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Slate’s Metcalf on Libertarianism and Nozick

From the Mises blog (archived comments below):

Slate’s Metcalf on Libertarianism and Nozick

JUNE 22, 2011 by 

Slate’s Culture Gabfest is one of my favorites, even though the main host, Stephen Metcalf, on occasion lets his noxious, smug statism leak out. Witness his recent essay about libertarians and Robert Nozick. It’s already been roundly thrashed–see Will Wilkinson, The EconomistWhen the levee breaks; Matt Welch, Some Factual Errors in the Latest Slate Attack on LibertarianismGordon on Nozick on Slate. In his article and in the podcastdiscussing it, Metcalf claims Nozick recanted his libertarianism. This is not true. He merely said he thought parts of it were inadequate. And later he made clear he had not recanted it at all (see Gordon’s piece).

There are so many errors in Metcalf’s piece it’s difficult to know where to begin, but thankfully the bloggers noted above or linked in their posts have made a good start. But for instance he mischaracterizes the brilliant Wilt Chamberlain example that demolishes the case for egalitarianism, and, if I read him correctly, even seems to insinuates a racist aspect to the example:

“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.

I cannot be sure  Metcalf is indeed insinuating the example only has appeal to racists, or that Nozick had hidden racist messages here–I don’t want to accuse someone even of race-baiting unfairly; but detect a bit of this here. Yet there is nothing racist about the example. As Gordon explains,

Metcalf’s understanding of the Wilt Chamberlain example is flawed. The example doesn’t assume that Chamberlain has negotiated with the team’s owner to receive part of the ticket price. To the contrary, those who want to see him play voluntarily pay 25 cents to do so. The point of the example is that to preserve a pattern of distribution—say equality—requires substantial interference with the free choices that people make from a distribution that according to the patterned theory itself is a just one. The example doesn’t at all depend on assuming perfectly competitive markets. Rather, it aims to show that patterns upset liberty.

As for other problems with Metcalf’s essay, other than those handled by other critics already: first, he assumes Nozick makes the most respected case for libertarianism, the one that has to be taken down–thus, showing he recanted is important. Well maybe Nozick is the only one taken seriously in academia, but so what? There’s a reason for this,  Radical libertarians do not see him this way. In fact Nozick was a somewhat the dilettante, not that radical, and Anarchy, State and Utopia was an argument for the legitimacy of the state (albeit a minimal one), not an argument for radical anarchy. See, e.g., Murray Rothbard’s Robert Nozick and the Immaculate Conception of the State. Rothbard was the real libertarian radical; Hoppe does great job comparing and contrasting the approaches of Nozick and Rothbard in Murray N. Rothbard and the Ethics of Liberty:

Nozick’s method rather made for interest and excitement of a particular kind. Rothbard’s The Ethics of Libertyconsisted essentially of one successively and systematically drawn out and elaborated argument, and thus required the long sustained attention of its reader. However, a reader of Rothbard’s book could possibly get so excited that he would not want to put it down until he had finished it. The excitement caused by Anarchy, State, and Utopia was of a very different kind. The book was a  series of dozens of disparate or loosely jointed arguments, conjectures, puzzles, counterexamples, experiments, paradoxes, surprising turns, startling twists, intellectual flashes, and razzle-dazzle, and thus required only short and intermittent attention of its reader. At the same time, few if any readers of book likely will have felt the urge to read it straight through. Instead, reading Nozick was characteristically done unsystematically and intermittently, in bits and pieces. The excitement stirred by Nozick was intense, short, and fleeting; and the success of Anarchy, State, and Utopia was due to the fact that at all times, and especially under democratic conditions, there are far more high time-preference intellectuals—intellectual thrill seekers—than patient and disciplined thinkers.[18]

Despite his politically incorrect conclusions, Nozick’s libertarianism was deemed respectable by the academic masses and elicited countless comments and replies, because it was methodologically non-committal; that is, Nozick did not claim that his libertarian conclusions proved anything. Even though one would think that ethics is—and must be—an eminently practical intellectual subject, Nozick did not claim that his ethical “explorations” had any practical implications. They were meant to be nothing more than fascinating, entertaining, or suggestive intellectual play. As such, libertarianism posed no threat to the predominantly social-democratic intellectual class. On account of his unsystematic method—his philosophical pluralism—Nozick was “tolerant” vis-à-vis the intellectual establishment (his anti-establishment conclusions notwithstanding). He did not insist that his libertarian conclusions were correct and, for instance, socialist conclusions were false and accordingly demand their instant practical implementation (that is, the immediate abolition of the democratic welfare state, including all of public tax-funded education and research). Rather, libertarianism was, and claimed to be, no more than just an interesting thought. He did not mean to do any real harm to the ideas of his socialist opponents. He only wanted to throw an interesting idea into the democratic open-ended intellectual debate, while everything real, tangible, and physical could remain unchanged and everyone could go on with his life and thoughts as before.

(Metcalf also implies Nozick was the only respected academic who argued for libertarianism–oh? what about Hayek (LSE), Richard Epstein (Chicago) and Milton Friedman (Chicago)?)

In the podcast, Metcalf also says he views libertarianism as “hateful.” Oh really? Tolerance for others, a willingness to respect their rights to their bodies and property is hateful? In the podcast he also implies  libertarianism was ascendant in the 70s–hello, Nixon severed the tie to gold in the 70s. He also seems to imply that the failure of Keynesinianism to explain stagflation in the 70s helped undermine libertarian thought–what the libertarian-predicted failure of Keynes’s socialist ideas has to do with the failure of libertarianism is anyone’s guess. Likewise, Metcalf’s insinuation that the 2008 financial crisis showed the breakdown of libertarianism is confused; this was a culmination of state interventionism, of course, not the fault of human freedom and free markets. And in his piece he holds up Margaret Thatcher as some avatar of libertarianism, and mangles her comment about society:

Take Margaret Thatcher’s infamous provocation—”There’s no such thing as society”—with its implication that human beings are nothing more than brutishly competitive atoms.

This does not imply this at all. It merely recognizes that society is just a concept denoting the activities and interrelationships of actual individual human beings; that individuals do exist and are the primary social unit. It is a call to not be misled by metaphors or sloppy philosophy into overriding the rights of human beings in the name of higher-order concepts like “society.”

In essence, Metcalf’s arguments are just like those of conservatives (which is why I’m a libertarian). The basic argument (of both Metcalf and conservatives) is: “well of course we believe in individualism, individual rights, property rights, free markets–it’s just that it’s not our “only value.”” By this trick they are able to argue for state violence against innocent people. Libertarians are the ultimate liberals because we are tolerant of differences, and respect individual rights. We will never condone physical violence used against innocent individuals. Talk of “other values” “in addition to” “individual rights” is a smuggled, dishonest, indirect way of saying that in some cases it’s okay for the institutional violent force of the state to be brought to bear on innocent people. Obviously, that is not liberal. It’s illiberal. That’s why it has to be disguised. Instead of saying “normally I’m against the commission of violent criminal aggression against peaceful, innocent individuals, I condone it in some cases for the purpose of what to me is a higher value”–which is what the private criminal and the sociopath and the genocidal tyrant also say, of course–they word it differently, to cover this up, just like a cat with his mess in the litter box or a politician on the stump: “We’re in favor of individual ‘autonomy’ but we are ‘also’ in favor of ‘other values.’ We need to ‘balance’ these values for the overall good.” I.e., to make an omelet, you have to break a few eggs.

My basic view is a libertarian is a liberal who is not economically illiterate, and who is not overly caught up in loosey-goosey non-rigorous liberal arts “metaphors” (eg about “society” and “individuals” etc.).

Update: For more commentary:

And the best response so far: Daniel Jepson, A Review of Stephen Metcalf’s critique of libertarianism. Excerpt:

And the most devastating response so far to Steve’s attempt to criticize libertarainsism: “Thus far, we have seen that with his article’s main thesis, Mr Metcalf has managed to achieve the rarely-seen Triple Crown of rhetorical failure: his central (indeed, titular) fact – that Nozick “abandoned” the libertarian movement – is simply wrong; his implication that this fact, were it true, would deal a significant blow to the libertarian edifice rests on a risibly shallow understanding of the history of libertarian ideas; and finally, his attempt to drive further nails into the coffin of ASU via his own analysis is based entirely on a misunderstanding of the Nozick’s argument.”

See also Jepson’s A Response to Stephen Metcalf’s Critique of Libertarianism, Part 2.

Metcalf’s response to critics: Responding to the critics of my essay on Robert Nozick, the philosophical father of libertarianism.

Sheldon Richman’s devastating reply: Of Malice and Straw Men: Another empty attack.



{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

 twv June 22, 2011 at 8:28 pm

Great piece, and: I agree. But…
The “but” applies to H.H.Hoppe’s long quote, which has patent nonsense in it. The whole business about Nozick’s argument not having “practical consequences” is absurd. I mean this. It runs against the grain of things we know Nozick said. It stands in stark contrast to the whole point of the book: people have rights, the state is justified if it defends those rights, and it is admirable and praiseworthy and, well, glorious, to defend such a state, which has a major social function: providing a framework for utopian experimentation in human betterment.
I have an idea of why Hoppe would write what he writes, in part because of Nozick’s playful style. Which he misunderstands. But it is nevertheless the case that Nozick took liberty quite seriously, and he thought his argument clearly made a case for something with a great deal of ethical weight.


David Gordon June 22, 2011 at 9:58 pm

I slipped; it is “liberty upsets patterns”, not “patterns upset liberty”.


 Stephan Kinsella June 23, 2011 at 8:51 am

My reply to MEtcalf on the Culturefest Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/Culturefest


Slate’s Culture Gabfest
Heya –Stephan, as always, great to hear from you, and delighted we didn’t lose you on this issue. I’ll be addressing the “factual error” meme on Slate later today/tomorrow. In the meantime, YES, I don’t think Nozick was necessarily a big inspirer of the movement –correct me if I’m wrong, but he is vastly secondary to Hayek. (I will be writing an essay on Hayek.) However, I have to add, the idea that Nozick did not repudiate libertarianism in ’89 is going to make people look foolish for promoting it. That essay is thoughtful, not short, and unequivocal; and though he may have tacked back in a later interview, he was quite definite in print in The Zig Zag of Politics. Anyone who thinks they have me in a gotcha ought to read it before they pipe up. (SM)

Steve, of course you didn’t lose me. I already knew your politics. And we libertarians are a tolerant bunch… :) I think what bothered me most was your comment in the podcast that you find libertarianism “hateful.” This is extremely unfair, I believe, and uncharitable; the rest is more of a substantive disagreement. But libertarians as one of your critics pointed out work tirelessly to defend the rights of others–those in jail for drug crimes, those impoverished by state policies, victims of war, etc. So the “hateful” comment boggles the mind.

Re Nozick: I am aware he somewhat repudiated libertarianism, but you seem to exaggerate its extent, and its relevance, and ignore later recantations of the “recantation.” In any case it does not matter; it’s like a reverse appeal to authority.

I think you are wrong to say he was secondary to Hayek. I think he is very very low on the spectrum of libertarian influences. I agree w/ Payne who writes “I’ve been active in libertarian circles for nearly a decade now. I work for a free market think tank. I probably know around 1,000 libertarians personally. Yet I have not heard even a single person credit Robert Nozick for making them a libertarian. I’ve heard all the others–more times than I can count–but Nozick comes up only occasionally as an influence and never as the decisive one.”

That is my experience too. Especially among radical libertarians, we OPPOSE Nozick’s attempt to JUSTIFY the state. And remember, Nozick nowhere even argues for libertarian rights: he starts out assuming there are rights (side constraints). So his whole case is hypothetical: assuming there are rights, even this does not stop a state from emerging (albeit a minarchist one). So it is not a defense of libertarian rights at all, and not even a defense of libertarianism. It’s a defense of the state.

As I mention in my post about this http://blog.mises.org/17383/slates-metcalf-on-libertarianism-and-nozick/ , Rothbard, the key libertarian, levels a devastating critique of Nozick in Robert Nozick and the Immaculate Conception of the State. Rothbard was the real libertarian radical; Hans-Hermann Hoppe does great job comparing and contrasting the approaches of Nozick and Rothbard in Murray N. Rothbard and the Ethics of Liberty, which is the introduction to the 1998 version of Rothbard’s seminal book. (links are in that post).

As you can see in Brian Doherty’s fantastic book Radicals for Capitalism, http://www.amazon.com/Radicals-Capitalism-Freewheeling-American-Libertarian/dp/1586483501 , the main libertarian influences have been Hayek, Ayn Rand, Ludwig von Mises, Milton Friedman, and Rothbard. And last century, people like Henry Hazlitt, Albert Jay Nock, Leonard Read; of late, people like Lew Rockwell and Ron Paul. I mean Nozick simply does not rate as a major influence. This is just empirical and factual. Yes, I read ASU in my early libertarianism but partly that is b/c I’m into scholarly and academic stuff; most libertarians I know have not.

In short, you took the wrong libertarians to attack. You should have gone after Rothbardians.

as for recanting–it is rare among libertarins, as you may konw; far more often do liberals see the light and move in our direction–if ideological movement has any relevance.

Finally–for another interesting libertarian “recanting” story, see that of Roy Childs http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roy_Childs — he wrote a famous letter to Ayn Rand in the 70s about why she should be an anarcho-capitalist; later he recanted of his anarchism, but without explaining why.

Other libertarinas I’ve heard of somewhat recanting include Morris Tannehill, who wrote the famous The Market for Liberty; and Victor Koman, libertarian sci-fi author. And of course the Objectivists, many of them are more war-mongers than “libertarians.”


Bob Roddis June 23, 2011 at 4:42 pm

It seems to me that the non-initiation of force is a necessary precursor to civil society. The suggestion that it is “hateful” is just silly and suggests a complete incomprehension of its implications.


Daniel June 26, 2011 at 11:52 am
Bob Roddis June 26, 2011 at 1:16 pm

If you haven’t done this yet, listen to the accompanying Slate Podcast with Metcalf here:


The Nozick discussion starts at the 14:15 mark. It’s clear from this discussion that Mr. Metcalf and his lady pals are clueless. He doesn’t write about Rothbard or the ABCT because he knows absolutely nothing about them. I’m shocked.


Daniel June 29, 2011 at 11:08 am


Update: Jason Kuznicki:

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.

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