Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Metcalf Scam

Stephen Metcalf over at Slate writes an article called, The Liberty Scam. It is, you guessed, an attack on libertarianism, or at least he thinks it is. .

When I first read it, if I wasn't aware that the piece was written at Slate, I would have thought it was an Onion parody of an attack on libertarianism. I literally broke up laughing and slapping my thigh at many spots in the article.

Let's start right at the top, the subtitle to Metcalf's piece calls the late Harvard professor Robert Nozick "the philosophical father of libertarianism". And indeed if you read Metcalf's article that is exactly the impression you get. But what did libertarians think about Nozick's book on libertarianism at the time it was published? Well, they thought it was great that Nozick was carrying the libertarian banner into elitist Harvard, and had a good laugh over the fact that leftists were trying to figure out what was going on with a Harvard prof spouting somewhat libertarian positions, but that was about the beginning and end of Nozick in the serious libertarian movement.

In April 1975, in Libertarian Forum, Murray Rothbard, who could lay some claim to being the "father of libertarianism" called Nozick's book, Anarchy, State and Utopia, "quasi-libertarian".

In the December 1975 issue of Libertarian Forum, Rothbard wrote (bold in original):
While Nozick's book has aided the libertarian cause externally, it plays no such role within the movement...
Rothbard, who was editor of Libertarian Forum, then published critiques of Nozick's book by three different libertarians. In one of those critiques, Roy Childs wrote:
If they [those who uphold the doctrine of human liberty] have been cheered by the reception given the book, and to the new concern of portions of the intellectual establishment with Libertarianism, they have not been equally cheered by the content of the book itself.
In short, amongst libertarian thinkers of Nozick's time, Nozick was seen as something akin to a suicide bomber. He blew up a bomb inside the establishment, but his service began and ended with that bomb.

Nozick, philosophical father of the libertarian movement? I don't think so.
Metcalf does nothing more than pick up some of the shrapnel from the Nozick bomb and calls it the foundation of libertarianism. This is, of course, the main problem with Metcalf's hit piece. But I must point to another absurdity in his article. He writes:
...between them, Von Hayek and Von Mises never seem to have held a single academic appointment that didn't involve a corporate sponsor.
The implication being that Mises and Hayek were paid shills of corporate America. This is an outrageous implication. They didn't hold academic appointments precisely because they refused to sell out to Keynesian thinking, which back then, and now,  justifies central bank money pumping and bailouts of elitists bankers. Many of Mises students and acquaintances received prestigious appointments, such as Fritz Machlup, Gottfired Haberler, Oscar Morgenstern and Joseph Schumpeter. But they all, to one degree or another, sung at least one Keynesian note to gain their appointments. Only Hayek stood proudly next to his teacher and ended up in the same position, without a major appointment. (Hayek was even refused entry into the economics department at the University of Chicago and only found a position at U of C in the Committee on Social Thought. )

Mises and Hayek would have jumped at positions at Harvard or other major universities, if they were offered. Those positions were simply not available to them.  Does Metcalf seriously think that Mises wrote Human Action for the benefit of corporate elite, when the book calls for the elimination of all special priviliges from government to corporate elite?

In most of the rest of Metcalf's article, he critiques parts of Nozick that no libertarian would support in the first place and never did, even when the book first came out.

The real scam here is Metcalf associating Nozick with the beginning and end of libertarianism. At best, Nozick is a footnote in libertarian history that can be used to gingerly irritate the Metcalf's of the world. They are still obsessing over the guy, even though no serious libertarian thinks the guy's views are thorough or complete.


  1. If I recall my history correctly, didn't Mises write Human Action while in exile from the Nazis in Switzerland. Mises' story is truly a triumph of human courage.

    What convinced me most about Mises and Hayek was their foresight and correct predictions about socialism, so much so, they knew the true mendacity of the Third Reich back when Americans and Time magazine were lauding Hitler.

  2. Mises wrote an early version of "Human Action" in Switzerland under the title "Nationalkonomie". Mises expanded it into "Human Action" while he was living in the United States.

  3. Dear me...academic appointments are proof of freedom from corporate sponsorship?

    Aside from the hundreds of fellowships, scholarships, work programs, endowed chairs, foundations, donations, and bequests that prove the academy is thoroughly dominated by corporate (and state) interests, doesn't Mr. Metcalf realize that universities themselves ARE corporations?

    It truly frightens and depresses me that the aspirations of billions of struggling people world over are ultimately filtered through the dishonesty, ignorance, and arrogance of the media in the Anglosphere.

    Talk about intellectual imperialism.

  4. One common thread that runs through leftist smears of Mises and Hayek is that the one doing the smearing has never actually read Mises or Hayek, and had never heard of them until self-described "rodeo clown" and leftist bogeyman Glenn Beck mentioned them approvingly on his show. Somehow, I doubt that even Beck has worked his way through "Theory of Money and Credit."

    Metcalf is following commie protocol, which is to personally attack and defame anyone who challenges The Party. The attacks don't have to be truthful. Truth is a bourgeois concept.

  5. Bob,

    There is a part 2 to the Slate/Metcalf Scam.

    But, fortunately, American Conservative (which Metcalf ridicules as "fringe") did such a fine controlled demolition of this hoax that you can relax and not waste time on rebutting it.


    Take away points:

    Nozick is not central to American libertarianism

    Nozick did not renounce libertarianism

    Metcalf misreads the Wilt Chamberlain example

    Metcalf misreads the 1980s (which, oddly, seems to be a specialty of his)

    Keynes had a high opinion of Hayek

    One should not capitalize von when referring to Mises or Hayek.

    Slate and Metcalf should stick to culture babble to bamboozle people.

  6. Herman's Hermits: The fathers of the British Invasion.

  7. What brillant scam. Whip up a piece on subject on which you and your usual readers don't know much about but have severe misgivings (who aren't going to read it) but watch a whole new bunch of people turn up at your site who wouldn't normally go there. Who knew Slate was so money driven.

  8. Anyone with the time really should listen to Metcalf's associated podcast regarding the Nozick article. The Nozick discussion begins around the 14 minute mark:


    We learn from his women friends that this long article on libertarian philosophy is the most popular article on Slate at the moment demonstrating the brilliance of Slate readers.

    It's clear from the discussion that none of the participants have ever heard of the ABCT. It's so pathetic that it would be funny if it weren't so sad.

  9. Wenzel,

    Glad you wrote this up so I wouldn't have to waste my time on it, ultimately. I also knew you would have some "inside dope" quote from Rothbard or some other such, as you did, which would've required a lot of googling for me to find in the first place. I probably would've just overlooked that bit and focused on the substance of his (mis)interpretations of libertarianism. Though the whole "father of libertarianism" did stick out to me like a sore thumb.


  10. It seems that the word "libertarian" is under attack. Not only has Mr. Metcalf written about how awful it is, but Max Keiser and his girlfriend Stacy Herbert have also attacked. They blame libertarianism for the meltdown in Japan, and why we have global warming too. I'm not making this stuff up. Google Max Keiser, AGW, Libertarianism and poof! I guess freedom is to dangerous for some people.

  11. Great smackdown of the latest troll trying to get users on their site based on attacking libertarians!

  12. The best response to the indirect notion Mises was a shill for corporate interests:

    Nearly all philosophers today are paid out of taxes. They live off money stolen or confiscated from others. If your livelihood depends on taxes you will likely not oppose the institution of taxation on principal grounds. Of course this is not necessarily the case. Our “consciousness” is not determined by our “Sein,” a la Marx. However, any such opposition is not very likely. Indeed, as most “intellectuals,” philosophers typically suffer from an over-inflated ego. They believe to do work of great importance and resent the fact that “society” does not compensate them accordingly. Hence, if the issue of taxation is not simply ignored by them, philosophers have been at the forefront of coming up with tortured attempts of justifying taxes - of masquerading theft as something “good” - and in particular their own, tax-funded philosopher salaries.

    — Hans Hermann-Hoppe (http://economics.org.au/2011/03/hoppe-on-tax/#more-2318)

  13. There is a fear of true libertarianism today (because of R. Paul and the internet). This article seems little more than an effort to crate a strawman. The vast majority of Americans will not read Mises or Rothbard so the Slate article will be the "facts" for most. Go Ron Paul!

  14. I couldn't help it. I had to answer his rhetorical question about his own moral interpretation of taxing the rich and attacking individual property rights, I hope everyone likes it. I can't believe people like this exist.

    -Matt's Autorepair