Style And Substance In ASU: A Reply To Barbara Fried

In 2005, Barbara Fried, a law professor at Stanford, published a 34-page essay titled “Begging the Question With Style: Anarchy, State and Utopia at Thirty Years.” Fried’s piece appeared in an anthology of philosophical writings dedicated to the memory of Robert Nozick, who had passed away three years before. (Natural Rights Liberalism from Locke to Nozick, Paul et al., eds.). An electronic version of Fried’s contribution is available here:

As we shall see, Fried’s essay is a strange, bordering on the bizarre piece of work, rife with intellectual dishonesty and manifestly unfair in its treatment of Nozick. Until now, it has received no rebuttal in the philosophical literature. I address it here both to challenge its characterization of Nozick’s most famous project, but also as an illustrative case study of the hysterical reaction of egalitarian-minded theorists to arguments that challenge their dogma. References to this essay below are in the form of “Begging,” plus the relevant page number in Natural Rights Liberalism.

Although it takes Fried quite a few pages to announce her actual aim, it turns out that her primary purpose is to explain the enduring prominence of ASU by examining “the role that rhetoric has played in the popularity of the book.” (Begging, 226). She starts by acknowledging that ASU is a “classic,” and with Rawls’s A Theory of Justice “arguably framed the landscape of academic political philosophy in the last decades of the twentieth century.” (Begging, 221). However, she then immediately disparages it by claiming that, while its critique of alternative theories of justice “remain important fresh, and illuminating,” Nozick’s affirmative case for libertarian rights is “so thin and undefended as to read, often, as nothing more than a placeholder for an argument to be supplied.” In fact, she says, “where Nozick has not simply begged the question, the answers he provides are often internally contradictory or seemingly random with respect to any coherent moral vision.” (Begging, 222).

She then blithely comments that “in true Nozickian fashion, I am going to leave a proper defense of that bald assertion to another day.” Ibid. There follows a laundry list of substantive questions that Nozick allegedly “begs or dodges” in ASU, which is coupled with the acknowledgement that many of these “have been discussed extensively in the critical literature.” This observation is followed by her assertion that she has identified one particular (relatively inconsequential) flaw in ASU has been overlooked until now, which she then proceeds to share with us. This attack badly misfires, but I will leave a full explanation until another occasion.

Fried then (finally) gets to the various rhetorical devices used by Nozick to “charm and disarm his audience, simultaneously establishing his own credibility with readers, turning them on his ideological opponents, and deflecting attention from some of the more serious gaps in his affirmative argument.” (Begging, 227). While she acknowledges that some of these techniques are benign, i.e. mere matters of taste, “others seem to be deployed solely to deal with the (to my mind) justifiable anxiety [on Nozick's part that his substantive argument does not hold water].” (Begging, 228). Needless to say, I will focus here not on innocent matters, but on his allegedly devious and deceptive rhetorical maneuvers.

The first technique of this sort identified by Fried, which she claims is the “most frequent,” is Nozick’s willingness to proceed as if he has established certain claims while simply ignoring problems in his argument that he has previously recognized. This tendency is most often exhibited by “Nozick…waiting a discreet interval after his concession, and then proceeding as if it had never been made.” (Begging, 244). Two prominent examples mentioned by Fried are (i) Nozick’s reliance on the unsubstantiated concept of “procedural rights” as a key step in justifying the dominant protective agency’s refusal to deal with competing agencies and (ii) his failure to give content to his three principles of justice, while simultaneously proclaiming victory against redistributive theories of justice. (Begging, 245-7).

The second deceptive rhetorical practice that Fried identifies in ASU is what she labels Nozick’s practice of “when in doubt say it loud.” (Begging, 247-8). Here, he is alleged to make “major claims without elaboration or defense.” One example is his famous declaration that, “There are particular rights over particular things held by particular persons…The particular rights over things fills the space of rights, leaving no room for general rights to be in a certain material condition.” (ASU, 238).

The third device she identifies is Nozick’s tendency to transition without warning between the ideal world of theory and real world of empirical evidence: “Nozick blurs the line between these two worlds, often making it impossible to decipher which world we are supposed to be in at any given moment.” (Begging, 249). Examples include arguments he makes for the evolution of the minimal state from private protective agencies, where he glides between assertions of what might happen and what would happen in particular circumstances.

Finally, Fried claims that Nozick often makes “the vertiginous descent from broad general propositions to incredibly particularized examples and observations.” (Begging, 250). The supposed problem here is that his “meticulous attention to extraneous details distracts the reader from the threadbareness of the central proposition that Nozick is fleshing out.” (Begging, 252). If this wasn’t bad enough, this trick cons the unsuspecting reader into the belief that “we are dealing with someone who has really thought all this through.” Ibid. Here again, her examples of this practice are drawn from Nozick’s effort to justify the minimal state.

At long last, the intrepid Ms. Fried concludes her expose’ of Nozick’s devious methods: while rhetorical flourishes are fine in literature and other contexts, in academia we must restrain ourselves because “truth in some nonsubjective, nonaffective sense seems to be at play here, and [makes] demands that may put off-limits some of the more engaging finds in any rhetorician’s bag of tricks.” (Begging, 254). And, sadly, she finds that Nozick “has not always adequately met those demands.” Ibid. In other words, Nozicks uses rhetoric to distort the truth.

Having outlined the particulars of Fried’s indictment of Nozick’s manipulative rhetoric in ASU, I start my critique with the observation that her essay is remarkable on several levels. The first thing that strikes me as noteworthy is its timing. ASU was published in 1974, and was instantly the subject of about as much commentary and debate as any philosophy book could ever generate. It was widely reviewed, generally in a not-too-favorable way, by the great, the near-great and the not-so-great philosophers of Nozick’s generation, in both obscure academic journals and in such mainstream intellectual forums as The New York Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement, and The Yale Law Journal.

Indeed, since its publication and until today its core arguments have been the subject of countless academic papers and at least ten books. His reasoning has been dissected, attacked, defended and deconstructed by theorists of all ideological persuasions and from every angle. So, I find it curious that in 2005, thirty years into this ongoing dialog, Fried suddenly decides that naive consumers of political philosophy books must be put on guard against Nozick’s subversive style. Really??

It gets more interesting still. Fried has been publishing philosophy articles since the early 1990s, and for over a decade had nothing to say about Nozick’s disingenuous style. However, according to her own account (Begging, 221, n.1) it appears that her interest in this subject was aroused in March 2002, exactly two months after Nozick’s untimely death. One not possessed of a more generous spirit than Fried shows Nozick might conclude that she was afraid to publish her attack until her target was no longer in a position to respond.

I also find it fascinating that the argumentative gaps and limitations that Fried accuses Nozick of artfully concealing are in fact unambiguously disclosed by the author in his preface to ASU:

I believe there is also 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. (ASU, xii).

And this, “I propose to give it all to you: the doubts, and worries and uncertainties as well as the beliefs convictions and arguments.” (ASU, xiii-xix).

Not only does he acknowledge the limitations of his study in a general sense, but he issues specific mea culpas:

This book does not present a precise theory of the moral basis of individual rights; it does not contain a precise statement and justification of a theory of retributive punishment; or a precise statement of the tripartite theory of distributive justice…Perhaps this essay will stimulate others to help. (ASU, xiv).

Thus, Nozick’s ruse apparently consists of admitting up front that he doesn’t have pat answers to all the thorny problems posed by his theory (and by political philosophy generally), and then tricking his readers into thinking that he does. That is a diabolical scam!

But, nobody was fooled. It is not surprising that Fried selects many of her examples of Nozick’s alleged rhetorical dishonesty from his purported justification of the minimal state. Almost from its date of publication, Rothbard-style individual anarchists ripped into this argument, and for decades it has been widely seen as a failure. Those interested in more detail can consult the summary and citations in Chapter 4 of my book. Accordingly, Fried’s examples reveal here not a defect in Nozick’s style, but fundamental flaws in his reasoning.

On the other hand, many of Fried’s examples are selected because she either does not or pretends not to grasp the argument Nozick offers. So, when Fried refers to Nozick’s bold assertion that “There are particular rights over particular things held by particular persons…” as an instance of his technique of “when in doubt, say it loud,” she is just wrong.

His claim is buttressed by two separate lines of attack against all “patterned” (egalitarian) theories of justice: (i) distributions of wealth that are the product of brute luck do not violate any party’s rights, and are thus do not warrant reallocation and (ii) even if wealth must be “deserved,” holdings that result from voluntary exchanges are deserved in the morally relevant way, and it would therefore be unjust to redistribute them. Again, more details (and citations) are provided in Chapter 2 of my book. Of course, Fried is free to deny that these points provide any material support for Nozick’s claim, but to do so she must enter into this debate. Therefore, I am left wondering, again, about the relevance and purpose of Fried’s musing on Nozick’s style.

Whatever one concludes about her intellectual honesty, one must congratulate Fried on her exquisite, possibly unique connoisseurship in matters of philosophical rhetoric. After all, many philosophers of far greater accomplishment than her own have noted Nozick’s unusual manner of presentation, and none to my knowledge have felt deceived or feared that their students were in danger of confusing rhetorical flimflamming with sound reasoning.

For example, Richard Arneson, a theorist whose influence in political philosophy is far more consequential than Fried’s, has observed (in the same collection in which Fried’s essay appeared) that “[ASU's] tone is not magisterial, but improvisational, quirky, tentative and exploratory. Its author has more questions than answers.” Note the absence of any innuendo regarding Nozick’s sinister intent. Arneson is no libertarian, but his evaluation is far more representative of philosophical opinion on this subject than Fried’s idea that Nozick is wielding Svengali-like influence over his unsuspecting readers.

It should be apparent by now that Fried’s project is not some dispassionate evaluation of Nozick’s use of rhetoric, but an attempt to discredit his entire enterprise “on the cheap,” i.e. without offering any new or interesting reasons to reject any of his central principles. Although she poses here as a self-appointed guardian of the truth, elsewhere she reveals her political motivations. In her “Left-Libertarianism: A Review Essay” (Philosophy and Public Affairs, Winter 2004), she takes these theorists to task not only for various sins of doctrinal confusion, but for a “strategic” error:

left-libertarians may hope that, by coopting self-ownership to egalitarian ends, they can reclaim the moral high ground from right-libertarians. But, in conceding that the libertarian notion of self-ownership is the moral high ground to begin with, they may well give up more than they bargain for in the public relations battle for the hearts and minds of those in the murky center of American politics, who harbor instincts of both liberty and equality (of the decent social minimum sort) that could be played to. At the very least, left-libertarians would do well to keep in mind the old adage: If you eat with the devil, bring a long spoon.

So, Fried is counseling the left-libertarians here to abandon their attachment to self-ownership not because this idea is false, but in the interests of improving egalitarian “public relations.” Why stop at mere Nozickian rhetorical manipulation when the truth itself can be shaped to suit your purposes? Quicker than you can say “Beelzebub,” Fried’s self-professed commitment to objective truth vanishes, lest we cede too much to the “devil.” You can’t make this stuff up.

I referred at the start of this post to Fried’s “hysterical” reaction to ASU. Of course, “hysterical” has a dual definition, and I intend both of its meanings. On one hand, Fried’s self-ordained mission to save the unwary from Nozick’s rhetorical snares is comical. Do we need, on top of all of the exiting, paternalistic consumer protection agencies, a new one dedicated to shielding us from libertarians’ devious rhetorical practices? Should philosophy journals have warning labels comparable to those on cigarette packages: “Danger!! Danger!! This periodical includes an essay with subliminal rhetoric that may turn you into a right-wing fanatic.”

On the other hand, “hysterical” is the appropriate description for the apoplectic reaction of many “progressive” academics to ASU‘s publication. One (minor) liberal philosopher, Brian Barry, wrote that its “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 professional chair, is proposing to starve or humiliate ten percent of his fellow citizens (if he recognizes the word).” So, Nozick is not just wrong, he must be a nasty person to boot.

Fried clearly shares this view. She casts herself as the final arbiter of rhetorical excess because she fears that Nozick has used his beguiling style to obscure the truth. But this self-anointment assumes that Fried knows the truth and is thus in a position to assess Nozick’s fidelity to it. But how can she be so sure of her judgment without decisive arguments against Nozick’s views, and if she has them, why doesn’t she then share them with us rather than fulminate on matters of style? Well, perhaps because she is a liberal, and thereby is certain that her intentions are pure, while her ideological adversaries are selfish brutes or worse. By virtue of her virtue, she enjoys some privileged access to the truth not available to those of us who reject her egalitarian presuppositions.

However, philosophy is not science or mathematics where the truth can be demonstrated. There will always be room for debate and disagreement, and sometimes even mature opinions change. Conscientious philosophers bear this is mind, lest they turn into mere polemicists. It should be apparent by now that Fried has fallen victim to this trap. Her malevolent exercise is not serious scholarship, but more closely resembles an inferior production from the theater of the absurd.

Fried festoons her essay with numerous snippets from Shakespeare designed to illustrate the many tricks Nozick has up his sleeve. Fried’s strange but transparent “attack ad” brings to mind not the Bard, but the following dialog from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland:

“It’s a pun!” the King added in an offended tone, and everybody laughed. “Let the jury consider their verdict,” the King said, for about the twentieth time that day.

“No, no!” said the Queen. “Sentence first—verdict afterwards.

“Stuff and Nonsense!” said Alice loudly. “The idea of having the sentence first!”

“Hold your tongue!” said the Queen, turning purple.

“I won’t!” said Alice

“Off with your head!” the Queen shouted at the top of her voice. Nobody moved.

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