A reply to Tibor Machan's review of Escape from Leviathan: Liberty, Welfare and Anarchy Reconciled, J. C. Lester, New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000, in The Review of Politics, 2001, vol 63, number 1.
As a critical rationalist, I welcome criticism. A serious response can help to elucidate matters even when that criticism mainly comprises superficial misreadings, misquotations, unsubstantiated assertions, ill-tempered ad hominems and elementary linguistic confusion that together amount to a professional disgrace. Thus I am happy to reply to Professor Machan's review of Escape from Leviathan.
The review begins with this tendentiously mangled pseudo-quotation:
"As far as I can tell, no one has hitherto provided an adequate account of liberty in this sense ['It is about the voluntary interaction of persons rather than selfish individualism, as its detractors sometimes misrepresent it']."
The part in square parentheses is included as though it were the complete definition of what went before. Far from it. It is a small part of a longer passage that is itself merely introducing the idea of liberty that is about to be discussed. The point of the assertion is that a clear formulation, or definition, of the libertarian principle does not appear to exist. And such a clear formulation is what I am attempting in that particular chapter. I tentatively put forward as a possible improvement my own version of this small but important aspect of libertarianism. Nowhere does it say or imply that "no one has hitherto done as good a job as the author at treating a vital issue in political philosophy". So I cannot see that "this amounts to either hype or a very significant piece of intellectual news". Machan objects that no list of contenders is provided. But I explicitly say that Murray Rothbard and David Friedman have typical conceptions and what is wrong with those (71ff). Not being a foundationalist, I do not attempt to "back up" my conception, of course, but defend it from criticism. As my own formulation is short but crucial (the absence of—initiated or proactively—imposed costs), why does Machan not bother to quote or criticise it? Or why does he not tell us what his own preferred formulation is?
I start the book by saying that "There is only one thing that is seriously morally wrong with the world, and that is politics" (but "morally" is carelessly omitted in Machan's misquotation of the first line of the book). This is not "quickly qualified" (Machan's words) by stating that I mean by that "all that, and only what, involves the state." To make oneself more explicit is not to qualify what one has said. If I say that I have a doctor as a neighbour, I do not qualify that by adding that I mean a physician and not someone with a PhD. Another small point, perhaps, but typical of the sloppiness in what is a quite short review.
When I say that there is only one thing that is "seriously morally wrong with the world", it ought to be obvious that I am referring to general supposed heavyweight contenders such as capitalism, environmental degradation, patriarchy, man's immoral nature, etc. It should be clear enough that I meant, and might have said had the words occurred to me at the time, that the state is the greatest single moral evil by a very long way indeed (does any libertarian doubt this? does Machan doubt this?). In any case, a certain rhetorical generalisation would surely not be out of place in an opening line of a book, which it is, to capture the reader's interest. I immediately go on to explain that all other major worries are caused or exacerbated by politics or not really problems at all. By comparison, I do indeed think that any remaining "crimes by individuals…and personal failures…" are trivial. I think a world without politics would be orders of magnitude better than it is now. But then Machan is not an anarchist perhaps and if so, ipso facto, more sympathetic to politics than I. He states that these are things "One may assume that therefore we will not find among what is 'wrong with the world … Or … they are all the fault of politics.'" Obviously I accept there are remaining things that are still wrongs and not all the fault of politics, and nothing I say implies otherwise. That Machan can find these two things show that "we have here [sic] provocative but annoying book" shows more about his own misreading and temperament than the book itself.
We are then told, "The author makes all kinds of general allegations against people who have worked on various issues with which he is concerned". What are these "general allegations against people"? Could this be an accusation of libel? No, "their 'arguments have been rarely clear, consistent, comprehensive, and non-moral.'" What I actually wrote was that "such arguments are rarely clear, consistent, comprehensive, and non-moral". Now, this assertion of mine was explicitly and only about the compatibility thesis (of rationality, liberty, welfare and anarchy) that the book is out to defend. I cannot see how this assertion can sanely be construed as an example of "all kinds of general allegations against people".
He continues "(We are not told why it is not paradoxical to consider this in need of rectification, given that we are offered a discussion in non-moral terms. What sense of "rectify" is being deployed here if not at least a mildly moral one - say, in terms of the ethics of scholarship?)" But the primary meaning of 'rectify' is simply to correct an error. Clearly this need not be a moral error. It might be, say, a linguistic error. Perhaps Machan has muddled this with 'rectitude' by similarity of linguistic route. (Such muddled associations of ideas seems to epitomise Machan's anti-philosophical approach.)
Machan thinks, "The eventual meat of the book, however, is worth the trouble of having to read all this self-congratulation". I am at a loss to see where Machan sees "all this self-congratulation". It reminds me of people who see bold statements as 'dogmatism'. It is entirely irrelevant to any philosophical argument in the book, of course, but Machan might trouble himself to cite one plausible example given that he appears to like making such "general allegations against people".
He continues, "The more modest task of the author, once we discount the hype, [no example quoted] is to defend 'the practical compatibility of liberty and welfare in the market' [a real quotation but without 'hype']."
Machan writes of "welfare or, which for the author is the same, subjective satisfaction." No, that is not how welfare is defined. Welfare is defined and defended as having your unimposed (or spontaneous) wants satisfied—which might not lead to subjective satisfaction. Machan might make fewer such errors if he would only oblige himself to quote accurately.
He finally gets around to asking a serious question: "Does the author manage to dispel the notion that the view being advanced is a grand tautology?" And yet he does not mention the idea that, where this particular point is relevant, the defence explicitly involves a priori argument. Does he think there is no, or no effective, difference between what is tautological and a priori? We are simply not told.
Machan mentions "Lester's claim that valuing and desiring are identical." Again, a quotation might be useful here. The reader might easily think that I claim this somewhere. I do not. I explain how values can be legitimately and innocuously interpreted as a special kind of desire (for the purpose of subjecting them to economic analysis). That is not to say they are identical with desires as such any more that saying that all cats are mammals is saying that all mammals are cats. I can see how someone without philosophical experience might form Machan's impression on a quick read of the section in question. What is Machan's excuse? As Machan then states his own fairly conventional views without addressing my arguments, which criticise such views, I can make no useful reply other than citing the arguments he ignores. When he actually writes that a "desire is more guttural than a value", I shall charitably suppose that there is some further linguistic confusion among 'guttural', 'guts' and 'visceral' rather than that he thinks all desires relate to the throat in some way.
In the book I follow many philosophers, not least David Hume, in defending the compatibilist view of freewill: that freewill is not inconsistent with determinism (and, indeed, seems to presuppose it). In truth, I have some limited sympathy for indeterminism at the quantum level, but as far as I can see that only allows for some randomness rather than radical "free will" in the self-determining sense that escapes both determinism and randomness. So I follow the common usage of "free will" as not being compelled by others, as Machan correctly sees. But it is not I who "places such significance on the idea of initiated force", as Machan states. I go to some length to explain why 'force' or 'coercion' needs to be replaced by the idea of imposed costs (or proactive impositions) when defining libertarianism. This, typically sloppy, Machanical slip aside, how do I answer Machan's: "where is the creative capacity of human beings which enables them to take the initiative?" As I implied, I do not think we can escape determinism, possibly with some quantum randomness, even in our brains. But this does not mean that we cannot have our own ideas about what we want to do, and have creative ideas through our conscious interaction with Karl Popper's World Three of memes. Machan does not offer any argument for how actions can be initiated outside of both causality and randomness. Natural events can indeed restrict our 'freedom' (or capacities, as I mention in the book) but that is not the interpersonal sense of liberty that I am addressing. And the reason that a "crime" (a serious proactive imposition, in my terms) is "significantly different from some natural impediment" (as Machan puts it) is, to give Hume's answer, that it is a result of our decision, albeit determined, rooted in our personality and character. Such decisions can be affected by whether they are allowed or whether, say, restitution from the imposer to the imposed-on party will be enforced. These appear to presuppose some predictable deterministic framework of what a person is. By contrast, there is no point in making people liable for their mere bodily movements when these are affected by genuinely unforeseeable external accidents. Intelligent responses to Hume might be possible, but it is not my job here to pose them and respond to them.
Of an apriori (Austrian) sense of "self interest"' in economics that I explain and defend, Machan again totally fails to address my arguments and merely restates his own, trite common sense, position. It is as though he skims the words with just enough attention to spot the apparent topic, and then launches into his own manifesto. This is superficial, boring and, ironically, egregiously arrogant. He appears to think that I have defended psychological egoism and so proceeds to attack this theory. But I spend some time criticising the idea myself, while showing how altruism is compatible with Austrian 'self-interest': in short, as these are interests of the self not necessarily interests in the self.
I similarly argue how it is useful and innocuous to treat various kinds of "positive dispositions" (as Machan calls them, continuing: "wanting, wishing, desiring, intending or having as one's purpose, for example") as kinds of preferences. Machan again objects by trotting out his pet view without bothering to show exactly where my argument errs. He suggests that: "One may, for example, prefer to laugh at a funeral yet despite this does not want to do so, having judged it callous." If one judges it callous, and so does not laugh, then surely one's overall preference is not to laugh. He seems to be using 'preference' to mean something like 'initial inclination'. But that is clearly not the sense I am defending. His common-sense approach continues with the bald assertion, "Preferences are overridden a lot, as are desires, wishes and so forth." But he utterly fails to explain how this is not an example of doing what one most prefers to do under the circumstances, which is what I am there defending. I make it quite plain, it seems to me, that I am not talking about a "simple preference" in his apparent 'inclination' sense of that expression.
Machan continues that it "is perhaps this that renders Lester tone deaf to morality, failing to appreciate how we can act because we let simple preferences as opposed to considered judgments have their way with us." I write quite a lot about morality in Escape From Leviathan. It is all, what is sometimes called, meta-ethics because my thesis is on the objective congruence of liberty, welfare and private-property anarchy (rather than arguing about what is morally preferable). As usual, none of this is cited or faulted. Machan simply contradicts it all by a gesture towards his own view. And this is so jejunely expressed that it is far from clear that it is really inconsistent with what he is dismissing. I explicitly allow that our momentary preferences might get the better of our more considered judgements. But I argue that such things are what we most preferred to do at the time and that they did not appear wrong to us at the time. Hence they do not escape 'rationality' in either the economic or the argumentative senses.
The book explicitly offers a new theory of (libertarian) interpersonal liberty as the "absence of [proactively] imposed costs" and tries to show how this solves various problems and paradoxes that arise with normal libertarian accounts. Machan says of this, without bothering to mention the exact theory or explaining his objections, "I do not think we have here anything terribly novel". Well, it is supposed to be an interpretation of the libertarian conception of liberty, rather than something wholly novel. But how many explicit theories of libertarian liberty does Machan know of? I list a few of the somewhat vague ones and explain what is wrong with them and why mine differs. He continues that there is "certainly nothing that does not face its own share of difficult problems - e.g., with the ideas of initiated force and voluntariness, neither explored much where it should have been." Of course this theory is full of "its own share of difficult problems", which seems to concede that it is a separate and novel theory (or how could they be "its own"?). I spend some time dealing with possible problems with the basic theory before moving on to confront it with all the standard problems. What does Machan expect? A simple and unproblematic account of liberty that causes everyone to kick himself for not having spotted it before? And what exactly (this is supposed to be philosophy Professor Machan) are the problems "with the ideas of initiated force and voluntariness, neither explored much where it should have been"? For one thing, my conception of liberty is about the absence of initiated impositions (which I explore ad nauseum, I fear) and explicitly not "initiated force" (which I explain is a hopeless characterisation of what libertarians are against). I do say some things about voluntariness. How are they problematic? Perhaps Machan has some interesting problems concerning this, at least, but I am not a mind reader.
Machan moans, irrelevantly even if it were accurate, that my "boastfulness about the break through [sic] work of in [sic] this book is not justified [sic]". Now, where is all this "boastfulness"? Where is "break through work" ('break-through work'?) in my text, or anything similar? (I notice that one reviewer uses that expression in reference to the book. And there is also some minuscule publisher's blurb on the inside flap of the dust jacket that finally mentions "ground-breaking work". Like most people, I take such things with a pinch of salt. But perhaps this is the main 'boast' that has piqued Machan's professional jealousy.) I also explain at length that I am not a justificationist.
Professor Machan's disdain in ignoring what is actually written in the book and citing his own views throughout is a rather better example of arrogance. At least I do my intellectual opponents the courtesy of quoting them (hopefully more accurately than Machan does me, where he bothers to do so at all) and trying to deal with what they actually say (however mistaken, which possibility I non-boastfully admit in the book itself [e.g., 41], I might at times be). The "infelicities" that Machan supposedly finds in the entirety of Escape From Leviathan appear to pall beside the magnitude of those that Machan really manages to cram into an extremely short review. Consider his penultimate snide remark that my anarchist views are "not altogether original". It would, surely, be difficult to be "altogether original" on such a well-discussed topic. I do not, in any case, make any such claim. I am more interested in putting forward the right answer than being original. Neither do I spend much time on anarchy, as such, outside of making a few philosophical points. Could Machan not come up with a single explicit criticism of something I actually wrote about anarchy, or a single serious philosophical problem about anarchy that I failed to address?
Finally, Machan complains of the "idea of human motivation, which animates so much of [my] work" (and gives an unreferenced quotation from Ronald Coase that I "might benefit from considering"). But no such "idea of human motivation" is advocated in my work. There are, rather, many a priori arguments about what it means for an agent to choose something irrespective of its species. I explicitly say this is not about being human. But why bother to pay any attention to what the author actually wrote when you already know all the answers and are simply looking for another platform on which to sound off while rubbishing the upstart's work? Machan might benefit from considering a point made by Friedrich Hegel,
"The easiest thing of all is to pass judgments on what has a solid substantial content; it is more difficult to grasp it, and most of all difficult to do both together and produce the systematic exposition of it." The Phenomenology of Mind (Preface, section 3).
Or if he prefers to read his own favourite writer:
"For my money this kind of assertion by a philosopher is disappointing and, indeed, may encourage a bad reputation for philosophy. Where does a philosopher come off asserting something for which no argument or evidence is provided?" (Tibor R. Machan, Letter to The Philosophers' Magazine. Issue 16; Autumn 2001.)
J. C. Lester (September, 2001)
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