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Just deserts

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.

14 comments to Just deserts

  • Eddie Willers

    “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”

    Verily, Diana Moon-Glampers walks among us!

  • David James Roberts

    The Handicapper General a short story by Kurt Vonnegut Jr ridicules in an entertaining way the idea of forcing people to be equal. Whenever this topic is discussed, in my mind an image appears of a middle aged lady in a tweed suit carrying a double barrelled shotgun.

  • Miv Tucker

    Mr Roberts just beat me to it, but the story’s actually called Harrison Bergeron.

    Thank you.

  • No question that Nozick’s “Anarchy, State, and Utopia” (“ASU”) is a seminal work, and it certainly has place of prominence on my bookshelf. His thought, I expect, will ultimately stand the test of time and rank up there near the top of 20th-century political philosophers. I doubt that Fried will warrant a much more than a footnote (if that). Playing devil’s advocate, however, libertarians do need to address a vexing issue that arises with arguments similar to Fried’s – to wit, how are we to deal with those of lesser ability?

    The Wilt Chamberlain argument evokes a sense of outrage in people when they are confronted with the possibility that their own natural talents might be enslaved to the needs of the community (the proverbial “by each according to their ability”). This is why it is easy to ridicule (and defeat) arguments such as those presented by Fried.

    But what about the flip side? What about the sense of outrage that people feel when they are confronted with the possibility that they are enslaved by their own dearth of talents or abilities within the community? That fear (which really is what Fried should have focused on) would suggest that Wilt Chamberlain, because of his excess of natural talents, ought to consider himself obliged to share himself with the least fortunate, so that they can be drawn upward toward a common denominator (the proverbial “to each according to their needs”). Nozick, believe it or not, agrees – it is simply the mechanism that Nozick advocates to achieve this end that makes ASU so interesting. An able response (in my opinion, of course, though I suspect it is shared by many here) to the coercive redistribution advocated by Fried and ilk.

    No spoiler here, but Nozick’s great contribution to libertarianism is that he (successfully, and surprisingly even to Nozick himself) rises to the challenge in ASU. Do read it…

  • Moshe

    On seeing the names “Fried” and “Friedman” I looked up Nozick and was amused to see that this is apparently a intra-tribal spat.

  • Mark Friedman

    Hi Johnathan,
    Thanks for noticing my blog and mentioning my book “Nozick’s Libertarian Project: An Elaboration and Defense.” And, thanks for drawing my attention to your excellent blog, which I will surely return to. The hardcover version is very expensive, and is directed to academic libraries (I get a tiny percentage of the proceeds). The paperback edition is due out in September. I suggest anyone wishing to read it before then to ask their local library to order a copy for them. Best wishes, your comrade in arms, Mark Friedman.

  • veryretired

    The commenter above looks at the “Wilt Chamberlain” question and falls victim to the common error so often used to mutilate reality regarding this issue.

    This error is placing the talented person or persons in a vacuum, disconnected from others in society, and somehow reaping all the rewards realized from their talent to the exclusion of everyone else.

    No wonder, then, that there is resentment and a feeling of entitlement by the less talented, and their self-appointed philosophical advocates, that someone might have drawn a winning number in life’s lottery.

    But Chamberlain didn’t play basketball by himself, soaking up millions for his own evil, selfish purposes, and never providing any part of it for anyone else. He was part of an enormous undertaking, involving hundreds or thousands of other athletes, and thousands more employed as support persons in various capacities.

    Suppose Chamberlain never existed. Suppose by some quirk that no one ever grew so large, or had such extraordinary athletic abilities. How would the NBA have ever developed as it did, if everyone was just the same in height and talents?

    Who would pay for expensive tickets to see a bunch of guys play ball no better than any pick up group at the local YMCA?

    And more, what would the thousands of support employees, from coaches and general managers to janitors and popcorn vendors, have done for employment?

    Transfer the example to Steve Jobs. Was he very talented? Way above the average person? Yes, in many ways he was like Chamberlain, only with electronics.

    But, while he amassed an enormous fortune, how many other people were carried along with him as he drove to accomplish his goals? How many families were fed and housed and educated because their parents worked as custodians or security persons or software writers or groundkeepers at an Apple facility?

    The egalitarians claim the right to share in the earnings of the talented because they, or their clients, are unable to match the talent or the earnings.

    But talent rewards all who come in contact with it.

    If Sam Walton was a genius at merchandizing, didn’t he share that talent with the hundreds of thousands of people who live and work each day thanks to his efforts?

    Isn’t their share already paid by every morsel of food they provide for themselves and their families? Every night spent warm and safe in a decent house or apartment? Every pleasant vacation? Every classroom his children walk into? Or every continuing education course she is able to take to improve her own skills, or just for personal development?

    Those with great gifts are often portrayed as shooting stars, out there in space, flashing over those of lesser talents, and forever removed from their world.

    The reality is much less flashy, much less removed from the lives of the rest of us.

    The supremely talented, at least those who use their genius for creative endeavors, are not stars blazing through the heavens, but locomotives pulling freight right here on earth.

    They are the engines which have advanced humanity from following dumbly behind some plowhorse day after day, just as their ancestors had from time immemorial, to men and women who can drive to work in an air-conditioned car, enter a climate controlled building, and make a good living sitting in front of a little glowing screen that can reach the farthest corner of the earth in a fraction of a second.

    The world we live in is the creation of people with creative minds and a vision which they will not allow to be denied.

    Those of us lesser mortals merely catch a ride on the train.

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    Barbaric Fraud and other socialists should have a new description- isophilists, people who love equality as an absolute. They probably wish we were all clones- then socialism and communism might work!

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Veryretired – absolutely spot-on, as usual.

  • Lee Moore

    This topic is dealt with very fully in Chapter 6 of the Constitution of Liberty.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Lee, I know. In my view, it is Hayek’s best book. He destroys the idea that “we” (ie, the state) should or could reward people for “merit”, by pointing out that no state could have the data to judge this, and even if it could, the consequences would be totalitarian.

    People talk about meritocracy as a good thing, but fail to understand the full implications sometimes.

  • Ernie G

    Nozick’s Libertarian Project: An Elaboration and Defense is indeed expensive, at $92.00, according to a Google search. The Kindle edition is just $14.82, though.

  • Lee Moore

    Yes indeed. Hayek can be quite hard work for the lazy reader, such as myself. But occasionally he produces something fairly pithy, and this excerpt seems right on the button. Having earlier defined merit in terms of what we think is morally praiseworthy – ie how much effort and sacrifice we willingly endure for our fellow man – he offers this summary :

    “The fact is, of course, that we do not wish people to earn the maximum of merit, but to achieve a maximum of usefulness at a minimum of pain and suffering and therefore a minimum of merit. Not only would it be impossible for us to reward all merit justly, but it would not even be desirable that people should aim chiefly at earning a maximum of merit.”

  • Paul Marks

    Yes JP.

    The “merit” thing is a trap/

    For example it allowed the French Revolutionaries to, at first glance, produce documents that look very pro private property – but, when one looks at them closely, allow the state to rob (and kill) as it pleases.

    How? The – merit dodge. You do not “deserve” your property, and your resistance to being robbed (or the possibility you might seek revenge at a later date) means we have to…..

    All for the good of the people.