Posted by: captainfalcon | June 21, 2011

Stupid attack on libertarianism

This is a stupid article about Robert Nozick and libertarianism that is justly taken to task here, here, and (Aaron’s inaugural Catopost – hoowah!) here.

I would add that Brian Leiter is right that Anarchy, State and Utopia’s intellectual and historical significance – indeed, Robert Nozick’s intellectual and historical significance – pales in comparison to Hayek’s, not (as Metcalf suggests) vice versa. This is largely because, as Thomas Nagel puckishly points out in Libertarianism Without Foundations, ASU is question begging:

Nozick starts from the unargued premise that individuals have certain inviolable rights which may not be intentionally transgressed by other individuals or the state for any purpose. They are the rights not to be killed or assaulted if one is doing no harm, not to be coerced or imprisoned, not to have one’s property taken or destroyed, and not to be limited in the use of one’s property so long as one does not violate the rights of others. He concludes that the only morally permissible state would be the minimal night watchman state, a state limited to protecting people against murder, assault, theft, fraud, and breach of contract. The argument is not one which derives a surprising conclusion from plausible premises. No one (except perhaps an anarchist) who did not already accept the conclusion would accept the premise, and the implausibility of each can only serve to reinforce a conviction of the implausibility of the other.

Also, popular critics always make hash of the Wilt Chamberlain example (particularly pathetic given that, as Boaz observes in the post I linked above, it is the only part of Nozick’s book they ever bother with). Its point, contra Metcalf, is not to make intuitive the view that redistribution is unjust; its point is to show that efforts at “patterned” distribution will result in redistribution (i.e. taking property from some and giving it to others). Thus given Nozick’s unargued premise, patterned distributions are unjust. But the Chamberlain example itself is not an argument for the injustice of redistribution – it is a lemma in an argument for the injustice of redistribution the other premise of which is the question-begging one with which Nozick starts. As Nagel puts it:

[Taking Wilt Chamberlain’s money] only seems a problem to Nozick, and a further violation of liberty, because he erroneously interprets the notion of a patterned principle as specifying a distribution of absolute entitlements (like those he believes in) to the wealth or property distributed. But absolute entitlement to property is not what would be allocated to people under a partially egalitarian distribution. Possession would confer the kind of qualified entitlement that exists in a system under which taxes and other conditions are arranged to preserve certain features of the distribution, while permitting choice, use, and exchange of property compatible with it. What someone holds under such a system will not be his property in the unqualified sense of Nozick’s system of entitlement. To suppose otherwise is to beg the question…

I’d close only by saying it is curious to me why libertarians bother defending Nozick. [I think it’s because he was a Harvard professor, so they get cachet from his name being loosely affiliated with their policy initiatives.] To be sure, they are right to to take Metcalf to task for his inept attacks on libertarianism. But Nozick’s writing – in fact just about every piece of philosophy (political or not) by him that I’ve read – is (clever, to be sure, but also) eccentric. Hayek is a more persuasive libertarian. Narveson, even, is more persuasive libertarian (The Libertarian Idea sets out to make a “libertarianism with foundations”).

ASU, on the other hand, is intriguing for its chapter on compensation, its remarks on not killing animals, and its experience machine example. But otherwise, while sparky, it generates neither heat nor light. And, insofar as it is so doctrinaire, it actually makes libertarianism less appealing than it can be. [I think that’s what Nagel means when he says “No one (except perhaps an anarchist) who did not already accept the conclusion would accept the premise, and the implausibility of each can only serve to reinforce a conviction of the implausibility of the other” (emphasis added).]

Update: I’d note that Jason Kuznicki, in the post I linked, also misunderstands the point of the Wilt Chamberlain example. On his view, “[the] example is useful because it strips away every possibility of force, fraud, corporate welfare, and government favoritism. When we do that, we can see that it’s still possible to grow wealthy through honest, voluntary methods. That’s a valuable insight, even if you don’t necessarily agree with everything else Robert Nozick ever wrote.”

Now, I suppose you could be too-clever-by-half and say that, indeed, the example is useful insofar as it is a reminder that you can be honest, pacifistic, and rich. Maybe that’s not what Nozick was using it for, but it can be used thusly, and is worth keeping in the armamentarium to combat the rhetorical excesses of the left.

But let’s be real. Kuznicki implies that the point of the Wilt Chamberlain example is to show the logical possibility of honest, non-coercive wealth. That’s not Nozick’s aim. He is, as I said earlier, trying to show that any patterned distribution of entitlements (Nozick never actually defines a patterned distribution, he just gives examples: equal distribution; distribution according to merit; according to need; according to intelligence) will require redistributing entitlements. The example shows this by indicating that starting from any initial pattern of distribution – egalitarian, meritocratic, necessity, or whatever – there can be a series of purely voluntary transactions that disrupt the pattern [e.g. voluntarily paying to watch Wilt Chamberlain play basketball]. To maintain the pattern, then, you need to take from Chamberlain. Thus, assuming Nozick is right that to treat people as ends the state must not take property they have acquired voluntarily from others, maintaining a pattern is unjust. This is a key lemma in Nozick’s argument for his own unpatterned (or “historical”) theory of property rights [the components of which are: initial acquisition; transfer; restitution].


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