Sunday, February 28, 2016

Yes, the libertarians want to bring back feuding

This weekend I was one of a handful of leftists who infiltrated the 2016 International Students for Liberty Conference in Washington, DC. The highlight of the weekend definitely came when Pussy Riot's Nadya Tolokonnikova brutally trolled her hosts by appearing for an on-stage interview in a Bernie Sanders shirt, smirking "I hope Trump works out for you all" with the kind of savagely dry delivery that only a Russian can pull off and igniting a massive chorus of boos:


There was also all of the usual hilarity you see at an event like this, such as the fittingly vacant "Poverty Cure" booth and the inevitable vandalism that crops up when your conference is based on the absolute rejection of disciplinary authority. They also had a plan to solve war with, somehow, Bitcoins - but it's a testament to the gimmicky radicalism of the modern libertarian movement that this wasn't even their craziest conflict resolution scheme.

That award goes to David Friedman, son of infamous right-wing huckster Milton Friedman, and his plan to effectively legalize feuding.

Credit where credit is due: unlike his father, who was a vicious and mean-spirited demagogue, David comes off as a kind of affable old crank. His politics are dangerous and ridiculous, and anyone who advocates them should obviously be shamed and reviled as irresponsible sociopaths; but one gets the impression that he's at least earnest in his beliefs, not shamelessly cynical like so many of his colleagues. In another era, he would have been an aging dilettante bug collector, living out his twilight years poring over butterfly wings and thumbing through dusty old books in the study of his feudal manor.

But this is America in the 21st century, where the preferred hobby of rich olds is right-wing political agitation - so instead of butterflies, we get insane lectures about how maybe the bellum omnium contra omnes isn't so bad after all.

Friedman's theory is that society can manage interpersonal conflict by privatizing policing and judicial functions presently administered by the government. If you're wondering who will police the police and judge the judges, the answer is the same one that it always is for libertarians: capitalism. The invisible hand will make our police companies police fairly and our judicial CEOs judge wisely, at least if they want to stay in business.

To prop up this theory, Friedman relies on a hilarious mash-up of wishful thinking and half-baked anthropology. His standard move is to point to some aspect of this or that preindustrial feuding culture as proof that his feuding society can self-regulate. This is where his lecture was most interesting, since Friedman used it as an opportunity to drop lots of (often irrelevant) trivia about other cultures - one moment he'd segue into a digression about feuding in the Icelandic sagas, the next he'd launch into speculation about prehistoric feuding arrangements hinted at in Mosaic law.

But too often, Friedman's appeal to historical precedents ignored crucial complications that completely undermined his case. For example, one basic and immediate problem with feuding is that it often escalates and protracts conflict rather than resolving it. To address this, Friedman brought up the Finnish Romani as an example of a culture that de-escalates feuds through avoidance: if the conflict can't be resolved, belligerents are simply expected to avoid each other. But this sort of practice is well documented in the anthropological literature, and it has proven a non-starter in modern civilization for obvious reasons:
...separation did allow societies to avoid being constantly in conflict. Today, such buffer zones are almost impossible to maintain. In the Middle East or the Balkans, given the military technology, rockets, mortars, and other long-distance weapons, no-man's-lands would need to be wider than the twenty miles or so typically found for noncomplex societies, or the more than one hundred miles found between the Yumans and Maricopas. Instead, modern adversaries are, at best, only a few miles apart. On a global scale, with today's rapid transportation you can fly across a country in less time than a tribal farmer would need to transit a prehistoric buffer zone. Without workable buffer zones, conflict can become so continuous that the fabric of daily life disintegrates, a situation that cannot long continue. (Constant Battles, LeBlanc and Register)
Or consider Friedman's theory that feuding would create a market of private representatives who could resolve conflicts even for poor people, and that the market would guarantee their efficacy if they could compete for a portion of any winnings. As Matt Bruenig incredulously whispered to me at this point in the lecture, the problem with Friedman's system is that we already have it: the representatives are called "lawyers" and their conditional winnings are called "contingent fees". His plan to resolve conflicts for the poor is the one that is already in place and not working for them, again, for all kinds of well-understood reasons.

It's this apparent ignorance about crucial points of his argument that makes it difficult to take any of Friedman's scholarship seriously. If he is even aware of the anthropological and sociological literature on avoidance as a conflict resolution strategy, he is not engaging with it; if he knows about contingent fees, he is not explaining how it is that they've failed to solve the problem he thinks they would solve.

Somehow, the audience seemed even less worried about these complications than Friedman. The bizarre libertarian Uber fetish made a brief appearance when one young libertarian asked if a market of proxy feuders could be implemented using an online auction-style bidding system; one might think that overthrowing the entire criminal justice system has some more serious challenges to overcome, but these nerds were mostly interested in what the app would look like. One skeptic reasonably asked how the feuding system's guarantee of retaliation could protect from murder a pariah with no social allies; when Friedman responded that "no system's perfect", the audience just laughed.

And that's precisely the problem with the libertarian feuding scheme: it is being advanced by people who see it as a fun thought experiment, and who would suffer from it the least. Friedman is taking on justifications for the state that date back to Hobbes, and that are considerably buttressed by volumes of scholarship in anthropology, criminology, political science, and so on. If he is wrong - and he is wrong - the consequences are catastrophic: civilization devolves into a bloody, hilariously dystopic neo-feudal chaos where criminal justice only exists for the elites who are powerful enough to afford it. Friedman would probably make it through this okay, as would the majority of his young jet-setting libertarian disciples, but most of us wouldn't be so lucky.

But this, of course, is the story of the entire libertarian conference, and of the movement in general. Whether they are advocating the dissolution of the welfare state, opposing government mandated action on climate change, destroying unions, or fighting the minimum wage, libertarians are always playing the same game. Wealthy old men endlessly invent cynical new arguments for extending their power; young contrarians buy into them as entertaining intellectual novelties; and before you know it, the liberal welfare state has been overthrown by a handful of fedora-wearing nerds.