The Limits of Libertarianism

I really enjoyed Stephen Metcalf’s “The Liberty Scam” at Slate, which exposes not just the spuriousness of so much of Libertarian discourse, but the narcissism that underlies it. Taking off on Robert Nozick’s Wilt Chamberlain thought experiment,* Metcalf argues that the hardcore libertarian position is premised on the mistaken notion that all capital is human capital, that money always flows to talent:

Nozick assumes our dream society is in some respect egalitarian; that to prevent Wilt from grossly out-earning his fellow citizens…[would] curtail Chamberlain’s right to the whole fruit of his own labor. To the liberal humanist, Nozick is saying: You don’t take your finest hero, Kant, seriously, because if you did, you would never sacrifice Wilt’s autonomy to the social planner’s designs. To the socialist, he is saying: You don’t take your own finest hero, Marx, seriously, because if you did, you would never expropriate his surplus value (via taxation) as blithely as the capitalist. And to his own fellow Harvard professors, he is saying: You don’t take your own finest hero—yourself—seriously, because if you did, why would you ever curtail the prerogative of a superstar?

But money is just money and talent is only one of the myriads of commodities that are bought and sold–sometimes at a premium, sometimes for insultingly small sums (I write for a living, I know). The idea that wealth is always deserved, that it is the fruit of liberty and the physical embodiment of its owner’s moral/spiritual/intellectual virtue, is one that predates Ayn Rand and Hayek and Nozick by generations. It was what the Protestant strivers of the early capitalist era told themselves; it was what the Social Darwinists of the Gilded Age dearly believed.

“A free society is an interplay between a more-or-less permanent framework of social commitments, and the oasis of economic liberty that lies within it,” Metcalf writes. “When Hayek insists welfare is the road to serfdom, when Nozick insists that progressive taxation is coercion, they take liberty hostage in order to prevent a reasoned discussion about public goods from ever taking place.” Taken to an extreme, Libertarian monism is as cultish as any of the other far-out beliefs I’ve written about in my books and on this blog.

In a way, the conservative over-valuation of money is as trite as the bohemian demonization of the marketplace. Selling out–writing or painting or composing or acting for a mass rather than an elite audience–doesn’t have to be mere pandering (though it often is). By the same token, even homo economicus is capable of seeing beyond his or her own immediate interests, of making sacrifices for the public good. High taxes might dissuade the likes of Joe the Plumber from seeing his entrepreneurial ambitions through, but they didn’t stop Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. And even if Wilt Chamberlain got stiffed by Nozick’s standards (or by the standards of what NBA superstars make today), he still played his best game. Money is an important motivator, but the pursuit of eudaimonia and arete–happiness and virtue in the Aristotelian sense, the ultimate fulfillment of one’s innate potential–are more important still.

*Chamberlain’s basketball talent is not just what he sells but who he is; to impose a salary cap or some other tax on his income in the interests of the team, the sport, or some abstract collective other, is not just an economic injustice but an affront to Chamberlain’s existential essence.

One thought on “The Limits of Libertarianism

  1. Thats why we havent done better in Afghanistan! No if the results arent there we blame the planners. I keep seeing special acknowledgments paid to servicemen on a recent shuttle ride to the airport parking lot for instance a fellow shouted out to the driver that he should drop off the guy in uniform first to thank him for his service to the countryand then the driver had to take an awkward route through the lot passing by other passengers cars to drop this one fellow off first. But for some antiquated reason we still think it more important to give Gomer Pyle a gun than to give a teacher the tools to do her job.Also youd be financially deranged to go into teaching.At the moment the average teachers pay is on par with that of a toll taker or bartender.

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