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Robert Nozick's Libertarian Framework for Utopia
Nozick’s Argument for the Minimal State
Nozick gravitated toward the use of reason and rational analysis in the formulation of his social conclusions. His arguments are not influenced by customs, traditions, or historical accounts of social evolution. Nozick’s rationalistic deductions lead to the notion of the spontaneous origin of the state. Although he did not maintain that the state literally came about spontaneously, he argues that it could have emerged inevitably.
Nozick vaguely uses "state of nature" theory as his point of departure. He explains that in a state of nature, a person may enforce his own rights, defend himself, exact retribution, and punish. He sees these rights as boundaries that circumscribe an area of moral space around an individual. His argumentation is limited, however, due to his failure to precisely explain the source from which rights originate. Nozick’s rights-based approach rests on Kantian intuitions and the Kantian categorical imperative regarding the treatment of persons as ends and not merely as means. He is a Kantian intuitionist with no grounded theory of rights. For Nozick, rights are emotionally intuited with no basis in natural law.
Nozick wants to demonstrate how a state would arise from anarchy through a process involving no morally impermissible actions. He wants to judge the possibility of evolving a state or “state-like entity” without violating individual rights. He asks if, and how, the voluntary assent of rational individuals can lead to an entity resembling the state.
In Nozick’s hypothetical anarcho-capitalist society, individuals could subscribe to private protection agencies which could provide protective services in the market. He endeavors to demonstrate that a minimal state could develop from an open market, where the existence of a large group of private defense agencies could lead to the establishment of a monopoly provider whose sole legitimate function would be the protection of individual rights. The only morally defensible state would be one restricted to the functions of adjudication and defense against force and fraud.
Assuming that people have the right to liberty, Nozick deduced the type of society that he thought would emerge. All individuals have the right to self-defense and to property defense. These rights are included in the idea of individual rights itself. Individuals have a right to protect themselves and may also delegate this right to others. Within the state of nature, people could solve their self-defense problem through voluntary arrangements and agreements. For example, by banding together in a mutual protection association, individuals could combine their power and agree to help fellow members defend against and punish rights violators. Members of a protective agency would agree to protect one another from aggressors. Protection could become a commodity sold by competing associations or firms. People could join and pay dues or fees to private protection associations. They would find it efficient to pay agents to protect them. A protective association specializing in the defense of its clients would possess the sum of the rights delegated to it by those customers.
Protective services are unique due to the fact that they use coercion. Nozick assumes that each protective agency would require each of its customers to abdicate the right of private retribution against aggressors.
Nozick goes on to discuss what would occur when there is a conflict between customers of different agencies which have arrived at incompatible decisions. Protective agencies could reach disagreements in defending their respective clients. One possible result is war between the protective agencies. Disputes between customers of different agencies could involve physical battle between the providers. On the other hand, the agencies could agree in advance on a private appeals court or arbitration process to settle disputes.
Some of the competing protective agencies would be better or stronger than others. In time, one dominant protective agency would eliminate or incorporate its competition and emerge as the single protective agency in a given geographical region. There would be a sole protection agency or a group of associations bound together in a federation. This dominant group or federation would be a self-defense league that had a monopoly on the use of violence in a specific territory. This monopoly (or near monopoly) could result through the defeat of rivals or through agreements to resolve cases when the agencies reach different decisions. Although different agencies may exist, there would be one unique federal judicial system in which they would all be members.
Nozick claims that there will emerge one dominant protective agency in each territory in which “almost all” the individuals in that area are included. At this point there may still be more independents who have chosen to enforce their own rights, rather than to purchase the protective services of the dominant agency. Here Nozick says that we have an “ultraminimal state” that provides enforcement and protection service only to those who buy its service. Individuals would still be free to enforce private justice in an ultraminimal state.
The State as the Dominant Protective Agency
So far, Nozick has not yet derived the “minimal state,” since there may be some individuals (i.e., independents) who are not protected by it. In order to arrive at the minimal state, the independents must be absorbed into the dominant protective agency. Nozick contends that the ultraminimal state is unjust because it does not protect everyone’s rights. His problem is to transform the ultraminimal state into the minimal state without violating anyone’s rights, including those of the proprietors of the agencies eliminated from the market and those of their customers. Nozick’s attempts to justify how an ultraminimal state developed within the natural social order could be transformed into a minimal state without violating individual rights has been viewed by some critics as flawed, unconvincing, and unsuccessful.
Nozick begins his explanation of how the ultraminimal state is converted into the minimal state by observing that each person has a right to be judged according to the procedures which minimize the chance of his property rights being infringed. He goes on to say that each individual has the procedural right to have his guilt ascertained by the least dangerous of the known procedures for determining guilt. Such a procedure would be the one with the lowest probability of finding an innocent man guilty. Nozick contends that customers will not settle for less than the most reliable procedures pertaining to the apprehension, trial, and punishment of criminals.
According to Nozick, the dominant association would have the right to prohibit its competition and non-customers from using risky and unreliable procedures. In other words, Nozick claims that the dominant agency has the right to prohibit risky procedures against its client. The near-monopoly agency’s right to forbid these risky procedures is said to derive directly from a person’s pre-legal, procedural rights, which Nozick assumes to exist in very much the same manner as property rights exist.
Nozick contends that rights enforcement by independents yields a dangerous risk of unjust punishment of the dominant association’s patrons because of the independents’ lack of impartial and reliable judicial procedures for determining guilt and appropriate punishment. Therefore, to protect its customers, the dominant protective agency may prohibit the independents from self-help enforcement or from hiring their own protective service.
Nozick argues that the independents must be compensated for having specific risky procedures and activities prohibited to them. His “principle of compensation” states that the risky procedures may be banned given that those who are forbidden to perform those actions are justly compensated for the forceful deprivation of their rights to engage in these activities.
The dominant protective agency deprives non-customers of their rights to enforce justice themselves when they believe their rights have been violated. It follows that the customers of the dominant agency must compensate the independents for forcibly denying them their natural rights to punish violators of those rights. According to Nozick, if in defense of his procedural rights, a person deprives another of the means of protecting his natural rights, he must compensate that individual adequately to allow him to re-acquire those means. In other words, the dominant protective agency is viewed by Nozick as acting morally and properly as long as it compensates the independents sufficiently to buy protection from it without incurring extra costs. What Nozick is saying is that an agency may violate individual rights, and in so doing creates a state, if it compensates the person whose rights are violated for their losses.
To compensate for the infringement of the right of self-protection, the monopoly agency will extend its protective coverage to those who are not its customers. Nozick sees this as the most practical way of compensating the independents who have been prohibited from defending themselves. He contends that, in so doing, the dominant agency provides a service to all because it reduces the risk of dealing with other less able agencies. The dominant agency provides the independents and customers of other agencies with protection services which are more efficiently and effectively produced. Nozick states that the ultraminimal state is morally obligated to extend protection to those in its realm of dominance who have not chosen to be members of the ultraminimal state.
Nozick believes that his argument justifies the minimal state, and that anything beyond the minimal state violates natural rights. He has argued that a minimal state could arise without violating anyone’s rights. Any more extensive state could employ force to finance and promote services that some people will not want.
Many individuals who have read Nozick’s work are bewildered by his claim that his minimal state could arise without any rights violation. They observe that the property rights of the customers of the competitors of the dominant agency are violated by being prohibited from using their resources in order to buy protection from the agency of their own choosing. They contend that free exchange has been stifled, that the right to contract has been restricted, that the independents’ right to self-defense has been violated, and that the independents have not been treated as ends. Nozick is not convincing in his attempts to explain why it is permissible for a protection agency, in its efforts to achieve procedural fairness for his clients, to use force to keep others from engaging in risky activities so long as it provides compensation to those whose rights have been violated. Nozick’s critics view his minimal state as merely a protection racket that has forced protection on its customers.
Nozick goes on to provide a persuasive and comprehensive case against Rawlsian justice by arguing for a theory based on the principle that all human beings have absolute rights to their person and to the fruits of their labor. Nozick compares and contrasts two systems of justice: 1) his own entitlement theory, which is based on the historical process of acquiring and transferring resources; and 2) end-state or time-slice theory, which is based on the current distribution of resources. Rawls’ difference principle is of the latter type.
Nozick’s Entitlement Theory of Justice
Nozick’s entitlement theory holds that a distribution is just if it results through just acquisition from the state of nature or through voluntary transfer via trade, gift, or bequest from a prior just distribution. Nozick proposes that: 1) a person who acquires a holding in accordance with the principle of justice in acquisition is entitled to that holding; 2) a person who acquires a holding in accordance with the principle of justice in transfer, from someone else entitled to the holding, is entitled to the holding; and 3) no one is entitled to a holding except by (repeated) application of 1 and 2.
The principle of justice in acquisition states that an acquisition is just if the item is previously unowned and the acquisition leaves enough to meet the needs of others. The principle of justice in transfer is meant to protect voluntary contracts while ruling out theft, fraud, etc. In other words, a holding is just if it has been acquired through a legitimate transfer from someone who acquired it through a legitimate transfer or through original acquisition. Nozick also proposed the principle of rectification of injustice in holdings. Although difficult to accomplish in some cases, an honest effort must be made to identify the origins of illegitimate holdings and to remedy the situation by compensating the victims of theft, fraud, and intimidation.
Nozick takes his lead from the Lockean notion that each person owns himself, and that by mixing one's labor with the material world, one can establish ownership of a portion of the material world. Nozick explains that what is significant about mixing one’s labor with the material world is that, in so doing, a person tends to increase the value of a portion of the external world. He reasons that in such instances, self-ownership can bring about ownership of a part of the physical world. According to Nozick, the Lockean Proviso means: 1) that previously unowned property becomes owned by anyone who improves it; 2) that an acquisition is just if and only if the position of others after the acquisition is no worse than their position was when the acquisition was unowned or owned in common.
For Nozick, the right not to have others interfere in one’s life is fundamental—any coercion is illegitimate. Persons are viewed as having natural rights which are prior to society and which must be respected if we are to treat individuals as ends in themselves and not merely means in the endeavors of others. Kant’s categorical imperative provides a foundation for Nozick’s principle of transfer. Individuals should be treated as ends and never simply as means. A person’s autonomy should always be respected. Only the individual person can legitimately decide what to do with his talents, abilities, and the products of his talents and abilities.
Nozick’s idea of process equality implies equal treatment before the law. The U.S. Constitution reflects this view in its due process and equal protection clauses. According to this perspective, all individuals should be identically subject to universal rules of just conduct, and the state should not grant special privileges or impose special burdens upon any individual or group of individuals.
Nozick refers to the contrary view of equality as end-state equality. From this perspective, equality among people is increased when the differences between their incomes, level of wealth, or standards of living are decreased. The second idea of equality is incompatible with the first. When the state interferes with the process of voluntary exchange to bring about more equality in the end-state sense, the state must treat individuals with unequal voluntary exchange outcomes unequally. In other words, the state would discriminate against those with better voluntary exchange outcomes in favor of those with worse voluntary exchange outcomes.
The process and end-state (i.e., distributive) theories of justice are irreconcilable. Since people have unequal endowments, the free market will inevitably lead to unjust, in the second sense, results. This injustice can only be remedied by coercive transfers which are unjust in the first sense.
Nozick advocates a system in which the role of the government is limited to the protection of property rights. This view rules out taxation for purposes other than raising the money needed to protect property rights. Nozick explains that any taxation of the income from selling the products of exercising one’s talents involves the forced partial ownership by others of people and their actions and work.
Nozick argues that if we can determine that a specific person is entitled to a specific piece of property, then it is apparent that people with such claims can justly transfer property to whomever they see fit, such as their spouses, children, favored charitable organizations, etc. As long as the transfer is voluntary, Nozick contends that there is no need for “society” to worry about how the representative least well off person is affected. It follows that inheritance taxes are not legitimate according to Nozick’s theory.
Nozick’s Framework for Utopias
Nozick’s minimal state provides society with a utopian foundation—one that permits as many persons as possible to live as closely as possible to the ways in which they want to live. There is room for a pluralist utopia within the minimal state. Nozick’s utopia is actually a meta-utopia in which people are free to voluntarily join together to pursue and try to actualize their own view of the good life. His ideal society contains a diverse and wide range of communities which people can freely belong to if they are voluntarily admitted by others. Within Nozick’s framework for utopia, it is possible to design and create your own utopia, if you can convince a sufficient number of people to join you. Of course, in Nozick’s minimal state, no one can impose his own utopian views upon other people.
Nozick foresees that numerous and varied types of voluntary associations, utopian experiments, and lifestyles will concurrently flourish within his framework for utopia. Within these voluntary communities, people many make commitments to each other which exceed those that they have within the minimal state, which itself could go no further than enforcing the most basic level of ethics required for peaceful cooperation. Voluntary associations may implement rules and regulations that the state would be unable to enforce. Participation in specific communities may be conditional upon designated requirements.
Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia made libertarianism’s views on the nature and legitimacy of the minimal state respectable in academic circles. Nozick revived the classical liberal tradition with his abstract, clever, and often obscure explanation of how a minimal state might arise legitimately in the form of an all-inclusive, rights-respecting protection agency. He was instrumental in creating the intellectual and philosophical foundation that has allowed the creation and flourishing of today’s numerous libertarian organizations. Nozick did this by persuasively arguing that government should do not more than protect citizens from violence, theft, and breach of contract. He maintained that individuals blessed with talent, money, motivation, or other social advantages were morally entitled to enjoy them and to benefit from them.
Nozick was a reluctant philosopher of freedom who perhaps did not want to see his theory applied in the real world. He wrote very little on political philosophy after writing Anarchy, State and Utopia and subsequently confessed that he saw his own libertarian theory as inadequate. Nevertheless, he did make an important and enduring contribution to the libertarian movement.
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