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The Right to Be Rich or Poor

Anarchy, State, and Utopia

by Robert Nozick
Basic Books, 367 pp., $12.95

When times are hard and governments are looking for ways to reduce expenditure, a book like Anarchy, State, and Utopia is about the last thing we need. That will be the reaction of some readers to this book. It is, of course, an unfair reaction, since a work of philosophy that consists of rigorous argument and needle-sharp analysis with absolutely none of the unsupported vague waffle that characterizes too many philosophy books must be welcomed whatever we think of its conclusions. The chances of Gerald Ford reasoning his way through Nozick’s book to the conviction that he ought to cut back the activities of the state in fields like welfare, education, and health are not high. The book will probably do more good in raising the level of philosophical discussion than it will do harm in practical politics.

Robert Nozick’s book is a major event in contemporary political philosophy. There has, in recent years, been no sustained and competently argued challenge to the prevailing conceptions of social justice and the role of the state. Political philosophers have tended to assume without argument that justice demands an extensive redistribution of wealth in the direction of equality; and that it is a legitimate function of the state to bring about this redistribution by coercive means like progressive taxation. These assumptions may be correct; but after Anarchy, State, and Utopia they will need to be defended and argued for instead of being taken for granted.

Anarchy, State, and Utopia falls into three sections, as its title indicates. Part I tries to show that a minimal type of state—the “nightwatchman” state of classical liberal theory, limited to protecting its citizens against force and fraud—can arise legitimately, without violating anyone’s rights. In the second part Nozick argues that the minimal state is the most extensive state that can be justified and that any more extensive state does violate people’s rights. The book ends with a section contending that the minimal state is, harsh appearances notwithstanding, an ideal worth fighting for.

All three sections are well worth reading, although the third is the slightest. Here Nozick, finding incredible the supposition that there is one best form of society for everyone, proposes instead a “meta-utopia”—a framework for many diverse utopian experiments, all formed of voluntary communities, so that no one can impose his version of utopia on others. Within a community people may voluntarily adopt redistributive measures, and those refusing to participate may be excluded from the community; but within a nation, which would include many communities, there should be no compulsory redistribution. The idea is appealing because it enhances individual freedom. But there are serious objections that are not adequately considered. Could a community that wanted a lot of redistribution survive the departure of the wealthy members whose moral principles are weaker than their desire for wealth? Could it withstand the pressure of applications to join from the down-and-outs left to starve in neighboring communities run by ruthless capitalists?

Or, to take a different kind of objection, could a community maintain its dedication to an austere life of virtue if it were surrounded by the flashy temptations of American capitalism? Nozick would say that the choice between austere virtue and flashy temptation must be left to the individual; but doesn’t this assume an ability to make free rational choices that most people simply do not possess? Is the free flow of information sufficient to wash away the encrusted muck of billions of dollars worth of advertising for a style of life devoted to the acquisition of consumer goods and the elimination of stains and odors? Nozick’s vision of utopia fails to deal with the fundamental Marxist objection to classical liberalism: people may make choices, but they do so under given historical circumstances which influence their choices. We do not enable people to govern their lives by giving them a “free” choice within these limits while refusing to do anything about the contexts in which these choices are made.

To say this smacks of paternalism and has unpleasant totalitarian associations. But what if the choice lies not between paternalism and freedom, but between making a deliberate attempt to control the circumstances under which we live and allowing these circumstances to develop haphazardly, permitting only an illusory sense of individual liberty? I ask the question seriously, not rhetorically. Perhaps it can be answered, but Nozick passes it by with a fleeting reference to Tocqueville’s idea that being free develops the capacity for freedom, and this reply does not touch the heart of the issue.

The arguments of Part I are directed mainly against the anarchist who objects to any state at all. Nozick does not say that a state is a good thing and we are all better off with a state than we would be without one. This obvious procedure for dealing with the anarchist would be foreign to Nozick’s entire approach and would set a precedent subversive of his aim in the second part. Instead he maintains that we can get from a state of nature to a minimal state without violating anyone’s rights, so that there is no point at which anyone can claim that the state has assumed authority illegitimately. Nozick begins his story in a state of nature modeled on that of John Locke, but he leaves this natural condition by another route, avoiding the need for the agreement or social contract that has been a source of so much criticism for Locke and his followers.

Nozick’s minimal state, or “state-like entity” as he sometimes calls it, is a kind of protection agency to which people in the state of nature pay a fee for protection from assault, robbery, and so on. Nozick argues plausibly that clients of the agency would give up to the agency their rights to punish violations of their rights, and that one protective association, or federation of protective associations, would become dominant in each geographical territory. So, without any express agreements or over-all intention on anyone’s part, people in the state of nature would find themselves with a body that satisfies two fundamental conditions for being a state: it has a monopoly of force in its territory, and it protects the rights of everyone within the territory.

Together with the story of the development of the state in the first part there are many other interesting subsidiary discussions. There are sensible answers to such puzzling questions (for laissez-faire liberals) as why blackmail (payment for the service of silence about another’s affairs) should be prohibited; and why, for that matter, we should ever prohibit anything, rather than allow violations of rights provided that the victims are adequately compensated. Although Nozick admits that the book contains no full-scale presentation of the moral basis for his views, there is some unorthodox moral philosophy, including a lengthy discussion of the place of nonhuman animals in morality. Nozick thereby becomes one of the small but growing number of contemporary philosophers who have given this neglected topic genuine consideration, and he joins those who urge radical changes in our treatment of nonhumans, including the recommendation that we stop eating them.1

Interesting as the first part is, for those of us who have little difficulty in accepting the moral legitimacy of some minimal kind of state, the excitement begins only when we enter the second part. A reader who is sympathetic to government policies designed to redistribute wealth and who has taken for granted the justice of such policies will be surprised at the strength of the arguments Nozick brings against this view.

One book cannot deal with all the reasons that have been urged in support of extending the functions of the state beyond the protection of its citizens against force and fraud. Therefore Nozick selects what he considers the strongest, and most widely accepted, case: the claim that a more extensive state is justified in order to achieve justice in the distribution of wealth. It is this claim that receives the brunt of his attack on the extended state.

Nozick uses the term “holdings” to describe the goods, money, and property of all kinds that people have. The issue, then, is what holdings people would have in a just society.

The position Nozick takes is a radical departure from the theories of distributive justice discussed by most philosophers, especially in recent years. Nozick characterizes the principles of justice usually advocated as “patterned.” A patterned distribution is one which (to put the matter more loosely than Nozick does) can be summed up in some simple formula of the type: “To all according to his–-.” The blank can be filled in by “need,” “labor,” “moral desert,” “IQ,” “noble blood,” or whatever—the result will always be a patterned distribution. In any existing society, the distribution of wealth will presumably not correspond exactly to any preordained pattern, so that to achieve a just society we shall have to take a bit from here and give a bit there, until people’s holdings correspond to what we think is the right pattern.

In contrast to all patterned theories, Nozick proposes the “entitlement theory”: a distribution is just if it arises from a prior just distribution by legitimate means. Basically, you originally acquire something justly if you take something that belongs to nobody, without thereby making worse the position of others no longer able to use the thing. (For example, I can appropriate land for myself if it is unowned and there is enough good land left for others.) Here Nozick again follows Locke, although his account is more precise. Then there are legitimate ways of transferring things you own, especially voluntary exchange and gift. As a result there is no pattern to which a just distribution must conform. People may choose to retain what they start with, or give some of it, or all of it, away. They may make profitable investments, or unprofitable ones. They may live frugally and hoard what they have, or dissipate it in a wild spree. They may gamble. So long as their original holdings were justly acquired, and the decisions they made involved neither force nor fraud, the result will be just no matter how widely people’s holdings vary. The entitlement theory of justice makes the justice of a given set of holdings depend on the history of those holdings, and not on the conformity of the outcome to a given pattern.

Both the strengths and the weaknesses of the entitlement theory are immediately apparent. On the one hand, can it really be just that one baby should come into the world with a multi-million-dollar trust fund, the best possible schooling, and family connections with the nation’s leading politicians and financiers awaiting him, while another baby faces life in a dingy apartment with no money and nothing else to help him on his way in the world? Neither baby at the moment of birth can possibly deserve anything; an equal division would therefore seem the only just one.

  1. 1

    Some other philosophers who have written on this issue are included in Animals, Men and Morals, edited by S. and R. Godlovitch and J. Harris (Taplinger, 1973). See my review in The New York Review, April 5, 1973.

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