Justin Jacoby Smith is an organizer, web geek, Buddhist, and poet.

.@mattyglesias & @normative (& infinitesimal me) on the metcalf/nozick hubbub

  For my design-oriented readers, excuse the foray into philosophy (or don't: what's design if not an opportunity to iterate philosophy?)--I can't resist jumping into the fray when there's a ruckus on the internet over one of my hazily-remembered ur-texts.  People are going rightfully crazy over Stephen Metcalf's terrible article  arguing (based on a single quotation from one section of one book in the 80s) that Robert Nozick eventually repudiated Anarchy, State & Utopia.

Matt Yglesias took Nozick's seminar on the Russian Revolution just before Nozick's death, and so it's with some weight of authority that he comes to Metcalf's kinda-sorta defense:

 By the time I was in his class, the kind of libertarian writers Nozick was assigning were Hayek, Friedman, and Von Mises. And though these guys are certainly libertarian in the ordinary language sense, there’s no philosophical gap between them and modern liberals. Keynes said he thought The Road To Serfdom features bunk economics, but “morally and philosophically, I find myself in agreement with virtually the whole of it.” Conversely, Milton Friedman has strongly anti-statist views about economics but on an ethical level always conceded the righteousness of income redistribution via a negative income tax, precisely the sort of policy whose philosophical underpinnings Anarchy, State, and Utopia was meant to undermine.

As much as I like the idea of a Nozick that recognizes ethical obligations to a community, CATO research fellow Julian Sanchez takes pains to point out that no matter who Nozick had Matt reading in class, in his last writing on the ethical underpinnings of his thinking Nozick may have actually become more extreme. He quotes from 2001's Invariances (emphases, line breaks & elisions mine):

The different levels of ethics have a different status. The ethics of respect [...] is the one part (I think), that is (that should be) mandatory across all societies.

The further ethical levels are matters of personal choice or personal ideal. Even if these further levels are not mandatory for all societies, some particular society may attempt to make one or another of these further levels [requiring affirmative assistance to others, caring and love, and embodiment of various spiritual ideas] mandatory within it, punishing those members of the society who deviate or fall short.

I also believe—this is an additional component of my own position, presented in Anarchy, State, and Utopia—that no society should take this further step. All that any society should (coercively) demand is adherence ot the ethics of respect. The further levels should be matters for a person’s own individual choice and development.

Ol Bobby Noz sure did love his parentheses.

Matt shrugs that you can't really do much in terms of policy with the abstracted ethical gestures Nozick is making here.

And he's right, you can't--and that's exactly the point. When you don't want anything to be said, there's nothing to say.