Julian Sanchez has some criticisms here (hat tip to commenter HPG) of Metcalf on Nozick and libertarianism. They seem fair, although I don't have time to evaluate them in detail (it's been a long time since I read Anarchy, State and Utopia):
Nozick is here setting up a dilemma: Under these idealized circumstances, from what is stipulated to be a perfectly just starting distribution by your preferred theory, a series of free choices yield a very different, and much more unequal pattern. On what we might call a strictly orstrongly patterned theory, then, Nozick observes that a highly counterintuitive conclusion follows: That from a perfectly just starting point, we quickly progress to an unjust state by a series of moves themselves involving no apparent injustice, but only people’s voluntary deployment of the holdings to which your favorite pattern theory entitles them. Alternatively, one’s preferred pattern might be loose enough to permit this transfer without dubbing it unjust—in which case one acknowledges that a pattern is not all there is to it, and one must know something about the history of holdings and transfers, not merely the overall distribution, to know whether it meets standards of justice.
Unfortunately, Sanchez doesn't address Metcalf's central point. The question is whether "liberty is the only value the state should concern itself with," to quote another (poor, ill-conceived) critique by the Cato Institute. If the state can't concern itself with liberty without concerning itself with other values, the libertarianism is in trouble. This is an empirical question: if refraining from redistributive measures lead to essentially authoritarian political conditions by concentrating wealth and power among a few, then libertarianism simply doesn't work. There is ample economic and historical evidence to support this view -- although I'd like to see a substantive challenge, rather than more conversations about the extent to which Nozick repudiated his views in Anarchy (which is a relatively trivial historical or scholarly question).
Update: This piece by Mark Thompson at The League of Ordinary Gentlemen is the best response to Metcalf I've come across thus far (other than Sanchez' more limited responses). It addresses the central issues head on, and makes clear how Metcalf has misused Nozick. Importantly,
Moreover, Nozick explicitly disclaims the idea that absent “patterned redistribution” or even government interference, recompense will naturally line up with talent and hard work.
And the point of the Wilt Chamberlain argument:
An important underlying point here, which makes Nozick’s argument so subversive, is that he’s suggesting that by reducing the concept of justice to a set formula, a “pattern,” one assures that inequality produced for undeniably just reasons is treated as indistinguishable from inequality produced entirely unjust reasons. Indeed, Nozick gives much space to advocating for an alternative, “historical” principle of justice, in which an inquiry ought to be made as to the justness of each particular transaction.
None of this makes the Chamberlain argument an indisputably successful rebuttal to the existence of a welfare state, though, and I don’t think Nozick would have suggested as such. Instead, in effect, he is simply arguing here that a system of redistribution in the name of justice must be able to point to specific unjust transactions it is rectifying if the system is to avoid causing injustice itself. It is simply not possible to say that deviations from a particular idealized pattern of distributive justice are inherently unjust, even if some or even most such deviations are a result of unjust transactions. Except for very rare circumstances, any such pattern will ultimately have to either allow for deviations or impose otherwise unacceptable restrictions.
Erik Douglas says
I am reminded of a Sesame Street episode when the king, so overjoyed at his dinner, orders a royal proclamation that everyone in the kingdom should hence forth become chefs…
I’m not a libertarian, but I am a former PhD student who knows some political philosophy. And I think you’re pretty far off base on this one.
Metcalfe makes the Wilt Chamberlain example the centerpiece of his column. It’s the only argument of Nozick’s he covers in detail, and he says that by nit-picking it he will show the falsity of the libertarian enterprise. He then proceeds to *completely mischaracterize* the import Nozick assigns to the WC example. The WC example is not an argument that liberty is the only value. It is not an argument that all market exchanges are analogous to the WC case. It is a thought experiment meant to show the limitations of ‘patterned’ theories of justice as opposed to Nozick’s own preferred entitlement view. Metcalfe completely botches this, which is why you are seeing people who have read AS&U (like Sanchez, and Rian in your comments) treat his article with contempt.
Given that basic level of incompetence, it’s understandable that Sanchez doesn’t go searching for Metcalfe’s ‘central’ point. Frankly, it was unclear to me from reading his article what that central point was. If it is that libertarianism *requires* that (negative) liberty is the only possible value that can motivate state action, then he doesn’t understand libertarianism terribly well. There are many strands of libertarianism: some purely political, some moral. Some purely consequentialist (David Friedman, e.g.), some with non-consequentialist elements. There is a strand of libertarianism that would fall if the state may take into account other values than negative liberty. But this is an extreme libertarianism (almost a strawman), and one could probably derive 95% of the libertarian party platform from much weaker theoretical premises.
It seems you may share this confusion with Metcalfe. You write:
. If the state can’t concern itself with liberty without concerning itself with other values, the libertarianism is in trouble. This is an empirical question: if refraining from redistributive measures lead to essentially authoritarian political conditions by concentrating wealth and power among a few, then libertarianism simply doesn’t work. There is ample economic and historical evidence to support this view
1. You appear to assume a purely consequentialist libertarianism. So that if the state cannot secure liberty without securing other things as well libertarianism has a problem. But consider the following statement: “if you can’t reduce the overall amount of pain in the world without occasional torture, then the anti-torture position is in a lot of trouble.” Actually not, right? It could be the case that there are some things we just can’t do, even if the consequences are ones we endorse. This is a standard point for all non-consequentialist theories (non-consequentialist liberalism, e.g.) so libertarians should have the same recourse. Maybe there are some negative liberties we just can’t abridge, even if they would lead to greater overall negative liberty. I suspect you agree with that, actually, but may have a different set and scope of negative liberties you feel that way about. Although there are likely areas of overlap (e.g., should the government be able to force a woman to bring a pregnancy to term against her will)
2. You appear to assume that libertarians cannot be value pluralists. But a value pluralism that assigned very high value to negative liberty (even while recognizing the importance of other values in themselves, and not just as instruments to gain negative liberty) could generate very libertarian ethics/politics.
3. You appear to assume a lot of empirical facts that are highly contentious. You say that absent redistribution, the record shows we get lack of liberty through authoritarian oligarchy. First, that’s a sweeping historical generalization of the type where it’s hard to imagine how you could ever prove it to your own satisfaction, much less a critic’s. Second, even if we grant that highly controversial major premise, libertarians can point to a current US budget where the majority of spending has marginal redistributive impact (defense, social security, and medicare are not programs that, in the main, distribute from rich to poor). So a libertarian might say there is enormous room to restrict the scope of state coercion *today* without running any risk of increasing oligarchy/autocracy. And they would certainly have no shortage of historical examples of autocracy that can about from, well, autocrats. That is, from coercive state power.
Sorry for the long, and as I read back over it, pretty hostile-sounding comment. But moral/political philosophy gets so little popular press that it really is bothersome when the notice it receives takes the form of butchery. And although I’m not a libertarian, perhaps I’m sympathetic enough, or perhaps just enough of a fan of minority ideologies to want to push back pretty hard when I feel the treatment is unfair….
Wes Alwan says
Hi Ben, I think these are good points about which we agree — I’m just not sure why you think they’re directed against this post. I think the correction on the Wilt Chamberlain example is important — that’s why I quoted Sanchez on it. I just don’t think that error means that the central point — which seems fairly obvious to me and which I outlined in my previous post — should simply be ignored. Nor can I muster up the same level of contempt for Metcalf based on his technical philosophical errors, because I don’t have the same expectations of magazine pieces that I do of philosophy journals. But I can understand that contempt — there are philosophers and ideas that are dearer to me that I would loathe to see misrepresented in such a way.
(1) I understand that Nozick is a deontologist about liberty (and forbids consequentialist arguments from the outside in AS&U). But we need not accept Nozick’s rejection of consequentialism in our critiques. And without being purely a consequentialist, I think that consequences are in fact important in this case. (And if an absolute restriction on torture led to lots more torture in a state — a hypothetical that thankfully doesn’t make sense — then yes, we’d be in trouble, although in this case it would be unclear what to do about it. But the comparison to restrictions on liberty are prejudicial. Even hard core libertarians must accept certain restrictions on liberty if the concept of state is to work; as in those restrictions on my liberty that are implied in respecting the liberty of others. We all live with such restrictions; and so we can hardly claim that the deontological restrictions against curtailing liberty would be as strong or straightforward as those against torture).
(2 and introductory paragraph) I don’t assume that libertarians can’t be value pluralists or that there’s only one type of libertarianism, and nor does Metcalf. Metcalf is addressing Nozick’s immensely influential hard-core strand; and I’m including a Cato Institute’s value-monist description of libertarianism not as a straw man because it’s one of the most influential libertarian organizations in the country, and because I think it reflects the view of the kind of libertarianism which is actually politically influential in this country. But yes, we can all find a degree of value pluralism with which we are comfortable; and in this sense, almost all of us can call ourselves libertarians of one sort or another (as Metcalf points out). And certainly most Americans are hard core civil libertarians. But that’s just not what libertarianism means in today’s politics in the U.S.
(3) Yes, I’m making a sweeping historical generalization that I’d need a book to try to prove to your satisfaction, and even then I doubt there would be much satisfaction. But a look at any graph of wealth distribution in the United States and how it has changed in the last century should make it clear that absent redistribution, the vast majority wealth tends to pool among a tiny minority of the population. Which seems plausible, given the nature of compound interest, capitalism, etc.; and psychologically plausible, given the nature of human beings. Given that plausibility, and the fact that human beings and markets aren’t angels, I think the burden is on libertarians to explain the (empirically irrefutable) lopsided distribution of wealth and its implications for liberty. (As for whether social security et. al. are redistributive, that’s a policy debate for another time/blog).
Ethan Gach says
I agree with Wes. My problem with many of the Cato rebuttals was that, though they rightly pointed to certain interpretive errors and factual errors, they seemed for the most part to be putting the same basic libertarian argument forward. Liberty is the supreme “political” value, and restricitions on wealth accumulation usually result in unacceptable restrictions in general. The following are the last two sentences from the Powell piece that Wes sights :
“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.”
That hardly seems like the nuanced and watered down libertarianism that everyone is claiming libertarians actually believe. Most of the libertarian rebuttals have started with, Metcalf got it wrong by caricaturing our position, followed by reciting a position similar to that which Metcalf caricatured.
Daniel Horne says
For what it’s worth, Metcalf, conversing on the Slate Culture Gabfest Facebook page, cites this blog critique as having “had some meat.” That’s about as close to a thumbs-up from him as one can hope to earn. I wonder if you’ve heard of these guys?
Ethan Gach says
Yes, and Thompson’s argument does make a good point (though I still think it utilizes Chamberlain apologetics to the point of conceeding the point).
You’ll see my reax post right beneath Thompson’s.
Thanks for the response. Metcalf’s piece really rubbed me the wrong way. I’m actually not a big Nozick fan, but the sneering tone and the ad hominems (Hayek, a paid shill … uh, OK…) really didn’t mesh well with getting the basic facts about Nozick completely wrong.
On the merits, I agree that a central question for libertarians is “on what grounds and to what degree can the state infringe negative liberty.” I guess I don’t think Metcalf added to that conversation at all. But enough about Metcalf.
On your points, there’s a lot going on. The logical chain I’m getting is:
1. Without coerced redistribution there is inequality
2. Inequality tends to lead to violations of negative liberty
3. Therefore a sole focus on negative liberty undermines itself.
This seems to me like a lacking argument at point 2. I don’t think France and the US differ that much in negative liberty, but have different levels of resdistribution and inequality. Even within the US, I’d say that we’ve seen a general increase in negative liberty over the past century that doesn’t obviously correlate with trends in financial inequality. Do we have less negative liberty now than in 1950? Hard to make that case, right?
A better argument, I think is:
1. Without coerced redistribution there is inequality
2. Inequality is bad
3. Therefore a sole focus on negative liberty causes bad results
A still better argument (in my Frankfurtian view) is
1. Without coerced redistribution there are bad results (severe poverty, e.g.)
2. Even granting a moral presumption against coercion, many results are bad enough to warrant coerced redistribution
Wes Alwan says
Good points again! You’re right, it would be hard to argue that negative liberty has decreased; although one might try (warrantless wiretapping, etc.) and draw some correlation between these and distribution. So your re-framing of the argument clarifies things. Although the extent to which the freedom of markets is self-undermining (which seems to be Metcalf’s focus) is still an interesting question; so if we’re talking about economic freedoms, as libertarians are want to do … but this is something you can probably shed some light on as well.
To your question. My inclination is usually to try and lump the negative liberties together. Part of this is polemical — people on the right seem to have more affection for non-interference in the economic sphere, people on the left for non-interference in the cultural sphere, and so uniting the two often helps get a conversation out of the usual (in the US context, at least) partisan wrangling.
I do think there are arguments to run about ways in which negative liberty in the libertarian or ‘small ‘l’ liberal’ sense — that is, a very strong presumption against state coercion — can be described as self-undermining. Some include:
a. A sustainable liberal political order requires certain attributes in its citizens. Such a citizenry can only be developed through education of the young (which is by definition unchosen) and by some level of restriction of citizenship (which some feel is coercive)
[this is a version of aristotle’s ‘all education must be in light of the regime’ principle]
b. Certain unexpected consequences of the exercise of negative liberty action are so severe and destructive that preemptive coercion is justified even if it will inhibit many harmless liberties.
c. I think your concern about the results of economic inequality can be stated more generically — the actions we can expect from humans absent state coercion will lead to the destruction of a liberal order. This could be concentrations of wealth destroying political equality or poor morals destroying the cultural bases of liberty.
Wes Alwan says
Thanks again — nicely put and very helpful. I hope you’re putting your philosophy education to good use in your current endeavors!
It’s not as relevant to biotechnology as I might have hoped…