Robert Nozick, the Harvard philosophy professor who helped to put libertarian ideas into the academic realm – much to the horror of his peers – has been dead for just over 10 years. (He died in January, 2002). His book, Anarchy, State and Utopia is one of those works, like Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty, that I dip into regularly, for its sometimes mind-bending intellectual puzzles and thought experiments. And he made people angry. Very angry, in fact. I remember reading a rather shabby item about him by someone called Barbara Fried, who took particular exception to Nozick’s famous “Wilt Chamberlain” thought experiment. This is the one where people all start off with the same amount of wealth in an egalitarian community. Along comes Wilt (basketball star); people are willing to pay to see him play, and as a result, Mr C. ends up very wealthy, from free, uncoerced exchange. To keep an egalitarian pattern, Nozick points out, a state would have to use its coercive tax power to keep taking from someone like Chamberlain. In other words, as he put it, a socialist state would have to ban capitalist acts between consenting adults. It is one of the best one-liners in political philosophy.
And Fried’s reply is to suggest that because the Wilt Chamberlains of this world do not “deserve” their physical or mental endowments, then therefore – voila! – the “community” or suchlike is entitled to seize this “undeserved” portion of the earnings that people have paid to say, a tall, agile basketball player. (Of course, it is impossible to work out, on this sort of argument, what portion of a person’s earnings/wealth is deserved or not).
I can immediately see what is objectionable about this argument. First of all, if I do not “deserve”, say, my physical talents, or benefit from other, external factors such as the existence of popular team sports, large stadiums, and the like, I can also say that fans of basketball do not, by the same sort of logic, “deserve” the existence of brilliant sportsmen and women who spend hours practising their sports. In any event, when we come into this world with our DNA and our background environment from our parents and others, this is not something that we “deserve” or “undeserve”. It is just is. We start off with certain things and attributes; it is what we choose to do with those things that matters. Or put it another way: when we talk about people “deserving” something, very often we look at our fellows as if there is some God who sits in judgement on us, deciding who is singled out to get X or Y, and whether we make the “most” of whatever has been “given” to us by some sort of Creator. In truth, an enormous amount of what is meant by this sort of “deservingness” ethics borrows from the religious idea that our talents, skills and wealth are in some sense given to us by a creator of some kind.
Anyway, Nozick has a doughty defender, in the form of Mark Friedman, who has recently published an excellent book about Nozick. I should add that the book is effing expensive so I’ll wait to read it in a library or for when the paperback comes out. He deals with Fried (yup, that is how her named is spelled), here on his own website. . . As an example of intellectual demolition and controlled anger, Friedman’s essay is excellent.
Update: here is another strong critique, via the Reason Papers, of how Barbara Fried tries to argue that a person, like the Wilt Chamberlain of the Nozick example, benefits from some sort of unjust “surplus value” (rather akin to the Marxian use of that term). Those who use the term seem to be making the elemental mistake of assuming that there is some “intrinsic” measure of what something, or some piece of human labour (like playing basketball) is worth. This is rather like the old idea of Medieval scholastics who imagined there was a “just” price for things and labour. (It is sobering to realise how long such old ideas can endure). But this is a nonsense. Surely, the marginalist school of economics has taught us that the price of a thing or service is what people are willing to pay or sell it for, nothing more or less. And remember, if a Wilt Chamberlain does, as a result of his allegedly “undeserved” talents, become very rich, then the people paying him the money to see him play are happy to do so. It is, as such, a positive sum game. They were not forced to see him play; and in a competitive marketplace, if people really became disgusted at the high earnings of talented people, they could spend their money differently.
As mentioned in the comment thread to this article, if we start to insist people get paid for what their labour and services are “intrinsically worth”, it is a dead end. This is mysticism: there is no such thing. Of course, we all sometimes gasp in horror when we see an item worth so much money that we say, “God, there is no way that hunk of rubbish is worth that!”, and I fully understand that reaction. But unlike Barbara Fried or other redistributionists, I don’t consider it right to confiscate in this case. It simply does not follow at all.
I came across the Fried argument, originally, when reading this book, Justifying Intellectual Property, by Robert Merges. It is quite a good book, but it has several flaws, not least a fairly uncritical appreciation of the egalitarianism of John Rawls, and it also approvingly cites the Fried attack on Nozick, while also approvingly writing of the idea that it is possible to measure if someone “deserves” to get a certain share for his/her work. It is, nevertheless, an engagingly written attempted defence of IP. I don’t think it is going to persuade the hard-core anti-IP crowd, though, but it is one of the more interesting attempts at defending IP out there.