“The direct use of physical force is so poor a solution to the problem of limited resources that it is commonly employed only by small children and great nations.”
This spicy little sentence is typical of the zingers littered throughout David Friedman’s The Machinery of Freedom. The anarcho-capitalist classic turns 50 this year, and it’s worth revisiting for both its spirit and substance.
The book has a chaotic energy. Just a few pages after the epigraph—which pairs a moderately profane joke by Lenny Bruce with a verse from “libertarian troubadour” and future U.S. congressman Dana Rohrabacher—we’re deep into a discussion of the Federal Communications Commission’s role in spectrum allocation before bouncing back out for chatty speculation about how to “sell the schools,” a riff on “socialism, limited government, anarchy, and bikinis,” and a treatment of the vital question, “is william f. buckley a contagious disease?” (Stylish ’70s lowercase in the original, of course.)
But there is a method to the madness. In his “postscript for perfectionists,” Friedman hammers home what is not included in the book: “I have said almost nothing about rights, ethics, good and bad, right and wrong.” This strategic agnosticism is what captured my attention as a 19-year-old college student, already weary of banging my head against the wall of deontological disagreement.
It’s very hard to convince someone to change their mind about what is right and wrong, but as Friedman observes, “it is much easier to persuade people with practical arguments than with ethical ones.” Perhaps not coincidentally, that postscript was written right around the time that James R. Schlesinger was coining the phrase, “You are entitled to your own views, but you are not entitled to your own facts.” If, as Friedman hypothesized, “most political disagreement is rooted in questions of what is, not what should be,” many people have been going about the project of consensus building and political change all wrong. “I have asked, not what people should want,” he says, “but how we can accomplish those things which most of us do want.”
This approach suggests a methodology: Scrutinizing existing, highly effective voluntary institutions and systems for alternative ways to perform functions that even a minarchist libertarian might reserve for the state, and then extrapolating from there toward shared goals of peace, prosperity, and justice.
Asking how the world works nearly always yields more interesting and productive discussions than asking how the world should be. Often accused of utopianism, anarcho-capitalists are the opposite. (“I have wondered whether I might have originated ‘Utopia is not an option,’ but probably not,” Friedman mused while casually popping into the comments section of a 2015 Slate Star Codex post about his greatest work.) Friedman’s comfort with uncertainty is inspirational, heroic even. He isn’t quite sure how things would play out if roles currently performed by the state were instead accomplished via market mechanisms, but he’s happy to make a guess. After all, if he knew for sure, he’d be the CEO of the Court Services Co. or Professors Incorporated instead of being a guy who writes books.
“There are essentially only three ways that I can get another person to help me achieve my ends,” Friedman writes: “love, trade, and force.”
In a world where individuals are free to pursue their own interests and desires, people are more likely to engage in mutually beneficial relationships driven by genuine connection rather than social expectations or legal obligations. Love—or “more generally, the sharing of a common end”—is a powerful coordinating tool in society, and one too often underestimated or undermined by other political theories.
Still, love only gets you so far. Force, the preferred tool of toddlers and tyrants, too often leads to unintended consequences while failing to actually achieve its stated ends. That leaves trade as the primary mode for getting things done. Part of the charm of The Machinery of Freedom is that it proceeds on the assumption that voluntary exchange is largely up to the task of organizing society. Friedman underscores that trade is not just limited to material goods but can also encompass intangible assets such as knowledge and ideas.
The most striking thing about The Machinery of Freedom is its cheerful, eclectic optimism. It weaves back and forth between history, politics, and speculative fiction in ways that are enlivening and energizing. Friedman was not the first to make market anarchist arguments, but in the decades that followed the book’s publication, they grew in appeal as an alternative to the angry polarization gripping those who preferred to fight over state power. He is generous with his ideas. If you don’t like his plan for voucherizing university classes, he’s happy to offer you another option for education reform. If you are skeptical about market provision of national defense, he’s happy to suggest a theory of change inspired by the French monarchy’s habit of selling tax exemptions. If you’re worried about who will pay to build the roads, he’s happy to tell you a weirdly prescient story about “electronic recording devices, computer-controlled entrances, and three-to-eleven working days” while conceding that those innovations “sound like science fiction.”
The appeal of Friedman’s anarchism is not that he has the answer, but that he has dozens of them and he’s not at all bothered by the idea that none may be the perfect one. “It is fashionable,” writes Friedman, “to measure the importance of ideas by the number and violence of their adherents. That is a fashion I shall not follow. If, when you finish this book, you have come to share many of my views, you will know the most important thing about the number of libertarians—that it is larger by one than when you started reading.”