Sometimes an article comes along that is so blindingly stupid and misinformed that the mind reels in a vain attempt to understand how such a thing could be published by any semi-reputable organization. In my personal experience, these articles often discuss the history of the libertarian movement or libertarian ideas. I’m certainly not contending that this is the only subject that attracts wildly inaccurate commentary like a picnic attracts ants, but it’s the one where I can spot these stories most easily.
Today’s entry is this deeply confused article on the supposedly baleful influence of philosopher Robert Nozick and his 1974 book Anarchy, State, and Utopia. The only proper response to a piece this nonsensical is something like this:
Nonetheless, I am going to attempt to correct some of author Stephen Metcalf’s more glaring errors.
First, the central conceit of the article–or at least the subtitle–is flat out wrong. Nozick did write that “The libertarian position I once propounded now seems to me seriously inadequate.” Metcalf assumes that this statement is a renunciation of libertarianism, but that’s not what Nozick meant, as Nozick himself explained in an interview shortly before his death:
Sadly, it doesn’t get any better from there. Metcalf quotes Keynes as highly critical of Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, claiming that Keynes scribbled in the margins of his copy, “An extraordinary example of how, starting with a mistake, a remorseless logician can end up in Bedlam.” Again, Keynes did write that and about Hayek no less, but the line appeared in his review of the dense economic tome Prices and Production. Liberal economist Brad Delong first blogged this error and goes on to note that Keynes was actually quite found of The Road to Serfdom, calling it ” a grand book….Morally and philosophically I find myself in agreement with virtually the whole of it: and not only in agreement with it, but in deeply moved agreement.”
Even more importantly, Metcalf drastically overstates Nozick’s importance:
Metcalf may like to think that, but that doesn’t make it true. Don’t get me wrong–Nozick was one of the intellectual giants of libertarianism and made the philosophy a somewhat respectable position among academic philosophers. That’s a very insular group, however, and Metcalf presents no evidence that it was Nozick’s popularity that propelled Hayek and Friedman to their Nobel Prizes. Probably because that evidence doesn’t exist.
A more plausible explanation for the Sveriges Riksbank’s recognition of Hayek and Friedman is that the Keynesian consensus was collapsing in the mid-1970s, and Hayek and Friedman offered alternative theories. The combination of slow economic growth and high inflation known as stagflation is essentially impossible under classic Keynesian models, but both the British and American economies seemed cursed with it in the 1970s. Contrary to Metcalf’s nostalgia, the 1970s were a terrible decade economically, and Keynesian economics proved inadequate to address the problems we faced. I don’t deny that Nozick was a powerful advocate for libertarianism, but the economic crisis did more to shift people’s views on economic policy in a more market oriented direction than any single thinker.
Furthermore, although Nozick played an important role in the history of libertarian ideas, I believe he has been less influential than any of the other big names, by which I mean Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Ayn Rand, and Murray Rothbard. 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. I readily concede that this is not a scientific measure of Nozick’s influence among libertarians, but this is not a huge movement, and after working within it for this long, I think I have a pretty good sense of who the big influences are…or at least a better sense than Stephen Metcalf.
All this might be forgivable if Metcalf’s assault on Nozick’s famous Wilt Chamberlain thought experiment–which occupies a huge chunk of the article–was accurate and interesting. Unfortunately, Metcalf only engages with a strawman version of Nozick’s argument. Metcalf seems to think that Nozick intended for the Wilt Chamberlain example to be some kind of allegory for the economy as a whole. Instead, Nozick was simply showing why a specific pattern of wealth distribution is impossible to maintain without constant government intervention. As Auburn University philosopher Roderick Long explained in a 2002 article commemorating Nozick’s life and work:
Metcalf’s abuse of the facts are by no means limited to those detailed here, but going through all of them would require an article far longer than his original. In fact, if Slate removed everything that is incorrect or misleading in the article, they’d soon be left with nothing but prepositions. For that reason, I believe Slate’s editors should retract this piece. Not because I disagree with many of Metcalf’s philosophical principles, although that does appear to be the case, but because even with heavy editing and correction, this article is so fallacious that it detracts from public discourse.
Filed under: Philosophy, Property Rights
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I was surprised by this post on Common Sense Concept, a blog published by the American Enterprise Institute. Although the author has written in support of private charity, in this post he argues that fairness in terms of material outcomes is not desirable. He supports this argument with quotations from various Christian texts and concludes by saying, “Let us be content with managing our own affairs”.
I won’t address the religious justification for this position, but I’d like to point out that the author is overlooking several ways in which fairness matters for the free market. First, unfair outcomes such as poverty and economic immobility can be an indication that the market is not working so well as it should. This may be caused by government intervention or incompetence, as when centralized education policies trap poor children in schools that don’t prepare them to enter the workforce. Or it may be a sign of untapped opportunities, like the lack of access to banking services by residents of the central Amazon. Whether the solution is the curtailment of government power or entrepreneurial innovation, we should heed these instances of unfairness so that we can make the market better.
Second, economic conditions change and the people who are privileged today could be needy tomorrow. We’ve all heard stories of people who lost their life savings in the latest recession; even in calmer economic times, giant corporations and once-profitable-looking investments can vanish as technology evolves. The existence of a safety net, possibly based on private charity, could give people the confidence to start new ventures and to take the risks necessary for innovation, knowing that their basic needs will be met if they fail. Charities should also ensure that the poorest people can survive without resorting to theft and crime, which can cripple a market system. The post’s author might counter that we should give charity without regard to fairness, but I don’t see how that’s possible. Do you give charity to the first wealthy person who walks by your door? Of course not. You look for the people who need charity the most–in short, the people in the least fair situations.
Finally, I’d like to remind the author that we don’t have a free market with perfect efficiency. While based on the econ textbooks, one might think that demand for innovations will lead to an increase in the number and quality of innovators, in real life that doesn’t always happen. If the person who could have cured cancer or revolutionized communications was born into unfair circumstances, he might not obtain the necessary human capital investments through no fault of his own. That’s not just a tragedy for him. It makes the rest of us poorer too because we don’t get to benefit from his potential contribution to the economy. So while we shouldn’t count on government to smooth every inequity, we should give serious thought to fairness if we want a successful market.
Filed under: Efficiency, Market Efficiency
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