Nozickian Argument Essay

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 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.

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?

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.

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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Why begin this series on arguments for libertarianism with Robert Nozick? He’s certainly not the first person to offer a philosophical justification for libertarianism, nor is he even the most widely read.

No, the reason to start with Nozick is because his classic work, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (ASU), is where nearly everyone starts if they’re coming to libertarianism for the first time in a philosophy classroom. And, in most cases, it’s where they end, too. For in the academy, Robert Nozick simply is libertarianism—and the arguments he makes in ASU represents for many political philosophers the whole of libertarian philosophy.

Another reason to start with ASU is that it’s just such a wonderful book. Nozick writes unlike nearly every other philosopher. He’s playful and funny. And he has a wonderfully refreshing attitude toward philosophical argument. “There is room for words on subjects other than last words,” Nozick writes in the book’s preface.

Indeed, the usual manner of presenting philosophical work puzzles me. Works of philosophy are written as though their authors believe them to be the absolutely final word on their subject. But it’s not, surely, that each philosopher thinks that he finally, thank God, has found the truth and built an impregnable fortress around it. We are all actually much more modest than that. For good reason. Having thought long and hard about the view he proposes, a philosopher has a reasonably good idea about its weak points; the places where great intellectual weight is placed upon something perhaps too fragile to bear it, the places where the unravelling of the view might begin, the unprobed assumptions he feels uneasy about.

Nozick maintains that modesty throughout ASU. And if that’s the only lesson we take from the book, it would still be worth reading. But it’s not. ASU has much to offer in its defense of liberty.

So what is Nozick’s libertarian position? It begins with natural rights. Quite literally. Here’s the first line of ASU: “Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights).”

These rights are natural in that we have them because of what we are and not because they were given to us by someone. But just saying we have rights isn’t the same as giving an argument for why we have them. To do this, Nozick draws on Immanuel Kant’s famous Categorical Imperative, specifically its second formulation: “Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only.” Humans are by nature rational beings possessing dignity. This dignity prevents us from being used by others, and hence we have rights against such use.

Our rights function as “side-constraints,” Nozick says, limiting what others—including the state—may do to us. We can’t trade rights away for benefits. For example, we are prohibited from deciding that a little more happiness or a little more wealth (or a lot more) is sufficient grounds for violating a person’s rights. People “may not be sacrificed or used for the achieving of other ends without their consent,” Nozick writes. “Individuals are inviolable.”

From this Nozick moves to a basic principle of self-ownership. I own myself and thus have a right to do with myself as I please. You own yourself and have the same right. I don’t own you and you don’t own me. This gives each one of us rights not only to ourselves, but also to the fruits of our labor. (Nozick argues for this last point along Lockean lines.) In other words, Nozick takes our fundamental rights to be of the negative sort. These are rights to be free from certain acts by other people (assault, theft, enslavement, etc.), not rights to be provided with certain goods and services (a right to healthcare, or a right to education).

But this leads to an enormous question when it comes to politics, one Nozick helpfully points out: “So strong and far-reaching are these rights that they raise the question of what, if anything, the state and its officials may do. How much room do individual rights leave for the state?”

The shortest answer is “not much.” The slightly longer outline Nozick provides—before spending much of the book defending his claims—looks like this:

Our main conclusions about the state are that a minimal state, limited to the narrow functions of protection against force, theft, fraud, enforcement of contracts, and so on, is justified; that any more extensive state will violate persons’ rights not to be forced to do certain things, and is unjustified; and that the minimal state is inspiring as well as right. Two noteworthy implications are that the state may not use its coercive apparatus for the purpose of getting some citizens to aid others, or in order to prohibit activities to people for their own good or protection.

This sets Nozick up for arguments with two groups. First, those who think this vision of the state is too small: progressives, liberal egalitarians, communitarians, socialists, conservatives, and so on. Second, those who think this vision of the state is too big: anarchists.

In my next post, I’ll turn to Nozick’s dispute with the anarchists, specifically his argument that the move from anarchy to a minimal state can occur without anyone’s rights being violated.

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