Saturday, April 20, 2013

Which Side Are You On? Robert Wolff, Murray Rothbard, and Me

I spent the past two days attending a conference at Duke University. One of the other participants was Robert Wolff, who published his In Defense of Anarchism a year or two before I published my Machinery of Freedom. I found his presentation, and especially what it implied about the difference between his views and mine, one of the most interesting parts of the conference.

Wolff considers himself a left anarchist and a Marxist. He described the difference between us as the difference between two movie tropes—the self-sufficient western loner who comes into town to clean it up, seen as symbolizing the propertarian anarchist, and an Amish barn raising for the communitarian anarchist.

There are two obvious problems with that. The first is that I, like most individualist anarchists, have nothing against the Amish barn raising, indeed see that sort of voluntary cooperation as an important and attractive feature of the kind of society we want. The second is that the actual Amish are both propertarian and communitarian. The barn will end up as the private property of the farmer on whose land it is being raised.

The real difference, as best I could tell, is something quite different. Wolff described how, as a professor of philosophy at Columbia during the student riots there, he had been trying and failing to find a philosophical derivation of ethics in the work of Kant, an argument showing what was good or bad, what one should or should not do. His conclusion was that if Kant could not do it, it could not be done, leaving him with no intellectually satisfactory way of answering the important questions. The solution to that problem was provided to him by one of the student revolutionaries, one he thought was almost certainly a communist, who told him that he did not need a philosophical derivation of ethics. All he needed was to decide which side he was on.

Wolff eventually concluded that the student was right. He did not go into details, but pretty clearly the way he saw it was that he was on the side of the workers, the South African blacks, the oppressed of the earth against their oppressors. There was still room for disagreement among those on his side of the barricades, but the essential problem was solved.

There are some problems with that solution. In his comments on my talk the previous day—the recording is linked to my previous post, but it may be hard to hear the questions—he indignantly rejected the idea that one could judge the effects of capitalism by comparing it to the major non-capitalist societies of the 20th century, the Soviet Union and its allies. But his communist student would probably, judging by the ones I knew at the time, have been a supporter of either the Soviet Union or Communist China. If the only question was which side he was on and he accepted the student’s answer, as pretty clearly he did, that put him on the same side of the barricades as states that murdered millions of those they ruled and held hundreds of millions at a level of poverty compared to which the bottom third of the U.S. income distribution, whose misery he had offered the previous day as evidence of the horrors of capitalism, live in luxury.

I concluded that his fundamental disagreement with me was the same as Murray Rothbard’s, which I discussed in a previous post. Rothbard, in an essay now webbed, claimed that what was wrong with me was that I did not hate the state, that I regarded those who disagreed with my libertarian views not as evil but merely as mistaken

My response to Wolff, as to him, was that the fundamental question is not which side you are on. For many, although not all, political questions, the right answer is the same for almost everyone. The fundamental question is what is the right answer.

Is my extreme version of free market capitalism better or worse than the mixed economies that are currently the norm of the developed world? Are they better or worse than some other alternative set of institutions? There may be some issues for which there is an irresolvable conflict of interest, where one large group of people are better off with one answer and a different group with another. But on most of the big issues almost all of us should support about the same policies—if only we could agree on what the consequences of the alternatives would be. I have never met a socialist who was in favor of what I think the consequences of socialism would be, and I doubt there are many libertarians who would approve of what a socialist thinks the consequences of their policies would be.

Wolff commented that my describing him as on the same side as Murray Rothbard was a terrible insult. But it is also true. Both of them chose to see the conflict as between good men and evil men. I see it as between good ideas and bad ideas, where bad ideas are not evil, simply wrong.

In the course of his talk, Wolfe mentioned a conversation he had had in South Africa, during the period of Apartheid, with an intelligent intellectual who supported it. His conclusion was that there was no argument he could offer to prove the other wrong—the supporter of Apartheid was simply evil.

The question I put to him, and I do not think he ever answered, was what the implications would have been if the end of apartheid had set off the sort of blood bath that decolonization did set off in some of the African states—Nigeria killed about a million people in the process of suppressing the attempt of its Ibo citizens to secede, and several other black African states ended up with bloodshed on a similar scale. It is easy enough to imagine an alternative history in which the shift to one man, one vote in South Africa turned out to be a mistake, as judged by its effect on the South African blacks, the people on whose side Wolff thought he was. It could still happen, although hopefully it won’t. If it did, does Wolff have to conclude that he had it wrong, that he, not the supporter of apartheid, was the evil one?

I had had advance warning of his position, and what was wrong with it, in his comment on my talk. As best I could tell, he simply took it for granted that his view of the facts—that a market system led to massive inequality and miserable conditions for a large part of the human race—was obvious fact, and the only puzzle was how I could be in favor of such things. It did not seem to occur to him that I, or anyone, might disagree about the relevant facts, that the argument might be, not about what outcomes we wanted, but about what outcomes followed from one or another set of institutions.

What made that approach more striking and, to me, more obviously wrong, was the earlier talk of another speaker, the science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson, who appeared to share a good deal of Wolff’s view of the world. The picture he painted struck me as a highly colored cartoon view of the world, inconsistent with obvious facts. He talked (I am pretty sure I am not confusing him with one of the other speakers with similar views—if I am, it does not affect my point) about how vampire  capitalism focused investment on one low wage nation after another, draining it dry and then moving on when wages got high enough to make further exploitation unprofitable. 

It did not appear to occur to him that moving a country from low wages to high was a good thing, not a bad thing, nor that the countries supposedly “drained dry,” presumably including South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and, a decade or two earlier, post-war Germany and Japan, had ended up as developed countries with first world standards of living. Nor did it occur to him to look at where the investors of the developed world actually did their foreign investment—some of it in poor countries with low wage labor, but much of it in other developed countries.

Wolff and Robinson were entertaining speakers and I ended up liking both of them—perhaps some day I can have the opportunity to continue our arguments at greater length. But Wolff, like Rothbard, is wrong, dangerously wrong. He holds a view of the world which, however emotionally satisfying, implies that the essential relation of human beings to each other is that of enemies—a view that has been used to justify some of the worst deeds of the past century. It is, as Orwell pointed out, much easier to defend the liquidation of antisocial elements than to argue in favor of murdering people who disagree with you. If the reason people disagree with you is that they are evil, there is no need to think about whether they might be right and you might be wrong.


RJM said...


sometimes when I read some left-wing anarchist things I think: I know this is wrong and in the end I know that I have the better arguments BUT a typical statist wouldn't even see the difference to my anarcho-capitalist arguments!

When statists don't understand my arguments, maybe it's because I do similar mistakes as the left-wing anarchists when they explain their position.

By pointing out the problems of the "some people are evil" statement you gave me an important hint. Thanks!

Also I remember your last reply to Rothbard's comment on your position. This follow-up made things finally clear to me.

Tibor said...

A nice post. I actually wanted to ask you who that guy you had a bit of an argument in that talk was (unfortunatelly, he really cannot be heard all that well there). And I think comparing him to Rothbard is pretty accurate. I will send a link to your post to forum. It might start an interesting discussion there, since most of the people there are "fans" (I didn't want to say followers, cause that almost sounds like they were a cult, although fans is not a proper word either) of Rothbard. And I am pretty sure comparing Rothbard to Wolff will make some people angry there, but perhaps that will make them think about it and write interesting an defence of their good-versus-evil-ideas worldview.

windwheel said...

Very well written and so far as I can see, quite reasonable, but is this a function of sincerity, of good faith, or does it arise out of a mere lure of rhetoric, or a fatal confusion between strategy and tactics?
Friedman, like an earlier generation of second-generation intellectual arbiters, or not quite intellectual arbiters- think Roy Cohn- pirouettes on the thin ice of Matthew 12.30 so as to, by an illicit and transparent cackhandedness of legerdemain, arrive at something like an emollient Mark 9.40.
David writes in a seductive fashion. His English is actually very very good. The guy has genius- not Jackie Mason genius- not Krusty the Klown genius- but, it may be, as the shade of his illustrious parents' shrivels in the Sun of the All Highest, Dave will in his modest manner emerge as the Lamed Wufnif- i.e. Zadig or Siddiqui- of a literature that can and must necessarily reach out to all- like Harry Potter.
On the face of it, Friedman- when his own moral feelings aren't genuinely involved- is a first class a-hole. But, assuming the guy aint sophomore stupid, he knows that some shite he writes is crap coz he thinks people like Landsburg are crap.
I can't figure out why Friedman would think Bork was crap as well- fuck, I just figured it out.
It's the Roy Cohn thing. Friedman is Chicago in a certain sense. Freshwater trying to ameliorate Salt Water.
There was a moment outside time when all Ashkenazi were Sephardi. Barzakh obtained universally not with univocity. Leo Strauss on the Kuzari, was afterall, a writing under persecution.
Anyroad, returning to what Friedman has actually said in this post, to all but an esoteric eye, there is no warrant for his extraordinary allegations.
1) Robert Wollf somehow shares a cognitive class with Friedman. This is not true. Had Friedman bumped into the Boston Bombers and had they snarled their hateful hip hop version of Chechen Jihad, it would still not be the case that any shared intellectual genealogy obtained or that anything could be concluded by the conjunction of such disparate and heteroclite elements of the American Polity.
Several of my students have been helped by Wollf, including Israeli citizens. Still, they ALL went back and did their stint in the Army.
I don't understand you fucking American cunts. You make enemies out of thin air. Every worthless fuckwit on your (all white?) blog thinks he or she can fucking lecture me- what's up with that?
Dave, you're a cunt, you can't read, or don't want to. Fuck you're blogging for? U got Mussar ancestors dude.
Good Faith. Try it some time.

EH said...

Nice post. I would say there is some truth to both. Dogmatic leftists like Wolff could certainly do with a lot more consequentialism. Their insistence that capitalism is bad for the people he supposedly defends, while showing zero interest in the actual facts, is simply destructive.

On the other hand, I do agree that sometimes it just is about which side you are on. When two factions vie for control, whether is is in south Africa, the levant, or civil war America, theoretical or empirical arguments tend to be a waste of breath. My personal theoretical inclination is to come down on the side supporting freedom of association; which implies freedom of dissociation. But if it would come down to it, I would probably do what everyone else does: stand with your brothers and settle mine and thine the old fashioned way; may the best man win.

Anonymous said...

What makes a man turn neutral? Lust for gold? Power? Or were you just born with a heart full of neutrality?

Anonymous said...


jdgalt said...

Do you, then, refuse to believe that evil exists in the world, period? Because if not, there has to be a line somewhere.

Norm said...

Makes sense to me. I've encountered a lot more dumb than dishonest in my rather longish modern American life.
Of course evil exists, but I don't really understand why people accuse others of evil so easily.
I suppose, as you suggest, sometimes it is the feeling of moral superiority and sometimes the subconscious desire to avoid discussions where they might not prevail.
Maybe I'm just not smart enough to recognize how much dumb there is.

AIG said...

Very good post. Wholeheartedly agree on why such views are dangerous, and why even some of us on the "libertarian" side fall for the same absolutist tendencies.

I have made the same argument before on why the views of Rothbard and the people who operate in those circles (the crowd) are very similar to Marxists.

Having grown up in a communist country, I can certainly see the same tendencies in the "Rothbardian" types of "libertarians" as I could see in the dedicated Marxist-Leninists of yesterday.

Dangerous, and unfortunate.

jdgalt said...

The problem, as I see it, is that the marketplace of ideas has become broken, and I don't know how to fix it except by trying to create a new one that keeps the evil people out.

Take the climate change debate. I hold these to be well-established facts. (1) The "science" behind Mann's hockey stick was faked by pre-selecting data sets and transformations that would seem to support a conclusion Mann and his friends pre-chose for political reasons. (2) The "mainstream" media still promote the panic for some combination of the following reasons: (a) panics sell papers and TV ads; (b) they're owned or controlled by people with these evil goals; or (c) the so-called scientists they trust are all in the pay of the EPA (which has those goals) and their jobs and careers depend on not questioning the party line. (3) Many, perhaps most, of the voting public are rationally ignorant and thus get their views from those biased media. (And those people don't understand logic and fallacies, and have already dismissed all good guys as unreliable sources of information, so there's no way to get through to them with the truth. And of course the public school system is deliberately run to make people that way.)

Given these facts, please tell me some better way to succeed than to dismiss at least the leaders of the opposition as evil people. (After all, doing so does work for them.)

Unknown said...

"If the reason people disagree with you is that they are evil, there is no need to think about whether they might be right and you might be wrong."

This is one reason I find your arguments more appealing than your competitors.

But I do think that the "good vs. evil" mentality is more likely to galvanize the activists. I only say this as one possible reason that the loudest voices in the liberty movement seem to go for Rothbard, or at least share his mentality.

Unknown said...

While I sympathize with the notion that its an issue of bad vs good ideas;

I have on occasion encountered people who are fully aware of the consequences of their ideas and believe them acceptable to reach their desired ends. What should be thought of them other than being evil?

If a man believes that minimum wage laws will help the poor he is simply an idiot. If a man knows that minimum wage will hurt the poor and wishes to enforce it precisely for that reason, is he not evil?

David Friedman said...

John David Galt:

As far as I can tell, the controversy over the hockey stick was about whether his specific results were a result of a statistical mistake, not over whether the general pattern he found was correct. It seems to be pretty generally agreed that global temperatures were relatively constant since the medieval warm period, with a sharp rise over the past century or so, a pattern supported by a variety of independent researchers. There's evidence of a very long term slow decline, going back much farther than his research covered.

David Friedman said...


I would be surprised to discover that someone wanted a minimum wage in order to hurt the poor, although someone might recognize that it would hurt the poor and want it despite that for some other reason.

Do you have any examples in mind?

David Friedman said...


I don't refuse to believe that evil exists. I am skeptical of the claim that it is responsible for most political disagreement--that the problem is usually with people who want bad things to happen.

Anonymous said...

re: Your reply to M.L.

Didn't early Union leaders and theorists pretty much state that the policies they pursued were anti-poor, albeit along racial lines?

Samuel Gompers "Meat vrs. Rice" comes to mind.

David Friedman said...


Some union leaders may have recognized that their policies would hurt poor people--in particular by excluding blacks from unionized jobs. But hurting poor people wasn't their objective--their objective was helping their members.

Unknown said...

Prof. Friedman

Humor me if you will; the existence of people like Jack the Ripper or HH Holmes shows that there are people who receive utility from harming others. Why wouldn't one of them use knowledge of economics to harm people in a mass scale?

I'm not saying that everyone who advocates for minimum wage laws is an evil psychopath. I simply find it hard to believe that there isn't a psychopath who has realized they can maximize the amount of harm they do to others by advocating for such things as price controls.

AIG said...

"But I do think that the "good vs. evil" mentality is more likely to galvanize the activists."

Yes, but I find this very unfortunate. If the "libertarian movement" is to be defined or characterized by unthinking "young activists", modeled after their Leftist counterparts, than Rothbard and the "" crowd are surely the right people for the job.

I personally find that sort of "movement" more undesirable than having no "movement" at all.

I actually attended a meeting of a local "libertarian" group which is almost exclusively composed of young "Rothbardian" types. All I can say is that I have heard more thoughtful conversations back in communist Old Country than I did there that day. I was shocked and ashamed to call myself a "libertarian" after that.

kouk said...

to me there are two failures in the libertarian camp:

1) the rothbardians don't seem to accept that there is such a thing as path-dependence. That perhaps slight steps in the "wrong" direction are necessary in order to take bigger ones towards the "right", that every place is a beginning, including the current state of affairs we are living in. Therefore they dismiss those who focus on the "machinery" of freedom and it's application to the current situation as not single-minded enough. That in my mind is not necessary at all.

2) the friedmanites on the other hand don't seem to accept that awareness of facts, those that would for example lead one to prefer the "good" over the "evil", is also a cultural matter that can be greatly helped by including radicalism as an element of an endeavour to change the world. Take for example the Pirate Parties in Europe. The culture of this movement is thoroughly radical; the copyright industry is evil, period. Their momentum and direction stems from this, but they simultaneously seem to realize that they must be very interested in the practical political issues that need practical political solutions. So they can support gradual changes as well.

kouk said...

And I would like to comment on AIG's comment above: that radicalism galvanizes activists is not 'unfortunate'. It's just reality. Just like we do not have to tell the market how to produce things, we should not tell the activists from whence they should get their motivation. Nor does it make sense to prefer "no movement at all" if you find some characteristics of that movement unpalatable. Some, like yourself, will get it from the "thoughtful" side, others from the "radical". Everyone is necessary "for the job" including those would enculture the young, "unthinking" youths into being aware of the best options we have.

Tibor said...

kouk: Well yes, the emotional black and white approach can help you attract some kinds of people (I suspect mainly young people). But at the same time it disencourage other people - those who consider the "good vs. evil" mentality to be simplistic. Also, it is not just about quantity, it is also about quality. A young idealistic rothbardian may realize in time that the world simply is not black and white and abbandon libertarianism alltogether. Also, while he is trying to convince other people of his position, he will likely use worse arguments (because it is easier to accuse your opponents of being evil, than to argue why they are wrong) and that way undermining his libertarian position. Had I first read about market anarchism not from David, but from Rothbard, I would likely have dismissed it as a whole. Then if I encountered Machinery of Freedom later on, I would not "waste" my time reading it, sice I would expect it to be on a similar note.

I generally think it is better for a "movement" (I don't really like the word, but anyway) to have fewer people who know why they hold their positions, who can argue them well and who are able to discuss it with others than a lot of passionate fanatics (I am exaggerating on purpose a little) who just preach "the Book of Rothbard".

Also, there definitely are genuinely evil (those who realize their actions are wrong, but do it anyway) people around. But I think they are a small minority. My guess would be 5% or something.

And as far as lowering utility of others by bad policies goes, I don't think that is an attractive alternative for a mass murderer. It is just too impersonal. I think the psychopath has to be satisfied emotionally which is probably what happens while he is murdering his victims. But the only emotional feedback he gets from a bad policy is going to be worse numbers in statistics. Similarly, people tend to prefer (emotionally at least) direct ways of helping others to non-direct ones.

Jonathan said...

Excellent post. I think there are few evil people around; the problem is that there are so many crazy people who believe weird things. And who, correspondingly, think that I'm crazy and that I believe weird things...

Don said...

Based on what you've written, I can only conclude that Robert Wolff is not a smart man. Mea culpa: I read his book when I was young, and liked it. This only reinforces my view that he is a few bricks short of a load.

Wolff looks at the prosperity of capitalist nations and concludes that people who support capitalism are evil. He looks at the socialist nations he and his friends have apologized for (and the misery there) and concludes that we have no grounds to judge. I'm not impressed.

And Wolff is wrong about Kant. Kant had a perfectly coherent ethical system which answered the very questions Wolff is asking. Kant's conclusions were all statist and involved self-sacrifice. I doubt Wolff's "anarchist" society would be much different.

And windwheel: Take your medication! Someone else is paying for it, the least you can do is take it.

David Friedman said...

Response to Kouk on the "Friedmanites."

The argument for radicalism is one that I have been making for a long time, and got from my father who was making it still longer ago. His standard example was the socialist party in the U.S. Its positions were sufficiently radical so that it won almost no elections, but a lot of its policies eventually came into existence, implemented by the major parties.

Which is part of the reason I wrote a book arguing, not merely for reducing the size of the state, but for eliminating it.

But the question of whether to argue for radical positions, as I have been doing for a very long time, isn't the same as whether the arguments should be based on the claim that your views are obviously right, that those who oppose you must know they are right, hence must be evil.

David Friedman said...

Response to Don re Kant:

I have read almost no Kant, so cannot speak to what ethical system he believed he had. But I have looked at the same issue wrt Rand, and reached the same concusion in that case that Wolff appears to have reached for Kant.

Rand thought she had, not merely an ethical system, but a derivation for an ethical system, a reason why a rational person ought to agree with it--that she had solved Hume's is/ought problem. I long ago concluded that she was wrong, and I suspect that if Kant thought he had such a derivation, he was wrong too.

AIG said...

Kouk, it is not "radical ideas" that I object to. Radical ideas are only radical in relation to accepted norms. It is the notion of "activism" that I object to.

David is right, and I have said this same point long before as well; the Rothbardian type of "libertarianism", which unfortunately has become the dominant "brand", is little more than a cheap attempt to copy the Leftist movements in most respects. It is an attempt to copy them in organization, in methodology, in ideas, in thought, and in the cult of personality.

The end result, for me, is rather unfortunate. You say that in the end everyone has their "job to do". I'm just not sure that either I, nor they, know what their "job" is?

whatever that job is, it seems to me all they have done in the past few decades is to produce people who walk around with the Ron Paul or Rothbard equivalent of the Little Red Book.

David Friedman said...

On the subject of one's job in a political movement ... .

Interestingly enough, this was a point on which Wolff's view and mine were more or less the same. Different people are good at different things and enjoy doing different things. If you persuade someone that the way to promoting your movement is to hand out leaflets on street corners, but he is a shy sort who hates doing that and doesn't do it very well, the result is likely to be that he instead does nothing.

So it makes more sense to figure out which, of the myriad of activities that promote the ideas you believe in, you are good at and enjoy doing, then do those.

Which is why I don't join the LP and work for their candidates, do write books and maintain a blog and a website and argue with people online.

AIG said...

David I must disagree with you on one point. I don't think the ideas of the Left filtered down into government policies over the decades because of the "radical activism" of Socialist Parties or other such movements. Wouldn't you agree that those ideas also existed, in tamer form (and int he form they were implemented), in most populist movements? Wouldn't you also agree that the Left did not simply engage in the radical activism of the SP etc, but more heavily engaged in formulating subtle and sophisticated and gradual arguments specifically in the areas of "thought".

In my opinion, it is the former that has led to their success. Of course, having radical positions doesn't tell us about how those positions are transmitted.

We on the "libertarian" side, instead, seem to have de-evolved from engaging almost exclusively in the areas of subtle, sophisticated and gradual arguments, to this sort of "Red Guard" model of young kids running around yelling at people for not being "for liberty enough!".

Of course, the way they frame every argument through "liberty" is itself an evil vs good dichotomy.

mickey said...

Not sure it means much, but I agree that viewing "the other side" as evil is dangerous. I admittedly don't find it satisfying to focus on them as simply ignorant or merely mistaken and think evil plays a role. For some reason I am inclined to think the evil are more likely to be near the top and the ignorant or merely mistaken near the bottom. But perhaps evil isn't just embracing a position knowing what it inherently means for people and their liberty but a neutral or benevolent embrace of such positions spreads a different evil of varying strength. Worse, it isn't just that they disagree as in an argument but some of them are willing to cage and shoot people for peaceful actions. I'm inclined to think some people are truly worthy of being a true enemy even if they think they are doing something good for others.

Unknown said...


"it seems to me all they have done in the past few decades is to produce people who walk around with the Ron Paul or Rothbard equivalent of the Little Red Book."

To the extent that people in the liberty movement hold mistaken views, I think it's better to engage them on those points than to dismiss them. The kids who read Rothbard can be annoying, but I don't think they are very much like Maoists at all.

kouk said...

I don't think that the comparison with the radical leftists is helpful at all. Because if they are similar in one respect, fetishising a distilled "pure" set of principles, they are different in other significantly more important ones.

Also I think that the portrayal of the Rothbardians in this thread is a bit lacking in understanding. To demonize a person is of course a mistake, one everyone should avoid. But when you use a word like "evil" the meaning changes depending on the object it describes. E.g to say that cancer is an evil is an expression of an important position (being a human at risk). If one hates cancer that may be a very good and motivating emotion (for consequentialist reasons). So to say that the state is evil and that one considers himself an enemy of it is, in my mind, more like that than like a demonization ad hominem.

In any case, that we don't know for sure what our "job" is doesn't brea anything on the matter of denouncing the activities of others because we find them unsuitable for ourselves. In fact not everyone is cut out to be an activist, and neither is everyone required to be. But I would say that do dismiss activism, of the old kind of the Left or the new kind that the Pirates have applied with at least partial success, is rather short-sighted. And at least from my experience involved with politics in Greece, the "thoughtful" classic liberals/libertarians have forgone pretty much every oporttunity at achieving critical momentum for libertarian ideas because of their emotional distaste for the leftist style of political activism, and essentially surrendering this battlefield completely. That is what is trully unfortunate.

Last, I would like to say that I would much like to see a pirate style libertarian movement evolve inspired by works such as "The Machinery of Freedom". But since the only serious recent attempt at a libertarian movement was Ron Pauls I just hope that people like my fellow commenters don't let the achieved momentum die out unused.

kouk said...

to give a slight example: if there is a libertarian activist on the corner of the street wanting to shout into a microphone, should we ask him to make thoughtful arguments or do we want him to stir up passion in people's hearts? I would argue the latter, given that it's obvious that political relevance requires this kind of communication also.

Anonymous said...

"The argument for radicalism is one that I have been making for a long time, and got from my father who was making it still longer ago. His standard example was the socialist party in the U.S. Its positions were sufficiently radical so that it won almost no elections, but a lot of its policies eventually came into existence, implemented by the major parties."


While this example holds true for national/state elections, the Socialist Party of America was doing relatively well for themselves at the city level; that is until the "reforms" from local/ward representation to city-wide elections and adaptation of city manager position.

For example, in Dayton OH (known for the Dayton Plan which helped kickstart the national movement towards City Managers and city-wide elections) prior to reforms the Socialist Party received ~22% of the total vote resulting in 2 councilmen and 3 assessors; the year after the reforms the socialists received ~33% of the vote resulting in no representation in the city government. *quoting from memory, do not have the source at-hand

The National Civic Federation, (with members ranging from Samuel Gompers & Jane Addams to Mark Hanna, Seth Low, & George Perkins), is probably the organization most responsible for sanitizing & subverting radical populist ideologies and bringing them into the platforms of the mainstream parties.

In a letter to NCF VP Samuel Gompers, Ralph Easly expressed "our[the NCF] enemies are the Socialists among the labor people and the anarchists among the capitalists."

James Weinstein has a lot of good research on this topic in "Corporate Ideal in the Liberal State" and "The Decline of Socialism in America"

AIG said...

"n any case, that we don't know for sure what our "job" is doesn't brea anything on the matter of denouncing the activities of others because we find them unsuitable for ourselves"

I didn't "denounce" the activists. I simply said that I find them unfortunate. And that, because they are the ones usually denouncing others.

" should we ask him to make thoughtful arguments or do we want him to stir up passion in people's hearts?"

Are these arguments based on passions that reside in our hearts? Not only do I not think that is the case, but also I think that this is no way to engage in a debate. "Jobs" like these, can be counterproductive.

Look, I get it. These are young kids, and like all kids movements, it has to be based on sensational claims and sensational personalities. But this whole "libertarianism" thing seems to have turned into a perpetually infantile movement, and that should have been the predictable end result of black and white world views. (just as Leftism has turned into)

A while back I went to a talk by one of the main people from I was shocked at the shallowness of the argument, at the dismission as "liers" of everyone who held a different opinion, at the almost religiosity of the arguments of "us vs. them".

I see no productive aim that this "job" serves to achieve, other than to drive people away.

Tibor said...
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Tibor said...
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Tibor said...

kouk: My conjecture about why there is such a lack of libertarian movements is that it is much harder for it to spread out out en masse. The slogans of the left are easy to understand. It is simple to say "poor people should have more money" and the obvious solution is redistribution. It is much harder to explain why redistribution is not really a very good solution and decentralization and spontaneous cooperation work much better - even for the poor. When you try to put those in a form of slogans, you most likely end up with a caricature.

It is hard to explain why freedom is a good thing for virtually everybody and be brief about it. David's father did a great job in the basic introduction I think in his TV series free to choose. But even that took 5 hours (if I don't count the discussion which was often interesting however). To explain something even more different from the system we live in - such as market anarchy - it takes even longer.

By the way, one reason I like some of Roderick Long's articles is that he is able to make arguments that I think have to be very appealing to socialists (he actually describes himself as a "left-libertarian" ). I think that is a good way to go, because libertarians are more often than not put in the same box with conservatives which is not very accurate. There are some things about him that I don't like (mainly, that he leans close to the rothbardian "ethical" libertarianism, although not nearly as close as people like Block). But I like the focus on "left wing topics".

I also like what Trey Parker and Matt Stone do - that is South Park. It may just seem like a stupid cartoon at a first glance but it is actually often quite deep and from some of the episodes it is apparent both of them are very close to libertarianism (Parker is actually a member of the LP). The nice thing about South Park is that it presents an idea with a story. But (mostly) it doesn't end up preachy and the idea is just nicely illustrated by an otherwise entertaining story...and perhaps easier to understand than if presented by a "cold analysis". So that is another great approach.

And a mob with transparent signs shouting slogans at a street? Well, I think that is the best way to convince a lot of people that libertarians are just another bunch of "young hippie rebel without cause idiots".

I really think it is better if there are fewer people who really understand well why they are libertarians and have their opinions based on solid arguments, than a large group of preachy mindless followers of some authority figure. I would use a analogy with an inflation - a state can "boost the economy" in the short term by loaning a lot of money, printing even more and making a lot of malinvestments. Or it can not do that (or not exist :) ) and let the things evolve naturally. The first approach will crash and prove to actually be much slower. And so it is with a "movement" I think. If you try to boost its size at a cost of quality, then it will crash sooner or later as well.

Also, a great way to promote liberty is to make it happen. Projects like bitcoin, seasteading, private arbitration and so on may prove much more effective than hundreds of books.

Joey said...


I'm with you on a lot of your points. But while I wish libertarianism could sell

better if there are fewer [sic. I think you mean more] people who really understand well why they are libertarians and have their opinions based on solid arguments, than a large group of preachy mindless followers of some authority figure.

.. I just don't think this is realistic. The proportion of mindless statists is much larger than the proportion of mindless libertarians, and mindless people aren't going to reflect on how society could operate differently than it does now. Some people just think in slogans.

And as far as bite-size pieces of wisdom go, "non-aggression" is pretty damn benign.

Lastly, and I admit this is an exaggeration, but if having an opinion based on solid argument were necessary and sufficient to convince people to come to your side, how did socialism, astrology, that "race is a social construct" theory that people were arguing about a few weeks ago, get so popular?

Joey said...

Just logged back in to make the point another way: What do you think would happen if you magically turned all of the less sophisticated libertarians into Milton Friedmans? My guess is that they'd go out publicly and persuade many more people, and within 20 years, the proportions would be back to around where they are today. You can't expect all people who are persuaded by an idea to be able to defend it.

Robert said...

More and more in recent years, I see great socio-political disingenuousness. Since I count as a psychopath not only someone who takes positive joy at others' misery, but also the person who needs a toothpick and blows up someone's house to produce them, the only way I can save judging many of the outspoken as psychopaths is to assume they're lying about one thing because they misunderstand something else. And that may well be, like the guy who pulls out a small piece from someone else's house to fashion into a toothpick, not realizing that the act will cause that house to collapse within a week, and then lies about having done so.

jdgalt said...

@David: As far as I can tell, the controversy over the hockey stick was about whether his specific results were a result of a statistical mistake, not over whether the general pattern he found was correct.

The book I linked to says otherwise. Mann was out to convince the public that the Medieval Warm Period never happened, and discarded most of the candidate data sets because they would have shown that it did. (This is only one of several ways his findings can be attacked, but I don't want to drag the whole thread onto that topic by expanding here. WUWT has much more detail.)

@kouk and Tibor Mach: I agree that the liberty movement should be "big tent" if we want to get anywhere. The Left uses many different organizations, we should too. Above all, I believe, we should avoid raining on each other's parades.

But a person can't really be said to have values at all if he doesn't reject at least some ideas as evil. And this will inevitably mean that people very attached to those ideas are going to say we've named them as evil, whether we have or not.

Perhaps the movement should have its own "church". I propose Mises' Human Action as its "bible".

Giedrius said...

David Friedman:

"Some union leaders may have recognized that their policies would hurt poor people--in particular by excluding blacks from unionized jobs. But hurting poor people wasn't their objective--their objective was helping their members."

How is that not evil? If someone hits you with a baseball bat and takes your wallet recognizing, that it will hurt you, he's not evil, simply misinformed, because his objective was not to hurt you, but to help himself with your wallet?

David Friedman said...


I think you are correct that Mann's original graph did not have a medieval warm period. But that isn't a very large difference, since the MWP was a long time ago and both the rate of temperature increase and the level of temperature, so far as we can tell, were substantially below those for the recent increase.


If you look up the comment thread, you will see that what you quote was defending my earlier comment that:

"I would be surprised to discover that someone wanted a minimum wage in order to hurt the poor, although someone might recognize that it would hurt the poor and want it despite that for some other reason."

Tibor said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tibor said...

John David Galt:

A church, really? I don't like that idea at all. Witch churches comes dogma, with dogma comes intellectual degradation...lot of socialists really form quasi-churces. And they often ignore reality in their dogma. Or at least the parts of reality that don't fit their views. Rothbardians do that too sometimes. I discussed that with one of them and he said: "There is nothing wrong about a dogma if it is true". That is a marvelous truism. A dogma is always true from the viewpoint of the person who acccepts it and there is no way to test it for him, since he dismisses anything that collides with the dogma. The minute you start questioning it, it ceases to be a dogma.

fewer/more: I meant fewer, as in "better 100 informed and smart people than 1000 fanatics". Of course 1000 informed people is even better, but choosing between something that is better in all respects and something worse in all respects is a "cake or death" question (that is an Eddie Izzard reference in case you're wondering :) ).

Dick White said...

Many posts to David's original refer to evil almost as if it is an independent force in our world. I suggest that evil is in the orientation of the heart of each of us, i.e., it is not what surrounds us but what is within us. Thus, it seems, ever sinner is not without a future and there is no saint without a past. Accordingly, the ideas that may affect our future behavior would seem to be the relevant factor not some existing alignment of forces for/against.

kouk said...

@Tibor, I agree with much of what you say, just wanted to note that I do not believe that liberty is a harder sell than collectivism. It's a harder sell now, but it doesn't have to be.

@AIG, I agree that it is indeed unfortunate that the Rothbardians frequently denounce those libertarians that think differently than them. I do not agree however that appealing to the heart is counterproductive if by "the heart" we mean those extra-rational ways of approaching a problem, either via intuition, habit and culture. Actually I think it's pretty necessary. And of course such appeals do not have to be shallow (although they certainly can be).

Last I wanted to say that if I object to certain criticisms against the "passionate" in this thread it is not because I find them invalid in every, or even most cases. It is because I find them invalid as generalizations. This is coming from a person who has been "bitten" by the "dogmatists" while trying to organize a libertarian movement in a very hostile territory (Greece). So I know very well where AIG is coming from, I just think he's taking it a bit too far.

Tibor said...

kouk: Is there any reason why under different circumstances it can be an easier sell? Well, I suppose a society already living in a more liberal society would accept arguments for yet more liberty better (which I think is also an argument for gradualism which the Rothbardians fiercly oppose) as it will be less radical from their viewpoint. And people generally tend to dismiss ideas that are far from the current mainstream. That is, unless it becomes obvious that the current mainstream is unsustainable.

But still it seems to me it is easier to sell "the state will 'give' you this and that and 'ensure' all those other things" than" than "the state will let you live your life any way you want, but you are also responsible for all of your actions". Of course, once it becomes obviuos, that (at least in the long term) the state is pretty bad at "ensuring" stuff, people might start thinking about it. But before that happens, most people seem to prefer security to freedom. I suppose that would not apply to people used to freedom - they would probably have more confidence in themselves (partially it is illustrated by the most recent David's post - the Danish minister saying her grandmother would refuse state pension on the grounds that she does not need charity) than people who are used to the state involvement in so many parts of their lives.

Nationcrafting said...

Mr Friedman, you've just added another arrow to my thoughts-bow...

So, thank you.

I've been looking at governance from a design point of view for a few years now, the premise being that there is no such thing as evil design, just badly thought-out design.

I find that this outlook makes all the difference, because it depoliticises subjects which are today thought of as political, and leaves activism in the same place it would in architecture or car design (good houses are not designed by "activist" architects, for example).

It also takes from design the idea that all interaction with objects and systems is voluntary: no architect would, for example, design a house with rules telling you you cannot stand here or walk one way or the other. The interaction between user and object is always voluntary and the design usually looks at things through the prism of the individual user.

kouk said...

@Tibor, more or less I am agreed.

@Nationcrafting, that there is no "evil" design does not mean that there is no political design or programmatic design. Changes in architecture and design generally happen because of "activists", i.e. people with a program about how things should be. And while a designer can never take the individuals enough into account, a designer with a program can definitely affect the (more or less voluntary) choices of the people who use his artifacts. In fact, denying that this will always be the case we are in danger of believing exactly that it is possible to do things in the one right way (tm).

David Friedman said...

On the subject of architecture ... .

There is a book by a British libertarian, possibly Geoffrey Sampson's An End to Allegiance, which discusses the attempt of architects to design buildings that would force their inhabitants to live the kinds of lives the architects thought they should live instead of the kind the inhabitants wanted to live.

kouk said...

I believe that was the case, especially with early modernism (Le Corbusier etc.). Another especially good critique of the urban planning aspect of architecture is Joan Jacobs "The Death and Life of Great American Cities". However architecture has evolved and learned from these critiques. For example today it's commonplace to advocate mixed uses (cf. the separation of uses in early modernism) or even design for flexible uses. Anyway, like all intellectual fields, architecture is attracted to statist methods of application. But people like Frank Loyd Wright show that there is nothing intrinsically statist in architecture.

Nationcrafting said...

Re: architecture. Yes, indeed. It was quite a thing in the UK when much housing was still provided by the state (council houses, etc.). Classic case of unintended consequences, where a product is paid for by different people than the people using it... Most council estates ended up being the most miserable and dangerous places on Earth.

Much of Le Corbusier's ideology was also based in this kind of collectivist thinking. I guess architecture is a bad example, since it has been heavily politicised, and turned into bad design.

Product design would be a better example. I wrote an essay about this a while ago, which you can read here:

Nationcrafting said...


Here's the HTML activated link: Government is a product

Anonymous said...

A big part of the problem is the syndrome Karl Popper noticed. If the general idea is that truth is something easily seen as soon as it is presented, then if you don't see the truth, you must be blind or malicious.

But truth is hart to come by, and we may not always know we have it when we have it, and we may not always have it when we think we do.