Friday, August 23, 2013

Debates Old and New

Someone recently webbed a debate from more than thirty years ago between me and George Smith on ethics vs economics as a foundation for libertarianism. I enjoyed watching it and thought some readers of this blog might enjoy it as well.

After a more recent debate, this one with Robert Murphy, my opponent commented in a blog post that "The only major miscommunication is that Friedman just wanted to talk about methodology, whereas I, the moderator, and the Porcfest event brochure all thought we were talking about the ethical foundations of anarcho-capitalism as well." 

I wasn't discussing the ethical foundations of anarcho-capitalism in that debate because I thought the debate was about the Chicago school approach to economics vs the Austrian school approach and the subject of both schools is economics, not ethics. But it occurs to me that my debate with George was on very nearly the same subject that Robert thought was missing from our debate, so anyone who would like to see what I would have said to Robert can now do so. I will leave it to Robert to decide whether George did an adequate job of representing his side of the argument.


At 1:19 AM, August 24, 2013, Blogger Unknown said...

Here's my debate in Denver (consequentialist vs. deontologist).

At 10:25 AM, August 24, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

At the end was a questioner who described people, feminists in this case, who considered a poorer but equal society (such as the Soviet Union) to be preferable to a richer but less equal society.

David's response was to question their honesty, and when she affirmed that they really did believe that, his response was that all you can do in this case is to argue moral philosophy with those people.

Since David's moral philosophy is based on intuition, I wonder if he has ever argued moral philosophy or knows good ways to do it.

Otherwise I assume his response is the same as my guess: agree to disagree, be thankful they are not the majority, and focus on showing economic arguments to those people who do value utility instead of equality.

And in the long-term, to convince the feminists that using force to impose equality on us isn't worth the cost of doing so.

At 10:55 AM, August 24, 2013, Blogger Tibor said...

Anonymous: I would be very skeptical about the equality in soviet union. You had a society that was on paper based on equality - that is material equality. But reality was far from it. Those high ranked in the communist party enjoyed benefits that noone else could. And that included largely material benefits. Instead equality of all, what you got was a caste system, based on your affiliation with the communist party and its high ranking members. That is actually less equal than the capitalist society. And those who want a real material equality can do so in an entirely capitalist society - various communes exist (and often break up very quickly, since people realize they actually don't want to live like that, but some of them are maintained, albeit in very limited extent), I think the Amish are also very egalitarian, but I'm not sure of that. And if someone simply wants everyone (including those outside of his community) not to be richer than he is, then the only proper names for his sentiment are greed and jelaousy.

At 1:52 PM, August 24, 2013, Blogger Tibor said...

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At 1:53 PM, August 24, 2013, Blogger Tibor said...

I watched the debate between George Smith and David Friedman and I really enjoyed it. I've read a few articles by George Smith before and he's one of my favourite "natural rights libertarians", althouh I don't agree with quite a lot he says. He is able to make good arguments (and as demonstrated in the debate, he can do it quickly) and that is enjoyable.

But I think David has hit a nail on the head back then in the debate with the fundamental distinction between the "perfect world of axioms" and "imperfect knowledge about a very complex world" (I think he phrased it a bit differently but this was the meaning as I gather). I talk to various austrians and natural rights libertarians quite a lot at Partly because I enjoy talking to people who disagree with me, and it is easier to talk about special 5% of issues with people who agree with you on the 95% than with someone who you agree with on 5% of stuff, so when I want to talk about those things I talk to those people there. Partly because as it apparently was in the 1980s in the US and as it is now probably still there and also here in the Czech republic, most libertarians are natural rights libertarians. Since my country is rather small, they are the only thing I get anyway :)

And those people at often exhibit exactly this pattern of thinking. Which, curiously is in a sense very mathematical. Curiously, because mathematics is what I do, so it could be perhaps a good guess for someone to expect me to be fond of this way of thinking in economics and moral philosophy as well. But maybe it is actually the other way around. Because one of the things you are often told if you study mathematics, especially the fields that are a bit more related to practice such as probability theory and (especially) statistics (as opposed to, say, set theory), is that what you have is only a model. It does not describe the real world (often it does not even seem to aspire to do so, but in statistics it usually does). It can give a very good approximation of the real world (and statistics is ultimately nothing else than a way of finding out whether your models are actually in some sense giving a good approximation of it or not), but by no means you should see it as absolute truth anywhere outside the perfect world of ideas the mathematics lives in.

My (biased and very imperfect...) view of philosophers is that they try to take too big a bite. They try to expand the perfect world over things that are bound to the natural world. You can have a nice mathematical theory with no (at least no apparent) relationship with reality. And essentially any mathematical theory is such, since it is not required for the objects to exist the way you defined them at all in the real world for the theory to be correct. You cannot do that in philosophy. Philosophy tries to be both mathematics (in the way that it tries to devise perfect and absolute knowledge) and sciences (in the way that it tries to deal with objects that are bound to the real world). Most philosophers are probably convinced otherwise, but I think these are mutually exclusive and philosophy should pick just one (of course, if it picks the first one, it simply becomes mathematics as it in fact historically did).

At 2:37 PM, August 24, 2013, Blogger Tibor said...


(also sorry for spamming 3 posts instead of one)

I think I would just send them a link (wonderful thing we have today - the internet - and we so much take it for granted :) ) to my favourite feminist - Wendy McElroy. Not a very clever answer I'd say, but I guess they might listen to arguments of another feminist and be persuaded by them better then by me.

As a matter of fact, it might be necessary for me to read her work a bit more as I am starting my PhD. studies in Goettingen, Germany from October and from what I gather from the short visit during the exams, it is filled with all that "gender equality" (which really means female affirmative action...or I would prefer to call that discrimination), diversity and so on...It will be even mandatory for me to take part in a two day course on diversity (which really struck me as a lot of indoctrination...there is apparently a sense in which our post-communist country is more free than the neighborging Germany) called "diversity competence". I hope they will at least allow me to present my views on that topic, so it will at least be a discussion (which actually might end up interesting), rather than something along the lines of "if you are going to be competent in diversity, you need to behave and think in these and those ways"

For the interested, this is what my (new) university has to say about that:

I cite:

"A two day training by Dr. Silvie Klein-Franke on the cultural differences concerning gender, scientific discipline and country of origin. Practical consequences for cooperations will be drawn with respect to future career. This is an obligatory course for the PhD students."

I am most concerned about the "practical consequences for cooperation will be drawn..." sentence. I hope it does not mean what is seems to mean. If it did, and considering that this is a state university and very likely all state universities in Germany have these "courses", I am afraid fascism would be the only appropriate word.

At 11:18 PM, August 24, 2013, Blogger Unknown said...

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At 11:46 PM, August 24, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I listen to you and George debate 30 years ago, and I read current material on BHL, and I think "We have gone NOWHERE in 3 decades."

At 7:57 AM, August 25, 2013, Anonymous Max said...

The content of the argument was very interesting, but I was even more entertained by your appearance - Jew 'fro, sunglasses inside, giant necklace medallion, etc.


At 8:47 PM, August 25, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...

I'm pretty sure the "medallion" was a museum replica of a tsuba. The glasses were probably the kind that are supposed to get dark in sunlight, clear otherwise--I don't know why they looked so dark on the video. At least, I can't think of any reason I would have been wearing regular sunglasses.

I did have a lot more hair then.

At 1:27 AM, August 26, 2013, Blogger Tibor said...

I see, I was also wondering what that giant necklace was all about :) But I was also amused. But I guess that when I see myself 30 years from now, I might also find the current fashion rather funny.

Also, what also stands out is the improvement in the quality of cameras over those 30 years. I suppose there was a huge videotape camera there while the quality of the picture is horrible (maybe that is even why the glasses look darker than they actually were). Now you have very small and cheap devices that are capable of very high resolution and quality image. When the progress is continuous, you don't even notice it...unless you look to where it was 20-30 years ago. It seems wierd that 15 years ago, I didn't even know what the internet was (well I was 9, but anyway) and maybe 7 years ago noone could watch a video on online.

At 6:28 AM, August 26, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...


This was an excellent video. infinitely more interesting than the recent Murphy debate.

I do think you underestimate the type of folks the female questioner near the end (Wendy Mcelroy?) makes about egalitarians. There is a very large contingent on the left that despises the production of things humans desire. They will readily admit that capitalism is the best way to get more stuff, but they don't see that as a positive.

For example, I give cultural anthropology lectures where I discuss the lives of a hunter-gatherer population I work with. After discussing in great detail the difficulty of daily chores, the complete lack of privacy, the highly constrained social life, the constant presence of infant mortality and the fragility even of adult lives... there is always some set of the students who still romanticize this lifestyle and say "but isn't that better than our lives?"

I suppose we could argue that preferences are revealed in that white folks can but rarely do move to live a forager lifestyle, but they occasionally do and I wager there would be many more if they had a social intermediary to help make the transition. This idea fits nicely in line with the "organic" fetishism and the general hobbit shire fantasy of many on the left. In many ways they desire an immaterial end goal that would be accomplished by everyone becoming poorer.

At 11:32 AM, August 26, 2013, Blogger Tibor said...

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At 11:32 AM, August 26, 2013, Blogger Tibor said...

Wait, that person there was Wendy McElroy? If so, I just made a fool of myself with my second last comment :) Well, 30 years can change the way a person looks, especially if you're not that much familiar with their looks. I probably would not recognize the 1981 version of George Smith either if he were not introduced in the video.

At 11:40 AM, August 26, 2013, Blogger Tibor said...

Anonymous: The people you describe are not a problem. There are forests around, they can live in them (there is much more space than those few who actually want to live like that could ever use in Canada for example). The only problem is with people who not only want to live like the hunter-gatherers, but want others to live like that as well (even though they otherwise don't even need to come in contact with them). It does not seem likely to me that there are many such people there either. There might be people who say that the current civilization is going to kill all the animals and destroy all the forests and make rivers acidic and so forth. But that is a disagreement not based on tastes, but on the way "the world works"...and you can actually use economic arguments to convince these people that their scenario is not very likely in an actually capitalist society with well-defined property rights (unlike the socialist the 1980s here in the Czech republic, then Czechoslovakian socialist republic, acidic rains were not that uncommon and coal dust fell pretty regularly in cities).

At 12:05 PM, August 26, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Ha. I didn't even connect your comment about telling Wendy Mcelroy she should direct folks to herself.

I wonder if free-markets are the best way to get to a world where someone can live as a hunter-gatherer. My bet is that it isn't. The key to their ideal is having the best plots, those that support high density of edible plants and animals and a temperate climate, freely available to folks who want to use them in an "inefficient" (by a materialistic definition) fashion.

Either way... I do agree that this is likely a fringe problem.

At 1:46 PM, August 26, 2013, Blogger Tibor said...

Anonymous: Well, when you look at present governmental ecological activities they are not very ecological really. Biofuel is heavily subsidized in the EU for instance, even though even the Greenpeace (and a lot of scientists) recognize that it actually has a negative environmental effect. If confronted with such a "back to the trees" person, I would suggests that government is not the right way to go there, because the way it works is not straightforward. A law may be called "save the forests act" but its effects can be quite the opposite as they largely are. I would tell those people that while they would almost definitely not have everyone around living in the prehistorical fashion in a capitalist society, the chances of a government to do the "right thing" (from their standpoint) are even worse. An ideal government (again, from their standpoint) would turn the cities into forests and plains, but a realistic government is more likely to come up with something that looks "green" on paper, but in reality only makes the situation worse.

But as you poined out, most of that talk is really just romanticizing. I too enjoy being outside the civilization for a while (but with a lot of definitely not hunger-gatherer equipment such as goretex clothes), so I understand that people are attracted to it, but since you actually can live like that and it does not require almost any resources at all, those pople who actually want to live like that already do that. The others are just like me - they enjoy the outdoors in small doses. But they enjoy the civilization in large. Maybe next time, try asking your students why they don't live like hunters/gatherers if they consider it to be that great. There really are no obstacles I can think of. You only need some decent clothes, learn how to use a bow and craft arrows (or if you are less hard-core, buy a rifle and occasionally go to a nearest town with some trophies and sell them for ammo and other supplies...actually some eskymos live that way in Canada) and so on - it is not like you need to have 1 million dollars. Especially if you are from the US or Canada - there are vast open spaces there and at least the Canadian forests are also full of game (and bears and wolves...), so if you have the skills, you can live there.

At 9:51 PM, August 27, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

" At least, I can't think of any reason I would have been wearing regular sunglasses."

It was the seventies; I can think of a few reasons you may have been wearing sunglasses inside.

At 1:00 PM, August 28, 2013, Blogger Ayrton P said...


I made a comment on another of your blog posts which was removed (I assume by you and because it was admittedly a bit off topic) but I think this would be an appropriate place to reask my question: What is the nature of your moral philosophy and are there any books or articles you'd recommend that articulate its defence?

I am constantly in admiration of your intellectual honesty and ability to detect flaws in arguments so I think that any moral philosophy which can count you among its ranks (even if only for the fact that it makes you feel the least uncomfortable out of all the alternatives) must be pretty good and would likely be a great help to my frustratingly anchorless ethics.

At 1:42 PM, August 28, 2013, Anonymous Max said...

Nihilism ftw! =D

At 5:29 PM, August 28, 2013, Blogger David Friedman said...

My moral position is intuitionism, I think pretty close to Huemer's. I discuss it briefly at:

At 6:10 PM, September 22, 2020, Blogger David Friedman said...

Rereading the comments seven years later, I was curious as to whether the person who asked the question discussed was Wendy McElroy, so I ran the final bit of the recording.

It was. No question.


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