Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Nozick left? [update 3]

NozickA few of you  have sent me a piece by Steven Metcalf in Slate, trumpeting the alleged fact that “philosophical father of libertarianism,” Robert Nozick, “gave up on the movement he inspired.”

It’s all very entertaining, except for two things:

Nozick didn't start libertarianism.

And he didn't leave it. [Don’t just believe me, here’s what he said himself about it in one of his last interviews.]

So, the article is a bust. But so too is Nozick himself. Sure, he’s taught in political studies departments as a (if not the) libertarian with whom to get to grips. Indeed, as the “philosophical father of libertarianism” (to cut and paste a phrase). That’s for three simple reasons:

  1. Academics are dumb.
  2. Nozick was one himself.
  3. Nozick’s ideas were easy to knock over.

Nozick’s ideas slipped inside the academic tent because Nozick was an academic at Harvard—and when you’re an academic at Harvard it’s hard to be ignored. (He got the gig because he was originally a socialist, an ideology he renounced on the way to his chair). But being an academic from Harvard, his ideas had to be taught. And fortunately for those who taught them, his ideas were easy to knock down.

This suited political science professors right down their mouldy, Marxist jumpsuits. Just imagine: teaching ideas that make you uncomfortable by teaching the weakest version of those ideas you can find. A version with the academic imprimatur of Harvard no less. What could be more ingenious! Or more useful—if you’re a politicised pol-sci professor with a penchant for collectivism, and a knack of persuading your more pliable students.

As Sean Kimpton pointed out in 'The Free Radical' a few years back, when it comes to defending liberty, Robert Nozick has long been “doing more harm than good..."

[Nozick] is considered by academics to be the leading advocate for libertarianism and freedom amongst modern political philosophers, but his weak arguments are too easily trumped by self-serving intellectuals who only feel obliged to answer Nozick, rather than more substantial political thinkers like Rand....
    But perhaps it is the very weakness of his arguments that add to his attraction, he is the ideal libertarian straw man - easy to knock down, and to burn while he's down.
    But Nozick does have value. He shows us that if your arguments lack foundations you will undo your conclusions, no matter how true they might be.

Nonetheless, a few fellows at Cato have still been trying to defend the poor, late libertarian against the slings and arrows of Mr Metcalf’s outrageous verbiage. If you wish defence against Mr Metcalf, then here it is (nice title on that first piece, by the way:

UPDATE 1: Matt Welch from Reason magazine weighs in with a slate of further replies, rejoinders and rebuttals to Metcalf’s monstering of the dead professor:

And someone just emailed me to ask why I’ve bothered posting a defence of someone whom I hold in such little respect. Two reasons, really:

  1. Mr Metcalf’s shotgun blast against Nozick is intended to be a take-down of the political philosophy Nozick was supposed to represent, using him as the target and taking out sundry others in the scattergun
  2. Because tender young pol-sci students who have been taught that I must subscribe to the Nozick wisdom and who tune in here daily (and eagerly) for my gems of insight and political wisdom need to know that all is not as it appears be Nozick-wise—just not in the way that Mr Metcalf thinks.
    So now you know. Both of you.

UPDATE 2: Nozick admirer Julian Sanchez reckons the very central contention of Metcalf’s is frankly wrong, and the piece proves little beyond “ that there’s nothing too fundamentally confused to be published on Slate as long as it gets in a few good jabs at libertarians.”

UPDATE 3: So why, you might wonder, have baseless attacks on the godfathers of libertarianism—or even the alleged godfathers of libertarianism—increased in recent times? Well, maybe it’s because they’re getting traction. Hell, even the New York Times thinks they are:


  1. Looks like a Thunderbirds puppet to me.

  2. Do you think Socialist or Liberals are educated into their thinking or perhaps are more born that way?
    Considering myself (an unread liberal), I tend to instinctivley gravitate to liberal ideals. It seems ingrained in me. There does not seem to b a collective thought in my body


  3. He leans to the Left,
    He leans to the Riiiiight,
    That Robert Nozick,
    His views were all shite!


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