The Right Wing III: Bob Nozick, Freedom, and Basketball, A History Boy, 17/09/2014

Continued from last post . . . All of this has been a prelude to my conclusion, which I came to only over this weekend, that the final third of the Utopias book will not be complete unless I engage with Robert Nozick. 

A few notes on my personal history first of all. I was first exposed to Robert Nozick in the same place where I was first exposed to John Rawls: a third-level class in political philosophy that I took at Memorial University from Evan Simpson. I first met Evan when I used to interview him reasonably regularly for The Muse, Memorial’s student newspaper. He was VP-Academic for the university at the time, and an infamous interview for being something of a slow talker. 

After he left the position to wait out his retirement in the philosophy faculty, I learned that his reticence to make useable statements in interviews was largely a symptom of his regular dissent from the university’s general direction straight into bed with the mining and oil interests who were becoming the main influencers of Memorial’s broader policies, as well as the general direction of the provincial government. He tended to disagree with the policy of the university of which he was a VP, and was too much of a philosopher to be content with talking points, so our reporters' stable thought he was just being obscure and evasive. Really, he was just very good at not saying what he didn't want to be forced to say. But as my professor, he was an informal career advisor for me, and he’s now something of an elderly, soft-spoken Yoda in my life. Still a slow talker, though.

One thing that impressed me about Nozick as I slowly learned
more about him is that he was one of the last American
university-based philosophers to write with insight and
recognition in nearly every sub-discipline of the tradition.
But it was his class that introduced me to Nozick, even though I didn’t think much about him at the time. I was drawn to the philosophy in which I saw the most positive potential, and in that class, it was the essay by Michel Foucault, a selection from his collection Power/Knowledge. Yet I do remember the basic outline of the Nozick selection in that textbook, his famous Wilt Chamberlain argument.

It was a simple argument against economic egalitarianism. Imagine that everyone pays $1 to attend basketball games regularly, and that all the players get an equal share of the proceeds. But Wilt Chamberlain has become such a famous and entertaining player that he has a hat passed around at every game for five cent tips. Everyone in the crowd loves his court hijinks so much that they all drop their nickels into the Chamberlain hats. If 10,000 people show up to each game, then Wilt has made an extra $500 more than all his teammates every night they play.

There’s nothing unjust about this arrangement. No one is being forced to drop their tip in Wilt’s hat. But it’s clearly a violation of the principle of total economic egalitarianism. In fact, to enforce economic egalitarianism would require an act of violence against both Wilt Chamberlain and his fans: you’d have to prevent him from passing around his tip jar, and prevent his fans from tipping him. Therefore, difference in income produced by the public recognition of greater talent is just, and to prevent this difference from constituting itself is unjust. 

Of course the real most entertaining basketball players of all
time are the Harlem Globetrotters, or at least the race of
supermen into which they will eventually evolve themselves.
I was never swayed by this argument when I first read it. It’s not that I believe in pure economic egalitarianism — I think that’s actually ridiculous. I do believe there’s a threshold of wealth that a person can achieve beyond which they begin to lose sight of the ethical connection with others that makes you a basically moral person. It’s when you become so rich that you see all others as rabble or servants, so rich that your very existence in such extreme material affluence exercises power over everyone you meet. It’s when you become so rich that you stop being a person and become an oligarch.

When I first read Nozick’s Wilt Chamberlain argument, I didn’t even think it was worth making. The kind of pure economic egalitarianism he was apparently arguing against in that passage didn’t even seem defensible or possible (or all that sane) in the first place. When I first encountered Nozick’s philosophy, I responded with a shrug.

But since then, I learned just how influential Nozick’s ideas have been on contemporary libertarianism. His concept of the minimal state is central to many libertarian positions today: that the only legitimate activities of the state are national defence and law enforcement. The military and the police.

However, to me, there are the state institutions that precisely need the most oversight by the people, to make sure that their cultures don’t develop a sense of entitlement or superiority. A military leadership that thinks it knows better how to run or defend the country than a civilian authority becomes quite likely to overthrow that civilian government. 

A police culture that sees itself as the dictator of the populace instead of servant and protector becomes a brutalizer for the sake of law. Like the Ferguson police trolling for speeding tickets to make up their budget shortfalls, they prey on their own population to maintain their armed power over the people. This is why a civilian population must always be more powerful, somehow, than its military and police. It seems utterly hypocritical to me that someone who self-identifies as a libertarian would want to preserve the military and police when minimizing the state to prevent government from violently coercing the populace.

Yet this is Nozick’s argument. And network politics must find a way out of it. It’s not the only needle that the camel of network politics has to thread if the Utopias book is going to make any sense at all. To be continued . . . 

1 comment:

  1. You misunderstood Nozick's argument. Nozick's argument wouldn't be that great if it was just an argument against economic egalitarianism, as you noted "The kind of pure economic egalitarianism he was apparently arguing against in that passage didn’t even seem defensible or possible (or all that sane) in the first place."

    Rather, the argument works against any favored distribution of wealth, of which egalitarianism is taken as a simple example instance. Nozick explicitly says (and it's understood within philosophy) that you can replace "egalitarianism" with any other distribution you like, according to whatever theory of distributive justice you prefer.

    The point of his argument is to show that any theory you choose (apart from his open-ended one) will inevitably require constant interferences with people's liberty, since in order to maintain the distribution (whatever distribution you choose, it could be egalitarianism or it could be something else) you will need to restrict people's liberty to voluntarily transfer things amongst themselves. The point is this: The moment you allow people to make voluntary transfers with each other, your favored distribution will immediately be disrupted; the only way to maintain the distribution would be to prohibit these transfers, therefore limiting people's liberty.