Robert Nozick: Responding to the critics of my essay on the philosophical father of libertarianism.

Reading and lounging and watching.
June 24 2011 1:59 PM

The Liberty Scam, Part 2

Responding to the critics of my essay on Robert Nozick, the philosophical father of libertarianism.

(Continued from Page 1)

On point b), Thompson argues that even if the Chamberlain argument is flawed, I've ratcheted down on a relatively narrow set of passages, then suddenly pulled back to invalidate Nozick, libertarianism, etc.—and that this is finally too argumentatively tendentious.

To understand why this criticism is strictly merited but ultimately trivial, imagine the country had swung to the left over the past 30 years, as far as it has now swung to the right. An entire news network devotes itself around the clock to keeping the left's Communist fringe in a state of permanent arousal. Its talking heads nightly pound their respective tables with copies of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte; its anchors routinely quote St. Simone and Fourier. The message is unrelenting: A libertarian menace awaits us—a world of vast inequalities, poor health care, and slow, chronically delayed passenger trains—should we lower taxes even a fraction.

Now imagine my Lefty Land self wrote a piece (and, for the record, my Lefty Land self would write such a piece) arguing that Rawls, while a great philosopher, had helped along the country's drift left; that his Theory of Justice, while reprieving an emergent yuppie class from the awful burdens of self-making (allowing them to exit the rat race, turning instead to family, worship, aesthetic contemplation, and large public projects aimed at elevating the public good—principally, air-conditioned trains that go 280 mph) had finally chased away too many animal spirits; and that a return to market discipline was, on balance, a good thing.

Reversing ideological polarities, I hope, better measures the extent to which a climate of extremism has become our new normal, while pointing up how willfully distractive, not to say silly, many responses to my piece have been. My interest in Nozick is not pedantic; it is informed by a general reality that I find, to put it mildly, alarming. The point of much of the reaction to the piece is to throw as many obstacles (in Lefty Land, the equivalents would be Don't you know Marx once wrote X? Don't you know Fourier once repudiated Y? Don't you know Rawls was an intellectual giant? Don't you know Rawls was only a minor figure?)in the path of an enlightened discussion about the market and whether it conduces to just or merely random outcomes. The very cunning muddle at the heart of the Chamberlain example helps tease out how confused we still are about this question.

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Especially bizarre to me, in light of the context of the piece, is the claim that Nozick never sincerely repudiated libertarianism. In his essay "The Zig-Zag of Politics," he wrote, quite clearly, "The libertarian position I once propounded now seems to me seriously inadequate," adding that joint action can only take on full symbolic coloration when undertaken on behalf of the social whole and concluding: "The point is not simply to accomplish the particular purpose—that might be done through private contributions alone—or to get the others to pay too—that could occur by stealing the necessary funds from them—but also to speak solemnly in everyone's name, in the name of the society, about what it holds dear." That Nozick in an interview later repudiated this repudiation only demonstrates the man could not make up his mind about libertarianism, for or against—hardly an advertisement for the ware.

Let me conclude by acknowledging that high-church libertarians, following Nozick and Hayek, are (mostly) honest about the market's inability to distribute fair outcomes. That is not what the market is for; fair enough. But if the intellectual right truly is committed to high-church libertarianism, of the kind that argues market outcomes may be unjust but do maximize negative liberty, then the left has an easy task: point out the injustices, then allow voters to choose between justice and negative liberty. But the left has so committed itself to market economics, to squaring the circle of Keynes and Hayek (and basking its gifted Third Way eminences—men such as Larry Summers and his mini-me Brad Delong—in numinous intellectual authority) that it's lost its touch at pointing out even the most grotesque market injustices. The point of my piece was less to say, "Look at these godawful libertarians," than to say, "Look what we have done to ourselves."

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Stephen Metcalf is Slate's critic at large. He is working on a book about the 1980s.