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Liveblogging World War II: September 18, 1943

No Libertarians in the Seventeenth-Century Highlands: Wednesday Archive Entry From Brad DeLong's Webjournal

No Libertarians in the Seventeenth-Century Highlands: Archive Entry From Brad DeLong's Webjournal: March 06, 2004: John and Belle Waring have been driven insane by reading a debate in Reason where Richard A. Epstein takes the role of the voice of practical reason and experience:

John & Belle Have A Blog: If Wishes Were Horses, Beggars Would Ride -- A Pony!: ...Reason recently published a debate held at its 35th anniversary banquet. The flavor of this discussion is indescribable. In its total estrangement from our political and social life today, its wilfull disregard of all known facts about human nature, it resembles nothing so much as a debate over some fine procedural point of end-stage communism, after the state has withered away....

Richard A. Epstein: even in the libertarian utopia, some forms of state coercion will be required. If we must assemble 100 plots of land to build a railway which will benefit all, and only 99 owners will sell, then we may need to force a lone holdout to accept a fair price for his land. Similarly, the public enforcement of private rights and the creation of infrastructure will require money, so there will have to be some taxes. [Note to self: no shit, Sherlock.]

Randy Barnett: Not so fast! Let's cross that bridge when we come to it rather than restricting liberty in advance. We'll know a lot more about human liberty in the libertarian utopia, and private entrepreneurs will solve these problems somehow without our needing to grant to governments the dangerous ability to confiscate our property in the name of some nebulous "public good." And as for rights enforcement -- look it's Halley's Comet!

David Friedman: Epstein places too much confidence in his proposed restrictions on government power. Rights could be enforced privately, and imperfect but workable solutions to the holdouts in the railway case could also be found. "To justify taxation we need the additional assumption that rights enforcement cannot be done by the state at a profit, despite historical examples of societies where the right to enforce the law and collect the resulting fines was a marketable asset."

Now, everyone close your eyes and try to imagine a private, profit-making rights-enforcement organization which does not resemble the mafia, a street gang, those pesky fire-fighters/arsonists/looters who used to provide such "services" in old New York and Tokyo, medieval tax-farmers, or a Lendu militia. (In general, if thoughts of the Eastern Congo intrude, I suggest waving them away with the invisible hand and repeating "that's anarcho-capitalism" several times.) Nothing's happening but a buzzing noise, right?

Now try it the wishful thinking way. Just wish that we might all live in a state of perfect liberty, free of taxation and intrusive government, and that we should all be wealthier as well as freer. Now wish that people should, despite that lack of any restraint... not... rape... sell fraudulent stocks in non-existent ventures... dump of mercury in the... general stock of water from which people privately draw.) Awesome huh? But it gets better. Now wish that everyone had a pony.

It is an interesting fact that there are no libertarians--nobody calling for the withering-away of the state--nobody calling for competition between private, profit-making, rights-enforcement organizations until the nineteenth century. Libertarianism as we know it today shows up first in the anarchist-socialists of the late nineteenth century (left libertarians who think we can eliminate not only the state but also property) and then later on shows up in the right-libertarians who currently populate Reason (who for some reason break the dream of perfect human freedom and communal solidarity by creating "ownership").

Why don't you have any libertarians earlier?

Let's climb into the wayback machine, and let's bring some people back to Reason's 35th anniversary banquet:

Adam Smith: Withering away of the state? Private profit-making rights-enforcement organizations? Have none of you ever taken a trip to the Scottish Highlands? Have none of you ever read about the form of society that used to exist there? In the Scottish Highlands David Friedman's dream of a society without a state, in which justice was administered by private profit-making rights-enforcement organizations, was a reality. And what a reality! The private profit-making rights-enforcement organizations were called "clan lords" and their henchmen. In the Highlands, everyone was seen as either a clan member to be helped, a clan enemy to be killed, or a stranger to be robbed. With such insecurity of life and property, the system of natural liberty could not operate to create prosperity, and life was... what is the phrase?...

Thomas Hobbes: Nasty, brutish, and short.

Adam Smith: Thank you.

Thomas Hobbes: I know what it's like much better than David Friedman does. I lived through the English Civil War.

Davey Hume: Let me echo the wise sayings of my good (if absent-minded) friend Adam. You need a mighty state to provide security of property. You need a limited state to keep its own exactions from becoming a cure worse than the disease...

Ibn Khaldun: The state is a device that prevents all injustice save that which it commits itself.

Davey Hume: Exactly. That is the key problem of governance: mighty, but limited. It is only after the state has been established and the memory of what life was like in the Highlands disappears that people can even begin to forget why the state is necessary. Under security of property, people begin to view each other--even total strangers--as possible partners in mutually-beneficial acts of exchange. The oxytocin levels in their bloodstreams rise. They feel mutual sympathy toward each other. They feel bound by the moral law, and no longer kill clan enemies or rob strangers even when they can do so in perfect safety...

Adam Smith: I have written a big book about this, which very few of you have read--although everyone here at least claims to have read my other book...

Davey Hume: And it is only after the state has enabled commerce, and only after commerce has sweetened human nature, that one can even begin to entertain the anarchist-libertarian fantasies of the withering away of the state...

Joseph de Maistre: What my good friend Davey Hume is saying, although he is too polite to put it this way, is that behind everything good, peaceful, and prosperous in human society is the shadow of the Public Executioner...