This article was published in the Summer 1994 issue of Formulations
by the Free Nation Foundation
The Machinery of Freedom:
Guide to a Radical Capitalism
Second Edition
by David Friedman
Open Court, La Salle, 1989
reviewed by Wayne Dawson
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  The purpose of this book is to persuade you that a libertarian society would be both free and attractive, that the institutions of private property are the machinery of freedom, making it possible, in a complicated and interdependent world, for each person to pursue his life as he sees fit.

from the introduction
(emphasis added)

In order to achieve his stated purpose, David Friedman discusses in some detail what the institutions of private property would be like in a libertarian society. Or in terms we like to use in the Free Nation Foundation, he offers formulations of libertarian societal structures. He discusses the characteristics of workable libertarian solutions to many social problems, and offers many examples (including at least one from history) to support his views.

The historical example that stands out in my mind is that of Medieval Iceland, which Friedman uses to show how private law enforcement can work. He briefly sets out the historical context in which Icelandic legal institutions were developed, describes the form of the legal system, gives examples of various situations and how they would be dealt with, and explains how possible systemic problems are handled as compared to current American institutions.

As Friedman describes it, the Icelandic legal system in effect from 930 AD to 1263 AD was centered around the Godhi. A Godhi was a person who owned a set of rights called a godhordh. Mainly the Godhi was the link between those he represented and the judicial and legislative functions of the government. A godhordh was considered private property, and could be sold, lent, and inherited. Also, which Godhi any given person was associated with was not determined by geographic monopoly. Individuals could be associated with any Godhi that was willing to have them. Thus we see that the system was largely based on voluntary relationships. Also the "government" was quite minimal, with a total of one employee for all of Iceland and that was only a part-time position, that of being the Lawspeaker, who was elected for a three-year term. Friedman devotes a chapter to discussing how this system worked and its advantages over the system we currently live under.

Throughout The Machinery of Freedom, Friedman deals with law in economic terms. This is the first book I have read that does so. And it is quite a through analysis, at least as an introduction to the idea. For example, Friedman deals with the economic concept of "public goods" extensively. The book also has a chapter on the "economics of theft," and deals directly with what Friedman calls "the hard problem" (national defense) as an exmaple of a "public good" in our society. He clearly explains that "public goods" are underproduced, and how this relates to the inefficiencies of government-supplied defense, police, and courts.

Throughout the book Friedman takes a utilitarian approach, because of some implications of the "natural rights" approach. Friedman is not afraid to admit when there are implications of libertarian principles that he is uncomfortable with. He gives an example of using a rifle, the owner of which does not wish to lend it to anyone (even if it would save lives), to shoot a madman who is about to kill several people in a crowd. Whereas libertarian rights theory would suggest that it is not acceptable for someone to take the gun, Friedman would prefer that someone take the gun rather than letting the madman kill lots of people. (Personally I hold the same preference in this hypothetical situation.)

The book is quite thorough, although an easy read. In its current revised edition it has 48 short chapters, 2 appendices, and an index. Friedman wrote this book with a witty style: "I have described the legislative and judicial branch of the government established by the Icelandic settlers but have omitted the executive. So did they."

The Machinery of Freedom deals with libertarianism in a manner that is helpful in visualizing and developing libertarian institutions. Moreover, much of the book is devoted specifically to the nature of such institutions, with very enlightening examples thrown in. I highly recommend it. D

Wayne Dawson, an electronics engineer and computer programmer, lives in Virginia Beach, VA.
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