Tracing consequences both seen and unseen.
John W. PayneNot Even Close
Posted at 1:25 am on June 21, 2011, by John W. Payne

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:

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.”

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:

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, 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.

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:

ASU‘s most famous argument–the “Wilt Chamberlain example”–is also its most misunderstood. Criticizing “patterned” theories of justice–that is, those that regard the distribution of resources in society as just only if it fits some preconceived pattern (say, equality)–Nozick asked us to imagine a society that in fact realizes the desired pattern. He pointed out that if people are free to transfer their resources as they wish, the society will quickly deviate from the established pattern, as some individuals, like basketball star Wilt Chamberlain, become wealthy as a result of the voluntary decisions of other members of society who are willing to purchase the exercise of their talents.

If the original pattern is to be maintained at all costs, then the government must “continually interfere to stop people from transferring resources as they wish”; hence no patterned theory of justice can be implemented without “continuous interference in people’s lives” (p. 163). Nozick thus rejected patterned theories in favor of a “historical” theory, according to which a given distribution of resources, regardless of what pattern it fits, is legitimate so long as it arose through a process involving no violations of anybody’s rights.

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
Comments: 13 Comments


  1. >> For that reason, I believe Slate’s editors should retract this piece.

    Really??? Slate, an middle brow contrarian essay site, dedicated to presenting a variety of “thought pieces” should take the pretty much unprecendented step of retracting an article, not due to factual errors, but due to your judgement that is is “misleading”???


    That bit of rhetorical flourish calls into question your judgment, which in turn casts doubt on everything else your essay claims.

    Comment by Josef F — 2011-06-21 @ 12:13 pm

  2. No, it’s because of the factual errors. Sorry if that wasn’t clear to you.

    Comment by John W. Payne — 2011-06-21 @ 3:01 pm

  3. I see one, and only one factual error, and it’s a pretty minor one, the mis-attribution of Keynes quote regarding Hayek.

    Everything else you site is a matter of interpretation and opinion. And, for the most part you do a fine job of stating **your** opinion and interpretation. That said, at the very end you completely undermine that up till then decent exposition of your view by the absurd, over the top call for Slate to retract.

    Good lord man, can you site a **single** retraction of an opinion piece in **any** opinion journal? Retractions are essentially unheard of in any opinion journal (as Slate most assuredly is). There has to be something approaching the criminal to warrant that sort of response.

    Comment by Josef F — 2011-06-21 @ 3:18 pm

  4. A little further thought…

    It’s truly odd to hear a libertarian call for Slate to retract, something that’s essentially an authoritarian request.

    Slate is clearly a forum for a range of authors with divergent views. The same forum publishes Christopher Hitchens and Elliot Spitzer, Jack Shaefer and Timothy Noah. Clearly the Slate is not about a party line. What basis then could underly the call for a retraction? I’d venture its pretty clearly a statist call for a centrally defined “truth”.

    Comment by Josef F — 2011-06-21 @ 6:53 pm

  5. Some authors like to exercise their intellectuallism when their whole position is summed up in a very few words. Metcalf emptied the thesaurus into the piece when all he really wanted to say about libertarianism was, “it is repugnant.”

    Comment by Michael — 2011-06-22 @ 1:33 am

  6. It’s not unlibertarian of me, a private individual, to ask Slate, a private organization, to uphold high standards of journalistic integrity. I don’t think the government should force those standards upon them, but I think they should exercise those standards voluntarily. If they refuse to do so, I think people exercise their freedom to ignore their hackwork.

    With regards to the factual errors, recall that I said my list was not exhaustive. You can find more here:

    I suppose you can maintain that some of this is a matter of interpretation, but Metcalf’s interpretation is so unmoored from reality that I don’t think it’s a stretch to just say it’s wrong. Julian Sanchez explains more here:

    In short, it’s like someone explained the Parable of the Prodigal son to Metcalf, and he responded by shouting “But that ignores the estate tax!”

    Comment by John Payne — 2011-06-22 @ 6:35 pm

  7. I guess I’m a little flattered that you are bothering to respond.

    That said, the call for retraction sums up as:

    a) if Slate, and by implication almost any other journal, publishes something controversial

    b) then someone publishes even a mediocre response.

    c) then the journal is obligated, that is compelled by moral principal to suppress the article after the fact.

    Yes, I do find that fundamentally authoritarian. In my (admittedly JS Millian worldview, the correct response to “incorrect speech” is more speech.

    You seem to be quite comfortable hiding behind a call to private authority. No, not the authority of the owners of Slate, who clearly are comfortable with what Metcalf wrote, but some ill-defined notion of scholarly purity.

    Ironically, this same principal has been used against modern libertarian thought. I guess it’s not too surprising that you wish to wield that same sword. Power can be quite compelling

    Oddly enough, I don’t think Nozick would endorse your article.

    You may notice that none of your other cites call for a retraction. They call into question Slate’s brand of “journalism” (and it seems to have escaped other that Slate is most decidedly not journalism)

    Comment by Josef F — 2011-06-24 @ 4:16 am

  8. We are going to have to agree to disagree, but let me say that I don’t think they should retract it because of my response. They should retract it because they have an obligation not to publish lies. I just checked the article, and they haven’t even corrected the basic factual error about Keynes’ remark about Hayek. I think we can both agree that’s blameworthy.

    Comment by John Payne — 2011-06-24 @ 9:55 am

  9. The response to incorrect speech was more speech. Hence this blog entry. John has no power to compel Slate to do anything. This whole comment thread is much ado about nothing.

    Comment by Eric D. Dixon — 2011-06-24 @ 10:38 am

  10. Ahh… so if I call for an authoritarian action, I should not be called on it. Only if I act on it.

    Or maybe (in fact most probably) it was a meaningless rhetorical flourish that, once pride was challenged, John doubled down on.

    So, a thought experiment, what would the Slate retraction look like? Just the Hayek quote? If something other then the Kayek miss-attribution what, precisely is the standard for retraction? How would that standard apply against the many other Slate columnists? How would that standard apply against John?

    It’s not like I’m questioning much of Johns original essay, I just thing the call for retraction is absurd.

    Comment by Josef F — 2011-06-24 @ 11:38 am

  11. It was not a meaningless rhetorical flourish. I thought about it for some time before making the decision to write it. I came to the conclusion that Metcalfe’s article didn’t meet basic standards of integrity and therefore never should have been published. That remains my position. You disagree. I don’t care. There’s nothing more to say about it.

    Comment by John Payne — 2011-06-24 @ 11:47 am

  12. There’s absolutely nothing authoritarian about making an argument that person X should voluntarily take action Y. If person X agrees, and takes action Y, they have been persuaded by rhetoric that it was a good course of action. If person X declines to take action Y, they have not been persuaded and nothing changes. Either way, no compulsion is involved.

    Calling this authoritarian is an absurd misuse of the English language.

    Comment by Eric D. Dixon — 2011-06-24 @ 4:53 pm

  13. Great piece. Thanks John

    Comment by Cris — 2011-06-26 @ 4:39 pm

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Henry Hazlitt"[T]he whole of economics can be reduced to a single lesson, and that lesson can be reduced to a single sentence. The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups."
Henry Hazlitt, Economics in One Lesson






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