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How to Attack a Non-Strawman

J. C. LESTER

A reply to Andrew I. Cohen’s review of Escape From Leviathan: Liberty, Welfare and Anarchy Reconciled (Ideas on Liberty, March 2002, 58-59).

I shall focus on any disagreements in the order in which they arise. There is no shortage of these, but not many are with what Escape From Leviathan (EFL) actually says.  It would be very useful to have a page reference occasionally (especially when Cohen attempts paraphrases of what EFL says); Cohen gives none at all. I like to reply to criticisms of what EFL actually argues. And I like even more to see its arguments refuted, or at least some attempted refutations. But we have to start from where we are - in this case, somewhat lost I fear.

Cohen holds that “Since the author focuses entirely on criti­cisms of libertarianism, a less felicitous but more descriptive subtitle would be: 'Against Arguments that Liberty, Welfare, and Anarchy Are Incompatible.’” Properly understood, I deny that my title is less accurate. How else can one reconcile such concepts except by dealing with arguments purporting to show that they cannot be reconciled? Presumably Cohen thinks one can produce some kind of justification, ignoring such arguments, as a possible alternative way of reconciling them. But it is an explained assumption of the book that this is not an epistemological possibility. So EFL is an attempt to reconcile these things 'using the critical-rationalist method’. But adding the epistemological method would seem to distract from the central thesis, as well as being unwieldy.[1].

Is it right that EFL “applies Karl Popper’s theory of knowledge to social theory”? Well, I am certainly applying it to a particular thesis that includes social theory. Only in the section where I try to explain how Popper misinterprets the social implications of his epistemology am I tackling social theory overall, however briefly (sadly, Popper eventually became too unwell to produce the reply to this that he had once promised). Perhaps it is not quite right that “on Popper’s view, we ought to uphold theories that withstand efforts at dis­proof by critics” (emphasis added). Rather, we should continue tentatively to conjecture that they might be true and continue to try to falsify them. Rather than saying that I defend a “completely unregulated market”, as Cohen asserts, I would say that I defend private property—which is broader than the market—regulated not by the state but by the (free-market) application of libertarian principles. But this is not the specific compatibility thesis that the book is defending.

When Cohen states “Lester’s approach could furnish a weapon in the arsenal against anti-liberalism,” I completely agree, of course. But I presume he means to imply that it fails as a weapon for justifying or establishing liberalism. I deny that such a weapon is any more possible than pulling oneself up with one’s own bootstraps. However, to the extent that anti-liberal criticisms are generally accepted as being refuted then that is sufficient to allow liberalism to be tried.

EFL itself admits to moving with “considerable, sometimes blinding, speed against critics of liberalism”, as Cohen puts it. This was not only because people are free to check the original sources and I might have persisted in any errors of interpretation but at greater length, as Cohen states, but also because of the vast amount of criticism that I wished to cover in defending the compatibility thesis. And if Cohen thinks that there really are significant misrepresentations or errors in my replies, then it would be better if he explained them rather than merely suggesting that they might be there. For I cannot reply to that mere possibility. I cannot see anything wrong with “speed” as such. On the contrary, short and sweet refutations are an economy and a delight. So I would deny that brevity entails being “cursory” (superficially quick) in reviewing key arguments that “pre­suppose an intimate familiarity with scholar­ly criticisms of liberalism” without an example where this is so. I think the “layperson”—non-philosopher—can easily get to grips with much in EFL. It will not be of “little value” for him just because there are some difficult patches. Cohen thinks EFL “has some value as an anti-anti-liberal guidebook”. What would be the point of a “pro-liberal” book that ignores criticism? And does he mean to suggest by “guidebook” that the replies to critics are rarely adequate in themselves? If so, could he not give one clear example?.

More qualifications of Cohen’s exposition: “On Lester’s account, rational persons invariably calculate how best to promote their perceived interests” given their current abilities to calculate, at least. And “persons rationally care for others” to the extent that they are interested in those others as ends in themselves. It is not that “each of us acts by definition as a 'purposeful maximizer’” (emphasis not added) but it is argued, following the Austrian School of economics, to be an a priori truth. While all of this is held to be “non-moral and value-neutral” none of it is used in a “derivation of the market system,” as Cohen states. It is, though, all used in various ways to defend the compatibility of liberty, welfare and anarchy (which I call the Liberal Compatibility Thesis). And as a critical rationalist, I would not regard such assumptions as “foundations.” Throughout this reply, note, I am objecting to various real errors of simple exposition and unsound replies (which makes me wonder whether Cohen is a good judge of any implied errors in my own expositions of, and replies to, others’ arguments). I have no objection to his speed as such, of course.

I do not say or imply that we can “dispense with the complexities of moral argument” for liberty (which Cohen insists on restricting to “the market”). I just think it avoids confusion to put moral arguments on hold when explicitly defending the—surely interesting and important—objectivity of the liberal compatibility thesis. All this is made perspicuously clear in the introduction.

Cohen states that EFL “stacks the deck by excluding certain considerations from count­ing as costs or benefits, so [I] can pretend this whole enterprise is purely descriptive….” Which considerations do I illegitimately exclude and in what way are they illegitimate? I should love to reply but replying to what I can only guess Cohen might say is highly likely to be a waste of time. And I might well be mistaken but does Cohen really think I “pretend” to be being descriptive? Cohen goes on to give one example of “robust evalua­tive work going on behind the scenes”; for he says, “This is clear in his effort to derive non-morally a system of ownership. But if property is taken to entail, as it usually does, a host of moral considerations, then we cannot derive a sys­tem of property simply from descriptive claims.” In other words, instead of trying to show the faults in all the actual philosophical arguments given in EFL to make sense of objective property, Cohen can completely ignore them and fall back on his prior beliefs. But why would he want to do anything so unphilosophical? Cohen suggests that “Either the sys­tem of property he derives is of no normative consequence, or it involves the norms typi­cally entailed by property and so is guilty of the naturalistic fallacy.” This is muddled in at least three major ways. 1. Yes, it is—and is intended to be—of no normative consequence in itself. I am not arguing about what people ought to do but about what a certain conception of liberty entails. 2. Even if liberty were an inherently moralized concept such an objective argument about what it entails would be entirely possible without advocacy of any kind (I can draw objective implications from a moralized concept with which I morally disagree: though your morals are values to you, it is a fact to me that you hold them). 3. To apply a moral concept to a situation in order to draw conclusions about what it implies is completely valid and not in any way an attempt to derive an 'ought’ from an 'is’.

Cohen suggests, “Perhaps instead we should offer moral arguments to justify the consequences mar­kets promote. This requires rolling up our sleeves and presenting some moral theory to undergird liberalism.” There is certainly a place for moral arguments, but not while defending objective theses. There is no place for trying to “justify” and “undergird” anything. Cohen merely ignores the epistemological arguments given in EFL, not to mention those given by Popper, for not doing so.

I do not defend “preference consequential­ism” as a moral theory, as Cohen might appear to suggest, but as a plausible theory of welfare. He asks, “But what if aggregate preferences could best be satisfied by violating the rights of minorities? What protection does anarcho-libertarianism offer?” Well, it would necessarily stop such violations if applied. But I argue that there is no reason to think overall preferences could best be satisfied by such violations. So it is Cohen who is “[m]oving swiftly past such worries”. Where Cohen writes that “Lester admits that he cannot in principle exclude horrific injustices” that is (as far as I can recall without a page reference) no big admission for I am arguing throughout about what is likely and plausible and not what is in principle possible. Of course it is in principle possible that liberty, welfare and anarchy clash. My thesis is that they do not do so in practice.[2] Cohen says that EFL “claims that people happen to be constituted so that standard injustices are not preference satisfying, all things con­sidered.” It is not just a claim about people’s psychology but about how the world works generally—not least in respect to economics. He says, “Such a response hinges long-term material prosperity, consonant with ordi­nary conceptions of justice, on a fragile pre­ponderance of decent sentiments among the diverse lot of us.” I do not mention “justice” in this context or “decent sentiments”. I do include various arguments using philosophy and economics. So what if “critics will be undaunted”? What does that have to do with the soundness of any argument in the book?  What “empirical claims about human psychology, and … normative suppositions lurking in the background of the whole project” (except that of property, which has been answered) is Cohen on about? As I had no intention of “showing that liberty can be an 'uncontested concept’” it is hardly a fault that the book does not do so. On the contrary, I think all concepts are contestable—even logical and mathematical ones. I have no “project of defending the market against charges of theoretical incon­sistency.” My project is stated plainly enough in the introduction and throughout: defending the objective compatibility of liberty, welfare and anarchy. It is an understatement that, as Cohen puts it, “giving critics of libertarian­ism a run for their money can be an impor­tant and powerful buttress to the regime [sic!] of liberty,” for there is nothing else (if we include all inconsistent theories as implicit 'critics’) we can usefully do. Or if there is, Cohen has not explained what it is.

© J C Lester, August, 2002



[1] It might appear that I am being oversensitive to reply to what is really just a route into describing my method, but I have a policy of replying to every criticism.

[2] If this thesis is false, then there might be a need for the moral arguments that Cohen evidently favours. But Cohen seems to be committing the classic error of reviewing the book he would like to have read, or written, instead of the one he has been given.

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