Tag: libertarian ideas

Misunderstanding Nozick, Again

Someone called Stephen Metcalf writes at Slate of his horror at finding in “an otherwise quite groovy loft” in New York’s SoHo “not one but two copies of something called The Libertarian Reader.” Given that he manages to lump not just Paul Ryan and South Park but Sarah Palin into the libertarian basket, you can appreciate his dismay.

Metcalf puts Robert Nozick at the center of his argument, understandably enough. My colleague Tom Palmer says that academic critics almost always cite one chapter of one book, Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia, and declare that they have grappled with libertarian ideas. Still, it’s a good book and worth grappling with, and it did have an impact, as Metcalf notes:

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 [1976], 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.

I’ll leave it to my more learned colleagues to analyze how successfully Metcalf actually deals with Nozick’s arguments. I just want to note one thing here. Like many other critics of libertarianism, Metcalf triumphantly announces:

How could a thinker as brilliant as Nozick stay a party to this? The answer is: He didn’t. “The libertarian position I once propounded,” Nozick wrote in an essay published in the late ’80s, “now seems to me seriously inadequate.”

Yes, yes, yes. It gets repeated a lot: “Even Nozick renounced libertarianism.” If it were true, it’s not clear what it would mean. Libertarianism is true, or not, whether or not Paul Krugman or Russell Kirk believes it, and whether or not Robert Nozick believes it. The idea stands or falls on its own. But as it happens, Nozick did “stay a party” to the libertarian idea. Shortly before his death in 2002, young writer Julian Sanchez (now a Cato colleague) interviewed him and had this exchange:

JS: In The Examined Life, you reported that you had come to see the libertarian position that you’d advanced in Anarchy, State and Utopia as “seriously inadequate.” But there are several places in Invariances where you seem to suggest that you consider the view advanced there, broadly speaking, at least, a libertarian one. Would you now, again, self-apply the L-word?

RN: Yes. But I never stopped self-applying. 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.”

So Nozick did not “disavow” libertarianism. Indeed, Tom Palmer adds a point that

David Schmidtz told at a forum about Schmidtz’s book from Cambridge University Press, Robert Nozick, held October 21, 2002 at the Cato Institute. According to David, Nozick told him that his alleged “apostasy” was mainly about rejecting the idea that to have a right is necessarily to have the right to alienate it, a thesis that he had reconsidered, on the basis of which reconsideration he concluded that some rights had to be inalienable. That represents, not a movement away from libertarianism, but a shift toward the mainstream of libertarian thought.

Metcalf’s criticisms of libertarianism will have to stand on their own, as will libertarianism itself. He doesn’t have Nozick on his side. As for Metcalf’s final complaint that advocates of a more expansive state have been “hectored into silence” by the vast libertarian power structure, well, I am, if not hectored, at least stunned into silence.

P.S. Matt Welch notes that if Metcalf doesn’t have Nozick on his side, at least he has Ann Coulter.

Libertarian Politics in the Media

Peter Wallsten of the Wall Street Journal writes, “Libertarianism is enjoying a recent renaissance in the Republican Party.” He cites Ron Paul’s winning the presidential straw poll earlier this year at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Rand Paul’s upset victory in the Kentucky senatorial primary, and former governor Gary Johnson’s evident interest in a libertarian-leaning presidential campaign. Johnson tells Wallsten in an interview that he’ll campaign on spending cuts – including military spending, on entitlements reform, and on a rational approach to drug policy.

Meanwhile, on the same day, Rand Paul had a major op-ed in USA Today discussing whether he’s a libertarian. Not quite, he says. But sort of:

In my mind, the word “libertarian” has become an emotionally charged, and often misunderstood, word in our current political climate. But, I would argue very strongly that the vast coalition of Americans — including independents, moderates, Republicans, conservatives and “Tea Party” activists — share many libertarian points of view, as do I.

I choose to use a different phrase to describe my beliefs — I consider myself a constitutional conservative, which I take to mean a conservative who actually believes in smaller government and more individual freedom. The libertarian principles of limited government, self-reliance and respect for the Constitution are embedded within my constitutional conservatism, and in the views of countless Americans from across the political spectrum.

Our Founding Fathers were clearly libertarians, and constructed a Republic with strict limits on government power designed to protect the rights and freedom of the citizens above all else.

And he appeals to the authority of Ronald Reagan:

Liberty is our heritage; it’s the thing constitutional conservatives like myself wish to preserve, which is why Ronald Reagan declared in 1975, “I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism.”

Reagan said that several times, including in a Reason magazine interview and in a 1975 speech at Vanderbilt University that I attended. A lot of libertarians complained that he should stop confusing libertarianism and conservatism. And once he began his presidential campaign that fall, he doesn’t seem to have used the term any more.

You can see in both the Paul op-ed and the Johnson interview that major-party politicians are nervous about being tagged with a label that seems to imply a rigorous and radical platform covering a wide range of issues. But if you can call yourself a conservative without necessarily endorsing everything that William F. Buckley Jr. and the Heritage Foundation – or Jerry Falwell and Mike Huckabee – believe, then a politician should be able to be a moderate libertarian or a libertarian-leaning candidate. I wrote a book outlining the full libertarian perspective. But I’ve also coauthored studies on libertarian voters, in which I assume that you’re a libertarian voter if you favor free enterprise and social tolerance, even if you don’t embrace the full libertarian philosophy. At any rate, it’s good to see major officials, candidates, and newspapers talking about libertarian ideas and their relevance to our current problems.

How to Explain Free Trade in Less Than Three Minutes

The professionally ignorant (and I’m thinking here of Lou Dobbs, among others) never “get it” about trade. They think it’s some complex swindle, in which we deny ourselves “jobs,” or that it should be about being “fair” or “balanced.” They don’t see how free trade creates prosperity and peace. I was inspired by the outstanding trade economist Doug Irwin of Dartmouth to explain what goes on when people trade. The challenge was to explain international trade in under 3 minutes. So here’s the result in 2:57: The Great Prosperity Machine.

Share it with your favorite protectionist, or with professors and teachers. (There’s more information at AtlasNetwork.org/BastiatLegacy.)

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