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Nozick v. The State

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Tags Philosophy and MethodologyPolitical Theory

01/25/2002James Ostrowski

The premature death of Robert Nozick brings back memories.  It was 1979, and I was taking a course at the University of Buffalo in modern political thought taught by Paul Kurtz, founder of Prometheus Books.  (Libertarian theorist and fellow Buffalonian Roy Childs told me later that he had taken the same course years earlier). Among the required readings was Nozick's first book, Anarchy, State, and Utopia--a sensation. The book rebutted the ponderous welfarist treatise by John Rawls, A Theory of Justice.

In those days, I was a naïve Jeffersonian, meaning that I didn't fully realize what a radical Jeffersonian was--what a gulf there was between the Jeffersonian vision and the nightmarish world of the Carter administration. I didn't completely understand the second paragraph of the Declaration, but I loved it anyway. I had read Milton Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom, and it got me moving in the right direction. I had read Locke and liked it because it sounded like Jefferson.  Yes, yes, I know Locke came first, but Jefferson came first to me.  I had read Rand's essays and found them intriguing.

Then came Nozick.  He writes, "The fundamental question of political philosophy, one that precedes questions about how the state should be organized, is whether there should be any state at all.  Why not have anarchy?"  Why not, indeed?  No one has given me a satisfactory answer to that question, not even Nozick.  I understand that, psychologically, people are not ready to be free, but what is the reason why we should be stuck with the murderous modern state?  In a world that contains no metaphysical obstacle to peace and liberty among men, can't we do better?  What good is a security blanket soaked in blood?

Nozick said only a classical liberal minimal state was justified, a conclusion that shook a philosophical world previously preoccupied with the debate between Stalinism and Trotskyism.  His "refutation" of anarchocapitalism was later refuted by Roy Childs and by an obscure economist whom I will mention in a moment. Nozick's assault on utilitarianism was more successful than his assault on "the state of nature" and constitutes one of the great passages in the history of libertarian literature:

[T]here is no social entity with a good that undergoes some sacrifice for its own good. There are only individual people, different individual people, with their own individual lives. Using one of these people for the benefit of others, uses him and benefits the others. Nothing more. What happens is that something is done to him for the sake of others. Talk of an overall social good covers this up. (Intentionally?) To use a person this way does not sufficiently respect and take account of the fact that he is a separate person, that his life is the only life he has. He does not get some overbalancing good from his sacrifice, and no one is entitled to force this upon him-least of all a state or government that claims his allegiance (as other individuals do not) and that therefore scrupulously must be neutral between its citizens.

Later, Nozick does a yeoman's work unmasking the adolescent notion of the redistribution (theft) of wealth. He defends the right of private owners to give to those they choose:

This does not mean necessarily that all deserve what holdings they receive. It means only that there is a purpose or point to someone's transferring a holding to one person rather than another; that usually we can see what the transferer thinks he's gaining, what cause he thinks he's serving, what goals he thinks he's helping to achieve and so forth. . . . The system of entitlements is defensible when constituted by the individual aims of individual transactions. No overarching aim is needed, no distributional pattern is required.

Nozick continues, in a manner that makes you wonder why these issues had ever been in dispute:

Whoever makes something, having bought or contracted for all other held resources used in the process . . . is entitled to it. The situation is not one of something's getting made, and there being an open question of who is to get it. Things come into the world already attached to people having entitlement over them.

"End state" entitlement theories require continuous interference in people's lives. For example, argues Nozick, if people choose to give their money to Wilt Chamberlain (boy, are we dating ourselves), and Chamberlain gets rich, then the state redistributes his wealth for the sake of equality, and the next year, when we go to the Lakers' game, and give Wilt more money, the state will have to come in and seize it again, and again, and again, and again, forever.  Will you thieves leave Wilt and his poor fans alone, please! (And Jerry West, too.)

As great as Anarchy, State and Utopia is--filled with these and other sublime insights--perhaps the most important part of the book is the bibliography! Here, Nozick displayed great judgment and courage--remember this is crimson Harvard in 1974--by listing three books--Man, Economy and State, Power and Market, and For a New Liberty--all by an obscure economist I had never heard of at the time: Murray Rothbard. This was the only mention of the great Rothbard that I heard in seven years of college and law school. It was Rothbard, in fact, who had influenced the writing of Anarchy in the first place.

Nozick, Childs, and Rothbard are taken from us now, but we are left with their irresistible ideas, which we need now more than ever.



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