Posts Tagged ‘Robert Nozick’

You have to admire the sheer gall of a man who defends compulsory national service on libertarian grounds. Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry does so in this month’s Cato Unbound. What really got my attention was this bit:

Libertarians think it’s legitimate for the state to use violence to take people’s money. If you don’t think taxation is legitimate, you are an anarchist, not a libertarian.

Well, military service is a form of in-kind taxation. Money is time. That’s what it is. When I buy a loaf of bread, I exchange a little bit of my time for a little bit of the baker’s time.

Perhaps it’s only legitimate for the state to take our time in the form of money and not in its original form, but we know that it’s not true.

Oh really?! When libertarianism really emerged as a distinct political force in the 1970s, it was thought that libertarianism excluded taxation that was not consented to (so homeowners’ association fees would be fine, for instance). The Libertarian Party platform long called for the abolition of taxation (and may still). Indeed, Robert Nozick argued that taxation is wrong for the same reason that slavery (“compulsory service”) is wrong. (Not, note, that taxation is morally equivalent to slavery or a species of slavery.) Gobry seems to accept Nozick’s claim that if slavery is always wrong, taxation is also always wrong, but by denying the consequent, is able to deny the antecedent.

But the bottom line is that you don’t have to be an anarchist to think that non-consented-to taxation is always impermissible.

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A moral dilemma from the popular TV show “Breaking Bad” illustrates a critique Amartya Sen made of Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia and the reason why the refutation fails. In On Ethics and Economics, Sen makes the following critique of Nozick’s libertarian philosophy (heavily paraphrased because the book has yet to be unpacked, and Google Books was no help):

Suppose A knew that C was about to murder D, but needed a car to try to stop the murder. B is nearby in a car. On Nozick’s theory, it would be permissible for A to try to stop the murder without violating anyone else’s rights, but impermissible for A to to try to stop the murder by commandeering B’s car.

Sen seems to think that Nozick’s view is incoherent or at least implausible. Nozick’s theory forbids minor rights violations to prevent major ones. Of course, the theory is incoherent only if one adopts the premise that whatever is morally good must be maximized, a premise that Sen leaves implicit. Sen’s critique suggests a “consequentialism of rights”: always act so as to minimize the number of rights violations.

But the central plot twist of the “Breaking 312px-JesseshootsgaleBad” series shows us why consequentialism of rights is less plausible than a strict deontological view. In this plot twist (writing vaguely to avoid spoilers), the two main characters of the show murder an innocent man because: 1) (more…)

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Matt Zwolinski of Bleeding Heart Libertarians has written an excellent series of posts on the libertarian justification of property rights. Here‘s the latest.

The first and most important thing to note about both Locke and Nozick’s arguments is that, unlike utilitarian arguments, they are individualistic rather than collectivistic in nature. For the utilitarian, all that matters in justifying an action (or an institution like property rights) is its effect on overall well-being. On the utilitarian view, then, property rights are justified if the overall benefits they produce are greater than the overall harms they produce, regardless of how those benefits and harms are distributed among different individuals.

For Locke and Nozick, on the other hand, property rights are only justified if they benefit (or at least do not harm) each and every individual. Now, this probably seems like an extremely tough argumentative hurdle for the defender of property to clear. Could it really be the case that each and every individual is better off under a system of private property rights than he would have been without one?

The answer is, or can be, yes. Almost everyone today is vastly better off, and freer, because of the system of private property rights. In those rare, possibly pathological cases in which a person is worse off due to the system of property rights, the Lockean justification of property rights provides a rationale for some kind of “re”distribution as a matter of justice, a point that Matt notes at the end but defers to a future essay. In the event, this is one area where I tend to agree with BHL’ers: there should be a basic income of sort to replace the welfare state, which would probably have to be set at a few thousand dollars a year in the present-day United States in order to ensure that literally everyone is better off due to the private property system, despite its coercive nature.

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Here are the essay questions from the final exam I gave in “Introduction to Political Philosophy” last semester. How would you answer these questions?

Rights to Property
Answer one of these questions.
1. What is John Rawls’ “difference principle,” and how does he defend it?
What are its implications for the welfare state? Is the argument persuasive?
Why or why not?
2. Robert Nozick criticizes “patterned” principles of justice in holdings, like
Rawls’, on the grounds that they authorize unjust redistribution of wealth.
Why do patterned principles authorize redistribution? Why is redistribu-
tion unjust? Are those arguments persuasive? Why or why not?

Evaluating Moral Arguments
Answer one of these questions.
1. Evaluate the soundness of the following argument. “1. It is morally imper-
missible to take away anyone’s life, health, liberty, or possessions without
her clear consent. 2. Governments take away people’s possessions (taxa-
tion) and liberty (imprisonment) in certain circumstances. 3. Therefore,
governments must obtain the clear consent of every person they govern.
4. Virtually no government on earth has obtained the clear consent of ev-
eryone they govern. 5. Therefore, virtually all governments systematically
violate the rights of their subjects.”

2. Evaluate the soundness of the following argument. “1. It is morally
impermissible to allow someone to die when one could save that person
without sacrificing anything of comparable moral significance. 2. The
consumption of luxury goods is not of comparable moral significance to
human life. 3. Therefore, if one can save another person’s life merely
by transferring money that one would otherwise have used to purchase
luxury goods, one is morally bound to do so (i.e., it would be morally
impermissible not to). 4. Today, people in the rich world have surplus
money that they spend on luxuries, money that we know could save lives in
the poor world. 5. Therefore, people in the rich world are morally bound
to transfer money that would otherwise be spent on luxuries to people in
the poor world who would otherwise die.”

Notably, only one person who answered 3.2.1 thought the argument was sound, and only a small number of students who answered 3.2.2 thought this argument was sound. Both arguments are valid.

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Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi have a thought-provoking piece entitled, “A Bleeding Heart History of Libertarianism,” in the latest Cato Unbound. They criticize postwar libertarians (specifically mentioning Mises, Rand, and Rothbard) for seeing property rights as absolute and, in their view, regarding the welfare of the working poor as irrelevant to moral justifications for capitalism:

In the remainder of this essay, we will discuss one particular way that neoclassical liberalism has a better grounding in the libertarian intellectual tradition than the libertarianism of Mises, Rand, and Rothbard. It is not the only contrast, but one of the clearest and most important differences between these two schools of libertarian thought has to do with the proper nature of concern for, and obligation to, the working poor. On this issue, the neoclassical liberal position is that the fate of the class who labor at the lowest end of the pay scale under capitalism is an essential element in the moral justification of that system. And this position, we will argue, has a far more solid grounding in the libertarian intellectual tradition than the justificatory indifference to which the postwar libertarians are committed.

They go on to cite John Locke, Adam Smith, and Herbert Spencer (yes, Spencer!) as classical liberals who would be more sympathetic to the neoclassical-liberal project of justifying markets partly on the basis of their consequences for the welfare of the least well off. However, they also argue, plausibly, that Rand and Rothbard in particular were not indifferent to the fate of the poor, simply that they viewed the coincidence of respect for individual property rights and a better life for all as a happy fortuity. (Mises was more of a consequentialist and perhaps after all a comfortable fit within neoclassical liberalism.)

I would stress that (more…)

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Andrew Breitbart has posted a video (HT: Phil Arena) showing liberal, pro-income-redistribution students rejecting out of hand the concept of redistributing grade point averages (GPAs) from the best-performing students to those less fortunate, saying things like “It’s not fair” and “I worked for my grades.” Does their position constitute hypocrisy, and does this experiment show that something like the libertarian conception of property rights (“from each as she chooses, to each as she is chosen”) is somehow more “natural” to us humans? One argument might go something like this: Being committed to income redistribution requires being committed to redistribution of grades. Being committed to redistribution of grades is unlikely to be justified. Therefore, being committed to income redistribution is unlikely to be justified.

To put some flesh onto the problem, it’s useful to narrow down possible justifications for redistribution, so I’ll focus on John Rawls’ Difference Principle, which states that all inequalities in a society must work to the advantage of the representative least well off person in that society. In other words, the baseline assumption should be perfect equality, and deviations from equality (in income, wealth, prestige, and anything that might constitute “social bases of self-respect”) have to be justified by their benefit to all. One common objection (see, e.g., Lomasky’s Persons, Rights, and the Moral Community) to Rawls’ Difference Principle is that it would require the more physically attractive or talented to compensate the less attractive or talented. Rawls’ prior Equality Liberty Principle potentially prohibits actual redistribution of body parts, but Rawls is certainly open to redistribution of wealth from those who enjoy psychic benefits from their natural abilities and characteristics to those who are less well off psychically. There is nothing in Rawls’ Difference Principle that limits unjust inequalities to uncompensated financial inequalities.

Breitbart’s experiment seems to me to raise similar concerns. One’s intelligence and hard work may yield financial rewards, but they also yield psychic benefits. Obtaining a high GPA confers prestige, status, and a greater sense of self-esteem. No one “deserves” intelligence or a penchant for hard work, since these are things we’re either born or raised with. So should GPAs be redistributed? One might object on practical grounds. Redistribution of GPAs might discourage student effort (but redistribution of income also discourages worker effort). Redistribution of GPAs might interfere with correct productivity assessments in the marketplace (but so might redistribution of income, since it is always accomplished through a highly complex tax code). Even if these practical objections decide us against redistributing grades, if we are committed to the Difference Principle, we must remain in principle committed to compensating those who earn lower GPAs for their “unfair” disadvantages (perhaps financially). If we find this conclusion absurd, then so must we find the Difference Principle.

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Peter Singer’s views on population control have come up on this blog quite recently. Singer is also, of course, a hardcore animal rights-er who believes that all animals (at least, vertebrates) have the same moral status. But one doesn’t have to be a utilitarian or someone who believes that animals actually have rights that ought to be legally enforced to think that animals have some moral status. Here’s Robert Nozick’s quasi-Kantian position on animals (linky):

Animals count for something. Some higher animals, at least, ought to be given some weight in people’s deliberations about what to do. It is difficult to prove this. (It is also difficult to prove that people count for something!) We first shall adduce particular examples, and then arguments. If you felt like snapping your fingers, perhaps to the beat of some music, and you knew that by some strange causal connection your snapping your fingers would cause 10,000 contented, unowned cows to die after great pain and suffering, or even painlessly and instantaneously, would it be per­fectly all right to snap your fingers? Is there some reason why it would be morally wrong to do so?

Nozick argues that there are some things we should not do to animals, regardless of their consequences for humans. This position seems reasonable on an intuitive level; it is difficult to imagine that there is nothing wrong with torturing thousands of animals to death. Anyone who’s interacted with other animals knows that they possess some spark of intelligence and emotion, even if not full self-awareness, which elicits empathy in us (and possibly in them?).

So what about eating animals? In the 21st century post-industrial world, eating animals is unnecessary for human health – in fact, Americans eat too much meat. Eating animals, let us concede, adds a little bit of pleasure to the eating experience for humans. Does one have to be a utilitarian to weigh the small pleasure that humans receive from eating animals against the significant pain that the animals endure? I don’t think so. If one believes that animals have some moral worth but lack rights, then consuming them without any real need might be worse than not eating them – or even morally wrong (as Nozick believed).

There are of course other arguments for vegetarianism having to do with the health of humans and the environment. And it may be that some of these considerations turn the other way as well – certainly, strict veganism isn’t healthy for humans without vitamin supplements. But if we just consider the animal welfare argument, how far does it take us?

Incidentally, the animal-welfare argument for vegetarianism implies that eating invertebrates is OK (Slate on oyster-eating veganism here). Also, it probably implies that eating eggs and dairy, which require the slaughter of animals (male chicks in the former case, calves in the latter), is wrong.


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The distinguishing characteristic of classical liberalism from other liberalisms is its view of property rights. On the classical liberal account, a distribution of property is just if it is a consequence of just transfer, where transfer is generally just if and only if voluntary or appropriately compensatory for wrongs. As Nozick noted, this unpatterned, “side constraints” view of justice differs from the patterned, “end-state” view of justice found inAnarchy, State, and Utopia Rawls, for whom property should be redistributed as necessary to maximize the position of the “representative least advantaged person.”

Nozick did not address the issue of how property may legitimately be acquired in the first place. Locke believed that just acquisition occurred through “mixing one’s labor” with the earth. Locke also had a famous proviso, that just acquisition must leave “enough and as good” for others, to avoid waste. (However, at one point in the Second Treatise Locke seems to argue that the proviso becomes a dead letter once a society invents money.)

Nozick argues that the initial distribution does not matter, because “liberty upsets patterns.” He makes this point with the famous Wilt Chamberlain example. Imagine a world in which everyone has exactly equal resources. Now suppose that one man, Wilt Chamberlain, is exceptionally talented at basketball. People will come to watch Wilt Chamberlain play basketball and will voluntarily transfer a small sum, say $0.25, to him for this privilege. Very quickly, the old pattern of equality disappears as Wilt Chamberlain accumulates resources. To re-establish that pattern would require undoing the voluntary transfers that people have made to Wilt Chamberlain.

But is Nozick necessarily right that initial distribution doesn’t matter? What about property rights in land? If one person establishes control over a vast range of productive land, then on standard libertarian accounts the owner may require virtually any conditions (s)he might like in exchange for allowing others access to that land. Thus, the landowner may require would-be tenants to yield one-third of the value of their production and perhaps to make themselves available for security duty as well. By enjoying the fruits of others’ labor, the landowner is able to continue in enjoyment of the demesne and pass it down to future generations to do the same.

Are absolute property rights in land a road to serfdom? Or may property rights occasionally be set aside for other interests? If we allow that property rights are not always absolute, does our theory collapse into utilitarianism or egalitarianism, or can we build theoretical terraces on that slippery slope?

Nozick’s own theory has some intellectual resources to address this problem. Nozick adapts the Lockean Proviso to argue that appropriations may be set aside when they literally make others with access to them worse off than they would have been had the resource remained unowned and open-access. “Setting aside” the appropriation presumably means that current distributions may also be altered, perhaps temporarily.

Consider the following two scenarios. The first comes from a debate in Liberty magazine a number of years ago; the second comes from is rather like a discussion I recall from David Friedman’s book The Machinery of Freedom (corrected per David Friedman’s comment below).

Scenario A

Scenario B

You fall from a window of one of the top stories of a tall building. As you hurtle toward certain death, you reach out and grab a flagpole sticking out of another window, breaking your fall. The owner of the flagpole observes you clinging on for dear life and says, “I am the owner of that flagpole; let go!”

Should you let go?

In this scenario, you are the neighbor of a mad scientist who likes to sample the atmosphere around your house and test for the presence of the DNA of other humans. He knows that you and other neighbors will sometimes pass his house or breathe in its general direction, and as a result microscopic molecules containing their DNA float over his property line, invading his property. As an extreme hypochondriac, he cannot bear the thought of this happening.

He issues a decree to the entire neighborhood, including you: No one is to venture outside and exhale, and even exhaling indoors is risky, because the microscopic particles could find their way out of chimneys and other crevices and onto his property. If anyone’s DNA is found on his property, he threatens to defend himself from the trespass by all legitimate means.

Do you have a moral obligation to stop breathing?

Presumably anyone not blinded by ideology will answer “no” to these questions, conceding that property rights are not absolute. In the former case, at the moment of your hanging to the flagpole by dear life, the scheme of private property rights makes you worse off. Thus, by Nozick’s standard, it seems you have the right to expropriate the use of the flagpole until you no longer need it. At that point, let us surmise, the flagpole should revert to its original owner, and you should make compensation for any damages to it. In the second scenario, the mad scientist is engaging in illegitimate expropriation by trying to force other people to stop breathing, which would make them worse off than they would be if the scheme of private property rights did not exist.

This application of the Proviso is attractive because it imports some utilitarian-esque concerns (the scheme of private property rights must make everyone better off than they would be in the primeval world of open-access commons), while retaining the intuitively desirable features of libertarianism, most notably the right to dispose of your property as you see fit under almost all circumstances. Nevertheless, it requires giving up the fiction of absolute property rights and perhaps even opens the door to a kind of universal income guarantee as compensation for the private appropriation of land. Enter the left-libertarianism of Michael Otsuka, Hillel Steiner, Peter Vallentyne, and Philippe Van Parijs.

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1.  Matt Ridley.  The Origins of Virtue (and Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments)

2.  Robert Nozick.  “The Genealogy of Ethics” in his book Invariances

I would enjoy hearing Sven’s thoughts on these three pieces, not to mention anyone else tuning in to Pileus.

Invariances is among the most difficult books I have ever read.  Fortunately, the chapter I recommended is not difficult to understand.  Some of the other chapters are very tough and very high powered philosophy.  But one is well-served to read, reread, and keep reading Nozick.  My favorite Nozick work is his classic book, Anarchy, State, and Utopia.  The last section on Utopia is very much underappreciated and had a huge influence on my view of the world.

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No, I’m not talking about silent leftist professors.  Indeed, most professors – myself included – have trouble staying silent whether they are on the left, right, or anyplace else (I’m not a big fan of the left-right spectrum, btw). 

I’m talking about two separate but interesting posts by Thomas C. Reeves.  I don’t really know who Reeves is, and I don’t remember ever having come across any works by him until today.  But one piece by him on why professors tend to be on the left is making its way around the internet.  It is worth reading if you like this genre.  It brought to mind Robert Nozick’s own contribution to the debate, “Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism?” 

I was actually more interested in another post by Reeves which talks about silence.  Reeves argues that “people all over the West and industrialized Asia today, perhaps especially the young, cannot abide silence” but that “In fact, silence is necessary for many achievements in civilized society, especially meaningful and thoughtful study (as opposed to mere memorization). Concentrated minds need to focus without interruption.”  He ends with his approval of the Vancouver-based Right to Quiet Society’s move to recognize “the right to quiet as a basic human right.” 

I’m not sure there is a basic right to quiet, though the common law gives property owners the right to the “quiet enjoyment” of their property and thus to be free of nuisances, including sounds (and yes, I understand that “quiet enjoyment” means a heck of a lot more too). 

But more importantly, Reeves raises the basic problem of being surrounded by so much noise.  Indeed, the modern world is so noisy that it is hard to think – which some people would say is entirely the point.  Noise allows us to escape or be distracted from our innermost thoughts and questions, many of which are uncomfortable or even frightening the more and deeper we think about them. 

But despite the escapism noise allows – and sometimes we do benefit from this, I think we would be rewarded if we found more quiet time and quiet places to think and also just to relax.  Noise can certainly interrupt thinking.  But I also find too much constant noise to be anxiety producing and destructive of true relaxation.  This is one of the reasons I love getting outside of cities and suburbs and into the country.  And since cars are one of our biggest sources of noise, I think that solving the problem of auto emissions is only half of the battle in terms of dealing with their negative externalities.  So, for those entrepreneurs out there, find a way to cut auto noise (which is mostly tire/road noise) and you’ll be doing us all a big favor.

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