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Advice To The Philosophically Perplexed: Reply To The Actual Arguments With Actual Arguments.


A response to Saladin Meckled-Garcia’s booknote on Escape From Leviathan in Political Studies (September 2001, p. 786).

In Escape From Leviathan (EFL) “Lester … is able to use the concepts and intellectual weaponry of libertarianism as effectively as the giants of the subject” according to Professor Norman Barry, someone with considerable knowledge of libertarian literature—quite a bit of it his own. But Saladin Meckled-Garcia (M-G) puts EFL’s level as “undergraduate” - without explanation - and rates it one star. While I think that undergraduates can certainly profit from reading EFL, I do not see that it is mainly at their level. M-G either has very high standards of philosophical argumentation or is simply philosophically perplexed.

It is hard to answer the charge that any libertarian thought is “implausible” when no examples or arguments are given. To attempt to defend and use relevant conceptions of rationality, liberty, welfare and anarchy is not “ingeniously redefining key terms”. Theories, not definitions, are important, as Karl Popper rightly saw and as I agreed with in the book’s introduction (3).

No argument is given as to why an apriorist theory of instrumental rationality cannot legitimately embrace “desire, value and reason for action” (as I argue it can, at length). So I can hardly reply to M-G’s apparent incredulity. As I do explain how it is possible that we need not “desire some [of our own] desires” or “value some [of our own] values” and as it is not explained why S-G finds this “perplexing” I cannot help him any further.

M-G asserts that my conception of liberty as the absence of (initiated or proactively) imposed costs “attracts obvious counterexamples”. But the only suggestion of a counterexample is his question, “is inherited debt really a lack of liberty?” If my father’s debt were somehow imposed on me (rather than merely taken out of his estate before any remaining inheritance is passed on), then that would seem to be a restriction on my liberty. If I willingly took on his business knowing it to be in debt then that would not. Where is the problem?

M-G does not understand why or how I use a non-moralized account of liberty. It is because the book is defending the objective thesis that (libertarian) liberty does not clash with overall welfare and private-property anarchy. I explain this clearly in the introduction and refer back to it throughout. Morals are a distraction from this objective claim. That is why I do not write about “say, absence of illegitimately imposed cost?” (as M-G asks). As all this is thoroughly explained it is foolish to ask, “Why seek to maximize it?  Why even care if it is compatible with welfare?” and state that “No answers are given.” It is foolish in the sense not only that that is simply not what the book is about but also in the sense that outside of the book the compatibility of these things is obviously of great moral and practical consequence (as I also explain in the introduction).

M-G also finds it a “perplexing claim that ‘what I have control over I own in a de facto sense’” and asks, “Is, even de facto, ownership ever just a question of control?” The answer is yes. If M-G had a counterargument or putative counterexample I would reply to it. His perplexity and incredulity can only hope to be sorted out if he uses actual arguments. And again, “Can one add, as Lester does, that if there is liberty, then there is ownership?” Yes one can add that. And one will be right. And I add it with arguments that M-G declines to criticise. M-G rightly states that I “cannot appeal to a normative (i.e. moralized) requirement to avoid imposing costs on others, to avoid lessening liberty, by not taking what they have made.” But why should I wish to do that? I am explaining the property consequences of applying my libertarian conception of liberty. Dragging morals or values into the argument is a irrelevant as applying them to mathematics or logic (Why add two and two? Is modus ponens moral?).

As a critical rationalist (again, M-G offers no evidence of having read or understood even the introductory chapter), I do not have any “foundational premises”, so “the value of reading this book” can hardly depend on them. This “value of reading this book” remark also appears to suggest that we should not value reading books with which we have fundamental disagreements. That is a very foolish position for a would-be thinker. On the contrary, we should seek out such books as being of especial value in challenging our beliefs, and then we should read them carefully to make sure what they are actually arguing and then attempt to formulate real arguments against them. I fear all this is alien to M-G’s current practices.

M-G concludes, “It is also worth remarking that the notion of duty, or responsibility, does not even feature in the index.” Not only is this not worth remarking it is clear evidence that M-G has not even grasped the basic thesis that the book is defending.

Even as a first-year undergraduate review, this fails.

© J C Lester, July 2002

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