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Libertarianism debunked by popularizer Nozick

Stephen Metcalf has an excellent examination of Libertarianism over at

The Liberty Scam offers a detailed look at the origins of the modern Libertarian movements, focusing on the career of Harvard philosophy professor Robert Nozick.

Nozick, the author of the highly influential defense of Libertarianism Anarchy, State, and Utopia, argued that taxation is a violation of the liberty of the individual and is akin to forced labor.

Metcalf argues that Nozick had to be aware from his perch at Harvard of a big something America did that required taxation and the combined labor of millions of individuals. That accomplishment was winning World War II.

During and after the war, government programs helped create stability and a stong economy that put American on a strong footing throughout the Cold War:

Harvard’s enrollment prior to World War II was 3,300; after the war, it was 5,300, 4,000 of whom were veterans. The GI Bill was on its way to investing more in education grants, business loans, and home loans than all previous New Deal programs combined. By 1954, with the Cold War in full swing, the U.S. government was spending 20 times what it had spent on research before the war….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; and because for 40 years, thanks to this distortion, talent had not been forced to compete with the old “captains of industry,” with the financiers and the CEOs.

The irony of what happened next was lost on the Libertarian movement:

By allowing for the enormous rise in (relative) income and prestige of the upper white collar professions, Keynesianism created the very blind spot by which professionals turned against Keynesianism. Charging high fees as defended by their cartels, cartels defended in turn by universities, universities in turn made powerful by the military state, many upper-white-collar professionals convinced themselves their pre-eminence was not an accident of history or the product of negotiated protections from the marketplace but the result of their own unique mental talents fetching high prices in a free market for labor. Just this cocktail of vanity and delusion helped Nozick edge out Rawls in the marketplace of ideas, making Anarchy a surprise best-seller, it helped make Ronald Reagan president five years later. So it was the public good that killed off the public good.

This continued ideological trance has grown a robust tree of rhetoric, by the likes of Ayn Rand, Frederich von Hayek, and Ludwig von Mises — but that tree has born some pretty rotten fruit:

Since 1970, the guild power of lawyers, doctors, engineers, and, yes, philosophy professors has nothing but attenuated. To take only the most pitiful example, medical doctors have evolved over this period from fee-for-service professionals totally in control of their own workplace to salaried body mechanics subject to the relentless cost-cutting mandate of a corporate employer. They’ve gone from being Marcus Welby—a living monument to public service through private practice—to being, as one comprehensive study put it, harried “middle management.” Who can argue with a straight face that a doctor in 2011 has more liberty than his counterpart in 1970? What any good liberal Democrat with an ounce of vestigial self-respect would have said to Nozick in 1970—”Sure, Bob, but we both know what your liberty means. It means power will once again mean money, and money will be at liberty to flow to the top”—in fact happened. The irony is that as capital once again concentrates as nothing more than capital (i.e., as the immense skim of the financiers), the Nozickian illusion (that capital is human capital and human capital is the only capital) gets harder and harder to sustain.

The reality of the marketplace is that the wealthy and connected game the system. The invisible hand of the free market tends to concentrate wealth at the very top, leaving the vast majority of people with little liberty at all.

Undoubtedly, there needs to be a balance to prevent government becoming too intrusive into the liberties of the individual, and a healthy discourse of where to draw the line is in order.

However, when you have an entire movement of people who profess that government has no role save for the provision of military defense, it’s hard to begin that conversation.

Even Nozick, whose book popularized and gave scholarly credence to Libertarian ideas, eventually relented. In 1989, Metcalf notes, he outlined the shortcomings of Anarchy:

“The libertarian position I once propounded,” Nozick wrote in an essay published in the late ’80s, “now seems to me seriously inadequate.” In Anarchy democracy was nowhere to be found; Nozick now believed that democratic institutions “express and symbolize … our equal human dignity, our autonomy and powers of self-direction.” In Anarchy, the best government was the least government, a value-neutral enforcer of contracts; now, Nozick concluded, “There are some things we choose to do together through government in solemn marking of our human solidarity, served by the fact that we do them together in this official fashion …”

These are the words of someone you can begin a dialogue with.

Unfortunately Nozick died in 2002, and his 180 degree turn was little noticed in The Movement.

What has evolved instead is a blast furnace demagogues spouting ideological talking points that equate taxation with slavery, and posit that ANY government intervention into the affairs of market inevitably lead to communism and tyranny on the level of Nazi Germany.

Metcalf’s conclusion is incisive, noting that the cowing of the left and level-headed conservatives alike is largely responsible for our current state of affairs:

Thanks in no small part to that silence, we have passed through the looking glass. Large-scale, speculative risk, undertaken by already grossly overcompensated bankers, is now officially part of the framework, in the form of too-big-to-fail guarantees made, implicitly and explicitly, by the Federal Reserve. Meanwhile, the “libertarian” right moves to take the risks of unemployment, disease, and, yes, accidents of birth, and devolve them entirely onto the responsibility of the individual. It is not just sad; it is repugnant.

In a perfect world, we could sign these principled adherents of Libertarian ideals up for a one-way cruise to a regulation free paradise:

Any takers?

Read Metcalf’s piece. It’s quite good.



June 22, 2011 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , ,

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