The snark-factor is high in this entertaining, well-written indictment of libertarianism by Slate critic Stephen Metcalf:
“Libertarianism” places one—so believes the libertarian—not on the political spectrum but slightly above it, and this accounts for its appeal to both the tricorne fringe and owners of premium real estate.
According to Metcalf, Robert Nozick’s anti-distributive Anarchy, State, and Utopia almost single handedly revived libertarianism from what it was after WWII — the “Weltanschauung of itinerant cranks” (Austrian economists included) — into a popular movement:
To the entire left, Nozick, in effect, said: Your social justice comes at an unacceptable cost, namely, to my personal liberty.
When we post our upcoming episode on Plato’s Republic you’ll notice that the concept of individual liberty seems to be missing. The justice of a city or a soul is a matter of each of their parts (whether appetites and reasons or various kinds of human beings) performing their functions well and not interfering with the functions of the other parts: the city has a good, and the good of individuals seems hardly to be on the table. There’s no explicit argument to the effect that the good of the city ensures the happiness of individuals; if anything, the measure of happiness that citizens get depends on whether it serves the good of the polis. (Anarchy, incidentally is typically paired with Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, but the Republic makes an interesting foil as well).
But for Nozick, “‘there is no social entity with a good that undergoes sacrifice for its own good. There are only individual people, different individual people, with their own individual lives.'” (Of course, one might be just as much an ontological skeptic about organisms as about societies — something Nozick doesn’t address).
Metcalf’s piece is long, but here’s the central argument: Nozick can only assign liberty the overriding value he does, argues Metcalf, by assuming that absent government interference, recompense naturally lines up with talent and hard work, and so to interfere would always be unjust. Which is to say that the markets naturally find a way to give everyone what they deserve. In an ideal world that might be the case: but ideal conditions cannot be established (just as they can’t for a socialist utopia). When we are closer to ideal conditions for liberty, it is ironically because redistributive justice has established them. According to Metcalf, the fact that during the post-WWII boom those conditions (for matching up recompense with talent) were as close as ever to ideal was underwritten by “high marginal taxation and massive transfers of private wealth in the name of the very ‘public good’ Nozick decried as nonexistent.” In other words, markets don’t function according to the libertarian ideal unless some very un-libertarian foundations have been established to help them function that way. And because intellectuals and university professors benefited from this boom as much as anyone, they (like Nozick) falsely assumed that their personal success were evidence that the marketplace naturally rewards talent. Once those redistributive foundations were attenuated, so were the conditions for liberty (and for the tendency of recompense to follow talent). Today, the banking meltdown and the working conditions for white collar professionals make it clear that — given the liberty — the asshats (to justly appropriate Mark’s word) will take the talented for all they’re worth.
Every thinking person is to some degree a libertarian, and it is this part of all of us that is bullied or manipulated when liberty is invoked to silence our doubts about the free market. The ploy is to take libertarianism as Orwell meant it and confuse it with libertarianism as Hayek meant it; to take a faith in the individual as an irreducible unit of moral worth, and turn it into a weapon in favor of predation.
Reactions thus far from the Blogosphere: The New Republic’s Jonathan Chait approves; Brad Delong quibbles about Keynes; The Cato Institute takes note– no real response to the central argument here; Reason‘s Matt Welch is personally offended, and goes Anne Feminam (not an example of reasoning, I’m afraid); there’s The League of Ordinary Gentleman; and classic Leiter: “overstates the importance of Nozick (certainly relative to Hayek, who is dismissed with some silly ad hominems), presumably because the author then wants to tear it down. Some bits of the essay are interesting enough.”
The “liberty” promoted by libertarians is a scam. It’s a utopian fantasy that assumes individuals acting in rational self-interest will create an economically just society in which people are rewarded according to what they contribute, and a free market naturally will generate and distribute what goods and services people need.