17 Nov 2008

Robert Nozick Is Overrated; or, Pete Boettke Needs to Get Out More

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In a recent blog post, Pete Boettke tells us that Robert Nozick is the smartest man he’s ever met. In the comments, I mention that I have thought Nozick was overrated since the time I saw him give a talk at NYU, and he botched the “Edgeworth Box” (a diagram from economics). Some people were telling me that anybody can screw up a diagram, so I clarified:

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.

Posted by: Bob Murphy | November 17, 2008 at 10:52 PM

And then I added:

Actually, now that I just clarified with the last post, I think that really clinches it for me with the stuff in [Anarchy, State, and Utopia]. 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.

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