February 21, 2013 columns

Arguments for Libertarianism: Robert Nozick’s Utopia(s)

Powell looks at the “entitlement theory” of justice and the closing words of Anarchy, State and Utopia on how the minimal state can inspire us.

In this final post on Robert Nozick before moving on to other arguments for libertarianism, I want to look at the “entitlement theory” of justice and his closing words on how the minimal state can inspire us.

Last time, I presented Nozick’s argument against anarchism, where he tried to justify the minimal state against those who say it’s too big. Now let’s turn to his response to those who argue the opposite, that the minimal state is too small to be just.

The “too small” people tend to argue that Nozick’s state doesn’t allow for redistribution of resources, and so can’t address inequalities between citizens. If some people have far more wealth than others, for instance, this is either unjust itself, or else the lack of resources will place an unjust limit the ability of the poor to lead good/happy/autonomous/etc. lives.

Nozick’s response is that this sort of distributive justice is itself unjust. Resources aren’t initially “distributed” by anyone. Instead, they are gathered or created by individuals, who then exchange them. So any state distribution must, instead, be a form of redistribution. And that redistribution violates rights.

In place of this account of distributive justice, Nozick offers his “entitlement theory.” He argues that for any possession of property to be just, it must first evince justice in acquisition. Here Nozick basically takes the position advanced by Locke that we are entitled to claim a property right in unowned resource when we “mix our labor” with them. Next, there must be justice in transfer. If property got “transferred” to you because you clubbed the original owner over the head and stole it, then you aren’t entitled to that property. Instead, transfers must be voluntary.

If both these criteria are met, the current holder of the property is entitled to it. And, if everyone in a society is entitled to the property he or she holds, then the distribution of property in that society is just—and thus any forcible redistribution constitutes an injustice.

In one of the most famous passages in Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Nozick shows how “liberty upsets patterns” of distributions. Let’s say, he begins, that you have a favored distribution of property. A common candidate is perfect equality. Into this perfect distribution, drop Wilt Chamberlain.

Now suppose that Wilt Chamberlain is greatly in demand by basketball teams, being a great gate attraction. … In each home game, twenty-five cents from the price of each ticket of admission goes to him. … The season starts, and people cheerfully attend his team’s games; they buy their tickets, each time dropping a separate twenty-five cents of their admission price into a special box with Chamberlain’s name on it. They are excited about seeing him play; it is worth the total admission price to them. Let us suppose that in one season one million persons attend his home games, and Wilt Chamberlain winds up with $250,000, a much larger sum than the average income and larger even than anyone else has. Is he entitled to this income?

Nozick then asks whether this new distribution is unjust—and, if so, why? Because if it is unjust, “fixing” it would demand coercively taking resources voluntarily given to Chamberlain, and then keeping careful watch on all future, voluntary transactions, so as to engage in constant redistribution as needed to maintain the original pattern.

This, of course, only scratches the surface of Nozick’s arguments about distributive justice. But his conclusion is simple: Justice doesn’t demand redistribution. Rather, it demands respecting whatever distribution exists when the requirements of the entitlement theory are met.

Now I’d like to turn to what’s both the shortest and my favorite section of Anarchy, State, and Utopia: Part 3—but a single chapter—on utopia.

Here Nozick raises a question that, even four decades later, I fear many libertarians still don’t spend much time thinking about. “No state more extensive than the minimal state can be justified,” Nozick writes.

But doesn’t the idea, or ideal, of the minimal state lack luster? Can it thrill the heart or inspire people to struggle or sacrifice? Would anyone man the barricades under its banner?

So many non-libertarian political philosophies seem focused on utopia. If only the government does X, Y, and Z, then we will have the perfect society realized upon the Earth. But libertarianism frequently (but certainly not always) gets framed as simply a list of things the state isn’t allowed to do. Which is, of course, crucially important. Yet libertarianism presents a compelling vision not just because of its demand that we respect rights and prohibit force and theft, no matter who commits them and no matter what office that person holds: Libertarianism is also a vision of a radically better world.

However, unlike so many competing visions, libertarianism, Nozick argues, doesn’t aim at a utopia. Instead, it aims at a utopia of utopias. A libertarian state allows each of us to live not the best life as envisioned by a consensus of all, but the best life as each of us defines it. Libertarianism respects our differences and grants us true autonomy to define our own paths. The libertarian minimal state, Nozick says, is a “framework for utopia.”

And that should inspire us all.

“There is room for words on subjects other than last words,” Nozick wrote in Anarchy, State, and Utopia. He’s right. But so far as this series on his argument for libertarianism goes, I’ll give the remaining room to the last words of his book, because I’m simply incapable of saying it better:

This morally favored state, the only morally legitimate state, the only morally tolerable one, we now see is the one that best realizes the utopian aspirations of untold dreamers and visionaries. It preserves what we all can keep from the utopian tradition and opens the rest of that tradition to our individual aspirations. Recall now the question with which this chapter began. Is not the minimal state, the framework for utopia, an inspiring vision?

The minimal state treats us as inviolate individuals, who may not be used in certain ways by others as means or tools or instruments or resources; it treats us as persons having individual rights with the dignity this constitutes. Treating us with respect by respecting our rights, it allows us, individually or with whom we choose, to choose our life and to realize our ends and our conception of ourselves, insofar as we can, aided by the voluntary cooperation of other individuals possessing the same dignity. How dare any state or group of individuals do more. Or less.