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.