Defending Liberty: Essays in Honor of David Gordon

The American notion [is] that the end of government is liberty, not happiness, or prosperity, or power, or the preservation of an historic inheritance, or the adaptation of national law to national character, or the progress of enlightenment and the promotion of virtue; [and] that the private individual should not feel the pressure of public authority, and should direct his life by the influences that are within him, not around him. . . .
     Liberty is not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end.
                                                                                                                            —Lord Acton

Anyone who discovers that David Gordon is reviewing one’s work immediately has two conflicting emotional responses. The first emotion is one of elation because one knows that one’s work is going to be given a fair and thoughtful consideration by someone who knows what the important issues and questions are. The second emotion, however, is one of trepidation because one realizes that if one’s argument has the slightest trace of ambiguity, or if one has not reasoned carefully, or left too many premises suppressed, then these will be duly noted. Either way for the person whose work is being reviewed, it is a win-win situation because it affords an opportunity to learn and make improvements—even if at times it can be painful.

The interesting thing about David Gordon reviews is that they are also essays, for they afford the reader a chance to not only gain insight about the work being considered but also the general subject matter being examined. This is the case, because David Gordon is a virtual walking encyclopedia, and because of this, he brings a wealth of information and insight to the subject matter that is being discussed. If you have not read Gordon’s reviews, examine An Austro-Libertarian View: Essays by David Gordon, 3 Vols. (Mises Institute), and you will be well-rewarded for your effort. Here you see the work of an intellectual historian.

Besides being a master reviewer,1 David is a senior fellow for the Mises Institute where he lectures and conducts colloquia. He is author of the following: Resurrecting Marx: The Analytical Marxists on Freedom, Exploitation, and Justice; The Essential Rothbard; The Philosophical Origins of Austrian Economics; Introduction to Economic Reasoning, and Critics of Marxism. Further, he is the editor of Secession, State, and Liberty and coeditor of H.B. Acton, The Morals of Markets and Related Essays.

David Gordon is also editor of the Mises Review and The Journal of Libertarian Studies. He publishes in such philosophy journals as Analysis, British Journal of Political Science, Canadian Journal of Philosophy, Ethics, International Philosophical Quarterly, Journal of Libertarian Studies, Mind, Political Studies, Review of Austrian Economics, and Social Philosophy and Policy. He has published eleven articles in Analysis.

To appreciate David’s style of writing and method of analysis, one needs only to consider his essay, “Anscombe on Coming into Existence and Causation” (Analysis 44.2 [March 1984]: 52–54).  Here he carefully shows that in terms of her own suppositions, Anscombe did not succeed in showing that there is a difficulty in supposing that something has come into existence at a particular time and place without supposing that it has a cause. “That we cannot tell whether something has come into existence without a cause is no reason against thinking that such a circumstance is possible” (p. 54).  This essay is classic David Gordon, and one can appreciate it even if one does not have much sympathy for the standard Humean view of causation, which as a matter of fact Gordon does not.  His primary concern is whether the argument is sound—are its premises true and its reasoning valid.

David Gordon earned his BA, MA, and Ph. D. in History from UCLA. He is a member of Phi Beta Kappa, and he was awarded the Rothbard Medal of Freedom from the Ludwig von Mises Institute in 2006. David is a powerful intellectual champion for liberty, who understands with the great classical liberal, historian Lord Acton that liberty is indeed the highest political end. He takes his task of defending liberty seriously. He does it with wisdom and style, and we have all benefited by it.

David has a unique intellect and sense of humor. He has been a good friend and intellectual colleague to many over the years. I am pleased to be included in this group, and I am proud to edit this collection of essays in his honor.

All of the essays in this volume cover a wide range of issues that have concerned David in one way or another for some time, and they all endeavor to follow his example when it comes to clarity and careful reasoning. They each do so in a unique way and style, and I have as much as possible tried not to impose unnecessary uniformity on these essays.2 Here are the authors and their abstracts.

1. Roger E. Bissell, “Laissez-Faire vs. “Flattening the Curve”:

Lessons from Government Attempts to Deal with Economic and Health Disasters”:
David Gordon has recently commented that “Even a small chance that emergency measures will permanently subvert civil liberties needs to be considered.” I concur and argue that despite certain issues concerning temporary inadequate knowledge of the problem’s magnitude and severity of the current health crisis, the pre-1929 laissez-faire approach to economic recessions should have been more widely employed from the very outset: it is superior in terms of moral and practical outcomes and is, more fundamentally, the only approach consistent with individual liberty.

2. Billy Christmas, “Nozick and the Natural Duty of Justice”:

The two main rival theories of political legitimacy are Lockean consent theory and the Kantian natural duty theory. The Lockean theory says that a political organization may only legitimately coerce if, inter alia, it is consented to by those it coerces. The Kantian theory says that we have a duty to the state because it is only through the state that we are able to exercise our duties to respect one another’s freedom. Our obligation to the state is therefore not acquired through any voluntary act, but is rather naturally incumbent upon us. Robert Nozick’s libertarianism is famously Lockean, however, his justification for the state involves no affirmative act on the part of the governed. Instead, he offers an “invisible hand argument” in which we come to have an obligation to the state in virtue of the processes through which that state emerged, even though none of them involve our expression of consent. In this essay I will argue that Nozick’s argument, with a little reconstruction, is a far more plausible alternative to both Lockean philosophical anarchism and Kantian statism. It affirms the normative importance of even imperfectly just coercive institutions that all acknowledge deference to, whilst affirming the normative reality of our rights outside of those contingent institutions. What is missing in Nozick’s account is the assurance problem. Kant thinks that it applied to anarchy; actually it applies to all situations of distrust.

3. Douglas J. Den Uyl and Douglas B. Rasmussen, “Avoiding the Political Realist-Idealist Dichotomy”:

So-called “political idealism” has come under attack in recent years from “political realism.” Political idealism was originally connected to the theorizing of John Rawls but has since come to refer to any theory that does not begin with actual political practice and actors. In this essay we begin by outlining our own approach to political theory and then go on to show how within that framework both realism and idealism are made compatible. Against the realists, our framework allows us to argue both that realists cannot escape idealism completely and that the essence of politics is reconciliation, not conflict. Against idealists, we argue that our classical realist metaphysical and epistemological dispositions would require welcoming the work of realists without having to claim they represent the only theoretical procedure.

4. Stephen R. C. Hicks, “Liberals Need More and Better Cognition Theory”:

When I say that liberalism is best, am I speaking the truth? Do the facts and the evidence and the arguments make my assertion justified? Consequently, is my belief objective—or subjective? Do I know it, or is mine just another opinion? Is it all “just” semantics—or do concepts have real meanings? Do statistics lie or capture probabilities? Is history written by the winners and so dismissible bias, or can we all genuinely learn from it?

In this essay I focus on two mistakes that regularly plague thinking about objectivity. One is the mistake of seeing only two options (intrinsicism and subjectivism) when in fact there are three. The second is making assumptions that implicitly demand omniscience or a view from nowhere—and taking the failure of human cognition to live up to those impossible standards as making objectivity impossible. Instead, we should start with actual human beings and discover how their cognitive capacities work and why objectivity arises as a need for them to strive for.

5.  Lester H. Hunt and R. Kevin Hill, “Epidemics as a Problem for Liberty”:

Faced with an epidemic of a deadly disease, humans have often had recourse to coercive non-pharmaceutical interventions (CNPIs), ranging in severity from requiring the wearing of masks to shutting down all enterprises declared “non-essential” (lockdowns). Which CNPIs are compatible with liberty? It might seem that none are, but in this paper we will assume that “liberty” is actually a framework of person-and-property rights, such as are embodied in traditional Anglo-American common law, and that some coercive measures are not only compatible with such a framework, but actually required by it. Some CNPIs, such as (in some circumstances) isolating carriers of the disease, can easily be justified on the basis of such a framework of rights. Someone who infects another with a dangerous disease is violating their rights, even if the carrier does not know or actually disbelieves that they are infectious: this would mean that they are an “innocent threat” (Nozick) and defensive coercion against a sufficiently menacing innocent threat is justified, not because they deserve it (they are innocent) but because the person being defended has rights and does not have a duty to submit to being killed or injured. Other measures—such as banning large gatherings—can in some cases also be justified within this framework, but in these cases the justification is less straightforward and more constrained. The problem is that in enforcing a rule against large gatherings we are coercing, not only people who pose a threat to others, but in addition people who take adequate safety-steps and pose no threat at all. How can coercing the latter group be justified? It can be justified if the disease is sufficiently dire and the public health benefits of the rule sufficiently great that those people are fully compensated, via implicit in-kind compensation, by the rule itself. In certain dire circumstances, lockdowns can also be justified by such considerations, though here the people who bear the brunt of the rule may have to be compensated with cash payments collected from the people for whom the rule represents a net gain. It may be that the benefit from the rule that goes to those who gain from it is less than the costs inflicted on those it harms. In that case, the gainers would no longer be gainers if they were to compensate the victims of the rule. That would mean it would not be worth their while to do the one thing that is necessary to make the rule a just, non-exploitative one.

6. Alejandra M. Salinas, “Post-Marxist Populism in the Twenty-First Century”:

This essay presents an outline of the basic ideas put forward by the Marxist theoretical family in the last decades, and it analyzes the case of philosopher Ernesto Laclau (1935–2013). It points out the main resemblances and divergences between his work and the other Marxist formulations: the desire for political hegemony and the elimination of capitalism reveals its Marxist nature. The rejection of economic essentialism and historical determinism shows its Post-Marxist traits. Laclau’s work is ultimately a variety of Marxism in that it advances an anti-capitalist, anti-liberal theory, methodological collectivism, and unlimited State power. His apology for the “subversion and dislocation” of social life, the defense of unbridled political antagonism, and a hegemonic government challenge the core of classical liberal theory: the protection of free cooperative individual exchanges, the rule of law, and the design of a minimal government.

7. Aeon J. Skoble, “Anarchy, Nozick, and Gordon”:

In responding to my discussion of Nozick’s argument as to how the minimal state could arise without violating anyone’s rights, David Gordon objected that I misconstrue the coercive/monopolist status of the dominant protective agency.  In this essay I discuss how Gordon’s interpretation of Nozick differs from mine but why in either case Nozick’s argument doesn’t quite succeed in defending the minimal state against individualist anarchism.  I also discuss how Nozick’s argument can be repurposed to Gordon’s advantage in the debate between minimal state libertarians and anarchist libertarians.

8. Jasmine Rae Straight: “The Anti-Liberty Requirements of Affirmative Consent”:

The conventional wisdom that influences university policy on what is considered valid sexual consent has undergone radical change over the past twenty years. Valid consent being the criteria that makes subsequent sexual behavior morally justified because the consent is morally transformative in the way that matters. Affirmative consent policies are now being used increasingly at universities across the country, as well as forming the basis for legislation in some U.S. states. University policies that define affirmative consent are varied, but policies generally require the consent to be voluntary, conscious, unambiguous, and ongoing. The consent can be communicated verbally or behaviorally as long as it is clear and continues throughout the sexual encounter. I will argue against both the unambiguous and ongoing requirements of sexual consent. I contend that we should reject the affirmative model of sexual consent because of the problems with these requirements and I then offer some reasons in favor of returning to a lack of dissent model of sexual consent.

9. Jakub Bożydar Wiśniewski, “Economics and Ethics: Neither Independent nor Intertwined, But Mutually Relevant”:

This essay argues that the disciplines of economics and ethics are neither strictly interdependent, nor inextricably intertwined, but mutually relevant. Thus, it presents an alternative view to the one suggesting that economics and ethics should be kept strictly separate and the one suggesting that they should be combined into a hybrid discipline. More specifically, the present essay contends that there are four major ways in which economics and ethics can learn from each other while keeping their respective areas of competence intact. Negatively, economics can curb the excessive ambitions of normative theorizing, while positively it can demonstrate the normative potential of cooperative efficiency. On the other hand, negatively ethics can elucidate the normative preconditions of undertaking complex forms of social cooperation, while positively it can illustrate the role of moral resources in addressing various operational challenges. Finally, the essay concludes with the suggestion that the key to the proper understanding of the relationship between economics and ethics may lie in regarding the former as the meta-ethics of cooperation—i.e., the positive science of normative coordination.

As should be evident, these essays are all concerned in various and complex ways with the cause of individual liberty and of a society in which people practice moral responsibility through exercising their own choices. These essays seek to explain and defend liberty, and in so doing, honor the work and life of David Gordon. We hope that David enjoys them.

                                                             —Douglas B. Rasmussen

  • 1. He also publishes book reviews in the International Philosophical Quarterly, Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics, and Review of Austrian Economics, as well as several book notes in Ethics. He has written approximately three hundred book reviews for his own journal, The Mises Review, and also written articles and reviews for Chronicles and The American Conservative. He has been a reviewer for Library Journal from 1979 to the present.
  • 2. I should also express my appreciation for the editorial assistance provided by Jakub Bożydar Wiśniewski and Judith Thommesen.