Robert Nozick, Philospher of Liberty

By Long, Roderick T. | Ideas on Liberty, September 2002 | Go to article overview

Robert Nozick, Philospher of Liberty


Long, Roderick T., Ideas on Liberty


Twenty-eight years ago a Harvard philosophy professor named Robert Nozick did something unthinkable in polite intellectual society: he published a book defending libertarianism.

In 1974 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 the less fortunate.1 Then came Anarchy, State, and Utopia.2

As a child in his native Brooklyn, so the tale goes, young Nozick had been in the habit of asking street-corner preachers and soapbox orators, concerning whatever point of view they had been confidently expounding, "How do you know that?" One presumes that his question met with a chilly reception; if so, he would have been well prepared for the reaction to Anarchy, State, and Utopia (henceforth, ASU), which was often greeted with incredulity and outrage.3 Yet even its critics could not deny the book's philosophical brilliance and disarming wit, and it quickly found its way onto reading lists in courses on political philosophy throughout the English-speaking world. A National Book Award winner for 1975, ASU has since been translated into 11 languages.

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.

While establishment intellectuals have granted ASU a spot in the official canon, they have not yet fully come to grips with the ideas it contains. Misunderstandings and distortions of Nozick's theories abound; for example, Nozick is commonly described as maintaining that we have no obligations to assist people in need. (His actual position, of course, is that obligations to assist are not legitimately enforceable.) Nor, being unfamiliar with any libertarian theorist other than Nozick, do most academics recognize the extent-far deeper than the passing references in his footnotes might suggest-of Nozick's dependence on, and engagement (both sympathetic and critical) with, earlier libertarian thinkers.4

Nozick sought to defend the minimal state-that is, a state "limited to the functions of protecting all its citizens against violence, theft, and fraud, and to the enforcement of contracts" (p. 26)-not only against those who want something more, but also against those who want something less. ASU therefore includes a critique of "anarcho-- capitalism," the ultra-libertarian position that the legislative, judicial, and police functions hitherto monopolized by government should be open to competition among private "protection agencies." In an argument too complex to summarize here, Nozick responds by trying to show how, starting from an anarcho-capitalist framework, a minimal state could arise without violating anybody's rights. (This argument has won few converts, however.) Ironically, most of Nozick's academic readers, unfamiliar with libertarian theory, refer to the notion of competing protection agencies as "Nozick's idea."

Libertarianism Without Foundations?

The most common, and perhaps the strangest, mainstream criticism of ASU is that it simply asserts the existence of libertarian rights but offers no argument for them. This characterization of Nozick's theory as "libertarianism without foundations,"5 while convenient for his critics, cannot survive a reading of the text. …

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