Browse > Home / Liberal Philosophy / ROBERT NOZICK (1938-2002): ANARCHY, STATE, AND UTOPIA (1974)

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nozickAuthor: Barry Stocker

The American philosopher Robert Nozick is the most influential advocate of nightwatchman, or minimum state, liberalism in academic political theory, and is often taken as the definitive representative of libertarianism in academic debates. Nozick’s position is that the state exists purely to protect property and life, through laws and a criminal justice system. He argues both against anarchism and against more expansive views of the role of the state; and particularly against redistribution of income, or any intrusion into individual property rights.

Nozick was introduced to libertarian ideas by the anarcho-capitalist/individualist anarchist Murray Rothbard, so Anarchy, State, and Utopia is a rejection of the ideas of Nozick’s mentor, in some respects, and was not well received by Rothbardians, though Nozick mentions Rothbard respectfully in the acknowledgments. On the other hand, Nozick was reacting against his colleague in the Department of Philosophy at Harvard, John Rawls. Rawls was the author of the massively influential A Theory of Justice, which advocates egalitarian principles that might lead to redistribution of income. This is not a necessity in Rawls, and at least some moderate libertarians have argued for taking up Rawls.

Nozick argues against any possibility of redistribution of income. Like Rawls, he thought the state is based on a contract, and like Rawls he mentions John Locke as a model for ‘contract theory’, but places much more reliance on Locke than Rawls. The point of recent contract theory is not to argue for a historical moment in which a contract was agreed to between all members of a society. The issue is to identity the most basic elements of what is we implicitly, or tacitly agree to, by living in a society under laws enforced by a state. As long as we continue to live in that society, we are accepting certain conditions, and what Nozick looks for is those conditions which would apply in any liveable society. For Nozick, the point of the contract that founds the state is for effective enforcement of the most basic rights through laws and punishment of law breakers.

Nozick considers, and rejects, the possibilities that basic rights could be established by a free choice between law enforcement agencies. This option would be a version of anarchism, which Nozick rejects because given a variety of law enforcement agencies, there is the constant possibility that one will be able to coerce others, so that their protection becomes irrelevant to those individuals who have contracted with that agency. The effective right to life, the effective right to property, and the enforcement of freely agreed contracts relies on a single law enforcement agency, the state, funded by some compulsory, if minor, redistribution of property. That is the only intervention the state can make in property rights though, except with regard to settling disputes between individuals. The state should not take taxes, or coerce individuals into giving up property, for any other purpose. Property, or income, distribution should not be changed where it is the product of voluntary actions.

In a particularly famous passage, Nozick uses the example of individuals paying to see a basketball match featuring a very a popular player. That player will become very wealthy, because of the number of people prepared to pay for tickets for any match in which he is playing. This comes about through a multitude of individual voluntary actions. No one was coerced to give up money to watch that player, so the resulting property that player has is rightly his and should not be redistributed. No one individual decided to make that player rich, but the distribution of income should be the unintended consequence of actions, not state design of income distribution which would require violation of individual property rights, and choices.

The point of the title of Nozick’s book is partly that the state has to be preferred over anarchy. The utopia part of the title refers to the freedom people can have under a minimal state. Nozick’s definition of that utopia is of a great variety of voluntary communities, within the minimal laws of the state. These communities would reflect various ethical, religious and political ideas of utopia. These communities would be free to make their own rules, so long as they do not conflict with the laws of the nightwatchman state, and so long as there is a possibility of exit for anyone who wants to leave a particular community. These utopian communities could be very socialistic in character, so long as this is a purely voluntary arrangement in which no one is coerced into giving up property. It appears that Nozick later moved to a more moderate version of libertarianism, but the details of this are not clear as his later publications dealt with various aspects of philosophy other than political theory.