I doubt that Richard Epstein misunderstands the point I keep making, but he writes as if he does:
The proposition that each person is entitled to have the maximum liberty consistent with the like liberty of others is a position that only makes sense within the framework of the classical liberal system. The moment that increases in wealth through state transfers count as increases in liberty, then there is no way to preserve the like liberty between persons. The newer definition of liberty is one which lets one side be better off and the other worse off, which is, after all, what transfer systems are supposed to do.
Of course, if one is talking about positive liberty, as Edward Glaeser did in his contribution, one will not offer the slogan, “maximum liberty consistent with the like liberty of others.” Glaeser’s essentially consequentialist argument was that (positive) liberty should be optimized overall. But if Epstein does not like this view, he can hardly blame Glaeser’s definition of liberty. The argument can be rephrased in neutral terms: Maximize individual options for choice. Epstein does not like this because he is committed to a libertarian system of rights which implies that a society’s resources are not a common pool available for just (re)distribution.
The danger of Murphy’s excessive nominalism is that it now directs us to the wrong social inquiry by allowing gains to some preferred clientele to offset far greater losses to another group of individuals. Anyone who starts with a presumption in favor of freedom of contract will not make that mistake, which should be reason enough to avoid the dangerous claims of “indeterminacy” which all too often cloud social theory.
This is classic Epstein: few can aspire to this kind of rhetorical density.
First, I have argued that there is ineradicable conceptual indeterminacy in connection with coercion and liberty. This is not nominalism. I have not said that any of the senses in use refer to nothing real. Second, an acknowledgement of conceptual indeterminacy cannot direct us to any social inquiry; for that we need a normative claim. I personally endorse redistribution away from laissez-faire returns; but I could certainly do that even if I agreed with Epstein and Klein on the meanings of “coercion” and “liberty.” Last, the only indeterminacy I am claiming is conceptual—I am not claiming any kind of moral or social scientific indeterminacy.
As for the indeterminacy I am claiming, neither Epstein nor Klein has written a word about how it might be argued against. Exactly what method of conceptual analysis do they propose? I fear the method is the following: define terms to suit the rhetorical needs of your argument, and then insist that this and only this is what those terms mean.
A final point. I do start with a presumption in favor of freedom of contract. What I reject is that there is a right to freedom of contract. Despite what he writes, Epstein rejects such a right too. Epstein long ago defended infringements of rights when this can be said to benefit all concerned. Perhaps such rights are worthy of the name, since it isn’t just overall social gain that justifies the infringement, but benefit to each. But when it comes to prohibition of horizontal restraint of trade, benefit to each is not to be assumed, and yet Epstein, unsurprisingly, is in favor of infringement of the “right” to freedom of contract in such cases too. But now we see that what is called a right gives way when there is social gain to be had from its infringement. If having a right means anything, however, it means that the relevant interests are not to be sacrificed just when the positive social effects outweigh the negative. If there is nominalism in this discussion, it is to be found in Epstein’s account of rights.