Mises Daily

Anarchy, State, and Robert Nozick

[Transcribed from the Libertarian Tradition podcast episode “Robert Nozick.”]

Early in 1970, at the age of 23, I did something I’d never done before. Yes, yes, I know, people of that age often stick their necks out in such fashion. But in my case, the thing I’d never done before wasn’t particularly daring or dangerous; it was merely unusual, perhaps even eccentric. What I did was subscribe to an academic, scholarly, philosophy journal. It was a quarterly called The Personalist, and it was published by the University of Southern California. (It still is, though under a different name — the Pacific Philosophical Quarterly — and at a rather different price: in the early 1970s, it cost five dollars a year; today it costs a little less than a hundred dollars a year.)

Anyway, I’m not sure how many years I kept that subscription to The Personalist going. In fact, I’m guessing when I say I subscribed to it early in 1970 — though that does seem likely. The earliest issue I still own is dated Spring 1970, and it’s only necessary to scan the table of contents of that issue to figure out why I might have subscribed. There it is, right smack in the middle of that table of contents — an article called “Rational Egoism” by Nathaniel Branden. In 1970, I almost certainly still thought of myself as (and here’s a quaint phrase from yesteryear) a “student of Objectivism”; I was still in the process of changing my self-identification from “student of Objectivism” to “libertarian strongly influenced by Ayn Rand.” I had, however, rejected Ayn Rand’s demand two years earlier, in 1968, that I condemn Nathaniel Branden and refuse to deal with him in any way, purely on her say-so, with no clear explanation, much less evidence, of any supposed ethical transgressions by Branden. And that, of course, marked the beginning of the end for my affiliation with the Objectivist movement.

The public and acrimonious break between Ayn Rand and Nathaniel Branden was known around the country as the “Rand-Branden Split.” It led to a nearly fatal implosion of the original Objectivist movement. Nathaniel Branden had been Rand’s chief disciple and had built that original Objectivist movement from scratch, centering it around the lectures and other activities sponsored by his Nathaniel Branden Institute, NBI, headquartered in the basement of New York’s Empire State Building — and centering it also around the theoretical and polemical articles published in The Objectivist, the monthly magazine he coedited with Ayn Rand. When all this blew up in 1968, thousands of young “students of Objectivism” began gradually to self-identify as libertarians.

Meanwhile, Branden moved to Los Angeles, where he had first met Rand two decades before, while an undergraduate at UCLA. His ex-wife Barbara Branden, who had managed NBI, lectured there on the principles of efficient thinking, and served also as a prolific writer for The Objectivist, had moved back to LA at about the same time. When they arrived they found a number of important intellectual allies waiting to receive them. One of these was a philosophy professor named John Hospers, who had enjoyed a close and intense intellectual friendship with Rand in the early 1960s in New York, when he was teaching at Brooklyn College.

Hospers had moved out to LA within a year or so of meeting Rand, but had stayed in touch via the US mail and frequent flights back to New York for personal visits. His relationship with Rand had ended, by her choice, in 1962. Unsurprisingly (for anyone who knows much about Rand), the problem seems to have been that she found Hospers’s attitude toward her and her work to fall short of what she regarded as properly respectful. Some others, who shall remain unnamed, might have regarded the attitude she apparently desired in her associates as more sycophantic than respectful in the strict sense.

In any case, John Hospers was excommunicated in 1962. But his enthusiasm for Rand’s ideas never flagged; nor did his willingness to publicly acknowledge that enthusiasm. It is important to remember that Hospers was in his 40s, with nearly two decades of solid achievement behind him as well as the acceptance and approval of the mainstream academic world. He was one of the first professors of comparable academic stature to pay serious attention to Rand’s ideas or to any other modern libertarian ideas since — well, since at least the time of World War II, when those ideas were first offered to the world at large. Hospers included a brief discussion of Rand’s approach to ethical egoism in later editions of his widely adopted textbook, Introduction to Philosophical Analysis and discussed the same ideas at somewhat greater length in later editions of his other widely adopted textbook, Human Conduct: An Introduction to the Problems of Ethics. In 1971, he would publish one of the first books on the modern libertarian movement, Libertarianism: A Political Philosophy for Tomorrow. In 1972, he would become the first presidential candidate of the newly founded Libertarian Party and the only one ever to win any electoral votes.

But in 1970, when I seem to have subscribed to The Personalist, all this was in the future. In 1970, what I knew about John Hospers was that he had known Ayn Rand and had discussed her ideas in a way I thought was respectful in the newest editions of his two textbooks. I knew also that Hospers had become chair of the philosophy department of the University of Southern California in 1968 and had become editor of The Personalist at that same time. Would he use The Personalist to promote Rand’s ideas? As best I can figure out, at this juncture, four decades later, I subscribed to The Personalist to find out the answer to that question.

The short answer to my question turned out to be “no.” Hospers didn’t really use The Personalist to promote Rand’s ideas. But he did publish some articles of definite interest to students of Objectivism and other libertarians. There was not only Nathaniel Branden’s two-part article on “Rational Egoism” in the issues for Spring and Summer 1970. There was also an article in the Spring 1971 issue by Tibor Machan on the “rationale for human rights,” an article by Eric Mack in the Autumn 1971 issue on ethical egoism, and a short piece on government by Robert LeFevre in the Winter 1972 issue. (By that time, I see now, the price inflation of the Nixon and Carter years had begun to set in with a vengeance — the price for a year’s subscription had gone up to six dollars.)

Most important of all for our present purposes, the Spring 1971 issue of The Personalist contained an article entitled “On the Randian Argument” by someone I had never heard of before, a professor of philosophy at no less than Harvard named Robert Nozick. This article marked what I think could rightfully be called Nozick’s debut as a libertarian — his first public acknowledgement that he regarded the ideas of thinkers like Rand as worth considering and worth seriously discussing.

Up to that time, only a handful of libertarians had known about Nozick’s interest in their theories, and most, if not all, of that handful were frequenters of Murray Rothbard’s legendary Manhattan living room. One of that handful, Ralph Raico, recalls first meeting or at least hearing about Robert Nozick in the very late 1950s or very early 1960s, through a mutual friend, who, like Nozick, was a graduate student of philosophy at Princeton. This mutual friend, Raico recalls, brought Nozick over to Rothbard’s apartment one evening — “it must have been in the early 60s,” he writes — for what turned out to be the first of many long nights of discussion and debate.

And those nights of discussion and debate were fruitful; eventually they led to much more than a short article in a philosophy journal on Ayn Rand’s argument for ethical egoism. This became evident in the fall of 1974, three years after the publication of that article in The Personalist, when a new book appeared on the scene amid considerable fanfare — a book called Anarchy, State & Utopia by Robert Nozick. In the opening pages, Nozick confessed to his readers that over the preceding several years he had “found myself becoming convinced of (as they are now often called) libertarian views” and that this process had been touched off by “a long conversation about six years ago with Murray Rothbard.” About six years before the publication of Anarchy, State & Utopia would have been around 1967 or 1968.

But it wasn’t Rothbard’s version of anarchocapitalism that Nozick had found himself becoming convinced of during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Rather, it was a version of minarchism — a version not unlike the one promoted by Ayn Rand. As Nozick put it,

Our main conclusions about the state are that a minimal state, limited to the narrow functions of protection against force, theft, fraud, enforcement of contracts, and so on, is justified; that any more extensive state will violate persons’ rights not to be forced to do certain things, and is unjustified; and that … the state may not use its coercive apparatus for the purpose of getting some citizens to aid others, or in order to prohibit activities to people for their own good or protection.

The state, Nozick argued, had no business prohibiting or even regulating what he famously called “capitalist acts between consenting adults.”

Anarchy, State & Utopia made something of a sensation in 1974. It was reviewed by all the major mainstream publications, and not always with disapproval. It became, at least by the standards ordinarily applied to books on political philosophy, a bestseller. It won the National Book Award. It was promptly translated into 11 other languages. More important from the point of view of movement libertarians, it remade the attitude of the intellectual mainstream toward libertarianism. As Roderick Long puts it in a 2002 article in The Freeman, Nozick “did something unthinkable in polite intellectual society: he published a book defending libertarianism.” Back then, “in 1974,” Long writes,

libertarian ideas had virtually no presence within the academic establishment. Free-market economists F.A. Hayek and Milton Friedman had not yet won their Nobel prizes (Hayek’s would come later that year, and Friedman’s two years after that), and the reigning political philosopher was Nozick’s own colleague John Rawls, whose monumental treatise, A Theory of Justice, had won widespread acclaim for its argument that individuals should be allowed to benefit from their greater wealth, talent, or effort only so long as they compensate[d] the less fortunate.

Long stresses that

Nozick’s book did not, of course, convert the profession; but it secured for libertarianism a place among the standard topics for philosophical discussion, and thereby contributed to a crucial change in the intellectual climate. Libertarianism was no longer the philosophical equivalent of flat-earth theory; it was now a respectable (or at least semi-respectable) position that had to be taken into account. Robert Nozick thus paved the way for succeeding generations of libertarians in academia.

Rothbard saw the situation in similar terms, writing a little over a year after the publication of Anarchy, State & Utopia that

the work has had great importance in making the topic[s] of libertarianism and anarchism respectable for the first time in philosophy courses … and paving the way for libertarians to write term papers and dissertations in a previously verboten area.

Roderick Long, who is himself both a philosophy professor and a libertarian, has written that

Nozick disappointed many readers by declining to defend his book against the many criticisms it received; remarking that he didn’t want to spend his life writing variations on Son of Anarchy, State, and Utopia … [he] largely dropped political philosophy and moved on to other topics.

And aside from a handful of essays, this is largely true. The first big exception came in 1989, in his mostly apolitical book, The Examined Life, in which he startled libertarians all over the country by writing that

the libertarian position I once propounded now seems to me seriously inadequate, in part because it did not fully knit the humane considerations and joint cooperative activities it left room for more closely into its fabric. It neglected the symbolic importance of an official political concern with issues or problems, as a way of marking their importance or urgency and hence of expressing, intensifying, channeling, encouraging, and validating our private actions and concerns toward them. Joint goals that the government ignores completely … tend to appear unworthy of our joint attention and hence to receive little. There are some things we choose to do together through government in solemn marking of our human solidarity, served by the fact that we do them together in this official fashion.

This certainly sounds like a recanting of the “main conclusions about the state” that Nozick said informed Anarchy, State & Utopia. But in an interview conducted in July 2001, he stated that he had never stopped self-identifying as a libertarian. And Roderick Long reports that

in his last book, Invariances, [Nozick] identified voluntary cooperation as the “core principle” of ethics, maintaining that the duty not to interfere with another person’s “domain of choice” is “[a]ll that any society should (coercively) demand”; higher levels of ethics, involving positive benevolence, represent instead a “personal ideal” that should be left to “a person’s own individual choice and development.”

And that certainly sounds like an attempt to embrace libertarianism all over again. My own view is that Nozick’s thinking about these matters evolved over time and that what he wrote at any given time was an accurate reflection of what he was thinking at that time.

When he was in his 20s, having newly discovered libertarian ideas, having read Rand, Rothbard, Mises, Hayek, and others, having met Rothbard and conversed with him at length, Nozick was fired up with excitement. And the excitement stayed with him: he was in his mid-30s when he published his book proclaiming his agreement with libertarian ideas. A dozen years later, some reservations belatedly occurred to him, and he wrote about those in his then-current book. Another dozen years, and those reservations no longer seemed to loom so large or to present such insoluble problems. And his last book reflects this final stage in the evolution of his thinking about politics and society.

Robert Nozick died from stomach cancer a few months after that 2001 interview, in January 2002, at the age of 63. He was born on November 16, 1938, in Brooklyn. Ralph Raico wrote of him at the time of his death that “Bob Nozick was as intellectually sharp as anyone I ever met.” Bear in mind that Raico had met not only Murray Rothbard but also Ludwig von Mises — among many, many others. As we pass into what would have been Robert Nozick’s 73rd year of life, let us acknowledge our good fortune at having a man of his caliber among us for as long as we did.

This article is transcribed from the Libertarian Tradition podcast episode “Robert Nozick (1938–2002).”

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