Letting sports stars earn their millions.

Following on from my previous post on libertarianism, one fun thought experiment that we can thank Nozick for entertaining is the now infamous example of Wilt Chamberlain earning his millions.

Nozick writes:

Wilt Chamberlain is greatly in demand by basketball teams, being a great gate attraction. (Also suppose contracts run only for a year, with players being free agents.) He signs the following sort of contract with a team: In each home game twenty-five cents from the price of each ticket of admission goes to him. (We ignore the question of whether he is “gouging” the owners, letting them look out for themselves.) … Let us suppose that in one season one million persons attend his home games, and Wilt Chamberlain ends up with $250,000, a much larger sum than the average income and larger even than anyone else has. Is he entitled to his income? Is this new distribution D2 unjust?

GA Cohen is the most prominent left-leaning political theorist to respond to this challenge, and I’ll borrow from him heavily here.

So Nozick thinks the lessons of this example are two-fold:

  1. Because socialism is committed to limiting wealth inequality, it must prevent free market transactions of the form just described.
  2. And therefore because of this, socialism restricts freedom and is therefore unjust.

To which can be said several things.

First, note that Nozick is not, at least, making his argument from merit, desert, or any other such notion. He does not need Chamberlain to be an excellent basketball player or a hard-worker or particularly virtuous character for the thought experiment to have its impact. He is saying that regardless of this, people are engaging in free transactions which we have no good reason to stop.

But what we can say in response is that any power the thought experiment has on us surely derives from the fact that this looks like a harmless, simple exchange in which one man becomes rich and the rest become happy watching him, and life carries on quite naturally as if no radical social transformation just transpired. Hence Nozick’s description of the exchange as ‘free’: not only was it intentional, it was in full knowledge of the repercussions.

And yet, it seems that if he wishes to extrapolate a general rule from this that all market transactions are free and thereby all situations arising from them are just, he must also show how such transactions will be made in full knowledge of their likely consequences. And he cannot show this, because the collective outcomes of such wide-scale action cannot possibly be comprehended by individual consumers. Nobody contemplates how their small-scale choices contribute to a trend which leads to the type of wealth inequality seen today:

So given the vast unforeseen social effects such transactions end up having upon citizen relations, power dynamics and so on, it seems plausible to say most paying to see Wilt play would judge these negative and not consent to them were they to know about them. So in what sense can Nozick retain the thought that the transactions were ‘free’?

Secondly, Cohen tackles Nozick’s suggestion that any socialist system is necessarily coercive head-on, by noting Nozick’s implicit premise:

Man is a capitalist animal. He cannot help but exchange.

But this is precisely what the socialist denies. So it can’t be simply asserted. This conception of human nature as inevitably in all situations wishing to buy and sell would indeed, if true, mean that socialism has to be Stalinist. But if the socialist is right in suggesting that man may evolve, and rid himself of such contingent instincts he has in modern society but not as a matter of necessity, then socialism would work through consensus: people would simply stop swapping money for goods in such a pervasive way. And it is only in such conditions, in which coercion would not be necessary, that true socialists will endorse reform after all.


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