The Broad and the Narrow, or How to Beat a Dead Horse
[Ed. Note – I realize this is beating a dead horse at this point, but in my defense, the below was primarily written prior to the last two or three posts on the Metcalf article. Also, I’m more interested in discussing the logical fallacy herein than in defending Nozick, though it is inevitable that in the process I must defend Nozick, at least to some extent].
There’s an argumentative fallacy that I’ve noticed a number of times in the last few months in any number of places. The fallacy occurs where one takes an argument that seeks to prove a thinker’s fairly narrow point and assumes that the argument is supposed to be an absolute proof of a much broader point commonly associated with the thinker. When the argument intended to demonstrate the narrow point shockingly(!) turns out wholly inadequate to prove the broader point, the broader point is proclaimed disproven and the argument dismissed as absurd. It’s not quite a straw man fallacy – quite often the thinker really does believe the broader point, and the narrow point may well be closely related to the broader point or even one early step in a logical proof of the broader point. But in this fallacy, the narrow point is never intended as a standalone proof of the broader point yet is treated as if it were.
A perfect example of this is the much-derided-by-libertarians recent Slate piece by Stephen Metcalf, and the pieces in support thereof, purporting to disprove libertarianism largely by attacking Robert Nozick’s famous “Wilt Chamberlain” argument.
Anyhow, Metcalf writes of the Chamberlain argument:
“Put another way, Nozick is cornering us into answering a ridiculously loaded question: If every person were a capitalist, and every capitalist a human capitalist, and every human capitalist was compensated in exact proportion to the pleasure he or she provided others, would a world without progressive taxation be just? To arrive at this question, Nozick vanishes most of the known features of capitalism (capital, owners, means of production, labor, collective bargaining) while maximizing one feature of capitalism—its ability to funnel money to the uniquely talented. In the example, “liberty” is all but cognate with a system that efficiently compensates the superstar.”
Similarly, Jon Chait pairs Metcalf’s claims with a discussion of corporate executive pay that appears to be at odds with actual corporate performance and states that:
“If one wants to mount a Nozickian moral defense of unvarnished inequality, these are the sorts of facts one ought to explain.”
As E.C. Gach points out, Wes Alwan provides a good summary of Metcalf’s attempt to engage Nozick:
Nozick can only assign liberty the overriding value he does, argues Metcalf, by assuming that absent government interference, recompense naturally lines up with talent and hard work, and so to interfere would always be unjust. Which is to say that the markets naturally find a way to give everyone what they deserve.
The trouble with these approaches is that they all assume Nozick’s use of the Chamberlain Argument was intended as a standalone defense of unvarnished inequality or capitalism and that Nozick’s argument against redistribution assumes that, but for government interference, “recompense naturally lines up with talent and hard work.” But it was not intended as a standalone defense, even if Nozick may have been ultimately unconcerned with unvarnished inequality or may have believed modern capitalism to be an inherently superior economic form for other reasons. The Chamberlain argument is but one step in Nozick’s attempted proof. Moreover, Nozick explicitly disclaims the idea that absent “patterned redistribution” or even government interference, recompense will naturally line up with talent and hard work.
In some ways, Nozick’s point is in fact much more subversive, and indeed is more empirical than normative. It must be remembered first and foremost that Nozick was offering the Chamberlain argument as a logical proof to demonstrate that what he termed “patterned” systems of distribution cannot maintain the desired state of justice without restricting the choices of both the beneficiaries and the targets of the redistribution in a way that proponents of such systems would likely find unacceptable. Nozick in fact explicitly states his point thusly:
“The general point illustrated by the Wilt Chamberlain example . . .is that no end-state principle or distributional patterned principle of justice can be continuously realized without continuous interference in people’s lives.”
The Chamberlain argument, then, exists for the limited purpose of demonstrating that inequality is not inherently unjust, or, even of it is, it cannot be rectified in a permanent manner without interfering with people’s lives in a manner that few would find acceptable. Saying that inequality is not inherently unjust is a far, far cry from saying that it is inherently just, or even that it is more often than not just.
The Chamberlain argument merely seeks to demonstrate how an unequal distribution might (as opposed to must) result from entirely voluntary and knowing exchanges in which the least well off are not seeking to maximize what others might conceive of as their greatest benefit. It says nothing, and does not pretend to say anything, about whether there are other situations where inequality would be unjust.
An important underlying point here, which makes Nozick’s argument so subversive, is that he’s suggesting that by reducing the concept of justice to a set formula, a “pattern,” one assures that inequality produced for undeniably just reasons is treated as indistinguishable from inequality produced entirely unjust reasons. Indeed, Nozick gives much space to advocating for an alternative, “historical” principle of justice, in which an inquiry ought to be made as to the justness of each particular transaction.
Moreover, Nozick is most definitely not using the Chamberlain argument to claim that inequality in a purely capitalist system is inherently just. Anarchy, State, and Utopia in fact is seemingly unconcerned with a defense of “capitalism” as that word is commonly understood. Indeed, the word “capitalism” does not even have an entry in the book’s index, even if Nozick might have otherwise had strong feelings in favor of capitalism as compared to other extant economic models.
None of this makes the Chamberlain argument an indisputably successful rebuttal to the existence of a welfare state, though, and I don’t think Nozick would have suggested as such. Instead, in effect, he is simply arguing here that a system of redistribution in the name of justice must be able to point to specific unjust transactions it is rectifying if the system is to avoid causing injustice itself. It is simply not possible to say that deviations from a particular idealized pattern of distributive justice are inherently unjust, even if some or even most such deviations are a result of unjust transactions. Except for very rare circumstances, any such pattern will ultimately have to either allow for deviations or impose otherwise unacceptable restrictions.
There may well be, and I assume are, entirely appropriate ways of defending systems of redistribution against Nozick – after all, I assume Rawls is as or more popular than Nozick 40 years later for at least some reason. I myself think Nozick’s arguments here are ultimately unpersuasive when applied to the real world and even, I think, when applied to Nozick’s own minarchist ideal. For instance, one could argue that the “historical” principle of redistribution is impracticable outside of the smallest society – too many unjust transactions will be impossible to identify and undo after the fact and thus the injustices caused by imposing the patterned system of redistribution are less than the injustices caused by undiscovered unjust transactions. One could also argue that the “historical” principle lacks a sufficiently legitimate historical starting point in the real world – at this point, the proceeds of just and unjust transactions are so intermingled and impossible to unravel that it is appropriate to assume that all transactions are tainted in at least some way, and larger transactions disproportionately so. And so on and so forth.
Those are the arguments that would be interesting and useful to hear, and indeed could well be persuasive. But instead, by virtue of the fallacy described above, we’re left debating whether the Chamberlain argument proves or disproves the inherent justice of inequality and modern capitalism, which is an argument that can only lead to both sides ultimately resorting to their usual talking points.
 I’m not at all certain that Nozick was in fact completely unconcerned with unvarnished inequality or believed modern capitalism to be inherently superior, though whether he did is irrelevant to the point here.
 And even this claim of Nozick’s is qualified, as he writes that “perhaps some very weak patterns are not so thwarted” by individual choices as to require continuous intervention in people’s lives.