Thursday, June 23, 2011


Judging by the reaction it provoked, Stephen Metcalf’s hit piece on libertarianism has achieved some of its goal.

After the financial crisis of 2008 the media were filled with denunciations of free market capitalism. Led by Paul Krugman the intelligentsia suggested that the crisis showed that free markets did not work, but that we really needed more government regulation, more government spending, and more labor unions.

The nation bought it, and empowered Barack Obama and Congressional Democrats. They enacted a goodly part of their progressive agenda and, lo and behold, the economy fell into a state of stagnation.

Politically, this incited the popular movement known as the Tea Party, an anti-government, anti-tax, pro-competition, pro-free markets movement. I think it fair to say that libertarian beliefs constitute a core of the Tea Party movement.

Clearly, those who aspire to statist solutions were not happy about this development.  They feel compelled to discredit those who disagree with by using slander.
If David and Charles Koch were funding some parts of the Tea Party movement, they needed to be brought down. So, Jane Mayer wrote a hit piece in the New Yorker, after which it became de rigueur in polite New York society to pronounce the name Koch with a snarl.

Now, Slate magazine has chosen an itinerant journalist named Stephen Metcalf to ridicule, mock, and slander libertarian philosophy.

How does he do it?

Metcalf has chosen late Harvard professor Robert Nozick as the father of modern libertarian philosophy.  In 1974 Nozick wrote a book called Anarchy, State, and Utopia, which offered something of a philosophical defense of libertarian values.

But then, Metcalf explains, Nozick seems to have changed his mind, renouncing his earlier libertarianism in a later book called The Examined Life. He quotes Nozick: "The libertarian position I once propounded in the late '80s … now seems to me seriously inadequate."

Given that Metcalf is practicing slander, he does not care or does not know, that Nozick explained his position more clearly in a 2002 interview: “What I was really saying in The Examined Life
was that I was no longer as hardcore a libertarian as I had been before. But the rumors of my deviation (or apostasy!) from libertarianism were much exaggerated.” Link here. 

In the great scheme of things Metcalf is offering a very weak argument. Even if his assertion is correct, it merely shows that Nozick once defended libertarian principles, and later seemed to have qualified his defense.

As anyone with a minimal amount of learning would know, this does not tell us whether Nozick was right or wrong in either case. It tells us that Nozick believed one thing at one time and another thing at another time.

It doesn’t tell us anything more or less.

As though this is not bad enough, Metcalf has an unfortunate tendency to fall back on ad hominem arguments. He argues that Mises and Hayek, to say nothing of Milton Friedman and the Chicago economists, were nothing more than corporate shills.

Claiming that all of these distinguished economists, most of whom were professors, were on the corporate take, Metcalf then dismisses their views as a necessary product of their corruption..

Yet, as the Economist points out, in a stinging rebuttal, Metcalf has gotten most of his facts wrong. Intent on slander he did not bother to check reality. Link here.

One might also point out that the liberal economic policies that Metcalf finds so offensive have a long and distinguished intellectual history, one that goes back to Adam Smith and David Ricardo.

Trying to dismiss a great intellectual tradition because someone once seems to have received some corporate money makes no sense. Wasn’t Paul Krugman once a paid adviser to Enron?

Apparently, Metcalf belongs to the great minds school of historical agency, the notion that ideas construct reality and that great ideas, concocted by great philosophers, move history. In his view the ideas of Nozick, as opposed, say, to Adam Smith, have been running a goodly part of modern economic policy.

Free market principles are not based on the authority of great minds. Germanic idealism is. So is totalitarian socialism.

Free market principles are based on the fact that the interactions of a large number of free minds produces a more effective economic system than do the great thoughts of a small group of central planners.

Metcalf seems to believe that the purpose of free markets is to produce his or John Rawls’ idea of a just outcome.

Yet, as the venerated Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, his work is not about justice, it’s about playing by the rules.

A government that is hellbent on forcing reality to conform to someone’s idea of justice is not the same as a government that makes it possible for everyone freely to play by the same rules.

Keep in mind that Justice Holmes was a notorious pragmatist. And that he was a great champion of first amendment freedoms.

There is no contradiction. Free market principles are based on what works. Libertarians believe that free markets produce a more equitable distribution of goods and services than a state-controlled economy does. Free markets feed people in ways that socialists can only dream of.

However much credit we want to give to the mind of Robert Nozick, we should also remember that his book appeared in 1974, which was also the year that a bunch of University of Chicago trained economists set the economic course of the post-Allende government of Chile.

Many people dismiss this because of the way that Salvador Allende was removed from power, but Chile represented a real example of free market economics in action. It was a laboratory for libertarian principles.

Metcalf is so convinced that Robert Nozick was the genie who was pulling Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher’s strings, that he ignores all free market practices that existed in the world at that time.

Strangely enough, Metcalf does not seem to care about the Cold War and about the great competition between capitalism and communism.

Chile certainly had its ups and downs in the aftermath of the overthrow of Allende. Yet, it has for quite some time been one of the most prosperous and stable South American countries.

If you would rather not split philosophical hairs, you need but note the difference between Mao’s China and Deng’s China. Like it or not, the free market reforms instituted by Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s were considerably more important and influential than the thought of Robert Nozick.

Free markets are not to be judged by the philosophical beliefs of this or that Harvard professor. They are to be judged by the results they produce.

Metcalf’s argument involves a reading of cultural history. In his view World War II killed libertarianism.

He writes: “Once the creed of smart set rogues, H.L. Mencken among them, libertarianism all but disappeared after the Second World War. What happened? The single most comprehensive, centrally planned, coordinated governmental action in history—that's what happened.

Of course, no serious libertarian has ever suggested that armies be organized by free market principles or that government should do nothing.

And no serious thinker can imagine that the success of a military organization is a justification for socialism. If liberals were so enamoured of the benefits of military mobilization they would be out there beating the drums for more and larger wars.

The fact that they have largely been an anti-war party since the 1960s  belies the assertion.

In the post World War II era, the military ethos was applied to American corporate culture. At that time, liberal intellectuals attacked it mercilessly for being unjust and for stifling creativity.

Besides, if the 1950s were a time to emulate, as Metcalf seems to suggest,  then why were we saddled with Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs. Wasn’t the Great Society portrayed as the necessary antidote to the ravages that had supposedly been caused by rampant capitalism?

And then there was Vietnam. If World War II showed that government could get something right, then Vietnam seemed to suggest that it could get things wrong too.

The nation reacted to Vietnam by creating a counterculture that attacked the value system that is the basis for capitalism. It rejected the values of hard work, competition, strict organization, rule following, self-sacrifice, honor, and dignity.

If I may offer my own analysis, it would appear that Vietnam turned us from hard-working, organized  go-getters into fun-loving, creative decadents who could not take care of ourselves but who needed government to take care of us.

As Americans registered what was happening in Vietnam a goodly number of us concluded that we could not and should not involve ourselves in free, competitive enterprise. We came to reject martial values, and began to whine about how much we needed big government.

This new big government was not organized like an army; it was organized like a nursery. The Great Society did not enshrine martial values; it created the Nanny State.

In place of a government that got out of the way of business, the Nanny State did what it could to regulate and control business... the better to inhibit business’ tendencies toward free and open competition.

A Nanny State does not promote competition; it stifles competition in the name of justice.

A government that promises to care for you is not the same as a government that purposefully puts you in harm’s way. A government that feels everyone’s pain is not the same as a government that tells you to shoot or bomb other people, regardless of the pain you are inflicting on the or their families.

If we are looking for a government that encourages free and open competition, and if that is a libertarian’s favorite kind of government, then the government that mobilizes for war is far closer to the libertarian model than is the Nanny State created by the Great Society.

Why not consider Nozick’s 1974 book as a response both to the Great Society and Vietnam?

Why would we not see Nozick as attacking a government gone soft, a government so Nannified that it no longer knew how to fight and win, a government that was stifling free competition and the competitive spirit, a government that was so full of empathy that it could not even prevail against the Viet Cong.

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