January 31, 2013 columns

Arguments for Libertarianism: Nozick’s Natural Rights

A summary of the arguments of Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia.

Why begin this series on arguments for libertarianism with Robert Nozick? He’s certainly not the first person to offer a philosophical justification for libertarianism, nor is he even the most widely read.

No, the reason to start with Nozick is because his classic work, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (ASU), is where nearly everyone starts if they’re coming to libertarianism for the first time in a philosophy classroom. And, in most cases, it’s where they end, too. For in the academy, Robert Nozick simply is libertarianism—and the arguments he makes in ASU represents for many political philosophers the whole of libertarian philosophy.

Another reason to start with ASU is that it’s just such a wonderful book. Nozick writes unlike nearly every other philosopher. He’s playful and funny. And he has a wonderfully refreshing attitude toward philosophical argument. “There is room for words on subjects other than last words,” Nozick writes in the book’s preface.

Indeed, the usual manner of presenting philosophical work puzzles me. Works of philosophy are written as though their authors believe them to be the absolutely final word on their subject. But it’s not, surely, that each philosopher thinks that he finally, thank God, has found the truth and built an impregnable fortress around it. We are all actually much more modest than that. For good reason. Having thought long and hard about the view he proposes, a philosopher has a reasonably good idea about its weak points; the places where great intellectual weight is placed upon something perhaps too fragile to bear it, the places where the unravelling of the view might begin, the unprobed assumptions he feels uneasy about.

Nozick maintains that modesty throughout ASU. And if that’s the only lesson we take from the book, it would still be worth reading. But it’s not. ASU has much to offer in its defense of liberty.

So what is Nozick’s libertarian position? It begins with natural rights. Quite literally. Here’s the first line of ASU: “Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights).”

These rights are natural in that we have them because of what we are and not because they were given to us by someone. But just saying we have rights isn’t the same as giving an argument for why we have them. To do this, Nozick draws on Immanuel Kant’s famous Categorical Imperative, specifically its second formulation: “Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of another, always as an end and never as a means only.” Humans are by nature rational beings possessing dignity. This dignity prevents us from being used by others, and hence we have rights against such use.

Our rights function as “side-constraints,” Nozick says, limiting what others—including the state—may do to us. We can’t trade rights away for benefits. For example, we are prohibited from deciding that a little more happiness or a little more wealth (or a lot more) is sufficient grounds for violating a person’s rights. People “may not be sacrificed or used for the achieving of other ends without their consent,” Nozick writes. “Individuals are inviolable.”

From this Nozick moves to a basic principle of self-ownership. I own myself and thus have a right to do with myself as I please. You own yourself and have the same right. I don’t own you and you don’t own me. This gives each one of us rights not only to ourselves, but also to the fruits of our labor. (Nozick argues for this last point along Lockean lines.) In other words, Nozick takes our fundamental rights to be of the negative sort. These are rights to be free from certain acts by other people (assault, theft, enslavement, etc.), not rights to be provided with certain goods and services (a right to healthcare, or a right to education).

But this leads to an enormous question when it comes to politics, one Nozick helpfully points out: “So strong and far-reaching are these rights that they raise the question of what, if anything, the state and its officials may do. How much room do individual rights leave for the state?”

The shortest answer is “not much.” The slightly longer outline Nozick provides—before spending much of the book defending his claims—looks like this:

Our main conclusions about the state are that a minimal state, limited to the narrow functions of protection against force, theft, fraud, enforcement of contracts, and so on, is justified; that any more extensive state will violate persons’ rights not to be forced to do certain things, and is unjustified; and that the minimal state is inspiring as well as right. Two noteworthy implications are that the state may not use its coercive apparatus for the purpose of getting some citizens to aid others, or in order to prohibit activities to people for their own good or protection.

This sets Nozick up for arguments with two groups. First, those who think this vision of the state is too small: progressives, liberal egalitarians, communitarians, socialists, conservatives, and so on. Second, those who think this vision of the state is too big: anarchists.

In my next post, I’ll turn to Nozick’s dispute with the anarchists, specifically his argument that the move from anarchy to a minimal state can occur without anyone’s rights being violated.