Tag: robert nozick

Obama to NBA: I’m Not Done Raising Your Taxes, Now Help Me Sell ObamaCare

President Obama has a lot of nerve asking the National Basketball Association to help him sell ObamaCare to their fans.

It’s not just that President Obama is asking the NBA to lend its credibility to the least popular thing this side of Tim Donaghy. Obama has spent his political career trying to take more money from high-income earners like NBA players, executives, and owners. ObamaCare is one of his great successes in that effort. Another is the recent fiscal-cliff-avoidance deal. Yet Obama isn’t satisfied; he wants to take even more of their money. 

NBA players, owners, and executives are extremely talented and productive people. They create lots of jobs. They earn lots of money because they make other people happy. For this crime, they already pay more in taxes than almost anyone, and pay more than they receive from the government in benefits.

Yet President Obama seems to spend every waking moment trying to figure out how to take even more from them. And then he turns around and asks them to help him sell his train wreck of a health care law. Chutzpah.

Before the NBA casts its lot with ObamaCare, every NBA player, executive, and owner should ask their accountant exactly how much this president has cost them. I’m looking at you, Lebron.

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.

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.

Nozick in the News

Charles Krauthammer writes about “liberal expressions of disdain for the intelligence and emotional maturity of the electorate” and the conceit that “Liberals act in the public interest, while conservatives think only of power, elections, self-aggrandizement and self-interest.” He has plenty of contemporary examples, but he also recalls one from a few years ago:

It is an old liberal theme that conservative ideas, being red in tooth and claw, cannot possibly emerge from any notion of the public good. A 2002 New York Times obituary for philosopher Robert Nozick explained that the strongly libertarian implications of Nozick’s masterwork, “Anarchy, State, and Utopia” “proved comforting to the right, which was grateful for what it embraced as philosophical justification.” The right, you see, is grateful when a bright intellectual can graft some philosophical rationalization onto its thoroughly base and self-regarding politics.

Nozick, of course, was a libertarian, not a conservative, as the more insightful obituary by the philosopher Alan Ryan in the British Independent notes: the book’s ”criticism of social conservatism is at least as devastating as its criticism of the redistributive welfare state.” But Krauthammer is right to note the casual assumption by the New York Times that conservatism desperately needed ”philosophical justification.”

Sunday’s Washington Post contains a related article by political scientist Gerard Alexander: “Why are liberals so condescending?”