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Tag: robert nozick

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.

Three Versions of Conservatism

Reductionistic Framework Alert!

Since “conservatism” has had such bizarre associations in the United States for a long time now, I thought I’d give brief accounts of the three breeds that I most often think of in connection with the classical sense of conservative (that is, the sense that still has something to do with the meaning of the word).

1. Classic Conservatives

These types are drawn from the political literature of the last few centuries.

a. Elitist Conservative

Firm believer in the natural superiority of a small elite. Worries about the danger of the unwashed masses having too much power, surely leading to chaos and mob rule. Thinks they already have too much power. Dismissive of egalitarian doublespeak such as “rights” and “liberty.” Seeks to vest power in the hands of the enlightened, the cultured, and (of course) the rich. Almost certainly belongs to one of these groups.

Religion: None, but thinks everyone else should go to church.

Worst Fear: Jacobins.

Mascot: Alexander Hamilton. Leo Strauss.

Representative Artist: D.H. Lawrence.

 

b. Sentimental Conservative

Loves their country. Loves their country more than other countries. Sheds a tear for the flag. Embraces the beautiful traditions that make his society what it is. Insists on civility, manners, and respect for one’s betters. Thinks they contribute to the benevolence and stability of the culture. Hates to see the traditional order of things upset by multiculturalism, class mobility, etc. Uses “fireman” instead of “firefighter.” Trusts in the benevolent hand of the upper classes to take care of the lower classes. May use the phrase “white man’s burden” unironically.

Religion: The state’s.

Worst Fear: Minorities and immigrants.

Mascot: Edmund Burke.

Representative Artist: Norman Rockwell.

 

c. Cynical Conservative

Ridicules those who think society can be improved. Believes in the fundamental rottenness of humanity. Jeers at futile attempts to improve our lot. Thinks we’re lucky we have what we do. Wildly inegalitarian. Thinks stereotypes are funny because they’re true. Sees liberals as priggish, humorless idealists chasing rainbows. Certain that things will get worse.

Religion: Are you kidding?

Worst Fear: Political correctness.

Mascot: Thomas Malthus.

Representative Artist: Henry de Montherlant.

 

2. Degenerate Conservatives

Each of the three accounts above can degenerate into a less appealing form under the right circumstances. (E.g., today.) Respectively:

a. Natural-Order Conservative

Enthusiastically embraces the status quo. Believes that things are the way God (or Nature) made them: it’s not only useless to try to change them, it’s wrong and distasteful. Thinks people naturally float to wherever in the great chain of being they belong. Admires the Great Men of history. Looks forward to the slow disappearance of society’s inferiors as Social Darwinism takes hold. Failing that, enjoys the labor provided by these inferiors, especially its surplus value.

Religion: Calvinism.

Worst Fear: Not being one of the elect.

Mascot: William Graham Sumner.

Representative Artist: Thomas Carlyle.

 

b. Paranoid Conservative

Turns to law and order to save them from any and all persecutors. Believes the thin blue line needs to be as thick as possible. Fears the great unwashed, lower-class resentment, and teenagers. Looks to religion, law, and any other socially repressive organization to prevent disaster. Jumps to endorse war with other countries, but worries we aren’t at war with the right countries. Never, ever joins the armed forces. Trusts government, usually.

Religion: Any of the Good ones.

Worst Fear: Too many to mention.

Mascot: Roger Ailes.

Representative Artist: Artists are degenerates, but if you must: H.P. Lovecraft.

 

c. Fatalist Conservative

The most boring of the conservatives, liable to talk your ear off with their endless theories of history and the inevitable future of this or that society. Probably has a dim view of humanity, but this is overshadowed by crankish ideas about what humanity must be at each stage of history. Dismisses activism as attempts to fight indisputable truths. Predicts a grim future because the past was so grim and history repeats.

Religion: Their own.

Worst Fear: Other competing theories of history.

Mascot: Oswald Spengler. Arnold J. Toynbee.

Representative Artist: Artists are mere products of history.

 

Update: Non-conservatives

People say I seem to have left out certain types. Hence this appendix.

Libertarian: I assure you that the Ancien Regime really didn’t give a fig for “individual rights,” much less natural ones. Things don’t seem to have changed that much, leaving real libertarians as eccentrics whose unifying trait is that they never hold any actual power. Some of them are exploited as useful idiots, such as the good people of the Cato Institute, who were thrown to the wind by the Republicans once the Cato folks ceased to agree with them). Didn’t see that coming. See The Libertarian FAQ for further details.

Neocon: Haphazardly invading and occupying small but troublesome countries in order to spread freedom or what have you is not very conservative, and quite expensive to boot. Excusable during the cold war, but not anymore.

Objectivist/Capitalist Utopian: Elitist, yes, but the funny thing about most Objectivists is that they think the world is a meritocracy and the people at the top deserve to be there, so if they work hard enough they’ll get there too, if only the government and bureaucracy didn’t stand in their way. Suckers.

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