Sometimes an article comes along that is so blindingly stupid and misinformed that the mind reels in a vain attempt to understand how such a thing could be published by any semi-reputable organization. In my personal experience, these articles often discuss the history of the libertarian movement or libertarian ideas. I’m certainly not contending that this is the only subject that attracts wildly inaccurate commentary like a picnic attracts ants, but it’s the one where I can spot these stories most easily.
Today’s entry is this deeply confused article on the supposedly baleful influence of philosopher Robert Nozick and his 1974 book Anarchy, State, and Utopia. The only proper response to a piece this nonsensical is something like this:
Nonetheless, I am going to attempt to correct some of author Stephen Metcalf’s more glaring errors.
First, the central conceit of the article–or at least the subtitle–is flat out wrong. Nozick did write that “The libertarian position I once propounded now seems to me seriously inadequate.” Metcalf assumes that this statement is a renunciation of libertarianism, but that’s not what Nozick meant, as Nozick himself explained in an interview shortly before his death:
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. I think this book makes clear the extent to which I still am within the general framework of libertarianism, especially the ethics chapter and its section on the “Core Principle of Ethics.”
Sadly, it doesn’t get any better from there. Metcalf quotes Keynes as highly critical of Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, claiming that Keynes scribbled in the margins of his copy, “An extraordinary example of how, starting with a mistake, a remorseless logician can end up in Bedlam.” Again, Keynes did write that and about Hayek no less, but the line appeared in his review of the dense economic tome Prices and Production. Liberal economist Brad Delong first blogged this error and goes on to note that Keynes was actually quite found of The Road to Serfdom, calling it ” a grand book….Morally and philosophically I find myself in agreement with virtually the whole of it: and not only in agreement with it, but in deeply moved agreement.”
Even more importantly, Metcalf drastically overstates Nozick’s importance:
I like to think that when Nozick published Anarchy, the levee broke, the polite Fabian consensus collapsed, and hence, in rapid succession: Hayek won the Nobel Prize in economics in 1974, followed by Milton Friedman in ’75, the same year Thatcher became Leader of the Opposition, followed by the California and Massachusetts tax revolts, culminating in the election of Reagan, and … well, where it stops, nobody knows.
Metcalf may like to think that, but that doesn’t make it true. Don’t get me wrong–Nozick was one of the intellectual giants of libertarianism and made the philosophy a somewhat respectable position among academic philosophers. That’s a very insular group, however, and Metcalf presents no evidence that it was Nozick’s popularity that propelled Hayek and Friedman to their Nobel Prizes. Probably because that evidence doesn’t exist.
A more plausible explanation for the Sveriges Riksbank’s recognition of Hayek and Friedman is that the Keynesian consensus was collapsing in the mid-1970s, and Hayek and Friedman offered alternative theories. The combination of slow economic growth and high inflation known as stagflation is essentially impossible under classic Keynesian models, but both the British and American economies seemed cursed with it in the 1970s. Contrary to Metcalf’s nostalgia, the 1970s were a terrible decade economically, and Keynesian economics proved inadequate to address the problems we faced. I don’t deny that Nozick was a powerful advocate for libertarianism, but the economic crisis did more to shift people’s views on economic policy in a more market oriented direction than any single thinker.
Furthermore, although Nozick played an important role in the history of libertarian ideas, I believe he has been less influential than any of the other big names, by which I mean Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Ayn Rand, and Murray Rothbard. I’ve been active in libertarian circles for nearly a decade now. I work for a free market think tank. I probably know around 1,000 libertarians personally. Yet I have not heard even a single person credit Robert Nozick for making them a libertarian. I’ve heard all the others–more times than I can count–but Nozick comes up only occasionally as an influence and never as the decisive one. I readily concede that this is not a scientific measure of Nozick’s influence among libertarians, but this is not a huge movement, and after working within it for this long, I think I have a pretty good sense of who the big influences are…or at least a better sense than Stephen Metcalf.
All this might be forgivable if Metcalf’s assault on Nozick’s famous Wilt Chamberlain thought experiment–which occupies a huge chunk of the article–was accurate and interesting. Unfortunately, Metcalf only engages with a strawman version of Nozick’s argument. Metcalf seems to think that Nozick intended for the Wilt Chamberlain example to be some kind of allegory for the economy as a whole. Instead, Nozick was simply showing why a specific pattern of wealth distribution is impossible to maintain without constant government intervention. As Auburn University philosopher Roderick Long explained in a 2002 article commemorating Nozick’s life and work:
ASU‘s most famous argument–the “Wilt Chamberlain example”–is also its most misunderstood. Criticizing “patterned” theories of justice–that is, those that regard the distribution of resources in society as just only if it fits some preconceived pattern (say, equality)–Nozick asked us to imagine a society that in fact realizes the desired pattern. He pointed out that if people are free to transfer their resources as they wish, the society will quickly deviate from the established pattern, as some individuals, like basketball star Wilt Chamberlain, become wealthy as a result of the voluntary decisions of other members of society who are willing to purchase the exercise of their talents.
If the original pattern is to be maintained at all costs, then the government must “continually interfere to stop people from transferring resources as they wish”; hence no patterned theory of justice can be implemented without “continuous interference in people’s lives” (p. 163). Nozick thus rejected patterned theories in favor of a “historical” theory, according to which a given distribution of resources, regardless of what pattern it fits, is legitimate so long as it arose through a process involving no violations of anybody’s rights.
Metcalf’s abuse of the facts are by no means limited to those detailed here, but going through all of them would require an article far longer than his original. In fact, if Slate removed everything that is incorrect or misleading in the article, they’d soon be left with nothing but prepositions. For that reason, I believe Slate’s editors should retract this piece. Not because I disagree with many of Metcalf’s philosophical principles, although that does appear to be the case, but because even with heavy editing and correction, this article is so fallacious that it detracts from public discourse.