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5.0 out of 5 stars What a find!, 21 July 2012
This review is from: Arguments for Liberty (Paperback)
This book probably represents a landmark in the literature of liberalism on two counts. One of these is the robust statement of his major thesis on the compatibility of free markets, liberty and welfare. The other is the way he uses the non-authoritarian theory of rationality expounded by Karl Popper and William W Bartley.

"In practice (rather than in imaginary cases) 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...". Those who seek linguistic precision may be alarmed that his terms are to be understood roughly. Lester has quite deliberately avoided the kind of conceptual analysis, the teasing out of the meaning of terms, that Popper has labeled "essentialism". At least one reviewer noted the remarkable amount of meat that is packed into the book. This is partly due to the self-conscious avoidance of essentialism, partly to Lester's firm grasp on his materials and party to the mode of argumentation that he has adopted, following the non-justificationist or non-foundational line that has been articulated by Popper and Bartley.

The main characteristic of this approach is that it only attempts to achieve what is possible, which is the formation of a critical preference for one option rather than another, in the light of the evidence and arguments that are available up to date. He does not attempt the impossible, namely a logically conclusive proof of his case. What is possible is to propose a theory or a doctrine and subject it to criticism, then if it stands up we may proceed with that theory or doctrine until such time as an alternative is proposed that has better credentials and stands up to criticism at least as well as the previous candidate.

Turning to the organization of the book, after the Introduction are four chapters; Rationality, Liberty, Welfare and Anarchy. Each chapter is tightly organised and packed with crisply presented arguments which resist efforts to paraphrase them. Consequently no short review will do justice to the contents of the book or its organisation. Lester's theory of rationality has to reconcile two extreme views in economics - the neglected subjective, "a priori" approach of Menger and the Austrians, and the standard objective, empirical account. He adopts the theory that agents are self-interested utility-maximisers and he addresses a number of standard objections that are raised against this concept. He argues, successfully in my view, that the objections do no damage to his thesis.

Liberty is formulated as the absence of initiated or proactively imposed cost, or in the case of a mutual clash of imposed costs, the minimisation of imposed costs. This means avoiding or minimising the subjective costs imposed on us by other people, without our consent. Lester explains this formulation, compares it with typical libertarian alternatives to illustrate its strengths and then tests it by attempting to solve some problems presented to libertarians by David Friedman and John Gray. This is the longest chapter and it covers a huge amount of ground, including intellectual property rights and a theory of restitution for crimes and torts. In addition to the criticism of Friedman and Gray there is also a rejoinder to Amartya Sen and to Karl Popper.

The criticism of John Gray is important because for some time he enjoyed a high profile as a rare instance of a classical liberal Oxford don. Lester also responds to Gray's charge of "restrictivism", directed at liberals on the ground that they do not accept that freedom is "an essentially contested concept". In response, Lester accuses Gray of "conflationism", that is, importing a raft of contentious theories from elsewhere (psychology, hermeneutics, epistemology) to muddle and confuse the issues, at the same time appealing to various authorities and ultimately overriding interpersonal liberty in favour of some other goal.

Welfare is a sticking point for many people of good will who support freedom but believe that they cannot be libertarians because of all the poor people who need assistance. Actually support for deserving poor people could be provided by a VWA (Voluntary Welfare Association), dispensing funds from voluntary donations from all the people who currently vote to support welfare policies. The main targets in the chapter on welfare are R M Hare, Amartya Sen, Bernard Williams, John Rawls, John Harsanyi and Alan Ryan.

The final chapter on anarchy is very short because most of the work to defend private property and the market order has been done in previous chapters. "Basic conceptual confusion and mere prejudice are more the real problems" (page 193). He casts a critical eye over some conceptual aspects of the state and then he turns to John Rawls again as an exemplar of confusion and prejudice. Finally, Lester identifies the way that Rawls has simply ignored the libertarian position on the state, which is perceived as providing the arena where the most divisive issues can be removed from the political agenda.
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