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Reply to Richard Garner


EXPLAINING THE FIRST THING ABOUT LIBERTARIANISM. A reply to “ESCAPE FROM LEVIATHAN AND THE NATURE OF LIBERTY” by Richard Garner (June 27, 2006). http://www.richardgarnerlib.blogspot.com/

Richard Garner offers criticism from a particularly interesting point of view, which we might call the zero-sum conception of social liberty: where conflicting actions are possible, whatever one person has the liberty to do is exactly matched by the lack of liberty of others to constrain him (the potential murder victim restricts the liberty of the would-be murderer merely by runnias ng away from him). What is so interesting is that for a ‘libertarian’ to hold this view is for him to fail to understand both the first thing about libertarianism, or classical liberalism, and the inevitably illiberal consequences of this proffered alternative. I should say immediately that libertarian holders of this view often understand the second to the myriadth thing about libertarianism. So it is a bit of a mystery why they take the position that they do. My best guess is that, unlike many libertarians, they are astute enough to see that they cannot make clear sense of the normal conception (indeed, as far as I can tell, no one fully did before I solved this problem as part of my PhD) but they are strongly attracted to the idea (somewhat politically correct, I fear) of people having valuable opportunities. I shall elaborate on these points as I go through Garner’s article.

I can’t entirely see why there is a preamble on Rawls, despite the eventual ‘imposed cost’ link between it and my libertarian theory, but I am inclined to agree with what is written (though he gets his ‘A’ and ‘B’ countries muddled the second two times). When Garner arrives at my conception of liberty he is less precise than he needs to be, although that may partly be due to my own ubiquitous shorthand version of the conception in Escape from Leviathan.[i] My position is usually expressed along the lines that, as Garner puts it, “minimising costs is libertarianism; that liberty is an absence of imposed costs, and so maximising liberty is minimising costs.” To be more exact, however, my position is about “initiated” imposed costs (which word appears in the very first quotation of me by Garner) or proactively imposed costs (as I have also taken to using since the book was published). The initiated or proactive aspect is crucial and makes things much clearer, as we shall see.

Garner heartily endorses my sentence, “The classical liberal, libertarian, and principal commonsense conception of interpersonal liberty is of people not having constraints imposed upon them by other people.” He can endorse this precisely because it omits to mention the initiated or proactive aspect of those imposed constraints. Had I had the zero-sum alternative in mind at the time I was writing that, I might have been more careful and included the missing word. For the first thing to understand about libertarianism is that it is about—to adopt just one possible, non-moralised, form of words—not having people initiate unwanted interventions on other people or their property (assuming that these people and their property are not themselves involved in initiated unwanted interventions). To react to an initiated unwanted intervention in order to prevent it or rectify it is not itself to initiate an unwanted intervention. “But what does this have to do with costs?” Garner goes on to ask. We need a more precise conception of the relevant type of imposition, is my answer. “Why is ‘not having a subjective cost [proactively] imposed on you’ the same as not being [illiberally] constrained?” It is a conceptual unpacking of the relevant conception of being ‘constrained’, as we shall see.

Garner argues that, “I can have costs place[d] on me without there being constraints placed on me. For instance, if I am deeply opposed to the colour blue, and you come along wearing a blue shirt, then I have had a cost imposed on me.” Perhaps I ought to mention first that there is a distinction between pre-propertarian and propertarian applications of my theory of liberty. However, we can probably best assume here that, as the example suggests, we have passed the stage of deriving self-ownership and private property from liberty. Now, if the owner of the property in question allows blue shirts, then you chose to accept that dread possibility when you entered the property. You have had no cost proactively imposed on you when a blue shirt enters your view. This is despite the fact that the blue shirt is indeed a cost, as opposed to a benefit, to you. Not all costs are proactively imposed costs.

Garner continues, “Likewise, I can have constraints imposed upon me without having costs imposed on me. For instance, suppose that I am sitting in a room I have no intention of leaving, and, unbeknownst to me, someone comes along and locks the door, and then opens it an hour later. During that time, I was constrained to stay in that room (assume it had no other exit), prevented and unfree to leave it. This fact imposed no cost on me, though.” To be locked into a room is a constraint, to be sure. And if the person who did it had no libertarian right to do so, then it is also a initiated imposed cost assuming (as seems likely) that you would not have agreed to have this done to you, simply because you would have wished to be able to leave in the event that you made that choice. Similarly, someone both constrains you and, thereby, proactively imposes costs on you if he borrows money from your wallet but returns it before you require it, or if he borrows batteries from your smoke alarm in case he wishes to use them but returns them without using them before there is any fire in your house. In each case the proactively imposed cost is a risk at your expense.

Thus initiated/proactively imposed costs are necessary and sufficient features of illiberal constraints. They usefully clarify the liberal and dominant commonsense conception of interpersonal or social liberty and so enable us to deal with diverse cases much more precisely. Of course, most people will not recognise or understand this more precise formulation as their sense but it is entailed by their general conception. Steiner, Spencer and Tucker also require this conception. If they really are in the muddled minority of zero-sumers (for it seems quite possible that certain expressions Spencer and Tucker use falsely give this impression) then, like Garner, they have not understood that being against initiated constraints just is this basic interpersonal conception of liberty.

Therefore, in response to Garner’s final three points, 

1. It is not possible to initiate constraints (in the relevant sense) without also proactively imposing costs (in the relevant sense), or proactively impose costs without initiating constraints. So proactively imposing costs is necessary and sufficient to initiating constraints; meaning that ‘liberty is the absence of proactively imposed costs and observing liberty entails minimizing proactively imposed costs’ is a formulation of the classical liberal, libertarian and principal commonsense conception of interpersonal liberty as people not having constraints initiated upon them by other people.

2. I never asserted that libertarians and classical liberals (prior to reading my book or earlier article,[ii] at least) explicitly think of liberty in terms of an absence of proactively imposed costs and think of maximising liberty as minimising proactively imposed costs.

3. The zero-sum view that I reject is inconsistent with the ‘absence of proactively imposed costs’ view entailed and thereby, prima facie, implicitly held by libertarians, classical liberals and those with the dominant commonsense view of interpersonal liberty.[iii]

If one embraces zero-sum liberty instead, one can only apply it practically in a way that sets up conflicts among people. Garner’s contractarianism is unlikely to get us out of this. In principle, one can do anything to people as long as they would ‘theoretically’ (depending on who is theorizing here) contract into that possibility. If the state forces people not to smoke in private clubs, or to carry identity cards, or to pay onerous tax-extortion, then they are not conceptually allowed to complain that just such things are real restrictions on liberty. For all social rules must allow zero-sum liberty (the ‘liberty’ to enjoy smoke-free clubs everywhere, to check people’s identity, to receive money from taxes) just as much as they limit it: there is no line that it is inherently ‘unlibertarian’ to cross. Thus this zero-sum liberty is a gift to politically correct welfare-statists. Such things as promoting valuable opportunities must be debated instead. Although I think we win on those grounds as well, it does not help our case if we are not allowed to use the crucial liberal idea of liberty as not having to suffer initiated constraints by other people (i.e., not being proactively imposed on by them) and argue that flouting just such liberty is overwhelmingly what destroys valuable opportunities.

J. C. Lester (July 2006)

[i] J C Lester, Escape from Leviathan: Liberty, Welfare and Anarchy Reconciled, Macmillan/St Martin's Press, 2000. 

[ii] J C Lester. 1997. ‘Liberty as the Absence of Imposed Cost: The Libertarian Conception of Interpersonal Liberty.’ Journal Of Applied Philosophy 14:3:277–288. 

[iii] Strictly, we do not always hold the consequences of the views we explicitly hold (communists do not want mass famine, though it would be a consequence of abolishing money) but here the two formulations are held to be equivalent.


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