more of Stephen Metcalf on Nozick

Metcalf takes to the pages of Slate to defend his takedown of Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia. The whole thing’s worth a read, but here’s his response to Julian Sanchez, whose criticisms of Metcalf’s take on the Wilt Chamberlain hypo I linked to earlier this week:

Julian Sanchez and Mark Thompson make related points about whether… [it is] possible to a) construe the example, as I have, as a somewhat willful, even sinister muddle of a historical reality (of the plight of the black athlete) with an abstract argument about justice, interference, and coercion and b) extrapolate from that muddle to the current state of political debate, influenced now as it never has been by self-proclaimed libertarians?

On point a) I’m tempted to let the essay speak for itself, but let me add: Why, if Nozick did not want to game his example, did he choose Wilt? After all, if Sanchez is correct, isn’t the point made just as well with, say, a happy-go-lucky doofus who rides a wave of Internet exuberance and cashes out big, all while adding to the world precisely zero utility? Absent an injustice in each step (the prospectus is accurate, the bankers price the IPO fairly) the resulting gross inequality itself cannot be regarded as unjust. But I didn’t choose Wilt Chamberlain; Nozick chose Wilt Chamberlain. I.E., he wanted to harvest all of the sentimental associations from a historical reality while leaving behind all its real-world complications. Sanchez takes this criticism as indication I’m unfamiliar with thought experiments. But if my thought experiment begins, “Imagine a robber baron, glutted on Christmas-day turkey, while little Tiny Tim attenuates, hungry in the corner…” am I still doing philosophy?

This second look actually makes me like Metcalf’s argument a little better. Nozick’s thought experiment did not, at first glance, strike me as plucking a sentimental chord of racial advancement, but looking at it in the historical context of the emergence of black superstar ball players in the ’60s and ’70s, perhaps this is comparable to the loaded language about robber barons and Tiny Tim. “Look, everybody! Look at what the market has done for the previously-downtrodden blacks! It is an agent of social justice, for sure.” I’m not confident that this is what Nozick intends, but given the outrageous claims made on behalf of libertarianism by its proponents-on-the-street (makes everyone wealthier! cures cancer! gives you better abs in just a week!), it’s worth noting how easily an argument about pure transactional fairness can carry a hidden message about good social outcomes.

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