I have transcribed Metcalf's amazingly smug, shallow and ignorant podcast regarding his Nozick piece where he broadcasts to the world the vastness and depth of his ignorance on the topic. A point-by-point analysis of the podcast may be forthcoming. This kind of thing is simply more proof that Austrians and libertarians have won the intellectual war and that the statists are shooting with blanks (or, like Yosemite Sam, with gumdrops).
Woman: Steve wrote a wonderful piece in Slate this week that is an analysis of the libertarian thinker Robert Nozick placing him within the larger context of the history of libertarianism and then also explaining how he later sort of fell out with his own creation [unintelligible].
You point out a history that I really didn’t understand at all which is essentially you make the case that Nozick is the only libertarian thinker with any kind of academic cred. Can you explain a little bit of how he achieved that and what it was about his ideas that were so interesting?
Metcalf: Yeah, I mean what I was trying to say was that there was period from roughly WWII when American consensus consolidated around the New Deal, one was that we wanted our government to tax and spend in order to fight the Cold War. It is unclear that the major social advances of the New Deal itself ever achieved major consensus. But setting aside that issue, we were heavily taxed, we were very unlibertarian in our income distribution structure in this country for roughly the period let’s say mid forties to until the mid 1970s when for a variety of reasons that consensus fell apart, one that there was stagflation and nowhere in Keynes is there an adequate explanation for how you get both high unemployment and inflation at the same time. Growth rates were slowing, the Arab oil embargo was economically disastrous for us and the vital center which had reigned in this country since roughly Harry Truman collapsed completely. So what I was arguing two things, one was that during those thirty or so years, libertarianism was really off the map of the spectrum of respectable academic opinion which for better or worse really policed itself, you know the monetarism of Milton Friedman was considered pretty far out there. Friedman obviously won a Nobel Prize, it wasn’t totally out there, Chicago economics was on the map of semi-respectable opinion. But it was very far from the halls of power. Nixon famously said in the 1970s that we’re all Keynesians now.
Woman: Did he famously say that? It wasn’t famous to me.
Metcalf: It is up there with “I am not a crook”. And in the midst of all this before the Thatcher and Reagan revolutions, there was a small revolution in academia which was Robert Nozick of Harvard philosophy professor who was enormously gifted and precocious thinker. He was a full tenured Harvard philosophy professor if I’m correct at age thirty, came out with an absolutely full throated totally unapologetic defense of libertarian ideals and capitalism, he himself said that he had made arguments internally against capitalism and he was just beginning to understand that none of them were sustainable. And so he wrote a classic book called “Anarchy State and Utopia”, won the National Book Award in 1975, one indication of how big it blew up and how ready people were to read something along these lines. It is an absolutely brilliant book. It is the most bracing confrontation with one’s own most deeply held beliefs that a person of the left, which I am, and I was drawn to write about it because libertarianism is making a massive comeback ironically in the wake of the banking collapse and the tea party owes its existence in some odd way to the failure of capitalism which strikes me as a mind-bending contradiction.
So I was trying to answer two questions. One is if this was the best principled case for libertarianism, how does it hold up after thirty years given the fact that we are living with this legacy, Thatcher all but quoted Nozick from the podium. Reagan never really acknowledged Nozick, but he acknowledged Hayek who was a huge influence on Nozick. So question one was you know could the principled case for libertarianism sustain itself and question two was how do you reconcile this massive contradiction which is that you know the idea that capitalism is self healing/ self regulating and that the government plays no role in keeping it going and distributing justice – just life outcomes. How do you reconcile that with capitalism’s totally overt failure in two thousand and – what is it? – six, seven, eight.
Metcalf: And that was the genesis of the piece.
Woman: Yeah. I’ve been hearing about this piece for months now and I’m curious about it because in some ways I kinda feel like this book got in your head a little bit when you read it and it seems that there were parts of his argumentation that you found persuasive. Tell me what is so compelling about his defense.
Metcalf: Well, I think first of all in a way he’s just a terrific philosopher. He loves going on for pages and pages and pages working through a thought experiment and working with it and teasing with it without beginning with a conclusion. He really begins with a question and then let’s no part of it go unanswered or unexplored. That’s on absolutely no received opinion whatsoever and to hear someone philosophize with that degree of rigor on behalf of something that me I find hateful is amazing, it’s so bracing. I don’t think you walk away as a left-winger unchanged by this book at all. And think another thing to say about this book very quickly which I was not able to do in the piece but which I find very fascinating is that in it he clearly announces his affinity for other things that are inchoate but are about to become intellectually and socially dominant, for example neo-darwinism, market theory, rational choice, all kinds of things in the seventies are just brewing on the margins of respectable academic opinion and are all about to rush to the center and he absolutely understood this. And so we have inherited ways of thinking from people like Nozick that we now use to just process reality basically and it’s amazing to go back to the source to see them getting assembled.
Woman: In your article you take us through one particularly sorta brilliantly constructed and yet I think you call it tenuously specious argument about Wilt Chamberlain. Can you quickly outline that here because it really is a good example I think of how the book’s argumentation works in this completely context-free utopian marketplace of the imagination.
Metcalf: Yeah. I mean this is perfect example of the central aim of the book which is to take the most cherished beliefs of the left and manipulate and use them against leftists and show how what they believe is hopelessly contradictory and what they really want is a kind of continuous coercion against what should be an otherwise free individual.
And the example that he uses is the central example and certainly most famous examples from the book is the Wilt Chamberlain argument. And he says I’m going to let you the reader select pick whatever society you want. I’m going to let you design it in your own head and it’s going to distribute justice, life outcomes, income, anything the way you want. And he’s implicitly assuming that you’re going do something roughly egalitarian and that’s allowing you do be the most devilish advocate against him in a way. So he’s assuming you pick something somewhat egalitarian. And then he says ok in this society that you’ve designed, people like love going to see basketball. And they don’t just like basketball, they love going to see Wilt Chamberlain in particular. And Wilt negotiates with the owner of the team an arrangement whereby he gets paid a percentage of the door effectively say it’s a buck to see the game but you put 25 cents of it in a separate jar and that goes directly to Wilt Chamberlain. Low and behold, a million people love seeing this and paying for it, happy to pay for it. Wilt ends up with a huge amount of money relative to your egalitarian society $250,000, and it’s way more than anyone else has, and suddenly your society is no longer egalitarian. By what principle are you going to take that money away from Wilt Chamberlain? By what principle are you going to deny him the prerogative of [???] that talent? And he spins out this argument.
One of my favorite philosophers, a Canadian philosopher, a person who totally inspired me to write this piece is a philosopher named G. A. Cohen who wrote an entire book attempting to refute Nozick.
Woman: Which you endorsed.
Metcalf: Awhile ago. Just an incredible book. And he basically said, we all remember where we were when we first heard the Wilt Chamberlain argument. It was floating around academia before it had taken written form and was sort of being passed along like [? ] they were terrified of it and they thought, oh my god, this is gonna
Woman: We’re undone.
Metcalf: Exactly. This is the universal corrosive, this is going to destroy all of our most cherished beliefs. I attempt to sort of slow it down a little bit and say what is he really trying to say here, does this argument really hold up. And that’s kind of the heart of what I’m writing.
Woman: You also [ ] recanted [ ]
Metcalf: Well this is really interesting. Nozick is a totally fascinating guy. He died I think about ten years ago. He was married to one of my favorite poets, a woman named Gjertrud Schnackenberg who’s a wonderful poet. She just came out with a book of elegies about Nozick which I haven’t read yet but I’m very excited to. He was a man who admitted of many many parts, and that’s clear in this book. He wasn’t kind of a mindless right-winger with a faith in nothing but, you know, purely commercial transactions.
So in 1989, he wrote a book, I think it’s called “Philosophical Meditations” which has a bunch of essays about a bunch of different things that became interested in, he became interested in Buddhism, really interested in different belief systems, and in it there is an essay in which he says quite openly, I now think the libertarian position that I espoused is a kind of thought experiment in my book “Anarchy State and Utopia” and no longer holds, I no longer believe it. I actually do believe in democratic institutions. I do believe in collective social hope, he doesn’t use exactly that language, I’m putting words in his mouth a little bit, but he indicates a belief in collective social will and its embodiment in institutions. And frankly, what I think what happened is that he saw Reaganism, saw what he had spun out as a thought experiment in action in both England and in America and he saw that it didn’t result in a libertarian paradise of individuals freely pursuing their own self interest in an ennobled way, but a kind of greedy, vulgar, cheap, trashy society that was getting uglier by the minute and I think he responded to it accordingly. Now, people have pointed out and I was aware of this that he then recanted his
Metcalf: Recantation in an interview later on so it’s sort of unclear where he ended up ultimately. But the essay in 1989, he’s very firm and very explicit and I quoted him in my piece.
Woman: This is a very dumb question but why is “Anarchy State and Utopia” not the book that libertarians hold aloft? Why is it Ayn Rand who has become the spokesperson? Just because his argumentation is so dense and people don’t want to read it?
Metcalf: I think the recantation is awkward. Nozick gives you the weapons with which to disassemble his argument or refute it because there are just too many places where one’s intellectual conscience gets in the way of saying that this is really going to conduce to anything like a remotely fair society even by the standards that a libertarian might put forward. And I think he’s just too dangerous, he possesses too much depth of intellectual conscience. The book is difficult. I think the real book that is being held up even more than Ayn Rand now is “The Road to Serfdom” by Hayek, that is a whole other kettle of fish.
Woman: So that’s the one that Rand Paul would hold aloft, for example?
Metcalf: That is the one that Glenn Beck does hold aloft and in fact got it onto the Amazon best seller list. And that’s whole other 5,000 word…
Woman: Can I also say that my favorite thing about this Stephen Metcalf/Robert Nozick argument is that it is the most read, most emailed thing on Slate right now which makes me feel so great about Slate readers that they really want to dive into 5,000 words of dense writing about libertarian philosophers.