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March 08, 2004



Ah, but you're not living in New Hampshire.

Following on my previous comment on the balance of power and the instability against a majority banding together, the libertarian "foolish revolution" will not - cannot - happen overnight, except by some bizarre accident that wipes out all state apparatus. (This would be "foolish" because most people then would not have adequate self-defences.)

Libertarians, precisely because they reject imposing their will on others, cannot execute a coup, and cannot force others to give up their non-libertarian existences. Their only weapon is persuasion, which can only result in incremental changes in the current situation where the majority are not too unhappy with there being taxes, state law enforcement, etc. To take the example of law enforcement, if private arbitration becomes reliable (in the sense of reliably ensuring justice) and cheap enough, the court system will wither out of existence.

Of course, this doesn't rule out some pseudo-libertarian who comes to power and institutes crazy and destructive policies under the banner of Freedom. The real libertarians need to guard rigorously against anyone who would be about that sort of thing. Hmmm...

Micha Ghertner

There isn't any obvious reason why visualizing the end-state will clear our heads about the place we're at. It wouldn't be at all surprising if it did the opposite. Even worse than that: by hinting that modest, practical libertarian policy proposals may hang from a justificatory cloudhook, Barnett leaves himself quite unnecessarily open to a whole class of devastating objections.

Actually, just the opposite is the case. As both Barnett and Friedman argue, Epstein's "exceptions" have no logical endpoint other than the arbitrary ones Epstein personally prefers. Writes Friedman,

"There are many other examples of government policies that Epstein does not like but that could be defended on his principles, including government involvement in education, in research, and in the production and regulation of information. His exceptions swallow his rule, leaving us with everything up for grabs -- and familiar public choice reasons to expect that far too much of it will be grabbed."

This is the classic anarcho-capitalist response to the minarchist: there is no principled reason why the police power should be handed over to the government but the power to provide healthcare, food and housing should not.

Barnett's offhand hint that it is even possible "to know how liberty works" orders of magnitude better than we do now is a case in point. To begin with, this fond hope for conceptual breakthrough is pretty incredible.

Wow. It seems like anarchist libertarians just can't win. First they are criticized for proposing a utopian fairyland society with no empirical evidence supporting their claims. Yet when they concede that they might be wrong, and that we should wait and see how things develop before positing whether the anarchist end-state is desirable, right up until the point where liberty is achieved in most other areas of our lives, anarchist libertarians are criticized for...what exactly? Not being quite utopian enough? It seems like we're damned if we do and we're damned if we don't.

Again, use the thought experiment of the emancipationist living 250 years ago. Perhaps we might grant him that some day, with an inconceivable amount of luck, slavery will no longer exist. But to propose complete equality for blacks?!? That's just outlandish tomfoolery! Only an academic, with the priveledge of living up high in the Ivory Tower, apart from the realities that us reasonable folk are exposed to everyday would propose such a preposterous notion!

If it wasn't so dangerous to think about what might become of our virginal white women--and what about the children for goodness sake!--we might even entertain such pie-in-the-sky notions. Let those certifiably cuckoo academics engage in their harmless fantasies, and laugh and point at what a ridiculous society--one which treats whites and blacks as complete equals!--they would have us inhabit.

Chirag Kasbekar

As someone in whom a moderate form of (Hayekian/Smithian) classical liberalism has sunk to the bones but who is a much more uncertain creature in the flesh, and someone who has some anarcho-cap friends, I find anarcho-capitalism absurd. For innumerable reasons.

I'd leave it at that, but then I realise that I have my own favourite radical proposal. It differs from AC in that it is actually a proposal for a contract-based but structured democratic polity. I'd love to hear what people have to say about my friend Gus diZerega's proposal for a contractual federation of municipal cooperatives which he claims should be thought of as part of a a more broadly understood Hayekian catallaxy.

To be found at the end of his book Persuasion, Power and Polity: A Theory of Democratic Self-Organization. (Written mostly in the 1980s, but published in 2000.)

(BTW, I see that Gus is involved in a debate at the Liberty and Power blog over whether libertarians should identify more closely with American liberals or the American right. See the comments section of this entry.)

Chirag Kasbekar

BTW, this is off-topic, but if anyone wants to follow the 'libertarianism and the left' flap at Liberty and Power, you should probably start with this entry and read the accompanying comments from Gus as well.

You could also read the post I've linked to above and the accompanying comments.


Criticize libertarianism all you want but mocking the angry grasshopper fist and the forest bear palm will only earn you...


[Threatening music plays]


Yes, I am a geek. Why do you ask?

Micha Ghertner

Say what you will about cranky panda style; that ain't nothin' compared to Rums Foo.



It seems to me that the proposition that 'we might know a lot more about how liberty works' is more far-fetched than 'we might be able to abolish slavery'. After all, if you know about societies that don't have slavery, you realize there is no conceptual problem, merely a practical problem. The difficulty with Barnett's suggestion is that it is not merely a practical but a conceptual long-shot. People have been thinking about liberty a long time. It's an act of faith to suppose there are false-bottoms or trap-doors or what have you, waiting to pop open, regarding the concept itself. It seems reasonable to suppose that there aren't.

Micha Ghertner


Were there other agrarian economies as advanced and with the same climate as the South prior to the Civil War? There may have been, but I seem to recall arguments made by defenders of slavery that it was necessary for economic sustainability. They may have been wrong - indeed, modern economic analysis suggests that slavery may have been much less efficient than free labor - but I think this argument still had force with many people. And of course, none of the various factions prior to the Civil War actually advocated complete and full equality among the races. This idea seemed just as outlandish to them as anarchism seems to you. Of course, this doesn't mean that anarchism is just as right as abolition, but the example should give us pause regarding our beliefs about radical social change.

People have been thinking about liberty a long time. It's an act of faith to suppose there are false-bottoms or trap-doors or what have you, waiting to pop open, regarding the concept itself.

I think Barnett's point is that if markets are able to do well in certain contexts within Epstein's minimal-state framework, this would be good evidence to support the claim that markets would do well in other contexts. On the other hand, if markets fail within Epstein's minimal-state framework, then we would have good reason to abandon any further pursuit of privatization.

This has nothing to do with faith or guesswork; it is a claim that the empirical evidence will guide us either towards or away from radical libertarianism. Barnett is willing to put his beliefs to the test; this is the very opposite of doctrinaire utopianism.



Now that I reread the passage I think you are probably right about that last bit - i.e. about Barnett being willing to go for a long-shot anarchism if and only if minimalism passes the field test with flying colors. That's still a pretty eccentric view, but it isn't nearly as nutty as I made out in my post. Fair enough.

David Sucher

Interesting you mention Takings.

I dipped into also while in law school and found boring and irrelevant to what goes on in real estate development/land use regulation. Its place seemed to be on the bed table as a sedative. I really never got a clear picture of where Epstein stood -- it was obviously useless as any sort of practical and stimulating text. My major impression was that he lacked much knowledge of the development process; his book just didn't seem to be 'grounded' in real world process. Certainly it inspired no debate either way, which is a telling sign.

But I could be wrong, of course; it could simply be that he was far too sophisticated for me. Maybe I simply had too much real world experience -- real estate and land use -- where the battle over property rights was an everyday reality and arguments against regulation were just shooing away the ocean -- to take his ideas very seriously.

fontana labs

Political theory is all peachy, but could we get the "I stole her from another guy" story? That sounds like a good 'un.

Chun the Unavoidable


Let's instead take turns writing fan fiction about it, and they can judge who comes closest to reality. The other guy is barred, obviously.


"Of all the philosophy departments in all the universities of the world, she walks into mine."

No, not enough zing.

"It is possible that I already had some presentiment of my future."

Too vague. Better if Belle is narratrix.

"Holbo, leaning back on the weathered pillar, looked up to the stars. 'Knowledge is ours, Waring -- all of knowing to our call. And what shall we do?' Together, they looked up to the white stars. 'What shall we do...'"

Not exotic enough.



Unlike Statists, Collectivists, or Fascists, Libertarians have absolutely no desire for power other than the complete control over every aspect of their own lives.

What's so wrong with that?


"What's so wrong with that?"

Libertarians usually fail to acknowledge the extent to which control over our own lives entails control over the lives of others.

Fontana Labs

hn/belle entry:

Chiselled, with a soul made of granite, Howard Roark-- no, scratch that, it sounds too much like that Fantasy Island guy, make it John Holbo, recently dismissed from architecture--no, won't do, not sexy enough, we need more eros--philosophy school, strode into the bar, rejoicing in the dignity and pride of his strength, and also his love of High Theory.

He approached Dominique Francon...wait, we need something more catchy, you know, more alluring, the kind of name whose face might be played by pulp fiction art--Belle Waring and her date, That Guy Holbo Stole Her From, and said, simply, "To say 'I love you,' one must first know how to say the ' I '."

Exeunt all.

Belle Waring

Yeah, it was pretty much like that. John also learned to ride a motorcyle to impress me. It totally worked.

Josh Lukin

I don't know about the claim that "everyone ignores" Epstein's work. I got a different impression from this article; even if one corrects as much as possible for the alarmist tone that the author seems to think the magazine requires of him, he presents some evidence that there's a lot of Epsteinism going on.


Hey, that's very interesting, Josh, thanks. (I've just given a quick late-nite skim. I'll try to read more carefully later.) I should clarify: I read Epstein in about 1987 and haven't read him since. I really wasn't intellectually competent in 1987, so my impressions are subject to grave doubt and suspicion. What impressed me at the time was the man's manic consistency. He sort of struck me as a malignant (to a lefty like myself) Jeremy Bentham - chopping down to size all the nonsense on stilts that is the New Deal. Basically, the 'takings' clause is hard to interpret coherently, since - in a sense - everything the government does can be construed as taking something from someone. This isn't actually a sensible attitude. But it's hard to find a principled point at which to get off the slippery slide. I should read the article more carefully, but my impression is that Epstein's views are just so radical - even Scalia is scared of them - that they are just an intellectual exercise. But it is sort of head-clearing. You get a little sense of this from the "Reason" roundtable, actually. Epstein is, as it were, the master of the slippery seesaw. Micha hints at this way up near the top of the comments thread. He writes:

"As both Barnett and Friedman argue, Epstein's "exceptions" have no logical endpoint other than the arbitrary ones Epstein personally prefers."

I think it's basically right that Epstein's discussion of 'takings' displays how the rule can be tipped all the way one way, or all the way the other. And in between points end up seeming rather ad hoc and arbitrary. (But that's what we've got precedent for, right?) It annoys Barnett and Friedman, apparently, but I thought it was instructive to view the 'takings' clause as a slicked-down seesaw - purely for thought-experimental purposes. And very possibly it would strike me otherwise if I were to read it today. I just thought it was funny that Belle and (to a lesser degree) myself were catching flak for the pony post when, in fact, I'm quite irrationally biased in Epstein's favor - against my own political affiliations - due to a random youthful flirtation as a result of older friends who were taking the man's course and thought he was darned wizard and all.

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