ESCAPE FROM LEVIATHAN AND THE NATURE OF LIBERTY
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.
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.