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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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Libertarian vs. Liberal – A Dialog

October, 2001

On June 13, 2001, we received a thoughtful critique of our paper, "Twentieth Century Alchemy" from Mr. Rick Shepherd of West Palm Beach, Florida.  We were so impressed with clarity, intelligence and civility of Mr. Shepherd's comments that we were moved to reply at length. Thus began an ongoing correspondence between two individuals with strikingly divergent political opinions. Rick Shepherd and I agree that this exchange may be worth sharing with the readers of The Online Gadfly.

Dear Dr. Partridge,

I found your essay, "Twentieth Century Alchemy" to be an entertaining and well written account of the non-coercive position of so-called "Free Market" thinkers. If I may, and with all due respect, I'd like to provide a correction on two items:

Firstly, Republicans have not embraced the political agenda inherent in the free market philosophy. You may have noticed that the Republican congress of the last six years has continued sanctions against Cuba and Iraq, renewed price supports on farm goods, and continued to limit trade through tariffs. These are all coercive and oppressive measures and not at all in agreement with the modern philosophies of Milton Friedman, who you mentioned in your piece. If we carry a similar non-coercive philosophy out to it's non-economic end, we also see that it is in contrast with some of the non-economic policies of the new President Bush, who took only three weeks to begin firing missiles at Iraqi civilians, a coercive measure by it's very nature. Similarly, the Democratic party agrees with this type of "violence first" philosophy. You may recall President Clinton dropping cluster bombs on school children in Eastern Europe in an attempt to "coerce" the populous there into some still-as-yet known behavior. By doing so, he killed some 2,200 civilians, who will now remain "coerced" forever. On the domestic and economic front, the Democratic President and Congress voted in the largest tax increase in history, backed by the full threat of violence of the U.S. government, who enforces tax laws and other coercive federal laws through threats of physical violence. A small point, but one worth considering none-the-less.

Secondly, a free market advocate cannot be a free market advocate if he or she advocates coercion. You give an example of "cowboy capitalists" who create monopolies for themselves through the use of government force. "Capitalism" by definition advocates free market interaction and no government interference. You cannot be a capitalist and advocate government intrusion on the market place. They are mutually exclusive by definition. I've often wondered about this when discussing such issues with Democrat friends of mine. Like you, they advocate violence, threats of violence, and government coercion as the primary means of achieving their social goals. (McViegh would fall into this category along with most social democrats). But when a corporate mogul or large corporation tries to use the same means of force and coercion as they advocate, (such as government enforced utility monopolies, tariffs and trade sanctions), they don't readily embrace them as one of their own. It's inconsistent with their principles. They should be supporting moguls who use government to do their coercive bidding who are right in-league with their own violent philosophies. Worse however, they try to define these moguls as "capitalists." By definition, "capitalism" is 180 degrees opposite of the coercive-mogul philosophy. This is a minor issue but perhaps this clarification will help you in future essays.

Thank you again for your fine essay. I look forward to reading more of them in the future.

Yours very truly, 

Rick Shepherd

Dear Mr. Shepherd,

Thank you for your generous comments on "Alchemy." Clearly, you favor a libertarian point of view, so we have profound differences. 

We will both agree that Republicans, by and large, are not full-fledged exemplars of free-market libertarianism, and that Democrats are not doctrinaire socialists (Robert Novak to the contrary, notwithstanding). I have a long list of complaints against the Democrats, believe me. So I agree with much of what you say in your second paragraph. But not all. The NATO (not the US) intervention in the Balkans ended the "coercion" of the Kosovars, and eventually the coercion of the Serbs by Milosovic. But the manner of the intervention was, I think, indefensible, even cowardly. By conducting an air war, NATO (especially the US) traded the lives of thousands of Serbs to save the lives of a few dozen or hundreds of ground soldiers. William Shirer (among others) believes that a similar armed response to Hitler's invasion of the Rhineland in 1938 would have ended his regime then and there. However, I am basing my judgment re: the Balkans on received (albeit carefully scrutinized) news reports. Given the condition of the media today, I could be profoundly misinformed about the Balkans situations. My Russian friends see things quite differently. (See my editorial, "Peace at what Price?")

I share your abhorrence of coercion. But I believe that I am much more prepared to recognize that some coercion is a necessary evil, and furthermore that one person's liberty can directly constrain the liberty of others. In other words, I fully endorse J. S. Mill's "like liberty principle:" "Each person should enjoy maximum liberty, consistent with the like liberty of others." My disagreement with the libertarians resides in my belief that the robust enjoyment of liberty celebrated by the likes of Ayn Rand, exacts a heavy toll in the liberty of others.

The best remedy of this consequence, I believe, is the kind of "intervention" by legitimate democratic governments that is so detested by libertarians.

An absolute rejection of all coercion is, I submit, an incoherent pipe dream. Even the most extreme libertarians sanction the coercion that protects the basic triad of rights -- life, liberty and property; a coercion that entails at the very least a military (defense from enemies without), a "night watchman" police force (defense from enemies from within), and courts (to defend against invasions of property and person). Many (myself among them) find in this concession, justification for a state that is far less "minimalist" than the libertarians would desire.

I willingly submit to the "coercion" of traffic signals, so that I might have a greater freedom to travel. If you doubt this, try to drive across Manhattan during a power outage. I endorse the coercions of the Food and Drug Administration, so that I may enjoy security of my life that was not available to my forebearers in the nineteenth century. And I can thank the coercions of the EPA for reappearance of clean air to the mountains of my Southern California home.

My old friend, Tibor Machan, insists that all this can be accomplished without government regulation, through the prior restraint of tort laws. He is wrong for fundamentally important reasons, as I argue at length in my "With Liberty for Some".

Consider, next, "free markets." History (let alone common sense) demonstrates that entrepreneurs are not fond of "free markets" -- at least, not for themselves. And so they strive constantly, and often ruthlessly, to replace free markets with cartels and monopolies. The remedy? What else except government, in the form of anti-trust legislation, which recognizes that "free markets" are fragile and temporary, and thus can only be preserved through external (i.e., governmental) control. Do you doubt this? Then talk to the widow of Gary Kildahl, the inventor of the CP/M operating system, which was later adopted and morphed into DOS by Gates and Allen. 

There is much more in your message that I might reply to. But I deal with many of these issues at my website. (Follow the links in "Alchemy"). One final point, however, demands a response. I am troubled by your suggestion that I "advocate violence." Some coercion, yes (see above), but not violence. Now if you regard the required payment of taxes or the enforcement of justly enacted laws as "violence," I can only suggest that you are misusing the word for rhetorical purposes. As for taxation, so long as I enjoy the use of the highways, the advantages of air traffic control, the aforementioned security afforded by the FDA and the EPA, and the protection of the police and the courts, then I should have no cause to complain about my tax liabilities: "fair payment for services rendered" or, as Justice Holmes put it, "the price we pay for civilization." As for tax payment for boondoggle corporate WPA programs like missile defense, and the usual bureaucratic "waste, fraud and abuse," there is much to complain about. Also good reason to complain about the distribution of the tax burden. But these must be addressed case-by-case. No reason to regard all taxation as "theft," as so many do.

Enough for now. "Alchemy" was a "position paper," too brief to allow sustained argument. These are found elsewhere at my site. Follow the links -- in particular, "With Liberty and Justice for Some," "Environmental Justice and Shared Fate," "Kill the Umpire!," [Mr. Delay Goes to Washington],  and "On Civic Friendship."

Thanks again for your intelligent and civil dissent. It stimulated my gray matter, whilst keeping my spleen at rest.


Ernest Partridge 
"The Online Gadfly"

Dear Dr. Partridge, 

Thank you for your thoughtful and insightful letter

I can see that you and I agree on objecting to the cowardly methodology used by our commander-in-chief to fight the war in the Balkans. Cluster bombing of civilian populations is against the law, and for good reason. Morally I opposed such bombing for the reasons that Murray Rothbard gave for all such unjust wars: any act that kills innocent civilians is morally wrong, even in times of "war." You may recall that a million people gathered in Athens at the time of that war to protest such atrocities and to call for the arrest of our President on war crimes. It's a shame that we don't share this perspective. We may have saved countless civilian lives in the many military actions we have taken over the years.

Would it be inconsistent, then, for me to oppose our intervention in a civil war that also killed and brutalized civilians? I judge human life to be paramount, and put much less emphasis on the notion of "homeland", "nationalism" or even "family." There is no quick solution that will rid the world of the thugs who terrorized people in the Balkans, the middle east, Vietnam, Korea, Europe during the second world war, or even those that brutalized Americans during our own civil war. The important thing is that we don't seek revenge against these monsters at the expense of innocent human lives. Indeed, allowing asylum in the U.S. for those being brutalized would have been a peaceful solution to the ordeal. But our own xenophobic concerns, our desire for revenge against the Milosovics of the world, and perhaps even the nationalistic pride of the Kosovars themselves, seemed to outweigh the value of life. I hope that someday we as a society become more enlightened and less cynical in these matters. If we are to heal our world we will need to make examples through peace and not aggression. 

It's always a tall order for me to explain to people why I don't readily embrace laws, taxes, public works, etc.. The notion that these elements are virtuous is so ingrained in our society that people often find my viewpoints on them to be offensive. My cousin is a retired narcotics officer in Newark, NJ. He dedicated 30 years of his life to putting some very bad people in jail, confiscating an epidemic substance, and doing what he thought was the right thing. Try telling this man that the war on drugs is morally wrong, that it has cost more lives than it has saved, and that it's eroded our civil liberties perhaps beyond repair. There is no reasoning with someone like that. He's a good man, but has become and unwitting accomplice to a travesty.

Here is the basic truth, as awful as it is: The purpose and nature of government is solely for the means and implementation of force and nothing more. We form governments and give them "power" for the exclusive reason of using or threatening force on others. There is no other purpose for government. This is not necessarily a bad thing, it is just a fact. In the highest and best use of government, we use the force with which it is empowered to protect us from people who want to cause us harm. Thus we have the military and the police. In it's worst form, this power is left unchecked and becomes monstrous. Thus, we have a military, originally intended to protect us, but now empowered to cause harm to civilians and threaten sovereignties. And we have the police, who were originally intended to protect our lives and property, but now are empowered to cause harm to those who indulge in personal "vice", impose a collective morality through force, and confiscate property to the benefit of the others. 

Fundamentally, those who seek solutions through more laws, military intervention, taxes, etc., are aggressors. They are using the force and threat of force to achieve social goals, many of which we all share. I have used the word "force" here, but my meaning of course, as you correctly pointed out, is the threat of violence and the conduct of violence. Why do we obey laws we disagree with, (i.e. why do I submit meekly to the confiscation of the fruits of my labor)? Because if I don't comply, armed men with guns will come and use violence to bring me to jail. If I resist enough, they will kill me. Uncle Milty (Friedman), would put a marginal utility on my compliance. He is right. I would have to be nuts not to pay my taxes, especially since I hate violence so, even more so when it is inflicted on me!

Most of us want to rid the world of poverty, eliminate fraud, keep the environment clean. The question is, then, how do we enlighten our society enough so that we don't have to use force, intimidation or threats of violence. The answer is, you give it freedom, and you lift it's oppression. 

History shows us that the most enlightened and prosperous societies were those that had the highest level of personal and economical freedoms. Two great examples are the Saracen societies of the middle east and the Italian and Spanish renaissance societies that were influenced by them. The Saracens had no government. Wise men resolved disputes through mediation, people were free to practice the religion of their choice, freedom of enterprise was not only allowed, but encouraged. This was perhaps the closest a society has come to pure anarchy, yet from them we owe English civility, modern hygiene, modern medicine, the notion of "zero," (for without which there would be no mathematics or engineering), modern farming techniques, the modern (or Jeffersonian) university system, astronomy, navigation and the notion that the world was in fact round. Although the crusades wiped out these societies, they left a tremendous influence on European culture. Enough so to take them from the dark ages. This influence was not just carried from the crusaders who brought back this enlightenment to Europe, but from the influence they had on Italy and Spain through trade across the Mediterranean. Italy, which had no centralized government until 1880, lead the renaissance and provide the world with enlightened thought, music, art and invention. Spain, which had a very weak central government gave us the new world.

By contrast, the most oppressive societies have been those that were the least enlightened and the least prosperous. If we look at the political landscape of our world today, countries like Burma, whose brutal oppression of it's people has left them, poor, hungry, ignorant, and attached to their mysticism, are excellent examples of how oppression works to the determent of people. Most modern democrats agree that socialism, in it's purest form, is an impediment to progress, and, for well intentioned reasons, seek to find a middle ground between capitalism. By doing so they try to remove civil liberties in piecemeal while stridently attempting to keep others. Unfortunately, once you allow the erosion of civil liberties for one individual it is inevitable that others will follow. But just as important, you cannot change values through laws any more than you can force someone to adopt a religion. People must come to draw conclusions on their own, through their interactions, and the rewards and punishments of a free society. I have not bought gasoline from Exxon for many years, and I think you know why. But my actions, and the actions of like minded civilians are only part of the reason why these companies have begun to change their philosophy. Civil damages and bad public relations, weaker access to labor inputs etc, can cause more harm to a rogue organization that the EPA can. They are far more fearful of Erin Brockovitch than the government. Influence over the EPA requires dollars, influence over people is far more challenging. 

Why does "intervention by legitimate democratic government" not work? As you know, a democracy is nothing more than two wolves and a sheep deciding on what to have for dinner. Democracy becomes an absolute free-for-all for the majority to use force on a minority. Yes, the roles of majority and minority change with each issue, but what is left at the end of the civil liberties blood-bath is an oppressed society. This is why it is so important for us to honor the constitutional limitations on government that we've been eating away at over the last century or so. 

You are absolutely correct when you say that many corporations throughout history were opposed to free markets. The FDA, trade restrictions, "standards laws," etc. sprung from desires of some corporate barons to eliminate their competition. Understand, however, that those measures are socialistic, not capitalistic and the use of government force was the deciding factor in each case. Government force is an element of socialism not capitalism.

I plan to spend some time reading some more of your essays. I have enjoyed the ones I've read so far very much. Again, thanks for the free-exchange of ideas and your thought provoking reply.

Take care,


Dear Mr. Shepherd,

Try as I might, I just can't keep from rising to your bait.

If you read "Peace at What Price?" you will know that I can't claim adequate knowledge to reach a settled opinion on the Balkans war. Since I wrote that piece, I have lost most of my qualified confidence in the media. The so-called "reporting" on the past election has caused me to appreciate what my Russian friends suffered with Pravda during the Soviet Era. Once there were thousands of independently owned newspapers in the US, with a multitude of competing points of view. Now, I am told, fully half of the US papers are owned by six media conglomerates. We can thank "free enterprise," unconstrained by effective anti-trust laws, for all that. So now we have the "Faux Network" and "Time-Warner-AOL-Everything." "Info-tainment" drivel for "news." But don't get me started on that.

WWII, I believe, was a just war for the US -- almost to the very end. But I am one of the few Americans who cannot justify Hiroshima. (Dropping that damned contraption in the middle of Tokyo Bay would have made the point quite well enough). And whatever defense one might have for Hiroshima vanishes in the case of Nagasaki.

Any remaining national innocence was lost in Viet-Nam. In its defense, I hear "but we had to stop the advance of Communism in Asia." To which I answer in an instant, "yeah, sure, just imagine the disaster that would have resulted had we lost that war!" I have heard the heart-felt expressions of guilt from my German friends who were born after the war. I know exactly how they feel.

And yet, one can only wish that Hitler had met with armed resistance at the Rhineland. And we tried peaceful means to persuade Japan to desist from conquest -- i.e., by putting an embargo on raw materials. They responded with Pearl Harbor. So tell me, just what would you have done had you been FDR on Dec. 8, 1941. Evacuate Hawaii, and then California?

As for drug policy, I am totally on your side with your dispute with your cousin. Both the Democrats and the Reps. are equally culpable in this folly. But this hardly commits me to an endorsement of the entire libertarian agenda. The drug policies of those socialist states, UK and the Netherlands, are much more humane and rational. 

We also agree on our rejection of the "tyranny of the majority." So too did the Founding Fathers, hence the Bill of Rights, which proclaim that the dignity and rights of the individual stand supreme, even in the face of a majority demand to violate them. But who is to defend these rights? Self-appointed vigilantes? The Saracen "wise men?" Erin Brockovitch? Well, dear Erin could have accomplished nothing without the rule of law and the "coercion" of the state to back up that rule.

I share your admiration for the Saracens. The Crusades were moral atrocities -- religious imperialism of the worst sort (though not unlike the jihad that followed the death of Mohammed). Saladin served history and civilization well when he booted those barbarians out of the Holy Land. Saladin the Great was an authentic hero, who, despite the behavior of the Christians that he vanquished, presided over an era of admirable religious tolerance. (But I have to wonder just who identified and appointed the "wise men" you refer to, or who deposed them when they proved to be not so wise).

But I must further wonder, suppose there were an abundance of motor vehicles during the reigns of Saladin and the Medicis, would it have been possible to keep traffic signals and traffic laws out of Damascus and Florence? Would it have been desirable? Take civilization back to the conditions of a thousand years ago, and I might listen to your "no government" argument. (Albeit I doubt, very much, that there was ever "no government" in Damascus, or Cordoba, or Florence.  As for Florentine government, cf. Nicolo Machiavelli) . If you want a hint of what "no government" might be like in Damascus, rent "Lawrence of Arabia" and watch the final half hour. Then read Hobbes' Leviathan. (Yes, I know, Hobbes was an insufferable totalitarian. Though his prescription sucked, his diagnosis was sound).

The seemingly trivial case of "traffic signals" really gets to the crux of this. Convince me that we'd all be better off ("freer") without coercive traffic lights, and then I might listen to more of your libertarian arguments. But concede that we are all better off ("freer") with this organized "coercion," and then the camel's nose is under the tent: you have conceded the foundational justification of government. 

"Free Markets" are game-like activities: i.e., competition governed and constrained by mutually acknowledged rules. All such games and game-like activities require referees -- and if such activities are attempted without referees, their indispensability soon becomes apparent. In the case of markets, and other game-like social competitions for wealth, power, and advantage, the "referee function" is called government. 

Now to my main point.

It is provoked by your remarkable statement: "The purpose and nature of government is solely for the means and implementation of force and nothing more. We form governments and give them ‘power' for the exclusive reason of using or threatening force on others. There is no other purpose for government."

Sorry, but categorical words like "solely," "nothing more," and "no other purpose," set off my dogma alarm. This statement (with the following qualification duly noted), strikes me as an a priori doctrine, which ordinary experience and common sense clearly refute. Consider: 

  • Today I sent out a stack of papers to colleagues on a corporate advisory board on which I serve. I fully expect that they will be delivered next week. I cannot remember when any of my mail was "lost" by the Postal Service. By your reckoning, this excellent government service is an "implementation of force and nothing more." Curious! Does the same description apply to the National Weather Service, the National Science Foundation, etc.? 

  •  If the southern San Andreas fault some ten miles to the south of my home, finally snaps (it is overdue) and causes devastation, and FEMA comes in to save my home, feed me, and bind my wounds, I will be duly grateful. Furthest from my mind will be the thought that FEMA was established "for the exclusive reason of using or threatening force on others." In the meantime, I have no problem whatever with FEMA spending my tax money to help the victims of the Texas floods. Yet you would have me believe that this tax money has been "confiscated" from me. Am I somehow mistaken? 

  • Granted, government does "use and threaten force" -- but, as you say, "this is not necessarily a bad thing." But I'd say more, perhaps in disagreement: it can be "a good thing." The government finally "forced" the restaurants in the south to serve blacks. But absent this "force," the blacks were "forced" to go hungry. The alternative to "government force" might not be "no force." More than likely, it will be Hobbes' "war of all against all," followed by a Hobbes' "solution:" subjugation of the weak by the strong. 

Yes, there is danger in every one of the libertarians "necessary" governmental institutions: the military, the police, and the courts. Each can, without constraints, become oppressive. And so the founders of our republic wisely set up "checks and balances." Unfortunately, despite all their wisdom, they did not make provision for checks against the power of corporations. That's our job now.

The libertarianism of Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman, I submit, are utopian, unworkable, and I daresay, fundamentally immoral. As I have argued elsewhere ("With Liberty for Some"), theirs is a Nietzschean "Master Morality." From the point of view of the powerful, wealthy and privileged -- i.e., Milton Friedman, Richard Cheney, George Bush, and the corporate sponsors of same -- exuberant egoism is just dandy, and government restrictions on the accumulation ever-more-power and wealth are authentic pains-in-the-ass. And these worthies, who essentially own all the media, have the power to promulgate their unfortunate ideas upon the rest of us.

But the rest of us poor proletarians, whose lives, liberties and properties are protected by the likes of the EPA, FDA, FDIC and the courts, have a very different point of view, and a different attitude toward government. (Cf. "Kill the Umpire!" my site). And if the Saracen "wise men" turn out to be in league with the Nietzschean "Masters," then, if you please, we'd like to have a voice in choosing some different "wise men." Indeed, we have a right to do so. Tom Jefferson sez so, and John Hancock signed his agreement to it.

Well, I certainly did not expect to go on this long. You have presented me with challenges that I simply had to address, and for that reason, you should consider yourself flattered.


Ernest Partridge 
"The Online Gadfly"

Dear Dr. Partridge,

I am flattered. Thank you for your thought provoking reply. I can see that although we disagree on some issues we do share plenty of common ground. 

It's funny that you bring up the traffic lights issue. I had dinner with my parents and my sister last night and that very issue came up. Palm Beach County, (where I live, -- no voting jokes, s'il vous plait), is pushing for an ordinance that would put cameras at traffic signals to catch people who run red lights. My sister and I made the claim that this would be a civil liberties infringement and were, naturally, against it. My father made the argument that "I think people have too many civil liberties already," (remember, he's an FDR Democrat). Anyway, in the middle of the argument I piped up and told them that as a Libertarian, I object to traffic lights in the first place. I was poking fun at libertarians of course. In reality, I rank the issue of traffic lights at about # 10,817, right above the mandatory seat belts issue on my list of priorities. My top three would be: 1) the war on drugs, 2) military presence overseas, 3) the ballooning federal budget. In reality any libertarian that gets into an argument over traffic lights should not be surprised when someone calls him/her a "whacko." There are far bigger fish to fry, and in truth, I am perfectly willing to tolerate traffic "calming", mandatory seat belts, wearing a helmet on my Harley, (if I had one), etc., if you (pl) will help me knock out the first three on my list. However, I'll gladly humor you with the philosophical and pragmatic reasoning behind not having traffic signals if you promise not to label me as an extremist, and take it in the academic setting in which it is intended. 

I agree with you, wholeheartedly, when you say that government can be a good thing. The Saracens were overrun by the crusaders and other hoards. Can you imagine how enlightened the middle east and the rest of the world would be now, had they had been able to organize a government to raise an adequate army, pay mercenaries, etc., to defend themselves? 

Please understand, that however much I may agree with the social goals of the NSF, FEMA, the EPA, the FDA, etc., what I object to is that fact that you and I are forced via threats of violence on our persons to fund them involuntarily. Yes, I could give you plenty of practical arguments on how these governmental bodies are less effective than the Red Cross, private insurance, etc., but the they are far less important than the my basic philosophical desire to limit violence and threats of violence to an absolute minimum for survival. And yes I do believe that there are circumstances where violence and threats of violence can be a "good thing." Jefferson called this a necessary evil. 

Take care,


Dear Rick,

Thanks for still another good letter.

This one will be brief. However, I can't forego just a couple of comments. To regard a "too many civil liberties" sentiment as somehow FDR-ish strikes me as outlandish. FDR will not be remembered as an enemy of civil liberties -- quite the contrary. 

Next: seems to me that "the traffic lights issue" should not be way down your list of priorities -- it should be off that list entirely. My libertarian sentiments (yes, I have a few) favor the maximum possible freedom of movement, with  like freedom of movement for all (homage to J. S. Mill). The best proven means to this libertarian end is traffic laws. This is not a question of ideology, it is a matter of crude empiricism. All you need by way of laboratory instruments to prove the point is an automobile, a cut-off switch at traffic central, and a stopwatch. (Though common sense should suffice). Now do you honestly believe that you will be "freer" to cross town when the traffic lights are down? (Personal history: I was in NYC during both the 1965 and 1977 blackouts). Whatever the "philosophy," seems to me that the "pragmatics" settles the issue hands-down.

Admit the justification of traffic lights, and you concede that coercion ("force" if you prefer) can serve as a means to the end of greater freedom -- in this case at least. Then that damned camel has his nose under the tent.

Finally, FEMA is superior to the Red Cross (to which I nonetheless happily contribute) because of the "free rider problem." If there is an emergency, the Red Cross will help me out whether or not I contribute, so why contribute? But if everyone takes that attitude, then no Red Cross. Its the "Tragedy of the Commons." Garrett Hardin (who wrote the paper) has the solution: "mutual coercion mutually agreed upon." It's called "government." Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Jefferson, Rawls and scores of other political philosophers said as much. Ayn Rand, who worshiped Aristotle, seems to have overlooked this "contractual" justification of government.



Dear Ernie,

On the issue of traffic lights, well, you asked for it, so I'll humor you with the details. 

As far as I can see, there are only three intended reasons to have traffic lights: 1) Safety, 2) to regulate traffic flow, 3) divert smelly automobiles from rich people's neighborhoods into someone else's neighborhood. I'll begin by addressing the first and most important. 

Every year, thousands of innocent people die because some moron "runs a red light" and hits them. Let us presume for moment that we lived in a world without traffic lights. Would you enter an intersection without looking for on-coming traffic from all directions? Neither would I, frankly. So people would slow down and stop at intersections before they went through them, instead of relying on the traffic light to guide them, wouldn't they? In fact, people would enter intersections at a much slower, (and safer), rate of speed. Why? Because they would be taking responsibility for their own lives, instead of putting their fate in the hands of the guy in the Camaro traveling through the intersection pedal-to-the-floor. We are so used to taking for granted that government is regulating traffic and keeping it safe, that we blow through intersections without looking. If you tried to slow down to be safe, you'd be mowed down by that 4-wheel drive behind you. This is a perfect example of the, (for lack of a better term), institutional knowledge that is gained when you let people make their own decisions instead of telling them what the "right" choice is for them. People create customs relative to these kinds of situations as well, just like customs have been developed for sea going vessels and their right of way rules. God bless "Rick's perfect market theory of right-of-way," (or for that matter the perfect market theory in general--I would not have found The Gadfly without it). I say let's try it for a year and see if we can reduce the 8,000 deaths and 100,000 injuries that are caused by red-light-running each year. So much for the safety issue. 

So how, then, can we insure that traffic flows smoothly on our roadways? My guess is that, had roads been built by those who had an interest in their capacity for traffic, they would contain quite a few more roundabouts and a lot less traffic lights. Traffic lights are the least effective way to insure free flowing traffic, roundabouts are the most effective because they are the most efficient. Roundabouts insure that the intersection will always be full as long as there is traffic. You see this same principle when factory engineers manage their production bottlenecks. You cannot insure maximum throughput if you have arbitrary stops and starts. 

You've lived in the city and so you know all too well the role traffic lights play in the phenomenon of gridlock. It does not take a degree in civil engineering to figure out that only two things will generally cause grid lock: 1) an accident or road obstruction that completely blocks the intersection, 2) a traffic light. Yes, you've had traffic jams during the blackouts, and we've had them during hurricanes. People who are accustomed to being told when to stop and when to go when they are driving are not going to learn new rules of the road in an emergency situation, especially if it is an emergency panic situation. 

Finally, I don't have to tell you how I feel about the "calming effects" of traffic lights, they don't make me "calm" at all, and I'm sure you understand where I'm coming from. Twenty-five years ago Johnny Rotten warned us about "the councils," and here they are in the year-of-our-lord 2001, "diverting" traffic from the neighborhoods of rich folks into the neighborhoods of the hoi polloi. Our government at work. Wonderful. So people would argue that we need to address these government abuses on a "case by case" basis. Ok, so there must be a million of these traffic signals out there that exist for the sole purpose of slowing people down to a crawl enough to divert them into another neighborhood. However, before we address the "carnivore" program of the FBI, undeclared (and unconstitutional) wars, people dying of stomach cancer who are in jail for using marijuana to help them keep their prescription medication down, conscription, bans on same sex marriages, freedom of association infringements, freedom of speech infringements, ballooning federal, state and local budgets etc, etc, etc,... we must first take on these one million obnoxious traffic signals on a "case-by-case" basis. No wonder our government is out of control. 

I can assure you, (if you are worried about it), that there will always be traffic signals in this country, and they will never be debated in the hallowed halls of Congress. I have resigned myself to this very, very sad fact long ago. So what say you and I move on to something more relevant.

I got a pretty good first hand account of FEMA when Hurricane Andrew blew through South Florida a few years ago. Here was my reaction to the hurricane, (it was similar to other citizens in my neighborhood and all over South Florida): As soon as it was physically possible, I drove down to Miami to help two employees of the firm I work for move their families north to safe haven in Broward County. That night I worked at a Red Cross food tent. The Red Cross had mobilized immediately and were prepared well before the Hurricane even hit. During the course of the week that followed I brought bottled water, formula, pampers etc. to Red Cross locations in Palm Beach County for delivery by truck to Homestead. Every time I went into Publix, (our grocery), there were several other like minded people buying similar goods for the victims. On the third day I turned on the television and there was the mayor standing in the middle of a tent city screaming "where the hell is the Cavalry." She was speaking of FEMA. FEMA urged everyone to not panic, remain calm and they would fix everything. They did arrive that day, but frankly, it was too late. They had their jackets and hats and they looked very important, but you know what? Private citizens, charities, and yes even insurance companies, had already done more to help these people than FEMA could. I understand and fully sympathize with the desire of politicians to create another clearing house for political hacks and political appointees, and FEMA has served them extremely well in that regard. But unfortunately it undermines the efforts of people who really want to get things done, like the Red Cross. Furthermore, when the Red Cross states its mission in an attempt to get more donations, they get a reaction like, "Gee, doesn't FEMA already do that?" 

If the fault shifts, don't wait for the cavalry, man. Call me, then get thee to an airport, I'll get you an e-ticket to come down here. My wife and I will take you fishing in the Keys. Let the Insurance company take care of the rest. 

Take Care,

Dear Rick,

I think we've about shot our respective bolts RE traffic lights. My parting words: (a) try installing "roundabouts" in mid-town Manhattan. If so, you will have to condemn billions of dollars of private property through "eminent domain." HORRORS! Lacking that, (b) the fact (indisputable, I contend) that the constraints of traffic lights enhance freedom of movement is a matter, not of political doctrine or economic theory, but of plain physics – two material bodies cannot occupy the same space at the same time. Absent clairvoyance and mind-reading, there is no way to understand the intention of the other guy approaching the intersection, except by assuming that all drivers understand and most submit to the (coercive) "rules of the road." Not all obey said rules, hence accidents and the necessity for (OMIGOD!!) law enforcement. But the last thing I will admit is the perfection of human institutions, so yes, there will be accidents, injuries and fatalities. Practical experience seems to prove that traffic lights in urban regions are the best means of enhancing "freedom of movement." In open space, where land values are cheap, roundabouts (combined with eminent domain) are better than traffic lights.

Finally, the "customs" of "sea-going right-of-way" (including the placement of running lights, etc.) have acquired the force of law with sanctions for non-compliance, and for the same compelling reasons that we have road traffic laws. Anarchy does not enhance freedom, it destroys it. That is why, to cite another case, the fledgling broadcast industry petitioned the government to establish the FCC.  These private entrepreneurs realized full well that without enforceable assignment of frequencies by that impartial "referee,"  no one could be heard through the overlapping signals.  Robert's Rules of Order is yet another instance of freedom obtained through "mutual coercion mutually agreed upon."

This is all theory. The practical proof? Once again, try crossing mid-town Manhattan or LA during a power outage. But I repeat myself. You are unconvinced. So I can only respectfully suggest that perhaps your ideology has got the best of your common sense.

To sum up: I hope I am not disdainful of libertarians -- just some of their doctrines. By and large, libertarians, I firmly believe, are not wicked -- just misguided. I daresay that you have a similar opinion of liberals. (As the preachers say, "hate the sin and love the sinner"). On that basis, we can have a useful conversation, each attempting to convince the other, by means of logic and evidence, of the other's "error." And as you have presumably discovered, on some points I am in agreement with the libertarians -- e.g., drug policy, anti-censorship, and (qualified) pacifism.

I guess my position is a mirror image of the so-called "conservative republicans." Their policy is "get government off our (economic) backs and into our bedrooms." Mine is "get government out of our bedrooms, but into our economic affairs -- as 'referees' and as defenders and advocates of us non-transacting economic 'stakeholders.'" Not exactly a novel idea. Article I, Section 8 of the US Constitution states: "The Congress shall have power ... to regulate commerce ... among the several States."

Interestingly, on abstract principle, I am in full agreement with the libertarians: we both advocate the fullest possible measure of freedom for all. We also endorse Mill's "like liberty principle:" -- "full liberty consistent with like liberty for all." We disagree in that I contend that libertarians do not appreciate that their agenda violates Mill's principle -- that "liberty" for the wealthy and powerful (e.g. John Galt and the Fortune 500) is gained at the cost of liberty for others. Also, we differ on our respective interpretations of "liberty." My "liberal" inventory of rights is not restricted to "negative rights" (e.g., rights not to be constrained) but also "positive rights" (e.g., to education, employment, health care). The latter are based, I believe, on the fact that the privileges of wealth and power are founded upon a presumption of a mutually advantageous "well-ordered society" whereby a society's wealth is derived from the cooperative labor of both an educated work force, and also the investments of the surplus capital of risk-tolerant entrepreneurs. ( I have much more to say about this in my "On Civic Friendship"). 

That fishing trip in the Keys sounds terrific! Please don't tell me that I have to wait for "The Big One" before I can take you up on your offer. And if we do meet in the Keys, let's agree not to spend all our time discussing politics, for if we do, the only "winners" will be the fish.

In the meantime, I am looking forward to our continuing dialog.

Yours, for the maximization of liberty,



Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .