Of Malice and Straw Men


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. “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: If Wilt 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.

Metcalf prefers to have a different argument: How do we know the price Chamberlain receives is appropriate? “To a libertarian,” he says mockingly, “price is, in effect, the conscience of society finding its highest expression in every swipe of the debit card. . . . [A]ssuming a world in which labor and management arrive at gentleman’s agreements—and in which those agreements capture the precise value, down to the penny, of labor’s marginal product—tells us very little about justice.”

But what Nozick established with his Chamberlain story need not assume those things without additional theoretical argument. It is surely reasonable to ask if historical capitalism has faithfully mirrored the principle of free, voluntary exchange. In fact it has not. But this is no objection to Nozick, who was doing political philosophy, not economic history.

Metcalf gets a little carried away in searching for points to score on Nozick. Consider this:

The connivance is thus hidden in plain sight. “Wilt Chamberlain” is an African-American whose talents are unique, scarce, perspicuous (points, rebounds, assists), and in high demand. We feel powerfully the man should be paid, and not to do so—to expect a black athlete to perform for (largely) white audiences without adequate compensation—raises the specter of the plantation. But being a star athlete isn’t the only way to make money. In addition to earning a wage, one can garnish a wage, collect a fee, levy a toll, cash in a dividend, take a kickback, collect a monopoly rent, hit the superfecta, inherit Tara, insider trade, or stumble on Texas tea. For each way of conceiving wealth, there is at least one way of moralizing its distribution. The Wilt Chamberlain example is designed to corner us—quite cynically, in my view [!]—into moralizing all of them as if they were recompense for a unique talent that gives pleasure; and to tax each of them, and regulate each of them, according to the same principle of radical noninterference suggested by a black ballplayer finally getting his due.

Nozick’s Chamberlain principle obligates no one to defend the garnishing of wages and the collecting of tolls and monopoly rents, which require government privilege, or the profits of crooks like Bernie Madoff. It refers only to nonviolent, nonfraudulent, unprivileged sources of wealth. Metcalf implies that Nozick’s book is an apology for the corporate state, but in fact Nozick’s principles—consistently adhered to—rule out the statist devices that produce much “supernormal compensation.” Corporate power flows from the State—it’s the most dangerous derivative.

Metcalf ends on a naive note: “[T]he ‘libertarian’ right [sic] moves to take the risks of unemployment, disease, and, yes, accidents of birth, and devolve them entirely onto the responsibility of the individual. It is not just sad; it is repugnant.”

As if the welfare state historically has been much more than a cover for the corporatist privilege that harms the most vulnerable; and as if free individuals, looking out for one another in peaceful ways such as mutual-aid associations would be incapable of hedging against the risks of life.


October 2011



Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and, and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families.

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