A friend of mine complained that I didn’t fully understand libertarianism so he recommended “The Machinery Of Freedom” by David Friedman (Milton’s son) (available as a PDF here). This book is well-respected within libertarian circles. It takes a specifically anarcho-capitalist position (my friend is an anarchist) but it spends a great deal discussing libertarianism first. To say I didn’t like the book would be an understatement. It was atrocious. It was a horrendously argued book that relied on straw man arguments, ignoring the middle ground, a complete absence of evidence and mainly stating positions without even attempting to defend them. The only praise I have for the book is that it is mercifully short and easy to read.
(The book raises a lot of issues which I cannot fully discuss for space reasons. I intend to discuss them in further posts. Until then I will focus more on the book itself.)
Friedman opens by saying a libertarian society should be based on private property. A not entirely unreasonable beginning and one that most libertarians would agree with. However, instead of engaging this point, he completely ignores any possible objections. He dismisses out of hand the question of who has control over private property and how they got it. Seeing as in most of the world (especially post-colonial countries) property is concentrated in the hands of a small elite who conquered the land through war, while vast numbers are landless, this is a glaring omission. The few countries where this isn’t the case, this is because the state sponsored some form of land redistribution (Ireland for example).
Friedman argues that no society should be based on coercion, which again sounds reasonable until you realise that private property is based on coercion. If you are on my land you must either do as I say or get off my land. If you refuse, I can use force or get the police. Friedman pretends this isn’t an issue, instead he says private property is good and then moves on. It isn’t a good opening to the book and it was a foretell of what was to come.
Among libertarians Friedman is considered something of an economist, which strikes me as strange because he displays a woeful ignorance of economics. The book reads like someone who took a two week economics class and drew conclusions based on it. The examples he uses are ridiculously simplified to the point that they cannot be taken seriously. He presumes everyone gets paid exactly what they produce, that the market is governed by perfect competition, government always an everywhere makes things worse etc. At times he reads like a parody of a libertarian. It would be almost cruel to point out all the fallacies he commits and I was willing to forgive him as someone who didn’t know any better until I read he is supposed to be the main arguer for a libertarian society from an economics point of view (as opposed to say a moral or philosophical).
The biggest problem of the book is the complete lack of evidence. There are no sources given and the bibliography is scanty. Barely any facts, figures or real world examples are used; instead he deals in fictional hypotheticals. He simply states things and presumes we already agree with him. For example he says that the welfare state costs the poor more than the rich. No evidence or reason is given, it is simply stated that the poor pay more in taxes than they get in benefits. This ridiculous statement is added a throwaway remark as though it was too obvious to need elaboration. However, if the poor pay more than they get, then surely the middle class and rich pay even more yet they are not entitled to the same amount of benefits. Then who does benefit? Unless the state is running a massive surplus (it isn’t) then someone must get more than they put in unless the money disappears down a black hole.
This lack of reality is backed up by ignoring any possible criticism. What will happen to the poor in a libertarian society? What of those who are too old or sick to work? With a lazy flick of the hand he dismisses these objections with a shrug as if to say, “don’t worry they’ll be grand”. The very reasonable point that the Great Depression is an example of the need for government is also dismissed in a single sentence. Friedman acts as though ignoring criticism is the same as responding to it. Worse still he simply wishes away problems. Monopolies do not occur in the free market, because. . . . well, because he said so. He claims that in the 19th century there were no monopolies, he doesn’t feel the need to back up this preposterous statement with facts or evidence, simply saying it seems to be enough.
A current running through the whole book is that you are either a Libertarian or a Communist. Friedman pretends there is no common ground. He ends every description of a possible libertarian society by saying something along the lines of, “well if you don’t like that at least it’s better than Communism” and thinks he’s won the argument. To pretend that there are only two ideologies in the world is a gross misrepresentation that Friedman regularly indulges in. The only other ideology he discusses in the book is Marxism and he devotes a chapter to misrepresenting it before criticising it.
This brings me onto the next major problem I had with the book. Friedman either ignores possible criticism or only picks the most ridiculous counter arguments. He does not debate any actual economists or politicians but rather straw men of his mind who bear little reality to actual arguments to be made. For example it is an obvious point that one of the advantages of wealth is that it allows you to buy more things, while the disadvantage of poverty is that you are unable to afford many items. Therefore there is a danger that the rich will live a life of opulence while the poor struggle to live (some would have too much and others too little). However Friedman builds a straw man by pretending this allows the rich to buy everything leaving the poor with nothing. He then argues that the rich do not have enough money to buy everything and considers the point settled before moving on. This ridiculous ignoring of obvious facts was one of the many things that deeply frustrated me while reading the book.
The book is divided into very short chapters most only a page or two and read more like newspaper articles. This means few of his ideas are well thought or argued out; he simply introduces a proposal and then moves onto something else. Even given this shortness, the book becomes wearisome very quickly and I lose track of all the flaws in his argument, the fallacies he uses or the straw men arguments that no one would ever use (which is probably why he doesn’t name a single opponent in the book). In his world a private school system means the poor can afford to go to rich schools, which begs the question of where the rich will go? Presumably they would lose a bidding war with the poor, who also have the ability to set up their own schools (I’m not making this up; this is genuinely the argument he makes). The idea that poor people may be unable to afford things they need seems entirely alien to him. If they do not buy health insurance, that couldn’t possibly be because they can’t afford it, no, it must be because they don’t want it. So public health is really forcing the poor to buy things they want. Derp.
At times Friedman reads like a parody of himself or someone trying to troll libertarians. I’m not even going to criticise these points or point out how ridiculous they are, they are pretty self-evident. He argues that we should privatise the moon landings and let private business compete over who can send the first man to the moon. They can fund themselves through advertising, TV rights and selling moon rocks. Children over the age of say 9, should have the option of being independent and not controlled by their parents. Socialists should buy shares in companies if they want to control them, he argues that this could be done in five years.
However, it is when Friedman begins to discuss Anarchism that things get really ludicrous. He says we should privatise the police and let competing private security firms take over. Reading it I felt like I had followed a white rabbit and ended up in Wonderland as Friedman blissfully described how efficient and peaceful the world would be. Choosing security would be like choosing insurance, the magic of the invisible hand will ensure the best possible world. The absurdity was breath taking and was the gap with reality. The idea that criminal gangs could take over was dismissed out of hand. There would be mafia because . . . well, there just wouldn’t. People could simply freely choose between security firms, who of course would never force people to choose. These security firms would never go to war because wars cost money, so any arguments would be solved peacefully. Just like in the real world where nobody ever kills another person and there is no war or violence because everyone knows how costly that is.
(I hope everyone notices how restrained I am in only using the word Derp once. I am very tempted to end every sentence with it.)
In this mythical anarchist society there would be several courts and several laws all made by competing companies. People would choose whatever laws they like best and be subject to those ones. Of course the extremely obvious problems with this are ignored (surprise, surprise). Instead Friedman presumes people will easily decide which laws apply in which case through use of bargaining or money or magic fairy dust (honestly, at this point anything is possible). This whole section is completely bizarre and outrageous and might as well be entitled “Leave Your Brain At The Door”. All problems are wished away. Money might be power, but in an Anarchist society the poor won’t be powerless. Judges won’t be corrupt nor will there be any false arrests. If there are people can just sue (a disturbingly large amount of libertarian problems are solved by presuming that there are no problems with suing people). Private security firms won’t try to take over the country, they won’t be power hungry, they won’t take bribes, and in fact they will be more peaceful.
I’m all for reading books that clash with my own ideas and hearing different viewpoints. However, reading “The Machinery Of Freedom” was almost painful. The arguments were so atrociously made that even when he supported more immigration (the one point where I would agree with him) he was still wrong. Friedman does not argue his case, instead he simply makes statements in a condescending tone and presumes it is the same thing. He only battles with straw men and debunks arguments that no one actually uses. He pretends that there is no middle ground, that you are either a libertarian or a communist. He does not use evidence or facts to back himself, rather simply stating it is enough. The obvious problems of a world without a government are just wished away. It was never going to be easy to argue for a libertarian or anarchist state, but Friedman seemed to want to make it as difficult as possible.