02 Jul 2011

DeLong-Murphy Tag Team on a Dead Guy

Economics 26 Comments

Yeah, take that Nozick! I like Brad DeLong’s take-down (HT2 Gene Callahan). Also, while he’s stunned, David Gordon comes in with the finishing move a la Sam Konkin’s wit.

I know, I know, I’m still a punk kid in the libertarian pantheon, and I have no business saying this. But I must speak out: I think Robert Nozick is way overrated as a deep thinker. I am not claiming I have read his stuff carefully enough to be able to say whether DeLong’s critique is fair, but it sure looks like something to which Nozick would leave himself vulnerable.

My two encounters with Nozick ran thusly:

(1) Murray Rothbard et al. tore Nozick a new id when they addressed his argument for the minimal State. Let’s be clear, folks: I am NOT saying, “Nozick is an idiot because he wasn’t an anarcho-capitalist.” No, there are plenty of people who have very elaborate worldviews that are internally consistent and hard to beat. I don’t call those people idiots. (If I really can’t find a flaw in their argument–such as with Scott Sumner–and I still disagree with their conclusion, I just call them “insane.” But not idiotic or dumb.)

No, the reason I was unimpressed with Nozick’s argument for a minimal State is that he was just making up stuff on the fly. It was a string of non sequiturs. (That’s exactly why I find DeLong’s critique plausible.)

(2) I saw Nozick give a public lecture at NYU once. This was in the early 2000s, so of course at this point he was a demigod in academic circles among economists. Even the leftists in my program who were actively campaigning for the UAW (yes, the UAW) to unionize the grad students, went to his lecture and thought he was oh so dreamy.

The problem was, he totally botched his discussion of the Edgeworth Box. He was trying to make some deep philosophical point about distributive justice (I don’t remember what), and to illustrate his argument he ran through the standard construction of the Edgeworth Box. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, try googling “edgeworth box offer curves football” and see the PowerPoint from Carleton, which was near the top of my search.)

What you’re supposed to end up with, is a football composed of the two guys’ indifference curves going through the endowment point. Then you know if they moved to anywhere within the football, they’d both be better off. But you could keep repeating the process until you hit a tangency point, and the locus of such points runs like the lace or the thread going across the width of a football (where you’d put your finger). That’s a subset of the contract curve.

The only problem was, Nozick drew the diagram wrong. I can’t remember exactly what he did, but I think he either (a) drew the football so that its pointy ends were aimed at the northeast and southwest edges, or (b) drew the contract curve going across the length of the football, instead of the width. Either way, what he was doing made no sense.

(Also, I’m certain that he screwed it up, because at the time the young woman who was the second-best in our game theory class (after me) said after the talk, “Wasn’t that amazing?” or something, and I was a wiseguy and said, “Yeah, except he got the Edgeworth Box backwards.” The next day she came up and said, “About an hour after you said that, I realized what you meant!”)

Now I brought this up a year or two ago, when Pete Boettke remarked that Nozick was the smartest man he’d ever met (or some such praise). At the time, people were incredulous that I would make so much out of a little slip up. “Bob, c’mon, people make mistakes at the blackboard all the time! What’s your deal?”

So let me be clear: My point isn’t, “Nozick said something wrong in a public lecture, therefore he’s bluffing.” No, my point is that he was supposed to be teaching us something about the Edgeworth Box, and the words coming out of his mouth were contradicted by the diagram he was pointing at. So there was no internal validity-meter in his head, making sure he endorsed the argument he was shooting out.

Anyone notice a pattern?

Join us next week for my blog post, “Why Aristotle was a punk.”

26 Responses to “DeLong-Murphy Tag Team on a Dead Guy”

  1. yahya says:

    i think a lot of people dismiss libertarianism because of Nozick. I read his book in my political theory class a few years ago, and I agree, he would just make stuff up without any evidence. I wrote some suggestions in my essay I turned in for better libertarian theorists that the prof could use, but I don’t think he’s taken any of my suggestions.

  2. Ryan Murphy says:

    By “string of non sequiturs” are you referring to the parts about risk? I’ve seen anarcho-capitalists get bent out of shape on those things, for not very good reason in my mind.

    I’m not a very big fan of Nozick, but DeLong’s attack was both wrong and hilarious. Here he was, supposedly showing us that he knows Nozick well enough that libertarians would be able to confuse other libertarians with DeLong. But DeLong can’t help but to point out perceived faults with Nozick (that are very unprofound and boilerplate), meaning he doesn’t know how Nozick would respond to them. He succeeded in FAILING the test by being unable to demonstrate his understanding of the sophisticated version of Nozickian arguments.

  3. Blackadder says:


    How do you think Nozick would respond to the problems DeLong mentions. As I recall, in AS&U he deals with them by saying something to the effect of “yes, this is a problem, but I’m not going to deal with it here.” Later on he seems to have concluded that the whole framework of AS&U was lacking.

  4. Dan says:


    David Gordon also did a take-down of DeLong’s piece. DeLong even prevented Gordon’s comment correcting some of the errors in the article.

    • bobmurphy says:

      Thanks Dan I just came across that myself and was going to put it in the comments here. But David is a softie on Nozick, I think.

      • Joseph Fetz says:

        David is a softy on just about anything. It isn’t that he isn’t learned (the man is quite knowledgeable on just about anything), I think that it is that he is just a really nice guy. Granted, I don’t know him personally, but the impression that I have gotten is that he will discuss philosophy to the ends of existence, but he will never call you an idiot for your views, even if they are dead wrong.

        Different strokes for different folks. I certainly learned a lot from the man.

        • Jon O. says:

          Civility, now that’s a novel concept.

  5. Major_Freedom says:

    (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, try googling “edgeworth box offer curves football”

    LOL, when I googled that phrase, the first hit was this blog.

    That’s hilarious.

    • bobmurphy says:

      Whoa, there’s something about Heisenberg in this outcome…

      • Joseph Fetz says:

        Subhi, it depends on what you’re looking for. I use a great deal of punctuation in my web-searches, and when you do that, you find that the results end up being quite similar no matter what “engine” you use.

        Google is more geared toward those who know how to use the correct “web-search” punctuation, whereas Bing is a “type it and hit enter” search engine. I personally use both…

  6. David Gordon says:


    Thanks very much for your kind remarks; but if you look up my book reviews at mises.org, you’ll see that I’m not very nice at all.

    • Joseph Fetz says:

      I guess I stand corrected.

      • Major_Freedom says:

        You’re probably right, but remember, the guy who just told you that Gordon is not very nice guy, is the nice guy you were talking about.

        • Law of Contradiction says:

          Yes, the nice guy Joseph Fetz was talking about, responded by claiming that he was not very nice but replied in a nice way making him nice despite his claims to the contrary which were nice and thus not, not nice.

        • Joseph Fetz says:

          I always thought that he seemed pretty non-confrontational in his arguments while still laying them out very effectively. Regardless, I learned a lot from his writings. Anybody that was a friend of Murray and was considered very highly by the same, is A-ok in my book

    • Joseph Fetz says:

      Oh, sorry for calling you a softy.

  7. Mario Rizzo says:

    I never believed, on the whole, that Nozick added much to what those moderately familiar with classical liberalism already knew. I was familiar with libertarian thought BEFORE Anarchy, State and Utopia came out and I felt that its contribution was to make what, say, Murray Rothbard had taught me available to a wider audience and to more establishment thinkers. This was a substantial contribution, no doubt.

    But then if you follow Nozick’s work after ASU you get a series of interesting questions, doubts, puzzlements about all sorts of philosophical issues. None of this adds up to a “position” in most cases.

    In the end, the only work of Nozick that will have enduring influence is ASU. But it will be more because Nozick made a set of ideas respectable rather than made original cointributions to classical liberal thought.

  8. Bob Roddis says:

    Professor Rizzo’s recollection is similar to mine. For what it’s worth, Nozick does not explain Austrian economics but offers examples of other readings in which to find an “explicit account of invisible-hand explanations”.

    Since I offer no explicit account of invisible-hand explanations, and since the notion plays a role in what follows, I mention some examples to give the reader a clearer idea of what we have in mind when speaking of this type of explanation. (Examples given to illustrate the type of explanation need not be correct explanations.)

    6. Discussions of how economic calculation is accomplished in markets. (See Ludwig von Mises. Socialism, Part II, Human Action Chapters 4, 7-9.)

    9. The Austrian theory of the trade cycle.

    16. F. A. Hayek’s explanation of how social cooperation utilizes more knowledge than any individual possesses, through people adjusting their activities on the basis of how other people’s similarly adjusted activities affect their local situations and through following examples they are presented with, and thereby creates new institutional forms, general modes of behavior, and so on (The Constitution of Liberty, chap. 2). ASU pages 20-21


    The idea that Nozick invented libertarianism is silly and ignorant. Further, while this book (1974) may helped impair socialism among the intellectualoids, I think that the Khmer Rouge (1975) may have helped much more.

  9. Bob Roddis says:

    More on DeLong.

    Here is an interesting examination from 2008 of how DeLong fraudulently cut out substantial portions of quotes from Mises to justify DeLong declaring Mises’ writings “completely bats— insane”:


    Par for the course and another knockout win for the good guys.

    • MamMoTh says:

      The same as you always do. Isn’t it fun?

      • Bob Roddis says:

        No. There is nothing fun about you knowing nothing about Austrian theory yet still feeling obligated to express your armpit farts in public. It’s creepy, but after 4 decades of similar behavior by others, I’m getting used to it. Your purposeful ignorance is still unfathomable, however.

        • MamMoTh says:

          Will try to learn the basics for the next Porcfest ust to chat up those green hot girls from undisclosed planets that apparently attended it. Which version is more sexy, the one with coconuts or the one with sushi rolls?

          • Dan says:

            #1001 use of the same joke. Do you have any new material or are you satisfied being the guy who laughs at his same old joke over and over again?

          • bobmurphy says:

            It depends how much you’ve had to drink. But anyway, the mood was ruined when a minarchist was trying to eat a sandwich made out of Federal Reserve Notes (his doctor said he needed more fiber) and he started choking. Very scary.

      • Dan says:

        See how Bob put a link to back up his claim? You are just spouting off with nothing to back up your claim. Go ahead and try again.