarians are concerned with.

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roac 08.14.10 at 1:13 am

Piglet @ 136: I didn’t know about any of this, but the DEA’s own website says that “international pressure” has led the Netherlands to back away from tolerance of marijuana, so clearly you are correct. I have no idea what kind of “pressure” that is, but whether mild or severe I am certainly against it.

On the other hand, it is probably too simplistic to think that if the US minded its own business, worldwide legalization would follow. Other sites I looked at suggest that there is substantial domestic pushback in the Netherlands against the liberalization policy.

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John Protevi 08.14.10 at 1:26 am

The larger point is that commercial trade is not something to be despised, but is a significant achievement of human civilization.

Never said it wasn’t. I really don’t know any leftists who “despise” commercial trade. What we / I despise is making it the basic and / or exclusive organizing principle for all human relations. Which is the neoliberal position in Foucault’s reading in Birth of Biopolitics. Even intra-self relations become marketized: as when life coach gurus tell you to reward yourself with a cookie when you study for an hour, or what have you. If I can tell from our brief exchanges here, you would differentiate this neoliberal pan-marketism from libertarianism. A big question would be though, don’t the pan-marketists use libertarian ideology to promote the spread of their vision?

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sg 08.14.10 at 1:44 am

The US also intervened in Australia through the UNODC, but was only successful because Australia had a conservative government at the time. US intervention in a subsequent project in Australia (the Medically Supervised Injecting Centre) was unsuccessful because it was sponsored by a non-conservative government which resisted US pressure. Dutch politics has been becoming more conservative lately, and is also subject to a lot of internal pressure about migration, crime, and British drug tourism, so it’s not the case that any modifications to marijuana laws have been purely the result of US pressure. In any case, US pressure tends to be exerted strongest on heroin laws, and as far as I know they are only liberalizing in Europe.

The fact is that the US only seriously intervenes to prevent drug-related activity as a pretext for other trade- or imperialism-related projects, such as in Afghanistan, where it spectacularly backfired. And although it’s true that those interventions tend to only be successful in places with weak states or sympathetic states, the possibility that the US would exert any serious pressure on a successfully functioning westernized libertarian state, with its services-related exports (and tax haven status for US rich kids, no doubt) is laughable. It’s just another example of libertarians big-noting how much of a threat they are to established thinking.

Guys, you’re not. All the major successful drug liberalizations of the modern era have come out of Social Democracy; all the unsuccessful, chaotic and destructive ones have occurred in societies without properly functioning states.

That libertarians don’t get this is yet more proof that they know nothing about anything.

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nick s 08.14.10 at 1:59 am

Unless the libertopians include a lot of women, they can’t possibly establish anything that isn’t basically a club instead of a society.

Turgidson: Doctor, you mentioned the ration of ten women to each man. Now, wouldn’t that necessitate the abandonment of the so called monogamous sexual relationship, I mean, as far as men were concerned?

Strangelove: Regrettably, yes. But it is, you know, a sacrifice required for the future of the human race. I hasten to add that since each man will be required to do prodigious… service along these lines, the women will have to be selected for their sexual characteristics which will have to be of a highly stimulating nature.

DeSadeski: I must confess, you have an astonishingly good idea there, Doctor.

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Eli 08.14.10 at 2:01 am

“Resources are never distributed evenly, and hence inequality is never “introduced”, it’s inherent. Given that, there remains an important difference between looting and trading.”

OK. To the extent that they are more evenly distributed, each party having more capital (human/social) from which to barter, there will be less inequality in the dynamic.

The thing I never understand about libertarian/conservative views on markets is how meritocratic they are assumed to be. So when a small portion of a group owns the vast proportion of the wealth, those who lack the means with which to barter equally are deemed the “moochers”. So the owner of a business gets to be Mr. Galt, even though his considerable human and social capital was inherited, as was his employees’ lack of capital. In this sense, to the degree to which he exploits them by taking advantage of his capital leverage he is actually the ultimate “moocher”. Sure, there are exceptions, but statistically they are incredible outliers (when you dig into their backgrounds of course, you always find secret caches of human/social capital, or incredible turns of luck). The social democratic state promotes equal markets by weakening these structured inequalities, while going to a Libertarian state would only solidify them.

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Omri 08.14.10 at 2:28 am

You know, it is possible to be a libertarian, or a libertarian-symp, and not be actively antisocial (i.e. no Galt’s Gulch fantasies), and not be all that worked up about tax rates.

If you promised me none of my tax money went to pay for unnecessary SWAT teams, you could double my taxes and I would not complain.

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Metamorf 08.14.10 at 2:31 am

John: If I can tell from our brief exchanges here, you would differentiate this neoliberal pan-marketism from libertarianism.

I suppose so, especially if “pan-marketism” is defined as making commercial trade “exclusive organizing principle for all human relations”. I’m not sure I’d agree, though, that the idea of rewarding yourself is really indicative of that.

A big question would be though, don’t the pan-marketists use libertarian ideology to promote the spread of their vision?

I guess they might, though again I’ll confess I’m not really sure who or what you mean by “pan-marketists”, but I would just urge that people not let themselves be distracted by such diversions or stereotypes. There is a pragmatic, small-l libertarianism that a) recognizes the need for the state as providing the basic legal framework that allows society to function with a minimum of coercion, but b) proposes that we work, over time, and in a practical, incremental manner, to reduce the intrusion of this state in our individual lives. As I’ve indicated, such a libertarianism is not only compatible with the notion of human beings as social animals, it embraces it. This is because it sees “individual” and “social” not as conflicting concepts but as mutually implicative, and sees the social and/or the public sphere as something much broader and richer than the state.

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John Protevi 08.14.10 at 2:48 am

There is a pragmatic, small-l libertarianism that a) recognizes the need for the state as providing the basic legal framework that allows society to function with a minimum of coercion, but b) proposes that we work, over time, and in a practical, incremental manner, to reduce the intrusion of this state in our individual lives.

I would agree, but then we have to accept the fact of corporate power, and once we distinguish private morals from concentrated economic power, we can get to work on shrinking the state when the state has tamed the power of corporations. Because right now today in the West it’s corporations I’m worried about more than the government when it comes to messing up my life. (I live in Louisiana, if you see what I’m getting at — okay, I’ll spell it out: BP.)

As I’ve indicated, such a libertarianism is not only compatible with the notion of human beings as social animals, it embraces it. This is because it sees “individual” and “social” not as conflicting concepts but as mutually implicative, and sees the social and/or the public sphere as something much broader and richer than the state.

Sure, but at Ostrom argues, we need the state (which works best when it’s multi-centered and multi-layered) to tame corporations to give us the space for non-market social relations. The social and / or public sphere can be much broader and richer than markets, but only when the state helps us keep corporations at bay.

For neoliberalism as pan-marketism, besides Foucault’s Birth of Biopolitics I also like Mirowski and Plewhe, eds., The Road from Mont Pelerin.

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Metamorf 08.14.10 at 4:39 am

John: I would agree, but then we have to accept the fact of corporate power, and once we distinguish private morals from concentrated economic power, we can get to work on shrinking the state when the state has tamed the power of corporations.

Okay, and thanks for the references. As is often the case, we can agree on some things and disagree on others.

My view of corporations in general is more benign than yours, for example, but, with respect, I think it’s naive to think the state is going to “tame” them or keep them at bay. The real problem, in my view, is just exactly the opposite — that the engorged state is entwined with the with the largest of these entities, as we see in the the bail-outs, the “too big to fail” syndrome, etc., and it’s this sort of “corporatist” complicity, not capitalism as such, that produces the real corruption of power. Making the state still more powerful isn’t going to help, but taming it can.

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jack lecou 08.14.10 at 6:38 am

Making the state still more powerful isn’t going to help, but taming it can.

It seems to me that you are drawing a false dichotomy there. The choice isn’t “making the state more powerful” vs. “taming it”. In principal at least, it is possible for us to exert control over more than simply the size axis of the state apparatus. The path John Protevi suggests is presumably along the lines of pursuing various kinds of specific reforms to reduce the influence of corporations and increase the loyalty and responsiveness of the state to the actual well-being of its citizens.

That’s very hard, of course, but it would seem to be very much the same kind of tough problem as “holding onto libertopia” would be.

I’m also quite skeptical of the idea that focusing on just the state is an appropriate way to go, but it usually seems that libertarians and small-government conservatives pay at best lip service to taming corporations at the same time. The picture that comes to my mind from your description of the problem is something like two giants, happily arm-in-arm, romping through the countryside destroying crops and terrorizing the peasantry. That may well be an apt image. However, it is difficult for me to see how neutering just one of the giants is likely to help. You’re still left with an angry giant — one who’s likely to just grow four times as big and destructive. That’d be bad enough, but it also seems to most of us that you are going to need to enlist the first one’s help to keep the other one under control.

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Metamorf 08.14.10 at 8:27 am

The picture that comes to my mind from your description of the problem is something like two giants, happily arm-in-arm, romping through the countryside destroying crops and terrorizing the peasantry. That may well be an apt image. However, it is difficult for me to see how neutering just one of the giants is likely to help. You’re still left with an angry giant—one who’s likely to just grow four times as big and destructive. That’d be bad enough, but it also seems to most of us that you are going to need to enlist the first one’s help to keep the other one under control.

Well-stated, but now we’re getting into the heart of the matter, and it’s difficult to address such an issue with just an image. In one sense, at least, you’re quite right — it’s precisely the business of the state to “control” corporate entities just as it “controls” the activities of individuals. But the quotes around “control” are intended to mark a problem — how exactly does or should the state control such activities? In general, there are two distinct strategies: on the one hand, it can attempt to intrude further and further into the actual decisions of corporations (and, for that matter, of individuals) in order to produce desired outcomes, and on the other, it can stand back to set it place and enforce a broad framework of laws. The first strategy is largely what we see in operation now — its tactics include a very complex tax code with huge numbers of exceptions, loop-holes, rebates, etc. etc., each of which is intended to influence decisions, and reams upon reams of detailed regulations, requiring whole departments on both private and public sides to monitor compliance. But it’s just this strategy that has the unintended (probably) consequence of entwining the state and the largest, most powerful corporate entities — the only ones easily able to afford the overhead such intrusions require — ever more tightly together. In other words, this strategy has the effect of worsening that state-industrial complex that always acts to preserve and enhance the positions of its most powerful members.

The other strategy is in a sense the reverse — it requires the state to stay out of the decisions of economic agents, whether corporate or individual, and instead maintain a legal framework and justice system to enforce it. Within that framework, economic agents are free to act as they each see fit, and the economy is just whatever outcomes result from such actions. My argument is that this strategy is the better one, for a couple of reasons. First, it leaves decision-making in the hands of those who know their own situation best, rather than in the hands of politicians and bureaucrats. And second, it decouples that malign embrace of state and corporation that motivates so much corporate time and energy into influencing favorable government policies. I’ll add as well that this strategy has the potential to generate wealth at an enormous rate, to the benefit of everyone, even the poorest.

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jack lecou 08.14.10 at 9:03 am

In general, there are two distinct strategies: on the one hand, it can attempt to intrude further and further into the actual decisions of corporations (and, for that matter, of individuals) in order to produce desired outcomes, and on the other, it can stand back to set it place and enforce a broad framework of laws.

Again, this strikes me as a false dichotomy. There are many different approaches, and they are not all mutually exclusive. And which is appropriate very much depends on the situation, there’s simply no way to take the broad view from outer space and pick the One True Way.

For example, take something like environmental regulation. Your framework suggests that our choice is between some kind of highly invasive (and capture-able) command-and-control bureaucracy — telling everyone what brand of filters they must put on their chimneys — or an economy where “economic agents are free to act as they each see fit” — and thus presumably harmful externalities Just Happen, except perhaps in rare cases where the costs are so terrible that they swamp the transaction costs of making some kind of Coasean bargain.

But there’re obviously other possible approaches. Like a Pigovian tax or permit system, which still requires some level of bureaucracy and may make huge economic changes, but, as long as it’s framed by a reasonably faithful legislative body, has far less opportunity for capture or abuse, and will almost invariably be more efficient than either of the above choices.

As far as controlling corporate power goes, it really comes down to the fact that there is no such thing as a “broad framework of laws”. Either your laws and regulations are specific and flexible — so that the powerful will seek to manipulate and entwine themselves with them in order to exert greater power — or your laws are general and spare — so that the powerful will simply accumulate even greater power in the lacunae and exert it directly.

The only remedy to either of these is the constant involvement and vigilance of ordinary citizens. Citizen commitment is absolutely necessary to make libertopia work. But then, if you have that level of citizen involvement, you can also make more flexible types of states work much better as well. So much better that it would almost by definition be more efficient than any similar state artificially hamstrung by simplistic concerns about its “size” or whether it’s laws were sufficiently “general”.

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zamfir 08.14.10 at 9:21 am

Metamorf, I do not really see the division you point to. Legal codes are also complicated, and legal battles suffer are also messy overhead of a type that large organizations can handle best. also, if you have no reasonably detailed regulations before things happen, it becomes hard to take legal actions afterwards. If someone in a court wants to ague that BP took unacceptable risks and did sloppy work, there need to be some standard what acceptable risks and good work looks like.

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alex 08.14.10 at 10:08 am

Go over to the next thread up. A guy talks sense there, and nobody’s commenting. But isn’t that just like the internet?

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Brett Bellmore 08.14.10 at 11:08 am

“It seems like libertarians can never draw the definite line about coercion. There is also coercion by necessity and coercion for efficiency. Inside a business firm things happen by coercion—from the boss. Why?”

Because non-libertarians are (deliberately?) sloppy in their use of the term, “coercion”, to include not just use of actual force, or imposition of actively averse consequences, but also the threat to cease the provision of positive interactions. I suppose because, having fuzzed the notion of “coercion” to include things not objectionable, it becomes easier in your mind to justify using real coercion to achieve your ends, because use of “coercion” so defined becomes unavoidable anyway. Or maybe just because you figure anything you don’t like, including other people not doing things you want, must be bad.

I’m in an at-will employment situation. My employment IS just exactly a series of market transactions. With agreed upon terms, yes, but neither side has entered into any obligation to continue the sequence of transactions. My employer could let me go tomorrow, for no reason at all, or I could walk out the door at lunch and never return, and neither of us would have violated a contract.

My boss firing me if I don’t do something he asks, thus, is NOT “coercion” in a proper sense. He’s not taking anything from me which is already mine. Any more than I’d be robbing him by quitting the job. Yes, I’d be worse off if he fired me, he’d be worse off if I walked, but not everything that leaves you worse off is coercive. People do have a right not to benefit you, or even continue benefiting you once they’ve started.

I know, I know, you don’t like that restricted definition of “coercion”. Some people find it ridiculous that you’re not allowed to divide by zero, too.

If you’re going to reason at all rigorously about morals, you have to use definitions that don’t lead to contradiction. That’s why libertarians use a strict definition of coercion, and won’t admit that positive ‘rights’ are really rights.

Because, like division by zero, they let you prove anything. Which is, I suppose, why liberals insist on the opposite.

“The question is: Which is worse off, NonL-Doe, who has been deprived of his liberty, or L-Doe, who is dead? If you vote for the former, I guess you are a libertarian all right.”

The question is, who’s better off? The people living in the society where they can do what THEY want, (Even if somebody else thinks they’re stupid to want it.) or the people who can be forced to do what somebody else wants? If you vote for the latter, you are a ‘liberal’, all right.

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sg 08.14.10 at 12:16 pm

haha Brett, keeping up the funny there. It ain’t the non-libertarians who have a funny idea of coercion, Brett., and you just spent several paragraphs proving the point.

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Alex 08.14.10 at 12:25 pm

Portugal has yet to be invaded by the US.

Even intra-self relations become marketized: as when life coach gurus tell you to reward yourself with a cookie when you study for an hour, or what have you.

Surely this expands the market concept too far. If that’s a market, then so are the homeostatic processes of the body itself. If marker X falls below level Y, release signalling hormone Z and await the time0ut. Actually, on that score, a purely communist society driven entirely by altruism would be a market economy – people do things for others and receive their reward in the satisfaction of so doing.

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otis 08.14.10 at 1:02 pm

Henry’s post linking to Charlie Stross reminded me of one I was planning to do on the question – why has there never been a serious attempt at a real libertarian utopia?

Ummm The American West was pretty libertarian, John. In fact most of those communities had private police forces.

Despite the hoopla they seemed to function quite well.

Perhaps you should do a mirror and explain why all heavy duty socialist states have ended up on the scrap heap.

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Metamorf 08.14.10 at 1:15 pm

There are many different approaches, and they are not all mutually exclusive.

I think the dichotomy is quite real — there are many different policies, but not so many different strategies. Certainly, there are many times when policies drawn from such strategies will need to be mixed, particularly given our present situation. But even so, to move forward — i.e., to progress — I’m saying we should always be looking for ways to minimize the footprint of the state and maximize the free choices of individual actors.

And it’s not power in the abstract that we need to be concerned with — power differentials are as inevitable as inequality, and we need legitimately powerful entities, in any case, to get things done. It’s the abuse of power, on the other hand, that follows in the wake of the idea that the state can always override any particular framework in order to dictate specific outcomes, that causes problems.

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armando 08.14.10 at 1:31 pm

Removing the only powerful actor which is subject to democratic contraints doesn’t sound at all like a recipe for addressing abuses of power at all. Quite the opposite, isn’t the point to allow powerful actors to do what they want? While not specifically encouraging abuses of power, this seems like a strategy that is at best indifferent to such abuses.

Or is the point of the libertarian ideology that monopolies, racism etc all disappear once you stop trying to control them? That is, cure the patient by stopping any treatment whatsoever?

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Greg B 08.14.10 at 1:56 pm

@Brett Bellmore
Is modifying the preferences, dispositions, habits and so forth of someone in ways they do not consciously and specifically consent to coercive (art and advertising come to mind, but there are other examples)?

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Brett Bellmore 08.14.10 at 2:34 pm

You’re going to define speech and persuasion as ‘coercion’? Art? Music? Doesn’t occur to you that, if you’re expanding the definition of a word to encompass pretty much everything, you’re doing something wrong? Robbing the word of all meaning?

Words are useful only insofar as there are things each word doesn’t mean…

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John Protevi 08.14.10 at 2:54 pm

Brett, insofar as your definition of “voluntary” as the opposite of “coercive” assumes the inviolability of preferences, asking about preference formation techniques possessed by powerful corporations might be appropriate, no? Or to put it bluntly, how do you feel about advertising aimed at children? (I’m going to guess that you think it’s the parents’ responsibility to monitor their children’s exposure to such, but I’ll let you tell me if I’m wrong here.)

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Brett Bellmore 08.14.10 at 3:05 pm

Surprisingly, John, I’m capable of disapproving of something without labeling it “coercion”; Must have something to do with having a vocabulary of more than 750 words…

No, I don’t think people ought to aim advertising for actively harmful products at children, but there’s that ‘room’ I was talking about. I’ve got a child, and you’ve correctly identified whose duty it is to shelter that child.

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Greg B 08.14.10 at 3:41 pm

I asked the question in good faith. If you want to have a definition of coercion which excludes such things that is fine with me. If you want to say it’s possible to disapprove of them without labeling them ‘coercion’, I fully agree. The point of the question wasn’t to change the definition of a word. The point is that it is possible to modify the behavior of others in ways which are neither (1) coercion as you define it, or (2) a meeting of the minds or autonomous exchange relations. Yes, rhetoric, speech, persuasion, marketing, influence, charisma, and so forth. They seem to me to pose a significant challenge to libertarianism, to the extent libertarianism seems to characterize all relations as either (1) or (2). In the examples pointed to, on the surface, they appear to not challenge libertarianism. You retain your freedom (you feel you can always refuse to buy Froot Loops despite the exhortations of Toucan Sam) but in practice and thanks to insights from the human sciences, we know people do not work like this. Thus, the question is open: “How does libertarianism address changing the behavior of others in these ways?”. I have not encountered an answer I’ve found satisfactory, and I am genuine when I say I am open to the possibility there is one. To say “well, those things aren’t coercion, of course, but libertarians are still free to disapprove of them” doesn’t seem to do any heavy lifting (not least because that disapproval is subject to modification through the techniques listed above). To say “people can learn to exercise willpower and reason in response” doesn’t seem to help either, because the production of people who can exercise those faculties would be a similar intervention that fits neither (1) or (2) above; and those faculties can’t be exercised continuously and indefinitely (sooner or later ‘willpower’ breaks down, for example).

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Eli 08.14.10 at 4:05 pm

Greg B, very well said. You’ve offered a very specific example of an everyday social transaction that the abstract theoretics of libertarianism has a hard time processing. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. As you mentioned, human sciences have uncovered not only this, but many, many more ways in which we interact in different social environments.

In a sense, you could say that social democracy, with a powerful state regulation and provision of social services, is actually very *science-based*, where libertarianism and conservatism are not, opting instead to fall back upon squishy notions of tradition and wishful thinking. There is a tendency on the right to be very dismissive of social sciences, assuming they are all theory (in the colloquial sense) and no fact. But the science is very real and the proof is in how predictive they have been. Human behavior isn’t as mysterious as many would like to believe.

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John Protevi 08.14.10 at 5:02 pm

I was going to snark back at you Brett, asking why someone with your ginormous vocabulary (you’re not the love child of Evelyn Wood by any chance are you?) would only be able to come up with “people” when it comes to describing advertisers. You’re not really going to go all methodological individualism in extremis on us are you? In the vulgate, an ultra-Thatcher: “there are no corporations, only people!”

But then Greg B and Eli had to come along and make excellent, serious points and it kind of ruined the snark-fest atmosphere you were inviting.

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John Protevi 08.14.10 at 5:06 pm

Gaaa! It was Norman Lewis who wrote Word Power Made Easy. Evelyn Wood was the speed reading maven.

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bianca steele 08.14.10 at 5:34 pm

Greg B@189
This is progress. We’ve moved from defining Utopia to an analysis of changing minds, which at least more concrete, and fascinating from a theoretical standpoint. Other than the burning question whether using modern science to design a society from scratch regardless of existing institutions and traditions that have been refined and theorized for centuries (as liberals and the left supposedly all wish to do, according to a certain kind of conservative) is a terrible, terrible idea, however, it isn’t yet obvious to me how an analysis of changing minds is relevant to people who think a libertarian utopia would be good or to people who think the idea is stupid. There is a dilemma here which different groups of people have different ideas about resolving: which direction is now the appropriate one to go in?

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John Protevi 08.14.10 at 6:01 pm

Bianca Steele: I’ll let Greg B. answer from his perspective, but for me the interest in modern affective neuroscience goes something like this: AFAICT, libertarians want respect for individual freedom. That’s defined as the inviolability of preferences (as long as they don’t limit the freedom of others). I just want to know how preference are formed. To understand that, I think we have to go above and below the individual. Above to various forms of social groups (corporations and governments being only two such forms) and below to affective structures, emotional complexes, whatever you want to call them. It seems to me that libertarians, because of their commitment to methodological individualism, refuse to consider the genesis of, and multiple number of, affective structures w/in the individual, and when it comes to going above the individual, they seem only to be concerned with governments and not with corporations.

The focus on government and corporation, of course, occurs in the modern case. I tried above to engage Brett in a discussion that trade, which for him is voluntary transactions between individuals, requires a coercive social framework [threats of violence for cheating] even in the simplest cases we have on record, band societies, which are not “pre-State” but non-State societies. So the coercive framework is co-extensive with trade, and doesn’t begin with States. But so far he hasn’t responded to me on that point, though I had a nice discussion with Metamorf about it. I guess Metamorf was content to deal with my limited vocabulary.

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bianca steele 08.14.10 at 6:04 pm

And to continue the analysis, why should your interaction with me result in your changing your mind at all, especially from a libertarian point of view? Isn’t it somehow a form of coercion even to project a possible change of mind, on your part, through some action of mine? If you are rational, then presumably you will be helpless to change your mind in the face of certain arguments. On the other hand, if you might change your mind gratuitously, presumably it sets up a temptation for you just to offer an opportunity for such a gratuitous change of heart.

Unless I’m missing something, your (2) would seem to drop away, and we would be able to interact through actions, and possibly statements of trivial facts, but in no other way (lest I risk coercing you, or you me).

Then I’m wondering how we would have anything in our minds at all, given no free exchanges of ideas between individuals, without (1) coercion of some kind, or else simply redefining coercion again to exclude some kind of interaction we’re again going to consider as “free.”

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Kenneth Almquist 08.14.10 at 6:14 pm

Greg B, the issue you raise is a good one, and it’s not just a problem for libertarianism. Liberalism also supports the principle of free speech, a principle which was developed prior to the development of psychology as a science. Liberal attempts to address the issue include (1) education, particularly education in critical thinking, (2) restrictions on commercial speech, and (3) attempts to equalize campaign resources so candidates get approximately equal amounts of speech. These are not really solutions but rather attempts to ameliorate the problem a bit. I haven’t seen libertarians trying to come up with ways to ameliorate the problems with libertarianism, probably because the movement is too committed to ideological purity.

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John Protevi 08.14.10 at 6:31 pm

Kenneth Almquist: Susan Hurley’s paper “Bypassing Conscious Control” has some great stuff on whether first-person shooter games should enjoy free speech protections. Available here: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/philosophy/hurley/index.html.

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bianca steele 08.14.10 at 7:23 pm

My comment crossed with John Protevi’s @ 194.

1) There is the question whose preferences take priority. There will always be situations where one person’s preferences limit others’ (trivially, the preferences of the New Yorker‘s fiction editor and WGBH’s classical music programmers limit (or expand) what I will be able to choose among w/r/t reading and listening). A focus on the individual in the way you’re suggesting would seem to prohibit the consideration of power differentials and the way power plays out.

2) I’ve nothing against psychological forms of analyses, whether they be Freudian, Transactional Analysis, whatever; they are useful metaphors. But I do object that I do not need to query your id or your superego in order to know whether or not I should engage in a “free trade” with you, and I’d resent your doing so (which is what “I want to know how preferences are formed” sounds like to me).

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Brett Bellmore 08.14.10 at 7:33 pm

“I tried above to engage Brett in a discussion that trade, which for him is voluntary transactions between individuals, requires a coercive social framework [threats of violence for cheating”

It’s somewhat of an over-simplification to say that libertarians oppose all coercion. We want coercion minimized, and oppose it’s initiation. But when somebody enters freely into an agreement, and then violates it, the coercion necessary to get them to deliver on their commitment isn’t wrongful coercion, and it’s initiation is their fault, not the enforcer.

As for advertising, of course libertarians won’t concede that point. We want the competition between ideas to be fought on the level of ideas, not on the level of who will be permitted to advocate their ideas. That is someplace we really don’t want to go, not in the least because we suspect it gives people with nasty ideas the edge.

It’s certainly a form of competition libertarians would lose, just because we’d find it immoral to try to win.

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Lee A. Arnold 08.14.10 at 8:16 pm

Brett Bellmore: “the threat to cease the provision of positive interactions.” Name one.

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John Protevi 08.14.10 at 9:00 pm

A focus on the individual in the way you’re suggesting would seem to prohibit the consideration of power differentials and the way power plays out.

I’m confused. Far from a “focus on the individual” I think I’m advocating that understanding human beings in their concrete bio-neuro-social reality requires going above and below the individual. And in insisting on considering corporations in the modern context I’m objecting to an exclusive “focus on the individual” in favor of taking power differentials into account.

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John Protevi 08.14.10 at 9:18 pm

It’s somewhat of an over-simplification to say that libertarians oppose all coercion. We want coercion minimized, and oppose it’s initiation. But when somebody enters freely into an agreement, and then violates it, the coercion necessary to get them to deliver on their commitment isn’t wrongful coercion, and it’s initiation is their fault, not the enforcer.

OK, as long as you don’t attribute that over-simplification to me, as I was responding to this comment of yours: What libertarians believe is that social animals can cooperate in non-coercive ways. Trade, and other voluntary forms of interaction. So to recap, you agree that individual episodes of non-coercive, voluntary trade require (or at least are historically co-extensive with) collectively enforced coercive frames.

As for advertising, of course libertarians won’t concede that point. We want the competition between ideas to be fought on the level of ideas, not on the level of who will be permitted to advocate their ideas. That is someplace we really don’t want to go, not in the least because we suspect it gives people with nasty ideas the edge.

Is it really a good characterization of advertising to call it “competition between ideas”? I really would recommend the Hurley piece, as it includes a pretty good review of the literature about violence and media. Not all that media is in the form of advertising, true, but the point would be the permeability of our unconscious emotional structures to social cues. “Exchange of ideas” isn’t nearly a thick enough concept to handle that.

It’s certainly a form of competition libertarians would lose, just because we’d find it immoral to try to win.

I don’t really follow you. Understanding how media works isn’t really a form of competition, but even if it were, there’s no obvious conclusion to draw from the psych research in re free speech . There’s a debate to be had, and I can’t see how it would be “immoral” to participate in that debate. You don’t think it immoral to discuss whether we should or should not have laws against yelling “fire” in a crowded movie theater, do you?

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engels 08.14.10 at 9:56 pm

If you want to minimise coercion abolishing private property would be a good start.

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James Kroeger 08.14.10 at 10:10 pm

I don’t know how things would unfold in Libertopia, but I do know what would happen in America if the Libertarians were able to pursue their agenda without too much resistance.

If they were ever able to gain control of the government, they would not hesitate, of course, to bring an end to the government’s involvement in fire & police protection, road & sewer construction/repair, and even national defense. Of course, in order to reap any real gains in efficiency from such moves, the Libertarians would not only have to privatize these government ‘industries’, they’d also want to see a good number of firms in each of these industries competing with each other to provide the services we want, that the government will no longer be providing. After all, without the pressure of competition, privately-owned firms are no more efficient than governments are.

How would things be different if we were to get the government out of the security industries? Well, for one thing, we’d have to put up with the endless advertisements that competing police forces and competing fire departments would be putting on the air. If you ever found yourself needing to call for a police officer or a team of fire fighters, you’d first have to decide which privately-owned service you’d want to call (assuming you had not already chosen a ‘provider’). You’d have to compare prices and different packages of services that they’d be offering at the time. Of course, the very first thing they would ask you if you were to call is if you were covered by that police company’s protection services and if you had been current in your monthly payments.

Assuming you were covered by one of their services plans, you would then discover if/whether the plan you paid for actually covers the particular kind of service you were calling them for. Of course, some people would not pay for police or fire protection because they would not be able to afford the premiums. They’d take their chances. So if your neighbor’s house caught fire, and he hadn’t paid for any fire protection services, his house would burn down, but perhaps not before it ended up catching your own home on fire. Still others would be able to afford some coverage, but maybe they would have to select the high deductible option on the service package they chose, that they thought they could afford.

If the Republicans had succeeded in getting the government out of the road/sewer construction/repair business when they were in power, we would still see roads and sewers in America, but we’d also have to put up with certain inconveniences, like toll booths every few miles. Of course, in order for there to be any real competition in these industries, we’d also need to have parallel, competing highways and sewer lines. Can you imagine that? Two or more sewer lines dug so that competing firms would be able to offer the same services to the same cluster of customers? In those areas where it would be prohibitive for a private firm to build a competing highway, the fruits of competition would disappear and all users of the single road would pay monopoly prices in order to connect with the main arteries.

And if we really wanted to enjoy the benefits of libertarian freedom in the national defense industry, we’d have to encourage the existence of competing, privately-owned armies. Of course, some Nervous Nellies out there would be concerned about the possibility that these competing armies just might want to go to war with each other some day, or that they might want to use their raw power to impose their will on Congress, but we all know that nothing like that would ever happen in America, right?

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Brett Bellmore 08.14.10 at 10:20 pm

You know what the real competition with fire departments is? Not other fire departments: Sprinkler systems.

Anyway, I’m always amused by the way statists resolutely refuse to apply any imagination at all to the task of figuring out how to successfully do things outside the government. I guess that’s understandable, given that they’d rather not do things outside the government, so they don’t WANT to notice workable ways to do it, like RFID tokens so that you don’t have to stop to pay the toll…

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Greg B 08.14.10 at 10:29 pm

@bianca steele
it isn’t yet obvious to me how an analysis of changing minds is relevant to people who think a libertarian utopia would be good or to people who think the idea is stupid

I am not sure I follow your arguments, I’m afraid, but I take the responsibility for that one. I think the point is that a libertarian utopia is not possible because it invokes a poor notion of human nature, one which presumes a peculiar kind of individual. Libertarianism doesn’t, as far as I can see, address very well the issues about freedom I have raised – In libertopia either you are unjustly coerced, i.e. forced through violence (or the threat thereof); or you are left alone with all your negative rights intact and can then pursue various agreements with others, determined in the last instance by the will of the individual. But this seems to me, for the points I gave and others provided in the interim, to not account for how people really behave or for the determining effect circumstances have and how they might compromise rationality/agency/freedom. John Protevi is doing an excellent job at elaborating and extending on what I have said, I believe I am in agreement with him in full at the moment.

@Brett Bellmore’s comment
But when somebody enters freely into an agreement. . .

I generally don’t like to snip what someone else has said, but this ties into my paragraph above to bianca. How do we determine when someone enters freely into an agreement? It is fine to (circularly) say that agreements should be entered into freely and that those agreements are therefore free, but I am left asking: what if I have to enter into an agreement because of circumstances? What if my ability to judge among alternatives is compromised? What if my ignorance, my habits, my means, or my state of mind are exploited? What if my preferences don’t stem from my soul but are a function of concerted non-coercive (read: non-violent) efforts by others? Casting all exchange relations as freely-chosen instances of mutual benefit begs the question.

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Metamorf 08.14.10 at 10:41 pm

So the coercive framework is co-extensive with trade, and doesn’t begin with States.

True, but trivial. The coercive framework is coextensive with human interactions of any sort, particularly in the hyper-sensitive manner in which “coercive” is being used here. The point is to develop ways to reduce coercive interactions. But you can easily make that impossible just by making coercion roughly equivalent to interaction, as we see in efforts to define persuasion as coercion above — so, e.g., everyone making a comment on this thread is attempting at least to coerce others into agreement, as we know from various studies of the neurological effects of rhetoric, etc.

But the question then arises as to why this particular definition is stretched so — and the answer, I think, is that it suits a certain agenda very well, after all. Those who would like to use state coercion with a free conscience to force people into certain behaviors they approve of, or prevent other behaviors of which they disapprove can then say, oh, well, since everything is coercive anyway, what’s a little more? A nice dodge for would-be dictators and totalitarians of various stripes as well, obviously.

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Metamorf 08.14.10 at 10:54 pm

Greg B: …what if I have to enter into an agreement because of circumstances?

You always have to. And so does the person you’re agreeing with. you’re either entering into the agreement on a pure whim, for no reason, or you have a reason for doing so, and that reason constitutes the “circumstances”, for both parties.

Of course, if you like to think of yourself as simply a robot, forced/’coerced” by the internal mechanisms of your “mind”, that’s okay, but you should bear in mind that the other party is also a robot of the same general type, and is similarly forced/coerced by the operation of “circumstances” on his/her own internal neurological mechanisms. We’re back to that notion of universal coercion so useful to those with an unhealthy interest in power over others.

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Greg B 08.14.10 at 11:11 pm

@Metamorf

For those who consulted my posts, I was content to concede a quite restricted definition of coercion. I then asked what libertarianism makes of some interactions which are, by definition, clearly not coercive. I even gave a few examples. I now see just how well libertarian arguments address those interactions.

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John Protevi 08.14.10 at 11:26 pm

So the coercive framework is co-extensive with trade, and doesn’t begin with States.

True, but trivial. The coercive framework is coextensive with human interactions of any sort, particularly in the hyper-sensitive manner in which “coercive” is being used here. The point is to develop ways to reduce coercive interactions. But you can easily make that impossible just by making coercion roughly equivalent to interaction, as we see in efforts to define persuasion as coercion above—so, e.g., everyone making a comment on this thread is attempting at least to coerce others into agreement, as we know from various studies of the neurological effects of rhetoric, etc.

There are two problems here. First, we (Greg B and I) are trying to dislodge the voluntary vs coercive exclusive binary by pointing to preference formation techniques wielded by corporations and governments. That’s not coercion if you define coercion as a gun to the head, but it’s not nothing either, and I would like to hear what you call it. The second point is emergence vs methodological individualism. With advertising, we’re not talking about a smoothly-scaled up version of one-on-one communication, as you imply by making our discussions here an “e.g.”. We’re talking about big corporations with lots of money and brainpower and big ad agencies with lots of money and brainpower and a media-saturated environment (TV screens in elevators now!).

I’ll leave your second paragraph alone, because although I generally follow a tit-for-tat policy (witness my interaction with Brett), we’ve had a good discussion so far, so I’m willing to let you slide here. But with another allusion to my secret desire to be a dictator, I’ll have to retaliate: a tit for two tats, as it were.

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John Protevi 08.14.10 at 11:27 pm

Second graf of my post should be itallicized as I’m citing MM.

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Metamorf 08.14.10 at 11:43 pm

Greg B: For those who consulted my posts, I was content to concede a quite restricted definition of coercion.

Well, you were content to restrict the definition of the word, but it seemed to me you were still relying on the concept in attempting to make a critique of libertarianism. You say, for example, that your question is ““How does libertarianism address changing the behavior of others in these ways?””, such other ways including art and advertising, as well as “rhetoric, speech, persuasion, marketing, influence, charisma, and so forth. ” But I can’t imagine how such a question could have any point at all unless you felt that such “other ways” really constituted a form of coercion without using the word itself.

If, however, you’re serious about abandoning the concept of coercion as applying to these “other ways” then I’d say good, and we can move on to talk about other things. Because as far as answering the question is concerned, I’d just say libertarianism as such doesn’t address it at all — people are as free to change the behavior of others through persuasion, etc. as they are through flattery, or offers of cooperation, or protest marches, or, for that matter, through wearing white after Labor Day.

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John Protevi 08.14.10 at 11:52 pm

Because as far as answering the question is concerned, I’d just say libertarianism as such doesn’t address it at all—people are as free to change the behavior of others through persuasion, etc. as they are through flattery, or offers of cooperation, or protest marches, or, for that matter, through wearing white after Labor Day.

I don’t want to step on Greg B’s toes, as this was addressed to him. I’ll just point out that you haven’t addressed the emergence vs methodological individualism question, as you keep using one-on-one communication as your model of preference formation in advertising and propaganda. “People” aren’t trying to convince me of their good efforts in the Gulf, BP is.

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Metamorf 08.15.10 at 12:13 am

John: But with another allusion to my secret desire to be a dictator, I’ll have to retaliate: a tit for two tats, as it were.

Fair enough –more than fair, in fact, as you no doubt know from “the evolution of cooperation”. I’ll just say that my allusion wasn’t to your personal desires, of which I know nothing obviously, but to agendas I thought were implicit in some parts of our political culture.

As for trying to “dislodge the voluntary vs coercive exclusive binary”, see my response to Greg above — I don’t think these poles need to be thought of as a mutually exclusive binary in order to say, as libertarianism does, that it’s preferable to move human interactions toward the voluntary pole and away from the coercive one. I don’t doubt that there are “preference formation techniques wielded by corporations and governments” — but “preference formation techniques” of one sort or another, wielded by varying sized whatsits of varying kinds (e.g., churches, political parties, community organizations, NGOs, activist groups, small companies, academics, artist cooperatives, etc.) with varying amounts of money and brainpower are a constant and ineradicable factor in human relations. The only way to make an issue out of that is to try to make a much more problematic “exclusive binary”, between some Ideal of pure preference formation in the absence of any external influence, on the one hand, and, as I indicated to Greg, a robot-like view of human preference as merely the expression of some alien preference formation technique, on the other.

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Metamorf 08.15.10 at 12:20 am

“People” aren’t trying to convince me of their good efforts in the Gulf, BP is.

No, I really think people are — i.e., the owners and agents of BP. Sorry if that’s too Maggie Thatcher for you, but her kind of “methodological individualism” — assuming that’s what you’re referring to — was and is an important effort to demystify various abstractions and reifications that obscure rather than clarify social thought.

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John Protevi 08.15.10 at 12:26 am

I don’t doubt that there are “preference formation techniques wielded by corporations and governments”—but “preference formation techniques” of one sort or another, wielded by varying sized whatsits of varying kinds (e.g., churches, political parties, community organizations, NGOs, activist groups, small companies, academics, artist cooperatives, etc.) with varying amounts of money and brainpower are a constant and ineradicable factor in human relations.

Yeah, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be regulated, precisely to expand the area around the voluntary pole of human interaction.

Anyway, dinner calls. I won’t follow you with reducing corporations to a collection of people, but as the diplomats would say, we’ve had a frank and open exchange of views, and for that I thank you.

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Substance McGravitas 08.15.10 at 12:36 am

You know what the real competition with fire departments is? Not other fire departments: Sprinkler systems.

So when my house is on fire I phone them or what?

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Metamorf 08.15.10 at 12:38 am

… we’ve had a frank and open exchange of views, and for that I thank you.

And I thank you, for the same.

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Brett Bellmore 08.15.10 at 12:39 am

“What if my ability to judge among alternatives is compromised? What if my ignorance, my habits, my means, or my state of mind are exploited? What if my preferences don’t stem from my soul but are a function of concerted non-coercive (read: non-violent) efforts by others?”

Got a way of determining that this is the case, which is not only objective, but obvious enough that nobody could get away with abusing it? I really, really, REALLY do not like the idea of dismissing somebody’s choices as ‘not their own’, or ‘not voluntary’, just because somebody else influenced them by speech or art or whatever.

It stinks of ‘false consciousness’. Of an excuse to dismiss somebody else’s choices as not really their own, and thus not worthy of being respected.

People influence other people in all sorts of ways. and short of mind control rays or drug assisted programming, I don’t see that as a problem, and especially don’t see a principled way of distinguishing between influences which are ok, and those that somehow can be considered to obliviate personal choice.

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Greg B 08.15.10 at 1:11 am

So there is, on one hand, a restricted definition of coercion. Fair enough. There are also voluntary interactions. Between the two we might find all kinds of interactions which form the preferences of others. There are also many interactions which not only form the preferences of others, but which structure their means and their future interactions. We might characterize all those interactions as non-coercive (with the implication they are, to some extent, voluntary). Thus, whatever their consequences, libertarianism sees all non-coercive interactions as unproblematic. Yet facing the argument that those interactions may be unjust – that either at the point of their application or in their long-term consequences, they reduce one’s autonomy, one’s liberty, they move one away from the voluntary pole – the response is that one is redefining coercion unfairly, broadening it so far as to be meaningless. Consequently, it is not possible in the terms of such a debate to argue against the following: anything one might do to others, individually or in concert with one’s peers, as long as you are not coercive, are fine. Manipulation, propaganda, exploitation of others’ faults, and so forth, these will, I presume, either be weeded out by the market (but we might want to look at what happens in the real world) or are admissible.

@Metamorf
“preference formation techniques” of one sort or another, wielded by varying sized whatsits of varying kinds with varying amounts of money and brainpower are a constant and ineradicable factor in human relations

But the distribution of power among these ‘varying sized whatsits’ is not constant and ineradicable, and some distributions of power can be unjust. Furthermore, such distributions of power can result from what are ostensibly voluntary interactions.

@Brett Bellmore
Got a way of determining that this is the case, which is not only objective, but obvious enough that nobody could get away with abusing it?

I would ask the same question to a position which says that every exchange relation is by definition voluntary. Self-reports are hardly sufficient, look at people’s cognitive biases, fallibility in judgment, and so forth. This position also says if there is no coercion (restrictively defined), that the conditions under which the exchange is able to occur warrant no consideration. Why? Because to do so is to try to make ‘coercion’ mean anything, apparently.

I don’t dismiss people’s choices as not their own, I think it is necessary to study how and why people make decisions, and ‘how’ and ‘why’ are variable, and complicate which interactions are expressions of liberty and which are not. Even recognizing Metamorf’s admission that voluntary decisions are not made in a vacuum, Libertarianism takes it as axiomatic that these decisions are voluntary and unproblematic (because non-coercive).

That’s all I think I have to say, otherwise it feels like we are going in circles, though I am genuine that this is not an attempt to claim the last word.

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Yobbo 08.15.10 at 2:03 am

Henry’s post linking to Charlie Stross reminded me of one I was planning to do on the question – why has there never been a serious attempt at a real libertarian utopia? Most other utopian ideologies have inspired at least someone to attempt a practical implementation. On the face of it, libertarianism seems ideally suited to the belief in a fresh start, with no messy pre-existing claims. All sorts of ideas have been floated – island buyouts, sea-steading, co-ordinated moves to New Hampshire and so on, but none has gone anywhere.

Actually the Island buyout has been tried a few times. Unfortunately the libertarians who have tried it were mostly of the anarchist bent, and as a result saw no need for any kind of defense force. After about 6 months their libertarian utopia was captured and absorbed into the nation of Tonga.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Republic_of_Minerva

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sg 08.15.10 at 2:14 am

Hey libertards, is it “coercive” or “non-coercive” to run a program of deliberate public misinformation about tobacco and cancer, using tobacco company money, but hiding the source of your funds so people are led to believe you’re an honest, concerned citizen (“just people” to continue the Thatcher line). Is it “coercive” or “non-coercive” to extend that campaign, using tobacco company money, to include attacks on climate science and any other environmentally-related scientific findings, for the stated reason that attacking the integrity of envrionmentally-related science as a whole is useful? Is it “coercive” or “non-coercive” to set up front organisations whose job is to lobby government to ease restrictions on the sale of toxic chemicals, tobacco, or the emission of environmentally destructive greenhouse gases? If someone flies over your house dumping DDT on your kids because those restrictions have been removed, are you being “coerced”? When you move house because of this was your decision “voluntary”?

Is it “coercive” or “non-coercive” when those lobby groups’ campaigns include attempts to destroy the careers of individual scientists, misrepresentation of their work, death threats, and attempts to remove their funding?

If you’re a scientist whose reputation has successfully been trashed by a libertarian think-tank, and you have to get a job as a taxi-driver because no-one will employ you in your chosen field, did you “voluntarily” enter into that new career?

If you’re a prawn fisherman on the Gulf of Mexico, and your livelihood was ruined by BP’s poor risk management, and you have to take a job in an unsafe oil clean-up role because it’s all that’s going, did you take that job “voluntarily”? And if the oil spill was only caused because BP employed some fancy lobbyists to get a sympathetic Bush govt to reduce restrictions on their extremely risky drilling program, have you been “coerced” or not?

The libertarian definition of “coercion” and “voluntary contracts” could be dismissed as stupid and naive if it didn’t so clearly and carefully fit their political framework of giving the rich as much coercive power as possible.

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John Quiggin 08.15.10 at 3:12 am

@Yobbo – the Wikipedia article implies, contrary to the “pacifist” account, that there was never any real settlement at Minerva Reef, just a tower and flag, with an associated claim to (suburban Republican style) tax exempt status for US-resident “citizens”. Do you have any info about this?

@Otis – great minds think alike obviously. I hoisted your comment out of moderation just as I was finishing my post on the spurious claims of the American West to be a libertarian society, rather than (as was the reality) one built on the theft of land.

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Tom West 08.15.10 at 3:28 am

Hey libertards

sg, might I suggest that it is rarely worthwhile to spend precious time engaging in conversation (online or otherwise) with groups that you despise so much that you cannot help but indulge in name-calling?

It would be interesting to see how someone of a Libertarian bent tries answering some of your questions, but given how you open your post, it implies very heavily that you are not actually interested in their answers, in which case it is highly unlikely any response will be made. In such case, much of the point of the post has been lost (except perhaps the point that you seem to believe name-calling strengthens your post).

A pity.

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bianca steele 08.15.10 at 3:54 am

John Protevi:
You seem to be interested in what is above the individual so you can describe how that impacts on the individual, but personal analysis is ideally suited to helping an individual conform to things as they are, thus not very political, rather a basically consumerist way of thinking.

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Lee A. Arnold 08.15.10 at 4:39 am

Brett Bellmore #180: “Because non-libertarians are (deliberately?) sloppy in their use of the term, “coercion”, to include not just use of actual force, or imposition of actively averse consequences, but also the threat to cease the provision of positive interactions. I suppose because, having fuzzed the notion of “coercion” to include things not objectionable, it becomes easier in your mind to justify using real coercion to achieve your ends, because use of “coercion” so defined becomes unavoidable anyway. Or maybe just because you figure anything you don’t like, including other people not doing things you want, must be bad.”

No, you haven’t drawn the line on coercion either. If you refuse to pay taxes, or, for example, you refuse the mandate to carry health insurance, then you are reducing the total economic welfare of society — because that money is funding a policy, or an institution, that reduces a set of transaction costs for everyone, so giving a savings to everyone that each can spend elsewhere. This is reducing negative liberty. Reducing total economic welfare is actively adverse to the negative liberty of others, because then we are all faced with a set of much larger constraints to have the same standard of living, since we now have to pay higher transaction costs to attain it and maintain it. This is quite objectionable. Your decision to opt out is actively adverse to the negative liberty of others.

Mandated universal healthcare is a good example: without it, people who pay for health insurance policies, and who pay taxes, are really paying MORE than they need to, because the people without insurance are being treated anyway. It is a complex and unnecessary extra cost to people who want to pay for a medical system. And when you, for example, finally end-up non compos mentis, we will take care of you too. It goes even further, because workers without healthcare are less productive, thus reducing everyone’s economic welfare by causing lower economic growth and after that, potential long-term economic growth. This imposition on total economic welfare is completely different from the positive liberty of giving everyone access to healthcare. Therefore, defining “coercion” as what is “objectionable” is certainly not objective. It is an emotional decion, and based on faulty economic reasoning, as I wrote above.

Similarly, you can get fired or quit your job: but this is NOT the sort of coercion at issue. Business firms exist not because the boss can fire you, but because he or she gives orders which you follow, in order to interact with other workers, or to comport with their productive results, and this productive transaction (or transformation) between two workers in the firm is almost NEVER a market transaction. Yet, time and energy are saved in producing the good, often enormous amounts of time and energy, simply because you and your co-worker are NOT out in the market to search, bargain, and secure the results between yourselves (and among all the other workers necessary to produce a complex good), but instead, because you are following orders.

Now, it doesn’t matter whether you like the orders or not. If you don’t like the boss, you can quit and go somewhere else where you do like the boss, but you will still be following orders. This is a good thing. In general, business firms reduce certain transaction costs among the employees, and therefore produce the goods and services with a cheaper price tag. We all have more goods and services, more total economic welfare, because this system exists. If the system of non-market transactions within business firms didn’t exist, it would have actively adverse consequences. It would destroy our negative liberty because we would each be paying a lot more in transaction costs with other people just to recreate the same standard of living as a modern industrial economy. (Of course it would be impossible simply because of the infinite time it would impose on us to negotiate all the extra transactions costs and get all those things produced entirely by market transactions.) So again: why is government any different, and how is the libertarian’s definition of coercion anything other than an emotional preference?

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jack lecou 08.15.10 at 6:15 am

Got a way of determining that this is the case, which is not only objective, but obvious enough that nobody could get away with abusing it?

Nope.

But I don’t see why that’s a necessary precondition to establishing the fact that various kinds of non-voluntary manipulations are common.

This is one of the dead ends that these discussions often seem to go down. You are basically saying that the conditions that would make libertarianism possible (and non-hellish) MUST be true, because otherwise, policy and politics is difficult, and messy.

The possibility that some problems might never be neatly solvable is no kind of evidence that those problems must not therefore really exist…

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Andy 08.15.10 at 8:12 am

A big part of all this is that liberals and libertarians have huge underlying differences in their mental models of what people are like. The only way a libertopia will work is the same as the way a good department at a university currently works: extreme selection and possible ejection after a trial period.

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Brett Bellmore 08.15.10 at 11:21 am

“But I don’t see why that’s a necessary precondition to establishing the fact that various kinds of non-voluntary manipulations are common.”

Who the hell claims they’re not common? Every time a car drives by with the stereo turned up high enough that I hear the commercials on it, I’m subject to “non-voluntary manipulations”. What I’m denying is that the vast majority of “non-voluntary manipulations” are of such a nature as to justify denying the non-voluntary character of uncoerced choices.

Advertising just isn’t THAT effective, it’s not tantamount to putting a gun to somebody’s head.

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bianca steele 08.15.10 at 3:00 pm

Lee Arnold @ 227:

I have a little more time to reply to this now than when you said it further up, but it seems misleading to describe work within a corporation or any organization the way you do. Corporations increasingly want employees to be entrepreneurial, for one thing. It’s not anything like the organization leader’s writing a computer program that the members will simply carry out. There are guidelines, procedures, and structures (like the coding standards piglet mentioned a while back, or a rule that the product doesn’t ship if there are any severity 1 problems unresolved), though, functioning as internal feedback.

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bianca steele 08.15.10 at 3:14 pm

Also, I can almost see the point of saying intrafirm coordination between workers is a “market transaction,” if you have defined market transaction as everything that does not involve a personal relationship. When I send you my expense report, I don’t worry about how you are feeling this morning (whether or not I care when I see you by the coffee machine).

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Lee A. Arnold 08.15.10 at 4:28 pm

Bianca Steele, the subject is New Institutional Economics. You are right: employees are not simply cogs in a machine: Adam Smith showed that their work improves through the division of labor by (a) increasing dexterity (b) time saved in closer proximity to materials and (c) familiarity with the materials and the process leading to new invention; there are different forms of contracting and subcontracting (see Oliver Williamson, The Economic Institutions of Capitalism); there are independent contractors (which moves the outer perimeter of the firm); interdepartmental accounting is usually financial; and management is always looking at new ways to motivate workers including types of free contracting between them as if they were independent market actors. But my question was, how do libertarians decide what “coercion” is, and why do they keep referring to the “free market” as some way to avoid it? If you don’t like what government does, well then, you have the freedom to tell other people, to get elected, and to try to change it. The difference from private business is in the forms of redress and the amount of time it takes. If we have freedom of speech and freedom of association, then we ALREADY live in the libertarian utopia. The libertarians just haven’t thought it through, yet.

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bianca steele 08.15.10 at 4:45 pm

Lee Arnold:
You write, “the subject is New Institutional Economics”–what, you mean this is the secret meaning of the thread that I didn’t know about? Seriously, I have several concerns about the details of your analysis of what goes on in firms at the intra-individual level. In general, I have the same questions you do. But I am not a libertarian myself, and I don’t know anybody who’s the kind of libertarian who could answer them for me. You seem to know a lot more about it than I do, and if that impression is misleading, I would guess there are more people commenting at CT who are interested in the questions than who know the answers.

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Eli 08.15.10 at 4:57 pm

“Advertising just isn’t THAT effective, it’s not tantamount to putting a gun to somebody’s head.”

Brett, I always think this is the central issue between the right and left on economics, that is, the idea of what choice is and its relation to human social behavior. Its basically the free will debate, upon which rests all of our assumptions about the way society ought to be structured.

So, advertising is not a gun to someone’s head. But it isn’t nothing either. The fact that it works is evidenced by the billions spent on it every year. It functions in very coercive ways, in the sense that it operates in areas of the unconscious that, by definition, people can’t be said to be consenting. There are any number of examples, but as someone with bad neck pain, I always think of the example of acetaminophen: Tylenol costs 2x as much than the generic, which is *exactly* the same stuff, yet enjoys no million dollar advertising campaign. That’s coercion.

Now, coercion is a pretty negative word, yet I think that it is often quite benign. Just because advertising is coercive, it isn’t necessarily bad. Maybe it’s a net gain for the economy. Maybe people actually feel happier buying Tylenol. That’s a fascinating rabbit hole to go down, but I’ll just say right now that there is an empirical process happening, for good or bad.

Back to “free will”, choice, coercion, etc. There is very good research on human agency, or the ability for people to facilitate their own choices in life. If we were to create a life from scratch, there are optimal and sub-optimal structures we would want that individual to develop within. And our assessment of each is mostly based on how much agency it provides the individual. So things like parenting, culture, nutrition, education, peers, etc. would all be organized around providing the individual maximum efficacy. Another word for this is “freedom”. We want the structures to provide him the maximum development of his ability to facilitate his own freedom.

What liberals (and modern research) says is that citizens have great variation in this self-efficacy because of structures in which they have developed. Thus, in order to maximize freedom, we ought to structure society so that each citizen is guaranteed a minimal amount of freedom, or agency. So for example, an individual who inherits millions, comes from a stable home in a nice neighborhood, goes to school with similar children, learns the important cultural norms, etc. will be – in general – more more free, that is, have much more self-efficacy and agency. This is incredibly predictive. If you look at the numbers the pattern is born out in any number ways.

The counter example is the individual who grows up in poverty, from a broken family in a dysfunctional neighborhood, who goes to school with similar children, who does not learn the norms, etc. will be – in general – less free. He will have much more limited self-efficacy and agency. Again – totally born out in the data.

The standard argument against all of this is essentially absurd: people have free will and make their own choices. Hah! This hypothesis would thus predict that individuals in different circumstances would, on average – being essentially the same biologically (I won’t go into the logic that here begins to feed into racism on the right) – generally end up with similar levels of self-efficacy. Basically, we should see as many millionaire white children in prison as poor blacks. Its preposterous really, but this seems to have never quite been worked out by conservatives/libertarians in general. Like I said previously, this is not rational, evidence-based thinking.

So, in terms of coercion, or the ability of an individual to be free from it, in the sense that he possesses a high degree of consciousness about himself and the world, as Bob Marley put it “emancipated from mental slavery”, individuals all possess it in varying degrees. And it is entirely dependent upon biological and social structure. We all make choices, but upon what do we base those choices? And upon what is that basis itself based? This deterministic conclusion is indeed quite frightening to many. But it isn’t any less true. The facts are facts, no matter how much we wish they might be otherwise.

The real question is what to do about it.

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John Protevi 08.15.10 at 5:16 pm

Eli, I was with you right until the end, when you used the d-word (“determinism”). What you’re describing (correctly) is bio-neuro-social conditioning, which needs to be conducted on a population level (distributions of various traits correlated with distributions of subjectivizing practices). Free will / determinism is an individual level concept. What we need to do is go above and below the individual level to avoid the insoluble and badly-posed free will question. I think Bruce Wexler, Brain and Culture (MIT, 2006) does a nice job showing how current research in bio-neuro-social science, aka affective social neuroscience, can help us learn a lot about humans while avoiding the free will business. Or better, “by” avoiding it.

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bianca steele 08.15.10 at 5:24 pm

me@233: s.b. “inter-individual”

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bianca steele 08.15.10 at 5:43 pm

Eli, John Protevi seems willing to indulge you (I think to lead you down the garden path), but IMHO this is not a discussion of determinism/free will, or of some metaphysic frat boys pick up out of Bob Marley lyrics. It is a discussion of the way huge institutions supposedly coerce people. Obviously, the social world can’t be just any which way we like, any more than the social world can’t possibly be changed. And what we think, as well as the choices available to us, depend on the way the social world is [1]. But, at the same time, to focus either (like libertarians) on government, or (like some leftists and progressives) on corporations, as somehow kind of almost directly coercing individuals directly through a notional direct application of power to impose mental falsehoods through “advertising”[2], doesn’t seem any more sensical than to imagine our ideas and beliefs are put in our minds directly by God.

[1]: And also on neurological matters.

[2]: I’m not exactly sure how far this is intended. Some people may say “advertising” when they really mean “marketing,” and then also use “marketing” rather broadly.

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John Protevi 08.15.10 at 5:51 pm

Bianca, I haven’t responded to you because I haven’t understood what you’ve been saying to me (I’m operating from a consumerist perspective?). But if you are saying that

(like some leftists and progressives) [I focus] on corporations, as somehow kind of almost directly coercing individuals directly through a notional direct application of power to impose mental falsehoods through “advertising”[2], doesn’t seem any more sensical than to imagine our ideas and beliefs are put in our minds directly by God

then I have to admit that you’ve got me dead to rights.

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bianca steele 08.15.10 at 6:04 pm

John,
You think corporations–IBM and General Motors, Shell and BP–can usefully considered to have that kind of influence? I say to myself, c’mon, John must really have something else in mind. Well, churches are corporations, and so are the Boy Scouts. Is this the Bowling Alone thesis? Or maybe John doesn’t really think this is true, just that it’s a useful way to talk in order to get across the idea that the Powers That Be are (a) many, (b) not governmental, and (c) not religious. There are lots of possibilities. But are any of those possibilities helpful politically? Do they address people’s actual worries, or do they bury them in theoretical nonsense the people who are worried can’t reasonably be expected to understand (in which case, maybe they are better off with the Bob Marley lyrics after all)?

I don’t really understand why you are focusing on corporations and advertising as the greatest evil, and at the same time denying what you have in mind is a consumerist perspective. What happened within and around BP isn’t about consumerism but then it has nothing to do with advertising either, and doesn’t obviously have anything to do with what corporations are like and how they are different from other institutions.

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John Protevi 08.15.10 at 6:18 pm

I don’t really understand why you are focusing on corporations and advertising as the greatest evil, and at the same time denying what you have in mind is a consumerist perspective. What happened within and around BP isn’t about consumerism but then it has nothing to do with advertising either, and doesn’t obviously have anything to do with what corporations are like and how they are different from other institutions.

But I don’t “focus” on corporations as “the greatest evil.” Malebranche’s God must have put that idea into your head. I was arguing against Metamorf and Brett Bellmore that libertarians focus on government to the exclusion of corporations, so I brought up corporations *in that context*. I also mentioned government propaganda and first-person shooter games and violent media (the allusion to Hurley’s work), and if you knew of Wexler’s work, you’d see that he cites all sorts of multi-layered social factors. You might also want to google me and read some of my work if you want a more sophisticated treatment than I was able to provide here. Try this Rorotoko interview to start: http://bit.ly/9ji6rl.

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bianca steele 08.15.10 at 6:30 pm

John,
I will read that link, and I apologize if I got you wrong. My argument is probably more with a general sense of what progressives and leftists (and maybe some Tea Party activists) seem to see as the problem with corporations. I didn’t realize that this is your research area, rather than a topic you’ve chosen to read about as a way to think about political issues. Personally, I think the topic is interesting, but easily misunderstood by people who had one or two philosophy courses back in college and aren’t very aware of how science and academia actually work.

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John Protevi 08.15.10 at 6:39 pm

OK, no problem. I’d be glad to correspond with you by email if you’d like: protevi [at] lsu [dot] edu.

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xyx 08.15.10 at 6:43 pm

A technocrat could make a fairly strong argument against liberalism by extending the argument liberals in this thread are making against libertarianism. It is an advancement of individual liberty to forbid a person from taking out a high-interest loan which will destroy him financially. But if a person can be manipulated into making financially unsound decisions, they can also be manipulated into voting into office the people who will make policy promoting the high-interest lenders. Billion of dollars are spent manipulating people for political purposes. The general liberal solution is to restrict the powerful entities spending this money (corporations), but this doesn’t really get at the problem. The problem isn’t the manipulators of minds, but pliable minds themselves–the type of person who decides what to buy or who to vote for based on 30 second television advertising (homo sapiens) won’t suddenly become wise simply by removing such external factors. A liberal defense of democracy (as opposed to a merely pragmatic one) that accords with the arguments offered against libertarianism seems to require a Goldilocks “just right” mind, weak enough that we have to remove the best and most well-resourced propagandists to get it to work, but strong enough that, once doing so, public opinion will tend to correspond at latest somewhat with reality and the social good. This seems a dangerously narrow neurological foundation on which to base one’s political philosophy.

More generally–let’s say the liberal goal is, as Eli says @234, to maximize agency, and we also accept that non-coercive (by the libertarian definition) manipulation can reduce agency, by causing people to make choices which reduce their freedom. So, tell your optimization function to maximize freedom, any action which deviates from the function reduces freedom, therefore freedom is maximized at no freedom at all.

I think the problem with such argument, made by some hypothetical technocrat, is that the freedom to make choices which go against your self interest (including freedom itself), due to manipulation by more powerful forces than oneself, is a real freedom, which has value, and its loss will be felt.

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Eli 08.15.10 at 6:51 pm

John, I can see why you want to avoid the free will framing. It’s obviously a loaded, nebulous term. But honestly, I think it is fair to use it in its soft sense. That is, there are obviously broad social trends that determine social development and behavior. But whatever works.

Bianca, I’m sorry you didn’t like my Bob Marley reference, and I’m sorry that you have such corny associations with him. Your loss! I meant it as a lighthearted attempt to bring some poetry to the sterility of abstract philosophical debate. He was merely expressing a concept that is entirely science-based, as I’ve tried to illustrate.

As for the nature of this discussion, I disagree. I think the question of human choice has everything to do with the discussion of coercion. It is fundamental to the divide between the right and left on economic matters. So, if, according to human/social capital theory, a millionaire did not really earn his wealth, but essentially happened upon a fortuitous set of social and biological circumstances, and the crack dealer happened upon a negative set, our laws and social structures should be established accordingly.

I can’t tell you how many conservatives I ‘ve debated whose entire ideological outlook is premised on the fact that social circumstances simply don’t matter, and that everyone can make any choice they like. This is *demonstrably* untrue. As such, it undermines a large portion of their arguments. So much time is wasted in debates because we never resolve these core differences. I mean what use is a discussion of education policy, or any other government program if one believes that they have no utility?

John may be right that the traditional discussion of determinism only clouds things. But no need for semantic rigmarole. I’ll let my analysis speak for itself.

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Eli 08.15.10 at 6:55 pm

Personally, I think the topic is interesting, but easily misunderstood by people who had one or two philosophy courses back in college and aren’t very aware of how science and academia actually work. I hope you’re not referring to me. But in any case, this is a shamelessly self-serving and arrogant thing to say. How’s the air up there?

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bianca steele 08.15.10 at 7:16 pm

No, Eli, it wasn’t you I had in mind (I don’t know you), but thanks for the kind thoughts.

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Metamorf 08.15.10 at 8:14 pm

Free will / determinism is an individual level concept. What we need to do is go above and below the individual level to avoid the insoluble and badly-posed free will question. I think Bruce Wexler, Brain and Culture (MIT, 2006) does a nice job showing how current research in bio-neuro-social science, aka affective social neuroscience, can help us learn a lot about humans while avoiding the free will business. Or better, “by” avoiding it.

Sorry to butt in but I just wanted to point out that avoiding, ducking, or otherwise trying to hide from problems doesn’t actually make them go away. Here, for example, we can go “below” the individual level and trace neurological pathways — but we’ll find that those same ones, or others of exactly the same mechanical/deterministic kind, work when we’re talking about “people” as when we’re talking about “huge institutions”. Or then, speaking of that, we can try to go “above” the individual level, and make nebulous monsters or deities out of such institutions, but we’ll find that they have no way of interacting with “people” except through actually-existing people. You can view “people” as simply neural robots in a word of systems-theoretic entities, if you like, but then you need to look at what that does to your own political predilections, not to mention your simpler notions of right and wrong, good and bad. I think that olde problem of free-will resurfaces again and again, no matter how quickly you try to change the subject.

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John Protevi 08.15.10 at 8:50 pm

MM: there’s only so much anyone can do on a blog thread, so I’ll extend to you the same invitation I gave to Bianca, and ask you to read some of my work on this issue and see if you recognize your characterization of it there, to wit, that I “make nebulous monsters or deities” out of the institutions “above” the subject, and that I view “people as simply neural robots” when I go below the subject. That’s not my understanding of what I’m doing. Again, a place to start is this interview: http://bit.ly/9ji6rl.

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Lee A. Arnold 08.15.10 at 8:53 pm

Bianca Steele: “Seriously, I have several concerns about the details of your analysis of what goes on in firms at the intra-individual level.” –What are the concerns exactly? These aren’t my ideas; I just try to study them. You wrote before, “Corporations increasingly want employees to be entrepreneurial, for one thing.” –In some situations, yes, but they are not encouraging employees to be price-competitive against the owner-entrepreneurs, unless the corporation retains the rights to the new method that the employee develops. And is this always more efficient and beneficial? No, it is contingent. Each corporation will wait, and evaluate the resulting total costs of the new policy. If the new costs outweigh the costs of the old management policy, then they will rein the employees back in.

But please let’s not define “market transaction” as “everything that does not involve a personal relationship.” Personal or impersonal, it doesn’t matter. A market transaction is a single transaction in a competitive arena that uses supply and demand to create a money price which each side “freely” decides to accept or reject. (I put “freely” in quotes, because if you are hungry, you have no choice but to accept the price of bread.) Barter is technically a market transaction but without money, creating its price in the ratio of the swapped goods.

Every market transaction and every non-market transaction has its transaction costs: its particular costs of searching, bargaining, and enforcement. In exchange among friends, these costs are minimal. For market transactions, transaction costs have been estimated to amount to around 50% of GDP. This may be partly non-monetized, such as in personal time and energy: you have to compare insurance policies before deciding; you have to spend time (and gasoline) to drive to the grocery store for example. But these ancillary costs must still be spent. And if you are compelled to spend MORE time than ought to be necessary, then you have less liberty from constraints (negative liberty) and less time to exercise positive liberty.

There are two different economic things going on in any transaction (whether it is a market transaction or not): (1) the gains from trade between the division in labor, and (2) a loss of some of that gain, by the transaction costs. My guess is that this is true of any relationship in biology.

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Eli 08.15.10 at 8:57 pm

Talk to the hand, Bianca!

You can view “people” as simply neural robots in a word of systems-theoretic entities, if you like, but then you need to look at what that does to your own political predilections, not to mention your simpler notions of right and wrong, good and bad. I think that olde problem of free-will resurfaces again and again, no matter how quickly you try to change the subject.

Metamorph, you’re not suggesting here that the “systems-theoretic, etc.” model would in any way be dependent on its implications for your personal beliefs? I assume not, but wanted to clarify. Otherwise, I completely agree. And I think there are profound ideological implications for such a model.

Many of our current social structures, not the least of which criminal justice, is very dependent upon this question of ultimate causality. What’s funny to me is that I’ve yet to meet a conservative who does not believe in contra-causal free will (which makes perfect sense). Yet many leftists profess to believe in it as well, even though it would seem to undermine many of their views on the social structures I mentioned. Maybe conservatives, in adopting the more traditional view of human nature and will, which lies at the bedrock of much of our society, are simply on firmer ground. The left may in a sense have “gotten in over their head”, in that they have embraced a concept they had intuited, yet lacked the scientific means from which to defend it. And now that science has caught up, they aren’t quite aware.

But this gets back to John’s point on the squishiness of the free will debate. I think there’s a basic knee-jerk reaction that seems almost inherent to consciousness itself that screams against the concept that we are much less autonomous than we perceive ourselves to be. Yet the fundamental scientific framework itself almost precludes it: causality is built in to the process, and without it the endeavor breaks down.

So it has been up until relatively recently when we’ve been able to actually accumulate enough data in enough different domains to start to put together a coherent picture of human development and consciousness. We’re obviously a long way off from anything like a working model of the mind. But we do have enough clues to firmly place much of the old, tired free will debate in the “solved” category. The mind operates well within the boundaries of causality. Just because we can’t see all of the billions of moving parts that go into creating even a millisecond of conscious thought, we know that there is a physical framework, and that it isn’t difficult to imagine that eventually a better mapping will allow us a pretty good portrait of the causal chain underlying our various thoughts and “choices”.

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John Protevi 08.15.10 at 9:15 pm

eventually a better mapping will allow us a pretty good portrait of the causal chain underlying our various thoughts and “choices”

Once again, Eli, I’m with you right to the very end, until there’s something I can’t agree with. Because a neurodynamicist is not going to accept the notion of a “causal chain” for a nonlinear dynamic system will all the feedback and feedforward of the brain. We can argue whether we’ve got epistemological emergence or ontological emergence with regard to human freedom, but even with the former, once we accept sensitivity to initial conditions and the ineliminable error margins of our measuring tools, we’re going to have unpredictability, which is pragmatically equal to indeterminacy. Furthermore, the only way to claim that unpredictability is merely epistemological, that is, only a marker of human finitude, is to compare it to Laplace’s knower or God or what have you, but that is in principle forever out of our reach. But this sort of freedom isn’t the “captain of my soul” freedom that you (I think rightly) attribute to many libertarians, as it’s completely compatible with all sorts of analyses of social conditioning (but not determining). Anyway, I have to keep coming back to population level analyses as the right way to go. Again, I really recommend Hurley and Wexler, if you don’t want to read my turgid prose.

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Metamorf 08.15.10 at 10:15 pm

Okay! Now we’re into the thick of the free-will vs. determinism debate at least — we’ve come a long way from Libertopia! Well, or maybe not.

John, I did read your link, thanks, and it’s definitely interesting, even despite what appears to me to be its fairly explicit political motivations. But it doesn’t seem to me to address the issue that you’re trying, as you say, to avoid — and neither does talk of “nonlinear dynamic systems”, “feedback”, “feedforward”, “epistemological emergence”, “ontological emergence”, etc. (though the 2nd to last actually provides a hint of a way forward, to my mind). Neither does “indeterminacy” — the issue isn’t whether a process is determinable by us, or even whether, like quantum processes, its indeterminate in principle, since, from the point of view of free will and the moral/political consequences that follow from it, saying that a behavior or process is random is no better than saying it’s the result of a causal chain.

But you’re right, John, that there’s a limit to how far we can take these things in a comment thread, so I’ll stop after the following two observations:
1) Science won’t ever get us out of the free-will/determinism dilemma, because of what we are and how we’re situated in the world — the only way out is to hold onto both. This approach actually has a name — compatibilism — and it involves the recognition that we have, and need to have, two distinct stances in regard to our experience and behavior.
2) Trying to mix those stances, as when we try to use science to draw moral/political conclusions, leads us not just into confusion, but into error, both moral and empirical.

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bianca steele 08.16.10 at 12:08 am

Lee Arnold:
We may be using different definitions of “entrepreneurial.” I had in mind something like this. The ideal is the legendary Nordstrom’s sales clerk.

More generally, I don’t recognize any actual place I’ve worked in your idealized description of the relationships involved within a workplace. There are broad guidelines and a lot of discretion. Some of the latter can fairly be criticized as “politics” and some is probably unavoidable. This–Inside a business firm things happen by coercion—from the boss.–struck me as off but may not have the implications I drew from it.

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jack lecou 08.16.10 at 3:33 am

What I’m denying is that the vast majority of “non-voluntary manipulations” are of such a nature as to justify denying the non-voluntary character of uncoerced choices.

Advertising just isn’t THAT effective, it’s not tantamount to putting a gun to somebody’s head.

It doesn’t need to be “tantamount to a gun to the head”. The point is that there is a spectrum of influences on our choices that collectively put a lie to any useful concept of a rational individual engaging in free decisions. Advertising obviously isn’t mind control, but it isn’t useless either. Maybe you don’t think it works on you, but statistically it’s extremely effective.

And it’s not just advertising. At the very least, you have to consider things like education levels, search costs, “predictable irrationalities”, etc. There are many implicit restrictions on an individual’s ability to make anything like rational free choices. And of course those are all coupled together, making advertising and the like all the more powerful.

It’s fine if you don’t think this is important. But don’t pretend that that isn’t simply an assumption, or that anything that results from it is going to be convincing to those of us who do think this stuff is important.

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Eli 08.16.10 at 5:03 pm

John, I think your skepticism is fair. But Metamorph makes a good point that when you talk about indeterminacy or unpredictability, you aren’t providing the will any real freedom at all – just randomness. I’m probably much too optimistic in thinking science will have the tools we need to properly map the thought process any time soon. It may just come down to the fact that the brain is too complex to ever get enough data. That said, even if we never get an exact picture, we will certainly get a better picture of the underlying mechanisms. Much like the way we can’t map every water particle in a hurricane, yet we can still have a pretty good theory about their formation, behavior under certain conditions, etc.

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Eli 08.16.10 at 5:26 pm

1) Science won’t ever get us out of the free-will/determinism dilemma, because of what we are and how we’re situated in the world—the only way out is to hold onto both. This approach actually has a name—compatibilism—and it involves the recognition that we have, and need to have, two distinct stances in regard to our experience and behavior.
2) Trying to mix those stances, as when we try to use science to draw moral/political conclusions, leads us not just into confusion, but into error, both moral and empirical.

Metamorph, I’ve actually been thinking about this recently: I think science can be very helpful in understanding moral and political issues. Of course, there is a danger in taking things to far, in overestimating the importance of a given finding. But especially as science has in the past century has offered us more and more of an understanding of human behavior, tying together a wide variety of fields – from psychology to economics to sociology to neuroscience, etc. Social science is not necessarily any different than any other type of science, in that it makes a hypothesis, collects data, and develops theory.

For instance, there is much that we now know about the development of cognitive processes and language in children that 30 years ago we did not. This has profound implications for political and moral philosophy, specifically as it relates to how different people in different sectors of society develop. We may still not know a specific causal chain of thoughts, be we can say without a doubt that in certain types of environments people will develop differently, and thus possess different capabilities for agency, or freedom of will.

Another example of this is fMRI studies on people convicted of violent crimes. They’ve shown a pronounced underdevelopment of the – I believe – frontal lobe, the area of the brain responsible for impulse control. If that is not will, I don’t know what is!

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Stuart 08.17.10 at 7:17 pm

Actually the Island buyout has been tried a few times. Unfortunately the libertarians who have tried it were mostly of the anarchist bent, and as a result saw no need for any kind of defense force. After about 6 months their libertarian utopia was captured and absorbed into the nation of Tonga.

The problem being the island part of such experiments – no matter how small and worthless the land is, the rights in international law regarding fishing, oil and mineral rights will make any such project unlikely to succeed, no matter what the politics of the participants are.

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rick 08.18.10 at 6:06 am

Saipan is the libertarian utopia

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chris 08.18.10 at 9:08 pm

Another example of this is fMRI studies on people convicted of violent crimes. They’ve shown a pronounced underdevelopment of the – I believe – frontal lobe, the area of the brain responsible for impulse control. If that is not will, I don’t know what is!

If having an underdeveloped frontal lobe *is* will, I don’t know what isn’t. ISTM to be just the sort of causal chain that strikes at the root of the traditional sentiment that underlies criminal justice systems. Nobody is likely to grow a larger frontal lobe merely because they saw someone else imprisoned or executed for murder, even if they happen to know that the murderer’s small frontal lobe was a causal factor in the crime. And people with underdeveloped frontal lobes may not even be capable of the kind of thinking that would allow deterrent approaches to succeed (as applied to them).

Although I suppose it’s possible to believe that since the defendant has an underdeveloped frontal lobe he’s more likely to commit violent crimes *in the future* and therefore should be put in jail — but in that case, why wait for the first crime? Perform brain scanning and precautionary incarceration, at least until you can find the aetiology of the underdeveloped-frontal-lobe epidemic. Because, after all, the idea that he will “voluntarily” refrain from committing the crimes his brain predisposes him to is just silly sentiment — we have the brain scan results right here, we know darn well his “voluntary control” is going to break down with tragic results, so why sit on our hands and allow it to happen? We can’t afford to wait for the smoking gun to come in the form of a smoking gun.

And if it turns out that it’s cheaper to feed and educate children so that they grow normal-sized frontal lobes rather than to arrest, convict and incarcerate them later (even aside from the destructive effect of the crimes themselves!), wouldn’t it improve everyone’s freedom to do so? Doesn’t the idea of *truly effective* crime prevention by nontraditional means challenge the libertarian concept of which state functions are legitimate? Or is there some kind of “millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute” mentality at work here, in which punishing people for committing crimes is a legitimate aim of government but helping them into a condition or situation in which they don’t commit those crimes at all is not?

P.S. I think the usefulness of science for moral questions is sharply limited by Hume’s chasm — without being able to observe moral facts, it’s difficult for science to produce any moral conclusions. However, the combination of science and a given system of morality certainly can help answer the question “What means are likely to be effective at producing results considered superior by moral system X?” — an answer which is of course of very little use or persuasive value to adherents of moral system Y.

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Sock Puppet of the Great Satan 08.18.10 at 10:26 pm

“Henry’s post linking to Charlie Stross reminded me of one I was planning to do on the question – why has there never been a serious attempt at a real libertarian utopia? “

Medieval Iceland! No executive power, but of course ability for private individuals to prosecute each other in court.

Oops, no executive power means you don’ t have the ability to enforce the judgement except by getting a bunch of your friends with axes and swords to go round to your adversary’s house and force them to give up the judgement.

Hence the reason Icelandic sagas are made up of geneology, lawsuits, and murders followed by more lawsuits and murders and then more geneology so you can understand who’s continuing the feud into the next generation. Then more lawsuits and murders.

“Ollie, medieval Iceland is again the primary example. I’ve heard medieval Ireland was similar. “

I’d like more on the reasoning behind medieval Ireland.

If you’re talking post-Norman invasion, nope: feudal society where the Anglo-Normans ruled, at least, and clan-dominated tribal society using Brehon Law where they didn’t. IIRC Brehon law had twelve castes, which suggests umm, rather a lot of constraints on one’s behavior.

Also, Ireland didn’t have effective central rule, but not an intentional no-king no-executive function that Iceland opted for when the original exiles (who backed the wrong horse during a war between two kingdoms in what’s now Norway) arrived.

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Norwegian Guy 08.19.10 at 2:19 am

If medieval Ireland is a case of libertopia realized, doesn’t it actually illustrate the failures of libertarianism? After all, they were invaded and conquered by first the Norse Vikings, than the Anglo-Normans and eventually the English. Perhaps if Ireland had had a stronger state, they would still have been speaking Irish in Belfast!

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nnyhav 08.23.10 at 12:11 am

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