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Escape from Leviathan

Mises Daily: Monday, April 09, 2001 by

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A review of J.C. Lester's Escape From Leviathan: Liberty, Welfare, and Anarchy Reconciled. Macmillan (London) and St. Martin’s Press (New York). 2000. [ISBN 0-333-77756-5]

This book represents a landmark in the literature of liberalism on two counts. One of these is the author's robust statement of his major thesis on the compatibility of free markets, liberty, and welfare. The other is the way he uses the non-authoritarian theory of rationality expounded by Karl Popper and William W. Bartley.

Recognition of Popper has been slow to come in libertarian circles because his views on the protective function of the state and his critique of anti-interventionism have placed him beyond the pale. He has been equally marginalized in the mainstream of philosophy because his theory of conjectural objective knowledge is completely out of step with the theories of justified belief that preoccupy the academic professionals.

William W. Bartley (1935-1990), was one of the first, along with Gerard Radnitzky, to see the potential for a merger of Popper’s ideas with Hayekian liberalism. (It should be remembered, however, that Popper was one of the founding members of the Mont Pelerin Society.) At the time of Bartley’s death, he was simultaneously managing the project to produce a new, uniform edition of Hayek’s work and collecting information for the authorized biographies of both Popper and Hayek. In this book, Lester provides a brief critique of some of Popper’s political principles. With this understood, it is possible to move on to appreciate the value of other aspects of Popper's thought, as Lester has done.

Lester's statement of the extreme compatibility thesis runs as follows:

"In practice (rather than in imaginary cases) and in the long term, there are no systematic clashes among interpersonal liberty, general welfare, and market anarchy, where these terms are to be understood roughly as follows: ‘interpersonal liberty’ is ‘not being imposed on by others’; ‘general welfare’ is ‘people having their unimposed wants satisfied’; ‘market anarchy’ is ‘unrestricted libertarian trade’; and the underpinning conception of ‘rationality’ is ‘agents always attempt to achieve what they most want under the perceived circumstances’ " (page 2).

Those who seek linguistic precision may be alarmed that Lester's terms are to be understood roughly. He has quite deliberately avoided the kind of conceptual analysis, the teasing out of the meaning of terms, that Popper has labeled "essentialism." An anonymous reviewer for Amazon Books noted the remarkable amount of meat that is packed into the book. This is partly due to the self-conscious avoidance of essentialism, partly to Lester’s firm grasp on his materials, and partly to the mode of argumentation that he has adopted, following the non-justificationist or non-foundational line that has been articulated by Popper and Bartley.

The main characteristic of this approach is that it only attempts to achieve what is possible, which is the formation of a critical preference for one option rather than another, in light of the evidence and arguments that are available to date. Lester does not attempt the impossible—that is, a logically conclusive proof of his case. What is possible is to propose a theory or a doctrine and subject it to criticism. Then, if it stands up, we may proceed with that theory or doctrine until such time as an alternative is proposed that has better credentials and stands up to criticism at least as well as the previous candidate.

The author points out that this has resulted in a book that is full of other people’s criticisms of liberty, anarchy, and free trade, with his rejoinders. One reader has described this as a "set-them-up-and-knock-them-down" method. Lester replies that he does not regard this as a valid criticism; it is precisely what critical rationalists, and indeed everyone else, should be doing. This may be contrasted with those who use the justificationist method to "build it up (yet again) and ignore the counterarguments."

Another extremely interesting feature of Lester’s case is his avoidance of moral advocacy. Moral advocacy is, of course, the overwhelming feature of most of the anti-libertarian literature, including that of fellow travelers like myself (prior to reading this book) who have agonized over the moral choices that need to be made in trade-offs between liberty and welfare. But of course, the central claim of this book is that liberty and welfare, properly understood, are compatible, so there is no need for a trade-off in principle.

Lester’s point on moral advocacy is made with a particularly elegant example of two hypothetical neighboring tribes, one which condemns the eating of any animals without hearts, the other which condemns the eating of any animals without kidneys. They dispute to the point of warfare over which animals should be eaten, until an anthropologist (trained in biology) explains that all animals either have  both heart and kidneys, or neither. Lester’s point is that the anthropologist does not need to take sides in the debate. Similarly, there is no need for him to take sides in any debate over the trade-offs between liberty, welfare, and anarchy.

Turning to the organization of the book, the introduction is followed by four chapters: Rationality, Liberty, Welfare, and Anarchy. Each chapter is tightly organized and packed with crisply presented arguments that resist efforts to paraphrase them. Consequently, the selection of points to cover in this review will not do full justice to the contents of the book or its organization.

Lester’s theory of rationality has to reconcile two extreme views in economics: the neglected subjective, a priori approach (pace Menger and the Austrians), and the standard objective, empirical account. He adopts the theory that agents are self-interested utility-maximizers, and he addresses a number of standard objections that are raised against this concept. He argues, successfully in my view, that the objections do no damage to his thesis. The notion of the self-interested utility-maximizer is not vitiated, for analytical purposes or for economic theory, by the facts that the self may be malleable and not fixed in its aims and preferences, that self-interest is compatible with altruism and even self-sacrifice, and that utility cannot be interpreted in terms of a single motive or goal.

So far as economic theory is concerned, Lester defends—though not exclusively—the use of a priori rationality by Mises and Kirzner, and he hopes that his broader philosophical account is complementary. He is encouraged to note "the remarkable British phenomenon of Marxian (anti-money) socialists who master the economic calculation argument only to find themselves intellectually catapulted, past various state-interventionist ideologies, to market anarchy" (instancing David Ramsay Steele).

Liberty is formulated as the absence of initiated or proactively imposed cost, or, in the case of a mutual clash of imposed costs, the minimization of imposed costs. This means avoiding or minimizing the subjective costs imposed on us by other people, without our consent. Lester explains this formulation, compares it with typical libertarian alternatives to illustrate its strengths, and then tests it by attempting to solve some problems presented to libertarians by David Friedman and John Gray. The chapter on liberty is the book's longest. It covers a huge amount of ground, including intellectual property rights and a theory of restitution for crimes and torts. In addition to the criticism of Friedman and Gray, there is also a rejoinder to Amartya Sen and to Karl Popper.

Lester admits at the outset that his formulation of liberty may seem rather obscure, and he hopes that it will become clearer through its application in this chapter. This is consistent with his theory that principles gain meaning, not by extended definition of the terms used to state them, but from application to cases and problems. Among the potential criticisms that might be advanced, he notes Sen’s paper on the impossibility of a Paretian Liberal, where Sen argues that a prude suffers a cost or imposition from knowing that somewhere in the world people are reading literature that the prude either does not like or thinks will lead to ill effects.

The subjective cost imposed on the prude is real—like the cost imposed on libertarians by the publishers who print socialist/conservative tracts, vandals who circulate instructions on the design of terrorist devices, sports writers who extol the merits of teams other than the one we support—but these costs are trivial compared with the costs imposed by censorship. (Remember that Lester is aiming for minimization of costs when they cannot be entirely avoided.) Lester suggests that Sen has confused definitions in this area, and he proceeds to argue that Murray Rothbard and David Friedman are similarly misguided in their accounts of coercion.

The criticism of John Gray is important because, for some time, Gray enjoyed a high profile as a rare instance of a classical liberal Oxford don. Lately, he has decided that liberalism in its libertarian form will not do because he has "examined and found wanting all the major justificatory strategies in the project of constructing a liberal ideology" (page 143). This is supposed to be something like a knockout blow; Lester points out, however, that because no doctrine can achieve conclusive justification, the blow simply misses the target. Lester also responds to Gray’s charge of "restrictivism," which is directed at liberals on the grounds that they (along with other restrictivists) do not accept that freedom is "an essentially contested concept" and that they "endorse na├»ve and superseded positions in the philosophy of mind and action and in the theory of our knowledge of the social world" (page 124).

In response, Lester accuses Gray of "conflationism," or importing a raft of contentious theories from elsewhere (psychology, hermeneutics, epistemology) to muddle and confuse the issues while, at the same time, appealing to various authorities and ultimately overriding interpersonal liberty in favor of some other goal. Gray dismisses the liberal quest for "a single aboriginal right," and he seems to believe that liberalism cannot stand up in a society that lacks a "single cultural tradition … undergirding the institutions of civil society" (page 128). Lester argues convincingly that these objections do not undermine the argument of this book, any more so than the lack of conclusive justification. In view of the sharp rejoinder that Lester administers, it is interesting to read the Gray's comment that is printed on the dust jacket: "Even those who are unpersuaded by [this] reformulation of classical liberalism will benefit from reading Lester’s book."

Welfare is a sticking point for many people of good will who support freedom but believe they cannot be libertarians because of all the poor people who need assistance. Actually, support for deserving poor people could be provided by a voluntary welfare association (VWA), dispensing funds from voluntary donations from all the people who currently vote to support welfare policies. Serious socialists would set the example by donating all surplus wealth and income above the national average. I have run this idea past several socialists, but they are not enthused because they think that the rich would be too mean-spirited to contribute. This view is amply refuted by the evidence of charitable donation, especially the way that donations increase when taxes are lowered.

Lester’s chapter on welfare follows his lengthy excursion through the theory of liberty. In this chapter, he addresses his compatibility thesis more broadly to show that welfare is indeed compatible with liberty, anarchy, and free markets. First, he outlines the relationship among welfare, liberty, and the market. He then clarifies the conception of "want-satisfaction welfare" and goes on to discuss some practical and economic implications of this concept. Finally, he examines the relationship of welfare to private property.

Some conceptual ground-clearing is required in this chapter because Lester notes that "preference utilitarianism"—the notion of welfare as want satisfaction, which he favors—is often misunderstood in two important ways. "First, people conflate hedonistic utilitarianism and preference utilitarianism (so much so, that when the distinction is made clear, they deny that preference utilitarianism is utilitarianism at all). Second, people assume, and even insist, that utilitarianism is necessarily collectivistic in its policy implications, when it must logically be an empirical matter whether collectivism will increase utility overall—and I shall argue that it does not do so" (page 156).

The main targets in this chapter are R.M. Hare, Amartya Sen, Bernard Williams, John Rawls, John Harsanyi, and Alan Ryan. Sen and Williams wrote that utilitarianism imposes "severe informational constraints" (quoted on page 161) and takes "a remarkably narrow view of being a person" (page 162). The "drastic obliteration of usable information" is supposed to result in the "neglect of a person’s attachments and ties." Further, utilitarianism regards "attachments, ties, aims, plans, agency, etc…as worthless in themselves and valuable only to the extent of their effects on utility" (page 163). Lester replies that the wants and values of the agent are simply a personal function of their appraisal of all these things listed by Sen and Williams, reflecting a measure of the worth that they place on them, and this individual measure is respected by preference utilitarianism, if not by other schools of thought with different axes to grind.

This mention of axes to grind brings us to John Rawls and his theory of justice. One of the objectionable features of utilitarianism for Rawls is the supposed sacrifice of some people’s welfare to maximize aggregate welfare. He desires to produce more acceptable ("fair") principles, without sacrifice of the individual. Lester notes that Rawls does advocate sacrifice of the individual to some extent, by appropriating a share of a trade between Tom and Sophie for the benefit of Harry. "Rawls does defend such scenarios, and thereby advocates the very thing (the sacrifice of some people’s interests for others) for which he rejects utilitarianism (albeit mistakenly)" (page 166). He notes that Rawls’s conception of liberty is inherently political (and egalitarian), without regard for the consequences of economic policies designed to achieve egalitarian ends. One might say that Rawls does not want to let the facts get in the way of a "good" (statist and redistributional) theory.

John Harsanyi is taken to task for "conflationism," rather like John Gray, running together stipulative definitions, factual theses, and value judgements and attempting to combine philosophy and mathematics with the appearance of great rigor, all at a very abstract level. Harsanyi claims to be a preference utilitarian and to maintain the principle of "preference autonomy," whereby the ultimate criteria of what is good for the individual are his own wants and preferences. So far, so good, but Lester goes on to describe the limitations and qualifications that Harsanyi places on the process of forming preferences. Access is required to "all the relevant information" and so on, in order to arrive at "true preferences." For Lester, this is a paternalistic and self-serving notion to prop up political interests of an egalitarian kind.

The book's final chapter, on anarchy, is very short because most of the work to defend private property and the market order has been done in previous chapters. "Basic conceptual confusion and mere prejudice are more the real problems," Lester writes (page 193). He casts a critical eye over some conceptual aspects of the state, and then he turns to John Rawls again as an exemplar of confusion and prejudice. He notes that states do not have the explicit consent of their subjects, and he does not accept Locke’s argument that we tacitly consent to the state by remaining in its territory.

Because of its ultimate monopoly on power, the state is able to coercively impose control over persons and property. Even the explicit consent of a majority to this state of affairs is not acceptable to a libertarian. Lester suggests that the reality of this situation is obscured by democratic prejudice. "The fact that the majority is often positively enthusiastic to have a state only disguises the illiberal coercion for people who think that democracy is somehow inherently liberal" (page 195).

He agrees with the arguments that have been advanced by Murray Rothbard and David Friedman on the superiority and stability of anarchic law and order. The current state of play in the "war on drugs" provides massive evidence of the downside of state activities in this domain. He briefly notes the argument that nationalism is a powerful ideology, based on the idea that a society or a culture needs its own state for purposes of identity (perhaps during the Olympic Games?).

Lester responds with the hope that, in time, the propaganda tool of the state will be replaced by two things: "A depoliticized affection for ones geographical home and culture [the proud Tasmanian] and a moral affirmation of liberty…As an anarchist, I therefore have no ideological nationality" (page 198).

Finally, Lester identifies the way that Rawls has simply ignored the libertarian position on the state, which is perceived as providing the arena where the most divisive issues can be removed from the political agenda. This could conceivably be the case in Plato’s republic, the totalitarian state where the rulers have been rigorously brainwashed from an early age, where only the rulers and their auxiliaries may carry arms, where there is no trade with other states (in case subversive ideas come from outside, along with the goods), and where those who dissent can be killed or banished. Until this "utopian" situation is achieved, the state will be the chief cause of discord, as contending interests battle to control it for their various ends.

"Rawls is altogether representative of so-called liberals (in the modern sense)," Lester writes (page 204). "None of them takes liberty (in the sense of not being imposed on by others) seriously and so cannot see its compatibility with welfare and anarchy. They are more interested in defending inherently political ‘liberties’ or ‘rights.’ But ‘liberties’ and ‘rights’ that are inconsistent with liberty have pernicious unintended consequences."

Lester concludes with some optimistic remarks on the intellectual resurgence of private-property ideas in recent years. Escape from Leviathan is an inspiring contribution to this movement. Lester's replies to major figures like Gray, Rawls, and Sen should exert a decisive effect in future debates on political economy. This is a fine achievement, to produce a book that requires so much close reading, in stark contrast with contemporary works in philosophy, politics, and political economy that can be thrown aside after a few paragraphs or even on the basis of the dust jacket blurb where fundamentally unsustainable premises are expressed.

The book is attractively produced with a striking cover design, excellent binding, a highly readable font, and attractive layout. Numbered subheadings help the reader keep track of the very intricate construction of each chapter. The main text runs to 204 pages, followed by more than two hundred notes before the bibliography and the index. The bibliography is comprehensive but not overwhelming.

Now, my afterthoughts and some concluding comments on the seismic potential for the form of critical rationalism that Lester has adopted from Popper and Bartley. Liberalism (or libertarianism) is a non-authoritarian creed. It draws its strength from the non-coercive power of reasoned argument, in contrast with systems that depend on brute force or on intimidation by intellectual or moral authorities. The survival and progress of liberalism depends on a free market in ideas, unconstrained by the cramps on trade (in criticism) that are imposed by cartels, monopolies, and various forms of protectionism in the mind industry. For an account of these cartels at work, see Bartley’s book, Unfathomed Knowledge: Unmeasured Wealth, reviewed at http://victorian.fortunecity.com/beardsley/700/bartrev1.html.

People tend to be hostages to the first ideas that they take on board, altered on occasion by shifts of allegiance that occur by processes akin to religious conversion. This has hardly changed with the advent of mass primary, secondary, and, lately, higher education. Clearly, education and instruction alone do not furnish the habits and disciplines of critical and imaginative thinking that are required for continuing intellectual growth. Elsewhere, I have argued that Bartley and Popper have created a major shift in the Western tradition of rationality, a shift which immensely strengthens the philosophy of non-socialist liberalism.

True lovers of freedom have always been forced to work against the authoritarian grain of Western thought because the dominant intellectual traditions, rationalist and irrationalist alike, sponsor dogmatism and intolerance. Even those who challenge this authoritarian heritage usually share a powerful and unconscious assumption with their opponents. Bartley labeled this theory "justificationism," and liberals help to sustain opposition to their cause if they propagate this theory. This is explained in a paper at http://victorian.fortunecity.com/beardsley/700/bart.html.

One of the consequences of the authoritarian or justificationist tradition of rationalism is exemplified in the rifts and schisms among the followers of Ayn Rand, where factions fell out in the futile and self-destructive manner of doctrinaire left-wing groupings. These tendencies should cease when the implications of the Popper/Bartley innovation are developed and disseminated, as Lester has done in this book.

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Rafe Champion is an independent writer in Sydney, Australia. Buy the book. His personal site: http://zap.to/rafechampion. His e-mail address: rchamp@bigpond.net.au. This review was originally written for CONSERVATIVENET@listserv.uic.edu.