Robert Nozick and a Socialist Libertarianism

UnknownThe late philosopher Robert Nozick authored a classic libertarian text, Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Subsequently, he didn’t exactly recant it, but did decide its viewpoint was incomplete.

In an essay, The Zigzag of Politics (in his book, The Examined Life), Nozick begins by noting that democratic institutions and liberties are not only about government; they “express and symbolize, in a pointed and official way, our equal human dignity, our autonomy and powers of self-direction.” That’s what we express in voting; we do it not because we expect to affect the outcome, or even because the outcome itself is so important. images-1What’s more important is our membership in, commitment to, and honoring of this social arrangement of ours. Voting isn’t just a utilitarian act, it’s a public sacrament.

That’s why I keep saying “democracy” isn’t merely elections; it’s a culture, a way of life. Elections don’t create that, they reflect it. We see the lesson again and again. In Egypt, it was a lack of such democratic culture that caused Morsi to behave as he did; and caused the subsequent rotten behavior of his ousters.

Nozick says his previous libertarian position didn’t adequately incorporate the way politics is not just politics, but also symbolic, images-3a temple wherein we give expression to our civic togetherness. The purist libertarian would limit government to doing only what enables people to freely flourish, and otherwise leaving them alone. So if your social conscience moves you to support a certain project, recognize that others have a right not to; it should be funded voluntarily, not by coerced taxation. But Nozick now says this “would not constitute society’s solemn marking and symbolic validation of the importance and centrality of those ties of concern and solidarity.” The point is “to speak solemnly in everyone’s name, in the name of society, about what it holds dear.” And while a particular individual may prefer to speak only for himself, that’s not compatible with living in society, which sometimes must speak for all.

Nozick goes on to suggest some work-arounds, like allowing a program’s “conscientious objectors” to opt out of the associated taxation, provided they pay compensatory taxes to fund something else.

I could scarcely take that seriously. And I found the rest of Nozick’s argument unpersuasive, especially in light of the modern realities of society and government.

My libertarianism is not anti-social. Indeed, you might call it “socialist libertarianism,” imagesnot because it incorporates anything of socialist economics, but rather recognition of our being profoundly social animals. (David Brooks, in his book The Social Animal, regretted that the world “socialist” was already taken, by the left.)

Why did we invent society, and support it? Not because “society” is some greater entity to which we must bow down and subordinate ourselves. That pernicious idea is at the heart of all collectivist ideologies. No – it’s because society serves us, its individual members, enabling us to realize most fully our human qualities, including our human need to interact with our fellows. Empowering this is, again, the basic limited role of government, says the libertarian.

But that may conflict with other things that our social consciences may, per Nozick, want government to do, which entail restricting and coercing people (or taxing them, also coercive). Of course, nobody much wants it restricting, coercing, and taxing him. But doing it to others . . . this is where the libertarian becomes very cautious and skeptical.

It’s all well and good to talk about noble minded projects of social solidarity, as Nozick does; Unknown-2but in the real world, opening this door lets in not only saints and angels but a host of creepy crawlies. I’m actually all for the social solidarity of helping the less fortunate, but the problem is that, like the Staten Island ferry of the old political joke, this drags in behind it a huge load of garbage.* And special interests know how to exploit this, much better than do the needy.

But Nozick seems to be writing from Mount Olympus images-2(or the proverbial ivory tower; he did teach). My own ideology, as I’ve explained, is an ideology of reality — that is, I let my understandings of reality shape my beliefs, rather than vice versa. And the salient reality I see in the modern world is government grown vastly in its size, scope of operations, and role in society. We may indeed want a government and politics that give symbolic and solemn expression to our social solidarity – but haven’t we now gotten rather more of it than we’ve bargained for? Unknown-1Surely the role for government that Nozick is talking about is not in deficiency. It is hugely in surplus, so very hugely that this – not a need to express social solidarity – is the greatest challenge facing us today. That being so, libertarianism is the only reasonable position.

* As the ward boss explained to the worried neophyte candidate at the bottom of the ticket, “Al Smith is the ferry. You’re the garbage.”


8 Responses to “Robert Nozick and a Socialist Libertarianism”

  1. Greg Says:

    If everyone felt as your do, Frank, with regards to the statement “my understandings of reality shape my beliefs, rather than vice versa,” then I expect most of the world’s problems could be solved. Unfortunately, that’s not the world we live in so who knows what the future holds.

    But I think there is room for interpretation when it comes to judging the proper size for government. Perhaps we can all agree that, at least in theory, somewhere there is a proper balance between government power and individual/local rights. Exactly where that balancing point should be is the question at hand. It seems to me both you and Nozick are correct to a degree, and the question really resolves itself down to one of where the balancing point should be between two opposite and competing problems.

    Certainly we can’t ignore the poor and needy. At least that’s not something anyone I’ve talked to thinks is an acceptable moral position to hold. But the problems of a bloated and inefficient large government are very real. So what is the answer? I’ve yet to hear anyone come up with a real solution that addresses both these problems. If our leaders were talking about the balancing of competing needs rather than bowing to extreme elements on either side of the debate, we would all be better off in my opinion.

    Finally, one issue that often seems to be conveniently ignored or minimized in these debates is this. Some problems we face are so large that only cooperation at a national, or even a global level are required to address them. Obama Care may work or it may not, but we had been waiting a long time for the private sector to come up with a medical insurance system that worked properly and it failed to do so.

    Environmental issues are also a case in point. And if you don’t like that consider the national highway network, which only the federal government could have arranged at that time in history. It seems to me some people are too quick to dismiss the benefits “large” government can bring if it is managed with some reasonable level of competence.

    I know many don’t consider environmental destruction to be a problem, but in reality the biosphere of our planet is being destroyed at an ever increasing pace as time goes buy. And there is no sign this trend is going to change — it would take an unprecedented level of global cooperation to turn the tide, and I don’t see that happening with the current political climate in Washington and elsewhere.

    If the worst happens, environmentally speaking, the full depth of the consequences won’t be felt for centuries more than likely. But by then it will be too late to fix. Are there any libertarians out there with a solution to this problem?

  2. rationaloptimist Says:

    To answer your final question, one of the problems is that where government DOES act, it too often does the wrong thing. As I have argued, re climate change, attacking it by trying to reduce carbon emissions is the wrong thing. Not that government is actually doing much in that direction; but the right approach would be a combination of a) preparation for adaptation, and b) geo-engineering to recool the planet (which is not being done at all). The Economist had an article recently about geo-engineering options. But that remains heresy to the climate change zealots, who only want to hear about reducing carbon. Problem is: even if we cut carbon emissions to zero tomorrow, temperatures would still rise, and only a little less than otherwise.

  3. Greg Says:

    The ability, or inability, of government to do the right thing is a problem, but the solutions you suggest require government action as much as any other policy designed to address climate change. The only way I can see to get anywhere is to make government work better (which doesn’t mean more government necessarily, just better government).

    Regarding global warming in particular, solution a) is just giving up it seems to me. Solution b) is not practical given our current level of scientific knowledge. I believe the best way to prevent damage to the environment is to change our own behaviour. Our behaviour is one of the few things we actually can control.

    Also, I would point out that environmental problems extend way beyond just the question of climate change. Habitat destruction, species extinction, pollution of the land, water and air, etc., are all related problems that left unchecked will eventually result in dire consequences for the human race.

  4. rationaloptimist Says:

    It’s too late to significantly moderate global warming by changing our behavior.

  5. bruce Says:

    When you complain about what may or not be happening about mankind’s CO2 production, you loose me, I ask where is the problem. Vegetation is happy growing with the benefit of more CO2.
    Weather, no matter what you think, is not worse, if anything it is less dramatic than before. The world’s temp isn’t going up, storms are not more prevalent, seas are not rising (much) and every climate scientist’s model of how we should be seeing weather is laughingly over the top wrong.
    What has happened is science has been blackened by money grubbing minimalists at the behest of Government.
    And here is the heart of the problem, one man feels strongly that energy use has to be throttled and whipped by imposing expensive alternatives. Another person sees the trauma of such planning. But it is only the backroom dealings of government that moves the ball.
    And that ball is only ever moved if it empowers government.

    Greg were you around in the fifties and sixties? The positive movement in pollution and the environment is really quite large.
    Today business goes out of its way to curry favor with the public in environmental actions. I actually see the environment as being a rather bright spot in the western worlds works.

  6. rationaloptimist Says:

    In Greg’s defense, the balance of evidence shows that temperatures are rising, Carbon Dioxide plays a major role in that, and this portends very disruptive consequences for humankind. It is indeed a problem. But I disagree with most environmentalists about what to do. The obsession with cutting emissions is misplaced, because it’s too late. And Greg, that’s not “giving up,” it’s realism.

  7. Greg Says:

    It’s not too late. It may be too late to stop the effects of the pollution we’ve already released, but it’s not to late to stop future emissions and the damage they will cause. And that applies to all environmental issues. We can minimize the damage by stopping destructive behavior as soon as possible.

    To reiterate a point made earlier, destruction of the environment is a long, drawn out process that will take centuries to complete (as long as we don’t decide to nuke the whole planet in the meantime). It is an error to make substantial judgements about the problem just because one feels the last year’s weather wasn’t as bad as some people thought it might be.

    There has been some progress on the environmental preservation front, particularly in the western world, but the actions taken so far are way short of what is necessary to stop the trend of increasing destruction across the entire planet. It’s important to recognize that the environment doesn’t respect national boundaries — what happens in China or elsewhere will eventually affect us too.

    Probably the worst thing to happen to the environmental movement was politicization of the issues. Most of the public discussion you see today on the subject is woefully short on facts and full of misleading anecdotes, opinion and ideology. This has the effect of confusing and obscuring the true issues which is very unfortunate.

    Just so you don’t think I am talking out of my rear end, I will tell you that my college degrees are in Anthropology and Environmental Management. I’ve been studing this subject for more than 40 years and I’m pretty sure what I am saying is accurate. We are talking about the future, even the far-off future, and speaking about that is always fraught with uncertainty. But the trend is clear and we better keep our eyes on where we’re headed.

  8. Edit_XYZ Says:

    Greg, your behaviour is based on alarmistic – and unsupported – prophecies regarding climate change:

    Look up the 2013 IPCC report. Here’s a link to the summary for policymakers:

    Click to access WGI_AR5_SPM_brochure.pdf

    The warming due to CO2 release is determined by the transient climate response, which, in the 2013 IPCC report, is likely
    in the range of 1.0 C to 2.5 C (high confidence) and extremely unlikely greater than 3 C.*

    Based on this TCR, 4 future warming scenarios were outlined, corresponding to different amounts of CO2 emitted (see pg. 25 of the linked report).
    Of these, RCP 8.5 is all but excluded – a huge continuous increase in CO2 emissions is required to even get close to it (don’t believe me? see the worldwide CO2 emissions and then calculate what future emissions would be required to reach RCP 8.5). Such malthusian prophecies never came to pass.

    The IPCC future warming scenarios each have temperature ranges associated with them (pg. 21 of the report). RCP8.5 is the only scenario that has an increase in temperature larger than 3.1 C.

    What will be the consequences of an increase in temperature of 2.5-3 C?
    As it turns out, there’s a peer reviewed paper that summarized all the papers on the subject – up to the date it was published, that is:

    Click to access Tol_impacts_JEP_2009.pdf

    As per the paper, climate change is beneficial up to 2.2 C of warming from 2009 (when R. Tol wrote his paper). This means approximately 3˚C from pre-industrial levels, since about 0.8˚C of warming has happened in the last 150 years. The latest estimates of climate sensitivity suggest that such temperatures may not be reached till the end of the century — if at all. IPCC, whose reports define the consensis, is sticking to older TCR assumptions, however, which would mean net benefits till about 2080.

    What about all the weather disasters caused by climate change? Entirely mythical — so far. The 2013 IPCC report is admirably frank about this, reporting ‘no significant observed trends in global tropical cyclone frequency over the past century … lack of evidence and thus low confidence regarding the sign of trend in the magnitude and/or frequency offloads on a global scale … low confidence in observed trends in small-scale severe weather phenomena such as hail and thunderstorms’.
    In fact, the death rate from droughts, floods and storms has dropped by 98 per cent since the 1920s, according to a careful study by the independent scholar Indur Goklany. Not because weather has become less dangerous but because people have gained better protection as they got richer. For another example, experts now agree that malaria will continue its rapid worldwide decline whatever the climate does.

    Colour me unimpressed.

    And yet, all this doesn’t stop the green movement from advocating measures which will impose extreme poverty upon millions and millions of human beings in order to further their agenda – apparently, the mitigation of the climtate change consequences I described above takes is worth imposing so much misery on the world.
    This mysoginistic attitude would be pathetic if it wasn’t so pernicious.

    *In the recent peer reviewed papers, the TCR is even lower than that.

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