The Liberty Scam
Why even Robert Nozick, the philosophical father of libertarianism, gave up on the movement he inspired.
To the entire left, Nozick, in effect, said: Your social justice comes at an unacceptable cost, namely, to my personal liberty. Most distressingly, to this end Nozick enlisted the humanist's most cherished belief: the inviolability of each human being as an end unto himself—what Nozick, drawing on Immanuel Kant, calls "the separateness of persons." For Nozick, the principle of the separateness of persons is close to sacred. It affirms, as he writes, "the underlying Kantian principle that individuals are ends and not merely means; they may not be sacrificed or used for the achieving of other ends without their consent. Individuals are inviolable."
I like to think that when Nozick published Anarchy, the levee broke, the polite Fabian consensus collapsed, and hence, in rapid succession: Hayek won the Nobel Prize in economics in 1974, followed by Milton Friedman in '75, the same year Thatcher became Leader of the Opposition, followed by the California and Massachusetts tax revolts, culminating in the election of Reagan, and … well, where it stops, nobody knows.
True, a recondite book by an obscure professor wouldn't have made any difference if it hadn't caught the drift of public feeling. But also true: Public feeling might have remained begrudging, demagogic, sub-intellectual if the public's courage hadn't been shored up (or its conscience bought off, depending on your point of view) by intellectuals like Nozick. Take Margaret Thatcher's infamous provocation—"There's no such thing as society"—with its implication that human beings are nothing more than brutishly competitive atoms. Now listen to its original formulation, in Anarchy: "But there is no social entity with a good that undergoes some sacrifice for its own good. There are only individual people, different individual people, with their own individual lives." The tone is different—it's Kantian, not Hobbesian—and so is the moral emphasis: Society is unreal not because individuals are brutish but because they are dignified.
With the solemn invocation of individual lives, the liberal humanist ought to push away from the table, take a deep breath, and ask whether any of this remarkable assault is true. Can it really be that eliminating the income tax shows maximum moral respect for others? I thought a fraction of a rich man's fortune is to the rich man only money but to a starving man is freedom. Am I a moral idiot? It is impossible without writing a book (and many have) to do Anarchy justice. Nonetheless, one argument from its pages is considered its most central, most famous, most bewitching. This is the so-called "Wilt Chamberlain" argument, and pausing to pick it apart, we can begin to see why Nozick's defense of libertarianism, as Nozick himself came to believe, collapsed.
When I think with my own brain and look with my own eyes, it's obvious to me that some combination of civil rights, democratic institutions, educational capital, social trust, consumer choice, and economic opportunity make me free. This is not what Nozick is arguing. Nozick is arguing that economic rights are the only rights, and that insofar as there are political rights, they are nothing more than a framework in support of private property and freedom of contract. When I study American history, I can see why America, thanks to a dense bundle of historical accidents, is a kind of Lockean paradise, uniquely suited to holding up liberty as its paramount value. This is not what Nozick is arguing. Nozick is arguing that liberty is the sole value, and to put forward any other value is to submit individuals to coercion.
How does so supple a mind end up committed to so seemingly brittle a belief system? The leap of faith here is, no surprise, in the construal of liberty itself, which unlike other values (says the libertarian) makes no restricting or normative claims on anybody; liberty is instead like oxygen—invisible, pervasive, enabling. Every other value, meanwhile, represents someone else's deranged will-to-power by which, under the guise of high-mindedness or disinterest, he would "pattern" all of society to his own liking. "Almost every suggested principle of … justice is patterned," Nozick says, by way of setting up the Chamberlain argument. "To each according to his moral merit, or needs, or marginal product, or how hard he tries …" By way of showing us how an unpatterned, or libertarian, society is more just than any patterned one, Nozick asks the reader to consult her own preference, and choose a society patterned in any way she sees fit—Marxist, bell-curve meritocracy—you pick. Now call that pattern D1. Then, Nozick writes:
"Wilt Chamberlain is greatly in demand by basketball teams, being a great gate attraction. (Also suppose contracts run only for a year, with players being free agents.) He signs the following sort of contract with a team: In each home game twenty-five cents from the price of each ticket of admission goes to him. (We ignore the question of whether he is "gouging" the owners, letting them look out for themselves.) … Let us suppose that in one season one million persons attend his home games, and Wilt Chamberlain ends up with $250,000, a much larger sum than the average income and larger even than anyone else has. Is he entitled to his income? Is this new distribution D2 unjust?"
Nozick assumes our dream society is in some respect egalitarian; that to prevent Wilt from grossly out-earning his fellow citizens, the system we've imagined in D1 will curtail Chamberlain's right to the whole fruit of his own labor. To the liberal humanist, Nozick is saying: You don't take your finest hero, Kant, seriously, because if you did, you would never sacrifice Wilt's autonomy to the social planner's designs. To the socialist, he is saying: You don't take your own finest hero, Marx, seriously, because if you did, you would never expropriate his surplus value (via taxation) as blithely as the capitalist. And to his own fellow Harvard professors, he is saying: You don't take your own finest hero—yourself—seriously, because if you did, why would you ever curtail the prerogative of a superstar?
Stephen Metcalf is Slate's critic at large. He is working on a book about the 1980s.
Photograph of Robert Nozick by Martha Holmes/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images. Photograph of Wilt Chamberlain by Web Roberts/AFP/Getty Images.