This book probably represents a landmark in the literature of liberalism on two counts. One is the 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 marginalised in the mainstream of philosophy because his theory of conjectural objective knowledge is completely out of step with the theories of justified belief which preoccupy the academic professionals.
William W Bartley (1935-1990), along with Gerard Radnitzky, was one of the first to see the potential for a merger of Popper’s ideas with Hayekian liberalism (though it should be remembered 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 authorised biographies of both Popper and Hayek. In this book Jan Lester provides a brief critique of some of Popper’s political principles and with this understood it is possible to move on to appreciate the value of other aspects of his thought, as Lester has done.
His 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 his terms are to be understood roughly. Lester has quite deliberately avoided the kind of conceptual analysis, the teasing out of the meaning of terms, that Popper has labelled “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 party 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 the light of the evidence and arguments that are available up to date. He does not attempt the impossible, namely 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 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. Some reader has described this as a “set them up and knock them down” method, to which he 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 counter-arguments”.
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 travellers with libertarianism like myself (prior to reading this book) who have agonised 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 neighbouring tribes, one which condemns the eating of any animals without hearts, the other condemning 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 have either 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, after the Introduction are four chapters; Rationality, Liberty, Welfare and Anarchy. Each chapter is tightly organised and packed with arguments which are crisply presented and so 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 organisation. Lester’s theory of rationality has to reconcile two extreme views in economics – the neglected subjective, a priori approach (as in Menger and the Austrians) and the standard objective, empirical account. He adopts the theory that agents are self-interested utility-maximisers 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-maximiser is not vitiated, for analytical purposes or for economic theory, by the fact 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, that utility cannot be interpreted in terms of a single motive or goal.
So far as economic theory is concerned he 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 minimisation of imposed costs. This means avoiding or minimising 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. This is the longest chapter and 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 from application to cases and problems, not by extended definition of the terms used to state them. 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 minimisation of costs where 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 he enjoyed a high profile as a rare instance of a classical liberal Oxford don. Lately he 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” (quoted on page 143). This is a supposed to be something like a knockout blow, but Lester points out that no doctrine can achieve conclusive justification and so the blow simply misses the target. Lester also responds to Gray’s charge of “restrictivism”, directed at liberals on the ground that they (along with other restrictivists) do not accept that freedom is “an essentially contested concept”, and they “endorse naïve and superseded positions in the philosophy of mind and action and in the theory of our knowledge of the social world” (quoted on page 124).
In response, Lester accuses Gray of “conflationism”, that is, importing a raft of contentious theories from elsewhere (psychology, hermeneutics, epistemology) to muddle and confuse the issues, at the same time appealing to various authorities and ultimately overriding interpersonal liberty in favour 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” (quoted on page 128). Lester argues convincingly that these objections do not undermine the argument of this book, any more than the lack of conclusive justification. In view of the sharp rejoinder that Lester has administered, it is interesting to read the comment from Gray 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 that they cannot be libertarians because of all the poor people who need assistance. Actually support for deserving poor people could be provided by a VWA (Voluntary Welfare Association), 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 some socialists but they are not enthused because they think that the rich would be too mean to contribute. This view is amply refuted by the evidence of charitable donation, especially the way that donations increase when taxes are lowered.
We come to Lester’s chapter on welfare after 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, then he clarifies the conception of “want-satisfaction welfare”, followed by discussion of some practical and economic implications of this concept, then 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 favours 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 p 161) and takes “a remarkably narrow view of being a person” (p 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” (p 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 maximise 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)” (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, 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 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” (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 explicjt consent of a majority to this state of affairs is not acceptable to a libertarian. He suggests that the reality of this situation 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” (p 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 depoliticised 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 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). 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” (page 204).
Lester concludes with some optimistic remarks on the intellectual resurgence of private-property ideas in recent years. Escape from Leviathan an inspiring contribution to this movement and his replies to major figures such as Gray, Rawls and Sen should exert a decisive effect in future debates in 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 which can be thrown aside after a few paragraphs or even on the basis of the dust jacket blurb where fundamentally unsustainable premises are expressed.
Some comments on the book as an artifact. It is attractively produced with a striking cover design, excellent binding, a highly readable font and attractive layout. Numbered subheadings help the reader to keep track of the very intricate construction of each chapter. The main text runs to 204 pages followed by over 200 notes, before the bibliography and the index. The bibliography is comprehensive but not overwhelming.
Afterthoughts: 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.
People tend to be hostages to the first ideas that they take on board, altered on occasion by shifts of allegiance which 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 labelled this theory "justificationism" and liberals help to sustain opposition to their cause if they propagate this theory. This is explained in a review essay of his book Retreat to Commitment.
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.