Another objection to his own theory considered by Lester is “criticizing a religion”: “Salman Rushdie, a novelist, is supposed to have greatly offended many millions of Muslims by criticizing, or satirizing, their religion. Surely he has imposed a cost on Muslims, or why are they angry? Perhaps his presence is now so great a cost to so many Muslims that those offended have an imposed-cost-minimizing claim to take his life.” (66)

His first reply is that “people more or less control their emotional responses to mere opinions — especially in the long term. The angry Muslims more or less chose to react angrily.” Perhaps Lester is suggesting that it falls upon the Muslims properly to “curb” their anger. Now I don’t understand how this “solution” has much to do with libertarianism. Anybody can tell a guy who feels that a cost has been imposed on him to just up and stop feeling it. And if it is libertarian, doesn’t it prove too much? If a man is raping a woman, will libertarian justice be satisfied if he tells her to stop resisting, relax, and enjoy it? If the Mongol Horde is sacking a town, is it sufficient for an invading warrior to tell a peasant he is about to cut down, “Death comes to all; does it really matter whether you die now by my sword or 20 years from now from a heart attack?”; to quote the Bible, “You are a puff of smoke that appears briefly and then disappears” (Jm 4:14); or to advise him to adopt the motto in a Sophocles’ play, as rendered by Mises: “Not to be born is, beyond all question, the best; but when a man has once seen the light of day, this is next best, that speedily he should return to that place whence he came”? (HA, 621)

Once more, Lester foresees this objection. Yet his reply is decidedly odd: “No, because we cannot choose to be so indifferent to such personal, physical attacks (though some self-control is possible), and because they are direct — not accidental — impositions: to prevent them is only to defend oneself, or someone else, and not at all to initiate an imposition on the attackers.” He does not explain what he means by the distinction between “direct” and “accidental” cost imposition (perhaps “intentional” as vs. an innocent externality?), nor why the self-control to be exercised is a difference in kind here rather than in degree. Since he explicitly argues that he is not offering a “moral defense of voluntary communication,” he cannot use the moral distinction between unjust “initiating” aggressive force and permissible self-defense. Nor, finally, does he prove that the Muslims in this example have a duty to suppress their emotions.

Lester’s second argument is even less successful. He invites us to consider the long-term “general consequences” of outlawing or lynching people for free speech. “If generalized, this policy would mean that no one must express any opinion to anyone else which too many others might disvalue.” (67) I agree that these consequences would be “horrific,” but only in regard to welfare. I do not understand why they would be bad from the point of view of Lester-style liberty. If imposed costs are minimized when the Muslims kill Salman, they will still be minimized, and to an even greater extent, when a thousand other irate groups kill their own bogeymen whose opinions offend them. The difference between Lester’s and classical libertarian notion of liberty becomes greater when we move from considering a single act of speech repression to a general rule of it.

It may well be that Smith is part of group A which is offended by the ideas of Jones and so casually murders Jones. At the same time, Smith may himself offend some group B which promptly kills him. This society of easy mutual internecine slaughter where numerous factions kill each other indiscriminately is hardly the kind one would seriously consider living in. It’s a mess, a miserable war of all against all, and so is exceedingly unhappy. Yet it’s also a society where “imposed costs” seem to be at their lowest.

In general, it does not seem difficult to come up with counterexamples where “liberty” and welfare conflict, since there are situations where bearing higher costs can so much increase the benefits or revenues that the overall profit will be higher, as well. In this example, the low imposed costs can be increased (by slighting the Muslims’ murderous urges), yet welfare will increase much more when society is spared the “thought-police with extraordinary powers, and people informing on their neighbors.”


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