Tuesday, June 27, 2006

ESCAPE FROM LEVIATHAN AND THE NATURE OF LIBERTY

I have argued in the past, that neither egalitarianism nor Rawl's "difference principle" would follow from contractarian premises.

Egalitarianism would not follow because egalitarianism says that inequalities are always wrong. Rawl's own argument against this is essentially that it is Pareto inferior: Imagine country A and country B. In country A there are vast inequalities, whilst in country B everybody is equal. However, now imagine that even the worst off group in country B is better off than anybody in country A. All else being equal, it is surely irrational to choose to live in country A rather than country B. Egalitarianism would be irrational compare to an inequality where everybody is better off than they would be under inequality.

So Rawls suggests that another principle would be opted for as part of the social contract. He says that people will choose a principle that says "inequalities are just only insofar as they benefit the worst off group." This avoids the problems of country A and country B.

However, what happens if some change to a Rawlsian society would introduce an inequality that would make some people better off, but would not benefit the worst off group. Now, when I say this is what it would do, this is all I say it would do - note that I do not say that it would make the worst off any worse off than they already were. Rawls difference principle would seem to forbid this change. But, in that case, why accept the difference principle. It is obvious that nobody would accept a principle that would make them worse off without compensation, but since this change does not do that, it only makes some better off, why reject it? Who would agree to a principle that forbids them from bettering their situation (or the situation of someone they care about) without worsening the situation of anybody else? Nobody.

So, I posit that a more plausible principle that would be chosen is that inequalities are justified so long as they do not come at the expense of others, so long as they don't worsen the situation of others. Further, I posit that as a rational principle, people should be allowed to do as they choose so long as they do not worsen others. Basically, this amounts to prohibiting Pareto worsenings, but allowing Pareto improvements.

Now, what counts as a worsening, and according to what baseline are two further questions. But what we have is a rude case for saying that people should be able to do as they choose so long as they do not impose costs on others. This principle is one that is explored thoroughly in Jan C. Lester's excellent book Escape from Leviathan: Liberty, Welfare and Anarchy Reconciled. Of course, Lester is broadly a Popperian critical rationalist, and so puts forward no case as to why we should accept the principle that we should be able to do as we choose accept impose costs on others. Instead he puts it forwards as a conjecture and then refutes criticisms of it. And in doing so, he does excellently.

However, since he gave me his book because of a discussion I got into on the Libertarian Alliance discussion list about the nature of liberty, it is on this issue that I will focus and will criticise him. My own opinion is that he shows that minimising costs leaves us with something pretty close to libertarianism, and that libertarianism is the idea that people own themselves and any previously unowned resources they appropriate, combinations they produce therewith, and whatever the receive by non-rights violating exchanges. His position, though, is that minimising costs is libertarianism; that liberty is an absence of imposed costs, and so maximising liberty is minimising costs.

So he writes,

The classical liberal, libertarian, and principal commonsense conception of interpersonal liberty is of people not having constraints imposed upon them by other people. Such liberty is here formulated as people not having a subjective cost initiated and imposed on them (that is, without their consent) by other people. Or for short, liberty is the absence of imposed cost. In the event of a mutual clash of imposed costs, observing liberty entails minimizing imposed costs.


But this is confused. I accept the first sentence whole-heartedly: "The classical liberal, libertarian, and principal commonsense conception of interpersonal liberty is of people not having constraints imposed upon them by other people." Yep. I agree, that is what liberty is about. But what does this have to do with costs? Why is "not having a subjective cost imposed on you" the same as not being constrained? It simply isn't. I can have costs place 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. But In what way have I had a constraint imposed on me? I haven't. 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.

So, both these examples show two things: You can constrain people without imposing costs on them; and you can impose costs on them without constraining them. So imposing costs is neither a necessary nor sufficient feature of constraining somebody. Given this, and given the sentence that "The classical liberal, libertarian, and principal commonsense conception of interpersonal liberty is of people not having constraints imposed upon them by other people," Lester's own conjecture, that people ought not to impose costs on each other, and where impositions conflict, we should minimise the imposed costs (and so go with the option that imposes the lower costs) quite simply is not a formulation of the "common sense" view of liberty. It is not liberty at all. Lester writes that "I am not concerned with words or the 'essence' of the concept of liberty. I have no argument with those who prefer to restrict the use of 'liberty' to some other sense, such as 'the absence of any constraint on movement'." Fine, but since an absence of constraint is what Lester has declared is the "classical liberal, libertarian, and principle commonsense" view of what liberty is, then there is sure to be some question about whether he has succeeded in his claimed task of reconciling liberty, welfare, and anarchy: What he calls liberty is not what he says classical liberals, libertarians and people with commonsense call liberty.

In fact, he admits this. Whilst claiming that his "chosen formula is intended to capture what libertarians and classical liberals require for practical purposes," he started by saying that these people view interpersonal liberty as an absence of constraint, not as his own view of an absence of imposed costs. And he also goes on to say,

One important contrast with this sense of 'liberty' is 'liberty' as a mere zero-sum game whereby any loss in my interpersonal power must be exactly balanced by an increase in the power of others: if I lose the interpersonal power to exercise free speech, then this must mean that others gain the power to keep me quiet. This position is even reached by the libertarian philosopher Hillel Steiner (1983). Such 'liberty' cannot be protected or promoted for all (specific powers can be, but not power as such); it can only be fought over by all. People sometimes seek 'liberty' in a way that entails this 'power' sense, to the detriment of people's liberty and welfare as more normally understood. Classical liberals, such as Herbert Spencer, sometimes write of equal liberty and thereby seem committed to this zero sum view...


Note, where as first Lester said that classical "The classical liberal, libertarian, and principal commonsense conception of interpersonal liberty is of people not having constraints imposed upon them by other people," he then said that it was in fact the libertarian or classical liberal view that his own distinct and completely different "chosen formula is intended to capture what libertarians and classical liberals require for practical purposes," and then he goes on to give examples of classical liberals and libertarians (Spencer and Steiner - one can add others, such as Benjamin Tucker, who also held an "equal liberty" view" following Spencer) that do not hold his view. On the contrary, theirs is closer to the "absence of constraint" view that he first says libertarians do support and then says that they don't. This is Steiner's point, that if I am free to act, then I have actual or subjunctive possession of the necessary physical components of an action. If I lack such possession, I am not free to perform that act. And if I lack such possession, other people do not. Therefore other people's freedom to perform certain actions implies my unfreedom to perform other actions: Their actions constrain mine, and mine theirs, so if mine are unconstrained, theirs are constrained, and if mine are constrained, theirs aren't.

So,

1: It is possible to impose constraints without imposing costs, and impose costs without imposing constraints, so imposing costs is neither necessary nor sufficient to imposing constraints; meaning that "liberty is the absence of imposed cost... observing liberty entails minimizing imposed costs" is not a formulation of "The classical liberal, libertarian, and principal commonsense conception of interpersonal liberty [as] people not having constraints imposed upon them by other people."

2: Given this, and given the evidence that Lester himself provides, libertarians and classical liberals do not think of liberty in terms of an absence of imposed costs, and think of maximising liberty as minimising imposed costs.

3: The zero-sum view that Lester rejects is closer to the "absence of constraints imposed by other people" view that libertarians, classical liberals, and people bestowed with commonsense, he says, accept.

Neither does the zero-sum view necessarily entail fighting over freedom. It may be, for instance, that there is a particular distribution, or original distribution, of freedom that it would be rational for everybody to agree to. That would be a contractarian method of distributing freedom.

10 Comments:

Anonymous Julius Blumfeld said...

I addressed this point (albeit with less rigour than you!) in my Amazon.co.uk review:

"Lester's definition of liberty is one that does not always fit comfortably with the meaning that most libertarians would attach to it. Lester treats liberty as being infringed by the imposition of unconsented costs. But by this measure, my liberty is infringed by a careless driver who damages my bumper. One should not be over-concerned by matters of definition, but it is surely stretching matters rather to describe the damage to my bumper as a loss of liberty!"

Lester kindly responded to my review:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/0312234163/202-7671888-2030251?v=glance&n=266239

Essentially his point on this point is that the more usual conception of liberty as the absence of constraint, assumes ownership; whereas Lester's conception is pre-propertarian and enables ownership to be derived.

I think he is probably right, although these are certainly deep waters !

Julius

4:45 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

I'm not sure why an absence of constraint view of liberty assumes ownership. After all, if somebody stops me from taking their property, then they are constraining my actions, and therefore reducing my freedom. So being able to act, that is being unconstrained in my actions, does not assume that I have any claim to the physical components of that action.

Of course many libertarians (especially, eg. Nozick, or Rothbard) may think either that immoral actions don't count as actions, essentially, that liberty encompasses only moral actions, so that a restriction on an immoral action is not loss of liberty; or that moral constraints don't actually count as constraints, so that if I am morally preventing you from acting (think, perhaps, of Nozick's argument about the people marrying each other) that does not count as a loss of liberty for you. In this case ownership may be assumed. But these are obviously impure forms of the "absence of constraint" argument, so it wouldn't follow from this that an absence of constraint approach necessarily implies ownership.

Other approaches may try to reduce the types of actions that count under liberty by the value of those actions. So they can say that preventing somebody from performing an action that nobody would want to perform anyway would not count as a loss of liberty. The obvious response to this is that it confuses two questions: "what is it to be free," and "what freedoms matter." The latter is an interesting question, but we shouldn't assume that it determines the answer to the former.

Just as classificatory point, Lester is attempting to deduce property from liberty, where as an absence of constraint approach may look upon property as distributions of freedom, legitimate claims to certain amounts of freedom. The advantage of the latter approach is that its defenders don't face any problems when someone points out that enforcing property right means stopping people from doing things, and so rendering them unfree to do those things. They can just respond, "sure, but the question is whether you had a right to do those things, or not, whether you have a right to be free in that regard." I suspect that any deviation from this may either end up with a moralised account of liberty or constraints, or a value-based one as described above.

11:15 PM  
Anonymous JCL said...

Hi Richard,

Paul just drew my attention to your blog on EFL. I should be happy to reply, both on your blog and on the LA website. Would you mind if we put a copy of your article on the LA website too? It makes it easier for people as well as ensuring that the original article does not get lost (as has happened with some of the articles to which I have replied). However, you might wish to run a spell-check before submitting the finished piece. Spelling is ultimately trivial but "leviathon", for instance, may distract people from paying proper attention to your arguments.

Jan

10:34 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

Hi Jan, sure, I would be happy to have the article placed on the LA website. I will clear up the spelling (I was kicking myself when I saw the spelling mistakes after I posted it!)

4:07 PM  
Anonymous JCL said...

Hi Richard, good. Maybe email me the copy you want to use. And don't miss "Rawl's".

4:58 PM  
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6:43 AM  
Anonymous Scott Arthur Edwards said...

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1:39 PM  
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4:03 PM  
Anonymous jcl said...

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 running 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.1 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 you 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,2 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.3

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)

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

2. 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.

3. 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.

2:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Painful little polka dots on your bod lately?

8:16 AM  

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