|Montréal, February 2, 2002 / No 97|
by Pierre Lemieux
Philosopher Robert Nozick (1938-2002), who died on January 23, is described by the Harvard University Gazette as "one of the late 20th century's most influential thinkers." Indeed, his 1974 book, Anarchy, State and Utopia, redefined the way academics and many others thought about government.
In this book, he showed how difficult it is to justify the state. If "individuals have rights" (the first words of the book), "a minimal state, limited to the narrow functions of protection against force, theft, fraud, enforcement of contracts and so on is justified; (and) any more extensive state will violate persons' rights not to be forced to do certain things, and is unjustified."
Nozick was a professor in the Harvard Department of Philosophy and a colleague
of John Rawls, who had just provided a major justification of the non-minimal
welfare state in his famous A Theory of Justice (1971). Nozick showed
how the Rawlsian state violates individual rights. Indeed, an important
part of Nozick's Anarchy, State and Utopia was a critique of Rawls.
A long tradition of economic analysis had already argued that private arrangements could replace the state in most, if not all, functions. Popular philosophers such as novelist Ayn Rand had proposed a libertarian social philosophy. Yet, contemporary philosophy seemed essentially statist.
With his credibility as an established academic philosopher, Nozick changed that. After Anarchy, State and Utopia, philosophers and social scientists could not just assume that a state, even democratic, was legitimate. One felt obliged to explain why force and the threat of force were illegitimate when used by a mafia but legitimate when wielded by the state.
An "entitlement theory of justice"
Nozick's claim was that a state can conceivably emerge without violating anybody's rights if and only if it is a minimal state. In a stateless society, many individuals would subscribe to private protective agencies. One such agency, Nozick believed, would come to achieve a near-monopoly position. It would then forbid non-customers from enforcing their rights with risky and unreliable procedures pertaining to apprehension, trial and punishment of criminals. For this prohibition, it would have to compensate the non-customers by offering them free protection. Any more extensive state would use force to finance and provide "services" that some individuals do not want.
Nozick's theory of the state relied heavily on economic analysis. However, it strongly argued against utilitarianism, i.e., the idea that one individual's loss can be justified by another individual's greater gain. Instead, Nozick proposed an "entitlement theory of justice" based on property rights of every individual on his own body and, thus, on what he creates or what he exchanges without coercion. Justice is the consequence of liberty. Any other theory of justice, including so-called social justice, requires using some individuals as means to the ends of others. Subjects of a more-than-minimal state are part-time slaves.
"The socialist society," wrote Nozick, "would have to forbid capitalist acts between consenting adults."
Given that individuals have different preferences, there can be no single utopian social ideal. Utopia, explains Nozick, is actually "meta-utopia," that is, "a place where people are at liberty to join together voluntarily to pursue and attempt to realize their own vision of the good life in the ideal community but where no one can impose his own utopian vision upon others." Real utopia can only be a libertarian, minimal-state society.
In the process of defending this diversified utopia, Nozick reactualized individualist anarchism and its theorists, like 19th-century Lysander Spooner, who argued that the state is a band of robbers and murderers and the democratic state, where voters hide behind the secret ballot, a "secret band of robbers and murderers." Except, in Nozick's vision, if the state is minimal.
After his celebrated book, the Harvard philosopher moved to other philosophical challenges and appeared to drift away from libertarianism. Yet, in a recent interview by Laissez-Faire Books, he said, "the rumors of my deviation (or apostasy!) from libertarianism were much exaggerated. ... I still am within the general framework of libertarianism."
As a consequence of Nozick's trail-blazing work, it is probably true that, in today's anglo-American academic circles (although not yet in the popular or political culture), the statists are on the defensive. Without Robert Nozick, the great statist brainwash that was the 20th century would have been even more irresistible.
*Article first published in The Gazette, Saturday, January 26, 2002.
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