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.



(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.

A lot of libertarians endorse the non-aggression principle, which states that the initiation of physical aggression is illegitimate.  Seems like a good principle if you value freedom: we should all be free to do what we want as long as we don’t violate other people’s freedom to do what they want.  This kind of thinking leads to Nozick’s popular (among libertarians) view that “taxation is theft”.

I bring this up because I have been thinking lately about a conversation I had about a year ago with Isaac Morehouse of the Institute for Humane Studies during an IHS seminar.  We were debating the legitimacy of the welfare state (I was arguing that the welfare state is legitimate).  Isaac made an argument that, to the best of my recollection, went like this: if you endorse the legitimacy of the welfare state, then this entails that you think that it’s morally legitimate for an agent of the government to go up to a rich person whose personal stash of wealth is subject to redistribution and demand that he pay his (disproportionately large as a percentage of his income) share of taxes.  If he refuses, then the government agent may call in the coercive mechanisms of the state to physically force him to pay, even if that means imprisoning him and then breaking into his home and taking the money he owes out of the treasure box under his bed (or his bank account, or whatever).

How could any self-respecting liberty lover support such a practice?  At the time of our conversation, I didn’t have a response to this non-aggression argument, but now I think that I do.  In my next post, I’ll explain why I think the argument fails and why libertarians should abandon the “taxation is theft” objection to redistributive policies.

After my display of Robert Nozick’s “Wilt Chamberlain example”, Carson expressed how he finds the argument to not be completely convincing. Now, in yet another piece of commentary on social justice, I respond to Carson’s post.

Unlike Carson, where I disagree with Nozick is his most primary premise: that people undeniably have rights. The first paragraph of the preface to Anarchy, States and Utopia reads:

Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them.


Such a fact is necessary to accept Nozick’s arguments. But do rights actually exist? I’m not saying that I think people should be censored, raped, have their entire wealth confiscated by the government, or have no protection of their property. It’s not the end-state of “rights” that I disagree with. It’s the connotation that rights carry that says there are certain things inherently given and protected by nature. Most arguments for “Natural Rights” come from an idea that rights are something granted by God to man and no one or government can take them away from us. But who says God even exists?

Also, if all humans are really granted rights by nature doesn’t that mean that there is a sort of objective list of rights that we can come up with? If rights are so inherent, doesn’t that mean that they don’t change with time, culture, or context? If so, aren’t the things that we consider rights today – freedom of speech, freedom to choose one’s direction in life, or freedom to own property – recent successes of humanity (and mostly in the developed world)? Slavery existed for the vast majority of the world’s history. Women suffrage has been the exception, not the norm. Serfdom, feudalism, and monarchy have defined civilizations much more than any sort of citizen ownership. Does this mean that the rights always existed but no one ever knew them or respected them? If they were always there but couldn’t be enforced, doesn’t that make them essentially worthless?

Right now, we set 18 as the age of consent for most things in the United States. But in the middle ages, because of short life expectancy I presume, the age of consent for most things was instead 13 years old, which made sense at the time. Does this mean that rights change with context or, more specifically, the life expectancy of certain societies? It sure makes it hard to defend a case that rights are objective and inherent wherever you are.

Instead, I agree with Jeremy Bentham’s belief that rights are mere “nonsense upon stilts”, a social construct of sorts that have come about from our recognition that respecting such privileges of all citizens are to the benefit of everyone. But NOT because they are God-given or objective. Like Bentham said,

Right…is the child of law: from real laws come real rights.

In other words, “rights” are only as good as the laws that protect them.

Carson is right, no really would argue for absolute rights and the idea of them is absurdity. But equally extreme utilitarian arguments are just as nonsensical. Example: If the organs of one living person could be used to save ten dying people who needed transplants, society would have better utility. But I don’t think many people would argue that doing such a thing would be justified. Arguing against taking the organs for utilitarian arguments like “well, we shouldn’t do that because actually society will overall be worse off if they know the state could take their organs” are pretty weak. With that logic, one could argue for anything based on the idea that it’s better for society, based on completely subjective and inconclusive premises.

Again, I’m not saying that what we conceive as rights should be ignored just because I don’t agree with the justification for their existence. I am, however, skeptical to design society based on a faulty premise.

Nonetheless, I do think that my point from my original post on the Chamberlain example stands true: we cannot have a society designed on end-state principles without constant interference of people’s personal lives. Liberty does upset patterns.

I recently got back from a vacation in South Haven, Michigan, where I was re-reading Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia. I won’t go over the extensive philosophical framework Nozick formulates for social justice (aka distributive justice), but let me just describe one excerpt that, though imperfect and ripe for valid criticisms, is extremely interesting and at the very least worth pondering. It also is worth mentioning that the name of this blog comes from this part of Nozick’s book (though the authors of this blog do not agree with all of Nozick’s premises or conclusions).wilt

Nozick, after formulating his theory social justice, mostly in rebuttal to John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, proves through an interesting analogy deemed “The Wilt Chamberlain example” why any “patterned” form of justice will be upset as long as people are free. A “patterned” form of justice, how I like to briefly sum it up, is a conception of justice that is based on end-state principles that come from natural dimensions. In other words, a patterned distribution is ‘just’ based on the way things end up and the way things end up should be based on things like talent, intelligence or moral worth. Essentially, people who follow this train of thought usually argue it is an injustice for people to be in poverty or for any intelligent child to not have a good education just because their parents are poor.

So, the beginning of the Wilt Chamberlain example: let’s say there’s a distribution (of resources, wealth, etc.) that you believe is just. It’s irrelevant whether it is logical or how you justify it. Let’s just say it’s your favorite and I’ll accept it to be just. Call it D1.

Now, add on to this the caveat that under this fair distribution D1 (your favorite one that is just) that people are able to exchange their respective holdings/property in any manner they see fit, as long as it’s voluntary. This doesn’t seem too controversial.

Suppose Wilt Chamberlain decides he wants to play some basketball and some people want to see him play basketball. He decides to charge 25 cents to each person who wants to see him play. We’ll say that 1,000 people show up. All of those people pay Wilt 25 cents to watch him play. Wilt is now $2,500 richer. Those 1,000 people all have 25 cents less. Call this distribution D2.

D1 was just (given, since it was decided by you that it was just). D2 has a higher degree of wealth inequality than D1. But how could one argue that D2 is not just if D1 is just? Where was the injustice in the transition between D1 and D2? Wilt wouldn’t complain; he played basketball voluntarily and has more money. The spectators wouldn’t complain; they could have spent their money on candy bars, a movie, or some other form of entertainment. Their seeing him was voluntary. The people who are neither Wilt nor the spectators have no right to complain, since their resources under D1 were not altered.

The point here is simple. If we are to evaluate how just a distribution is based on how things end up, we must constantly interfere with people’s liberties. In this case, we’d have to stop some people from seeing Wilt Chamberlain, or disallow Wilt from playing basketball. Both of these violate the liberties of the parties involved. Hence, to arrive at a purely end-state principle of social justice, we’d need to constantly interfere in people’s lives in order to prevent injustice.

One can argue against Nozick’s assumptions regarding property rights and other things he believes are so. The authors of this blog also support, at the very least, somewhat of a social safety net including government-funded education which is not incompatible with a limited government perspective. Nonetheless, the Wilt Chamberlain example is, I believe, an excellent mind exercise.

In conclusion, liberty upsets patterns.