Still More Caricatures of Libertarianism

If anything, I have become more and more of a libertarian the further I’ve moved to the “left”. I say “left” because I think terms right and left have become more than a little useless. I’m probably more of a right-wing liberal than a left-wing liberal, but I’m a liberal in the first place because I care about freedom and dignity and poverty and all that jazz. So I lean to the right on a lot of economic issues, but I’m hardly ideological. I think a lot of welfare-state policies are basically remedial efforts to make up for all the poverty created by cronyism between government and corporate rent-seekers. So I don’t have too many bones to pick with food stamps or healthcare vouchers.

Anyways, I don’t mind a good political philosophy discussion. There are a lot of unknowns out there. Abstract philosophy and real-world pragmatism often come to loggerheads whether we’re talking about libertarianism or any other political philosophy. What I can’t abide is a bad critique. And that’s exactly what Stephen Metcalf has done with his abysmal attempt at a take-down of Nozick and libertarianism writ large. For those of you keeping score, here is a breakdown of the many good rebuttals to Metcalf’s hit piece:

Jason Kuznicki, Aaron Ross Powell, and David Boaz represent the Cato response. Boaz, among others, points out that Nozick did not say what Metcalf says he said, at least according to this Julian Sanchez interview with the man himself.

Conor Friedersdorf has a good response up in The Atlantic.

Matt Welch points to another anti-libertarian piece with similarly outlandish claims – by Ann Coulter.

Will Wilkinson tackles the notion that Hayek and other libertarians were corporate shills.

Brad DeLong reveals some massive factual errors in Metcalf’s piece.

And Tyler Cowen won’t even link to it.

All of this calls to mind the Chris Beam piece from a while back which, by comparison, looks rather good in retrospect compared to the nonsense passing for high contrarianism in Slate.

In any case, this sort of thing always bodes ill for the liberaltarian project, if it is a project, mostly because I fear it represents a great deal of confirmation bias on the left. A lot of liberals who see all libertarians as less-lovable Ron Swansons nod along with Metcalf as he makes one clichéd assertion after another and the end result is a bunch of readers happily cheering a piece that makes no attempt at all to treat its subject with any sort of seriousness or grace. It affirms deeply held opinions and distrust, and helps cement the language barrier between liberals and libertarians in ultimately a very destructive and unfortunate way.

There will be more like it, I’m sure. I blame the Koch brothers. Who do you blame? We all need our super-villains.

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123 thoughts on “Still More Caricatures of Libertarianism

  1. If I were hoping to discredit Libertarianism, the first thing that I would do is install Libertarian Policies.

    That’s how the Republicans and Democrats were discredited, after all.


  2. Doesn’t he end the piece by retrieving the label “libertarian” from Nozick and saying that all smart people are libertarians to some degree?

    I didn’t interpret him as caricaturing libertarianism so much as tearing apart the ways in which adherents have themselves caricatured it.


  3. “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.”


  4. Look, you guys have an name that the super-rich have, for decades, used informed brainwashed dullards into unwitting pawns who think they shouldn’t have to pay taxes or have food safety, and in return ‘the government leaves them alone’. (While the super-rich rape them.)

    Meanwhile, conservatives who aren’t even the slightest bit libertarian use that label to hide behind.

    Don’t be surprised when slightly less stupid end up believing ‘libertarian’ is also this, but, being slightly less stupid, take objection at this completely insane concept.

    You’re just lucky the conservatives like to keep it as their backup label, or it would be roughly where ‘liberal’ is today.

    Frankly, at this point, if I had a single wish from a genie, I’d wish that everyone became forever unable to use or remember any previous political label (Including ‘right’ and ‘left’.). A nation-wide permanent amnesia, and aphasia if we went and looked them up from reference material.

    Then everyone had to invent new ones that actually mapped to actual policy positions, or at least didn’t map to decades of nonsense.


      • Well, the most important change would be to stop describing things in _relation_ to other things.

        And the second most important change would be to stop trying to map everything into ‘left’ vs. ‘right’. Which, yes, I know is the pet peeve of libertarians…but you people don’t seem to noticing that saying ‘economically conservative’, ‘socially liberal’ is still doing that. There is no such thing as ‘economically conservative’. Or, at least, that’s not even slightly a useful term. If you mean ‘doesn’t like to spend money’, _say_ that.

        I know people have to use the terms other people recognize, so this is a pointless battle, but I think we’d get along a lot better if we’d stop yammer about ‘conservative’ this and ‘liberal’ that, and said things like:

        ‘I’m safety-net supporter. I think we should have single-payer health care.’

        ‘Well, I’m safety-net supporter, too, but I think that we should instead regulate insurance companies and force them to take everyone.’

        ‘I disagree, I do not think we need a safety-net for health insurance.’

        Each issue has positions, and some issues seem to be somewhat grouped together, so could perhaps have sorta ‘shorthand’ positions. Like the noxiously named ‘family values’ position.

        This makes sense, but quite a long time ago we invented ‘left’ and ‘right’ and ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ and started using those as shorthand for _everything_. When you have to add modifies and explain your shorthand, perhaps it’s time, you know, to start using most specific terms to start with.

        This is, incidentally, what has screwed up ‘libertarian’. It has become shorthand for the positions of ‘letting people do whatever they want’ on the right, and ‘letting corporations do whatever they want’ on the left.

        Likewise, I’m ‘pro-choice’, and I can’t tell you how many ‘pro-life’ people I run into that, inexplicably, don’t think abortion should be illegal per se. At which point I just stare at them, baffled. I can’t figure out what _they_ think ‘pro-life’ means.

        I’ll make a plead to everyone: Stop using vague positional terms that are over 100 years old to describe things.


        • I agree with this entirely. Unfortunately oversimplification is seemingly a necessary condition of democracy, since even people who are not at all politically inclined get exactly one vote. Perhaps instead of scrapping terms, we should focus our energies on clarifying the ones that already exist, even if they’re poorly suited to our modern politics/society/culture/economy kluge.


          • Oversimplification will always happen.

            But what the people who are doing the debating could do is agree to, at the very least, not to use ‘positional notation’, and invent new terms to replace ‘economically liberal’ and whatnot, and use them as much as possible.

            Or, even better, figure out if there are obvious places to break ‘economically liberal’ apart, like ‘Keynesian’ or ‘protectionist’.

            Of course, if I could control what people doing the debating are saying, we’d have _very_ different political discussion to start with.


  5. Oyve, so if anyone had to a one thing to gripe with Metcalf’s garbage, what would it be?

    Perhaps I’m feeling particularly closed-minded today, but a particular passage would help me tap into the general animus.


  6. It’s actually impossible to have a discussion between a libertarian and/or liberal and/or conservative. Those are labels, people have discussions. To many potentially interesting discussions are driven into the ground because people are acting as spokespeople for a label or aren’t’ trying to have a direct discussion with another person.


  7. Well this article made me feel stupid for linking to it because it was so riddled with unforgivable, immediately-discrediting factual errors. So, yeah, I’m not going to defend it.

    But I just want to share some cents:

    1. I don’t think Welch’s argument is praiseworthy at all. Just because Ann Coulter agrees with someone doesn’t make them wrong. This is the same kind of BS that libertarians often have to fend off re: Koch brothers or the like.

    2. As I said, the basic failures of journalism in the piece don’t suggest good things about Metcalf’s level of good faith in writing the piece, so I think charges of strawmanning etc are fair here. But there does come a point where this kind of response sidesteps engaging with the substance of the critique itself. I think we’re all guilty of this one time or another — I definitely have done it in the past — but there’s a line where the one person’s strawman is another’s Truth.


  8. Slimed by the left, Erik? Welcome.

    “A lot of liberals who see all libertarians as less-lovable Ron Swansons nod along with Metcalf as he makes one clichéd assertion after another and the end result is a bunch of readers happily cheering a piece that makes no attempt at all to treat its subject with any sort of seriousness or grace. “

    Forgive me the schadenfreude. It’s more like a misery shared is a misery halved. In this sentiment, we are all vulnerable to leftism. ;-)

    I think a lot of welfare-state policies are basically remedial efforts to make up for all the poverty created by cronyism between government and corporate rent-seekers.

    Well, we all need our super-villains. But where there are no governments and where there are no corporations, isn’t there still poverty?

    I just ran across Thomas Paine, c. 1795. as we know a supporter of the revolution in France. Paine was one of the first modern liberals—as opposed to classical liberals—so Paine had that increasingly unrare and acquired talent of being wrong on everything.

    To understand what the state of society ought to be, it is necessary to have some idea of the natural and primitive state of man; such as it is at this day among the Indians of North America. There is not, in that state, any of those spectacles of human misery which poverty and want present to our eyes in all the towns and streets in Europe.

    Poverty, therefore, is a thing created by that which is called civilized life. It exists not in the natural state. On the other hand, the natural state is without those advantages which flow from agriculture, arts, science and manufactures.

    The life of an Indian is a continual holiday, compared with the poor of Europe; and, on the other hand it appears to be abject when compared to the rich.

    Now, I might be able to go with that re 1795, see the excellent old Atlantic piece, “1491”.

    Still, are the “poor” of the US or Europe in 2011 worse off than the Native American in his “state of nature,” a state that showed zero “progress” in 1000 years? I think Paine got bit by the Rousseau bug.

    Now, to your specific point, since we’re approaching a 50-50 split between Peters and Pauls, we cannot say on aggregate that government makes us poorer. And I don’t think the numbers support that corporate rent-seeking makes us substantially poorer: first, that there’s not enough of it to create a critical mass and second, that corporatism does give with one hand as it takes with the other. [The “creation of wealth” thing.]

    The libertarian argument at best then, is that gov’t and rent-seeking is more “opportunity cost,” that more wealth would be created by their minimization or elimination. This is a valid argument, but “creation of wealth” is a non-starter in the leftist mind: wealth can neither be created nor destroyed, only redistributed, in the name of justice and its mutant cousin, “fairness.”

    But no amount of “welfare-state policy” can rectify or even address the “imbalance,” for the problem is not one of asymmetry.


    • “The libertarian argument at best then, is that gov’t and rent-seeking is more “opportunity cost,” that more wealth would be created by their minimization or elimination. This is a valid argument, but “creation of wealth” is a non-starter in the leftist mind: wealth can neither be created nor destroyed, only redistributed, in the name of justice and its mutant cousin, “fairness.””

      The “opportunity cost,” issue doesn’t inform us much.

      I think the mistake is to see liberals as concerned with redistributing wealth, as oppose to securing equitable distributions of marginal wealth, i.e. who gets the dividends of a more productive society.


      • Mr. I: Cribbing GBS, “A government that robs Peter to pay Paul can always depend on the support of Paul.” I believe the UK has crossed or is about to cross the 50-50 line, and we’re getting there. Add in public employees, and…

        Mr. Gach: Perhaps “opportunity cost” doesn’t tell us much, but I do believe it’s the reality of the libertarian argument.

        I try to give “liberals” a break, since I’m a liberal. ;-) But in no why do I think the prog-left appreciates the concept of creation of wealth. It’s outside their constipated notion of justice-as-fairness.

        The mature adult, of course, is willing to put up with quite a bit of unfairness if and when enough wealth is created to support not only the hungry but the ballet, etc., as Mr. Kowal aptly notes was indeed the sentiment on the left in 1964:

        In 1964, The New Republic stated “If ballet is worth having, as we earlier decided public libraries were worth having, go ahead and provide for ballet, even though there is not sufficient ‘demand’ to make it ‘economic.’ This attitude can obviously be extended from ballet to beautifying the country-side, and in a dozen other different directions. With all this wealth we can afford to try.”

        All good things that can be done should be done. But we’re way past that theoretical discussion. Now the mathematical fit has hit the demographic shan, and the left refuses to choose even between feeding granny and the ballet.

        The conservatives want to push ballerinas down the stairs!


          • Tom, can you expand a bit on the McArdle link? From the math she cites it looks like we can close up the entire deficit within 10-15 years simply by returning to Clinton-era tax rates for the wealthy. That seems consistent with other Bush-tax-cut vs. National Debt analysis I’ve seen suggesting it’s the single largest deficit reduction measure we could pass. Is that the point you and McArdle are making?

            As to the original point, while no one credible is suggesting we eat the rich, the reality is that we certainly could have quite a feast.


            • Mr. Trizzlor, you misread and misfigure. If only it were so easy. I’d go for it meself if it could magic-wand away the current $$ crisis by simply returning to Clinton era rates. I’m sorry, I’m not in the mood for remediation just now.


            • From the math she cites it looks like we can close up the entire deficit within 10-15 years simply by returning to Clinton-era tax rates for the wealthy.

              Read closer (third paragraph). That would only raise $59b per year. Another bracket at 45% would make it $90b. Marginal tax rates going up to 70% would bring in another $192b. The numbers McArdle provides may be wrong, but they don’t make the case that you can close the deficit by going after the rich.

              Neither does the TNR link you provide. It includes all the Bush tax cuts, and not just ones on “the wealthy.” In fact, raising only on those making under $250k per year would raise more than raising it on those making over. If we’re serious about deficit reduction, of course, we would do both and more. Also, the TNR article it says that it would halt the rise of the deficit (in terms of debt-to-GDP ratio), not negate or even lower it.


              • I did my own back-of-the-envelope calc for myself when they passed the damn thing and made it about $60B. After listening to years of demogoguery on “tax cuts on the rich,” I’m glad somebody else finally noticed.

                HT, Mr. Trum, for saving me the trouble of yet another pointless remediation. Not that either of our efforts or McArdle’s will make a damn bit of difference. Tax Cuts for the Rich will be a 2012 campaign issue, we may be assured.


              • My mistake, I wasn’t looking at the deficit numbers in paragraph 4 as cumulative. So Clinton-era rates on the rich would get us about 10% of a post-recession deficit, while entirely undoing the Bush tax-cuts would keep the deficit growth at the same rate as GDP.


                • Less than 5% (60,000,000/1,300,000,000) of last year’s, actually. That’s looking at income taxes, though. Revert to Clinton’s policies on the estate tax (which definitionally targets the wealthy) and capital gains (which disproportionately does so) and you get a higher number. But you’ve still barely begun to touch the problem.


                  • Well, we’re also missing a couple of hundred billion dollars due to ya’ know, 9% unemployment. As long as unemployment high, we’re gonna’ have a problem with the debt, unless we truly make taxes punitive. But of course, nobody in the Beltway cares about the unemployment because the DOOM OF THE DEBT!


                    • The problem is health care costs, which everyone knows. You can point to the ACA as a cost-control device; or you can say that it’ll never do the job or even serve as a good start. But it’s not like the idea that health care will sink the economy is one miraculously sprung fully-formed from Mr. Ryan’s head.

                      It’s a bit silly to point out how raising taxes on everyone will bring in more money than raising taxes only on the money after 250k of the people who have that kind of dough, though, since, as we know, there are many, many more of the latter in the land than the former. Maybe not as silly as calling The Atlantic center-left (especially in service of linking to the right-wing Megan McArdle, wife of Peter Suderman) but silly still! ;)

                      The medium-term deficit problem can be staved off by letting ALL of the Bush tax cuts expire. The long-term issue will require more serious measures.

                      But I can’t help but chuckle at those who think that we need to act now lest the boogieman bond vigilante monsters come out from under the bed and eat our children (not demagoguing, of course!). Whatever “savings” we’d incur now from slashing the safety net would no doubt be diverted towards tax cuts and freedom bombs long before we hit mid-century.


                  • It doesn’t make sense to me to take metrics from the bottom of the recession & top of the deficit and then apply them to the hypothetical cuts as if they are permanent, which is why I’m looking at post-recession numbers (60-90b revenue / 700-900b deficit). But nitpicking aside, I still don’t see how this is “barely touching the problem”.

                    Being a Donk, I don’t think it makes sense to tackle the debt during a recession at all, but if we have to then a ~10% deficit reduction from taxes increases, and an equal amount in spending cuts is “all” we need to start shrinking the debt-to-GDP, which I would consider a significant accomplishment and putting us on the path to prosperity, etc.

                    What’s the end-game for you? Surpluses? When we were running those the Republicans (correctly) said government was taking in too much money and demanded debt-increasing tax cuts (here‘s a fun blast from the past). What level of spending and taxation would you feel takes us out of a “debt crisis”?


  9. Erik:

    “treat its subject with any sort of seriousness or grace”

    Why? Why should that subject be treated with seriousness and grace?

    A bunch of teenage boys think the world should be organized according to the sensibility of teenage boys. They may be precocious, but really, after a while you just have to tell the teenagers to sit down and shut up while the grownups, you know, get some real work done.

    “I think a lot of welfare-state policies are basically remedial efforts to make up for all the poverty created by cronyism between government and corporate rent-seekers.”

    Well. DUH. Tell me something I don’t already know. How about a force to countevail the corporate rent seekers? Oh NOOOOES. We can’t use government because government is bad, and we can’t organize the working classes because that’s class warfare, we can’t do anything about it except let the corporatists have their way because everything else would get the teenage boy libertarians all resentful about their greedy self-centeredness being challenged by institutions that don’t conform to their dorm-room bullshit-session desires.

    God am I sick of this liberaltarian crap. I finally figured it out though. Like the Republicans who won’t mention Bush, it’s a way for libertarians to avoid facing the crushing fact that their model is useless, stupid, simple-minded, dangerous and inhumane


    • Maybe the Libertarians should vote for Democrats if they want the US to stop bailing out corporate interests for 100 cents on the dollar, get the Feds to stop busting Medicinal Marijuana dispensaries acting in accordance with State Law, and stop bombing brown people.


    • There’s all too many people claiming “libertarian” that clearly don’t give a damn about anything other than their taxes. I wish those people suddenly forgot how to pronounce the word one day.

      About this though:

      “How about a force to countevail the corporate rent seekers? Oh NOOOOES. We can’t use government because government is bad, and we can’t organize the working classes because that’s class warfare”

      Libertarians, vulgar or not, tend to talk a lot about property rights. What the vulgar ones, who unfortunately dominate mainstream discussion, fail to connect the dots on is that being consistent on property means that rent-seeking is equivalent to robbery — and that keeping that consistency demands seizing back the gains from it. Ironically for what “libertarianism” has come to mean publicly, you start poking around that whole property thing and you end up at a rather Left-wing conclusion.

      So corporate rent seeking — hell, I would argue corporate status itself even — is theft, and all property claims arising from it are void. Conservatives don’t even think about this, as it would knock over the apple cart, and they worship apple carts. Thus far, the response on the part of liberals is to qualify and regulate corporatism, while taxing some of the proceeds to ameliorate conditions of the poor. Well…here’s my idea:

      Organize the working class, outside of the state, along the kind of lines previously introduced by the Wobblies (look it up if you have to). Don’t accept and qualify the corporatism, dismantle it and seize back the stolen property. “Class Warfare”? Yes, please.

      The mainstream Left sees the problem, but insists on using as a solution the co-conspirators in the status quo. The most this leads to is bribing people to not revolt.


      • Indeed. My question is when someone says we shouldn’t regulate corporations, I like to play dumb and say, “Wow, that’s a pretty huge change. It’s going to take quite some time to dismantle all corporations all like that.”

        And they start sputtering and asking what I’m talking about, and I point out that corporations _are_ regulations. You can’t ‘not regulate’ _legal fictions_. It’s like claiming that a writer should be forced to ‘set free’ characters in a novel he wrote. People, those things don’t actually exist, we’re just pretending they do. They can’t be ‘free’.

        If someone wants to make a claim that human beings have some sort of inherent right to commerce, fine. If someone takes some land, and grows some food on it, and sell it to another person, fine. Heck, I’m a fairly liberal guy, but I’ll even get behind the libertarians on that, as a moral stance. _Human beings_ should be able to conduct any sort of consensual activity with other human beings, be it business or pleasure or whatever.

        That is nothing like the system we have set up, with limited liability and joint ownership of imaginary thing. Corporations are _not_ human beings. They do _not_ have that right. They have absolutely no rights at all, no matter what has managed to get through the supreme court.

        People _choose_ to make one of those. And we as society will make and subject that created entity to *whatever* damn rules we want. Any rules, at all, period. Those things have a _gigantic_ amount of power compared to human beings, and are _voluntary_ to be in.

        It’s like walking vs. driving. One is just…you. The other is someone in control of a very dangerous thing, and we regulate it. Except, there the analogy falls apart, because we’ve got people driving battlecruisers up and down the road, and we’ve made it legal for them to run over pedestrians. (After all, the pedestrians should have paid more attention to the small print.)


  10. Conor’s post takes issue with this line, “Liberty’s current bedfellows include Paul Ryan (his staffers are assigned Atlas Shrugged), Glenn Beck (he flogged The Road to Serfdom onto the best-seller list), Slate’s Jack Shafer, South Park, the founder of Whole Foods, this nudnik, P.J. O’Rourke, now David Mamet, and to the extent she cares for anything beyond her own naked self-interest—oh, wait, that is libertarianism—Sarah Palin.”

    At no point (someone feel free to correct me) does Metcalf use that identity, libertarianism = self-interest, either in the article or his arguments.

    So Conors remarks, while valid and a good collection of all the reasons for liberals and libertarians to form the libraltarian coalition, don’t have much to do with the piece.


  11. Will Wilkinson says, “This attempt to marginalise two great thinkers is as lazy as it is dishonest. A little light googling is enough to establish the basic facts, but it seems Mr Metcalf could not be bothered.”

    I’ll take Wilkinson at his word, since neither Hayek or Mises are mentioned much in the article, this point hurts Metcalf’s credibility if not his arguments. Metcalf 0, detractors 1.

    Brad Delong corrects Metcalf’s account of Keynes with regard to Hayek,

    “But Keynes did not write this on the margin of any book. He did not write it by hand. He said it in print–“Keynes at his witty bitchy best”, as Bruce Caldwell puts it. Keynes published it in 1931 in the journal Economica–13:34 (November), pp. 387-97, “The Pure Theory of Money: A Reply to Dr. Hayek”, and it was of Hayek’s Prices and Production. It was about Hayek’s business-cycle theory (where, Milton Friedman used to say, Hayek “was not a great economist”) and not about his moral philosophy (where, I would argue, he was a great albeit flawed economist).”

    Again, Metcalf take’s a hit. Delong pulls this nugget out to show what Keynes thought of Hayek,

    “In my opinion it is a grand book…. Morally and philosophically I find myself in agreement with virtually the whole of it: and not only in agreement with it, but in deeply moved agreement…

    Again, Metcalf’s piece does not deal head on with Hayek, so I’ll move past this part and chalk it up as another win for the detractors, now winning 2-0.

    The only problem is that none of these things have to do with the bulk of what Metcalf is discussing. His critique may be rubbish, but all of these points attack him for sidestepping/dismissing, not for what he has actually put forward.


  12. Kuznicki wants to say that Metcalf is compounding the possibly morally blameworthy modes of wealth accumulation (e.g. stealing), with the morally blameless ways (e.g. agreed transaction).

    “For a libertarian, it’s only Wilt Chamberlain’s particular type of wealth that is morally blameless, not all the rest. Which kind is his? The kind acquired through voluntary transactions, without coercion or fraud. The kind that comes from Nozick called capitalist acts between consenting adults.”

    Metcalf address this in two ways. The first is that we don’t live in a world where these kinds of presumably “pure” interactions can take place. That is, we don’t have perfect information, we don’t have frictionless markets, etc. If we did have those things, perhaps we might be able to glimpse the pure and blameless kinds of wealth accumulation Kuznicki suggests. Second, where Kuznicki would make it look easy, figuring out whether “consent” exists, or “coercion” occurred is far from easy. And it is exactly in these phenomena that all the arrangements of capitalism arise. Metcalf seems to be saying that in the Chamberlain example, Nozick has introduced a sterile scenario in which our moral sentiments rightly feel the athlete should get his due, but in the process seeks to legitimate all the other forms of wealth accumulation that occur in captialist society.


    ”To my critique of the Chamberlain example, a libertarian might respond: Given frictionless markets, rational self-maximizers, and perfect information, the market price for Wilt’s services could not stay separable from the market price to see Wilt play. (Visionary entrepreneurs would create start-up leagues, competing leagues would bid up prices for the best players.) In a free-market paradise, capital will flow to talent, until rewards commensurate perfectly with utility. Maybe; and maybe in a socialist paradise, no one will catch the common cold. The essence of any utopianism is: Conjure an ideal that makes an impossible demand on reality, then announce that, until the demand is met in full, your ideal can’t be fairly evaluated. Attribute any incidental successes to the halfway meeting of the demand, any failure to the halfway still to go.”


  13. Aaron Ross Powell’s wants to claim that Metclaf misinterprets Nozick by assigning to Nozick the view that liberty is the one, true, most fundamental value. Rather,

    “I value liberty, yes, but I also value my health, my daughter’s happiness, and films staring William Powell and Myrna Loy. In fact, libertarians, progressives, and even Robert Nozick value quite a lot of things. The libertarian argument is simply that a state that attempts to directly maximize any value besides liberty—by, say, coercively taxing in order to pay for more Thin Man films—violates individual rights. What’s more, if the state does remain limited to protecting only liberty, we’ll get more health, happiness, and great movies.”

    “According to Nozick and most other libertarians, it is for the protection of liberty that we organize a state—and a state that violates its citizens’ liberty (beyond, arguably, certain “night watchman” duties) commits a moral wrong. Metcalf gets that much right. But this is not because liberty is the only value. Rather, it is because liberty is the only value the state should concern itself with. All the other values—of which there are a great many, not all shared equally by all individuals—are the exclusive concern of civil society.”

    “Liberty is not the only value. It is the only value within the scope of politics. Liberty is also the value that allows all the other actually-held values to flourish.”

    Powell seems to be saying that, no, liberty insn’t the only moral value, existing prior to all other values. Only that liberty is the value that allows all other actually held values to flourish, and that by maximizing liberty, we maximize everything people actually value (e.g. health, happiness, movies).

    This is Metcalf,

    ”Nozick is arguing that liberty is the sole value, and to put forward any other value is to submit individuals to coercion.”

    Back to Powell,

    ”The difference between Nozick’s vision and Metcalf’s is that Nozick embraces that wonderful chaos, provided it happens within a framework of respected rights. Metcalf would strike down choice and replace it with state-endorsed value. He would force all of us or none of us to watch Wilt play, placing the decision to be a spectator or an abstainer not with free individuals but with Stephen Metcalf.”

    My eyes have been really blurry, but am I the only one that can’t see a major difference here? Please, someone demonstrate to me the difference. If it’s there I don’t want to miss it and keep sounding like an ass.


  14. Lastly, for now, whether or not Metcalf has Coulter or Nozick “on his side,” has nothing to do, again, with the bulk of the piece.

    I admit upfront that I am not a Nozick scholar, nor have I interacted with the text in question much outside of some secondary lit in college and articles like this. So I’m sure there are plenty of ways to critique Metcalf’s interpretation of Nozick’s writing.

    In addition, I’m sure there are many ways to defend “libertarianism” against his charges. But so far it doesn’t seem like many have put forward a good defense of where “libertarianism” “draws the line.”


    “What we need therefore, in my opinion, is not a change in our economic programmes, which would only lead in practice to disillusion with the results of your philosophy; but perhaps even the contrary, namely, an enlargement of them. Your greatest danger is the probable practical failure of the application of your philosophy in the United States…

    You admit here and there that it is a question of knowing where to draw the line. You agree that the line has to be drawn somewhere, and that the logical extreme is not possible. But you give us no guidance whatever as to where to draw it…”


  15. “In any case, this sort of thing always bodes ill for the liberaltarian project, if it is a project, mostly because I fear it represents a great deal of confirmation bias on the left.”

    I disagree. For years, libertarians were ignored, like that kid at the high school dance standing in the corner by himself. Now, we’re being bullied which means we’re seen as a threat. These kinds of pieces are great. As Oscar Wilde once said:

    “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”


  16. Personally I wouldn’t consider this event much of a blow to the cause of liberaltarianism unless a lot of liberal writers started lining up and echoing or defending Metcalf’s screed. At this point we pretty much have one Liberal writer out there making himself look like a fool on Slate.


  17. Well, this is fascinating. I still don’t know what a ‘liberaltarian’ is.
    Frankly, I think the wheels came off just after the Tertium Quids and aide for the poor, crippled, lame, needy, lazy, etc should not be a function of the general gummint but the state gummint. It’s a constitutional thing.


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