David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Brian Barry on Robert Nozick

Here’s something less controversial, courtesy of John Protevi and Lawyers Guns and Money: Brian Barry’s amusing review of Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia, from 1975.

According to the jacket of the book, “Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia is an eagerly awaited book, widely discussed among philosophers long before its publication.” Sound familiar? Yes, but this product of the Harvard Philosophy Department has the added ingredient: outrageousness. “For,” the blurb continues, “it is nothing less than a powerful, philosophical challenge to the most widely held political and social positions of our age-liberal, socialist and conservative.” I have no idea how true the first claim is but the second seems to me demonstrably false. The book’s conclusions are not in the least unusual. They articulate the prejudices of the average owner of a filling station in a small town in the Midwest who enjoys grousing about paying taxes and having to contribute to “welfare scroungers” and who regards as wicked any attempts to interfere with contracts, in the interests, for example, of equal opportunity or anti-discrimination. There will be nothing unfamiliar in the conclusions of the book to those who have read their William F. Buckley or their Senator Goldwater or have ever paid attention to the output of the more or less batty crusades and campaigns financed by wealthy Texans and Californians. The only thing that is new is that these views are being expressed by someone who is a Professor of Philosophy at Harvard.

Finally the intellectual texture is of a sort of cuteness that would be wearing in a graduate student and seems to me quite indecent in someone who, from the lofty heights of a professorial chair, is proposing to starve or humiliate ten percent or so of his fellow citizens (if he recognizes the word) by eliminating all transfer payments through the state, leaving the sick, the old, the disabled, the mothers with young children and no breadwinner, and so on, to the tender mercies of private charity, given at the whim and pleasure of the donors and on any terms that they choose to impose. This is, no doubt, an emotional response, but there are, I believe, occasions when an emotional response is the only intellectually honest one. The concept of a “free fire zone,” for example, could appropriately be the subject of black comedy or bitter invective but not dispassionate analysis. Similarly, a book whose argument would entail the repeal of even the Elizabethan Poor Law must either be regarded as a huge joke or as a case of trahison des clercs, giving spurious intellectual respectability to the reactionary backlash that is already visible in other ways in the United States. My own personal inclination would be to treat the book as a joke, but since it is only too clear that others are prepared to take It seriously, I shall do so as well…..

Nozick’s vision of “utopia” as a situation in which the advantaged reinforce their advantages by moving into independent jurisdictions, leaving the poor and disadvantaged to fend for themselves, could be regarded as the work of a master satirist, since it is in fact merely the logical extension of pathologically divisive processes already well-established in the United States: the flight of the middle classes to the suburbs while the inner city decays from lack of resources, and the growth of “planned communities” for the wealthy aged and other specially selected groups who are able to shed much of the usual social overhead. Unfortunately, there is no sign that Nozick, jokiness personified in other respects, sees this particular joke, but, thanks to the direction given to public policy by Nixon and Ford and their Supreme Court, the American people have an increasing opportunity to enjoy the joke personally.

For all the contemporary echoes, what I find interesting is the particular rhetoric of the time. The caricature of the gas station owner doesn’t seem like anything that anyone would use today (not even Thomas Frank), nor the particular vision of aspects of the social fabric (middle classes fleeing to the suburbs, planned communities for the elderly, etc.). It’s an unapologetically elitist liberalism that really doesn’t exist any longer. I have no nostalgia for it (it’s exactly this sort of attitude that produces bad books like American Pastoral), but it certainly bears examination as to why it ceased to exist: simple explanations like “the 60s” or “the Great Society” or “the end of the Cold War” don’t really cut it. John Searle evokes some of the mystery in an interview he did with libertarian-mag Reason, in the context of discussing his affection for Hayek:

It seems to me that we don’t have what I would call a political philosophy from the middle distance. Let me give you an example. It seems to me the leading sociopolitical event of the 20th century was the failure of socialism. Now that’s an amazing phenomenon if you think about it, because in the middle years of this century, clever people thought there was no way capitalism could survive. When I was an undergraduate at Oxford in the 1950s, the conventional wisdom was that capitalism, because it is so inefficient and so stupid, because there’s not a controlling intelligence behind it, cannot in the long run compete with an intelligently planned economy.

It’s hard today to recover how widely that view was held among serious intellectuals. Very intelligent people thought that in the long run capitalism was doomed, and some kind of socialism was our future. Some people thought it was Marxist socialism, and other people thought we were going to have democratic socialism, but somehow or another it had to be socialism.

Where is it today? It’s dead. Even the European socialist parties, though they still keep the names, are adopting various versions of capitalist welfare states. I would like an intelligent analysis of this, and I can’t find it.

Why did that belief die so spectacularly? I’m not convinced that we even have the apparatus necessary to pose an answer to the question. I think we need a conceptual improvement, and it would be piecemeal. It would be like the additions that Max Weber made when he introduced notions like rationalization, charisma, and all the rest of it.

John Searle in interview

I’d like that too. You have it buried in people like Badiou, but stuff like Hardt/Negri books is pretty weak tea in comparison to what I take to be the gestalt in the period Searle is talking about. You can debate who is and who isn’t a “serious intellectual,” but I think it’s undeniable that the remaining “socialist” faction is very, very marginalized today.


  1. “what I find interesting is the particular rhetoric of the time..”. Brian Barry’s tone and opinions are exactly that of many educated Australians today (we still have a federal and majority of state Labor governments at the moment). We are always amused when we hear Obama, for example, vilified as a socialist, and the views of the gas station owner exactly fit our stereotype of Red State/Tea Party America. If you were nostalgic to hear that rhetoric again, you couldn’t go wrong listening to Phillip Adams http://www.abc.net.au/rn/latenightlive/.

  2. greg lanning

    6 April 2012 at 03:37

    “Red State/Tea Party America”?? What on earth could such a tern truly denote??? Not everyone in a Red (Republican) state belongs to the Tea Party – and not everyone who does belong to it resides in a Red State. Tea-Party members are spread all though America (the real America, not the imaginary subsitute of those who brag of being “always amused.” Forcing together “Red State” and “Tea Party” is as untelligible as jamming together “Rightwing” (which originates with 18th century France) and “Libertarian” (which does not) so as to produce the senseless neologism “Rightwing Libertarian”. The role of the unnamed “gas station owner” remains a mystery,

  3. “The caricature of the gas station owner doesn’t seem like anything that anyone would use today (not even Thomas Frank), nor the particular vision of aspects of the social fabric…”

    I find this remark tremendously puzzling. Certainly for the past thirty years or so we’ve all had to do a lot more genuflecting in front of cranky, tax-bashing gas-station owners and their ilk (the whte ones, anyway) than we did back when Barry was writing. But what’s the deal with this dismissal of Barry’s “vision” of white flight and the institutional abandonment of the elderly. Aren’t these just, like, things that actually did happen?

    • By caricature I meant in a negative sense. There certainly has been tons of recent genuflecting to such types, but blatant caricatured ridicule seems to be fairly verboten in elite circles these days. Not even from Thomas Frank.

      And I didn’t dismiss Barry’s vision. I just said no one talks about it anymore. Which is to say, Nozick won. David Simon bemoans the utter indifference even the liberal elites show to the inner cities today, and he’s right.

Leave a Reply

© 2019 Waggish

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑