I’m sure more than a few of you have seen Slate.com’s article entitled “The Liberty Scam” by Stephen Metcalf. It is a long (and I mean long) “expose” of libertarianism and how it was apparently “abandoned” by its ideological “father” Robert Nozick. Oh, good lord.
I hear a lot of nasty, untrue things about libertarianism. I try to correct those assumptions and falsehoods, as that’s a part of my mission and the mission of this site. But I really resisted responding to Metcalf’s… ideas. Every time I came across Metcalf’s article, the life just drains out of me. I lose the energy to write, to think… to live. My soul is crushed to see that such pure dribble can be published by such a widely read site like Slate.
Take heart, though, because I am not going to leave the post unanswered! Before I do, though, I want to give some of my fellows room to riposte. Here are some claims that Metcalf makes and some good posts showing how they are utterly, factually, incorrect.
1. Metcalf’s claim that Nozick abandoned Libertarianism.
2. Lord Keynes’ comment about ‘the Road to Serfdom’
3. Von Hayek and Von Mises were corporate sellouts.
4. Libertarianism is little more than naked self-interest
5. Why Metcalf’s article is so dangerous. (see last paragraph)
I don’t want to step on the toes of my betters, so I will leave those arguments where they stand. I do want to add two things to this conversation, thought, challenging that libertarianism didn’t exist before the 1970s, and that Robert Nozick was the “father of libertarianism.”
Metcalf’s 1970s claim…
In the second paragraph of his essay, Metcalf makes the following statement:
With libertarianism everywhere, it’s hard to remember that as recently as the 1970s, it was nowhere to be found.
I suppose in one sense, he’s right. The American freedom movement didn’t really get rolling until the 1970s. However, if you’re talking about an “ism,” you’re talking about a set of ideas. Those ideas exist even when they don’t have a name to it. And you know what? The ideas of limited government, essential liberty, and property rights were around LONG before 1970s. It just had a different name.
It was called liberalism.
The basis of American government came from a concentrated group of writers, then known as the liberals, now known as the classical liberals We’re talking John Locke, J.S. Mill, David Hume, among others. All of these guys lived and wrote in the 17th and 18th centuries. To my calculations, that is before 1970. In addition to these radical thinkers, people were writing about classical liberal at the founding of the United States. Mises and Hayek both wrote in the 40s and 50s. Classical liberalism — libertarianism — has been a pervasive and popular way of thinking for far longer than the past forty years. It’s a shame Metcalf fell asleep in that part of school. Or maybe we should just blame the failing education system.
Not My Daddy…
I’ve written before about how I’ve always considered myself to be a libertarian. However, not everyone is so fortunate. They come to liberty much later in life, most of the time inspired by some manner of book, but that book is rarely, if ever, Robert Nozick’s work. Let’s do a test. Which of these two have you heard of:
Fun fact: I own both of these books and have read neither of them.
The point is this: while Metcalf may order dense philosophy books on Amazon and read them in the summer sun, most others don’t. Anarchy, State, and Utopia is one of the more influential philosophical and academic libertarian works. It’s actually said to be the second most influential philosophical text in America, after John Rawls A Theory of Justice.
Atlas Shrugged has a bit of an upper handl. It is said to be the second most influential book in the United States. It’s competitor? The freaking Bible.
Do you see where I’m going here? Ayn Rand’s magnum opus brought more people to libertarianism — in the 70s in particular — than Robert Nozick could ever have dreamed of. That is not to say that all libertarians are Objectivists — most of them wise up to the philosophy before they hit 30. Most of them stay with libertarianism because it makes sense. They come for Rand, stay for, I dunno, logic.
The take-away: Metcalf’s lucky number might be seven, but it certainly wasn’t working for him this time. These are seven huge, gaping errors in his “work” that are simply, factually incorrect. Buddy might want to spend more time doing his homework next time. I highly recommend Google.