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Nozick’s Apartment

April 8th, 2003 · No Comments

Brad DeLong has a post on Robert Nozick’s now slightly infamous use of rent control laws to extract a settlement of over $30k (in mid 80s dollars!) from his then landlord, Love Story author Erich Segal.

First, a general note on the ample discussion that followed. There’s plenty of tiresome rehearsal of some line about how awfully selfish and hypocritical libertarians are, etc. etc. As a form of argument, I generally find this as invalid as it is boring. Brad apparently raised this with a class in a discussion of Anarchy, State, and Utopia… but what does it have to do with anything? Even if it were hypocritical, hell, even if Nozick were personally a drunk who liked torturing kittens, it wouldn’t bear one way or another on whether his arguments were right or wrong. I’m not entirely sure it is all that hypocritical anyway. I can think rule X should be in place generally, and still decide that I’m not myself going to follow it if it isn’t going to be generally enforced. I’m especially perplexed by the folks who attacked Nozick and also seemed to be pro-rent control; shoudn’t they be mad at Seagal for trying to violate the law and “cheat” his tenant? But I don’t really want to defend this one too far… this wasn’t taking advantage of some general government benefit you think ought not to exist; it was a use of state power to extract resources from one person. I don’t think there’s any problem with a libertarian taking advantage of certain state benefits they disapprove of, but that’s not the same as, say, turning in your neighbor for drug use or illegal gambling. A little context, though. Here’s what Nozick said about it when I interviewed him a few months before his death:

RN:One thing that I think reinforced the view that I had rejected libertarianism was a story about an apartment of [Love Story author] Erich Segal’s that I had been renting. Do you know about that?

JS: I did hear about that. The story that had gone around was that you had taken action against a landlord to secure a certain fixed rentâ?¦

RN: That’s right. In the rent he was charging me, Erich Segal was violating a Cambridge rent control statute. I knew at the time that when I let my intense irritation with representatives of Erich Segal lead me to invoke against him rent control laws that I opposed and disapproved of, that I would later come to regret it, but sometimes you have to do what you have to do.

Now, you might ask (and people have) what exactly that last bit is supposed to mean. Well, we chatted a little bit more later while going over the transcript to edit it for publication, and he clarified a bit. His attitude seems to be something like: yes, it was wrong, and I knew when I did it that it was wrong, but Segal and his lawyers really pissed me off (he originally considered putting the settlement into a “fund for non-schmaltzy writers”), so I did it anyway.

So long story short, yeah, it was wrong, and he said as much himself. I guess it makes an amusing story, but I don’t know what it proves, except that sometimes even Harvard professors act in ways they aren’t entirely proud of .

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