Philosopher Jan Lester offers what he says is a new paradigm for libertarianism. Though old hands at the philosophy may raise an eyebrow at the daring of such a claim — and I am, by this time, one of those old hands — it is not as if libertarian social philosophy were all shipshape and Bristol fashion.

Looking at his essay “The Three Great Errors of Most Libertarians,” I found myself not at all shocked by his alleged novelty — though novelty there is. From a perspective of critical rationalism (via Popper, Lakatos, Bartlett, and others), Mr. Lester advances three alternatives to most libertarian ideology and rhetoric:

  • Instead of “justificationism” and the eternal search for the Foundations of Ethics and Politics, Lester insists that we stick to the more humble and honest task of offering conjectures about which we are open to debate.
  • Instead of characterizing our normative theories in terms of “deontological” or “consequentialist” terms, recognize that they are “more like two sides of the same coin.”
  • Instead of waffling and arguing in a circular fashion, develop an explicit, sufficient and necessary “theory of freedom.”

This last point points to the most obvious need, but it is not one that many libertarians recognize as an actual problem. There is an awful lot vagueness and hand-waving among libertarian theorists. And some concepts get jumbled together, like “self-ownership” and “negative freedom” and so forth. Hearkening back to classical liberal days, Lester focuses on non-interference — Henry Sidgwick would have understood this — and develops it as a prohibition of “proactive constraint.” I have not adequately confronted this understanding of liberty, so as I prepare to read his book, Escape from Leviathan: Libertarianism Without Justificationism, I will try to keep an open mind.

I am sympathetic to his general perspective, and, so far, seem to agree on quite a lot. I do have a different way of looking at freedom than many libertarians — and this has been one reason for my odd position in the libertarian movement: I am a member of no faction, and hail not from the School of Rand or School of Rothbard, but, instead, from the School of Nozick . . . without having ever been a Nozickian.

Odd man out, I.

So, before I lash out at Lester’s paradigm, or drop mine, I will put them to the test, which would also mean essaying to discover whether the two might be compatible.

As far as the deontic/consequentialist debate goes, anyway, we are on the same side. I found this “controversy” very interesting in my early 20s, since it was a major feature of libertarian intellectual discussion in the 1980s. I soon decided, however, that most discussions of this were hopelessly muddled or, at the very least, red herrings. My late boss R. W. Bradford, writing as Ethan O. Waters, did not exactly make the issue clearer, in the pages of Liberty magazine in its first year. I went a different direction, taking consequentialism chiefly as a meta-ethics.

Regarding Lester’s anti-justificationism, well, this strikes me as a terminological issue. He denies this. I am more in line with C. S. Peirce than Karl Popper, so I see all this “critical rationalist” talk as just another form of fallibilism, whereas he regards it (I think) as quite distinct. I may have read both Popper and Lakatos, I confess to having devoured their work only in small doses: this is not an area of anything but a passing familiarity for me. So, I should practice caution. Still, I will drop a hint: Jan Lester believes that philosophy is not about words, it is about the world. That is certainly a nifty slogan. It reminds me of Husserl’s “to the things themselves!” I think philosophy cannot help but be about words — and definitions, too — because words are our chief tool for engaging with concepts. He calls them theories and conjectures, and that is fine, except it seems a long way around to say something fairly obvious.

But I could be wrong. Indeed, all this jumps the gun of reading his book.

So, if I have not read this book, and the cited essay is brief, how do I know what Mr. Lester holds to? Well, a year-and-a-half ago a friend of mine and I interviewed Mr. Lester at length. And this week I finally turned the Skype session into a video, which is now up as a series on YouTube:

Where Libertarians Go Wrong:

  1. Introduction: Why “Critical Rationalism
  2. Error One: Seeking a foundation or justification
  3. Error Two: Taking sides between deontologism and consequentialism
  4. Error Three: Lacking an explicit, necessary & sufficient theory of freedom

By the way, I had intended to do this all last year. But the best laid plans of mice and men, the gang’s all here in the glee club, and all that.

Jan Lester’s Escape from Leviathan. And me.
Definition of a word most people are not familiar with, from the Century Dictionary.