The Third Axiom, or a Logic of Liberty: On the Structure of Ethics and Economics as One Unified Aprioristic Science

By Preusse, Peter J. | Libertarian Papers, January 2010 | Go to article overview

The Third Axiom, or a Logic of Liberty: On the Structure of Ethics and Economics as One Unified Aprioristic Science


Preusse, Peter J., Libertarian Papers


1. Introduction: Liberty, What Is It?

The misery of essentialism in his time, or at least of the philosophy of liberty, is condensed by Popper into a remarkable summary: "Scholasticism, mysticism and despair of reason--these are the inevitable outcomes of Platonic and Aristotelian essentialism. And Aristotle turns Plato's overt revolt against liberty into a larvate rebellion against reason." (1)

On occasions, Hegel takes liberty to mean "truth of necessity", and this in turn was coined by Engels into the dictum "insight into necessity." In a different context, liberty appears to Hegel as a Christian "principle of self-consciousness," then it is "liberty in itself, including the indefinite necessity to come to cognition--for it is, by its term, knowledge of itself--and thereupon to reality." (2) Popper closes his listing of Hegelian terms of freedom with the succinct remark: "And so forth."

Yet, in a chapter with the beautiful title "The Twistable is Not Testable," de Jasay (3) points out, from a libertarian point of view, the absurd inconsistencies Popper entangles himself in by trying to reconcile liberty and democracy using a "social technology ... whose results can be evaluated by stepwise solution-finding." (4) An immortal criticism of essentialist exegesis of liberty stems from Albert Jay Nock: "Anything may be made to mean anything." (5)

De Jasay clearly illuminates the consequences of a hodgepodge of terms--for example, liberty, sociality and justice: "It is just that a person should be allowed to keep what he (6) has if, and only if, more people than not think that he should." (7) This principle translates into: the freedom to think this or that defines the just share of social wealth. In the chapter "Justice as Something Else," de Jasay surveys such camouflage identities of justice: Justice as universalizability (8) by Kant, as fairness of initial equality behind a hypothetical veil of ignorance by John Rawls, as unrejectability by Thomas Scanlon, and as impartiality by Brian Berry. What all have in common is the view that justice is a matter of social choice.

A more distinct, and far clearer, understanding of the term liberty has been reached in the liberal and libertarian traditions. In particular, Friedrich August von Hayek, in recourse to Aristotle (9) and more recent concepts of liberty, defines liberty in a negative way, as a state "in which a man is not subject to arbitrary coercion by the will of another or others." (10) This negative definition of liberty is already enunciated in the ingenious first footnote in the cited work, stating that, as opposed to "freedom," the word "liberty" better resists abuse--e.g., in Franklin Roosevelt's principle of "freedom from want."

The concept of liberty finds its solid foundation in praxeology, Ludwig von Mises's term with reference to Espinas, 1887, (11) for his aprioristic-deductive "general theory of human action." He rejects the idealistic concept of an ideal and freely living primitive society following a religious and pseudo-religious pattern of paradise; instead, he states that man is not born free, but that "liberty and freedom [?] are the conditions of man within a contractual [as opposed to a power-based] society." (12)

The outstanding 20th century thinker of liberty, Murray Newton Rothbard, has pinpointed the issue of liberty as an end: "Liberty is a moral principle, grounded on the nature of man. In particular, it is a principle of justice, of the abolition of aggressive violence in the affairs of men.... Justice, not the weak reed of mere utility, must be the motivating force if liberty is to be attained." (13)

Justice as a libertarian concept deals exclusively with contracts, and the enforcement of contracts, based on free consent--that is, never with concern for the contents and outcome of such contracts, but only with ensuring their free, i.e., noncoercive, origin.

   It is not the intention of this book [The Ethics of Liberty] to
   expound or defend at length the philosophy of natural law, or to
   elaborate a natural law ethic for the personal morality of man. … 

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