Capitalist Acts between Consenting Adults

Even Robert Nozick gave up on libertarianism,” says Stephen Metcalf, more or less. “So what’s wrong with you?” (Aside, of course, from the fact that Nozick didn’t give up.)

I probably should hesitate before declaring my allegiance to the evil league of evil. But you’re reading this at the Cato Institute, so it may be too late for that. Metcalf’s piece falls into a large and (sadly) growing category for me, one labeled “People Condemning Libertarians for Strange Things That Never Occurred to Anyone, Let Alone to Us.”

It never occurred to me, for example, that by citing Wilt Chamberlain as someone who became wealthy in a morally blameless way, Robert Nozick was playing the race card. Metcalf writes:

“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.

Raises the specter of the plantation? Does it now? Let’s generalize: Your forcing anyone to perform without what they consider adequate compensation should raise that same specter. If someone is going to perform for you, they must do it for a wage that they consider adequate, whether their “performance” is a show of basketball prowess or just working on an assembly line.

If they don’t like the wage, they should be free to seek a better one. If the employers pay a giant wage, and if they do so because they really, really like the work, then that’s also their right.

Those who want to interfere – to tax wages, to restrict entry or exit, or to prohibit whole lines of work – they are the ones who bear the burden of proof. Not the willing buyers and sellers of labor. That’s what Wilt Chamberlain’s example is supposed to show.

Maybe you’re not ready to go whole-hog and declare that taxation is theft. Eh, fine. Still, taxation should make all of us pretty uncomfortable, especially when we look at its philosophical implications. The arguments that justify taxation might actually be unavoidable—truthfully, I wouldn’t know how to run a government without them—but that doesn’t make them any less dangerous.

Of the many errors in a long and error-ridden article, I think the worst has to be the idea that libertarians hold all concentrations of wealth to be good. As long, I infer, as we gather it in sufficiently large heaps. Metcalf writes:

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.

This is simply wrong. For a libertarian, it’s only Wilt Chamberlain’s particular type of wealth that is morally blameless, not all the rest. Which kind is his? The kind acquired through voluntary transactions, without coercion or fraud. The kind that comes from Nozick called capitalist acts between consenting adults.

Some wealth is blameless. Some isn’t. And yes, some cases are truly hard to judge: Is Wal-Mart a free-market success story? Wellll…. kind of. But what about all those special tax privileges? What about that eminent domain abuse?

Wilt Chamberlain makes a good example not because he’s a black man struggling sympathetically in a white man’s world. His example is useful because it strips away every possibility of force, fraud, corporate welfare, and government favoritism. When we do that, we can see that it’s still possible to grow wealthy through honest, voluntary methods. That’s a valuable insight, even if you don’t necessarily agree with everything else Robert Nozick ever wrote. (Don’t sweat it; I don’t either.)

Finally, Metcalf strangely neglects Chamberlain’s fans. When we talk about Wilt Chamberlain’s right to collect a paycheck, it’s partly because he’s highly visible. But we should not forget that when we take away that paycheck, we also take away an entertainment choice for millions of ordinary people.

If we remove enough choices like these, we won’t merely have made life less cushy for the talented. We’ll also have made it a lot poorer for the rest of us. We could be taking away not just basketball, but breakthroughs in science, technology, and the arts. And why? Because someone found someone else’s voluntary transfer of wealth distasteful. That shouldn’t be much of a reason.