Libertarianism Again

While writing about libertarianism a few weeks ago, I came across a 2011 article at Slate by Stephen Metcalf called “The Liberty Scam”. Its subtitle is “Why even Robert Nozick, the philosophical father of libertarianism, gave up on the movement he inspired”. Having finally gotten around to reading it, I highly recommend the article if you’ve ever considered yourself an economic libertarian or tried to argue with one. Or if you have an interest in politics or the recent history of ideas.

Metcalf points out that modern, generally right-wing economic libertarianism relies on a very selective view of capitalism. In particular, Nozick’s famous Wilt Chamberlain argument equates all economic activity with the special case of an extremely talented basketball player who can negotiate a stratospheric salary. Nozick claimed that someone like Wilt Chamberlain should be able to negotiate whatever salary the market will bear, and that forcing Chamberlain to pay taxes in order to benefit other people is forced labor (“Need a gardener allocate his services to those lawns which need him most?”). The rest of us, presumably, are a lot like Wilt Chamberlain.

After demolishing the Chamberlain argument and briefly explaining why Nozick came to appreciate that society is more than a random collection of individuals, Metcalf tries to explain why someone as thoughtful as Robert Nozick would make the arguments he did. Metcalf’s theory is that in 1970, when Nozick published Anarchy, State and Utopia, America and places like Harvard had benefited from decades of enormous government investment:

The GI Bill was on its way to investing more in education grants, business loans, and home loans than all previous New Deal programs combined. By 1954, with the Cold War in full swing, the U.S. government was spending 20 times what it had spent on research before the war.

As a result, members of the academic elite, including Harvard professors, were sharing in the general economic prosperity, even if their salaries hadn’t matched Wilt Chamberlain’s. Unfortunately for their bank accounts, however, tax rates were much higher than today. In 1969, when Nozick was writing his classic book, the highest federal tax rate was 77%, almost twice what it is now. It’s no wonder that Nozick saw virtue in a political ideology that considers taxation beyond the bare minimum a kind of theft:

By allowing for the enormous rise in (relative) income and prestige of the upper white collar professions, Keynesianism created the very blind spot by which professionals turned against Keynesianism…. Many upper-white-collar professionals convinced themselves their pre-eminence was not an accident of history or the product of negotiated protections from the marketplace but the result of their own unique mental talents fetching high prices in a free market for labor. Just this cocktail of vanity and delusion helped Nozick edge out [the liberal philosophy of John] Rawls in the marketplace of ideas, making Anarchy a surprise best-seller. It helped make Ronald Reagan president five years later. So it was the public good that killed off the public good.

One day the tide will turn (maybe). In the meantime, I was going to sum up with that well-known quote to the effect that we in the modern world are ignorantly walking in the footsteps of some obscure academic of the past, but couldn’t find the damn quotation (clearly, search engines haven’t got artificial intelligence quite yet). So I decided to go with a remark attributed, probably incorrectly, to Abraham Lincoln:

The philosophy of the schoolroom in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next.

But while writing the previous paragraph, a key word popped into my head, namely, “scribbler”, which is the term John Maynard Keynes used when he wrote The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, 35 years before Robert Nozick wrote Anarchy, State and Utopia:

The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back….Sooner or later, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil.

4 thoughts on “Libertarianism Again

  1. I recall reading the article a few years past and thought the Wilt Chamberlain hypothetical was badly misunderstood.

    Nozick wasn’t defending all forms of wealth distribution. He was showing how people voluntarily disposing of their income can create income inequality. The point was to show how Rawls’s theory of a preferred income distribution is at odds with the notion of personal freedom. Right or wrong, Nozick thought that to maintain a preferred pattern of income distribution, you have to curtail how other people spend their incomes.

    The title of the section in the book is “How Liberty Upsets Patterns.” That might give you pause to consider whether the rest of the article is as representative of Nozick’s actual views.

    • I think Metcalf and Rawls would agree that some interference with how people spend their income (and how much of their income they have to spend) is justified for the good of society, even though it infringes on people’s liberty. I don’t think they’d deny that, or that income inequality is a natural result of people spending their incomes however they want. But they wouldn’t agree that the liberty to spend one’s income is the supreme value.

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