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…

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