[Reference] Book Reviews – Journal of Applied Philosophy (Libertarianism)

Book Reviews 75
Journal of Applied Philosophy, Vol. 19, No. 1, 2002
Book Reviews
© Society for Applied Philosophy, 2002

Escape From Leviathan: Liberty, Welfare and Anarchy Reconciled
J. C. Lester, 2000
London, Macmillan,
xi + 246 pp., £40.00 (hb)

The Origins of Left-Libertarianism: An Anthology of Historical Writings
Peter Vallentyne and Hillel Steiner, (eds), 2000
Houndmills, Palgrave,
ix + 236 pp., £40.00 (hb)

Left-Libertarianism and Its Critics: The Contemporary Debate
Peter Vallentyne and Hillel Steiner, (eds), 2000
Houndmills, Palgrave,
vii + 398 pp., £47.50 (hb)

When I began my undergraduate studies in political science at William Paterson University, I was introduced to the rich tradition of left-libertarianism — or we might also call it ‘libertarian socialism’ or ‘left-anarchism’ — by Stephen R. Shalom. Like so many others, I was quite taken by the writings of Noam Chomsky, Daniel Guerin, and Emma Goldman, in addition to Shalom. Shortly after commencing postgraduate studies I ‘defected’ to left-Hegelianism, although my strong sympathies for left-libertarianism have remained.

It is in this light that I was quite pleased to be a witness to what might be a renaissance of libertarian thought, amidst the tidal wave of scholarship concerning Hegel’s political philosophy. While J. C. Lester’s conservatism runs counter to my socialist disposition, I at first embraced all three with the hope that there might be some new reconstruction of libertarianism to be found within that might lure me back to itstradition. I regret to say that I was rather disappointed by each of the volumes I examined. Whenever one thinks about the most important left-wing and right-wing libertarians, there are several names that immediately come to mind: Murray Bookchin, Chomsky, Sam Dolgoff, Goldman, Guerin, F. A. Hayek, Peter Kropotkin, Rosa Luxembourg, Robert Nozick, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard, Robert Paul

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Wolff, and George Woodcock, and ‘the three Mikhail’s’: Bakhtin, Bakunin, and Bukarin. There are also important minor figures such as Michael Albert, Ulrike Heider, George Orwell, Leonard Peikoff, and Leo Tolstoy. Of these twenty-two most important figures of libertarianism, only two receive any attention at all in Vallentyne and Steiner’s collection: Nozick and Rothbard, both in the second volume. It is a quite telling fact that Heider’s much heralded work detailing all major figures of anarcho-libertarianism ‘left, right, and green’ has only Rothbard in common with Vallentyne and Steiner’s collection [1].

I will offer a few descriptive words detailing the contents of the two volumes and its organization. In the first volume, Vallentyne and Steiner concentrate on whom they deem to be the so-called ‘founding fathers’ of left-libertarianism: Grotius, Locke, Mill, and Pufendorf, amongst many others. The essays enclosed are of irregular length — some as short as two pages with others as long as twenty-four pages — listed in chronological order. Each is prefaced by a brief introductory blurb written by the editors.

For the first volume, Vallentyne and Steiner focus exclusively on the concept of property, although it is at times unclear how some of the authors have contributed to the left-libertarian cause. For example, if we look at only Vallentyne and Steiner’s descriptions of the first three selections, we learn that

(α) Grotius and Pufendorf — in extremely brief passages — both held that natural resources are initially held in common by all human beings, with private property justifiable only under conditions of explicit collective or unanimous agreement and

(β) Locke did not require any such agreement amongst members of the community and, furthermore, he justified the ability of an ambitious and hardworking individual to accumulate a quite disproportionate sum of wealth so long as he (β1) mixes his or her labour with natural resources and (β2) leaves enough for others to acquire through their own labour [2].

Does not Locke appear to be a step backwards for left-libertarians? A similar problem arises with the chosen selections from Thomas Jefferson, François Huet, Léon Walras, and the Italian socialist Eugenio Rignano who all appear to do a much better job at making the case for a pro-capitalist (right-) libertarianism than a left-wing variant.

A potential difficulty of this first volume may be with regard to Vallentyne and Steiner’s exclusive focus on property. What might have been of greater philosophical interest is an additional view towards authority and the government’s relation to socio-political movements within the community. This would have made the collection receptive towards a possible re-examination of the Spanish Anarchists’ struggle in the 1930s against Franco, a time of much historical interest regarding the evolution of left-libertarianism and various essays with which to utilise. Sadly, this material has been left out [3]. In addition, it is quite striking to find a volume focussing on the relationshipof the evolution of left-libertarianism to the concept of property without any mention of Proudhon’s famous proclamation that property is theft.

The second volume is loosely partitioned into two parts: ‘contemporary statements of left-libertarianism’ and ‘contemporary discussion of ownership of self, natural resources and artifacts.’ With both parts we again face the problem of essays of irregular length,

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ranging from four to about twenty-five pages [4]. Ironically, in this second volume the only major libertarians of note are on the right, not the left: Nozick and Rothbard. With this second volume it must be said that the selections are choice: without much exception there are excellent essays on hand by Philippe van Parijs, Michael Otsuka, and G. A. Cohen’s well-known ‘Self-Ownership, World-Ownership, and Equality,’ parts one and two. The immediate problem here is ‘do these texts make a case for left-libertarianism?’ As Cohen surely favours a role for the government in redistributing wealth and maximizing individual’s positive freedom, it is unclear why he plays such a prominent role throughout this volume. Moreover, the second half of this volume is supposed to emphasize a ‘discussion,’ and the book’s title suggests that there is a ‘contemporary debate’ to present. Yet, if there is a battle within these pages, it is only between Cohen and Nozick: neither a left-libertarian.

I believe that Vallentyne and Steiner would have been much better off showcasing competing essays between Bakunin and Marx or, perhaps, Chomsky and Hayek. First, we would then have a debate including a major figure of left-libertarianism. Second, presenting the famous debate between Bakunin and Marx would crucially provide us with a clear delimitation between ‘left anarchism’ and ‘Marxism’ which these volumes unfortunately fail to do.

In their preface to each of the volumes, Vallentyne and Steiner make the claim that: The current search for a new and cogent ‘third way’ between socialist economic systems and laissez-faire capitalist ones parallels the quest in political philosophy for a coherent ‘third way’ between unconstrained egalitarian theories and right-libertarianism. Left-libertarianism, we believe, is the needed theory [5].

While I quite frankly doubt if left-libertarianism can be properly placed between socialism and free market capitalism, the biggest disappointment of these two volumes is their failure to convince the sympathetic reader that (α) left-libertarianism is theoretically sound and (β) realizable.

To illustrate, in Vallentyne’s introduction to the second volume he states that so long as the individual rights of others are not violated, all libertarians hold that ‘any violation of full self-ownership is unjust [6].’ Individuals are held to ‘have the right to control the use of their person [7].’ This is a problematic presupposition. For instance, suppose that a person assaults a fellow member of his community. The assailant may well have earned — via deterrent or retributive justifications — the ‘right’ to be punished by his fellow citizens. The difficulty is in deciding how executive duties reserved for the state are to be performed in a libertarian community. On what grounds do coercive bodies have authority [8]? What is the scope of these bodies to investigate potential crimes? Until proven guilty, may a suspect hamper — if not completely avoid — search and interrogations based upon the principle of libertarian-styled self-ownership?

There are many other potential concerns. Libertarians are in general agreement that for whatever minimal services a small administrative body might offer (e.g., fire prevention, maintain roadways, policing, etc.) all (adult) members of the community ought to be subjected to some kind of tax. Whom should collect this tax? While it may seem intuitive that this tax would be collected and distributed by the local government, in fact, Vallentyne states that — while he does not know just what administrative body should be collecting the tax — all he does ‘know’ is that the government ought not to

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be the tax collector, as governments ‘can’ be corrupt and grossly inefficient [9]. However, it seems to me that no matter how ‘inefficient’ some governing bodies might be, it is quite fanciful to imagine some wholly other administrative body performing a quite similar function. Moreover, as governments can sometimes be efficient, it seems quite wrong not to utilise these institutions rather than the inefficient variant.

In addition, there are a few minor, but nonetheless important, concerns as well. In the United States, any person suspected of having rabies must undergo a series of painful shots to their stomach both immediately following a particular event arousing concern and six months in the future to assure no risk of infection. If such a person were to refuse treatment, the government reserves the right to forcibly coerce the person to be treated. This wholly violates the libertarian claim to self-ownership. Or does it? If this is an instance where one’s disposition may affect the lives of others in such a way that the former may be coerced against his or her will are there other such instances? Where do we draw the line?

One walks away from these volumes with very little idea of how exactly left-libertarianism differs from Marxism, how exactly this idea of government would work practically, or why we ought to choose this form of government over modern liberalism. On the right-hand side of libertarianism we find J. C. Lester. His Escape From Leviathan begins:

There is only one thing that is seriously morally wrong with the world, andthat is politics. By ‘politics’ I mean all that, and only what, involves the state [10]. Imagine the converse: a morally superior world would be one without both a state and, therefore, politics. Do we not have ‘politics’ in other places, such as the workplace or in our family? While we may not approve of the manner by which politics is used in certain circumstances, is not the problem rather of power relationships between individuals rather than (always) state interference? In too many instances, Lester ‘solves’ his difficulty by merely redefining what is at issue to uphold his claims. This word play is repeatedly employed throughout the book.

Lester ultimately hopes to reconcile — in what he calls a ‘classical-liberal compatibility thesis’ — human liberty, human welfare, and the free market. He gives the following definitions to these three sources of concern:

in practice (rather than imaginary cases) [11] 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 [12].’

Surprisingly, in his discussion on interpersonal liberty Lester tells us that we have perfect interpersonal freedom in situations where no other person exists besides ourselves! This is due to the fact that he defines freedom as the absence of interpersonal imposed costs [13]. But what is interpersonal about this?

Welfare is ‘interpreted here as meaning that people are systematically better off to the extent that they have what they spontaneously want,’ a clear defence of welfare as want-satisfaction [14]. In other words, ‘welfare’ is about instant actualisation of immediate preferences, rather than one’s satisfactory mental and physical health. Lester

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has made welfare compatible with liberty by simply redefining welfare to resemble liberty.

In his conclusion Lester holds that ‘[p]rivate property anarchy is better than the state in the enhancement of liberty and welfare [15].’ Again, anarchy would be best if liberty is understood as the absence of all constraints and welfare is understood as best enhanced through one’s living in a state of negative freedom. In this sense, his compatibility thesis is less than remarkable and what appeared to be an ambitious project at becomes a disappointment.

One constant criticism of anarchism is that such a state of affairs would bring about lawlessness. Lester tells us not to worry about the absence of a law-enforcement body bringing about societal chaos:

Laws are enforced social rules. They can exist without the state’s encoding them or doing the enforcing…The market will provide such ‘law and order’ when that is what the overwhelming majority demand [16].

Granted, Lester holds that there must be ‘a generally libertarian culture’ which might not permit certain gross injustices towards minorities and dissenting opinions, but it is difficult to imagine that this would be the case. Post-Constant’s quite plausible characterization of modern freedom, it is implausible at best to imagine a modern theory of justice which singlehandedly caters to pure majoritarian — and tyrannical — calculus.

The route that Lester attempts to walk throughout his book — and there is noshortage of reassurances by him from cover to cover — is described as ‘nonmoral,’ but I find it difficult to take Lester seriously on this point as he admits in his introduction that I do, however, think that people have a moral right to liberty and all that follows therefrom in the subjectivist sense that I feel it immoral, in normal practice rather than in any conceivable situation, to deny them this…I see liberty as the basic social rule within which other values must fit [17].

Certainly, any position regarding the organization of human beings — or the natural environment — is a moral position with moral consequences. I do not object to an approach to politics which seeks to argue varying positions or principles apart from moral language, so long as there is a recognition that there are moral repercussions underlining the discussion. For this reason, I am not persuaded that this account is non-moral.

As a further example, Lester argues that a person cannot at the same time do what [s/he] feels no one should do. Moral values must be obeyed because if disobeyed they are, ipso facto, not held categorically [18].

Keeping in mind that this is not an explication of Kant’s categorical imperative, it is hard to accept this rule of morality. Is it not conceivable to assume, for instance, that there are men and women in our society who have had an affair without their spouses’s knowledge and/or consent who at the time of their affair were cognizant of the fact that what they were doing was wrong (in an important sense) — and they would be hurt likewise if they discovered that their spouse had been cheating on them?

In addition, I would argue that a person can tell a lie in a particular situation and know that telling that lie is an immoral act. When we lie do we not — at least

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sometimes — feel guilty about it later, if not at the time we speak it? Is not this recognition that we acted contrary to how we ought to have acted an instance of moral self-awareness? For Lester the adulterer and the liar could not cheat on his/her spouse or lie while knowing what s/he is doing is not morally correct. I believe that this is an
awkward proposition.

There are further problematic elements to his conception of liberty, most notably Lester’s belief that ‘to act at all is to do what one most desires, most wants, or thinks it best to do [19].’ In particular, he holds that to lack the ability to change our effective desires, or personality, is not to lack free will…One’s will is free in the sense of ‘free from external determination’; it could never be free in the sense of ‘free of any constraint whatsoever [20].’

On this account, gluttons and smokers are to be understood as being just as ‘free’ as those who can curb their appetites and resist addiction [21]. More troublesome is the fact that this definition would find that we have a free will despite the fact that (α) we are unable to influence or utilise this will as (β) the will is free because of the lack of external coercion. While there are numerous examples from psychology which might damage the credibility of this claim, what troubles me is part α. Hegel too noted that a free will is free and our own, free from the domination of others. In some instances, our will may be all that we possess. However, the idea that our will creates our personality and expresses our desires and that we might not have control over our personality and desires, yet have a free will, strikes me as contradictory.

Throughout, Lester has been attempting to redefine libertarianism. His account of liberty is a ‘voluntary interaction of persons rather than selfish individualism [22].’ Here we have an interesting passage where he develops this account, which I will cite in full:

How might individualism weaken family values? Allowing individuals their liberty has no such implication, and that is the only kind of individualism being defended here. That individuals have no indirect obligations to do things for the benefit of others does not entail that they will be selfish or that they cannot bind themselves contractually, such as in marriage. On the contrary, it is the dependency state [i.e., welfare state] that has undermined the family by playing the husband’s role in ‘one-parent families.’ The church and the state by their natures compete with the power of the family. In fact, the original aspirations of these institutions is typically to destroy family life if only they can. The market, by comparison, will considerably reinforce the family if it is only allowed to do so [23].

The first half of this statement seems none too difficult. It is the second half where the ‘dependency state’ gets the blame for both undermining families and taking the place of the father in the family where I have some difficulty. I infer that, for Lester, it is the father’s role to materially provide for the family and perhaps to impart and uphold certain pedagogic values to and for his offspring. Needless to say, this is a highly controversial — and perhaps sexist — position in need of some justification. Lester, however, offers no such further explanation of any of these claims in his book and, furthermore, concluding this section — a critical assessment of Gray — says:

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I am undoubtedly too sweeping in my responses to Gray to convince those who are sympathetic to any of his points [24].

Overall, the book’s chapters are a bit uneven running between eleven to ninety one pages. This graphically demonstrates a real imbalance between his treatments of ‘liberty’ (the longest chapter) and ‘anarchy’ (the shortest). Lester has no shortage of critiques for opposing viewpoints, but one wonders if many of them are no more than strawmen. Even he concedes that with his criticisms ‘it seemed better to be “too quick” than “too slow [25].” This matter is best summed up where he states that “Other people might well see many of my interpretations as mere personal intuitions that are biassed in the direction of the compatibility thesis. But as I have so much basic ground to cover to develop the general theory, and cannot possibly guess which points will prove the most controversial and for what reasons, I am obliged to wait until any specific points are helpfully made in criticism of this book” [26].

This self-characterization of his project well establishes all that is primarily disappointing about this account. Lester knowingly treads along at surface level through a work that should have been argued at much greater depth and which ought to have stood up to greater reflection and comments by colleagues. To wait until poor book reviews to finally understand what criticisms his positions warrant is baffling, not to mention far too late.

Finally, Lester’s motivation for writing this book stems from his deep dissatisfaction with the structure of contemporary Western-liberal society [27]. But after looking to the costs of the West’s industrial revolution (and the debts being acquired by the Third World), one must do more than give a few bold assurances that history would not repeat itself. If government did not intervene in our lives we would not have the educational system we have, transport systems, the arts, a cleaner environment, the absence of child-labour, overtime for workers, etc. Not only did this ‘free market’ fail to implement all of these items, but industry as a whole were opposed to much of this legislation. While I do not mean to be overly rhetorical, businesses are in the business of making money. Governments are not. It is a government’s job to maintain fairness between the owners of the means of production and their workers, as well as between different owners. The government is in charge of protecting the environment, not business. While I encourage any new approach to how we organize society, anarcho-capitalist conceptions must engage these concerns at a much deeper level, something Lester does not do.

I have never before written a review of any book(s) which I could not recommend. Sadly, this is precisely the situation I find myself in here. Libertarians can do better.


University College Dublin


[1] See Ulrike Heider, Anarchism: Left, Right, and Green (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1994).
[2] See Vallentyne and Steiner (eds.), The Origins of Left-Libertarianism, pp. 21, 25, and 33.

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[3] It would also have been interesting to have included any number of minor, yet important, Russian anarchists (i.e., Bakunin, Buckarin, etc) or the anarchists participating in the Paris Commune.
[4] The four page essay was written by Nozick. (See Vallentyne and Steiner (eds.), Left-Libertarianism and Its Critics, pp. 291–294.)
[5] The same statement appears in Vallentyne and Steiner  (eds.), The Origins of Left-Libertarianism, p. vii and Vallentyne and Steiner (eds.), Left-Libertarianism and Its Critics, p. vii.
[6] Vallentyne and Steiner (eds.), Left-Libertarianism and Its Critics, p. 2.
[7] Ibid., p. 3.
[8] Vallentyne agrees that justifying enforceable bodies in a libertarian-styled community — right or left-oriented — is a theoretical difficulty for which he offers no recourse. (See ibid., p. 5.)
[9] Ibid., p. 15.
[10] Lester, Escape From Leviathan, p. 1.
[11] It is a bit remarkable seeing a philosophical treatise about a utopian anarcho-libertarian theory of social organization rejecting explicitly at its outset the idea of ‘imaginary cases.’
[12] Lester, Escape From Leviathan, pp. 2–3.
[13] Ibid., p. 62.
[14] Ibid., p. 150.
[15] Ibid., p. 193.
[16] Ibid., p. 195.
[17] Ibid., p. 8.
[18] Ibid., p. 52.
[19] Ibid., p. 24.
[20] Ibid., p. 22.
[21] See ibid., 22 and 26.
[22] Ibid., p. 58.
[23] Ibid., p. 146. Lester’s main citation for these claims is Ferdinand Mount, The Subversive Family (London: Allen & Unwin, 1982).
[24] Ibid., p. 147.
[25] Ibid., p. 41.
[26] Ibid., p. 61. Regarding his defence of welfare as want-satisfaction at page 161, Lester states: ‘There is no end to possible criticisms of want-satisfaction as a view of welfare, and my space is limited.’
[27] At page 204 in his conclusion, he writes: ‘To the extent that the state guarantees or regulates things, those things tend to be damaged or destroyed (at least, relative to what anything nearer anarchy would produce). This applies to pluralism, law, money, healthcare, housing, pensions, education, roads, the arts, the environment,…you name it.’ Indeed, Lester would greatly reshape the structure of thesociety in which we live.


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