The Liberty Scam
Why even Robert Nozick, the philosophical father of libertarianism, gave up on the movement he inspired.
Recently, I overheard a fellow Amtraker back off a conversation on politics. "You know, it's because I'm a libertarian," he said, sounding like a vegetarian politely declining offal. Later that afternoon, in the otherwise quite groovy loft I sometimes crash at in SoHo, where one might once have expected,say, Of Grammatology or at least a back issue ofElle Decor, there sat not one but two copies of something called The Libertarian Reader. "Libertarianism" places one—so believes the libertarian—not on the political spectrum but slightly above it, and this accounts for its appeal to both the tricorne fringe and owners of premium real estate. Liberty's current bedfellows include Paul Ryan (his staffers are assigned Atlas Shrugged), Glenn Beck (he flogged The Road to Serfdom onto the best-seller list), Slate's Jack Shafer, South Park, the founder of Whole Foods, this nudnik, P.J. O'Rourke, now David Mamet, and to the extent she cares for anything beyond her own naked self-interest—oh, wait, that is libertarianism—Sarah Palin.
With libertarianism everywhere, it's hard to remember that as recently as the 1970s, it was nowhere to be found. Once the creed of smart set rogues, H.L. Mencken among them, libertarianism all but disappeared after the Second World War. What happened? The single most comprehensive, centrally planned, coordinated governmental action in history—that's what happened. In addition to defeating fascism, the Second World War acted as a magnificent sieve, through which almost no one, libertarians included, passed unchanged. (To pick one example: Lionel Robbins, the most prominent anti-Keynesian before the war, served as director of the economic division of the British War Cabinet; after the War, Robbins presided over the massive expansion of the British higher education system.) By the '50s, with Western Europe and America free, prosperous, happy, and heavily taxed, libertarianism had lost its roguish charm. It was the Weltanschauung of itinerant cranks: Ronald Reagan warming up the Moose Lodge; Ayn Rand mesmerizing her Saturday night sycophants; the Reader's Digest economist touting an Austrian pedigree.
Libertarians will blanch at lumping their revered Vons—Mises and Hayek—in with the nutters and the shills. But between them, Von Hayek and Von Mises never seem to have held a single academic appointment that didn't involve a corporate sponsor. Even the renowned law and economics movement at the University of Chicago was, in its inception, heavily subsidized by business interests. ("Radical movements in capitalist societies," as Milton Friedman patiently explained, "have typically been supported by a few wealthy individuals.") Within academia, the philosophy of free markets in extremis was rarely embraced freely—i.e., by someone not on the dole of a wealthy benefactor. It cannot be stressed enough: In the decades after the war, a kind of levee separated polite discourse from free-market economics. The attitude is well-captured by John Maynard Keynes, who wrote in a review of Hayek's Prices and Production: "An extraordinary example of how, starting with a mistake, a remorseless logician can end up in Bedlam."*
And then came Robert Nozick.
To my knowledge, in writing Anarchy, State, and Utopia, his breathtaking defense of libertarianism, Nozick never accepted a dime other than from his employer, the philosophy department at Harvard University. (Unless it was from the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Palo Alto, the "minimally structured academic institution bordering on individualist anarchy" as Nozick put it, where he wrote the book's early chapters.) In fact, Nozick was the disinterested intellectual that laissez-faire had been searching for since Congress passed the Emergency Banking Act of 1933. Nozick started out a classic of the type: a Brooklyn kid, one generation off the shtetl, toting a dog-eared Plato. But along the way to a full Harvard professorship, attained at the age of 30, he'd lost the socialist ardors of his upbringing. "For a while I thought: 'Well, the arguments are right, capitalism is the best system, but only bad people would think so,' " he once told a journalist. "Then, at some point, my mind and my heart were in unison."
The Times Literary Supplement ranks Anarchy, published in 1974, as one of the "100 Most Influential Books Since the War," and that, I think, is underselling it. To this day, left intellectuals remember where they were when they first heard Nozick's arguments against not just socialism but wealth redistribution of any kind. "It is no exaggeration to say," the Telegraph wrote, after Nozick died in 2002, "that Nozick, more than anyone else, embodied the new libertarian zeitgeist which, after generations of statist welfarism from Roosevelt's New Deal to Kennedy, Johnson and Carter, ushered in the era of Reagan and Bush, pere et fils." Prior to Anarchy, "liberty" was a virtual synonym for rolling back labor unions and progressive taxation, a fig leaf for the class interests of the Du Ponts and the B.F. Goodriches. After Anarchy, "liberty" was a concept as worthy of academic dignity as the categorical imperative.
As a moral philosopher, Nozick was free to stretch liberty further than even an Austrian economist. That is, he was able to separate out a normative claim (that liberty is the fundamental value of values, and should be maximized) from an empirical claim (that the most efficient method for allocating goods and services is a market economy). Free to pursue liberty as a matter of pure principle, Nozick let nothing stand in his way. Should we tax the rich to feed the poor? Absolutely not, as "taxation of earnings is on par with forced labor." (Or more precisely: "Taking the earnings of n hours of labor is like taking n hours from the person.") Well, isn't at least some redistribution necessary on the basis of need? "Need a gardener allocate his services to those lawns which need him most?"
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.