Politics

05.22.12

How Robert Nozick Turned on Robert Nozick

I've just never understood libertarianism. No--I've undertstood it. But it repulses me. Honest and nondogmatic conservatism is rare these days, but it exists here and there, and it I find it entirely respectable. I disagree, but I can understand why some people would read history and come away with concerns about the footprint of the state, suspicion at the belief that every problem can or even should be solved, and so on.

But libertarianism is nothing. There are only two possible explanations for it--selfishness or stupidity. I'm well aware that many smart people are libertarians. Since Jeff Bezos and others like him presumably aren't stupid, I'll assign it in most cases to selfishness, which after all is a very common human condition, so common that many of its possessors would deny ownership.

All of which brings us to a masterful piece on Robert Nozick, the founder of modern libertarianism, by Stephen Metcalf in Slate. Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia from 1970 was the founding document, the God and Man at Yale of the movement. Nozick wrote boldly then that there were only individuals, there was only personal liberty, there were only individual talents to be used and recompensed.

But short of 20 years later, he found his great work to be "seriously inadequate." What happened? Metcalf puts it nicely:

The key, I think, is recognizing the two mysteries as twin expressions of a single, primal, human fallibility: the need to attribute success to one's own moral substance, failure to sheer misfortune.

It's so true. If I made millions, it's because of my superiority. If I lost millions, it's because so-and-so A swindled me, or so-and-so B down the supply line didn't do his part, and it hurt me.

The thing is, the "sheer misfortune" argument may well be true in many or most cases. But what the successful person will rarely recognize is, if we may put it this way, the "sheer fortune" involved in her rise. For most people, their making it involves no luck, no fortuity, no assistance from barely visible yet ever-present forces. It's just like Elizabeth Warren said.

But Metcalf makes another historical argument that's interesting, too. Nozick was writing in 1970. He was, therefore, espying and describing a society that, while deepy riven over certain high-profile issues, was in economic terms at its most benign point in all of human history:

At the same time the university boomed, marginal tax rates for high earners stood as high as 90 percent. This collapsed the so-called L-curve, the graphic depiction of wealth distribution in the United States. The L-curve lay at its flattest in 1970, just as Nozick was sitting down to write Anarchy. In 1970, there were nearly 500,000 employed academics, and their relative income stood at an all-time high. To the extent anyone could believe mental talent, human capital, and capital were indistinguishable, it was thanks to the greatest market distortion in the history of industrial capitalism...

What he is saying here without actually quite saying it is that the United States of 1970 was a pretty egalitarian society, rid of most of the vestiges of earlier, vulture capitalism, and so Nozick didn't have to take those vestiges into account. But he also didn't take into account why those vestiges were gone: Government stepped in to prevent and eliminate them. By 1989, of course, after various deregulations, some of those vestiges had returned, which made Nozick say hmmm, wait a minute here.

Well, at least he came to see how jejune his earlier view was. And I do agree with him on Wilt Chamberlain, whom we will discuss at length in the future.