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What’s Really Wrong with the Wilt Chamberlain Argument?

June 28th, 2011 · 15 Comments

Since writing about the Wilt Chamberlain example last week, I’ve been revisiting Anarchy, State, and Utopia and thinking about what legitimate criticisms can be leveled against this particular step in Nozick’s argument.  I still think Stephen Metcalf’s complaints are basically frivolous, and his recent response to his critics does little to change my view.  On the question of whether Nozick meaningfully “repudiated” libertarianism, he stresses that some of what Nozick says in the 1989 essay “The Zig Zag of Politics” seems more at odds with libertarianism than the positions he advanced both before and after—notwithstanding his later claim to have considered himself a libertarian “all along.”   I think my last post sketches a plausible fallibilist reading of “Zig Zag” on which the gap between that essay and his other writing is not as great as it might seem at first blush, but I’m not ultimately sure why this is supposed to matter all that much—or why you’d try to make so much of a change of heart that, if it was significant, was also apparently temporary.

As for the Chamberlain example itself, my objection was not that it is not sufficiently “representative” of Nozick’s views, but that it is not an argument to the conclusion Metcalf thinks it is, which means his attempted rebuttal is tantamount to establishing that the Pythagorean Theorem fails to prove Reimann’s Hypothesis. Metcalf halfway seems to acknowledge this, but insists the example is “rigged” in a way designed to “muddle” our intuitions:

Why, if Nozick did not want to game his example, did he choose Wilt? After all, if Sanchez is correct, isn’t the point made just as well with, say, a happy-go-lucky doofus who rides a wave of Internet exuberance and cashes out big, all while adding to the world precisely zero utility? Absent an injustice in each step (the prospectus is accurate, the bankers price the IPO fairly) the resulting gross inequality itself cannot be regarded as unjust. But I didn’t choose Wilt Chamberlain; Nozick chose Wilt Chamberlain. I.E., he wanted to harvest all of the sentimental associations from a historical reality while leaving behind all its real-world complications.

Well, I don’t know why Wilt Chamberlain. Why trolleys? Maybe Nozick was a basketball fan. Maybe it just seemed simpler than something involving stock options, IPOs, and fine points of securities law. Most likely, though, it’s because at the time Nozick was writing, Wilt Chamberlain would have been the most prominent pop cultural example of a celebrity many people thought outrageously overpaid. Even today, critics of inequality will routinely use professional athletes as an example of the absurd disparities market systems permit, as in “What kind of sane economic system lets a grown man make a million dollars playing a game most people consider recreation, while teachers are underpaid?” In the early 1970s, Chamberlain would have been the poster boy for this kind of argument. He was one of the most famous athletes in the country, and had just made news by signing to the Lakers for a controversial and, at the time, unprecedented $250,000 salary, making him the highest paid pro in any sport. That happens to be the exact sum Nozick imagines him earning in his thought experiment, so this is pretty clearly an example “ripped from the headlines” about that controversy. I imagine the choice was motivated in part by the idea of flipping that common complaint around: “You see, I’ll defend even this canonical example of ridiculous inequality.” It’s pretty doubtful, in other words, that many people around Harvard at the time would’ve thought that using Chamberlain to illustrate the point was stacking the deck somehow.

In any event, since the upshot of the thought experiment is to make a point about certain features of patterned (as opposed to historical) theories of distributive justice, rather than to validate in one fell swoop the pattern of holdings in actual capitalist societies, this just doesn’t seem particularly important to me.  The example is, by design “rigged” to be as unobjectionable as possible in terms of the validity of the specific set of transactions described, and given the limited purpose of the thought experiment, this is no dig against it. If you think the result is fair in a case like this, then you think that historical factors can be relevant to assessing the justice of a distribution, and that a patterned view fails to capture the whole truth.

That said—and perhaps in the spirit of the “Ideological Turing Test“—I want to point out some of the ways I think the Wilt Chamberlain Argument does fall short—not, again, as a supposed proof of the morality of real market institutions, but as a theoretical argument against patterned principles of justice. Here’s what a fairer critic might be able to say.

First, Nozick’s claim that patterned principles will require “continuous” intervention with people’s choices to be “continuously” realized does not have much force independently of the argument for thinking that a distribution will be just if it arises from free transactions consistent with a valid Principle of Justice in Transfer (PJX) from a just (according to your favorite patterned theory) starting point. Rawls’ Justice as Fairness is a patterned theory, but Rawls is quite clear that it—and specifically the Difference Principle—applies to the rules and institutions of the basic structure of society, including (inter alia) whatever PJX is enforced. It is not supposed to be an independent criterion for evaluating the justice of a time-slice distribution, except insofar as this may reveal whether the PJX and other institutions have been suitably well crafted in accordance with that principle. 

Moreover, insofar as Nozick supports both rectification of unjust (e.g. fraudulent) transfers, police enforcement of property rights, and taxation (e.g. sales taxes) to support the minimal state, he must also be prepared to countenance “continuous” interference with various kinds of chosen activities. There may be pragmatic issues with the scale or form of intervention proposed, but they’re distinct from the question of whether the intervention is just.

Second, the force of Nozick’s argument relies in large part on being able to grant the patterned theorist a favored starting point, D1, and show how it could be transformed into a distribution highly inconsistent with that pattern by a series of morally unobjectionable steps. For some versions of a patterned theory, this will not quite work. If, for instance, the patterned theorist argues that people are entitled to a share of the stream of social output over time, then no static allocation at a time slice (such as D1) would actually count as satisfying the requirement. More generally, the patterned theorist can object to Nozick’s move from the justice of a distribution to the claim that people therefore have a right to the specific bundle of assets they’re afforded under that distribution. For someone who thinks the just pattern involves rights to shares of social wealth rather than specific concrete holdings, each new child born will be entitled to a share—requiring a transfer from others even though we presumably don’t want to say reproduction involves intrinsic injustice. The advocate of a patterned view can say that transfers to ensure each child a fair starting endowment does not really interfere with anyone’s entitlement to their (previously) just holdings, because what people were entitled to all along was not the specific stuff constituting their previous holdings, but only an equal (or fill in your favorite allocation algorithm) percentage of the total, which they continue to have. Nozick still has the objection that it seems absurd to claim it’s unjust for people to freely do anything with “their” shares that disrupts this delicate equilibrium. But if we’re clear that share rights remain share rights, and don’t translate into rights over the specific assets constituting one’s share at a time slice, the example loses a lot of intuitive force. If I’m entitled to an “equal share” of the floor space at the yoga studio, there’s no mystery why my share might vary over time as more people arrive or the building is enlarged, on top of any gains I might realize from svelte friends offering me portions of their shares until I slim up a bit.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the intuitive appeal of the argument rests on the tacit premise that if D1 is just, and the microtransfers that lead from D1 to D2 are individually morally permissible, then the macrodistribution D2 effectively inherits the justice of the microsteps. As Nozick himself observes, of course, one could “shoehorn” a patterned view into the PJX, such that individual steps contributing to the disruption of the macropattern are ruled out (or corrective transfers mandatory), even though the microtransfers would be unobjectionable absent consideration of their contribution to altering the macropattern. No correct PJX, Nozick thinks, will have this form. This seems to beg the question against the patterned theorist in a way that is hard to justify. This is especially so given that, on a plausible libertarian theory, it will be the case that independently permissible actions may be rendered wrongful by virtue of their contribution to an aggregate effect.

Consider, in the spirit of Derek Parfit’s (itself highly unrealistic!) “harmless torturers” thought experiment, certain kinds of pollution. Suppose it is the case that many producers emit, as a byproduct of industrial activity, a variety of chemicals into the atmosphere. Further suppose that for each factory, its individual emissions make no perceptible difference in the surrounding air quality, but the combined effect of all these gasses emitted by thousands of producers mixing produces some catastrophic ecological effect. 

Each producer can claim that his emissions inflict no harm when considered in isolation, and perhaps they even inflict no marginal harm, holding constant the actions of others. (By analogy with voting: Each voter, at least in a national election, can reasonably point out that her vote makes no difference to the outcome of the election. Yet the outcome is, nevertheless, the joint product of all those individual votes.) In conventional libertarian terms, the ecological catastrophe (should it occur) nevertheless clearly constitutes a serious harm to the health and property of others, in a way that may plausibly be said to violate their rights, whether or not that violation can be ascribed to any individual actor. (To avoid complications involving potential “homesteading” of emissions rights, suppose the producers all act simultaneously and without coordination.) 

Insofar as the ecological harm is foreseeable on the basis of solid science, producers who continue to emit willy-nilly, without coordinating to set limits on their individual emissions, can plausibly be said to act wrongly. If this is so, the injustice of the individual producer’s excessive emission will not be a function of its intrinsic effects considered in isolation, but rather of its role in realizing an aggregate “pattern.” The libertarian can, of course, object that unequal macrolevel distributions do not constitute an analogous “harm,” and that the macropattern at D2 does inherit the fairness of the transfers that give rise to it. But he cannot appeal to a general principle to the effect that rules of justice governing individual action may never factor in the role they play in generating an aggregate outcome.

In the unlikely event that’s not more than enough Nozick for you, Matt Yglesias and I had some things to say about Nozick and political philosophy more generally in a recent Blogging Heads dialogue.

Tags: General Philosophy · Libertarian Theory


       

 

15 responses so far ↓

  • 1 R // Jun 28, 2011 at 1:27 pm

    Just saw your bloggingheads diavlog and wanted to note another critique of natural rights/contract based libertarianism.

    Although property rights in czarist Russia definitely didn’t have a chain of justifed transfers leading to it, it is perfectly conceivable(and even plausible in some circumstances) that a small part of the population ends up controlling most resources. For instance, take a minarchist state, focused only on contract enforcement and crime prevention with no laws against monopolies built on technically voluntary contracts. One could imagine some companies slowly accumulating land or other tradable factors of production, consolidating through mergers, using the monopoly power to charge higher prices for use of its assets, thus growing even larger.The thought experiment ends with two or three companies owning most of the land, buildings, food production, power generation plants etc, along with a minimalist government doing watchman duty.

    How likely is this situation to happen? I dont know. Say, a very technical interpretation of voluntary contracts is followed, under which a company owning the power plant can refuse to supply power to a consumer, unless he sells his home and then rent it from the company. Then the chances of consolidation increase. I am not sure, but have the impression, that many extreme natural rights advocates do uphold this technical interpretation of a voluntary contract. I wonder what Nozick’s position was on this.

    In any case, independent of whether this happens or not, contractarian libertarianism seems to be orthogonal to individualism, in the sense that it defends the property rights of large organizations exactly as strongly as it does for individuals. This doesn’t apply to pragmatic libertarianism (which as a liberal I am much more sympathetic to) since it tries to justify itself on the basis of benefits to the people involved and hence would naturally be less inclined to defend the above.

  • 2 Julian Sanchez // Jun 28, 2011 at 1:41 pm

    This is probably not a great venue to explore Nozick’s views on the “Lockean Proviso” (requiring that appropriation not make others worse off) in detail, but this is certainly an interesting avenue to explore. Nozick does have an interesting discussion of a related scenario in which a wealthy antagonist buys up all the parcels of land surrounding an enemy, effectively trapping him on his property. If you’re curious, I’d say: Read Anarchy, State and Utopia! It’s a rich book full of interesting ideas whether or not you ultimately share Nozick’s conclusions.

  • 3 jaltcoh // Jun 28, 2011 at 2:53 pm

    From Sanchez’s quote of Metcalf’s article: “Why, if Nozick did not want to game his example, did he choose Wilt? After all, if Sanchez is correct, isn’t the point made just as well with, say, a happy-go-lucky doofus who rides a wave of Internet exuberance and cashes out big, all while adding to the world precisely zero utility?”

    I can’t believe Slate published this. There’s a very obvious reason why Nozick, in his 1974 book, didn’t choose as his example someone who makes a lot of money off the Internet!

  • 4 Gary Gunnels // Jun 28, 2011 at 4:35 pm

    jaltoch,

    That was my immediate thought.

  • 5 C // Jun 28, 2011 at 5:56 pm

    The more I think about the concept of “rights”, the more puzzled I get. Take this thought-experiment (rhetoric or not, I’m not sure on that point either):
    Following the “rules” of ASU, people, through an incredibly complex series of independent (and co-dependent etc., but, you know, “free”) decisions mankind comes to an end. That is the end state. No ones rights has been violated. Obliously, that’s not good? Well, let’s say there were a lonely genious who saw the whole thing coming, and adverted it by alienating rights and coerced people etc. The sane libertarian would, I suppose, say something like: OK, he should have done that (he hade the right to do that, in some way?), but he still would have broken the rules. The insane libertarian would say: He had no right to do that (and thinking that concludes it). Then, what does “rights” mean?

    I feel that the common libertarian viewpoint frequently mixes results with rights. If free market capitalism is the most effective way of generating wealth and prosperity, why dous it have to be underpinned by morals that does,nt have anything to say (but, sometimes, contemptous remarks) about results? And, conversely, if it is the only moral system, why does it also have to be the most effective?

    Just some quick thoughts.

  • 6 C // Jun 28, 2011 at 6:01 pm

    (Corr:

    Following the “rules” of ASU, people, through an incredibly complex series of independent (and co-dependent etc., but, you know, “free”) make decisions that result in that mankind comes to an end.)

  • 7 Julian Sanchez // Jun 28, 2011 at 6:15 pm

    C-
    You need to specify the way this comes about more concretely. It might be, for instance, that our ancestors in the far future all, for ideological reasons, simply decline to reproduce. Maybe a religious doctrine preaching celibacy has swept the world. Maybe (as long as we’re being fanciful) we’ve taken to constructing powerful spacefaring AIs that carry our culture and parts of our memories with them—and we consider these our “children,” so much that it no longer seems important to produce more biological humans. It’s not obvious to me that it WOULD be acceptable to violate people’s rights in order to prevent this outcome.

    Maybe, on the other hand, you mean this process literally involves everyone being killed off. It would depend on the details, but if you’re imagining it as a result of something akin climate change owing to the aggregate effects of pollution, then I’d be inclined to say the participants in the process *are* engaged in rights-violating behavior, though of course, they may be doing so unwittingly if the process is sufficiently complex.

  • 8 C // Jun 28, 2011 at 7:08 pm

    Let’s say it means everybody gets killed off. That’s the ultimate end state. (And all our rights are inscribed forever in the stars.)

    It is not obvious to me that this outcome would *necessarily* entail rights-violations. And, it obviously points to the question of end state-philosophy versus inalienable rights dito. 85% poor — that’s OK, if we all follow the rules. But if everone dies? At what point does an end state become intolareble, supposing no ones rights were trampled upon? There is a corresponding question, I think, in the utilitarian outlook: How many (person’s) rights can be violated for securing an end state that is not intorable?

    Second — I still don’t really know what a “right” is. Is it something that can be violated, if the reasoning behind doing so is good enough? Or is it never acceptable? If you say rights should, in some circumstances, be ignored, then you are dealing in consequentalism of some kind, I think. There is a muddle here between morals and results.

    Third, the notion of “unwittingly” violating someone’s rights of course opens up a whole box of problems.

  • 9 Matt Zwolinski // Jun 28, 2011 at 9:58 pm

    As Nozick himself observes, of course, one could “shoehorn” a patterned view into the PJX, such that individual steps contributing to the disruption of the macropattern are ruled out (or corrective transfers mandatory), even though the microtransfers would be unobjectionable absent consideration of their contribution to altering the macropattern. No correct PJX, Nozick thinks, will have this form. This seems to beg the question against the patterned theorist in a way that is hard to justify.

    One person’s question begging is another’s reductio, I guess. I’ve always thought that part of the point of setting up the example in the way that he did was to allow Nozick to imply that, look, if your theory of justice implies that these sort of transfers are wrong, then it looks pretty darned implausible.
    Of course, a patterned theorist could hold that the transfers give rise to a legitimate claim for redistribution of some sort, without necessarily being morally wrong. Nozick says that the patterned theorist must resort to continuous interference in people’s liberty to preserve the pattern, but of course (and perhaps this is similar to your first point), this continuous interference could be accomplished through the tax code. That patterned principles require a system of taxation and redistribution sounds a lot less counterintuitive, and a lot less damning to the patterned theorist, than that they require continuous interference in liberty.

  • 10 Julian Sanchez // Jun 29, 2011 at 7:41 am

    Matt-
    Atypically, I have nothing to add: I agree with basically all of that.

  • 11 sam // Jun 29, 2011 at 9:28 am

    “This is probably not a great venue to explore Nozick’s views on the “Lockean Proviso” (requiring that appropriation not make others worse off) in detail, but this is certainly an interesting avenue to explore. ”

    But that’s the flywheel of the whole enterprise, right? I mean, he has to get the thing going somehow.

  • 12 sam // Jun 29, 2011 at 9:37 am

    ” I’ve always thought that part of the point of setting up the example in the way that he did was to allow Nozick to imply that, look, if your theory of justice implies that these sort of transfers are wrong, then it looks pretty darned implausible.”

    And on that, I’ve always thought the Wilt argument is basically, “Look, you say the [whatever] patterned distribution is the just distribution. But you also agree that Wilt’s outcome is just and fair. If that’s the case, then you have to admit that a distribution based on (forgive me) Wiltonian principles must also be just and fair. So, you’ll have to give up the idea that your favored scheme (patterning) is the just scheme.”

    Does that sound right?

  • 13 RJ Miller // Jul 14, 2011 at 6:01 pm

    If the criticisms Slate is bringing towards Libertarianism is the best the left has to offer, then I can’t wait to see the political climate ten years from now when our views are still alive and well.

    Whether the left or right is willing to admit it, much of the success behind their respective platforms has been the result of people at the top of the Nolan chart (non-interventionism, gay rights, drug legalization, reduced spending, gun rights, etc.).

    Excellent post by the way. Wish you were still around on Ars Technica to balance out the complete lack of criticism writers there have towards net neutrality.

  • 14 Gryph // Jul 15, 2011 at 1:28 pm

    How generous of you to take the trouble to make Metcalf’s critique competently on his behalf! I’m sure that he appreciates your assistance.

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