Tag: libertarianism

Robert Nozick and the Value of Liberty

Stephen Metcalf’s prolix takedown of Robert Nozick demands response, not because Metcalf has advanced a novel and Rawls-esque so-interesting-and-powerful-it-must-be-addressed argument, but because he precisely has not. Nozick is, justifiably, a hero of libertarianism (and liberty), and his terrific book, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, as well as libertarianism in general, deserve better than Metcalf’s excoriation.

My colleague Jason Kuznicki started things off admirably. At the risk of beating what ought to be a dead horse, I’d like to add a word or two of my own. I’ll avoid what Jason’s already covered.

Let’s start with Metcalf’s very odd characterization of Nozick’s view of liberty as the primary value. He writes, “Nozick is arguing that liberty is the sole value, and to put forward any other value is to submit individuals to coercion.” Metcalf adds that, according to Nozick and modern libertarians, “Every other value, meanwhile, represents someone else’s deranged will-to-power.”

This claim evinces a common confusion about libertarianism, one that continues throughout the remainder of Metcalf’s article: libertarians don’t believe that liberty is the primary value, we believe that liberty is the primary political value. Like so many critics of libertarianism, Metcalf does not understand the scope of the libertarian argument.

I value liberty, yes, but I also value my health, my daughter’s happiness, and films staring William Powell and Myrna Loy. In fact, libertarians, progressives, and even Robert Nozick value quite a lot of things. The libertarian argument is simply that a state that attempts to directly maximize any value besides liberty—by, say, coercively taxing in order to pay for more Thin Man films—violates individual rights. What’s more, if the state does remain limited to protecting only liberty, we’ll get more health, happiness, and great movies.

According to Nozick and most other libertarians, it is for the protection of liberty that we organize a state—and a state that violates its citizens’ liberty (beyond, arguably, certain “night watchman” duties) commits a moral wrong. Metcalf gets that much right. But this is not because liberty is the only value. Rather, it is because liberty is the only value the state should concern itself with. All the other values—of which there are a great many, not all shared equally by all individuals—are the exclusive concern of civil society.

Nozick argues that it’s wrong for all of us to look in moral horror at Wilt Chamberlain’s earnings, band together into a government, and send in armed tax collectors because we think Wilt’s money could be more valuably used somewhere other than Wilt’s pockets. Nozick’s parable is about the morality of politics while saying nothing about what Wilt ought to voluntarily do with his money. He might choose to spend it all on caviar and rare basketball cards, in which case the rest of us might even be justified in looking down our noses at such “wasteful” behavior. But Wilt might also give a portion of his money to fund homeless shelters, free medical clinics, and scholarships for poor children (as many people in his position in fact do). Or he might use it to launch a new business, employing many of his fellow citizens at decent wages to teach his basketball skills to willing consumers.

Liberty is not the only value. It is the only value within the scope of politics. Liberty is also the value that allows all the other actually-held values to flourish.

Which brings me to this odd bit of Metcalf’s reasoning: “Even in 1975,” he writes, “it took a pretty narrow view of history to think all capital is human capital, and that philosophy professors, even the especially bright ones, would thrive in the free market.” Doesn’t Nozick recognize, he asks, that the very university system he took advantage of to pay his bills while writing his defense of free markets was made possible only by massive government transfer payments? Without a hugely interventionist state, Nozick wouldn’t even be able to pay his rent with his philosophy knowledge, let alone revitalize an intellectual movement.

In effect, Metcalf is saying that Nozick is dumb to support markets because markets wouldn’t support Nozick. If liberty is the only value (of the state), then the talent of philosophy wouldn’t be sufficiently valued (by the market) to allow a fellow like Robert Nozick to do philosophy.

And Metcalf may be right. But if he is, it’s unclear why we shouldn’t also extend his argument to all other talents. A great many mystery novelists, for instance, would love to have academic appointments while they pen new adventures for their detectives. But instead they have to compete in the free market, hoping an audience will value their work enough to pay for it. Last I checked, even in this unforgiving environment, there are a great many mystery novels on shelves.

The fact of the matter is that not all talents are valued, which is why Nozick chose a basketball player to build his case around instead of, say, a teenager who can name every Pokémon from memory. If we are going to create a world in which everything valuable (to Metcalf) is given financial support, we need to organize it such that people are not free to choose their own values. The beauty of the free market is not that it specifically supports basketball playing or philosophy writing, but that it rewards those who have talents that are actually and voluntarily valued by the rest of us. Arriving at an array of values this way seems a good deal better than the alternative, at least. For if we aren’t to leave “value” to the market, we have to leave it to someone. Which means substituting that person’s (or committee’s) particular, uniform conception of value for the variegated bramble that is a free society.

The beauty of liberty is that it allows each of us to pursue our own ends and strive for whatever we value. The curse of liberty is that our striving takes place among a great many fellow strivers, many of who are headed in directions we find elitist or prole, dangerous or dull, distasteful or uninspired. The difference between Nozick’s vision and Metcalf’s is that Nozick embraces that wonderful chaos, provided it happens within a framework of respected rights. Metcalf would strike down choice and replace it with state-endorsed value. He would force all of us or none of us to watch Wilt play, placing the decision to be a spectator or an abstainer not with free individuals but with Stephen Metcalf.

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.

Communitarians and Libertarians

Communitarian “guru” Amitai Etzioni debated Roger Pilon at Cato two weeks ago. Also me, 18 years ago. And last week he had two postings at the Encyclopedia Britannica blog. I offer some thoughts on individualism, communitarianism, and implausible misrepresentations of libertarianism at the Britannica today.

When I hear communitarians like Etzioni describe the libertarian view of individualism, I wonder if they’ve ever read any libertarian writing other than a Classic Comics edition of Ayn Rand….

There’s no conflict between individualism and community. There’s a conflict between voluntary association and coerced association. And communitarians dance around that conflict.

Do you believe that “The libertarian perspective, put succinctly, begins with the assumption that individual agents are fully formed and their value preferences are in place prior to and outside of any society”? Of course not. Who would? Read the Britannica column to find out who says you do.

Gerson Gets It Wrong Again

Michael Gerson’s predictable, reflexive attack on Rep. Ron Paul in his May 10 op-ed in the WaPo for Paul’s sensible stand in favor of ending the futile crusade called the War on Drugs, makes a curious argument.  He asserts that there is a “de facto decriminalization of drugs” in Washington, D.C.  Curious, because there are few places in the nation where the drug war is waged more vigorously.  Doesn’t seem to be working, does it?

Yet Gerson would expand the effort.  Never mind that the social pathologies in the District for which Gerson’s compassionate conservative heart bleeds are mainly a result of making drugs illegal:  Turf wars with innocents caught in the crossfire; children quitting school to sell drugs because of the artificially high prices prohibition creates; disrespect for the law due to a massive criminal subculture.

Gerson, one of the chief architects of the disastrous Bush II administration, should step away from his obsessive disdain for libertarianism and consider the nationwide decriminalization of drugs undertaken in Portugal in 2001.  Drugs use is down, particularly among young people, and drug-related crimes have dropped precipitously.  There is a reason hundreds of thousands of Mexicans have taken to the streets to call for the end to the war on drugs there that is tearing apart the fabric of Mexican society.  On top of the social aspects of the drug war dystopia, Cato senior fellow and Harvard economist Jeffery Miron estimates that ending the drug war in the U.S. would save $41.3 billion annually.  As usual, Ron Paul has it right.

The Libertarian Moment?

On NPR, Mara Liasson tells Melissa Block that we’re in a “libertarian moment” in politics:

BLOCK: And Ron Paul appears to be running. Again, he got a lot of devoted followers on the Internet last time during the 2008 bid, not so many votes in the primary. So this time around, is he a significant addition to the Republican field or more of an asterisk?

LIASSON: Well, I don’t think he’s a huge factor in terms of the nomination. In the 2008 GOP primary, he got only about 6 percent of the Republican vote. However, as you said, he does have a devoted following, lots of libertarian-leaning young people. He can raise millions of dollars online in a single day in one of his famous money bombs. So he brings energy to the party, and the Republican Party base seems to have caught up to him on the issues.

The GOP is in a real libertarian moment right now, and Paul has always been all about the debt and the deficit and taxes and spending. You could call him the godfather of the Tea Party.

Of course, Paul may have to split the libertarian Republican vote with former two-term governor Gary Johnson. Johnson also was “a Tea Partier when tea-partying wasn’t cool,” according to the Capitol Report of New Mexico. He vetoed 750 bills in eight years, not counting line-item vetoes. And since today’s libertarian moment goes beyond spending and health care to include rising support for gay marriage and marijuana legalization, Johnson might be better positioned to ride that wave and attract younger and independent voters.

Footnote: Two weeks ago NPR speculated about an Ayn Rand moment building from the financial crisis to the opening of Atlas Shrugged.

Is Libertarianism Selfishness?

That’s what Michael Gerson, former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, writes in the Washington Post. I take a different view in my new column at the Encyclopedia Britannica Blog:

Libertarians want to live in what Adam Smith called the Great Society, the complex and productive society made possible by social interaction. We agree with George Soros that “cooperation is as much a part of the system as competition.” In fact, we consider cooperation so essential to human flourishing that we don’t just want to talk about it; we want to create social institutions that make it possible. That is what property rights, limited government, and the rule of law are all about….

The American, and libertarian, belief in freedom is not a “mania,” nor is it “selfishness.” It’s a philosophy of individual rights, the rule of law, and the institutions necessary for social cooperation. Read Locke, Hume, Smith, TocquevilleHayek—and yes, Rand—if you seriously believe that the philosophy of freedom can be summed up as “selfishness.”

Much more at the Britannica.

Catholicism and Libertarianism

Here’s a poor, unsuccessful letter I sent to the editor of The Washington Post:

Michael Gerson’s claim that “Catholic social teaching is simply not libertarian” [“A Catholic Test for Politics,” Feb. 8], reveals that Gerson either does not understand Catholicism, or libertarianism, or both.  Immediately thereafter, he cites many libertarian aspects of Catholic social teaching: “the necessity of limited government,” subsidiarity, respecting the human rights of “even illegal immigrants,” etc.  When he claims that repealing ObamaCare or government funding for AIDS and malaria conflicts with Catholic social teaching, he ignores that government coercion is inherent in those policies.  Is Gerson claiming that Catholic social teaching condones using violence or the threat of violence to heal the sick?  Catholics who reject those policies do so because they want to heal the sick through peaceful, non-coercive means. They cast their lots with Christ – not Caesar, as Gerson recommends.  Gerson should spend some time learning about libertarianism, from actual libertarians. I would be happy to arrange it.

Just another uninformed potshot from the columnist who sees libertarianism’s emphasis on limited government as “morally empty,” “anti-government,” “a scandal,” “an idealism that strangles mercy,” and guilty of “rigorous ideological coldness.”