Saturday, October 16, 2004

From Tom Palmer:
Good notes. I may have put the point too strongly. (I'll have to listento it again to be sure.) I think that I did emphasize that the American founders radicalized and purified the ideas, making them more consistent. But I don't think that they were original in their basic ideas aboutindividual liberty per se (although the constitutional scheme that Madison and others set out could be said to be a more radical innovation); they drew on a long tradition, to which they made frequent reference. Few of the founders would have given women any political role, although most were pretty hostile to slavery, but the abstract formulation of thelanguage of the Declaration and the Constitution certainly lent themselves to consistent application to recognition of the equal rights of women and of black people. (By the way, the piece you heard was less than half ofthe lecture that I gave; it just stopped around Magna Charta or somewheresimilar, which was a bit odd.)

Tom Palmer
Hi, Tom [Palmer]:
In your talk about liberty on the CD Cato sent out this month [October, 2004] you take some pleasure in ridiculing those who think liberty is a recent development in human history. Having heard you speak many many times and having never been a progressivist myself has put me on guard about this for a long time. Yet, I do believe that the Declaration of Independence had been a revolutionary political document, not because it invented liberty but because never before had the idea--which admittedly had lurked about for centuries--been incorporated into a full fledged political creed. That's probably because, as Stanley Cavell has put it, America was made by the Founders--it isn't something that slowly evolved. So there was a chance here to give expression, officially, to these heretical ideas and ideals. While the notions involved had percolated for centuries--starting probably with Lao Tzu and Alcibiades (as I chronicle in The Virtue of Liberty [FEE, 1994])--understandably it never got a good rap from leaders of countries. (Why should it have--it would have meant pretty much disenfranchising them!)
Also, some things needed to be known that had not been in order to gain full confidence in such notions that slavery sucks and women ought to have a place among the citizenry, as men do. I do not believe one needs to have a Whig notion of history to accept that even in ethics and politics there can be some advances made, never guaranteed. After all, while not exactly like medicine, ethics and politics do gain from greater understanding of, say, the merits of the division of labor or public choice theory.

Sunday, October 10, 2004

From Jeffrey Friedman (10-10-04)

I looked forward with great interest to Tibor's response to Bruce Ramsey's account of a recent Critical Review Foundation seminar. But instead, he refers to a 1997 article I wrote in Critical Review, and gets what I said there completely wrong.

In that article (see --> back issues --> vol. 11, no. 3), I criticized extant rationales for libertarianism that fail to draw on our knowledge of the empirical world (non-consequentialist rationales, roughly speaking), as well as consequentialist economic rationales for libertarianism. Then I proposed a new consequentialist rationale for libertarianism, drawn from our knowledge of mass democratic politics (but not the public-choice rationale).

Machan, apparently assuming that the only things anyone can say about libertarianism must be things he has already rebutted, thinks that I must be arguing that "each instance of proposed coercion" must be proved undesirable, "over and over again." Wrong.

What I wrote in 1997, and what I teach in the seminar on which Ramsey reports, concerns what, if anything, makes infringements on capitalism coercive; and what makes coercion bad. To oversimplify, what's at issue is whether non-consequentialist rationales for libertarianism make sense—not whether consequentialist rationales should assess the consequences of individual acts, or of general rules, or of overarching economic systems.

Perhaps some day Tibor will choose to debate (or even agree with) what I have actually written or said, rather than with what he imagines the only conceivable positions at odds with his own must be.

Jeffrey Friedman
Editor, Critical Review (
Publisher, The Dissident (

From Tibor Machan (10-10-04):
Here is what I actually wrote involving Jeffrey Friedman, just in case his own reply has, as I think it has, confused the issue: "A dispute among those who favor the free society concerns whether the merits of that society need to be demonstrated over and over again, in each instance of proposed coercion. I believe this is the main thrust of an essay by Jeffrey Friedman, editor of Critical Review, published in that same journal back in 1997, titled, "What's Wrong with Libertarianism," Critical Review 11, no. 3 (1997). (See, for a recent discussion of Friedman's challenge, by Bruce Ramsay’s essay at"
Friedman never responds to this, and why should he? What I believe doesn't appear to interest him. But what I wrote is, in fact, the main thrust of all those who denounce libertarians who consider well defended moral and political principles a sound basis on which to oppose various private actions and public policies. Indeed, the entire matter of dickering about what coercion is, what amounts to initiating force, is not the issue--certainly there can be question about whether one or another interaction with others amounts to coercion, just as there can be dispute about whether a case of sexual intercourse amounts to rape or seduction or something else. But I have never found Friedman and those who join him actually state, unequivocally, that they oppose the use of coercion by some people against others. No, they wish to debate whether coercion itself may or may not be effective public policy. As Friedman puts his most general point (associated with his reading of several books on the topic), "libertarians do not yet possess an adequate critique of government interference in the market economy--a critique, that is to say, that establishes not only why the state should be kept on a very short leash, but why it should be emasculated." Friedman then sets out to see whether libertarians have shown that two supposedly incompatible attributes of statism have been established, namely, "harmful empirical effects" of state interference, and the "allegedly intrinsic evil of state regulation or redistribution."
Many have responded to Friedman's paper but Friedman keeps insisting no one has rebutted his points successfully. And perhaps he is correct, but not because no libertarian has managed to show that state coercion has harmful effects (the "empirical" is a pointless qualifier--harmful effects are harmful effects, and what "empirical" adds to this is anybody's guess; perhaps he means material effects, like run down housing produced by urban renewal, which was demonstrated several decades ago by, for example, Martin Anderson in The Federal bulldozer; a critical analysis of urban renewal, 1949-1962 [Cambridge, M.I.T. Press,1964], a work he ignores) but because there is nothing to indicate what would count for Friedman as a demonstration of any such thing. He leaves it entirely indeterminate what criterion is to count as having shown what he wants to have shown.
This is also the case with the second attribute of the state he asks libertarians to demonstrate, namely, the "intrinsic evil of state regulation or redistribution." Those libertarians who argue on the basis of the natural rights of individuals to their lives, etc., or some other principle such as "equal liberty," rarely if ever uphold some intrincisist view of the evil of state regulation or redistribution but they do maintain that forcibly mandating some conduct or extorting the wealth of others, whether it be done by the state or by some criminal or criminal gang such as the Mafia, is morally and should be legally wrong.
Many, many libertarians have advanced somewhat different cases for this but Friedman takes no notice of a great many of them so his dismissal of them all--"libertarians do not yet possess" refers to all libertarians, with no qualification such as "the bulk of them," "some of them," "the most prominent of them" or the like--is plainly unjustified. By 1991, when Friedman's paper appeared, several Herculean efforts have been placed on record regarding whether "state regulation or redistribution" is morally and political wrong, unjustified, a violation of principles of justice (that is, individual rights). (See, M. Bruce Johnson & Tibor R. Machan, eds., Rights and Regulation [1983], for just one example of a rich collection of papers addressing some of these matters. My own contributions are numerous but at that time Individuals and Their Rights [1989] advanced a sustained critique of, among other coercive policies, wealth redistribution; a chapter, "The Non-Existence of Welfare Rights," from this work has been repeatedly reprinted in collections of essays on social and political philosophy, testifying to the fact that at least some folks had deemed the points raised there by one libertarian worthy of discussion. Essays by other libertarians, such as Eric Mack, have also made the rounds in this kind of literature, yet Friedman appears to find them all worthless.)
So if there is someone who hasn't met the requirement of demonstrating his points, Friedman is the prime candidate. Moreover, his practice of recasting the views of those whom he lambastes--for "criticizing" is too generous a term when people aren't quoted and some of the main contributors to the discussion aren't even mentioned--makes it very difficult to take up what he puts forth, since in too many cases--for example, his talk of "intrinsic evil"--none fit the characterization he advances.
It is my understanding that when one discusses people with whom one disagrees, one ought to try very conscientiously to lay out their position in their own terms and deal with them accordingly. This Friedman hasn't done. So when he states now that "What I wrote in 1997, and what I teach in the seminar on which Ramsey reports, concerns what, if anything, makes infringements on capitalism coercive; and what makes coercion bad," appears to me confused. What makes "infringements" "coercive"? Well, if they really are infringements--say, taking someone's property in a phony eminent domain scam so the government can collect more taxes than otherwise by leasing it to Costco (see, as an example of more on this, Steven Greenhut, Abuse of Power [2004])--then they are coercive in as much as "coercive" means "violation of someone's basic rights" (in this instance to private property). What makes coercion bad? What makes rape bad? What makes assault bad? What makes robbery bad? Surely Friedman must know that many libertarians have answered these questions and to declare that none has produced "an adequate critique" is groundless, given his skimpy examination of libertarian arguments. In effect, Friedman needs an impossibility proof--showing that no libertarian can possibly produce "an adequate critique"--to sustain his claim and he has produced nothing remotely close to that.
So, perhaps we can now carry on with the work that matters, namely, developing some of the nuances and detailed legal implications of the several very promising libertarian arguments that have shown beyond a reasonable doubt that those who are identified as "the state" are embarking on harmful policies and are being unjust as they are doing infringing coercively on capitalism--that is to say, on human beings going about the innumerable facets of the peaceful task of production and trade.

Coercion, a bad thing all around?

By Tibor R. Machan

A dispute among those who favor the free society concerns whether the merits of that society need to be demonstrated over and over again, in each instance of proposed coercion. I believe this is the main thrust of an essay by Jeffrey Friedman, editor of Critical Review, published in that same journal back in 1997, titled, "What's Wrong with Libertarianism," Critical Review 11, no. 3 (1997). (See, for a recent discussion of Friedman's challenge, by Bruce Ramsay’s essay at
In my view this requirement is akin to having to demonstrate on each occasion of assault or rape that it is wrong and shouldn’t have occurred, rather than taking it as a general truth that such conduct should not occur. Something comparable happens when people want it shown, over and over again, that clairvoyance or alchemy do not work, instead of recognizing that these are generally futile endeavors. Or, when people report ghost sightings, do we need, on each occasion need, to check to make sure that these are mistaken?
But, of course, hope springs eternal in the human heart, so perhaps it is no wonder that each time it is demonstrated that coercive public policies are wrong — that they lead to misery — there will be many who will insist that they be tried again, and only once another fails again will they agree to its inadvisability — but only for that instance. So then they will urge it on us again.
The dispute is really about whether certain general principles of human social organization can be known to be true or must their inadvisability be reestablished each time they are proposed. Those who argue for the latter, for repeated demonstrations, are skeptics about general truths.
Actually they aren’t usually consistent because they will accept general truths in physics, chemistry, mechanical and other fields of engineering, as well as in medicine, botany and biology. It is only when it comes to political economy that they insist that whether coercion works for us must be tested endlessly.
Why is this such a persistent attitude when it comes to public policy? What could motivate this stubbornness about the feasibility of coercion toward others when other principles, in other areas of concern to us, are widely accepted?
One reason is that many who discuss public policies do not really believe in the possibility of truth in the spheres of morality and politics. These are areas of value and values are, for many people, not subject to demonstration. So, each time a public policy involving coercion is proposed, they aren’t convinced that it is wrong, only that it may not work out.
Of course, what counts as working out is itself a problem. If I rob you of your money in a back alley, did this work? I suppose if I get away with it — no one catches and punishes me for the deed — it worked well enough for me. But what about you? Well, it may actually turn out to have worked for you if, say, you write a short story about the robbery and get it published and henceforth get to be a famous writer. It might turn out this way. Do we now conclude that robbery works? Or do we conclude that this was an exceptional, extraordinary case?
Trouble is those who propose coercive public policies do not claim that their proposal applies only to exceptional cases — for example, natural disasters or the like. They favor coercive policies as a rule, routinely. And they use the rare instances when coercion can have oddly worthwhile results to justify making coercion a general policy (which is a reason to oppose coercion even in those).
In reply to those who champion coercion, then, it simply will not do to show that on this or that occasion the policy does not work. That cuts no ice for the champions of coercion — it might work the next time, you see. Only if it is shown that coercion is generally wrong, that it is a futile practice as a rule, routinely, will there be some hope that it may be excluded as a way to handle social problems.