Jonathan Chait

Metcalf vs. The Libertarians

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Stephen Metcalf's essay on libertarianism and Robert Nozick, which I linked, has naturally provoked libertarian pushback. Reason editor Matt Welch publishes a rebuttal consisting entirely of pointing out that Ann Coulter also dislikes libertarianism, therefore Slate agrees with Coulter. (And you know who hated communism? Hitler! So anybody who hates communism agrees with Hitler.)

Cato's Jason Kuznicki easily clears the "more persuasive than Matt Welch" bar in his Metcalf reply, though this rebuttal isn't terribly strong:

Of the many errors in a long and error-ridden article, I think the worst has to be the idea that libertarians hold all concentrations of wealth to be good. As long, I infer, as we gather it in sufficiently large heaps. Metcalf writes:

But being a star athlete isn’t the only way to make money. In addition to earning a wage, one can garnish a wage, collect a fee, levy a toll, cash in a dividend, take a kickback, collect a monopoly rent, hit the superfecta, inherit Tara, insider trade, or stumble on Texas tea. For each way of conceiving wealth, there is at least one way of moralizing its distribution. The Wilt Chamberlain example is designed to corner usquite cynically, in my viewinto moralizing all of them as if they were recompense for a unique talent that gives pleasure; and to tax each of them, and regulate each of them, according to the same principle of radical noninterference suggested by a black ballplayer finally getting his due.

This is simply wrong. For a libertarian, it’s only Wilt Chamberlain’s particular type of wealth that is morally blameless, not all the rest. Which kind is his? The kind acquired through voluntary transactions, without coercion or fraud. The kind that comes from Nozick called capitalist acts between consenting adults.

Some wealth is blameless. Some isn’t. And yes, some cases are truly hard to judge: Is Wal-Mart a free-market success story? Wellll…. kind of. But what about all those special tax privileges? What about that eminent domain abuse?

Wilt Chamberlain makes a good example not because he’s a black man struggling sympathetically in a white man’s world. His example is useful because it strips away every possibility of force, fraud, corporate welfare, and government favoritism. When we do that, we can see that it’s still possible to grow wealthy through honest, voluntary methods.

No, that wasn't Metcalf's point. Metcalf's point was that Nozick was seizing upon an unusual and deeply atypical example of wealth, and used it draw draw up rules to presumptively apply to all wealth. It's like using the example of a man stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving children as the basis for our laws about property and theft. To object to such an exercise is not to deny that morally justifiable theft can exist. It's just a bad model to build an absolute moral defense of capitalism

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