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.


Sasha Volokh goes off the deep end:

I think there’s a good case to be made that taxing people to protect the Earth from an asteroid, while within Congress’s powers, is an illegitimate function of government from a moral perspective. I think it’s O.K. to violate people’s rights (e.g. through taxation) if the result is that you protect people’s rights to some greater extent (e.g. through police, courts, the military). But it’s not obvious to me that the Earth being hit by an asteroid (or, say, someone being hit by lightning or a falling tree) violates anyone’s rights; if that’s so, then I’m not sure I can justify preventing it through taxation.

Bryan Caplan once suggested the asteroid hypo to me as a reductio ad absurdum against my view. But a reductio ad absurdum doesn’t work against someone who’s willing to be absurd, and I may be willing to bite the bullet on this one.

If a conclusion to a sound argument is this absurd, it means there’s a problem with the premises, and the fact that Volokh is “willing to be absurd” doesn’t get him off the hook. There’s no reason to think that the reasoning that leads us to accept a certain theoretical moral principle is any more reliable than our intuitions about specific moral cases. Therefore, if an argument leads to a conclusion that is this unintuitive, it means that the principles that led to the conclusion should be revised.

The idea behind Volok’s right theory seems to be that having a right places a negative duty upon another person not to violate that right. It doesn’t, however, place people under duties to protect the right holder from any specific outcome. So if I cut down a tree and kill you, that violates your right to life, whereas if a tree falls on its own and kills you, morality has nothing to say.

Consider the implications of this sort of view for disease control, an area in which government intervention is widely viewed as legitimate. Polio is a debilitating infectious disease, and governments can play an important role in giving out vaccines to prevent epidemics. In normal cases of transmission, no person engages in the kind of deliberate harmful action necessary for Volokh to consider something a rights violation, and therefore morality actually prevents the government from doing anything. Now, Volokh himself has said that he’s immune to reductio ad absurdum on this matter, so this wouldn’t be convincing to him, but hopefully other people will have an easier time recognizing the sheer nuttiness of Volokh’s position.

(This is based on a couple of conversations I had with Julian Sanchez, and they’re more his thoughts than mine.  I’m just trying to clarify my own thinking by writing about it).

Many libertarians base their political philosophy on the principle of self-ownership.  The principle of self ownership, according to most libertarians, leads to a Nozickian minimal state in which the government’s role is constrained to the protection of rights to liberty and property, the enforcement of contracts, and judicial dispute resolution.

The ultimate goal for these libertarians is to transform our society into a Nozickian “libertopia”.  This sort of view is easily applied to particular public policy questions.  Would policy x move us closer to libertopia?  Would the overall effect of policy x be to reduce or increase state coercion?  The answer to these questions, rather than the complex economic analysis often involved in weighing public policy options, determines which policy libertarianism recommends.

But libertarians don’t (or shouldn’t) just care about the abstract goal of inching toward libertopia.  They also (should) care about what overall effect a policy has on real world human freedom.  The problem is that focusing exclusively on reaching libertopia can sometimes lead one to support policies that are actually harmful to the cause of promoting freedom.  A good example of this is libertarian opposition to the section of the civil rights act that prohibits some privately owned businesses (such as restaurants) from racially segregating their patrons (see Julian Sanchez’s Newsweek piece on this in the wake of the Rand Paul controversy).

A challenge for libertarians is to come up with some basis for favoring one policy over another when applying libertopia doesn’t work (also, for what kinds of public policy issues is libertopian analysis not a good option?).  More on this soon.

Part I here.

Consider the following hypothetical that takes place under a libertarian (Nozickian/Randian/Rothbardian) state.  A rich person has a pile of money in her house.  A poor person, wanting some money, goes into the house and starts taking it.  When the rich person tells the poor person to stop, the poor person refuses.  The rich person may now call in the force of the state to stop the poor person from taking the money.  The state may, using physical force if necessary, imprison the poor person and take back whatever money the poor person took from the rich person.

Non-aggresion principle endorsing libertarians would say that the state’s forcible protection of the rich person’s money is legitimate.  But for something that is allowed under the non-aggression principle, it sure seems pretty aggressive to me!  What’s going on here?

The two cases (the one from part I and the one above) aren’t the same, the defensive libertarian might claim.  In the first case, the state is coercively seizing property that belongs to the rich person, whereas in the second case, the state is simply protecting the rich person’s property from a would-be thief.

However, this response doesn’t hold up, because it presupposes the institution of property rights, which are a social institution with certain rules about what it means to own something.  Among them are rules about when it is permissible to use physical force against another person.  It’s an assumption about the existence of property rights, not the non-aggression principle, that’s doing the work here.

State-backed redistribution and state-backed property rights are both, in a sense, coercive.  The question obviously becomes, which sort of coercion is justified?  The non-aggression principle, as I have shown, is unable to provide the answer, and it therefore does not necessarily entail libertarianism.