Sunday, June 26, 2011

A Response to Stephen Metcalf's critique of libertarianism

Edited 6/27/11, to better explain the issue of Nozick's conception of justice

One of the indispensable attributes for any libertarian in the early 21st-century is a very thick skin. We must constantly hear our ideas misrepresented, twisted, summarily dismissed via idiotic pop economic reasoning, summarily dismissed via even-more-idiotic Keynesian economic reasoning, and/or generally placed on a par with some combination of devil-worship and geocentrism. In most cases, if we are to maintain both our sanity and good relations with our fellow human beings, we must rise above such episodes with little more than a knowing smile. However, recently published an article by Stephen Metcalf that is so egregiously awful that it cannot be passed over in silence. It is titled "The Liberty Scam - Why even Robert Nozick, the philosophical father of libertarianism, gave up on the movement he inspired." The author claims that libertarianism, which, as we all know, is little more than an excuse for rich capitalist people to continue their never-ending quest to exploit the poor, gained a potentially troublesome veneer of intellectual respectability when Harvard philosophy professor Robert Nozick published Anarchy, State, and Utopia - a book-length defense of libertarian ideas - in 1974. But not to worry: our hero has identified a fatal flaw in Nozick's reasoning; moreover, he informs us that Nozick himself abandoned libertarianism later in his career. And while libertarian ideas continue to exert a regrettable influence on real-world events (such as when the Federal Reserve bails out Too Big To Fail banks) we can rest assured that with the movement's erstwhile champion safely disposed of, the rest of the civilized world will soon come around to the author's final conclusion that a political organization based on unfettered freedom of individual action (and its counterpart, unmitigated individual bearing of risk) is "not only sad, but repugnant."

How does a libertarian respond to this? What has our fearsome adversary gotten wrong in his bold assault? In a word: everything. Even sparing any extended response to the absurd motive-mongering association of libertarian ideas with the interests of the wealthy - which ought to be an outright embarrassment to intellectually-mature readers of any political persuasion - we are still spoiled for choice when it comes to points of rebuttal.

First, Mr Metcalf badly overestimates Nozick's stature within the libertarian movement. It is doubtless true that the popularly-accessible style of Anarchy, State, and Utopia has been responsible for a more widespread familiarity with libertarian ideas among the general populace. But while serious libertarians remain grateful for this high-profile effort on their behalf, (and for the not-infrequent moments of genuine philosophical brilliance contained in the book), this is mixed with a tinge of embarrassment at the shallow treatment that Nozick gives to the ultimate foundations of the libertarian edifice in comparison with writers such as Jan Narveson, in The Libertarian Idea, or Roger Pilon, whose obscure but brilliant essay
"Ordering Rights Consistently: Or What We Do and Do Not Have Rights To", published in The Georgia Law Review of 1979, may be the most convincing purely philosophical treatment of all. But by far the greatest shortcoming in the author's implied hierarchy of libertarian ideas is the short shrift given to the so-called Austrian economists - in particular, the triumvirate of Mises, Hayek, and Rothbard. To be fair, the author does grant a passing reference to the first two: these economists, perhaps the two greatest thinkers in the history of the Austrian tradition, are included by Mr Metcalf among the "nutters and shills" of post-WWII libertarians, not on the basis of any direct evaluation of their writings, but because the solid, if unspectacular, roster of professorial appointments they held in their careers (which, of course, is the ultimate standard by which a thinker's ideas are to be judged) was apparently tainted by the influence of (gasp!) corporate sponsorship; and because the infallible John Maynard Keynes once deigned to write a critical note in the margin of his copy of Hayek's Prices and Production, thereby settling the matter once and for all. Meanwhile, Mises's American protege Murray Rothbard, who was known in his lifetime as "Mr Libertarian", who was directly responsible for sparking Nozick's interest in libertarian ideas (as Nozick states in the preface of ASU) and who explored these ideas at much greater depth than Nozick (cf. The Ethics of Liberty), is never even mentioned. Once one is aware of the awe-inspiring depth with which these thinkers treat libertarian themes, it becomes clear that at an attempt to discredit libertarianism via an attack on Nozick is like trying to refute the theory of relativity by quibbling with a Bill Nye presentation.

It may be objected at this point that our author's primary concern is the status of libertarian ideas within the general zeitgeist of American thought, and that the timing of the publication of Nozick's book fits so closely with the increase in prominence of these ideas that it must have played a causal role. While this may be correct to some degree, it is both irrelevant to any serious critical evaluation of libertarian thought (which should clearly focus on the best writings from that tradition, not merely the most popular) and grossly overstated - Mr Metcalf suggests, with no apparent trace of irony, that the publication of a pop philosophy account of libertarianism somehow resulted in the award of Nobel Prizes in economics to Hayek in 1974 (after all, thanks to Keynes's marginal scribblings, we know that he couldn't have won it on his own merits) and Milton Friedman in 1975. In fact, a much more plausible explanation for the sudden academic success enjoyed by free-marketeers at this time is the dismal economic performance of the 1970s. It became apparent to a great many people with a modicum of economic literacy (a subset that our author has clearly not bothered to join, judging by his rather confused references to Keynes throughout the article, among many other errors) that the interventionist Keynesian orthodoxy of the time was inadequate, leaving Milton Friedman's monetarism as the dominant tradition in macroeconomic thought. The 1970s also featured the incipient resurgence of the Austrian school, which has continued an accelerating expansion to this day; they can now boast of faculty appointments at several prominent American universities, with no corporate sponsorship involved.

Second, the claim that Nozick "abandoned" his earlier libertarianism is simply incorrect. Here is what Nozick himself had to say, in an interview shortly before his death in 2002: "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." As we can see here, it is true that Nozick did indeed soften the stance set forward in ASU. Had Mr Metcalf seen fit to quote these modifications in their proper context, and subject them to substantive discussion, they could conceivably have provided interesting material with which to criticize the libertarian position. Instead, he crudely distorts this modulation of Nozick's thought in order to use it as a would-be point of fact in support of his simplistic hatchet-job on the libertarian movement. The loss that results accrues entirely to his own credibility.

Perhaps Mr Metcalf thought it unnecessary to explore Nozick's deviation from ASU in any meaningful manner because he was so confident in his own criticism of Nozick's earlier work. But this attack (which, like many critical responses to ASU, focuses on the famous "Wilt Chamberlain example") is thoroughly defective. In his book, Nozick introduces Wilt Chamberlain in order to illustrate the point that any chosen end-state conception of justice (D1) is liable to be upset - virtually instantaneously - by voluntary transactions to the mutual benefit of all parties, such as when a large number of people pay to watch Wilt Chamberlain play basketball. The resulting end-state D2 is highly different from D1 (Wilt Chamberlain has become much wealthier) but surely, no matter how great one's attachment to the D1 pattern, there can be nothing unjust about D2, if it was reached in this manner. All of this is dutifully summarized by Mr Metcalf. Then he goes on the attack: the Wilt Chamberlain example is used as a justification of capitalism...but what relevance can it have in this context when it makes no reference to "real" capitalist activity? He suggests that by focusing on the similarities between Chamberlain profiting from his talent and a capitalist profiting from his nefarious activities, while ignoring the potential morally-relevant differences, Nozick is surreptitiously smuggling exploitative conduct into his vision of justice, hidden behind an example that is carefully chosen not to offend the moral sensibilities of his readers. (In one of the article's particularly cringe-worthy nadirs, Mr Metcalf even brings up the spectacularly irrelevant factor of Chamberlain's race.)

Mr Metcalf has erred here by imposing onto the discussion of justice the very element that Nozick seeks to call into question. In a sense, he misrepresents Nozick's thought experiment as being of the form: "You say D1 is OK, by end-state principles. But surely D2 (with a rich Wilt Chamberlain) is OK by end-state principles too! Doesn't he deserve his money?" In fact, by hypothesis, D2 is supposed to be (and remain) unacceptable according to the chosen end-state principles that generate D1, which is stipulated to be of a sufficiently egalitarian bent that no one should be as wealthy as Chamberlain becomes under D2. Nozick's point is not that D2 is just because Chamberlain "deserves" his money (in an end-state sense) in a manner that a capitalist might not (although it should be noted that beyond allusions to the general horror of "capitalist" activity so oddly de rigeur
among modern intellectuals, Mr Metcalf provides no substantive argument for such a moral difference.) Nozick's claim is that since D2 was reached by taking unobjectionable deviations from an unobjectionable starting point, but violates D1 in the process, that D(x) will not work as a criterion for justice - that no matter how strongly our intuitions (or viscera) point to end-states as the barometers of justice, such an account is likely to prove untenable when subjected to rigorous analysis, and we may need to conclude that justice is determined, first and foremost, by the process through which an end state came into being. (Nozick provides his own solution in accordance with this framework, which he calls the Entitlement Theory of Justice - this, along with the direct attacks on Rawls, are probably the most rewarding material to be found in the book.) It is true that Nozick chose a particularly uncontroversial example for the transition from D1 to D2, but this is because the existence of a single such acceptable transition is sufficient to establish the difficulty faced in maintaining a patterned conception of justice. It appears that Mr Metcalf believes that the legitimacy of this particular D1-D2 transition is supposed to imply the acceptability of other (capitalist) D1-D2 transitions. But this is incorrect: in an extreme case, we could even stipulate that no other transition would be allowed, and Nozick's point would still be made, provided that the information of the resulting D2 end-state were not contained in the original formulation of D1. The Wilt Chamberlain example does indeed function as a defense of capitalism, but only indirectly - it seeks to undermine the end-state-derived conception of justice that is invoked whenever income inequality, per se, is used as evidence against the moral legitimacy of capitalism. The subtlety of this thought process is entirely lost on Mr Metcalf.

That Mr Metcalf has badly misunderstood Nozick's thought would be obvious from the outset to any reader familiar with ASU, and would already suffice to render his continued discourse on the subject unworthy of further attention (anyone who was wise enough to skip over the next few paragraphs would have spared themselves the particularly galling experience of reading the author's fatuous and impertinent suggestion - offered more than once - that Nozick's analysis confuses capital with human capital. I shudder to think how many intellectually-chic Slate readers are eagerly parroting this worthless bromide in conversation even as I write.) However, he manages to compound his error still further in his pre-emptive counterattack on what he envisions as a possible libertarian rejoinder. He suggests that a libertarian might obviate the distinction that he has drawn between Chamberlain and a proper capitalist (which we have already seen to be thoroughly irrelevant) through an economic argument showing that there is no difference between the market process by which Chamberlain's services are ultimately priced, and the analogous framework through which capitalists reap their ill-gotten gains - that in a competitive market, as he puts it, "rewards commensurate [sic] perfectly with utility." That such a statement (once it is converted into proper English) is in fact true - at least to close approximation - is suggested by a long-established body of economic theory. Has our intrepid author prepared a well-chosen piece of recent scholarship with which to launch his assault on this venerable proposition? Bah, such a tedious approach is for the plebeians! Our author has seen right to heart of the matter: he notes that this analysis, invoking a state of affairs where unseen economic processes bring about an optimal result, possesses utopian characteristics - a "free-market paradise," as he puts it. To which he offers, as his sole point of response: "Maybe; and maybe in a socialist paradise, no one will catch the common cold." Let us draw the curtain of charity over the rest of the scene.

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 reinforce his anti-Nozick conclusion via his own original analysis is based on a complete misunderstanding of the latter's argument. At this point, having conferred such ignominy upon our author's effort, we might be expected to ease up on our critical tone, offer a generous remark by way of a conciliatory conclusion, and move on to other pursuits. In fact, we are just warming up, as the errors exposed to this point - grievous though they are - pale in comparison with the author's truly stunning ignorance of what libertarianism even is. This will be explored in Part 2 of this review.


Sadie-pops said...

Perhaps I'm mistaken, and certainly willing to be persuaded so, however the point he referenced, the entire crux of the article seems to have been entirely missed in your response.

I think you're responding to the nits when in fact your missing the nest. All philosophy reduces, eventually, to ethics. Political/economic philosophy easily renders this true.

He clearly states that the lib. doctrine is one that embodies a particular ethos. An ethic that suggests "what is good for me, is good for me, everyone else be damned."

Many Lib. supporters suggest, as Ayn Rand tries and fails to do famously is to proclaim the failed ethic, "what is good for me is also good for all."

There is the divide between the Lib. camp and the anti-Lib. camp. The question, as the Slate author puts it, albeit intermixed with background to which you find fault, is whether we as a grand society should include in our zeitgeist the proclivity to care for all, or to care for self only.

Understanding the ramifications of the true Lib. position is something that has not yet been fleshed out in public debate as it makes for political suicide. Let's not kid ourselves and leave this discussion in the academic realm. Live the philosophy.

Sadie-pops said...

(please edit this comment)

I'm interested in your response - if possible please email me that you've responded as I'm genuinely curious.

Daniel Jepson said...

Sadie-pops: Thank you for your comment. I'm still a little clueless with the whole blogging thing, so I don't know how to find your e-mail address from your username. In any case, my contention is that Mr Metcalf's treatment of the philosophical questions that you raise is, if anything, even worse than his criticism of Nozick's reasoning, or his account of either Nozick's intellectual journey or his place in the hierarchy of libertarian thought. As promised, I will elaborate on this in a second half of the review (I figured that the first half was long enough!) whenever I get around to it.