In less than a week we’ll post the follow-up discussion to our Emerson podcast, recorded on 9/25/14, this time covering his friend and student Henry David Thoreau. We read the entirety of Walden, the tale of Thoreau’s two years living simply, which he refers to as the manner of philosophers. The bulk of the philosophical ideas are packed into the first six chapters (mostly the first two), plus we also focused on Ch. 11, “Higher Laws.”
The two main philosophical points are first, what self-reliance really amounts to if lived: it means living deliberately, according to your natural rhythms, and not getting sucked up into society’s damaging plans for you. This serves as a good precursor to our New Work episode: working a regular, full-time job is bad for you; it saps your life’s energy and restricts your freedom.
The second theme is anti-technology. Thoreau seems to think that no invention is really worth the effort: e.g. you could walk across the county in a day or two, but to afford a train ticket, you’d have to work for a week, and “the train ends up riding you.”
This latter theme launched our main point of contention. Yes, of course technology can often be a bad deal, and you should really look at the effects of a given innovation before rushing to embrace it, but of course the calculation re. its being worth it changes over time. For the above example, for instance, the calculation no longer works given how cheap transportation is. So was Thoreau, like Nietzsche or Emerson, just delivering a message to move society away from some immediate danger he saw, or was he the kind of guy to get stuck on a theme whether or not it actually makes sense in a given situation? For example, he also denounced the telegraph, on the grounds that people across the globe really don’t have anything worth saying to each other. Yet he praises the technological innovation of books, and would likely have approved of our use of high-tech communications to create this podcast that incites people to contemplation.
The rest of the book is an in-depth study of the natural world as he was exposed to it, with the changing seasons, and also comments on the people he met: like he meets this one very simple, original fellow, who was unlearned enough that his opinions came from only himself. This kind of simplicity of character sounds like something Thoreau would praise, but his verdict ends up being a mixed one: it’s not actually Thoreau’s goal to be simple and natural in the sense of actually acting like an animal. His “higher laws” like chastity end up involving distinctly human capacities. By trying to get us to be authentic individuals, he’s inveighing against more natural, herd-like human behavior. He’s not encouraging us to exert our Will to Power as a nice bit of nature does, but to take a broader view of the ecosystem, which only a human “overcoming nature” (a phrase he uses) can.
Buy the fancy 150 year anniversary edition of Walden that I read, read this online version with nice section breaks in it online, or listen to this perfectly passable librivox version (best at 1.5X speed!). We also referred sometimes to Thoreau’s famous essay “Civil Disobedience,” which you should definitely go ahead and read.
Just a few days later on 9/28/14, we were rejoined by Seth and by Slate‘s Stephen Metcalf (author of a notorious article that revived public debate about Nozick from a couple of years ago, “The Liberty Scam“), to discuss Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia. We read chapters 1-3 and 7. This book came out in 1974 and revived libertarianism by giving it an academic stamp of approval. According to Metcalf, anyway, it was seen as just a fringe movement between WWII and that point, and so Nozick may well be one of the people responsible for the prevalence of anti-government sentiment in politics today.
The book paints its position on government power as mid-way between the anarcho-capitalism of Murray Rothbard (you can read Rothbard’s rejoinder to the book here) and the rights-oriented statism of John Rawls, whom he spends much chapter 7 arguing against. (You should definitely listen to our Rawls episode now if you haven’t already, before listening to the Nozick discussion.)
I’ll soon be posting a precognition by Seth (recorded last May before our first attempt at this discussion; that recording was loss due to a dead hard drive, and this was the soonest that we could get everyone on board to try again… it actually went much more smoothly this time, so you didn’t miss anything) largely talking about the transition from anarchy to the minimal kind of state Nozick approves of: the night-watchman state, where the state does have the power to forcibly collect taxes for the purpose of providing protection, including police, military, and enforcement of contracts, but nothing else. In particular, contra Rawls (and and contra Peter Singer, whose 1974 review of Nozick’s book from the New York Review of Books we also read), the government has no right to redistribute wealth.
This is part of a general, supposedly Kantian defense of individual rights, of the inviolability of persons, of never using someone “simply as a means” by violating their consent. Instead of seeing individual autonomy as something to be maximized by social action, as a goal to be achieved through positive political means, Nozick says we can only really respect individual rights by looking at non-interference as a “side-constraint” to action. If autonomy were a goal, then legislation might allow some violations for the sake of preventing more extensive violations. Instead, justice demands an absolute restriction: the government can’t interfere with rights (apart from the exception of taxation to support policing) without acting unjustly.
Now, this seems to make sense if we’re talking about not killing someone for the sake of the group, not unjustly imprisoning them, but how does even modest taxation qualify here? Nozick, in line with the tradition of focusing on distributive justice but really narrowing this to talk about money, is all and only concerned in most of this book with taxation, not about distribution of government offices, or voting (presumably, his doctrine would prohibit taxation to support public polling places, not to mention roads, certainly not education), or anything else.
Nozick borrows a pre-existing libertarian argument that taxation amounts to slave labor: by taking a portion of your income, the government is in effect forcing you to work that portion of your day that supports the tax for them, as much as if you were subject to being drafted into the Coast Guard or other part-time civil service.
Despite this old chestnut’s providing the core of Nozick’s view, it’s not the focus of his arguments, which center around an entitlement theory of justice: holdings are just so long as they were acquired lawfully, whether through making something yourself (here he draws on Locke’s labor theory of value), receiving it as wages or a gift, or through restitution for some past injustice. So no matter how much money you have, if you got it in one of those ways, then the government has absolutely no right to take any of it from you (apart from policing, an exception that is explained at length in the text but which, if you look at it closely, really opens the door to quite a lot of other proposed government actions).
Of course, given the amount of theft, conquest, and barbarism that current holdings are based on if you look back in history far enough, pretty much no current holdings should be regarded as clean. Nozick acknowledges that this may be a problem, but isn’t really interested in this practicality: he’s interested in what justice is, philosophically, what follows from the concept of justice itself. Justice is fundamentally historical, so that if no past injustice resulted in current holdings (in short, if you earned your money, or received it as a gift: this is not a matter of morally deserving the money, merely being entitled to it, which is is a term that is supposed to be in a certain sense morally neutral), then that’s the end of the story. There is no room in Nozick’s view for looking merely at the current distribution of holdings and deciding, for example, that there’s too much discrepancy between rich and poor, and moving to address that. Of course, people are free to give to charities or correct the disparities themselves, but given that government has a monopoly on physical force, it’s simply giving too much power to it to allow government officials to redistribute.
Nozick criticizes Rawls’s “veil of ignorance” as begging the question against the entitlement theory, or any other historical theory of justice. When behind the veil, by definition, we don’t know the history of transactions, i.e. whether holdings are (on Nozick’s view) just or not. Rawls is committed by this method in advance to some patterned view of justice. For Nozick, once you grant that justice lies in enforcing any pattern of holdings, then the government is committed to endlessly meddling in people’s lives to enforce the pattern.
Note that since government is the only one with the power of physical force, there’s no similar restrictions on actions by corporations or other private entities. Though Nozick (unlike the more extreme Rothbard) does recognize that a monopoly restricts choice (in line with Locke’s proviso, i.e. if your acquisition of a good affects the supply so that others can’t similarly acquire such a good through similar means, like if you take all the wood from the forest and make it into lumber), otherwise, there’s no recognition of any need to address vast disparities in power between the rich and the poor. No contract, if agreed to by both parties, is unfair, and the only recourse that employees have against employers is to join in a union with other like-minded workers (of course, you couldn’t then force others to join the union or otherwise prevent the employer from simply sacking the lot of you and hiring scabs).
The key to unraveling Nozick’s view is the distinction between micro and macro evaluations. “Micro” here refers to using your intuitions about specific instances of alleged injustice. “Macro” means determining what is unjust or not by reflecting on large-scale principles. Nozick uses this to argue against Rawls: Rawls, according to Nozick, uses the veil of ignorance to get our intuitive approval of basic principles of justice to apply to the whole society, but then ignores the many individual instances of injustice (where the government gets into people’s pockets) that this entails.
But of course, the latter are only deemed unjust if you’ve already bought into Nozick’s account of justice as entitlement. If you actually reflect on your intuitions, you’d probably feel, when a billionaire is taxed at 35% to pay for much of the infrastructure that enables him to live in a society where his customers have money to buy his products and his fellow citizens aren’t so impoverished that they’re going to come stab him in the neck, that this taxation is fine as far as justice goes.
Nozick, instead, is trying to undercut those everyday, common-sense intuitions by appealing to entitlement, which also uses the division between micro and macro. Intuitively, we do tend to think that, for instance, if you’ve got a pile of money, you have a right to pass that on to your heirs, or give it to whomever you want. That’s one micro transaction that looks OK. Likewise, if you throw just one empty beer bottle into the bushes, how is that really going to matter? But amazingly, contra Nozick, lots of kosher-looking micro activities, seen together through the macro picture, often lead to something objectionable. Surprise, surprise!