Libertarianism, Current Events

One link on Metcalf-Nozick

I’ve been taking part in facebook debates about the (dishonest and not very bright) Stephen Metcalf article in Slate that is nominally about Robert Nozick, while vaguely planning out how to write about it on the blog. While I still plan that, here’s a link to a fantastic Julian Sanchez post that’s of direct BHL interest.

  • Anonymous

    I like Julian Sanchez’s post, but I have some disagreements with it.  While Nozick’s Wilt Chamberlain example is a thought experiment, it’s not meant only as a thought experiment. Nozick says at the beginning of the section: “It’s not clear how those holding alternative conceptions of distributive justice can reject the entitlement theory of justice in holdings.” I take “it’s not clear” literally–Nozick is presenting something akin to a burden of proof argument against opponents of the entitlement theory [more precisely against opponents of the principle of justice in transfer], and in that sense, the argument is supposed to be dong some heavy lifting against those who would support redistribution in the name of a patterned theory.  And after discussing the Chamberlain example and the socialist entrepreneur example–where in a socialist society with no private ownership of production small factories emerge via a morally innocuous process–Nozick says “The general point illustrated by the Wilt Chamberlain example and the example of the socialist entrepreneur is that no end-state principle or distributional patterned theory can be continuously realized without continuous interference in people’s lives.” That certainly sounds like a fairly strong claim, which has real world implications.
       It’s not clear where else in ASU Nozick presents such a sustained argument in favor of the principle of justice in transfer, though maybe I am forgetting the sections I don’t teach 🙂

      The best reconstruction and defense of Nozick’s argumemt I am aware of is in Eric Mack, “Self-ownership, Marxism, and egalitarianism. Part I: challenges to historical entitlment,” Philosophy, Politics and Economics Feb 2002, section 2 and 3. For a sympathetic reading but skepticism that the argument does defeat all patterened theories, see DAvid Schmidtz Elements of Justice, chapter 32.

      For what it’s worth, when I present the argument in class, here’s how I do it, with the caveat that premise 1 is probably stronger than Nozick needs and that I take Nozick to be presenting a burden of proof argument, not an argument that shows the principle of justice in transfer is correct:

                     1. Whatever arises from a just situation by just steps is itself just.
                      2. D1 is just (by definition)
                      3. D2 arises from just steps from D1.
                      4. Therefore D2 is just.
                      5. Patterned and end state theories would consider D2 unjust.
                      6. In order to stop D2 from arising from D1 one would have to interfere with people’s lives [or what they had a right to under D1]
                      7. Generalizing (6), end state and patterned theories of justice would have to continuously interfere with people’s lives [violate what rights patterned theorists say they have a right to ] in order to continuously realize the pattern.

        The reaon for the brackets is that I think the notion of “interfering with people’s lives” to be too vague, and I think the deeper point is that the patterned theorists would have to violate the rights they say they uphold.

    Daniel Shapiro (sorry about the change in fonts–I cut and paste from my class notes, and don’t know how to fix the font here)

    • Thanks for the very helpful clarification of the argument.

      I’m curious about the inference from 6 to 7. Is this an empirical point about what would be necessary to achieve a just distribution? If so, that seems rather weak, no? An objector could reply that there is a distinction between judging something to be unjust and justifying coercive interference. Also, it is unclear why the interference would need to be “continual.”

      • “it is unclear why the interference would need to be ‘continual.'” I presume because further sequences of “just steps” would take D2 to D3, D3 to D4, and so on, and per 5 some would consider all these Dx unjust and thus requiring interference to correct.

    • Damien S.

       If real D1 is not just, and real steps to D2 are not perfectly just, then the whole argument seems irrelevant to the real world.  What if steps are almost-just, so there’s not much that can be pointed to as clearly opposable a priori on a small scale, yet over time the ‘almost’-ness builds up like grit or friction to derail the system?

      An easy example of the latter might be racial discrimination.  At an individual level, seems like a small thing; stupid of the discriminator, but no big deal, and not worth trying to make a crime.  “almost-just”  But when a huge chunk of society does it, and socially punishes people who don’t do it, it is a huge problem for the target minority, which suffers a clearly unjust result.

  • Anonymous

    I agree that the W.C. argument is intended to make a broader point, and I like your construction of Nozick’s argument. The problem as I see it is that many egalitarians would argue that the “continuous interference” you reference in step 7 is justified by the demand of social justice. Perhaps there is a presumption that the distribution of D2 is just, but this presumption can be overriden by other moral considerations. Thus, part of Nozick’s argument is that Wilt has a near-absolute right to retain his part of D2. I believe this argument is a sort of “alienation of labor” claim. That is, Wilt through his labor created certain value, and it will violate his moral agency if others, and not he, decide how this value will be deployed. This is where (ASU, 172) he makes his single reference to self-ownership–to allow others to determine what will become of the value Wilt created is to make them a “part-owner” of him. Nozick is not adopting the self-ownership thesis here, but is using this as a metaphor, i.e. allowing others to expropriate the value Wilt has created is so morally reprehensible that it is as if they become a part-owner of another human being.  

  • Anonymous

    I believe, Mr. Levy, that it would be more productive to characterize Mr. Metcalf and/or his Slate article as “inaccurate and not very well-informed” instead of “dishonest and not very bright.” Not only because it avoids simply degenerating the whole discussion into name-calling, but because, as Mr. Zwolinski pointed out last month, Libertarians themselves bear some responsibility for the seriously skewed view that the public has of them. (Despite the fact that this very weblog is named Bleeding Heart Libertarianism, more time has been devoted to defending the idea that it is morally permissible to intentionally exploit the vulnerable, than on how Libertarianism can help them. I recently re-read every single post on this blog that survived the transition to WordPress. There is exactly one concrete example of how Libertarian policy would aid the poor, and even that one is arguable.)

    True, you can make the point that as a professional journalist, Mr. Metcalf should not have allowed his impression of Libertarianism as “hateful” to come between him and writing an accurate and informative piece, but Slate is not a news site, it is a commentary site, and a (very) left-leaning one at that. Expecting an avowed Liberal like Mr. Metcalf to present an unbiased and nuanced view of a philosophy that has been rather cleanly hijacked by those whose main goal in life is to see him and all of those like him driven into the political wilderness in perpetuity is asking far too much.

    Public perceptions of libertarianism are not based on a political philosophy class. They are based on people who self-identify as libertarians.
    “Colonel Joe Rickey” Response to
    It’s Not Just About Markets, Friday, 11 March, 2011.

    Given this, I hope that if you do chose to write a counter-post, Mr. Levy, that you will write with an eye towards educating and setting the record straight, rather than attacking someone that you feel has attacked you. Libertarianism is not self-evidently correct, regardless of what it’s more enthusiastic boosters would have one believe. A person does not have to be either dishonest or stupid to believe that Libertarianism would be a disaster for the disadvantaged. History provides ample horror stories of what happens when the vulnerable have had to fend for themselves.

    Metcalf’s sin is to see his own viewpoint as sufficiently obvious that he’s become convinced that anyone who advocates against it must be actively engaged in deliberate injustice. Taking the same position and throwing it back at him will not sway him. Laying out your philosophy, and backing it up with facts and citations, might.

    • Anonymous

      To be honest, I figured that any readers of this blog who much cared would have seen the corrections already flying around the blogosphere.    The Hayek-Keynes problem that Brad DeLong noted here seems to me so bad that dishonesty is the Occam’s Razor solution; the quote is an obscure one that he had to hunt to find, and then apply to entirely the wrong context.

      The notion that Nozick’s book had causal force on Hayek’s and Friedman’s Nobel Prizes is so bizarre that “inaccurate” doesn’t do it justice.  The description of Nozick’s late-in-life relationship to libertarianism could have been an honest mistake, but it was a mistake-in-his-argument’s-interest that wouldn’t survive cursory googling.  The silly line about Hayek’s and Mises’ academic appointments reads like it’s supposed to be maybe-hyperbole, but it’s still false.

      While I haven’t blogged here often enough to get a blogging reputation among these readers in particular, I hope that my overall record as a blogger shows that I don’t engage in name-calling at all frequently, and that I try very hard to be charitable in interpreting disagreements.  But this piece seems to me particularly egregious, and someone who is so careless with the reputations of others isn’t entitled to full deference toward his own good name.

      • Anonymous

        I doubt that I’m any more interested in Metcalf’s good name than you are, Mr. Levy. In my opinion, he stupidly squandered that by blatantly writing a hit-piece against a political philosophy that he detests too much to make any effort to really understand, and then enlisting his fellow Slate staffers (who are also ignorant of Libertarianism) to pat him on the back for it.

        What I’m interested in is Bleeding Heart Libertaians becoming a platform for outreach, not preaching to the choir, or pointless tit-for-tat bickering. Readers of this blog are likely already familiar with Metcalf’s bitter anger towards the Right, and anyone he (correctly or not) associates with it. just as they are likely familiar with the fact that he wouldn’t know Libertarian philosophy were he to be smacked in the face with it. If your target is Metcalf’s reputation and your audience is us, I submit we’re already ahead of you.

        Therefore, I would rather see a primer on what Libertarianism and Nozick are really about, aimed at the audience of Slate. Not only are they more in need of such an explanation than we are, but I suspect that such a piece, were it to be widely read, would do what you seem to want – put Metcalf in a position where he now has to defend what he wrote to his own readers. Simply berating him for his carelessness is unlikely to do that; as the comments section of the Economist article makes pretty clear. Educating his audience just might.

        • Anonymous

          So why spend so much time discussion a parenthetical in the first sentence rather than discussing the link provided in the second sentence that is suppose to be of direct relevance here?

  • shorwitz

    When an author such as Metcalf ignores readily available facts (e.g. Nozick’s statements about his libertarianism, the facts around Hayek and Mises and their appointments, the purpose of the Wilt example – which Nozick lays out explicitly in the book), then the problem is not how self-described libertarians represent the philosophy (although that is a problem in some cases), but rather a lazy journalist who couldn’t even be bothered to Google the basic facts on which he built his argument.  The burden should not be on libertarians to correct the errors of the smart but lazy, but rather to call them out for being lazy and constructing arguments to fit their pre-determined conclusion (precisely what they accuse libertarians of).

    In other words, the burden here is NOT on us, but on those who are supposedly committed to making good arguments, getting the facts right, and telling the truth.

    • Anonymous

      Okay. And writing a post here specifically to beat up on Stephen Metcalf over his lazily ignoring anything that didn’t fit in with his negative view of Libertarianism would do what, exactly? Do you honestly think the choir of Slate readers won’t expect just that, and be ready to blow it off? I can’t see ANY utility in basically opening a flame war with Mr. Metcalf outside of assuaging hurt egos. It’s not like anyone’s going to flame him into writing a retraction.

      Journalists get facts wrong all the time. It’s just that most of us don’t know it unless we have first hand knowledge of the subject matter. A response that says “your facts are wrong – here’s the real deal,” with citations, is much more useful than a response that says “you’re a liar and an idiot,” because simply writing a counter-takedown of a sloppy journalist doesn’t correct the record. And the goal here should be to correct the record; which would, incidentally, be pretty clear evidence that Mr. Metcalf didn’t bother to get his facts straight.

  • In a case like this, I rather suspect that dishonest and not very bright are mutually exclusive.

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