Slate’s Culture Gabfest is one of my favorites, even though the main host, Stephen Metcalf, on occasion lets his noxious, smug statism leak out. Witness his recent essay about libertarians and Robert Nozick. It’s already been roundly thrashed–see Will Wilkinson, The Economist, When the levee breaks; Matt Welch, Some Factual Errors in the Latest Slate Attack on Libertarianism; Gordon on Nozick on Slate. In his article and in the podcast discussing it, Metcalf claims Nozick recanted his libertarianism. This is not true. He merely said he thought parts of it were inadequate. And later he made clear he had not recanted it at all (see Gordon’s piece).
There are so many errors in Metcalf’s piece it’s difficult to know where to begin, but thankfully the bloggers noted above or linked in their posts have made a good start. But for instance he mischaracterizes the brilliant Wilt Chamberlain example that demolishes the case for egalitarianism, and, if I read him correctly, even seems to insinuates a racist aspect to the example:
“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.
I cannot be sure Metcalf is indeed insinuating the example only has appeal to racists, or that Nozick had hidden racist messages here–I don’t want to accuse someone even of race-baiting unfairly; but detect a bit of this here. Yet there is nothing racist about the example. As Gordon explains,
Metcalf’s understanding of the Wilt Chamberlain example is flawed. The example doesn’t assume that Chamberlain has negotiated with the team’s owner to receive part of the ticket price. To the contrary, those who want to see him play voluntarily pay 25 cents to do so. The point of the example is that to preserve a pattern of distribution—say equality—requires substantial interference with the free choices that people make from a distribution that according to the patterned theory itself is a just one. The example doesn’t at all depend on assuming perfectly competitive markets. Rather, it aims to show that patterns upset liberty.
As for other problems with Metcalf’s essay, other than those handled by other critics already: first, he assumes Nozick makes the most respected case for libertarianism, the one that has to be taken down–thus, showing he recanted is important. Well maybe Nozick is the only one taken seriously in academia, but so what? There’s a reason for this, Radical libertarians do not see him this way. In fact Nozick was a somewhat the dilettante, not that radical, and Anarchy, State and Utopia was an argument for the legitimacy of the state (albeit a minimal one), not an argument for radical anarchy. See, e.g., Murray Rothbard’s Robert Nozick and the Immaculate Conception of the State. Rothbard was the real libertarian radical; Hoppe does great job comparing and contrasting the approaches of Nozick and Rothbard in Murray N. Rothbard and the Ethics of Liberty:
Nozick’s method rather made for interest and excitement of a particular kind. Rothbard’s The Ethics of Liberty consisted essentially of one successively and systematically drawn out and elaborated argument, and thus required the long sustained attention of its reader. However, a reader of Rothbard’s book could possibly get so excited that he would not want to put it down until he had finished it. The excitement caused by Anarchy, State, and Utopia was of a very different kind. The book was a series of dozens of disparate or loosely jointed arguments, conjectures, puzzles, counterexamples, experiments, paradoxes, surprising turns, startling twists, intellectual flashes, and razzle-dazzle, and thus required only short and intermittent attention of its reader. At the same time, few if any readers of book likely will have felt the urge to read it straight through. Instead, reading Nozick was characteristically done unsystematically and intermittently, in bits and pieces. The excitement stirred by Nozick was intense, short, and fleeting; and the success of Anarchy, State, and Utopia was due to the fact that at all times, and especially under democratic conditions, there are far more high time-preference intellectuals—intellectual thrill seekers—than patient and disciplined thinkers.
Despite his politically incorrect conclusions, Nozick’s libertarianism was deemed respectable by the academic masses and elicited countless comments and replies, because it was methodologically non-committal; that is, Nozick did not claim that his libertarian conclusions proved anything. Even though one would think that ethics is—and must be—an eminently practical intellectual subject, Nozick did not claim that his ethical “explorations” had any practical implications. They were meant to be nothing more than fascinating, entertaining, or suggestive intellectual play. As such, libertarianism posed no threat to the predominantly social-democratic intellectual class. On account of his unsystematic method—his philosophical pluralism—Nozick was “tolerant” vis-à-vis the intellectual establishment (his anti-establishment conclusions notwithstanding). He did not insist that his libertarian conclusions were correct and, for instance, socialist conclusions were false and accordingly demand their instant practical implementation (that is, the immediate abolition of the democratic welfare state, including all of public tax-funded education and research). Rather, libertarianism was, and claimed to be, no more than just an interesting thought. He did not mean to do any real harm to the ideas of his socialist opponents. He only wanted to throw an interesting idea into the democratic open-ended intellectual debate, while everything real, tangible, and physical could remain unchanged and everyone could go on with his life and thoughts as before.
(Metcalf also implies Nozick was the only respected academic who argued for libertarianism–oh? what about Hayek (LSE), Richard Epstein (Chicago) and Milton Friedman (Chicago)?)
In the podcast, Metcalf also says he views libertarianism as “hateful.” Oh really? Tolerance for others, a willingness to respect their rights to their bodies and property is hateful? In the podcast he also implies libertarianism was ascendant in the 70s–hello, Nixon severed the tie to gold in the 70s. He also seems to imply that the failure of Keynesinianism to explain stagflation in the 70s helped undermine libertarian thought–what the libertarian-predicted failure of Keynes’s socialist ideas has to do with the failure of libertarianism is anyone’s guess. Likewise, Metcalf’s insinuation that the 2008 financial crisis showed the breakdown of libertarianism is confused; this was a culmination of state interventionism, of course, not the fault of human freedom and free markets. And in his piece he holds up Margaret Thatcher as some avatar of libertarianism, and mangles her comment about society:
Take Margaret Thatcher’s infamous provocation—”There’s no such thing as society”—with its implication that human beings are nothing more than brutishly competitive atoms.
This does not imply this at all. It merely recognizes that society is just a concept denoting the activities and interrelationships of actual individual human beings; that individuals do exist and are the primary social unit. It is a call to not be misled by metaphors or sloppy philosophy into overriding the rights of human beings in the name of higher-order concepts like “society.”
In essence, Metcalf’s arguments are just like those of conservatives (which is why I’m a libertarian). The basic argument (of both Metcalf and conservatives) is: “well of course we believe in individualism, individual rights, property rights, free markets–it’s just that it’s not our “only value.”" By this trick they are able to argue for state violence against innocent people. Libertarians are the ultimate liberals because we are tolerant of differences, and respect individual rights. We will never condone physical violence used against innocent individuals. Talk of “other values” “in addition to” “individual rights” is a smuggled, dishonest, indirect way of saying that in some cases it’s okay for the institutional violent force of the state to be brought to bear on innocent people. Obviously, that is not liberal. It’s illiberal. That’s why it has to be disguised. Instead of saying “normally I’m against the commission of violent criminal aggression against peaceful, innocent individuals, I condone it in some cases for the purpose of what to me is a higher value”–which is what the private criminal and the sociopath and the genocidal tyrant also say, of course–they word it differently, to cover this up, just like a cat with his mess in the litter box or a politician on the stump: “We’re in favor of individual ‘autonomy’ but we are ‘also’ in favor of ‘other values.’ We need to ‘balance’ these values for the overall good.” I.e., to make an omelet, you have to break a few eggs.
My basic view is a libertarian is a liberal who is not economically illiterate, and who is not overly caught up in loosey-goosey non-rigorous liberal arts “metaphors” (eg about “society” and “individuals” etc.).
Update: For more commentary:
- Ben Nolan, Some Factual Errors in the Latest “Reason” Attack on the Slate Attack on Libertarianism
- John Payne, Not Even Close
- Andrew Sullivan, Superstar Economics
And the best response so far: Daniel Jepson, A Review of Stephen Metcalf’s critique of libertarianism. Excerpt:
And the most devastating response so far to Steve’s attempt to criticize libertarainsism: “Thus far, we have seen that with his article’s main thesis, Mr Metcalf has managed to achieve the rarely-seen Triple Crown of rhetorical failure: his central (indeed, titular) fact – that Nozick “abandoned” the libertarian movement – is simply wrong; his implication that this fact, were it true, would deal a significant blow to the libertarian edifice rests on a risibly shallow understanding of the history of libertarian ideas; and finally, his attempt to drive further nails into the coffin of ASU via his own analysis is based entirely on a misunderstanding of the Nozick’s argument.”
See also Jepson’s A Response to Stephen Metcalf’s Critique of Libertarianism, Part 2.
Metcalf’s response to critics: Responding to the critics of my essay on Robert Nozick, the philosophical father of libertarianism.
Sheldon Richman’s devastating reply: Of Malice and Straw Men: Another empty attack.