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Nozick, Libertarianism, and Thought Experiments

June 21st, 2011 · 36 Comments

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.

Tags: General Philosophy



36 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Dr. J. Maggio // Jun 21, 2011 at 8:08 pm

    You are always interesting/smart, but this statement is DEAD wrong: “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. ” NO. That is what philosophers try to tell people thought-experiments do. But they are actually, as Metcalf inelegantly points out, are essentially rhetoric. The veil of ignorance isnt compelling because it reduces arguments down to a “lab experiment.” If you think you are doing that, then you really are buying into the worst aspects of analytical philosophy. “Thought experiments” are, as Foucault pointed out over-and-over to Habermas, simply another way of being rhetorical. They serve the same purpose as an anecdote or example. To attempt to move from D1 to D2, as Nozick does, is fine if we realize it is simply a way to illustrate a compelling reason to doubt predetermines justice outcomes. But it isnt “proof” or “verification” of anything in the sense of a lab experiment or, even, a good dialectic argument.

  • 2 Julian Sanchez // Jun 21, 2011 at 8:22 pm

    Well, I don’t mean the analogy with lab experiments to be taken TOO literally, but forgive me if I’m not prepared to take “Foucault said” as a freestanding refutation. To be sure, plenty of thought experiments (this one included) have a rhetorical element. But they also genuinely do work to test our intuitions in artificial scenarios that help us to isolate which aspects of the situation we’re responding to. If you want to insist “no they don’t”… well, all I can say is that doesn’t jibe with my experience spending time sitting and thinking about such scenarios. They aren’t, after all, JUST weapons deployed by ideological combatants, but also things people cook up for themselves to try to clarify their thoughts.

  • 3 gesher // Jun 21, 2011 at 10:44 pm

    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.

    Oh snap.

    Actually, though, I’m quite fond of some of the delightful Metcalvian utterances on Slate’s culture gabfest and in other places. He is talented with language, he’s relatively well read and he’s smart… but everyone knows that talking about libertarianism often makes smart people say dumb things.

  • 4 joao // Jun 21, 2011 at 11:39 pm

    Please forgive my ignorance on the topic, this being the first I heard about the “Wilt Chamberlain Argument”, but I found it considerably lacking. The main premise seems to be that the fraction of the ticket value from each person attending the games was voluntarily transferred to Wilt, when this is clearly not the case. Many of the people at the games were there not to watch Wilt, but to watch a game, and were coerced into paying an extra fee, by a contract signed by Wilt and the club, with no consultation of those who later were financially involved.

    It would indeed be an argument for a just redistribution if each person attending the games were given a choice of paying an extra fee for Wilt or not. It would still be just if they were idealistically asked how much of their desire to watch the game was associated to Wilt’s presence and such fraction used to compute Wilt’s cut on the ticket.

    It seems, at least from my initial reading, that no mathematical connection between Wilt’s abilities as a player and his season’s income was established. Rather, his income comes solely from his abilities as a negotiator capable of convincing a club of his perceived and abstract value.

    In the end, if I was a fan of the team and was not motivated by Wilt to attend the games, I would feel that his compensation is greatly unjust upon knowing of the contract.

    I would deeply appreciate to hear a different interpretation of the argument.

  • 5 Simon // Jun 22, 2011 at 1:04 am

    This post reminds me of the famous Deja Vu strip club, which advertises “100’s of beautiful girls and 3 ugly ones.” Lots of good points here, and a few bad ones.

    “A central contention of Metcalf’s rambling essay is that Nozick .. eventually totally repudiated his old libertarian views.” Well no, this is simply false. You’ve clearly read more than just the headline of the piece, yet this argument only holds water with someone who hasn’t read beyond the headline. Metcalf writes that every thinking person is at least a little bit libertarian, so obviously he’s not trying to argue against all libertarianism. He’s trying to argue against the old radical libertarianism which Nozick did in fact repudiate.

    There was something else that was bothering me but I forgot what it was and I have to work tomorrow so it’ll have wait, sorry.

  • 6 Wonks Anonymous // Jun 22, 2011 at 12:00 pm

    Simon, if Metcalf was simply making a point about Nozick’s repudiation of radical libertarianism, he could have noted which aspects of his former thought Nozick rejected (such as the stuff about alienability). But he didn’t. So he doesn’t give us a way to distinguish between the legitimate, sensible libertarianism and the incorrect radical version he’s arguing against. What was later Nozick’s position on taxation & redistribution? I don’t know, and Metcalf doesn’t tell.

  • 7 A Postscript on Nozick // Jun 22, 2011 at 2:40 pm

    […] RSS photos by Lara Shipley ← Nozick, Libertarianism, and Thought Experiments […]

  • 8 Julian Sanchez // Jun 22, 2011 at 3:21 pm

    As you’ll see if you look to my subsequent post, that’s still not really right: Nozick’s later libertarianism still included a (moral, not pragmatic) rejection of state functions beyond rights enforcement—not just the loosey goosey “holding power accountable” sentiment Metcalf ascribes to that motley crew of thinkers. He remained, in other words, a libertarian in the modern sense—and probably a rather more “hardcore” one than I am, at that.


    For the purposes of the example, feel free to substitute some appropriate one-person show. You can make it the Sarah Silverman Argument or the Chris Rock Argument, if you like. That said, you seem to be operating with an odd definition of “coercion.” The team(s) voluntarily agree to divvy up revenues in a certain way, on the basis of their belief that Chamberlain’s participation will motivate many more people to attend. You voluntarily pay the ticket price, and so presumably think you are getting (or at least expect to get) value from attending worthy of that price. (In Nozick’s example, you actually drop Chamberlain’s share into a separate box at the gate.) I’m not sure I see how you have been “coerced” if you conclude that the team’s internal agreement about how to divide those revenues is unreasonable. Maybe you mean that you, personally, would prefer to pay less and see the game without Chamberlain? Perhaps. But you would probably also prefer to have the team (with or without Chamberlain) play for you for free. If the team’s internal agreement is voluntary, and it is not coercive for them to charge a ticket price they deem reasonable rather than exerting themselves for your entertainment gratis, then I don’t think the scenario with Chamberlain can be any more coercive, provided you retain the option to not pay and do something else with your afternoon.

  • 9 Ignoring Metcalf’s Central Point | The Partially Examined Life | A Philosophy Podcast and Blog // Jun 22, 2011 at 3:29 pm

    […] Sanchez has some criticisms here (hat tip to commenter HPG) of Metcalf on Nozick and libertarianism. They seem fair, although I […]

  • 10 Sigivald // Jun 22, 2011 at 5:22 pm

    Dr. J: “Foucalt said it so it’s true” isn’t enough to convince this Philosopher* either.

    Demanding that they are just rhetoric, and server no other function (which is what being merely rhetoric means, yes?) is… not compelling.

    Especially since even ones I disagree with manage to do better than pure rhetoric…

    (* Got my BA in it, so I’m even credentialed!)

    Joao: On what grounds would you feel it “unjust”?

    (Or perhaps more aptly, in what part of the set of transactions do you believe the injustice consists?

    I can think of all sorts of ways one could disapprove of that set of compensation, especially if not a Chamberlain fan and perhaps wishing they’d charge $.75 instead – but that’s not injustice, do I’ll assume you don’t mean that sort of thing…)

  • 11 Daniel Shapiro // Jun 22, 2011 at 6:09 pm

    Julian, I like this post, but I do have some disagreements with it which I note in the comment section in Bleeding Heart Libertarians.

    Daniel Shapiro

  • 12 Assorted links — Marginal Revolution // Jun 22, 2011 at 6:32 pm

    […] 2. Brad DeLong takes the ideological Turing test on Robert Nozick; here is Julian Sanchez on Nozick. […]

  • 13 A Response to Metcalf // Jun 22, 2011 at 6:47 pm

    […] http://www.juliansanchez.com/2011/06/21/nozick-libertarianism-and-thought-experiments/ […]

  • 14 Rob T. // Jun 22, 2011 at 7:32 pm

    “[L]et 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.”

    Do you really think that this petulant and childish ad hominem remark enhances your counter-argument, or sets you above Metcalf in any way? If so, then you have a great deal of growing up to do. I’ll be sure to have another look in a decade or two.

  • 15 Pithlord // Jun 23, 2011 at 12:31 am

    Rob T.,

    I’m not sure you understand what ad hominem means. It doesn’t mean saying mean things about people. It means reasoning from the premise that they are bad people to the conclusion that what they say is false. Sanchez is reasoning from the premise that Metcalf wrote an article with clear factual and logical errors to the conclusion that he doesn’t understand philosophy or libertarianism well enough to write a decent article about it.

  • 16 Pithlord // Jun 23, 2011 at 12:34 am

    On the “mere rhetoric” thing, my dim recollection is that the post-structuralists thought rhetoric was a good thing and were agin’ the whole Platonic distinction between rhetoric and reason.

  • 17 Geoff // Jun 23, 2011 at 7:52 am

    A rather unpleasant and vicious rebuttal. Mr Sanchez is clearly upset about something other than Metcalfe’s alleged misrepresentation of Nozick’s arguments. Also well done Mr. Sanchez on interviewing Nozick, you should be very proud….

  • 18 Charles // Jun 23, 2011 at 11:11 am

    Libertarianism is for selfish, privileged idiots.

  • 19 Al Fin // Jun 23, 2011 at 12:40 pm

    No, Charles. Libertarianism is not for you. Libertarianism is for those who are willing to work hard and provide for themselves, and are smart enough to do it.

    In today’s Idiocratic world, only a smaller and smaller fraction of persons could actually become practising libertarians.

  • 20 Kedar // Jun 23, 2011 at 1:30 pm

    Brilliant rebuttal, Julian.

  • 21 Julian Sanchez // Jun 23, 2011 at 2:25 pm

    When someone takes a tone THAT smug and snotty in a piece that’s riddled with basic factual errors and premised on a gross misreading of its subject, I think a little snark in reply is richly earned.

  • 22 Charles // Jun 23, 2011 at 5:54 pm

    Right, Al Fin, it’s because today’s world is so “Idiocratic” that a smaller and smaller fraction of the population can be true libertarians. Or maybe it’s because everyone else is broke.

  • 23 Pete // Jun 23, 2011 at 9:14 pm

    Great response to this nitwit’s attack.

    The attacks on libertarians, Ayn Rand, etc., that are appearing with increasing regularity are quite telling. The stupidity of their criticism is in direct proportion to their fear of these ideas. They must be scared to death of these thinkers.

  • 24 Nathan T. Freeman // Jun 24, 2011 at 3:06 pm

    Julian, it’s great to see your wit remains as sharp as ever. 😉

  • 25 Steve // Jun 24, 2011 at 4:05 pm

    I agree that you have the standard view on thought experiments but it’s wrong.

    The claim that thought experiments are robust intuition pumps can be tested experimentally in a lab. You can change minor details in a scenario that are supposed to be “controlled for” and see if it change’s peoples opinions. It turns out changing race or the name as a signal of race DOES change how liberals respond to thought experiments about black people. (See this paper: http://journal.sjdm.org/9616/jdm9616.pdf)

    So Metcalf has a very good point that races matters in the thought experiment, esp. at Harvard.

    The other point about thought experiments is that, suppose people have X intuition, does that say X is right? For instance, liberals have the intuition that black and white people should be treated differently, does that say that they should? No, that’s crazy.

  • 26 Steve // Jun 24, 2011 at 4:09 pm

    @Al Fin

    Metcalf’s article is about the psychology of what makes people libertarians. His main point is that libertarians tend to focus on human capital–they tend to believe that (empirically) people are rich if they work hard and are smart. The world is a fair place.

    They don’t seem to care that most people are rich because they own a lot of physical capital or because they are paid a lot to provide everyone else incentives to work hard (tournament theory).

    You statement that “Libertarianism is for those who are willing to work hard and provide for themselves, and are smart enough to do it” seems to validate his claim.

  • 27 Mike // Jun 27, 2011 at 12:09 pm


    I can see the choice mattering in the thought experiment, but less as a way to conjure up “thoughts of the plantation” than to remove any possible in-built bias in liberal academia against successful white men.

    Wilt Chamberlain is very explicitly someone who is self-made, due to his specific personal abilities. I guess I would almost call it more of an anti-race card – it was trying to isolate racial arguments before they happened, but race was not at the core of the thought experiment itself.

  • 28 Libertarians: Attack of the philosophers | The Economist // Jun 27, 2011 at 1:31 pm

    […] and Utopia, so seriously because in the end, Nozick himself did not. Criticisms have come in from Julian Sanchez, Reihan Salam, and my colleague W.W., among many others; defenses from Matthew Yglesias and […]

  • 29 Nozick and Wilt Chamberlain – Steven Douglas Maloney // Jun 30, 2011 at 12:11 pm

    […] I do want to join in the chorus of those who are wary about Stephen Metcalf’s piece in Slate. Julian Sanchez correctly points out that Nozick uses the Chamberlain example serves to point out a flaw in the […]

  • 30 What I’ve Been Reading: “A-Long-Time-Ago”-Edition « Seeing Beyond the Absurd // Jul 15, 2011 at 4:36 pm

    […] Nozick, Libertarianism, and Thought Experiments. Some nice links about Nozick from libertarian […]

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  • 32 The Libertarian Critique of Distributive Justice | Bleeding Heart Libertarians // Sep 13, 2011 at 9:47 am

    […] one in my opinion.  It is also an intuition that plays a key role in the recently-much-discussed Wilt Chamberlain argument.  That argument draws much of its force from the idea that it is […]

  • 33 - Analytical Freedom // Jun 4, 2014 at 8:56 am

    […] in order to reinforce or refute ethical positions. Famous and influential examples include the Wilt Chamberlain Experiment and the Utility Monster Experiment; both created by the aforementioned Robert Nozick. The […]

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