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DeLong on Nozick

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06/26/2011

In a clever post on his blog for June 21, 2011, Brad DeLong offered a reconstruction of Robert Nozick’s political philosophy. He claimed that “to successfully explain Nozickian political philosophy is face the reality that it is self-parody.” Hence only liberals like himself could explain it, because anyone who grasps the structure of the argument would at once see that he could no longer be a Nozickian believer. Why only liberals in DeLong’s sense could perceive the problems he finds in Nozick’s argument, he does not tell us; but let this pass.

DeLong is not quite so clever as he takes himself to be, at least when he leaves his own field; and his account of Nozick contains several mistakes. He attributes to Nozick the bizarre view that no one can ever justifiably advance a utilitarian or consequentialist argument. So enamored is he of this attribution that three of the fourteen steps of his reconstruction of Nozick’s argument refer to this claim. Of course, Nozick never supported this odd position. His point was rather than rights have moral weight that appeals to consequences do not override. The question is not whether consequences matter—obviously, they do—but whether anything else does as well.

Not content with his silly error, DeLong saddles Nozick with the view that “Something becomes mine if I make it.” Nozick did not embrace so broad a principle as this: as DeLong states it, the principle would imply that parents own their children, and Nozick certainly does not think this. Nozick’s attempt to arrive at a principle of initial acquisition is restricted to acquisition of unowned resources, and Nozick never succeeds in formulating such a principle to his own satisfaction. DeLong’s premise is an absurd oversimplification.

DeLong also fails to understand Nozick’s account of the Lockean proviso. He correctly notes that once everything is owned, latecomers can no longer take from the common stock of nature. If the Lockean proviso requires that they can do so, it cannot in this circumstance be fulfilled; and people’s property titles cease to be valid. DeLong then says, without explanation, that the Lockean proviso then shows that all previous acts of appropriation are invalid, “since they did not leave enough for the latecomers to take as much as they wanted from the common stock of nature.”

Here DeLong has botched the argument. He does not explain how Nozick gets from the step that property titles are invalid once nothing is left for latecomers to the stronger claim that all property titles are invalid. Before everything is owned, it need not be true that acts of appropriation fail to leave enough for latecomers; or so it at first sight appears. On DeLong’s account, Nozick’s argument contains a glaring gap. DeLong fails to mention the backwards induction argument that Nozick uses to fill this gap; perhaps DeLong thinks that the requirement that the steps of an argument be logically justified is of minor importance.

DeLong thinks that Nozick gave up the Lockean proviso once he realized that it would eliminate titles to property. The tenth step of the reconstruction is “Oops”. He does not see that Nozick’s point that even those without property are better off under a system of private property than in a state of nature without the institution of private property is intended as an interpretation of the proviso, not a replacement for it.

I attempted to post a comment on DeLong’s blog about these mistakes, but DeLong has not seen fit to print it. He evidently prefers posters who celebrate his brilliance. As Pope said of Addison, he sits “attentive to his own applause; While Wits and Templars ev’ry sentence raise, And wonder with a foolish face of praise.”

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.

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