Within the shadowy halls of the elect trading goes on as eternally usual. The gods and saints exchange entitlements, one for another, as they adjust things to suit day-to-day fluctuations in their needs and wants. We poor mortals who seek grace must strive to replicate the situation, imperfectly no doubt, but as well we can. At any rate, that is what libertarians would like us to believe. But, as we have seen, one need only chip away at the foundations a little to discover that there is nothing to shore up this rickety vision but an over-exaggerated metaphor. How characteristic of our times it is, though, that heaven should be pictured as Wall Street in the sky.
In this chapter, I should like to explore this theme further. There would be no point in any more detailed examination of Nozick’s argument, because the view of rights rejected in the last chapter lies at the heart of this type of libertarianism’s world picture. Other rights-based libertarians present less well-articulated accounts than Nozick’s and, although some readers will no doubt feel that all hangs on some other argument, as Nozick says of Williams, I should like to see that argument set out in detail. I doubt that it exists, and it would now be more interesting to widen the discussion.
It is equally characteristic of our times, I guess, that so much libertarian theory should be couched in the technical style of post-war ‘analytic’ philosophy. Here too, Nozick provides a good example, with his piecemeal approach, his careful examination of (sometimes surprising and unusual) examples and counter-examples, his tendency to explore an argument’s less obvious implications in detail, and so on. All of this is absolutely fine, but in the case of libertarianism - one of its more interesting aspects - the style of expression completely belies the content of the theory expressed.
The way rights-based libertarians handle the concept of freedom is one good illustration of the point. What I have in mind is this. One would expect analytically-inclined philosophers sympathetic to libertarianism to agree with Berlin that ‘the belief that some single formula can in principle be found whereby all the diverse ends of men can be harmoniously realised is demonstrably false’ (Berlin 1969: 169). One would expect them to hold the idea of any such ‘realm of true freedom’ to be a futile, not to say dangerous, illusion which can only be fostered with the help of some highly suspicious logical sleights of hand; and I am sure that, in their more sober moments, many of them will tell you just that. Are there not - moreover - freedom’s myriad ‘recognised antitheses’ to consider, and wouldn’t those sleights involve glossing over and distorting these? I think they would. But remove the analytically-styled packaging and you will find concealed within it just one more version of exactly this illusion.