Robert Nozick, anarcho-capitalist

Roger Scruton
15 May 2002

During many years of teaching philosophy at Harvard University, Robert Nozick (1938-2002) wrote a series of rich and varied works, including Philosophical Explanations (1981), The Examined Life (1989), The Nature of Rationality (1995), and Socratic Puzzles (1997). The book for which he is best known, however, remained his first: the seminal critique of John Rawls’ theory of justice, Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974). Their philosophical dialogue over the conditions of a just society helped to define American politics for a generation.

Like John Rawls, whose influential theory of justice he opposed, Robert Nozick was an academic philosopher rather than a public intellectual. But for a while during the 1970s and 1980s it seemed as though the dispute between Nozick and Rawls defined what is at stake in American politics.

Nozick was briefly lionised as the champion of libertarian capitalism against the welfare culture, and his book Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974) became required reading in all courses of political philosophy and political science. Yet Nozick himself remained aloof from politics, and devoted his later writings to problems in the theory of knowledge. His “tracking” theory of knowledge – expounded at great length in subsequent books and papers – shows his subtlety of mind, his intellectual patience, and his at-oneness with modes of argument that those unversed in academic philosophy might dismiss as tedious and irrelevant. Were it not for Anarchy, State and Utopia it is fair to say that Nozick would be remembered as a brilliant academic, with little to say to those outside his discipline.

As its title indicates, Anarchy, State and Utopia derives its inspiration not from conservative theories of the state but from the anarchist opposition to the state as a form of human servitude. Its fundamental tenet is that individuals should be free to do everything that they have a right to do, and that the use of state power to curtail that freedom is an injustice. The only truly legitimate state is the “minimal state”: the state with just enough power to protect individual rights and not enough power to encroach on them. A right is an absolute veto in the hands of the one who possesses it; to violate a right is to wrong the one who possesses it, and to respect rights is to obey the Categorical Imperative of Kant – in other words, to treat humanity not as a means only but as an end in itself.

The enduring relevance of Nozick’s argument is brought out in the dispute with Rawls, who develops a thought experiment, drawing on the tradition of “social contract” philosophy, with which to justify a broadly welfarist distribution of goods and services. The just society, according to Rawls, is one which obeys the “difference principle”, guaranteeing the best possible position for those at the bottom of the social pile.

Nozick’s critique is based on the thought that justice is not a matter of distributions or patterns, but a matter of procedures and rights. We act justly when we respect rights, unjustly when we violate them. But by respecting rights we produce unpredictable outcomes. Any attempt to squeeze those outcomes into a distributive pattern will inevitably involve violating the rights of someone.

Basketball case

The example Nozick considers is that of the basketball player, Wilt Chamberlain, who will respond to an invitation to play only if each spectator pays a supplement of $5 for the privilege of seeing him. The spectators willingly pay this supplement, and Wilt Chamberlain willingly receives it. Nobody’s rights are trampled on and everyone is happy with the outcome – everyone, that is, except the socialist academic, who deplores a situation in which one man ends up a millionaire, while the rest of us remain where we were, only $5 the poorer. But there is no way of avoiding this outcome, which does not involve interfering with the rights of someone. To forbid Chamberlain to play is to deny his right to make use of his talents, skills and training. To forbid us to pay the supplement is to deny us the right to use our money as we wish; to confiscate Chamberlain’s profits is an act of expropriation; and so on.

The example may seem trivial, but it has important consequences, and the value of Anarchy, State and Utopia lies in the way those consequences are spelled out, so as to defend private property, private medicine, private schooling and private welfare services, and a variety of social and economic inequalities – not as good in themselves but as the unavoidable outcomes of the only concept of justice that we really understand: the concept of the “justice preserving transaction”. It is not states of affairs, distributions or patterns of ownership that are just or unjust, but the human actions that produce them.

Once we understand what justice means, in the real circumstances of human action, then we will see that we cannot respect the demands of justice, and also aim at a socialist or redistributive state. Indeed, distributions of power, property and privilege can never be guaranteed, even by the policies that set out expressly to produce them. Distributions arise by an “invisible hand”, and, Nozick argues, it is our failure to take seriously what Adam Smith meant by this phrase that has led us to over-estimate both the ability of politics to change the world, and its ability to respect the rights of individual citizens.

Nozick puts the anarcho-capitalist case with such clarity and conviction that it is not surprising that his influence has been almost as great as that of Rawls. His arguments have been criticised – not least because they seem to assume the very individualism that he uses them to defend – but they formulate intuitions about justice, rights and freedoms that are the shared legacy of Enlightenment politics, and which help us to understand why our systems of welfare are losing the respect and endorsement of modern citizens.

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