Sunday, March 09, 2008

Nozick's Wilt Chamberlain example

Tyler Cowen has written about Nozick's Wilt Chamberlain example over at Marginal Revolution. It's interesting that in 100+ replies, nobody seems to realize the fallacious assumption Nozick makes.

Nozick assumes that claims on Chamberlain's income come from "a third party who had no claim of justice on any holding of the others before the transfer". (ASU p.162) But in the real world, third parties DO have just claims before transfers: they are very common. For example, if Chamberlain had been paying alimony to a wife (he never married), or had faced civil judgements for child support. If the owners of the basketball court or the other players insisted that Wilt be a paid member of the player's union if he wants to perform on that court or with those players. Wilt will not get rich by himself: he needs the cooperation of other people and they will require something for that cooperation.

A social contract such as citizenship is just such a pre-existing claim of justice: Chamberlain was a citizen obligated to obey laws, including laws on taxation. Libertarians frequently whine that citizenship is not voluntary, but that's not true: you can renounce citizenship and/or assume citizenship in other nations. Most US citizens have ancestors who did just that.

All of Nozick's major arguments rely on fallacious assumptions or illusions of logic. For example, the idea that liberty upsets patterns EXCEPT NOZICK'S IDEA OF HISTORICAL JUSTICE. Nozick simply distracts from the fact that property restricts the liberty of others, and that it is only by continuous interference with liberty by very strong coercion that the pattern of property is maintained. Without that continuous coercion, people would assert their liberty to use whatever they wanted.

Nozick's "Whatever arises from a just situation by just steps is in itself just" can fail because of many implied requirements. Perfection of the original situation and the steps is required. Just initial situations are required (an impracticality.) And a demonstration of perfect justice-maintainance of the steps is required: a step may be just without maintaining justice. (This is a big problem: he's making an argument that only looks like mathematical induction without showing the critical step.) For example, if it is just to take a seat on a bus when there is no elderly person present, and it is just for an elderly person to enter the bus after that, but it is not just to remain in the seat after the elderly person has entered. But worse, in real life we can't ever have perfect justice of steps or starting situations. So the question is whether the steps move us closer or further from justice, and where an equilibrium will be reached (if one exists.) The Nozick statement has an implied binary logic model which real life doesn't match. Nozick doesn't begin to address a quantitative model of justice whereby we can state that any one situation is more just than another. Instead, he relies on the kind of "gut feelings" Steven Colbert ridicules so well with his persona.

The rest of Tyler's post is silly: he makes assumptions such as "no one should be forced to part with more than a certain percentage of his or her income". What next, Tyler, going to set the price of gold? Just as Tyler would think the price of gold should be set by a public, social decision-making process (a market), so the taxation rate should be set by another public, social decision-making process (a government.)

But I suspect the silliness is purposeful: to focus attention to the question of what rate is just, and thus slide in the propagandistic framing and assumptions without real discussion. Propaganda works by repetition, and Tyler is making his contribution to the right wing echo chamber. That, and entertaining his claque.


Jeremy said...

Sound critiques - good job. Us libertarians need to be a bit more thoughtful about these things, and make a distinction between a preference and a principle (statists could stand to do the same, matter of fact).

TGGP said...

I don't think it's a fallacious assumption because Nozick is giving a hypothetical situation that is not the real world. You are supposed to assume things in a hypothetical. His point is supposed to be that inequality itself is not objectionable because it can arise from a just situation through just steps (he similarly claimed a state could arise from anarchy, not that it actually had occurred his way rather than Oppenheimer's). Your point about the elderly person was more relevant. As I don't believe in the concept of an objective good or justice at all, I say there's nothing just or unjust about refusing to give your seat up to an elderly person.

Mike Huben said...

Sorry, TGGP, but Nozick explicitly says "For suppose a distribution of one of these non-entitlement conceptions is realized. Let us suppose it is your favorite one..." (ASU p. 160) He isn't just saying "pick a fantasy": he's also allowing the real world. He picks an example that works very well in the real world. Libertarians have long applauded this example as an exhibition of why both the real world and Rawls ideas violate justice.

But to defend it by claiming it is some airy-fairy libertarian utopia where you merely assume away whatever is convenient to make your point is wrong. As he points out on page 163, he's talking about socialist societies in general.

Nicki Brøchner said...

I don’t know if I just misunderstands your critic or if it just because your argument are not thought through. In the first two examples you mentions it could be argued that the man and his ex-wife has an contract that outlines what is owed to the ex-wife in the devoice settlement and there for here claim is just. Also the owner how owns the basketball court do have the right to limit the use of his court to only unionised members, a right other users (players) don’t have. There for I will claim that Chamberlain would not look at those as examples of third persons unjust claims.

Then you claim that Nozick don’t follow true with his arguments and misses some critical step. Well the same argument can be raised against you bus example, because you are lacking the last point justifying why and elderly person has more right to a seat in the bus then any non-elderly person?

Finally when you are comparing what you call the two “social decision-making process” you are continently, not mentoring that the marked as a social decision-making process has a build in correcting mechanism that works almost instantly. But in government the only correcting mechanism you will have to wait a given length of time (typical four years) to correct any inconsistencies.

Anonymous said...

The main problem with arguments like Nozick's is that they assume the conditions in their one, tiny example scenario scale all the way up to the broader society. A moments contemplation shows that this simply isn't the case. For instance, we don't justify warfare with the same criteria on which we prosecute individual criminals.

"Finally when you are comparing what you call the two “social decision-making process” you are continently, not mentoring that the marked as a social decision-making process has a build in correcting mechanism that works almost instantly."

And exactly how do you "correct" the price of gold?

The analogy is apt because the price of gold is arbitrarily decided by impersonal market forces that you have little or no control over as an individual. The logic in both scenarios is the same, you either accept the terms dictated by the social decision making process or abstain from the activity. With gold, you don't purchase it, with taxes, you move to different place more accomodating to your taxation preferences.

Mike Huben said...

Give me:

I think you do misunderstand my argument. Nozick makes a non-real-world assumption: that third parties don't have just claims. I give two examples of how third parties DO have just claims.

My bus example refers to the local buses, which reserve seats for the elderly. You can use the seats, but must surrender them to the elderly. Thus, if you justly take such a seat (because no elderly person is present), and an elderly person boards the bus justly, your occupancy of the seat is now unjust. There have been only just steps, but an unjust situation has arisen.

And finally, I'd agree that both markets and governments have self-correcting mechanisms. And I'd agree that government correction mechanisms are sometimes slower. However, government correction mechanisms can be as fast as market mechanisms when an elected official does something to improve his likelihood of re-election. For example, they could introduce a new bill, change a law, reorganize a department, change a policy: all these can be very rapid. You don't have to have elections to change government behavior: the prospect of the next election is often sufficient.

john said...

Mike, the "two examples" you provide supposedly illustrating how third parties have "just claims" are equally unpersuasive because you yourself don't bother to formulate any "quantitative model of justice whereby we can state that one situtation is more just than another."

Why is it more "just" that Chamberlain be required to pay alimony or child support than to not? Why is it more "just" that he be required to pay money to a players union than to not? Surely the "justice" of such allocations, ex post facto, derive from something more tangible than the obvious fact that Chamberlain "needs the cooperation of other people and will require something for that cooperation." Such nonspecific reasoning is worse than relying on a "gut feeling" -- because it pretends to be something otherwise, when its really not. Actually, it is a good example "propogandist framing and assumptions without real discussion."

You eventually need to muster up the confidence to actually grapple with consequentialist models of distribution, rather than beating the same old tired drum of what is, in essence, a minority libertarian position.

Anonymous said...

"Why is it more "just" that Chamberlain be required to pay alimony or child support than to not? Why is it more "just" that he be required to pay money to a players union than to not?"

Not to speak for Mr. Huben, but "implicit consent" comes to mind.

Mike Huben said...

John, I don't need an alternative quantitative model of justice to show the failings of Nozick's logic with his own assumptions of a qualitative model.

If we assume that there are just pre-existing voluntary agreements such as alimony or just exercises of voluntary participation by others, there's no reason for Nozick to object. But they lead to conclusions that Nozick does not desire.

john said...

Nice dodge. I don't know if Nozick took any formal position on alimony or child-support. I know why you'd pick such examples, though: While not explicity being the product of a contract per se, they occupy that middle-ground between private contractual terms which are circumscribed in virtually every detail by the transacting parties in advance -- and a generalized collection of non-negotiable state-imposed obligations assumed by virtue of a single (or small subset) of transactions like entering marriage or having children. Blur the line between them, and voila!! Theories of political obligation are nothing more than extensions of individual obligation carried over to public areas -- a not so deft attempt to shoehorn political obligation into orthodox theories of contract law with the emphasis being on individual consent. In this case, consent evidenced by the freedom one retains to "renounce citizenship." Give me a freaking break. An institution like taxation cannot be derived from the application of principles of voluntary exchange you see in ordinary contracts.

You make the same gaffe in conflating property with coercive activity - as if the "voluntariness" that exists within a system of governmentally-enforced property rights is illusory because it removes the freedom to pillage. Nozick may certainly not have explicated these trade-offs in a utilitarian fashion, but like all natural law theorists, the roots of his philosophy were ultimately grounded in social efficiency and necessity. Unless you can undermine him on those grounds, you're just engaged in a duel with a couple of invisible swords, where the battle turns on terminology. Terminology like the word "voluntary" - which we see can be so easily perverted by its enemies.

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Anonymous said...

Sorry about that false starts. Third time's the charm.

TC... 2. The right to keep the product of your labor -- money! -- is a big part of autonomy, even though it is not always recognized as such.

Benjamin Tucker would say: The natural wage of labor is the product.


OT but just as a FYI: In your "A Non-Libertarian FAQ" you have a section with "QUOTATIONS POPULAR WITH LIBERTARIAN EVANGELISTS" There is a quote by one "Alexander Fraser Tyler".

You might want to point out it isn't even legit. And no one can be sure if such a person existed. It probably showed up first in Bircheresque material in the 50's.

You can read about it here:

Mike Huben said...


No dodge. If you were familiar with libertarian literature, you'd know that there was a long history of marriage contracts before governments were much involved. And marriage contracts (prenupts) can specify alimony: they do not need to match the default government guidelines.

However, if you want an example without government involvement, imagine that Chamberlain had a booking agent, and that their contract was that the agent got 10% of everything Chamberlain got. That sort of contract is common.

"Give me a freaking break. An institution like taxation cannot be derived from the application of principles of voluntary exchange you see in ordinary contracts."

But of course you're wrong. If I own an apartment building, there's no reason why I couldn't require you to pay an income tax (or any other tax) instead of a rent. Likewise if a nation owns its territory, there's no reason why it couldn't require the same kinds of taxes as a condition of residence. In either case, the basis is enforcement of property rights to control usage of the property. Taxation is no more difficult to derive from property than rents are.

Nozick does not root his theory in social efficiency or necessity. You need read no further than his first sentence of his preface to see the root of his theory: "Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating those rights)."

Nozick's greatest failing is that he does not explain the origin of those rights: he simply presumes them, relying on the kind of "gut feelings" Steven Colbert ridicules so well with his persona. And that is the unscientific, supernatural woo upon which he builds his fairyland. Anyone who looks anthropologically at rights will see that they are human inventions (like contracts) that are enforced by coercion.

The big lie of all natural rights theorists is that this "nonsense on stilts", natural rights, has more existence than any other fairytale.

So undermining Nozick's arguments can legitimately take at least two approaches: first, to show that under his own assumptions his conclusions are false, and second to show that his assumptions are clearly false.

As for your ludicrous "freedom to pillage", we can counter with property rights giving you a freedom to kill trespassers. But for a nice, historical example of how property rights can be harmful, consider the Inclosure Acts.

john said...

Mike, the problem here is that in your zeal to declare Nozick conceptually incoherent, you attack him on linguistic grounds - not emprical ones. Witness this absurd contention:

"if a nation owns its territory, there's no reason why it couldn't require the same kinds of taxes as a condition of residence. In either case, the basis is enforcement of property rights to control usage of the property. Taxation is no more difficult to derive from property than rents are."

Wrong. Private property explains how individual things can be reduced to private ownership while preserving common property. Contracts explain how property (or labor) can be exchanged. The question of what a citizen owes the state cannot be explained by resort to these principles. Nobody (except you, apparently) honestly believes that the requisite consent of millions upon millions of disparate people - past, present, future - has been, or could be, collected for every political program in whose name they are invoked. To claim otherwise by your reasoning saps terms like "property," or "coercion" of any analytical or moral use. The mere fact that you would cite the "Inclosure Acts" as an example of "property rights" is a telling symptom of this delusion in that it ties the concept of "property" to nothing more or less than forcible exclusion. I doubt you've ever bothered to ponder the totalitarian implications of such reasoning. But of course you wouldn't, since that analysis would be outside your self-described mission.

I'm not defending "natural rights", but at the end of the day, the rationale you use to tear it down is far worse.

Mike Huben said...

It's fun to watch you squirm and wiggle unsuccessfully, John.

You merely declare that property must be "private" so that a government cannot do what any landlord can. That's an easy fallacy to see through.

You claim that I "attack him [Nozick] on linguistic grounds - not emprical [sic] ones." Sorry, but if I use the same techniques Nozick uses to show how Nozick's argument fails, you cannot fault my technique without faulting Nozick as well.

And of course it is funny how you keep switching to new arguments when I present obvious counterexamples to your earlier arguments, such as a booking agent. No admission that you were wrong, or even acknowledgment that I brought it up. That's a weak debate tactic of fundamentalists, whether they are Xians or libertarians.

And then you get into grandiose claims that show how truly ignorant you are. "Nobody (except you, apparently) honestly believes that the requisite consent of millions upon millions of disparate people - past, present, future - has been, or could be, collected for every political program in whose name they are invoked." Read Locke: whether he is correct or not, millions have believed his argument.

Your rant about the Inclosure Acts is not really an argument at all: it is merely ad-hominem name calling with no explanation of why it is right or wrong.

Face it, you're incapable of making a coherent argument. You haven't successfully rebutted a single one of my points.

john said...

Mike, you can be difficult to follow because, in my view, you are deliberately cryptic. I didn't respond to your "argument" about "booking agents" because, to be frank, I hadn't the slightest clue as to what line of argument I had advanced to which you were offering a rebuttal. I still don't.

As far as I can tell, though, the gist of your analysis is that Nozick's reasoning fails on a conceptual level: There is no difference between the "social" contract and ordinary contracts one would find in a market because in both instances, the individual willingly consents to certain impositions and gets something in return. Similarly, private property is only made possible by the coercive acts of the state in a manner that is logically indistinguishable from trespass. Nozick doesn't get to arbitrarily "pick & choose" which set of impositions he prefers -- they all rest on the same foundations and there is no logical distinction to be drawn between those he likes and those he doesn't.

The reasoning is so counterintuitive that it literally goes nowhere. I suspect you picked it up browsing through some pop-marxist hagiography of Robert Hale or G.A. Cohen's "Self-Ownership, Freedom & Equality."

But, even articulating the positions of those smarter than you doesn't excuse blurring the lines between the level of individual discretion that attends ordinary marketplace transactions -- where and to shop, what car/house to purchase, what to watch on television, etc. -- with every hypothetical and obscure political arrangement imaginable. Locke certainly didn't. His theory of "social contract" was philosophically true to the concept, in that forced transfers of legal rights are only justified if they create the same positive sum-game results upon which voluntary agreements are modeled. But he never took the view that the modicum of individual consent to every governmental imposition imaginable can be adequately equated with a marketplace contractual regime just because someone (may) retain the freedom to declare his independence, jump in the Atlantic Ocean and start swimming for Greenland. Similarly, Nozick's defense of property or liberty cannot be sufficiently undermined because it leaves robbers and rapists worse off as a consequence. By that silly, stupid standard, there is no fundamental difference between Stalinist work camps and the "coercive" arrangement of a laissez-faire marketplace.

I have my problems with Nozick, but your argument (sorry, the arguments you've adopted from others) is nothing more than a vacant illustration of the conceptual shortfalls of pure libertarian theory. It goes on to do absolutely nothing to justify any "anti-libertarian" system of distribution on its own substantive terms. As I said earlier, that's outside your "mission," which pretty much makes your "critique" meaningless.

Now, for your own sake...please run along.

Mike Huben said...

John is such a one-trick pony.

As I wrote before:

"... what we have here in John is simply a sophist in the modern sense.

No matter what you write, if it isn't exactly the way he wants it said, with exactly the definitions he claims are relevant, you are "articulating both the obvious and unintentionally reiterating your complete and utter lack of knowledge".

If you use different vocabulary in an attempt to explain, it's an opportunity for him to complain that you are supplanting and conflating and "simply DON'T KNOW the first thing about either".

If you disagree with him, "you have no business pretending to write about political theory".

Indeed, there is only one way to grapple with such diseased rhetorical pomposity: ridicule it.

Look, it's obvious that his every attempt to claim intellectual dominance is based on feeble rhetorical fallacies. He's compensating for something embarassing, though his arguments are embarassing enough. He adopts Humpty Dumpty's position on the meaning of the word dichotomization, and expects us to take him seriously?

You'll also notice that he doesn't stand behind his arguments enough to reveal his real identity. All he deserves at this point is a good horse laugh."

Give it up, John. You're simply convincing people to distrust whatever arguments you make.

john said...
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Mike Huben said...

I'm adopting a moderation policy like Boing Boing's Moderation Policy because I'm just not as willing to spend time arguing with folks like John. I was amazed at Dan Schneider's willingness to engage him in January.

Deletion isn't my favorite resort, but there's no easy way to disemvowel.

Doubtless John will whine about this, but the Boing Boing message explains reasonable behavior clearly enough. And thus I won't be provoked to violate the rules either.

Anonymous said...

I can't find the connection between Nozick's argument and the point you're trying to make.

Nozick's argument, as I understand it, is that any pattern-based distribution model will require constant interference (with its consequent effects on supply of a good or service such as Chamberlain playing basketball) to maintain the pattern. How does a third party claim have any effect on that?

The idea of third parties having claims not only seems irrelevant to the argument, but it seems that such third party claims would be subject to the same interference needed to produce the desired pattern of distribution, nullifying the usefulness of such claims.

Anonymous said...

It should be pointed out that your bus example ignores the step where the injustice occurs. If we assume it's just to give up your seat for an elderly person, the unjust act is the failure to give up your seat.

Mike Huben said...

vogateer, steps happen sequentially. Inbetween them is when there is justice or injustice. When I take the seat, afterwards there is justice. When the elderly person boards, afterwards there is injustice unless and until step 3, which is my leaving the seat.

Mind you, this is quite applicable to the standard Lockean proviso as well, the idea that privatization is ok as long as they leave "enough and as good in others." As soon as price develops for land, that proviso no longer holds, and so injustice exists. If we agree that the injustice exists until I get up on the bus, then it also exists by the Lockean proviso in the real world as long as landowners don't "get up".

Unknown said...

Would you consider not arriving at the principle of transfer if you would properly employed the method of reflective equilibrium? If so how?

Mike Huben said...

Sorry, but I don't understand your point.

Alex said...

Dude, your critique is hopelessly flawed.
1. Yes, third parties do have claims, but not on all your money. Some of it you can give freely. Hence, your point misses its mark.
2. It's not whining, citizenship is not voluntary. There are no places you would want to live that don't make you a citizen. Sure you can change to another one, but you're still a citizen - it's like being given a choice of method of execution. Sure, the electric chair is voluntary, but death still ensues when you choose the guillotine.
3. Nozick's idea of historical justice is not a pattern because it can be anything. Whatever happens to have happened. Of course there are restrictions on liberty, but that's ok, so long as they're minimal, which is what Nozick proposes.
4. No, a step cannot be just without maintaining justice. You're trying to impose a Nozickian just step on a non-Nozickian concept of a just situation. Don't do that.
5. The just starting position is to illustrate the flaw in Rawl's reasoning. It's not meant to be practical, in fact, the point is that it isn't practical - why would Nozick want to defend something he's presenting a counterexample to.
6. It's fine to apply binary logic to real life if you make the two 'bits' broad enough, which Nozick does exceptionally well.
7. Gut feelings and intuitions are exceptionally useful: anyone who ridicules them is trying to undermine an important philosophical method which is really not helpful.
So basically, Nozick wins. He's right. You're wrong. Unlucky mate.

PaintingWithNumbers said...


Choosing citizenship is quite different from choosing one's method of execution. France is said to have a very good quality of life - much better than other countries, I am told. So choice of citizenship is meaningful.

In contrast, I am reliably informed that Death, however one chooses to arrive at it, is not a good place. Choosing how one gets there is not particularly significant. The means of arriving are different but the destination is identical.