Slate recently published a bad article by Stephen Metcalf about Robert Nozick, the libertarian philosopher who wrote that “liberty upsets patterns”, which was the inspiration for the name of this blog. Lots of people have already come to Nozick’s defense, but as a fan of Nozick, I’m going to pile on.

There are a lot of misunderstandings of Nozick in the article, but one of the biggest concerns Nozick’s famous Wilt Chamberlain example (you can see a picture of Wilt on the banner of this blog!). Metcalf starts by quoting Nozick:

“Wilt Chamberlain is greatly in demand by basketball teams, being a great gate attraction. (Also suppose contracts run only for a year, with players being free agents.) He signs the following sort of contract with a team: In each home game twenty-five cents from the price of each ticket of admission goes to him. (We ignore the question of whether he is “gouging” the owners, letting them look out for themselves.) … Let us suppose that in one season one million persons attend his home games, and Wilt Chamberlain ends up with $250,000, a much larger sum than the average income and larger even than anyone else has. Is he entitled to his income? Is this new distribution D2 unjust?”

Here’s Metcalf critique of the argument:

Anarchy not only purports to be a defense of capitalism, but a proud defense of capitalism. And yet if Anarchy would defend capitalism unashamedly, why does its most famous argument include almost none of the defining features of capitalism—i.e., no risk capital, no capital markets, no financier? Why does it feature a basketball player and not, say, a captain of industry, a CEO, a visionary entrepreneur? The example as Nozick sets it out includes a gifted athlete (Wilt Chamberlain), paying customers (those with a dollar to see Wilt play)—and yet, other than a passing reference to the team’s “owners,” no capitalist!

[...]

…Nozick is cornering us into answering a ridiculously loaded question: If every person were a capitalist, and every capitalist a human capitalist, and every human capitalist was compensated in exact proportion to the pleasure he or she provided others, would a world without progressive taxation be just? To arrive at this question, Nozick vanishes most of the known features of capitalism (capital, owners, means of production, labor, collective bargaining) while maximizing one feature of capitalism—its ability to funnel money to the uniquely talented. In the example, “liberty” is all but cognate with a system that efficiently compensates the superstar.

This is nothing more than a confused non-sequitur. The Wilt Chamberlain argument is not primarily about defending capitalism. Rather, Nozick uses it to support his conclusion that “liberty upsets patterns”. “Patterns” refers patterned theories of justice: theories of justice that hold a certain distribution D1 as just and deviations from that distribution as unjust. For example, a strict egalitarian might argue that money should be distributed exactly equally between each member of society. But if this hypothetical society starts at D1, what happens when people decide to voluntarily pay Wilt Chamberlain to play basketball? The distribution is no longer just. If the distribution is to remain just, coercive measures (taking money from Wilt and giving it back to his fans) must be undertaken continuously. One doesn’t have to have some quirky libertarian conception of liberty for this sort of continuous interference to seem unacceptable. There are serious issues with patterned theories of justice. It is this, rather than the justice of a system that awards large sums of wealth to the super talented, that the Wilt Chamberlain argument purports to establish

It’s important to emphasize that the upshot of the Wilt Chamberlain argument, if it is successful, is fairly limited. It doesn’t show that progressive taxation itself is unjust, since a political system could include progressive taxation without requiring a specific pattern of distribution. But Metcalf was so intent on setting up Nozick as the bogeyman lurking behind every right-wing argument against welfare and progressive taxation that he never took the time to actually understand what Nozick’s positions.

 

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