A reply to James R. Otteson's review of Escape From Leviathan, in The Independent Review, Vol. 6, No. 1.
I thank Professor Otteson for his review of my Escape From Leviathan (Macmillan/St. Martins, 2000). His exposition of what I wrote is, for the most part, refreshingly accurate. I shall here do my best to reply to his welcome criticisms, ignoring our various points of agreement and his generous praise.
Our main source of disagreement is soon stated: "Lester does not argue for his position; rather, he argues that the most likely objections to it fail. This tactic gives the book a somewhat unpleasantly defensive tone, and, more significantly, it limits the ultimate persuasiveness of the book's central thesis." First, I also argue that many obscure objections (some of my own devising) to the compatibility thesis fail. More important is that we have here a fundamental disagreement about epistemology. Where Otteson sees "a somewhat unpleasantly defensive tone" I see an honest attempt to deal with real criticisms rather than an attempt at an impossible justification. Much of what I wrote could, in any case, be recast in 'justificationist' terms with critics not mentioned. No doubt that would then be interpreted as a 'justification' or 'arguments for' by those thus minded. I note that a recent attempt by Otteson explicitly to put "the case for" libertarianism is in reality an attempt to refute his colleague's rejection of libertarianism by showing that they already have strong moral sentiments that are libertarian. Thus it is a highly specific reductio of, or at least anomaly for, their rejection. It is not an overall 'argument for' the truth or desirability of libertarianism (I do not see how such a free-standing demonstration is possible). ("Philosophy 1 On 1", James R. Otteson reprinted from The Freeman, a publication of The Foundation for Economic Education, Inc., March 1999, Vol. 49, No. 3.)
After giving an admirable exposition of my critical-rationalist approach to libertarianism, Otteson writes, "The question nevertheless remains, however: What grounds will Lester's arguments have provided for actually believing in his thesis?" I did not know whether to laugh or cry. You cannot provide grounds for believing in a thesis. Finite—and conjectural, to boot—grounds logically cannot support a universal thesis. That is the whole point. But single instances, if true, can logically refute. If Otteson thinks that critical rationalism is wrong then he needs to come up with a better 'criticism' than that it leaves us without grounds for our theses. That is like saying that an experiment purporting to refute the presence of universal ether simply fails to explain how the ether behaves.
He continues that, "Lester's project is incomplete (this book should be volume 2, the systematic exposition and defense of his thesis having appeared in volume 1)." Now this is, again, very odd. Surely what I have written is an exposition and defence of my thesis. Admittedly, in order to be more pertinent, most of my exposition occurs in defending the thesis from criticisms. To attempt an exposition and defence is clearly not necessarily to attempt to provide grounds for a thesis. To defend a conjectural balloon from the arrows of criticism is not itself to attempt to prop up the balloon in any way. The problem is partly that justificationists simply do not know what they themselves mean by supporting or grounding a theory. They mainly have a knee-jerk aversion to an "unpleasantly defensive tone" preferring the empty triumphalism of a supposed QED justification.
Otteson is right when he says that "[Lester] understands cost as a loss of something that a person wants; thus, it is subjective and therefore not liable to obvious objections to attempts at objective measurement." But he is not quite right when he continues, "This criterion answers the Friedmanian problems by creating the possibility of morally allowed infringements. There is no rights violation, for example, that cannot be allowed at all...." To stick to the objective nature of my thesis, I avoid talk of what is "morally allowable" and "rights violation". Rather, to minimise (proactive) impositions when there is an inevitable clash is to maximise liberty. And I fail to see why the "danger with this strategy is that on Lester's view some actions will actually be required at which a property-rights absolutist will balk..." given that to follow them is to impose to a greater degree on the other party (and so lessen overall liberty).
Just in case there be any misunderstanding (I cannot be entirely sure what Otteson is saying I say on the relevant point in his review; and I own that my own dense argument in the book might be the culprit), I am arguing that "minimizing imposed cost" captures the conception of libertarian policy in an objective way. Not that this is the essence of 'liberty' as such or that this formula is supposed to be used to somehow adjudicate among various conceptions of liberty or other desiderata. When I say, "liberty admits of degrees" I mean only that in inevitable clashes of the absence-of-imposed-cost conception we can still minimise any such impositions. Not that we are looking at clashes among various conceptions.
Otteson is conflating various things when he says that, "Lester calls his position 'contingently deontological libertarianism' (p. 57), by which he means that if liberty is to be maximized (for whatever reason), the rule of minimizing imposed cost avoids the difficulties other views face and seems to fit better with what most people mean by the term liberty anyway." I call my general libertarian position 'critical-rationalist libertarianism', seeing the book as one aspect of this, as opposed to natural rights, utilitarian or contractarian schools of libertarianism. What I mean by "contingently deontological libertarianism" is only that no one should (in a non-moral, instrumental sense of 'should') infringe liberty even to attempt to maximise overall liberty, or utility, because it will not work. This is a form of rule consequentialism that is supposed to get around the paradoxes, as I perceive them, of strict deontological libertarianism even when liberty declines overall (a problem Nozick raises but does not solve, I argue). It is true, however, that I am arguing throughout hypothetically about the consequences of maximising liberty and not advocating it (hence my defence remains objective or non-moral). And, separately, that I argue that "the rule of minimizing imposed cost avoids the difficulties other views face". And, again separately, that my absence-of-imposed-cost conception "seems to fit better with what most people mean by the term liberty [in its interpersonal sense, at least] anyway".
On Otteson's remarks about interpersonal utility comparisons (IUCs), I should just like to emphasise the redutio approach that I am taking. I do not mean a redutio of IUCs but, rather, of the idea that welfarism supposedly obviously leads to political redistribution and interventions of various sorts. I argue that even if we allow that general IUCs are possible in an approximate way, there are better general arguments that libertarianism (including the market, charity and personal liberty) gives us more of what we want (i.e., welfare, as I defend it). To reject IUCs totally leaves libertarians in a very weak rhetorical position. What is the point of a 'liberty' that libertarians do not even deny can destroy general welfare? And it appears perverse to withhold judgement on which of two societies is better off when, say, one is quite immiserated and the other quite affluent.
When we are told that "In the end, the principal value of Lester's book is as something like a catalog of arguments defending libertarian or anarchistic political thought against various detractors and their objections", that is, of course, the best that I think anyone can do. No doubt it is true that "Not all of the defenses work, and in a few cases Lester's dismissals are too hasty..." (especially given the number and tentative nature of many of the defences). But if only Otteson had given some real examples I would have been happy to respond to them in more detail and so further the debate, perhaps.
Otteson's penultimate sentence returns to the main issue between us: "I remain disappointed that he did not undertake to defend his own thesis directly, and I hope that in the future he will relax his commitment to Popperian epistemology and undertake such a defense." Again, I am flummoxed. What is it to "undertake to defend [my] own thesis directly" but to reply to the best or typical criticisms that I can find? Popperian epistemology just is about undertaking such defences from attacks. Does Otteson think that a defence that does not mention criticisms but only puts 'arguments in favour' is somehow a 'defence' that is really a 'justification'—and so better or, at least, also needed? If Otteson could explain to me how positive instances and 'arguments for' can genuinely defend a thesis from a single sound refutation (and hope to silence critics when we are refusing to answer their specific criticisms), then I should take his advice. On a final note, I should like to re-emphasise the extent to which any critical-rationalist approach could be re-written to disguise its true nature and be presented as so-called 'arguments for' or a 'justification.' (By analogy, imagine two scientists with identical theories and evidence. The critical-rationalist scientist presents his theory as a conjecture that he has tested in various ways and asks for further testing. The inductivist scientist presents his theory has having been demonstrated as '[probably] true' though it is 'grounded' on the self-same evidence.) Such a disguise would not be honest and it would risk discouraging people from formulating new criticisms, and new conjectures, or taking them seriously: why bother with criticism when the truth has been 'demonstrated' for all those with the wit to understand?
J. C. Lester (October 2001)
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