63 reasons for reading The Machinery of Freedom

sun5nov2006—44w309d84%— 02h57m00s—0utc

Why read David Friedman’s Machinery of Freedom AM:

The Machinery of Freedom

For the metaphor that is its title — he means the institutions of private property.


For its endurance: such a radical, original book on anarcho-capitalism appeared in 1971 and is still in print 35 years later (in a second, revised edition).
For its style: short, self-contained, easily-digestible chapters — mini-essays really. Mean chapter length: 4.6 pages, median: 4 pages, mode: 3 pages. As for the style of the chapters themselves: David Friedman can write.
For the last 2 paragraphs of the Preface To The Second Edition — the most intriguing dedication I’ve read.
For the whole 7 paragraphs that make the Preface To The First Edition.
For this question, around which the whole book turns, “How, in [our complicated and interdependent] society, can we meaningfully talk about each person being free to go his own way?” (p xviii)
For Friedman’s talent to craft simple scenarios — thought experiments — to advance (or refute or simply enliven) an argument. To create concrete examples from thin, sketchy abstractions. (p17), (p22), (p70), (p212), (p107), (p114-120), (p135-137), (p167-176), (p184), (p205), (p212), (p229)
For Friedman’s poems, preambles to the book’s main parts. Particularly, A Saint Said, Paranoia, and Anarchy is not Chaos.
For why the ‘property rights vs. human rights’ slogan is flawed and misleading. (p4)
For an elaborated example on the effects of public vs private property: broadcast vs printed media. (p5-11)
For a refutation of the battlefield (winner takes all) metaphor of the marketplace. (p7-11)
For the classification of human cooperation into love (“making my end your end”), trade (“I’ll help you achieve your end if you help me achieve mine”), and force (imposing my end on you). (p15-18)
For the observation that “love is not enough” for anything but the smallest (or narrowest) of societies. If you then dismiss trade as selfishness, you’re left with force — government. (p15-18) (Psst, wanna buy a kidney?, a recent article from The Economist, is a great intro to the modern organ crisis — a crisis that is also a perfect case study of Friedman’s observation.)
For the distinction of the things governments can do into “those we could do away today and those we hope to be able to do away with tomorrow.” (It is one of the book’s main purposes to convince you that “most of the things our government does are in the first category.”) (p19)
For the view of government as a unique (uniquely inefficient) marketplace with its own dynamic, its own logic — “One cannot simply say, ‘Let the government help the poor.’ ‘Reform the income tax so that rich people really pay.’ Things are as they are for reasons. It would make as much sense for the defender of the free market to argue that when he sets up his free market it will produce equal wages for everyone.” (p21-24) This is a point he makes, poignantly, all across the book, and that is known as public choice theory WP. (p104-8), (p129-130), (p146-8), (p152-5), (p156-9), (p226-9)
For a wonderful 4-sentence jab on the Rockefeller family. (p27)
For a rebuttal to the claim that the welfare state has been the cushion of pernicious capitalism — “legislation consistently followed progress rather than preceding it.” (p25-9)
For his 2-chapter take on monopolies; his useful classification of them into natural, artificial, and state monopolies; and his powerful arguing that the only truly pernicious one is the latter. (p30-46) You’ll be clenching your fists after reading it.
For a concrete example of the effects of regularization: the San Francisco-Los Angeles air route before airline deregularization. (p41-2)
For an elegant defense of interest and inheritance. (p47-8)
For a crucial debunking of the concept of need in the political discourse. (p49)
For a sketch of how public schooling could be reformed through vouchers. (p55-60)
For a never so timely critique of American universities — an excerpt from Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, published in 1776. (p60-2)
For frequent bashes to democracy — “‘Democratic’ decision making is a means for finding and implementing the will of the majority. It has no other function. It serves, not to encourage diversity, but to prevent it.” (p65)
For a fascinating proposal for privatizing, really privatizing, the American university. I repeat: fascinating. (p65-8)
For an impassioned defense of an unrestricted immigration policy for the U.S. Fitting reading for times when a wall is being erected at the Mexican border. (p69-71)
For the case to sell the streets. Not how to do the transfer, but rather what are the costs of our present governmentally owned system and what would be the benefits of a private one. You’ll never look the same way at traffic jams again. (p72-74)
For a simple, extremely elegant solution to urban mass transit. (p75-77) You’ll be really starting to hate special interest politics (is there any other?) by now.
For simple, practical ideas of how private contracts could be arbitrated and enforced privately. (p81-3)
For this astonishing idea: “If we had not been in such a hurry, we not only could have landed a man on the moon [without the government], we could have done it at a profit.” (p84-5)
For this phrase: “The American flag.. is worthless except as a symbol, a symbol of men achieving their ends by voluntary association, cooperating through mutual exchange in a free society. Capitalism.” (p85)
For Friedman’s Law: “it costs any government at least twice as much to do anything as it costs anyone else.” (p85)
For the case against the FDA fabled overcaution. Particularly, the example of Timolol: a β-blocker widely used outside of the U.S. for ten years before it was finally approved by the FDA — a ten-year delay “responsible for something close to a hundred thousand unnecessary deaths.” (p89-92)
For the proposal that if socialist workers want to own the means of production so badly, they should buy them instead of starting a revolution. He makes a fascinating case with 1965 economical figures. (p98-9)
For a metaphor of special interest politics as a bonfire game (swindle) in which everybody loses. (p107)
For his definition of government. Based in turn on his definition of coercion. (p112)
For an extended, well-thought, and utterly intriguing example of how police, courts, and laws could be provided by the market. (p114-120)
For a discussion of the stability problem that an anarchist society would face: what would prevent organized crime or private protection agencies form becoming a government themselves? Here we start with true subtlety. Why don’t they do it now? How do you sleep at night? The answer is that an anarchy is not completely safe from such implosions, no society is — but there’s a good case that it’ll be safer than our present society. (p121-126)
For the nonobvious distinction that an anarcho-capitalist society is not necessarily a libertarian society. Again, this is a subtle point. But he explains it carefully and explains why we can be “guardedly optimistic” that a libertarian society would emerge. (p127-130)
For this intriguing phrase: “there are more good cars in the ghetto than good schools.” (p130)
For why “not only does a consumer have better information than a voter, it is of more use to him.” (p131-2)
For the sense in which socialism is to a bikini what capitalism is to a raincoat — an original, enlightening analogy. (p133-4)
For a good long look at how an anarcho-capitalist society could provide itself with national defense and a humble acceptance that there are only moderately plausible solutions. It’s one of the things government does “we hope to be able to do away with tomorrow.” (see #14) (p135-143).
For a superb introduction to the economical concept of a “public good.” This is truly a fundamental concept for thinking government and capitalism, and several times throughout the book Friedman will use it to advance the discussion in surprising ways — like in the next point. (p135-7)
For the fascinating argument that under our current democratic government good laws (laws that benefit everyone) are a public good (their “producers” do not receive enough of their value to make it worth the effort) and thus underprovided, while bad laws (laws that benefit special interests at the expense of everyone else) are a private good (their “producers” receive most of their value) and thus overprovided. Under anarchy, it is argued, the opposite would be true. (p156-9)
For the concept of an agoric institution — one in which “almost everyone is self-employed. Instead of corporations there are large groups of entrepreneurs related by trade, not authority. Each sells, not his time, but what his time produces.” (He puts himself, a free-lance writer, as a an example of a member of such an agoric economic order.) (p144-5)
For why limited constitutional government is not enough — “the idea of a limited government that stays limited is truly utopian. Anarchy at least might work; limited government has been tried.” (p146-7)
For the case against violent revolution — “revolution has its own logic, and it is, like that of politics, a logic of power.” (p146-7)
For a refutation of the existence of the ruling class. (In which theft, political as well as others, is analyzed from an economic perspective and all thieves, politicians as well as others, are concluded to be, ultimately, stealing from themselves.) (p152-5)
For how to get there from here, the last chapter of the “general-public” part of the book and one of the best: his strategies for bringing about an anarcho-capitalist society. (p160-3)
For the division of people into mercenaries (“Someone who did something because he wanted to. A soldier who fought for money. Or glory. Or patriotism.”)) and slaves (“Someone who fought because if he did not, he would be put in jail.”). David Friedman is a mercenary and so am I. (p163)
For this phrase (by H. L. Hunt): “If this country is worth saving, it’s worth saving at a profit.” (p163)
For a closer look at libertarianism, warts and all, and in particular why it “is not a collection of straightforward and unambiguous arguments establishing with certainty a set of unquestionable propositions. It is rather the attempt to apply certain economic and ethical insights to a very complicated world.” A general critique against simple moral rules being ever enough. (p167-176)
For a discussion of utilitarianism as both the opposite and the complement of libertarianism. An all important discussion that transcends to the ultimate relationship of economics and moral science. (p177-183)
For an introduction to the economic analysis of law — how we can derive from economics what the law ought to be. A long, hard, and yet mindblowing chapter — economics might be to law what physics is to engineering. (p183-200)
For an investigation into how medieval Iceland’s private law enforcement system worked — their government had courts and law but no police, no executive branch. History is often useful not only to learn from the mistakes of the past (it would be ridiculous for us to believe we’ve only inherited “right answers”), but to open the mind to the manifold possibilities of human existence. This is an example of such history. (p201-8)
For a powerful critique of the Libertarian party seen as, well, a political party instead of just a platform for spreading libertarian ideas. (p226-9)
For an attack of the tempting “countries are people” justification — “Speaking the same language or living in the same country as someone does not make me responsible for his crimes.” (p211)
For a dissection of money. What it is, what it should be (among other things, private — of course). (p219-225)
For the case for remembering G. K. Chesterton WP. (p230-5) Two of the passages from Chesterton quoted by Friedman are writing as sublime as has ever been written. Here‘s one and here’s the other (originally from The Outline of Sanity):
Now I am one of those who believe that the cure for centralization is decentralization. It has been described as a paradox. There is apparently something elvish and fantastic about saying that when capital has come to be too much in the hand of the few, the right thing is to restore it into the hands of the many. The Socialist would put it in the hands of even fewer people; but those people would be politicians, who (as we know) always administer it in the interests of the many.
For the unsettling suspicion that libertarianism forces one “step by step into a philosophical position that might be described as Catholicism without God.” (p232)
For a 21-page annotated bibliography of sorts (he calls it “My Competition”): a collection of “books, articles, periodicals, and organizations [that] may be of interest to those who wish to pursue the subject matter of this book a little further.” (p241-261)
For it is the best book on economics I’ve read. One of the most important books I know. So much so that I wrote all this just to try to get you to read it.

David D. Friedman

(And for those who have read the book: Any more reasons I’m missing? Am I misconstruing an argument somewhere? Is there a better way to phrase a particular point? Thanks!)

Follow me on Twitter!  |  Back to ELZR.com