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The New York Times Got Libertarianism Wrong, Yet Again

November 1, 2013

Tags Free MarketsOther Schools of Thought

Why write an article on a subject you know nothing about? This is a question that Amia Srinivasan might usefully have asked herself. She is a Prize Fellow in philosophy at All Souls College, Oxford, one of the most prestigious academic positions in the academic world; and her webpage at Oxford includes several papers of outstanding merit. You would never guess that she is a serious philosopher, though, from her article “Questions for Free-Market Moralists” in The New York Times, October 2013. The “free-market moralist” she has principally in mind is Robert Nozick, the author of Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974). If Srinivasan has read this book at all, the experience appears to have passed her by.

Srinivasan is disturbed by the growth of what she calls a “dramatic increase in inequality in the United States over the past five decades.”1 In part, this increase stems from the rising influence of Nozickian ideas. Much better, she thinks, is the theory that John Rawls advanced to great acclaim in A Theory of Justice (1971). The persons in Rawls’s original position “would also make their society a redistributive one, ensuring a decent standard of life for everyone.” By contrast, Nozickians look with indifference on the plight of the poor. Do poor people sometimes face options, all of which are bad? Never mind, says the Nozickian. So long as force is not used or threatened, everything in such cases is morally unproblematic. If you are poor, you deserve to be poor, and likewise if you are rich. You deserve whatever is the outcome of your free choices. “Van Gogh, William Blake, Edgar Allan Poe, Vermeer, Melville and Schubert all died broke. If you’re a good Nozickian, you think that’s what they deserved.”

Against the view that people on the free market get what they deserve, she raises some standard objections. How people fare on the market depends in large part on luck. If you have abilities that command a high price on the market, this happy state of affairs mainly comes about because of luck. People, e.g., inherit certain desirable qualities from their parents, or acquire them from the environment. In addition, it is a matter of luck whether people are willing to pay money for the talents you happen to have. The influence of luck is all the more obvious if you, like Mitt Romney, have inherited a large sum of money from your parents. All these matters, in Rawls’s phrase, are “arbitrary from the moral point of view.”

How then can Nozickians claim with a straight face that people “deserve all they are able, and only what they are able, to get through free exchange”? She acknowledges that “even Nozick” found it difficult to say this; but it is nevertheless the position that Nozickians are stuck with, according to her. It is precisely for this account of the Nozickian view that I directed against her the harsh comments in my initial paragraph.

She has overlooked one of the key themes of Nozick’s book. It isn’t just that he finds it “difficult to say” that you deserve what you get in the market. He doesn’t say it at all. A theory of justice in which people were rewarded in accord with morally non-arbitrary characteristics would be a “patterned” theory. Nozick takes great pains, evidently lost on Srinivasan, to distinguish such patterned theories from his own historical theory. In his account, you get what you are entitled to, a very different matter.

An example will clarify the distinction. Suppose that someone badly needs a kidney transplant, and one of your kidneys would be an ideal match for him. You can’t be forced to donate one of your kidneys: Nozick, all libertarians, and, I hope, Srinivasan would agree. Why not? Not because your possession of two healthy kidneys results from your meritorious activities. It is “arbitrary from the moral point of view” that you have two good kidneys and that the person who needs the transplant does not. Nevertheless, the kidneys belong to you: you are entitled to them. Libertarians view income in the same way. If your services are in high demand, you are entitled to the money you get. Srinivasan may be repelled by all of this; but if she wishes to criticize Nozick, and other libertarians who agree with him, this is the theory she needs to address. Instead, she assails a different account that Nozick explicitly rejects.

She fares no better with the other challenges she issues to the “premises or implications” of Nozick’s argument. He does not hold that “any exchange between two people in the absence of direct physical compulsion by one party against the other (or the threat thereof) [is] necessarily free.” He does say that if you face severely limited options, and your predicament comes about because others have acted within their rights, your choice is still voluntary. This is a rather more nuanced claim, a matter that escapes Srinivasan’s attention.

Srinivasan’s remaining problems for Nozick rest on an elementary confusion. Nowhere does Nozick say that the structure of libertarian rights exhausts morality. Rather, rights tell us when force or its threat may be permissibly used. It is not at all the case that anything you are free to do, according to this structure of rights, is morally permissible. Neither is it the case that moral obligation is confined to freely chosen commitments; again, Srinivasan wrongly conflates moral obligations and enforceable obligations. It would, I suppose, be too much to ask Srinivasan to have a look at Invariances, Nozick’s last book; but if she could steel herself to do so, she would find there a detailed discussion of the place of coercion within morality.

Srinivasan cannot seem to get Nozick right. She says of his minimal state “The seemingly redistributive policy of making people pay for such a ‘night watchman’ state, Nozick argued, was in fact non-redistributive, since such a state would arise naturally through free bargaining.” This is triply in error. People are not forced to pay for the minimal state, though they would find it in their in their interest to do so; and the monopoly prices charged by the dominant agency really are redistributive, not just seemingly so. Further, the minimal state does not arise entirely through free bargaining. The Dominant Protective Association prohibits other agencies and independents from imposing risky decision procedures on its clients. Oh, well ...

It is unfortunate that The New York Times, the most famous of all American newspapers, did not select someone with a better knowledge of libertarianism to write about it. But the article, replete with errors as it is, may do some good. It may bring libertarian ideas to the attention of readers who otherwise might not have encountered them. As Quine once said after Nozick had complained to him of a negative review, I think by Carlin Romano, of Philosophical Explanations, “Every knock a boost.”

  • 1. For skepticism about the extent of inequality, see “Income Facts and Fallacies” in Thomas Sowell, Economic Facts and Fallacies (New York: Basic Books, 2011), chap. 5, pp. 139 ff.

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