The Liberty Scam
Why even Robert Nozick, the philosophical father of libertarianism, gave up on the movement he inspired.
For all its intriguing parts, Anarchy can be thought of as one long Excuse me? in response to one Harvard colleague in particular, the political philosopher John Rawls. In A Theory of Justice, Rawls argued that our talents are not really our own, because they are not morally intrinsic to us. Rawls asked us to imagine that we know nothing about our life advantages—that how gifted, smart, attractive, charismatic we are, as well as the socio-economic status of our parents, lie behind a veil of ignorance. He then asked us to design an insurance policy against poor accidents of birth. That insurance policy would be "justice," in the form of a society that was fair even from the perspective of its least well-off citizen—who, after all, passing through the veil of ignorance, might turn out to be us.
To this, Nozick replies: All that intellectual pomp, arrayed to convince me that my talents are not mine? But my talents aren't like fire and disease. They aren't fatalities I insure against. Quite the opposite: My talents constitute the substance of who I am, and I am right to bank on them. Having cornered us with Kant, with Marx, and, most of all, with our own vanity, Nozick concludes, "No end-state principle of justice can be continuously realized without continuous interference with people's lives," confident that "interference" is sufficiently morally offensive to carry the day.
Here the liberal humanist needs to relax, take a second breath, and realize that, while clever, the Wilt Chamberlain argument is maybe a little too clever—i.e., what seems on first blush to be a simple case of freedom from interference is in fact a kind of connivance. Anarchy not only purports to be a defense of capitalism, but a proud defense of capitalism. And yet if Anarchy would defend capitalism unashamedly, why does its most famous argument include almost none of the defining features of capitalism—i.e., no risk capital, no capital markets, no financier? Why does it feature a basketball player and not, say, a captain of industry, a CEO, a visionary entrepreneur? The example as Nozick sets it out includes a gifted athlete (Wilt Chamberlain), paying customers (those with a dollar to see Wilt play)—and yet, other than a passing reference to the team's "owners,"no capitalist!
In Nozick's example, we know what portion of every ticket (25 cents) represents the monetary equivalent of every paying customer's desire to see not the game itself but Wilt Chamberlain play in it. Bearing in mind that all thought experiments beg our indulgence without requiring our stupidity, notice that, in order to abstract out this allegiance from allegiance to the team, to the sport, etc., and give it a dollar figure, Nozick has assigned what amounts to a market price to Wilt's talents while also suggesting the price was achieved by negotiation between Wilt and the owner. Now, here we must pause, and note that "price" is not an incidental feature of a libertarian belief system—it is what obviates the need, beyond enforcing the basic rule of law, for government. To a libertarian, price is, in effect, the conscience of society finding its highest expression in every swipe of the debit card. Just as the thought experiment, "If there were purple cows on the moon, they would certainly be purple" tells us nothing about the moon, cows, or the color purple, assuming a world in which labor and management arrive at gentleman's agreements—and in which those agreements capture the precise value, down to the penny, of labor's marginal product—tells us very little about justice.
Put another way, Nozick is cornering us into answering a ridiculously loaded question: If every person were a capitalist, and every capitalist a human capitalist, and every human capitalist was compensated in exact proportion to the pleasure he or she provided others, would a world without progressive taxation be just? To arrive at this question, Nozick vanishes most of the known features of capitalism (capital, owners, means of production, labor, collective bargaining) while maximizing one feature of capitalism—its ability to funnel money to the uniquely talented. In the example, "liberty" is all but cognate with a system that efficiently compensates the superstar.
The connivance is thus hidden in plain sight. "Wilt Chamberlain" is an African-American whose talents are unique, scarce, perspicuous (points, rebounds, assists), and in high demand. We feel powerfully the man should be paid, and not to do so—to expect a black athlete to perform for (largely) white audiences without adequate compensation—raises the specter of the plantation. But being a star athlete isn't the only way to make money. In addition to earning a wage, one can garnish a wage, collect a fee, levy a toll, cash in a dividend, take a kickback, collect a monopoly rent, hit the superfecta, inherit Tara, insider trade, or stumble on Texas tea. For each way of conceiving wealth, there is at least one way of moralizing its distribution. The Wilt Chamberlain example is designed to corner us—quite cynically, in my view—into moralizing all of them as if they were recompense for a unique talent that gives pleasure; and to tax each of them, and regulate each of them, according to the same principle of radical noninterference suggested by a black ballplayer finally getting his due.
To my critique of the Chamberlain example, a libertarian might respond: Given frictionless markets, rational self-maximizers, and perfect information, the market price for Wilt's services could not stay separable from the market price to see Wilt play. (Visionary entrepreneurs would create start-up leagues, competing leagues would bid up prices for the best players.) In a free-market paradise, capital will flow to talent, until rewards commensurate perfectly with utility. Maybe; and maybe in a socialist paradise, no one will catch the common cold. The essence of any utopianism is: Conjure an ideal that makes an impossible demand on reality, then announce that, until the demand is met in full, your ideal can't be fairly evaluated. Attribute any incidental successes to the halfway meeting of the demand, any failure to the halfway still to go.
How could a thinker as brilliant as Nozick stay a party to this? The answer is: He didn't. "The libertarian position I once propounded," Nozick wrote in an essay published in the late '80s, "now seems to me seriously inadequate." In Anarchy democracy was nowhere to be found; Nozick now believed that democratic institutions "express and symbolize … our equal human dignity, our autonomy and powers of self-direction." In Anarchy, the best government was the least government, a value-neutral enforcer of contracts; now, Nozick concluded, "There are some things we choose to do together through government in solemn marking of our human solidarity, served by the fact that we do them together in this official fashion ..."
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.