Text 11 May 10 notes Academia: Why Nozick & Not Rothbard

"…Naturally, Rothbard’s anarchism appeared threatening to all statists, and his right-wing—that is, private-property—anarchism in particular could not but offend socialists of all stripes. However, his anarchistic conclusions were not sufficient to explain the neglect of The Ethics of Liberty by academia. Rothbard’s first handicap was compounded by an even weightier one. Not only had he come to unorthodox conclusions, worse, he had reached them by pre-modern intellectual means. Instead of suggesting, hypothesizing, pondering, or puzzling, Rothbard had offered axiomatic arguments and proofs. In the age of democratic egalitarianism and ethical relativism, this constituted the ultimate academic sin: intellectual absolutism, extremism, and intolerance.

     The importance of this second methodological factor can be illustrated by contrasting the reception accorded to Rothbard’s The Ethics of Liberty on the one hand and Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia[12] and on the other. Nozick’s book appeared in 1974, three years after the publication of Rawls’s A Theory of Justice. Almost overnight Nozick was internationally famous, and to this day, in the field of political philosophy Anarchy, State, and Utopia ranks probably second only to Rawls’s book in terms of academic recognition. Yet, while Rawls was a socialist, Nozick was a libertarian. In fact, Nozick was heavily influenced by Rothbard. He had read Rothbard’s earlier Man, Economy, and State, Power and Market, and For A New Liberty,[13] and in the acknowledgments to his book he noted that “it was a long conversation about six years ago with Murray Rothbard that stimulated my interest in individualist anarchist theory.” To be sure, the conclusions arrived at by Nozick were less radical than those proposed by Rothbard. Rather than reaching anarchistic conclusions, Nozick’s

main conclusions about the state are that the minimal state, limited to the narrow functions of protection against force, theft, fraud, enforcement of contracts, and so on, is justified; that any more extensive state will violate persons’ rights not to be forced to do certain things, and is unjustified; and that the minimal state is inspiring as well as right.[14]

     Nonetheless, in claiming “that the state may not use its coercive apparatus for the purpose of getting some citizens to aid others, or in order to prohibit activities to people for their own good or protection”,[15] even Nozick’s conclusions placed him far outside the political-philosophical mainstream. Why, then, in distinct contrast to the long-lasting neglect of Rothbard’s libertarian the Ethics of Liberty, the stupendous academic success of libertarian Anarchy, State, and Utopia? The answer is method and style.

     Rothbard was above all a systematic thinker. He set out from the most elementary human situation and problem—Crusoe-ethics—and then proceeded painstakingly, justifying and proving each step and argument along the way to increasingly more complex and complicated situations and problems. Moreover, his prose was characterized by unrivaled clarity. In distinct contrast, Nozick was a modern unsystematic, associationist, or even impressionistic thinker, and his prose was difficult and unclear. Nozick was explicit about his own method. His writing, he stated, was

in the mode of much contemporary philosophical work in epistemology and metaphysics: there are elaborate arguments, claims rebutted by unlikely counterexamples, surprising theses, puzzles, abstract structural conditions, challenges to find another theory which fits a specified range of cases, startling conclusions, and so on… . One view about how to write a philosophy book holds that an author should think through all of the details of the view he presents, and its problems, polishing and refining his view to present to the world a finished, complete, and elegant whole. This is not my view. At any rate, I believe that there also is a place and a function in our ongoing intellectual life for a less complete work, containing unfinished presentations, conjectures, open questions and problems, leads, side connections, as well as a main line of argument. There is room for words on subjects other than last words.[16]

     Methodologically then, Nozick and Rothbard were poles apart. But why would Nozick’s unsystematic ethical “explorations” find so much more resonance in academia than Rothbard’s systematic ethical treatise, especially when their conclusions appeared to be largely congruent? Nozick touched upon the answer when he expressed the hope that his method “makes for intellectual interest and excitement.”[17] But this was at best half of the answer, for The Ethics of Liberty, too, was an eminently interesting and exciting book, full of examples, cases, and scenarios from the full range of everyday experiences to extreme—life-boat—situations, spiced with many surprising conclusions, and above all solutions instead of merely suggestions to problems and puzzles.

     Nozick’s method rather made for interest and excitement of a particular kind. Rothbard’s The Ethics of Liberty consisted essentially of one successively and systematically drawn out and elaborated argument, and thus required the long sustained attention of its reader. However, a reader of Rothbard’s book could possibly get so excited that he would not want to put it down until he had finished it. The excitement caused by Anarchy, State, and Utopia was of a very different kind. The book was a  series of dozens of disparate or loosely jointed arguments, conjectures, puzzles, counterexamples, experiments, paradoxes, surprising turns, startling twists, intellectual flashes, and razzle-dazzle, and thus required only short and intermittent attention of its reader. At the same time, few if any readers of book likely will have felt the urge to read it straight through. Instead, reading Nozick was characteristically done unsystematically and intermittently, in bits and pieces. The excitement stirred by Nozick was intense, short, and fleeting; and the success of Anarchy, State, and Utopia was due to the fact that at all times, and especially under democratic conditions, there are far more high time-preference intellectuals—intellectual thrill seekers—than patient and disciplined thinkers.[18]

     Despite his politically incorrect conclusions, Nozick’s libertarianism was deemed respectable by the academic masses and elicited countless comments and replies, because it was methodologically non-committal; that is, Nozick did not claim that his libertarian conclusions proved anything. Even though one would think that ethics is—and must be—an eminently practical intellectual subject, Nozick did not claim that his ethical “explorations” had any practical implications. They were meant to be nothing more than fascinating, entertaining, or suggestive intellectual play. As such, libertarianism posed no threat to the predominantly social-democratic intellectual class. On account of his unsystematic method—his philosophical pluralism—Nozick was “tolerant” vis-à-vis the intellectual establishment (his anti-establishment conclusions notwithstanding).

He did not insist that his libertarian conclusions were correct and, for instance, socialist conclusions were false and accordingly demand their instant practical implementation (that is, the immediate abolition of the democratic welfare state, including all of public tax-funded education and research). Rather, libertarianism was, and claimed to be, no more than just an interesting thought. He did not mean to do any real harm to the ideas of his socialist opponents. He only wanted to throw an interesting idea into the democratic open-ended intellectual debate, while everything real, tangible, and physical could remain unchanged and everyone could go on with his life and thoughts as before.”

         — Hans-Hermann Hoppe

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