Volume 24, Number 3, Spring 2006

Interview with David Friedman

By Michael Grossberg

Most libertarians know David Friedman as an economist, political theorist and non-fiction author. Best known as a leading libertarian thinker for his first book, The Machinery of Freedom: Guide to a Radical Capitalism, Friedman also has written Hidden Order: The Economics of Everyday Life and his latest book, Law’s Order: What Economics Has to Do with Law and Why It Matters. He’s currently writing Future Imperfect, a book about technological change in the near future and its consequences. He is a professor at Santa Clara University, teaching in both the law and business schools.

Now libertarians can begin to appreciate Friedman as a fiction writer, with the Baen Books hardback publication in April 2006 of Harald, his first novel.

Baen Books is describing the work as “an intricate and thrilling debut fantasy novel from libertarian prof (and son of economist Milton Friedman) and Society for Creative Anachronism grandee, David D. Friedman.” Baen Books’ website (www.baen.com) offers a blurb about the story:

It’s the perfect storm for conquest: a dysfunctional kingdom reels under a weak monarch. A powerful order of warrior maidens turns to infighting after suddenly losing its charismatic leader. Worst of all, a disciplined and blooded imperial army stands ready to invade and dominate. If ever a moment called for grit, competence, and an utter lack of wishful thinking it is now. Enter Harald of the Vales. Family man and teller of tales. Warrior’s warrior. It’s time the Empire got one thing straight: the land of Kaerlia will never be its for the taking. ...

Here is a short quote from the novel, representative of Friedman’s fictional style:

Woodsmoke. Ahead, in forest shadows, a red spark.

“Welcome to my fire, Lady.”

Unlikely enemy. And if he was, she thought with a sudden shiver, she was dead already, sitting a horse in plain sight, bow unstrung and cased. She slid from the mare’s back, led towards voice and fire. The cat was alone, sitting with his back to a tree. The strung bow in its saddle sheath rested against the tree to his left; his hands were empty.

Michael Grossberg recently interviewed Friedman about how and why he wrote his novel and his opinions on other subjects.


GROSSBERG: Please describe any libertarian themes in your work.

FRIEDMAN: “Theme” is a little strong—it is a story, not a political argument. But there are at least two elements which I think would be of interest to libertarians.

The first is the idea that, as Auden put it, “there is no such thing as the state.” All politics ultimately come down to relations among individuals.

The early part of the book is dominated by the conflict between Harald, my protagonist, and James, a new, young and inexperienced king of the kingdom to which Harald and his people have been allied. James has lots of formal authority; Harald has none. James takes it for granted that his formal authority is real—that people under him in the feudal structure will in fact do what he tells them.

As should be clear to any reasonably observant reader, James is wrong. He can give orders, but the people who get them will, for various reasons good and bad, obey them or not according to their own duties, desires, loyalties. Harald has no formal authority but a lot of friends and respect earned over the previous thirty years, during which he has been, on and off, the commander of the allied army. Harald has no formal authority—but more real power.

The same point runs through the book. Towards the end, Harald is maneuvering to end the long running war with the Empire that has been trying to conquer kingdom and vales. He does it by setting up lines of communication, and a very temporary alliance, with one of the two sons of the Emperor who are competing for the succession.

The second idea that ought to be of interest to libertarians is that more decentralized societies are, if not necessarily better, at least different in interesting ways. Harald’s problem in the long running war with the Empire is that he doesn’t have an army and the Emperor does. The Emperor has the resources to pay an army; Harald has to rely on volunteers—and how to get them and pay the expenses of a military campaign are problems that require some ingenuity to solve.

But there is a balancing advantage. Harald is better than even the best Imperial general, not because he is more competent but because he is more ingenious, unconventional, innovative. Although I never say so explicitly, there is a reason for this—an Imperial officer with Harald’s approach to problem solving would be very unlikely to get promoted, and might well end up executed for insubordination. The only niche in the Imperial political system where someone like Harald might be able to survive and prosper is at the very top, in the competition among members of the imperial family for the throne.

GROSSBERG: Is this your first attempt to write a novel? And what have you learned about fiction-writing, as opposed to the challenges of writing full-length nonfiction books?

FRIEDMAN: It is a first attempt, and what I learned was that I could do it. My main concern was over whether I could manage dialog, which isn’t usually an issue in non-fiction. At some point it occurred to me that although the dialog had to be internally consistent and work rhetorically, it did not have to be realistic—sound like the conversation of actual people I knew—since it was in a world of my own invention.

Also, I have been doing medieval storytelling in the SCA for a very long time.

GROSSBERG: How did you develop your ideas for this novel?

FRIEDMAN: It started out, oddly enough, as an insomnia cure. Daydreaming when you are trying to fall asleep doesn’t work very well, because you are the hero of your daydreams, and so too involved in them. It occurred to me that if I instead plotted out a novel, I would have enough distance from my characters to drift off to sleep while doing so—and it worked. I ended up with pieces of several related plots, and one reasonably complete one.

Our house rules at the time required me, when putting one of our two children to bed, to make up and tell three stories. I mentioned my novel to my daughter and she suggested I tell her that instead. One problem with telling long connected stories to my daughter is that she remembers them better than I do, and can point out inconsistencies between the story I told her three months ago and the one I am telling now. So this time I kept an outline, written up each night after I put her to bed. When I got near the end, I decided to try actually writing it out. I wrote the final scene, liked it, went back to the beginning, and wrote the whole thing in a month or two. The process was so absorbing that I played almost no computer games during that time—writing the novel was more fun.

GROSSBERG: Knowing of your longstanding interest in actual Iceland society in the middle ages, and how it offered in some ways a model for an anarchist society, how did that interest and knowledge affect this novel?

FRIEDMAN: My protagonist’s society is loosely modeled on saga period Iceland. We don’t see a lot of it, but we see a lot of him, and the sort of person he is results in part from that society.

My other medieval interests fed into the book as well. My protagonist and his people are horse archers, and some of the details were lifted from a translation of a Mameluke treatise on the subject. My protagonist is a storyteller, and story fragments we see are borrowed, with suitable modifications, from a range of historical literatures—an Icelandic saga, a medieval Syrian memoir, and an Indian story translated from Sanskrit to Persian to Arabic to become a classic of Arabic literature.

GROSSBERG: What type of fiction do you like to read? Can you mention a few favorite novels that had some themes of interest to libertarians and individualists, and what you find most intriguing about them?

FRIEDMAN: Mostly science fiction and fantasy, because I enjoy it. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is the one that influenced me the most—because it gave a plausible, internally consistent description of a society with private property and without government, where the legal framework was itself generated in a decentralized way rather than imposed.

GROSSBERG: How long did it take you to complete your first novel, and how did you balance that with other writing and activites? Now that it’s done, any plans for more?

FRIEDMAN: Actually writing the first draft took a month or two. Composing it took much longer—I’m not sure how much—but since it was done mostly while trying to fall asleep or while putting my daughter to bed, it didn’t compete with other activities. The revision took place over a longer span of time, perhaps a year or so, but didn’t involve spending a lot of time on it.

I have ideas for two sequels, one prequel, and one unrelated novel—a fantasy with magic. Whether they will get written I don’t know. I’m currently working on the sequel—but mostly by trying to think through the plot while trying to fall asleep. If that doesn’t work I shift to one of the others.

(For more information, visit www.daviddfriedman.com and www.baen.com)

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