Wilt the Stilt v. James Dickey

Stephen Metcalf writes beautifully in Slate about Robert Nozick, Harvard philosopher and godfather of the modern libertarian movement, who wrote a staggeringly influential book espousing radical libertarianism in the 1970s before growing the fuck up changing his mind in the 1980s.

By now the arguments against pure libertarianism are so familiar even Gary Johnson could recite them in his sleep. Eric Van Newkirk summed it up pretty well a few days ago:

What I was trying to get to is that libertarianism is one thing when you’re eighteen, but when you’re nearing forty it seems really fucking stupid. Not all laws are bad ones, not even all arbitrary laws–I mean, what the fuck does a hardcore libertarian anarchist do when he sees a traffic light, right? Or a crosswalk? And that’s before you even get into a sense of history and an awareness of social and economic disparity.

But every now and then someone as clever and well-spoken as Nozick advances the anarchist-libertarian flag, and so it’s nice to have a fine prose stylist like Metcalf lay out the counter-arguments and expose the unique blind spot Nozick found himself subject to. E.g.,

Even in 1975, it took a pretty narrow view of history to think all capital is human capital, and that philosophy professors, even the especially bright ones, would thrive in the free market. But there was a historical reason for Nozick’s belief: the magnificent sieve. 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. “Some universities,” C. Wright Mills could write in the mid-’50s, “are financial branches of the military establishment.” In the postwar decades, the American university grew in enrollment, budget and prestige, thanks to a substantial transfer of wealth from the private economy, under the rubric of “military Keynesianism.” As a tentacle of the military-industrial octopus, academia finally lost its last remnant of colonial gentility.

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; 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.

Buccaneering entrepreneurs, boom-and-bust markets, risk capital — these conveniently disappeared from Nozick’s argument because they’d all but disappeared from capitalism. In a world in which J.P. Morgan and Cornelius Vanderbilt have been rendered obsolete, reduced to historical curios, to a funny old-style man, imprisoned in gilt frames, the professionals — the scientists, engineers, professors, lawyers and doctors — correspondingly rise in both power and esteem. And in a world in which the professions are gatekept by universities, which in turn select students based on their measured intelligence, the idea that talent is mental talent, and mental talent is, not only capital, but the only capital, becomes easier and easier for a humanities professor to put across. Hence the terminal irony of Anarchy: Its author’s audible smugness in favor of libertarianism was underwritten by a most un-libertarian arrangement — i.e., the postwar social compact of high marginal taxation and massive transfers of private wealth in the name of the very “public good” Nozick decried as nonexistent….

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.

Metcalf also calls out the subtle misuses of ideas like “liberty” in the more vicious strains of libertarian thought:

Calling yourself a libertarian is another way of saying you believe power should be held continuously answerable to the individual’s capacity for creativity and free choice. By that standard, Thomas Jefferson, John Ruskin, George Orwell, Isaiah Berlin, Noam Chomsky, Michel Foucault, and even John Maynard Keynes are libertarians. (Orwell: “The real division is not between conservatives and revolutionaries but between authoritarians and libertarians.” Keynes: “But above all, individualism… is the best safeguard of personal liberty in the sense that, compared with any other system, it greatly widens the field for the exercise of personal choice.”) Every thinking person is to some degree a libertarian, and it is this part of all of us that is bullied or manipulated when liberty is invoked to silence our doubts about the free market. The ploy is to take libertarianism as Orwell meant it and confuse it with libertarianism as Hayek meant it; to take a faith in the individual as an irreducible unit of moral worth, and turn it into a weapon in favor of predation.

Exactly. We are all libertarians, but, as Metcalf’s capsule history of public financing of the academy shows, we are all socialists, too. Even members of the amusing Free Keene project, which encourages the breaking of personal behavior laws and the monitoring of police officers, pay at least local taxes, since they use the water, roads, and other services provided by local government. And of course the Free Keeners are relying on government just as much as everybody else; they can claim the police are illegitimate, but like vaccine denialists getting by on everybody else’s herd immunity, they benefit from the actions of the police and courts in curbing violence.

Libertarianism is evergreen precisely because people always resent government. Nobody likes to be told what to do, and anyway government, being made up of fallible, greedy, power-hungry human beings, is constantly overstepping its bounds. Government gets its people into wars; government police officers abuse their authority; government decides that a certain kind of sexuality or psychoactive substance is too dangerous for people to make up their own minds about; government takes money from our paychecks and gives the money to people we’re suspicious of.

But libertarianism is a weed. It’s kudzu — you bring it in to stop erosion, and next thing you know it’s pulling your house down around you. Every so often we have to stop and cut it down to the root. Don’t think that’s the end. It’ll grow back. But for now, at least, you’ve denied cover to the “mistaken, mortal/Arrogance of the snakes” hiding in its depths.


UPDATE: Julian Sanchez disagrees, and thinks Metcalf should “stick to his beat analyzing Lady Gaga and Teen Wolf, which seems likely to be more entertaining and a lot closer to his speed.” Mrowr! That level of snark from the normally Vulcan Sanchez suggests to me that maybe Metcalf got under his skin a little, but decide for yourself.


UPDATE 2: Thinking on it again, I’m probably being unfair to Sanchez, whose primary gripe with Metcalf is his interpretation of Nozick’s thought experiment involving Wilt Chamberlain’s salary. To be fair, this is absolutely the weakest part of Metcalf’s essay, and Sanchez’s defense of the thought experiment is lucid and reasonable. But Metcalf’s general case, and his particular insight into the kind of societally-bestowed privilege that seduces men like Nozick into an admiration of the decontextualized capitalist hero as the fundamental avatar of individual dignity, are so well-stated that I don’t really care.

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One Response to Wilt the Stilt v. James Dickey

  1. Pingback: the focus is sharp in the city | The Handsome Camel

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