Of Malice and Straw Men

By Richman, Sheldon | Freeman, October 2011 | Go to article overview

Of Malice and Straw Men


Richman, Sheldon, Freeman


We libertarians must be onto something. Why else would critics work so hard to construct straw men to demolish rather than contending with our actual arguments?

Right from the top you could tell that Stephen Metcalf's blast in Slate would be no different (tinyurl. com/3epcbae). "Liberty Scam" featured this teaser: "Why even Robert Nozick, the philosophical father of libertarianism, gave up on the movement he inspired." That sentence contains two assertions - both wrong. I mean to take nothing away from Nozick when I point out that he was not the philosophical father of libertarianism. We can debate who might deserve that title, but I can say firsthand that he, she, or they helped give birth to libertarianism before 1974, when Nozick published Anarchy, State, and Utopia.

As for the second half of that sentence, Nozick never gave up on libertarianism. Metcalf makes much of Nozick's writing, "The libertarian position I once propounded now seems to me seriously inadequate. . ." and "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" - but is this a renunciation of libertarianism?

Those in fact were not Nozick's last words on the matter before his premature death in January 2002 at age 63. In an interview with Julian Sanchez six months earlier, Nozick said, "... I never stopped self-applying [the libertarian label]. What I was really saying in The Examined Life was that I was no longer as hardcore a libertarian as I had been before. But the rumors of my deviation (or apostasy!) from libertarianism were much exaggerated."

It gets worse for Metcalf. He spends most of his article on Nozick's famous Wilt Chamberlain thought experiment but misses the point. In critiquing "patterned," or "end-state," principles of justice, Nozick imagines that everyone has the amount of wealth necessary to satisfy some posited ideal pattern. It so happens that the people in this society love basketball and one of their members, Chamberlain, is a great player whom many are eager to watch. They each pay him a sum of money every time they attend a game. As a result of this series of exchanges Chamberlain has more money than the others. This raises a question: Is the initial "distributional" pattern to be preserved by force, or is free exchange to be allowed to change the pattern? As Nozick stated: "The general point ... is that no end-state principle or distributional patterned principle of justice can be continuously realized without continuous interference with people's lives."

For Nozick, if constant interference with free exchange - let's call it what it is: violence or the threat thereof - is required to preserve a given pattern, perhaps justice cannot lie in any preconceived pattern at all, for without liberty what becomes of autonomy and the moral injunction against treating others merely as means? He opted instead for an "entitlement theory of justice in distribution," which poses a historical test: "whether a distribution is just depends upon how it came about."

Metcalf is in a panic: IfWiIt Chamberlain is entitled to a bigger income than his fellow human beings when it results from voluntary exchange, it must follow that others are too. Metcalf doesn't want to face that issue, so he creates a distraction: "Anarchy[, State, and Utopia] 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?"

It's true that Nozick ultimately wants to defend free exchange (which he called "capitalist acts between consenting adults"), but to set the foundation, he needed to show that accepting a patterned conception of justice means giving up freedom. …

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