by Tim Sommers
A libertarian. Old joke. I mean, marijuana is not even illegal in a lot of states anymore. How about this one? A libertarian walks into a bear. Okay, that’s not really a joke. It’s the title of a recent book by Matthew Honogoltz-Hetling, subtitled “The Utopian Plot to Liberate an American Town (And Some Bears)”. It’s about a group of libertarians who move to a rural town with the express purpose of dismantling the local government and producing a libertarian utopia. The resulting problems with coordinating refuse disposal attract a lot of bears and the lack of a government makes it difficult to mount a response. Bears 1. Libertarians 0.
I have been thinking about libertarianism again since I read Thomas Wells’ smart 3 Quarks Daily article Libertarianism is Bankrupt arguing that libertarianism, “like Marxism or Flat-Earthism”, has “nothing to offer”. Which is kind of unfair to Marxism if you ask me. But a real-world example of how dead the libertarian horse is, is offered by the departure of many recovering libertarians from the Cato Institute recently, the bulk of them forming a new non-libertarian think tank (Nikensas). What lead most of these former Cato staffers to abandon libertarianism was the existence of a political problem that they felt libertarianism had no response to. I bet you can guess what it is. (I’ll tell you at the end, just in case.)
In the meantime, given the moribund state of libertarianism, rather than beat on it some more, I thought it would be fun to return to its glory days, to Robert Nozick and his book Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Nozick was arguably the most philosophically sophisticated libertarian ever. He was charismatic. He was purportedly widely read in the Reagan White House. And he was lauded as one of the Philosopher Kings of Harvard by Esquire Magazine in 1983 (including a full-page photospread in which he looked very thoughtful). (The other Philosopher-King, John Rawls, refused to be interviewed or photographed for the piece.)
In particular, I want to look at two interesting, if fatally flawed arguments that, I think, still tell us a lot about the appeal and folly of libertarianism. Without further ado, here are Nozick’s Eye-Transplant and Wilt Chamberlin (no, let’s update that) – LeBron James arguments.
Suppose you lived in a word where half the people were born with two eyes and half with none. Suppose further than eye-transplants have become relatively cheap and painless. Then suppose that the government passes a law that says that everyone with two eyes has to donate one of their eyes to someone with no eyes. While it might be laudable for you to donate one of your eyes, it’s horrifying to think of the government forcibly removing one of your eyes and giving it away. Surely, this is wrong and it’s wrong, Nozick says, because you own your eyes. In fact, you own your whole self. Likewise, whenever you work and the government seizes some of your income via taxation, you are being forced to work more hours on the government’s behalf. But you own yourself. So, taxation is, in effect, a form of partial slavery.
Or how about this one. Suppose you live in a society which has what Nozick calls a “patterned theory of justice”. Suppose, for example, your society follows Rawls’ difference principle and inequalities in the distribution of income and wealth are only justified where they are to the benefit of the least well-off. That applies to every part of the economy, of course, including professional sports. But suppose there is one basketball star everyone wants to see. And suppose that LeBron James, as we will call him, comes up with a novel scheme. He puts a little money box next to the entrance of every sporting arena he plays in and in order to enter fans deposit an extra quarter that goes directly to LeBron James. No one has to do it. They could stay home. But the fans love Lebron James and are happy to do it. But whatever “patterned” distribution of wealth your society has it will be upset by schemes like this. In order to maintain a certain distribution of wealth, Nozick says, in what is surely the greatest line ever penned by a libertarian, the government will have to “forbid capitalist acts between consenting adults”.
Therefore, libertarianism. But no and no, I say.
The eye transplant thing packs a punch because, yes, it’s gross to think about a government scheme that begins with cutting out one of your eyes. And, yes, most people probably agree that that’s morally wrong. But why is it wrong? Nozick says it’s wrong because you own yourself. But there are lots of plausible alternative explanations. For example, maybe, in a just society you have a fundamental right to bodily integrity. That fits into the standard liberal approach. And it avoids you having to have to think of yourself as property. It’s not clear why we should think that property rights (or ownership) are a good model for how we should think about our relationship to ourselves or what is right and wrong. Also, if you own yourself, you can sell yourself and, therefore, a libertarian society cannot consistently forbid slavery. Which is bad. Now, consider the knot Nozick has tied himself into here. Because we own ourselves, taxation is a form of partial slavery. But also, because we own ourselves, real, actual slavery is allowed. Not cool.
Okay, but why can’t LeBron James do that thing with the box? In the real world, the reason he can’t do it (if he can’t) has nothing to do with government regulation. The NBA has contracts with the players union and individual players and their agents and so that’s what’s legally controlling here. Maybe, LeBron James could negotiate a deal like that. On the other hand, he could forget the whole box thing and just negotiate compensation as one normally would. What’s the hullabaloo?
Libertarianism often relies on assuming that one way to do a thing is the natural, liberty promoting way to do it and so limiting people’s ability to do it that way is interfering with their liberty. In this case, how can you justify not allowing the box thing? I don’t think there’s any general answer to that question. It depends how it fits into all kinds of background conditions and the basic social structure – including what distribution of wealth we think is fair. Being overly simplistic under the guise of being sophisticated is a hallmark of libertarianism. Here’s a real-life example.
Libertarians will say that a federal minimum wage interferes with the employers right to pay what they want and the employees right to decide what wage they will work for. But arguably these restrictions on the freedom of employment contracts could be better for everyone or, at least, better for the people who have less power. You can’t just assume unlimited freedom of contract is always better – even for freedom. Unless you just define it as better. Which is the bottom-line libertarian scam. Freedom, they say, is the formal, negative liberty not to be interfered with and nothing else. Which, of course, it is not.
Here’s another way to look at it. In my classes, we often discuss what the distribution of wealth should be. In addition to libertarians who believe that they have a principled objection to specifying any particular distribution, there are more students who just say, ‘Hey, why do we even need to think about that? Let it be whatever it is.’ Well, here’s one reason. There are always going to be decisions, actions or inactions, alternate ways of doing things, that will affect the distribution of wealth. Given that we can make a pretty good guess at how a particular action is going to affect the distribution of wealth, and given that we often could go one way or another, why wouldn’t we think that our view of what the distribution of wealth should be a factor in the decision? Distributive issues are unavoidable. And trying to look at every single possible thing we could do, one and a time, and deciding which are allowed and which forbidden is hopeless. The answer is it depends. The bottom-line libertarian trick here is this. Why is the government repressively imposing some particular distribution of wealth on everyone? Answer? It isn’t – even where it holds some particular distribution as ideal. And what it does will usually affect the distribution of wealth. Why think we should act as if we don’t know that?
Finally, what is the problem that many Cato libertarians ultimately rejected libertarianism over? What problem did some of the smartest libertarians around decide was not solvable from within the libertarian framework? If you said, ‘I will take Global Climate Change for $100, Alex’, then you are a winner.
Which reminds me. Farewell to the greatest “libertarian-leaning” game show host of all time. Hope to see you again on that great Jeopardy! board in the sky, Alex. We will miss you.