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Robert Nozick :

Anarchy, State, and Utopia


Robert Nozick is regarded as one of the two most influential political philosophers of the twentieth century. The other was his Harvard colleague John Rawls. Nozick was born in Brooklyn, New York, attended public schools, majored in philosophy at Columbia, did his graduate studies at Princeton, and spent a year as a Fulbright Scholar at Oxford. Except for a two-year stint as associate professor at Rockefeller University, a posting as a fellow at the Centre for Advanced Study in Behavioural Sciences at Stanford and a sabbatical at the Rockefeller Foundation Study Centre at Bellagio on Lake Como, he spent most of his professional life as a professor of philosophy at Harvard.

Nozick married twice. He was married to Barbara Fierer, a teacher, for 22 years and they had two children. Six years after their divorce he married Gjertrud Schnackenberg, a poet.


Nozick’s intellectual interests were extensive, including economics, the social sciences, biology and the natural sciences. At Harvard, he was involved in multi-disciplinary seminars. Even as a philosopher his range was amazing. In addition to political philosophy, he made major contributions in the fields of epistemology (the theory of knowledge), the metaphysics of personal identity (the theoretical philosophy of being and knowing), a complex theory of rationality, meditations on the meaning of life, and an examination of objective truth in the light of modern discoveries in biology and physics.


As a student, he had been an ardent socialist. However, his in-depth study of Immanuel Kant and John Locke, and his reading of contemporaries such as Ludwig von Mises, F.A. Hayek, Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard, changed his views. His most famous work, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, reflects a libertarian position.


In addition to the usual economic arguments in favour of libertarianism, Nozick adds the moral one: the respect for individual rights that flow from man’s inherent human dignity, his self-ownership.


Nozick posits that if we own ourselves then we have certain rights; in particular to life, liberty and the fruits of our labour. These rights constrain others, putting limits on their actions not to kill or maim us and not to force us to work against our will. This leads Nozick to the view that the redistributive programs of the modern state are morally illegitimate. They give others a right to certain benefits from the proceeds of our labour. Others become a part owner of the individual and this is inconsistent with the principle of self-ownership.


He concludes that the role of the state should be minimal, confined to national defence, police protection and courts of law, with other tasks commonly assumed by modern governments left to voluntary organisations. Nozick’s view of the state is in the social contract tradition of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and Rawls, but he differs from them in that he believes that individual rights do not result from but exist prior to any social contract and put constraints on its form.


Many people believe that a necessary role of the state is to correct the distortions of the market place and to redistribute wealth and income fairly. Nozick developed his entitlement theory of justice to refute this. It comprises three principles: the principle of justice in acquisition, that one acquires something from nature that no one has owned before, by using one’s brains or labour to make it useful; the principle of justice in transfer, that one acquires something though voluntary exchange; and the principle of rectification to justly correct past errors in acquisition or transfer.


He believed that anyone who owns something consistent with these principles has a right to it. Significantly, the resulting distribution of wealth and income will not match any pattern. Benefits will not necessarily accrue to the most deserving, the most hard-working, the most ingenious, or the most moral. Non-entitlement theories are all based on such patterns – to each according to his needs for instance. They fail in practice as they are distorted by trading success and free gifts, and can only be maintained by intolerable levels of state coercion. As Nozick famously said, “A socialist society would have to forbid capitalist acts between consenting adults”.


Nozick’s minimal state does not imply laissez-faire capitalism for everybody. His utopia is a world in which people are free to exercise their own vision of the good society; to be able to establish communities based on socialist or religious or egalitarian principles as they wish, provided only that people are free to join and not prohibited from leaving.


Anarchy, State, and Utopia was first published in 1974. It is an engaging book, provocative and often amusing, now inspiring a new generation of readers. It is a work of enduring academic significance.


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