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Essays on Nozick and the free market


To: Pearl K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Essays on Nozick and the free market
Date: 21st May 2010 12:16

Dear Sachiko,

Thank you for your two essays for the University of London BA Political Philosophy module, 'Does the Free Market advance or restrict freedom?' and 'Explain and assess the 'Lockean Proviso' in Nozick's entitlement theory and what, if anything, does Nozick's Wilt Chamberlain argument show?'

OK, two decent essays, although you don't seem to have a clue about Marx. I should start with that, especially in view of your mind-boggling question, 'Wouldn't Nozick's view that we own our labour and the product of it be very similar to Marx's view?'

No. Absolutely not. No way.

We're not interested in Marx the economist but Marx the philosopher, the author of the '1844 Manuscripts' which you have included in your bibliography. I assume you've read 'On the Power of Money in Bourgeois Society' as well as the essay on 'Alienated Labour', 'Private Property and Communism' and 'The Meaning of Human Requirements'. Marx's disagreements with other socialist/ communist philosophers are as revealing as his critique of capitalism.

I like the way you explain the free market in very simple, down-to-earth terms. So I will try to explain what Marx believed in a similar way.

Money is the evil. The product of my labour is mine, but the institution of money enables me to trade this for something else. In other words, in capitalist society labour or the capacity for labour is just one of my negotiable assets.

For Marx, work is a necessity. But it is also the means of our self-realisation. Your remark that 'in the absence of compulsion Marx says that labour would be shunned like the plague by humans' therefore gives completely the wrong impression.

For Marx, the paradigm of 'work' is the kind of thing he did, writing philosophy, studying late into the night. Or the work of the artist, or sculptor, or architect. Consider how one might remark about how some independent film director has 'sold himself out' as a result of a massive offer from Hollywood. Or the writer who would rather starve than 'prostitute his talent'.

Work is a necessity, not only in the sense of our human self-expression and self realization, but also in the much more humdrum sense that we need to eat, make tools, homes and all the paraphernalia required for humans to live a human life. Possibly the nearest example of the kind of thing Marx saw as the ideal form of society is the Kibbutzim in Israel. You can't just be a 'philosopher' or 'painter'. You have to make your contribution to the running of the Kibbutz, picking oranges in the harvest, or taking your turn to look after the kindergarten etc. etc. (The founders of the Kibbutz movement were of course influenced by Marx.)

Some human beings are more talented than others. In his essay on 'Money' Marx makes clear that natural endowments are a non-negotiable gift. Some are lucky to have good looks while others are ugly. (So the idea that we can make everyone 'the same' in a communist society is a non-starter.)

What Marx emphasizes, however, is the power of solidarity. Each contributes to society in his or her own way, not just by doing the necessary labour but by making themself the best that they can be. What I give to society is not just my 'labour', but my myself as an independent, free person. In return, what I receive is the wherewithal to achieve this. Only in a social context can we achieve humanity. (This is the real meaning of 'positive freedom'.)

In the context of the essay question about a free market, I think you're right that we want to respect property-rights and allow free exchange to the extent that this is compatible with important concepts such as a safety net for the worse off in society, or protecting occupations like farming where wholesale bankruptcy would be disastrous for the country as a whole. As you explain, the 'invisible hand' is a mechanism that works much of the time. But it doesn't work by magic. That's why, as you observe, every government takes steps to keep the economy on track whenever there is a danger that it might go off the rails.

I don't have much to add with regard to your essay on Nozick. The point I would make here is that Nozick wants to show that any attempt at redistribution is an unjust intervention in the process of just acquisition and transfer of goods. However, that ignores the evident fact that the rich do not necessarily begrudge the taxes they have to pay to help the poor, but on the contrary (as indeed voting trends show) are happy that there exists a state apparatus which enables them to continue their pursuit of profit with a clear conscience.

All the best,