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Dec 2, 1974

Nozick, “Anarchy, State, and Utopia”

Eric Mack reviews Robert Nozick’s highly influential Anarchy, State, and Utopia.

Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia is, to date, the most sophisticated philosophical treatment of libertarian theory and themes. It is a book which merits the careful attention—and as such it will require the careful attention—of all persons concerned with moral, social, or legal theory. As with any theoretical work of excellence, the virtue of this book consists not in the conclusions of the author, but in the power and interests of the arguments he employs. Unfortunately, a brief and fairly roughshod and episodic account of the progress of Nozick’s argument is all that can be presented in this short review.

Nozick espouses a form of minimal-state libertarianism. In Part I (“State-of-Nature Theory, or How to Back into a State without Really Trying”) he defends the legitimacy of what he deems a minimal state against the moral challenge of the individualist (free-market) anarchist. The guiding idea here is that any arrangement among human beings which comes about by morally legitimate steps, i.e., by steps in which no persons’s rights are violated, is itself legitimate. Nozick holds that a dominant protective association can rise by legitimate. steps to the type of prominence which would constitute it a state. Roughly, a dominant and libertarian-minded protective association can require that all demands for the punishment of its clients be mediated through or monitored by its judicial structure. Nozick does not make the strong (i.e., bold) claim that private punishment would be a violation of the rights of the dominant agency’s clients. Instead he relies on the weaker (i.e., more modest) claim that those who propose private punishment impose a risk of the violation of rights upon the potential subjects of this punishment. This weakerclaim is conjoined with the very intriguing claim that certain risky actions (among them are the actions of private punishment) can legitimately be prohibited if those who suffer the prohibitions are compensated (in certain ways) by those who inflict the prohibitions and who thereby insure themselves against violations of rights. This conjunction of claims implies that the dominant association can legitimately prohibit private punishment with the appropriate compensation. According to Nozick, such a dominant protective association would be a state. Considerable space is devoted to the nuances of and the rationale for the principle of compensation. Questions about the possible justification of, need for, and implications of the principle of compensation will surely become a major new area for libertarian thought.

In Part II (“Beyond the Minimal State?”) Nozick challenges attempts to justify the more-than-minimal state. (I think that most readers should start by reading Part II.) Most significant is the extensive treatment of distributive justice. This includes a sketch of what Nozick calls an “entitlement” theory of distributive justice and a devastating criticism, launched from the entitlement view, of all “end-state” theories of distributive justice of which Rawls’ theory is the latest, most elaborate, and most highly touted. Nozick’s discussion of the relation between different conceptions of justice would, even by itself, be a major accomplishment. Further along a good example of Nozick’s anti-statist devilry is his argument that Marx’ introduction of the notion of socially necessary labor when conjoined with the usual Marxist demand that workers receive the full value of their labor implies that workers must take up the market risks which, in capitalist society, they willingly and, perhaps, rationally avoid by working for set wages.

In Part III (“Utopia”) Nozick invokes an independent line of reasoning in justification of the no-more-than minimal state. The basic line, as I construe it, proceeds as follows: Any smart utopian, i.e., any utopian who recognizes the massive difficulties of precognizing and constructing Utopia, will place his bets for the creation of Utopia on the institutionalization of certain processes. (Nozick’s emphasis on processes in contrast to end-states is the recurrent and unifying theme of his book.) This institutionalization will be a “filter device” which will effect the evolution of human communities so as to maximize the chances for Utopia (or Utopias) Nozick maintains that the favored filter device of the smart utopian will be that device which insures that individuals will be free to enter into any community they see fit, to contractually commit themselves within a community to whatever is contractually agreeable there, to change such communities and to change communities (contracts permitting). The filter device is, then, the minimal state. For any form of nonaggressive community is permitted to develop and, perhaps, prove itself under the framework of the minimal state. Thus, at least in the sense of having a decisive reason (now) for favoring the minimal state, all smart utopians must at least be closet libertarians.

Some things which the reader might expect in Anarchy, State and Utopia he will not find. Nozick does not provide a foundational argument for human rights. Nor does he specify the scope of rights by, for instance, clarifying the concept of coercion. Nor are the principles of justice in acquisition, transfer, and punishment worked out. All this remains largely to be done. It is a measure of Nozick’s originality that Anarchy, State, and Utopia is such an important book without dealing with these standard issues. The book is challenging and great fun. Reviewed by Eric Mack /Political Philosophy (367 pages) / LR Price $12.95