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.

Wilt Chamberlain. Click image to expand.
How valid is Robert Nozick's "Wilt Chamberlain argument"?

In writing about Robert Nozick earlier this week, I wanted to ask whether our drift to the right has at its core a basic misconception about the relationship between human nature and individual rights, between talent and just deserts, and whether a version of that misconception could be found a) in germ form in Nozick's 1974 treatise and b) virtually everywhere, implicit and explicit, in contemporary American discourse. Much of the critical reaction to my essay has been merely spastic or courtesy of people accustomed to the shady comforts of the fringe. Obscurity, munificent sponsorship, and echo-chamber "debates"—each contributes to the presumption one is shepherd to a pure flame and not a minor water carrier for class interests.

Stephen Metcalf Stephen Metcalf

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

Setting aside the predictable liberty-league seizures, there is an error in the piece, there is a potential conceptual muddle in it, and one especially bizarre criticism has been levied against it. All three ought to be addressed outright.

As Brad Delong points out, I ran together Keynes' angry marginalia in Hayek's review of Keynes' A Treatise on Money with Keynes' angry published review of Hayek's Prices and Production, and then—an act of wishful thinking—placed the comment in the margins of Keynes' copy of Road to Serfdom. Delong is right in saying Keynes wrote Hayek telling him he admired Road ("a grand book"), but since Delong's primary interest is in pampering his own self-image as the scourge of a lazy world, he leaves his reader with a false, or at least, incomplete impression.

By the time Keynes wrote to Hayek (a letter Delong might study for its tone of confident generosity) he had all but crushed Hayek as a potential rival and regarded him with some pity, as evidenced by his ginger-to-the-point-of-condescending tone. He is gently pointing out to Hayek that though his principles may be sound, they are all but meaningless. ("But as soon as you admit the extreme is not possible … you are, on your own argument, done for …") Nothing about my overall point—that Keynes' patronizing attitude toward Hayek was representative of the "polite" academic attitude toward libertarianism after the war—is refuted by my admittedly careless error.

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Julian Sanchez and Mark Thompson make related points about whether or not a single four-page example is sufficiently representative of Anarchy, State, and Utopia, much less of Nozick, much less of all libertarianism, to hang my argument on. On the narrow point, as I made clear, an entire book is necessary to grapple with ASU, but an essay seems an appropriately scaled venue to pick apart one of its more renowned and persuasive examples. (A critical technique common to Biblical, Talmudic, Koranic, literary, and philosophic scholarship, however ardently Sanchez implies my CV doesn't qualify me to write about his beloved hero.)

More crucially: Is it possible to a) construe the example, as I have, as a somewhat willful, even sinister muddle of a historical reality (of the plight of the black athlete) with an abstract argument about justice, interference, and coercion and b) extrapolate from that muddle to the current state of political debate, influenced now as it never has been by self-proclaimed libertarians?

On point a) I'm tempted to let the essay speak for itself, but let me add: Why, if Nozick did not want to game his example, did he choose Wilt? After all, if Sanchez is correct, isn't the point made just as well with, say, a happy-go-lucky doofus who rides a wave of Internet exuberance and cashes out big, all while adding to the world precisely zero utility? Absent an injustice in each step (the prospectus is accurate, the bankers price the IPO fairly) the resulting gross inequality itself cannot be regarded as unjust. But I didn't choose Wilt Chamberlain; Nozick chose Wilt Chamberlain. I.E., he wanted to harvest all of the sentimental associations from a historical reality while leaving behind all its real-world complications. Sanchez takes this criticism as indication I'm unfamiliar with thought experiments. But if my thought experiment begins, "Imagine a robber baron, glutted on Christmas-day turkey, while little Tiny Tim attenuates, hungry in the corner …" am I still doing philosophy?