Dec 1, 1977
An Interview with Robert Nozick
“I was unhappy over it—I mean I was pulled into libertarianism reluctantly.”
When Robert Nozick’s National Book Award-winning treatise Anarchy, State and Utopia was published in 1974, it was a work eagerly awaited by Libertarians and non-Libertarians alike. For Libertarians, here was a wide-ranging heuristic work treating many problems in libertarian theory, a defense of a “minimum state” and of “capitalist acts between consenting adults.” Establishment philosophers looked to the work for its critique of the theory of justice offered by John Rawls, and for its defense of an alternative view—the entitlement theory of justice. With that one work, Robert Nozick leaped into prominence as a defender of individual liberty, and as a political philosopher with few peers.
Robert Nozick was interviewed in August 1977 at the UCLA Conference Center in Lake Arrowhead, California, by Albert Zlabinger, professor of Economics at Valdosta State College in Georgia. In a wide-ranging discussion, Prof. Nozick discusses subjects as wide-ranging as his conversion from socialism, sports, and the nature of envy.
Robert Nozick was originally interviewed with the audience of World Research Inc.—the producers of the Incredible Bread Machine film—in mind. But after consultation, World Research, Inc., and Libertarian Review decided to publish the interview simultaneously, in the December issues of Ink and LR, to give it the widest possible circulation.
For more information about World Research, Inc., write to it at: 11722 Sorrento Valley Road, San Diego, California 92121.
The text of the interview follows.
LR: Prof. Nozick, you mentioned some time ago that you have not always been a Libertarian. What were the important events and what was the process in your intellectual development by which you became one of the most respected defenders of individual liberty and minimum government?
Nozick: Well, let’s not quarrel over the last description. I will just explain how I became a Libertarian. I came as a graduate student in philosophy to Princeton in 1959. It must have been around 1960 that there was another graduate student in the department who was already an articulate Libertarian. I had been a social democrat and was active in organizing a socialist group at Columbia where I was an undergraduate. I had drifted away from political activity, but I still thought of myself as a socialist. There would be various questions that would come up in discussions, to some of which I would have natural libertarian responses. I remember one in which we were talking about discrimination in resort hotels. Although I was personally averse to going to a hotel that would discriminate, one of the questions I remember being asked was, “Do you think hotels have the right to discriminate? Do people have the right to associate with like-minded people at resort hotels?” And I thought “Sure, of course they should be able to shape their lives the way they want to,” although I myself didn’t want to do that.
Those were easy questions for me. The hard ones were about economics and the economy. And this graduate student put me onto some of Hayek’s writings. The Constitution of Liberty had just come out, so it must have been 1960 or 1961. I also read some of the essays inIndividualism and Economic Order, especially the essays on rational calculation in a socialist society, and the impossibility of it. I thought, there must be something wrong with this and I’m going to find out what it is. The arguments bothered me; I couldn’t see what was wrong, and I didn’t want just to ignore the problem. Then I found myself undecided. I was no longer just trying to find out what was wrong with the view—which was my original intention—but first became undecided and then eventually became convinced of the general libertarian view. The rational calculation issue became secondary at that point, and I found myself having libertarian responses to a large number of questions. At first, though I had decided libertarianism was intellectually correct, I thought only bad people or mostly bad people would accept it, and that all the good people were on the left. So there was a period of time when I wouldn’t tell people really quite what I believed. I would talk about particular issues, but I wouldn’t unveil the whole range of the view because it would irritate them. Gradually, I became accustomed to the view.
LR: While this conversion was going on, do you remember any intellectual growing pains or emotional upheavals?
Nozick: I was unhappy over it—I mean I was pulled into libertarianism reluctantly. I did not want to think that it was the correct view. But I do not remember any specific trauma. Still, I thought of it then as a conversion. Conversion isn’t right, but a massive change of view, an about-face. But I now no longer think of it that way, and I can explain, if you’d like, what the difference is. It’s not that I minded an about-face—it showed how undogmatic I was, how open-minded I was, and so on. But now I don’t think of it in quite the same way because I think when I was a socialist I was really an entitlement theory socialist. I thought, in other words, that workers were entitled to the fruits of their labor and that they were not getting it. Somehow some funny business was going on in society, and workers were being stolen from and exploited and….
LR: What was the source of that conviction?
Nozick: It just seemed obvious to me. There were profits and what were they doing there? There were poor workers and rich bosses. It wasn’t a highly intellectual position; it was…
LR: A gut level position?
Nozick: Gut level, yes. So unlilke some other people who came originally to socialism from egalitarian views, I really had a view that individual workers were entitled to what they produced with other workers, jointly in the factories. They were being stolen from somehow. So then it was rather easy, given that that was the motivation for socialist views. Once I came to think that workers were not being stolen from, but voluntarily contracted into working for certain wages, and I understood the functions that entrepreneurs performed, and also the functions of profits in society; that entitlement rationale for socialism fell away. I moved over to favoring the free market, and private property, and all that. From my current vantage point, it wasn’t such a big change. I always had an entitlement view and just discovered what the right entitlements were. I was only making a mistake about the entitlements earlier. So it wasn’t as big an about-face as I once thought. Unfortunately, it means that I was not quite as undogmatic as I once thought I was. I stuck with the entitlement view at the fundamental level.
LR: Has the set of philosophers that rank highly in your opinion changed since that time? In the early 60’s, who were the philosophers that were your heroes? Who are your heroes today?
Nozick: I think I tend to rank philosophers, not so much on the basis of the content of what they say, but their skill philosophically. Now, that may sound to a lot of people like a bad distinction. I mean, they shouldn’t be judged on whether they have the truth or not, or what I think is the truth. The history of philosophy is actually full of people who argue for rather wild and incredible views, and their reputations are based on the skill of arguing for them. It is not that anybody becomes convinced by Berkeley that maybe we really don’t know that there is an external world existing independently of our sensations, but still he is an important philosopher because we do not know how to answer him. This is a purely professional criterion that leads to a certain respect for people in philosophy. I think I have kept those professional criteria. There are some libertarians in philosophy that I respect, and others not so much, even though they are libertarians. And some non-libertarians that I respect, and others not so much because of purely professional criteria. What counts for me is how good they are at constructing philosophical arguments and doing all the stuff that philosphers are supposed to do.
LR: Do you have respect for Marx as a philosopher?
Nozick: Not very high, no.
LR: Did you in the early 60’s?
Nozick: I do not think so. I must admit I became more widely read in Marx after I became a libertarian than I was before. Because then I thought I had to know the best arguments against what I believed and had to read opponents of it. I think a lot of Marx was quite sloppy. There was all sorts of politically aggressive language when he lacked arguments for things. So I was never a big fan of Marx; though there was a time when it seemed to me, when I was an undergraduate at Columbia, that it was not possible to take a course without reading the Communist Manifesto. It seemed to be Columbia’s way of showing that it was open to all ideas. The Communist Manifesto kept popping up in all sorts of courses. And there were jokes whether we would find it in a math course, or something like that.
LR: Exactly how active were you politically during the time you considered yourself a socialist?
Nozick: I was a member of a socialist student group called the Student League for Industrial Democracy, which was the youth branch of the League for Industrial Democracy. It was started in the early 1900’s by Upton Sinclair and Jack London, and various other socialists. It was a Norman Thomas-type of organization. Its only activity when I was a member was to hold lectures on various campuses, and to advocate socialism strongly.
But in 1962 (if I have the date correct), which was after my membership and actual participation in the national board of that organization had expired, the Student League for Industrial Democracy held its annual meeting in Port Huron, Michigan. They issued the so-called “Port Huron Statement” and broke off from the parent organization, the League for Industrial Democracy, and changed the name to Students for a Democratic Society. So I was at one time actually on the national board of the precursor organization of the S.D.S.!
LR: Today you like to make it clear to people that you are not a professional libertarian, and that you dislike taking part in public political debates and activities. Do you think there is a moral obligation on the part of a gifted scholar to stand up for his views publicly? Or may he leave the task of “spreading the word” to others who might be more effective?
Nozick: Good question. Good because it is a question that will probably make me uncomfortable. So let me think about it a bit…. What I meant by not considering myself a professional libertarian was that I never viewed it as the most important activity of my life to advance the libertarian cause. I do not want to knock people who do. It is a noble goal, but I do not think of myself as a political person. The major public goals in my life are intellectual goals. There are various philosophical things that I want to work on and work out. So writing the book Anarchy, State and Utopia was my working at political philosophy and I, of course, hoped that it would advance libertarian ideas. But I never imagined that I would go on and continue to devote a major portion of my energy to libertarianism and the libertarian movement. I knew there were other areas of philosophy that I wanted to work on. I wanted to write on free will, the nature of knowledge, the meaning of life, and the nature of the self. (This is actually a plug for my next book.) So I never thought of politics as my important goal.
But now back to your question whether I have a moral obligation to advance libertarian ideas if I can do so with some skill and success. I think the answer is yes, to some extent I do; and I cannot say that I saw the writing of my book as fulfilling that obligation. I was really doing that out of personal motives. Also, I wanted to say those things, and I thought they would be received with interest. So occasionally I now offer courses at Harvard I perhaps would not choose to give if I was concerned only with what I felt like teaching. But I think it is important that libertarian students at Harvard find some course they can come to to work on libertarian ideas, and even to meet each other in these course, and that other students learn something about libertarian ideas also. It’s not that I’m a propagandist, but I think it is important to bring those ideas before a student. It is true that I have turned down a lot of other public occasions such as T.V. appearances, radio spots and things like that. I do this in order to preserve my private life and to be able to work on other things.
LR: So you want to protect your scholarly sphere for the purpose of more important work, really.
Nozick: Yes. I suppose I am also making some estimate of the probability of my success or of the sort of effect that I would actually have. Look, if I thought that if I really went out and spent the next few years devoting all of my energies to propagating libertarianism, that then we would have a libertarian society, I would certainly go out and do it. I think it is very important to have a libertarian society. But I am doing some expected-value calculation and weighting of the importance by the difference in probability that I think my activities would make, and I guess I do not think it would make all that much difference.
LR: If somebody told you that you had a very good chance of becoming President of the United States if you ran on the Libertarian Party ticket, would you accept the nomination?
Nozick: God! Would I accept the nomination? I don’t like to think that anyone is indispensible in various ways. I would certainly cast the ballot with all my might to someone else who could succeed better because I really would not want to have to spend time being President. I forget now who made the statement, “I would rather be right than President.” As far as I am concerned, “I’d rather be wrong than President.” Now, I would like to be right. I mean, I do not want to have faults or incorrect views. So that shows how much I don’t want to hold political office. I actually thought this way even when I was a socialist way back. There was a time when (as a kid in high school, actually) I had very youthful ambitions to go ahead and become a socialist president of the United States or something like that. And then at some point, I thought, well … do I really want that? What sort of society do I want there to be? Then if there was that sort of society, what sort of life would I want to live in that society? Certainly I thought then, if there was a socialist society, I wouldn’t have wanted to be a politician. And now if there was a libertarian society, I would not choose to be a political figure in a libertarian society. So why should I be a prisoner of the time that I am born in? It seems to me reasonable that I ought to think about what sort of society I want to live in and how I would live in that ideal society. I would work a lot in philosophy, and spend time with my family, and do various things like that. I don’t see why the very unfortunate fact that we do not have a libertarian society should deflect me from what I really want to do with my life.
LR: Systematic thinking about economics was begun by philosophers, and you are one of the few modern philosphers who have returned to economics. Why has there been such a reluctance on the part of philosophers to deal with economic questions and use more precise and systematic analysis as well as go into the economic liberature? Do you have an explanation?
Nozick: Yes, certainly there was a long period of time when philosophers (even philosophers concerned with social philosophy or political philosophy) didn’t think that economics was the important thing they had to know in order to keep working. I don’t know whether I really can explain the reasons for the move away from it and then the move back towards it. One is that economics became more and more technical and mathematical, and some philosophers dropped off that wagon which they could no longer follow. But, of course, there are large numbers of philosophers now who really are mathematically quite proficient. Mathematical logic is now a branch of mathematics and is followed and worked on by philosophers, so I don’t think that mathematics is the whole story; but I don’t know what else there is to the story.
LR: How would you go about encouraging philosophers to deal with economic questions more seriously?
Nozick: I think that now it’s not so clear that encouragement is needed any longer. I think the current atmosphere, in the United States at any rate, is that in order to work at political and social philosophy, one really has to learn economics plus connected things like decision theory, game theory, utility theory, etc. That is, theories that are actually dealing with individual choice and satisfy methodological individualist criteria. Now I haven’t really explained how that change in atmosphere has taken place. To a very large extent, it was due to my colleague in the philosophy department at Harvard, John Rawls, whose book A Theory of Justice received enormous attention. It made heavy use of economics. Not in a way, I think, which is friendly to libertarian ideas but at any rate it had a great effect on the philosophy profession.
LR: Do you require courses in economics in the philosophy program at Harvard?
Nozick: We don’t actually require it, but we certainly encourage our students who are interested in those questions to go and take courses in the economics department.
LR: Hayek once was accused of “being polite to a fault” towards socialists and accusing them of nothing more than simple intellectual error. Do you think that these social theorists who come up with recommendations for social reform which tend to infringe on liberty simply have a lack of understanding (that is, are subject to intellectual error) or can some of their actions and recommendations be explained on the basis of their being simply “mean”?
Nozick: I don’t think “mean” is right. But I don’t think its only intellectual error either. I am puzzled over it. I think there is some deep psychological explanation that one should offer as to why people just automatically reject libertarian ideas. Maybe that’s self-serving. Maybe I don’t want to say the ideas are obviously false so I am going to find some deep psychological flaw in those people to explain their rejecting libertarian ideas. I don’t know of anything in the libertarian literature that really gets at that. Ayn Rand speculates about the psychology of people who are threatened by the idea of independent people who want to live their own lives. I don’t even remember accurately how she explains it, but I think one wants to work on this and find some relatively deep explanation. I think it’s going to turn out to be an uncomplimentary explanation for those people, discussing what sorts of festering motivations lead them to impose their will on others and to feel threatened themselves about being left alone as independent individuals. And it might well be that if we had a good theory and brought it to people’s attention (though of course at first they would resist it), they would recognize those psychological motivations as being their own. Then they would be so embarrassed that they would want to transform themselves, and so on. Maybe not. Maybe they would then think up other reasons for their position. But one effect might be that if one saw that this was his reason for rejecting libertarianism, then he might wonder whether he really wants to be a person who is motivated in that way. Of course, if it’s a sufficiently unpleasant sort of motivation, the answer would be no, and maybe that would really have an effect. That may be too optimistic an idea. However, I don’t yet have an adequate understanding of the psychology involved.
LR: It is sometimes said that the case for equality in material well-being rests ultimately on envy and not on any well-reasoned arguments. Do you agree? Do you think that envy is ever justifiable or excusable on moral grounds? Should it be considered in making social policy? In other words, do you have a theory of envy?
Nozick: If envy means, look, somebody else has something that you do not have, and you wish you had it also—that’s fine. That’s not envy, yet. But there is a further thing that would constitute envy and that’s if you can’t have it, you would prefer that neither of you had it than that the other person has it and you don’t. That’s envy. I think it is a nasty, vicious, and awful emotion, and I cannot think of legitimate areas where it should play a role. If people are made unhappy by that sort of envy, I don’t think that social policy should take account of it, that is, should act so as to reduce that envy. Sometimes one meets people who say we need more equality because there is this unhappiness created by inequality because envy makes people unhappy. That’s their problem! They will have to find out a way to get rid of the envy. See, it’s even the mere knowledge that somebody else is better off that makes some people unhappy. Now people on the left usually tend to focus on that kind of knowledge. They argue that if unhappiness is caused by the knowledge that something is happening in society then that’s grounds for stopping the thing from going on. As a general principle, this is even unacceptable to people on the left. The example that I often use with students on the left is an interracial couple. Forget even public streets; the mere knowledge that there is an interracial couple in some private home might cause unhappiness to some bigots. That’s their tough luck. That’s not a reason for forbidding interracial couples. And I do not see—and I challenge these students to find the difference—why stopping people from being wealthy because the mere knowledge that they are wealthy makes other people unhappy differs from stopping interracial couples because the mere knowledge that they are there makes people unhappy. In neither case does it seem justified to do it. Now you have also raised the issue of to what extent envy really plays a role in leftist views. I think to some extent. I don’t say this is the case for everyone on the left, but often when we dig around and question, we find things that look very much like envy.
LR: Do you think that in your own case in the early 60’s, if you searched your soul, some of your motivations could have been traced to a feeling of envy?
Nozick: I can’t remember, really. I don’t know. I think of myself as generally unenvious. That is, I don’t walk around wishing that other people did not have what I don’t have; although I did sometimes walk around wishing I had what those other people had.
LR: To make individual freedom work—in all its dimensions, from freedom of personal behavior to economic freedom—it seems to me that a certain level of tolerance of others, and the ways that they are different from us, is required. Do you have a theory of tolerance? And in what social framework would you expect tolerance to be flourishing?
Nozick: I don’t have a theory of tolerance. I think of myself as being relatively tolerant, but that may just mean that I am tolerant of some things that other people are not tolerant of. I know there are people in the libertarian movement that are really quite intolerant. I mean by that that I think of them as bigots. And certainly, in their personal behavior, they have the perfect right to exercise their intolerant preferences: invite only certain sorts of people into their homes and not others, choose the books of only some people and not others and, well … whatever. Are you suggesting that for a libertarian society to work, those libertarians really have to be more tolerant: that we can’t have people being intolerant towards other ethnic groups for example? I don’t want to be intolerant myself in that way, but I would hope that a libertarian society would work even if the people were intolerant.
LR: Well, once we had a free society I think that intolerance often would lead to legislation that tends to become inhibiting of freedom.
Nozick: I see. You think intolerance won’t be tolerated and so we will get non-libertarian legislation to stamp out intolerance. Well, I would be willing to participate, I suppose, in some boycotts of certain sorts of intolerance. Look, I wouldn’t favor legislation at all, but I would be willing to consider voluntary means to raise the costs of intolerance to some people. I suppose that would include not having all the friendly relationships with certain sorts of people who are very intolerant towards others in a way that I disapproved of. I think people have the right to be very intolerant towards others, but also that I have the right to disagree with them and not associate with them for that reason.
LR: How many libertarians are there at Harvard?
Nozick: Among the faculty, I don’t know that I could name another hard core libertarian. There are people who are friendly to the free market, but who are not against paternalistic interferences with certain liberties, and others against this but not in favor of free markets and private property. I don’t know of any other flaming libertarian on the whole faculty.
LR: Since your book came out have you had any problems at Harvard?
Nozick: I’m not aware of strong negative sanctions against me. I wasn’t hired originally because people knew I was a libertarian, and thought that’s what they needed in the philosophy department. I was hired on the basis of the sorts of things that I had written and purely intellectual grounds. I don’t think my colleagues have ever regretted hiring me and I am well treated by the university. I’m not aware of other people who are against me because I was a libertarian, although no doubt there were all sorts of dinners and parties and things that I didn’t get invited to by various people. Some students expressed a strong feeling about this. I had been at Harvard as an Assistant Professor in the mid-sixties and then came back in 1969 as a Full Professor. That was immediately after the student uprisings, building takeovers, and so on, at Harvard the previous spring. When I arrived in the fall of 1969, there was a philosophy course listed in the catalog entitled “Capitalism.” And the course description was “a moral examination of capitalism.” Of course, for most students, then, it would be taken for granted that a moral examination would be a moral condemnation of capitalism. But that’s not what I intended. We were going to read critics of capitalism. But we were also planning to read defenses of capitalism, and I was going to construct some of my own in the lectures. Some of the graduate students in the philosophy department knew what ideas I held, and they weren’t very happy about a course being taught in the department defending those ideas. Now it was true that there was another course in the department on Marxism by someone who was then a member of the Maoist Progressive Labor Party and students did not object to that. But still some students objected to my giving a lecture course on capitalism. I remember early in the fall (I guess I was scheduled to give the course in the spring term), a graduate student came to me at a departmental reception we had, and said, “We don’t know if you’re going to be allowed to give this course.” I said “What do you mean, not allowed to give this course?” He said, “Well, we know what ideas you hold. We just don’t know whether you will be allowed to give the course.” And I said, “If you come and disrupt my course, I’m going to beat the shit out of you!” And the student was taken aback and said, “But you are taking all this very personally.” And I said, “What do you mean, personally? You are threatening to disrupt my course! you can do other things; you can stand outside the room and hand out leaflets. You can ask students not to register for my course. But if you come into my classroom while I am lecturing and disrupt the class, then I take that very personally.” In fact, at some point later in the term, this student and some others said they were going to make up leaflets and hand them out outside of my classroom. I said, “That’s fine; that would be really exciting.” Then they didn’t get around to doing it, and so I prodded them, “Where are the leaflets? I was counting on something special happening with the leaflets.” But it turned out that it was a lot of trouble to write up a leaflet, to get them run off on a mimeograph machine, and so they never got around to doing it. Thus I never had the privilege of being “leafleted” at Harvard. It seemed to me that sort of antagonism only lasted for a very short period of time and diminished fast. There was no longer any strong personal animosity after that. Maybe it was the general toning down of things in the country in the early 70’s, and I just benefited from the de-radicalization of the university.
LR: Let me ask you a question about the issue of academic freedom. Several well-known academicians have gone to Chile in the last few years supposedly to advise its government. In their opinion, they were within the boundaries of academic freedom. However, the left has very much criticized them. What was your feeling about that?
Nozick: I haven’t looked into it in great detail, although I have heard the stories about some Chicago professors. I think I myself would refuse to do it; or I would feel that if I went down there to offer them certain sorts of advice, I would have to make it a special point (and not just perfunctorily) to criticize and argue against the things I objected to. I don’t know if even that would be enough. But if I decided that great benefit could be produced by my going down there, I would feel I had to do all I could to shift the view. Now I don’t know that any of the people from Chicago made big pests of themselves when they went down there about other sorts of things that they weren’t asked advice about. I myself could not bring myself to go and just offer technical advice, even if that would increase freedom within the economy, and all that, without talking about other issues as well.
LR: You then feel an obligation that if you were in that position, to be outspoken about, say, the abuse of police power and the practice of torture?
Nozick: Yes. But I also don’t like to be associated with things that I disapprove of. One of the ways in which I am affected is with regard to financial support. Many academics receive money from the government in one way or another: from the National Endowment for the Humanities, from the National Science Foundation, from tax-supported funds. I have refused to accept any of that money. I’m not saying that everyone in academic life should do so. There was a time when I tried to work out good reasons for my taking it. You know, after all, I’m being taxed and here’s a way of getting some of it back. I could use it for good purposes, while other people would use it for bad things. But it just didn’t add up. I get a good salary at a good university. Maybe other academics should be taking government money, but I don’t think I should.
Now the National Endowment for the Humanities kept calling me up and wanted to push money on me. It was a very weird and strange thing, and I don’t know why they especially wanted to do it. I just kept refusing it. They asked me to serve on some of the committees dispensing money, and I refused though it’s there that one can channel money to people who are doing good work, or what you think is good work, but I wanted no part of it. I had similar contacts with the Smithsonian also. At some point I just had to say, “Look, here’s why I don’t want to do it.” At first, I was really trying to spare their feelings. I didn’t want unpleasant conversations. And finally I just said, “I morally disapprove of your whole thing for the following reasons, and don’t call me again because I’m not going to accept it, and I don’t want any of it or any part of it.” And there was sort of a stunned silence at the other end. I do not know if anyone had ever refused this money before. Actually, there’s one other occasion when I went to great lengths—lengths that may now seem a little excessive, but it was part of the same issue. After my book appeared, Columbia University was holding a special university seminar which is attended only by faculty members at Columbia and some others around New York City. They invited me to give a talk and a paper on political philosophy for a free. They had this government money to spend, and they were required to show that there was reading material that had been sent to everyone who had attended. I thought, all right, I won’t accept the fee, but they could use that money and buy copies of my book and not give me money. To assure that I wasn’t receiving any money, I arranged with my publisher to allow them to buy this number of copies of the book at a low price so that I wouldn’t receive any royalties for it. To be sure, I liked the idea of all these people around New York City getting copies of my book, and maybe reading it, but I thought that was a way of cutting myself off from this money. And it had a certain effect, because I remember during a break some of the people who had known that I wasn’t accepting this money came up and wanted to talk about it. So there is a way that libertarians can show how much they really do care about their ideas and ideals by making certain personal sacrifices in order to live in accordance with their principles—in the same way that some people, especially the civil rights workers during the 60’s and so on, were willing to run the risk of being beaten up and so on to convince others that they were not just talking. If libertarians showed that they are willing to lose financially in order to adhere to libertarian ideas, then other people would become interested and want to hear more about it. If an idea if powerful enough to get you to give up money, they want to hear about it. So I recommend to some libertarians that they do this in some public way.
LR: Your last answer brings up an interesting issue: the link between individual freedom and morality. It would seem that the less individual freedom there is, the less there is a possibility for a moral existence. That is, a moral life requires a possibility of free choice.
Nozick: Yes, but, look, how do we as libertarians feel about this? I want there to be certain penalties for doing certain sorts of things. I don’t want people to be free to violate liberty. Now, somebody can come along and say, “Well, that reduces the opportunity for morality because their choice is reduced. They’re not free to violate my liberty, so they can’t morally choose not to violate it.” But that’s the way I want it. I don’t want them to be allowed to violate my liberty. And if they are not able to make a moral choice to violate it or not to violate it, then that’s all right. Actually, even if there is a law, I suppose whether they are acting morally or not depends on why they are doing what they’re doing. And it may be hard to disentangle. But, right now there is a law against murder, and neither of us, as we’re holding this conversation, is murdering the other. Now if the reason that we are not murdering is because of the law, then we are not acting morally. But if the major reason is some other reason, for example that we think people have a right not to be murdered, then we are acting morally. It depends on what our reasons are for our behavior. The existence of the law doesn’t stop us from behaving morally. We are now behaving morally in not murdering each other because we have moral reasons for not doing it. We are not refraining from murder solely because of the penalty. So I do not accept the view that the legal penalties and restrictions on freedom of certain sorts make it impossible for people to act morally.
LR: As an economist, I am particularly concerned with restrictions on economic freedom and their consequences for a moral existence. If we take your example in which government holds out the money carrot, and this becomes the most important source of income for educators, since private sources are drying up because of the unfair competition by government in education, then an educator is put into a position where he is in essence committing an immoral act by accepting money that was forcefully taken from others. Would you agree? Let us assume we are talking about a young instructor at a small poor private college, rather than a recognized scholar from a well endowed eastern university who has easy access to private grants.
Nozick: Yes, if the only way he can support himself at some intellectually exciting project is by accepting government money, I don’t feel that I am in a position to tell him not to do it. It’s just that none of the cases I thought of fit me, unfortunately (or fortunately!). So it didn’t add up with me legitimately. But, yes, if you think (as I do) that it would be better not to take it, then various government actions make it harder for people to act in a moral way. And that’s a cost of the activities that is not usually taken account of.
LR: Let us shift gears a little bit here. You have seen the Incredible Bread Machine film, haven’t you? What did you think of it?
Nozick: Yes, I have seen it, and I thought it was a very effective film.
LR: What is your opinion of the effectiveness of film as a medium to spread ideas about the free society? Do you think it is a good alternative for putting Robert Nozick on the lecture circuit?
Nozick: I think films can be extremely effective. The Incredible Bread Machine is an excellent example. Film is becoming more and more important, not just as an educational thing, but even in the intellectual world. I mean, I notice now that many young people who, when I was young myself, would have wanted to become poets or novelists, now want to make films. I’m not sure I can say why, but making films has become the mode of intellectual expression of the young generation. As a matter of fact, it would be very nice to have some people in the film industry friendly to libertarian ideas. I don’t mean just educational films, but films for general audiences that are entertaining. I don’t see why libertarian ideas shouldn’t be in there in the same way that leftist ideas are in films.
LR: Are you implying that the film industry today is leaning towards leftist views?
Nozick: Well, I really don’t know where it leans in general. I suppose it’s certainly more oriented towards leftist ideas than towards libertarian ones.
LR: What about television? Do you think that T.V. programming, maybe due to the heavy regulation of this industry, has a leftist or welfare state slant?
Nozick: I don’t know. One area which I think doesn’t is certain sports programs. I think sports is one of the realms on T.V. in which the viewers really value individual excellence; they don’t want mediocrity, they don’t want everybody to be the same, and they don’t mind stars.
LR: So there is no egalitarianism in sports.
Nozick: That’s right. We don’t mind great stars, and we love to watch people who excel at things. Maybe we could find some libertarian athletic heroes who will come forth and comment on why people like to watch excellence in sports and don’t feel resentful and envious. I think I’m a pretty good ball player as ordinary people go, but certainly nothing close to anyone professional. But when I go watch professional sports, which I do more now because my children are now old enough to be intersted in going to see professional sports, I take great pleasure in it. I don’t sit there, even though I can’t do what those athletes are doing, and think, “Oh, how awful, I can’t do it, I wish they couldn’t do it.” It’s one of the pleasures of life to see other people excelling.
LR: Can you explain why we accept excellence in sports but not, say, in economic accomplishments? Have we been conditioned in some way?
Nozick: I don’t know. I mean, I never thought of sports as a libertarian activity. And I just have to think some. It is certainly an interesting question to raise.
LR: We also accept great personal wealth among politicians and film stars. But very many of these personalities advocate more government and more egalitarianism.
Nozick: Yes, I know. Guilt!—They enjoy their wealth in a guilty manner. I think if they feel guilty about it, let them give it away. I guess I find it especially offensive that they both have it, and feel guilty about it, and prattle about redistribution. Before, I said I really don’t resent any people having wealth. But there was a time some years ago when I thought one should follow Nelson Rockefeller around at his political speeches where he was calling for various sorts of legislation that would lead to redistribution, and really heckle him seriously, or at least raise questions in the question period, about why he wasn’t giving away his vast personal fortune—and also tell him we would listen to him only after he gave some of it away. Let him come down to the average income, or even to say $40,000 a year, and then we would listen to him talk about helping the poor. But there he is, with that enormous fortune. It’s not that I begrudge the enormous fortune. What I do not like is his keeping the enormous fortune and going around talking in a holier-than-thou fashion about how the poor have to be helped. That I do resent.
LR: Speculation about the future course of our society covers the spectrum from a possibility of a peaceful and democratic change all the way to a revolutionary upheaval. Do you think that it will take a revolution, a violent revolution, in order to establish a freer society; or do you see a gradual approach possible, and, if so, are there any signs of positive change you would point to?
Nozick: Well, I don’t know what signs I would point to that would support the gradual approach theory, but I also don’t see any signs of a possibly effective violent revolution to create the free society. It seems to me quite unlikely that if there were a violent revolution in the United States now, or in the near future, it would be to create a free society. And if there was sufficient support for free society to give it even a chance in a violent revolution, then it would have a good chance of success even through the democratic processes that we now have. I say that in full realization of all the stumbling blocks to achieving a freer society by democratic processes. Special interest groups are a particular hurdle to the progress towards a freer society. But I don’t think that I have any special qualifications for predicting the future. I don’t mean to dodge the question. It’s just that I don’t think I have anything especially interesting or illuminating to say about how to get there from here. I would hope other people would be better at this than I.
LR: Thank you very much, Professor Nozick.