In a piece over at Slate, Stephen Metcalf seems determined to prove that there’s nothing too fundamentally confused to be published on the site as long as it gets in a few good jabs at libertarians. My Cato colleagues Jason Kuznicki and David Boaz have already chimed in on the topic, but I wanted to add a couple comments of my own. In part, as David notes, this is because I’m a great admirer of Robert Nozick, who I interviewed way back in 2001 as a student at NYU. A central contention of Metcalf’s rambling essay is that Nozick—whose influence outside the academy I think he probably overstates severely—eventually totally repudiated his old libertarian views. But, as you’ll see in the interview—and can hear him say to me for yourself—Nozick always thought of himself as a libertarian in a broad sense, right up to his final days, even as his views became somewhat less “hardcore.” (Not terribly surprising: Like many people who continue to think of themselves as “libertarians,” my own views are a good deal less extreme than those of 1974-vintage Nozick, let alone someone like Murray Rothbard, but it’s still the closest fit for how I think.) I see it had slipped off my site in one of the updates I’ve done over the years, until I reposted it today, but it’s been floating around the Web this whole time, and you’d think a little Googling might have turned it up.
The more important question, of course, is whether Nozick’s arguments hold up, and Metcalf chooses to focus on just one very brief passage from Anarchy, State, and Utopia as representative of Nozick’s thought: A famous thought experiment that’s come to be known as the “Wilt Chamberlain Argument.”As Reihan Salam observes, there are many provocative and insightful responses to Nozick out there in the philosophical literature. Metcalf’s is, to put it as kindly as possible, not among their number. The first sign that we’re in for a painful read comes with a grossly unfair and factually challenged attempt to dismiss F.A. Hayek as some kind of paid corporate shill. The second is his claim that “Nozick is arguing that economic rights are the only rights,” a claim so wildly disconnected from anything Nozick says that I’m left to wonder whether Metcalf actually read the book, or just skimmed the Wilt Chamberlain bit on the advice of a friend.
A little bit of context is needed to understand the point of the Wilt Chamberlain Argument. Nozick is taking issue with what he calls “patterned” conceptions of justice, which is to say, views on which the justice or injustice of a society’s economic arrangements can be discerned simply by looking at the distribution at a given moment. On the simplest such view, it might just be that everyone must have roughly equal shares—and so if you want to know whether the holdings in a particular society meet the standard of economic justice, you just have to look at what everyone has, and see whether it fits your criteria—which, of course, are on many theories substantially more complex than “equal shares for all.” Here Nozick sets up a dilemma for the advocate of a strongly patterned view. Suppose, he suggests, that whatever distribution you think just (whether it’s equal shares or something more convoluted) is realized in a miniature society. Enter Wilt Chamberlain:
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?
Nozick has deliberately set this up to be as unobjectionable a historical transition between distributions as can be imagined: The primary resource Chamberlain employs is his own body and talents, and the service he provides is by any reasonable standard a sort of luxury good, such that we’re inclined to see each individual decision to transfer a relatively small amount of money to Chamberlain as genuinely voluntary and free. Metcalf—because he utterly fails to comprehend what Nozick is doing, or how this argument fits into the larger structure of Anarchy State and Utopia—imagines that this is some kind of tricky rhetorical ploy, further loaded by making the hero African-American, and raising the spectre of the plantation for anyone who would deny him the fruits of his labor. Actually, the failure is broader than that: Metcalf seems not to really get how thought experiments typically work in philosophy, or what their function is. Because after some snarky (and stunningly obtuse) remarks about the uselessness of thought experiments that don’t sufficiently resemble reality, he goes to great pains to point out that this ginned up example involving the natural talents of a basketball superstar isn’t exactly representative of most transactions in a market economy. He then goes to still greater lengths exploring how it might be that a thinker widely regarded as a dazzling intellect even within the rarefied air of Harvard could have imagined otherwise, and left out of his thought experiment all the complicating factors that are involved in real-world economies.
The answer, of course, is that he didn’t—that wasn’t the point. In the real world, we also don’t generally find ourselves confronted with elaborate assortments of runaway trolleys that can only be stopped by pushing fat men from footbridges. In the real world, you probably couldn’t actually keep it secret if you chopped up a healthy vagrant for organs to save five ailing patients, which would raise all sorts of complicating factors. Thought experiments are not supposed to be realistic, and as such they almost never suffice on their own to yield a determinate practical conclusion on questions of ethics, let alone political philosophy. Their purpose is to strip away complicating factors by stipulation in order to get down to bare principles, usually to resolve one narrow type of abstract question by artificially isolating it, as variables are isolated in a laboratory experiment. Nozick is here setting up a dilemma: Under these idealized circumstances, from what is stipulated to be a perfectly just starting distribution by your preferred theory, a series of free choices yield a very different, and much more unequal pattern. On what we might call a strictly or strongly patterned theory, then, Nozick observes that a highly counterintuitive conclusion follows: That from a perfectly just starting point, we quickly progress to an unjust state by a series of moves themselves involving no apparent injustice, but only people’s voluntary deployment of the holdings to which your favorite pattern theory entitles them. Alternatively, one’s preferred pattern might be loose enough to permit this transfer without dubbing it unjust—in which case one acknowledges that a pattern is not all there is to it, and one must know something about the history of holdings and transfers, not merely the overall distribution, to know whether it meets standards of justice.
Metcalf seems to imagine that this four-page argument—which occurs about a third of the way through a long, dense, and in places somewhat technical book—is in itself supposed to establish the injustice of taxation and redistribution, or the justice of real-world holdings arising from existing markets. Would that political philosophy were so easy! It’s not supposed to do that at all, of course: It is meant to develop an abstract point about the inadequacy of a certain (purely patterned) way of conceiving the criteria for evaluating the justice of property holdings. Maybe the Internet has so attenuated our attention spans that Metcalf can’t quite grok the idea that a single thought experiment might not be meant to fully justify an entire sociopolitical system in the span of four pages, but serve to establish a single lemma in a much longer sustained argument—albeit one riddled with gaps by Nozick’s own admission. In his defense, I should add that I think some of Nozick’s admirers sometimes take the Chamberlain argument to prove rather more than it does. Still, next time Slate decides it wants to try to take down one of the giants of 20th century philosophy, they might consider recruiting someone else and let Metcalf stick to his beat analyzing Lady Gaga and Teen Wolf, which seems likely to be more entertaining and a lot closer to his speed.