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Pete, are you exaggerating just for a cool blog post title? He's really the smartest person you ever met? And do you mean that you had a conversation with, or even just been in the same room with? I would imagine you've seen some pretty amazing speakers over the years.

Anyway, I saw Nozick give a talk at NYU (the law school I think, but not sure) once, and I have to say, I came away thinking he was overrated. Don't get me wrong, he was a very glib guy, and he worked in a joke on the fly about a student who was trying to leave during his talk and couldn't get the door to open. And he was super nice, so everybody in the room liked him.

But even so, people were almost whoozing over him, and he made a really basic mistake. I can't remember the overall argument, but it involved an Edgeworth box, and how if something isn't Pareto optimal you can draw that football where everything inside it is preferred by both parties to the original point.

But the thing is, Nozick did something wrong with his diagram. I can't remember now what it was; maybe he made the football on its side instead of standing up, or maybe he drew the contract curve through the wrong ends of the football. But it was a pretty serious mistake, and he didn't even get tripped up in his lecture. So it seemed to me that he wasn't really connecting with what he was doing, because I think if I had been giving a micro lecture and drew the football the way he did, it would have jumped out at me that it didn't mesh with what I was saying.

And then of course, I also agree with Rothbard and Roy Childs (right?) that Nozick justification for the state in his book was goofy. Note, I'm *not* saying, "Nozick wasn't an anarchist, so he was dumb." Rather, I'm saying his particular argument struck me as silly.

Bob,
Making mistakes in a lecture and in a publication is not the same thing (as someone who uses graphs sparingly, I've made many more mistakes with graphs than when using words or even formulas). And Nozick was not primarily an economist, but was still familiar with Edgeworth boxes (I've drawn those too, and generally feel most comfortable with an open textbook in front of me, so as not to make "elementary mistakes"!).

"Anarchy, State, and Utopia" is Nozick's best-known book, but not necessarily his best book (although it is very good, even if you don't subscribe to natural rights theory). I recommend "The Nature of Rationality" from 1993, which develops the concept of "decision value," which is a weighted average of causal, evidential, and symbolic utilities (hint: people may favor a minimum wage because of its high symbolic utility). He also wrote several insightful and entertaining short articles, such as "Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Socialism" (answer: their childhood classroom and schoolyard experiences), as well as a piece on how many would voluntarily choose socialism (not more than 7%).

So I'm not surprised about PB's comment, even though I never met Nozick. He may be a more useful reference for economists than 99% or so of economics professors (and, no, I don't include Hayek, Mises, Kirzner or Lachmann in those 99%).

Nozick's brilliance came in part from the fact that he'd internalized a very difficult vocabulary summarizing a very difficult literature at a very young age.

This gave Nozick enormous advantages when taking on philosophical topics verbally.

Nozick is known for being "clever" because, rather than plodding and pressing for deep answers to hard questions, it often seemed like Nozick gabbed ideas from here and there as "brilliant" solutions to problems which really weren't being challenged at their foundations.

In philosophy the best solutions overturn the assumptions built into the questions. Nozick usually didn't poke at the foundations of the questions, he went looking for the cleaver brilliant solution that brought in new ideas that other people never looked at.

Here's an example of Nozick's "clever" brilliance -- he essentially takes for granted the basic assumptions about the problems to be addressed in epistemology, but his reading of Hayek's _The Sensory Order_ and a bit of Darwinian biology inspired Nozick's idea of the "tracking model" of truth and knowledge.

The idea wasn't really new, "evolutionary epistemology" was already out there, but Nozick gave it some new brilliant and very clever twists, and his familiarity with the "mainstream" ground, and his fresh and novel ways of articulating that ground, only underscored his "brilliance".

When philosophers criticize other philosophers using the "clever" charge, they are also pointing to the now standard ploy of building a brilliant superstructure, which gets started once they are allowed to "steal home base" with an outlandish and undefended premise, e.g. David Lewis and the existence of "possible worlds" which are real, and Nozick with his undefended, unexplored starting premise "people have rights".

It's the magic of Euclidean geometry extended to any problem deeply conceptual which might pop up.

I want to underscore that I like Nozick's work, most especially his later work on rationality, explanation, epistemology and the philosophy of science.

The key thing to know about Nozick is that he got his start under Carl Hempel working on decision theory. Nozick never fully escaped from the Hempelian picture of science, explanation, and rationality -- but his later work does a better job of this than does his work in political theory.

Speaking of elementary mistakes (though not ones that show a deep misunderstanding in themselves) I'm pretty sure you mean "Why do intellectuals oppose _capitalism_?", not "socialism". That said, that's a pretty dumb paper, really- a bit clever but w/o any serious support, totally a prior bull-shitting. It fits well into Nozick's reputation as more clever than anything else.

oops- now my own mistake (see how easy it is?)- that should be "a priori" bull-shitting, not " prior", whatever that would be.

In the late 70s, Nozick was one of my heroes, although that declined over time. I saw Nozick give a paper in 1984 or so, and he was good, but not great.

I agree that even brillian people mess up in presentations. This is not a big deal.

I spent six weeks in a Telluride summer program at Princeton studying with Nozick in 1965. He was indeed brilliant. However, I have met a number of more brilliant people. A partial list would include Alfred Tarski, Paul Erdos, Alonzo Church, Hans Bethe, Thomas Kuhn, Thomas Schelling, and Kenneth Arrow.

Brilliant people who are dishonest should be decried.

Nozick's famous idea of justice in transfer LOOKS like mathematical induction, but omits the critical step of showing that justice is maintained during a transfer.

Pretty much all of the "brilliant" things in ASU have similar dishonest flaws, such as the unsupported and even assumptions mentioned be previous commenters. It's not hard to find real-world counterexamples to many of them.

He even listened to me explain why when I teach Anarchy, State and Utopia I stress his "Austrianism" rather than the idea of "rights as trumps." I pointed out to him that his style of reasoning for 2/3rds of the books is that of the "invisible hand explanation" and that qualifies as a more Austrian or Hayekian style of argument than the rights based arguments that many others focus on in either their critique or their endorsement of Nozick.

If you've ever written anything about this, I'd love to read it. Since you say 2/3rds of AS&U is Hayekian, I'm guessing you mean parts 1 and 3. In my own readings of both Nozick and Hayek, I've found a lot of overlap between the evolutionary approach to ethics and epistemology in Nozick's final book and the Kantian-flavored rights theory in AS&U on the one hand and Hayek's generally Humeian outlook mixed with a Kantian view of the rule of law on the other.

Just to reiterate: I was not merely saying, "Nozick screwed up the Edgeworth box, and so he must be an idiot."

Rather, I'm saying that the points he was making in the lecture depended crucially on the diagram, and so it led me to wonder if he ever *really* understood the diagram (as opposed to seeing it laid out in an econ textbook, and getting the basic gist of it).

If he had been puzzled by his diagram--since it wasn't depicting what he was telling us in the audience that it was supposed to be showing--and then said, "Sorry folks, something is screwy here..." I or someone else could've yelled out, "You drew the curves the wrong way!" and that would have been fine. I wouldn't have filed it away in my mind that "Nozick is overrated."

But like I said, what really seemed odd to me was that he breezed right through his lecture, and wasn't at all tripped up by the fact that his diagram wasn't showing what he told us it was showing.

Actually, now that I just clarified with the last post, I think that really clinches it for me with the stuff in ASU. I mean, to me (and I think to other Rothbardians), Nozick's whole demonstration where he builds up the legitimate minimal state (or whatever his terminology is) is absurd in several respects.

So for him to go through that chain of reasoning, and then tell his reader, "See now, I just justified the State!" was as much of a non sequitur as him drawing curves and saying, "See now, I just showed you Pareto improvements!" when he had done no such thing.

To sum up, the common mistake was him not realizing he was giving an invalid argument.

Bob,

The best explanation and defense of Nozick's argument is Julian Sanchez's here: http://www.juliansanchez.com/2008/02/20/understanding-nozick-perfectly-well-thank-you/

One development that has made me far more sympathetic to Nozick's argument is the rise of eBay as a kind of dominant online auction agency.

The thing that makes eBay different from most other businesses is the almost unique way it competes for two sets of customers: buyers and sellers. Buyers go to eBay because that's where the sellers are, and sellers go to eBay because that's where the buyers are. Because eBay was the first out of the gate with the online auction model, other competitors have had a hard time staying afloat. Even Yahoo! gave up on online auctions. If I'm a seller, I don't want to list my products on sites other than eBay because I'm limiting my customer base and virtually ensuring my goods draw fewer bids. Meanwhile, if I'm a customer, I might look elsewhere for bargains, but I know I'm usually going to find what I want much more easily on eBay. These two factors reinforce each other, and, as we've seen, few other online auction services survive.

Competing security agencies under anarcho-capitalism might face a similar issue, as customers might want to be with the most powerful such agency in case worse comes to worse.

"Brilliant people who are dishonest should be decried."

As should dumb people who obsessively haunt libertarian web sites.

(You do realize, Mike, that you're like the homeless person down the block from me who sits on the corner and rants about aliens all day long, don't you?)

Whoa, the Legacy of FA Hayek is $720?!

This discussion reminds me of the scene in Woody Allen's Manhattan where the couple compile an 'academy of the over-rated' which contains all the great artists of the last few hundred years. Beethoven, Scott Fitzgerald, Mozart - all over-rated...

Of course it's "Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism" (my mistake). It is a popular paper and not as "deep" as some of his other stuff, but I'd say it's a respectable sociological hypothesis, but obviously in need of empirical testing. But the great thing about his short popular papers is that they're provocative, entertaining, and at the same time insightful (sorry if I offended people by calling Nozick insightful and not clever).

I realize that John Rawls was an influential and probably smart philosopher...but he was also the author of one of the few books that I wasn't able to finish because of its style ("Political Liberalism" was the name of the book).
The reason I'm invoking Rawls here is that the terms "entertainment" and "philosophy" are not usually associated, but Nozick somehow managed to pull it off.

Greg writes:"Nozick's brilliance came in part from the fact that he'd internalized a very difficult vocabulary summarizing a very difficult literature at a very young age."

That is interesting - what literature are you referring to, and how did internalizing the vocabulary result in a perception of brilliance?

Nozick's brilliance came in part from the fact that he'd internalized a very difficult vocabulary summarizing a very difficult literature at a very young age.

Indeed.

He received his Ph.D. in his mid-twenties, and was a full professor at Harvard by his early-thirties.

At around age 36, he had written ASU.

Bob Murphy,

I was not there, so I could be wrong, but while Bob Nozick may well have messed up his presentation that you saw, he was definitely very knowledgeable about the apparatus of mainstream neoclassical economics of at least a 1960s vintage, which certainly included knowing about Edgeworth boxes and Pareto improvements and such like. I am not aware of him messing such things up in any of his writings.

If one were to criticize him on this sort of thing, it would be to do so more explicitly from an Austrian perspective, which I would view as saying that one does not worry at all about static Pareto improvements. What matters are such things as long run growth, technological change, and new product innovation arising from entrerpreneurial discovery and activities. Such virtues may be related to static Pareto efficiency, but not necessarily, and they are justified on other grounds. In that regard, one can see that Nozick retained a strongly non-Austrian side, despite his obvious affinities.

BTW, when I took my course with him, it was entitled "Philosophical Conceptions of Liberty," and among our readings was Hayek's _Constitution of Liberty_, which was my first encounter with Hayek, this being 1965. So, Nozick was certainly aware of Austrian perspectives from an early point on.

BR wrote:

"If one were to criticize him on this sort of thing, it would be to do so more explicitly from an Austrian perspective..."

No, you're wrong. I am one, and my criticism of Nozick had nothing to do with his deviation from Austrian orthodoxy. :)

I feel I should restate my position one more time for the record, since I undoubtedly sound like an sophomoric punk to the wisened scholars who come to this site:

Let's face it, in any field, there are people who can throw around the terminology and show they've done a lot of reading, and yet they don't *really* see things as clearly and deeply as some other people. And to 99% of the onlookers, the two groups of people are indistinguishable.

And so I'm saying that in two areas where I think I know my stuff--namely, the Edgeworth box and anarcho-capitalism--I found Nozick to not only be unpersuasive, but absurdly so.

Hence, I think he is overrated, especially if Pete is saying Nozick is the smartest man he ever met. For example, Pete, did you ever meet Hayek? I (of course) disagree with a bunch of Hayek's conclusions, but holy cow he strikes me as incredibly smart.

I diasgree with Nozick's argument for a minimal state, but it seems to me definitely not goofy or absurd. Quite the contrary, it shows Nozick's extraordinary ingenuity. Pete Boettke is right that Nozick relied on invisible hand explanations in ASU, but these explanations aren't separate from his appeal to rights. Also, I doubt that Nozick's tracking model of knowledge comes from reading Hayek's Sensory Order. He doesn't cite The Sensory Order in this connection; and reliabilist theories were "in the air" at the time, as the nearly contemporary work of Alvin Goldman and Fred Dretske shows. His theory of knowledge isn't directly connected to evolutionary epistemology, although Nozick discusses in Philosophical Explanations how evolution might generate the capacity for beliefs to track the truth. Nozick was certainly interested in evolutionary epistemology, but this is a separate topic from his theory of knowledge.

I diasgree with Nozick's argument for a minimal state, but it seems to me definitely not goofy or absurd. Quite the contrary, it shows Nozick's extraordinary ingenuity. Pete Boettke is right that Nozick relied on invisible hand explanations in ASU, but these explanations aren't separate from his appeal to rights. Also, I doubt that Nozick's tracking model of knowledge comes from reading Hayek's Sensory Order. He doesn't cite The Sensory Order in this connection; and reliabilist theories were "in the air" at the time, as the nearly contemporary work of Alvin Goldman and Fred Dretske shows. His theory of knowledge isn't directly connected to evolutionary epistemology, although Nozick discusses in Philosophical Explanations how evolution might generate the capacity for beliefs to track the truth. Nozick was certainly interested in evolutionary epistemology, but this is a separate topic from his theory of knowledge.

I diasgree with Nozick's argument for a minimal state, but it seems to me definitely not goofy or absurd. Quite the contrary, it shows Nozick's extraordinary ingenuity. Pete Boettke is right that Nozick relied on invisible hand explanations in ASU, but these explanations aren't separate from his appeal to rights. Also, I doubt that Nozick's tracking model of knowledge comes from reading Hayek's Sensory Order. He doesn't cite The Sensory Order in this connection; and reliabilist theories were "in the air" at the time, as the nearly contemporary work of Alvin Goldman and Fred Dretske shows. His theory of knowledge isn't directly connected to evolutionary epistemology, although Nozick discusses in Philosophical Explanations how evolution might generate the capacity for beliefs to track the truth. Nozick was certainly interested in evolutionary epistemology, but this is a separate topic from his theory of knowledge.

It looks like David really wants to get his point across.

It looks like David really wants to get his point across.

It looks like David really wants to get his point across.

Sorry for the triple post. I don't know how it happened (and hope it doesn't happen on this one).

David and others,

David Gordon can post as many times as he wants. I am absolutely thrilled he reads this blog! Seriously. I have had many disagreements over the years with David (I don't think my Companion was Unfriendly :)), but I have great respect for David's sharp mind and wit. E.g., His book on analytical marxism is first-rate and highly recommended.

Anyway, in all seriousness David I don't know what goes on with typepad sometimes, but I do hope you will post again.

The problem with very smart people like Robert Nozick is that by the time mere mortals, like me, have managed to understand their views and decided that we agree with them, there is a risk that they will by then have declared those views to be "seriously inadequate".
Fortunately, the validity of an idea does not depend on the intelligence of the author.

I surely regret the fact that I never met Nozick.

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