Anarchy, State, and Utopia: Critical Exposition

Below is an extract (the first section of Chapter 2) of Ralf Bader’s most excellent and crisp Robert Nozick (pp. 10-14).

Famously, Nozick begins his book Anarchy, State, and Utopia with the claim: ‘Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights)’ (p. ix). This claim constitutes the basis of Nozick’s political philosophy and moral outlook. His book is an attempt to examine the implications of this claim for our understanding of the legitimate functions of the state, while also providing support in favour of this moral outlook and criticisms of alternative views. He intends to assess whether the existence of a state can be justified at all and what functions it can legitimately perform. In particular, he takes the anarchist’s challenge seriously and raises the question whether the acceptance of individual rights leaves any room for legitimate governments. He argues against the anarchist’s claim that every form of government is illegitimate, that states are intrinsically immoral and that only anarchy constitutes a justified societal arrangement. Having defended the legitimacy of the state, he then challenges the dominant view by showing that only a minimal state is legitimate and that anything more extensive violates rights.

Nozick summarizes the main conclusions of his book by saying 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’ (p. ix). That is, the state is not intrinsically immoral, but can arise in a legitimate manner. In other words, the anarchist’s challenge can be met insofar as we can fi nd room for a legitimate state that is compatible with individual rights. (This is what Nozick attempts to establish in Part I.) Nonetheless, rights place important constraints on any legitimate state, thereby ensuring that only a minimal state is justified. If a state transgresses the narrow boundaries defined by rights, then it becomes an illegitimate state since it violates the rights of individuals. (This is the conclusion of Part II.) Moreover, Nozick contends, a minimal state that complies with these moral restrictions constitutes an attractive ideal since it is a framework for utopia. Not only is a minimal state the only legitimate state, it is also an inspiring state. (This is argued for in Part III.)

This is a radical political philosophy that has many important implications. For example, it implies that the state is not permitted to coerce people to help others and is not allowed to coerce people for their own good. Neither altruistically nor paternalistically inspired intervention is justified. The welfare of other people or of oneself does not constitute an adequate ground for justifying interference. Rights are side constraints on actions and trump all competing considerations, such as considerations of equality or welfare. Redistributionist policies are consequently ruled out as illegitimate. The same holds for various regulations attempting to modify the behaviour of individuals by rendering actions that are deemed to be undesirable either more expensive or even outright illegal. Such prohibitions, regulations and paternalistic policies are ruled out by the rights of individuals. In short, there is no room for redistribution or paternalism within a Nozickian state.

This criticism and rejection of coercion and force is combined with an emphasis on voluntarism that is present throughout Nozick’s works. He wants to minimize the use of force and coercion, restricting its legitimate employment to the protection of individual rights. Governments, as well as individuals, are not permitted to restrain or constrain others for altruistic or paternalistic reasons. This does not, however, imply that non-coercive strategies for the achievement of these goals are ruled out. On the contrary, they can be praiseworthy and we might have nonenforceable duties to engage in them. The only thing that is problematic is the attempt to achieve these goals by coercive means, in particular by means of the coercive apparatus of the state.

Nozick does not deny that we have obligations to help others. He only denies that these obligations are enforceable, that we can be coerced to fulfi l them and that it is the role of the state to achieve these goals. ‘In no way does political philosophy or the realm of the state exhaust the realm of the morally desirable or moral oughts. . . . [R]ights are not the whole of what we want a society to be like, or of how we morally ought to behave toward one another’ (Nozick: 1981, p. 503). Accordingly, it is important to keep in mind that Nozick is restricting his focus in Anarchy, State, and Utopia to those obligations that are enforceable since they are the proper subject matter of political philosophy.

Thus, we can capture the key features of his political philosophy, by noting that it is (i) a theory based on individual rights, that (ii) allows that a minimal state is justified, while (iii) restricting state action such that nothing more than a minimal state can be legitimate, claiming that (iv) such a state is inspiring and right. These are the four key aspects of Nozick’s political philosophy. The present chapter will follow this progression, beginning with an outline of the moral theory that Nozick adopts, followed by his response to the anarchist’s challenge. We will then look at the limits of the state that Nozick identifies, which restrict legitimate state actions to those of a minimal state, before assessing his view that such a minimal state is an inspiring ideal. The chapter concludes with a brief analysis of the evolution of Nozick’s thought after the publication of Anarchy, State, and Utopia.

Accordingly, our discussion in this chapter will more-or-less follow the mode of presentation that Nozick makes use of in Anarchy, State, and Utopia. The only difference being that instead of dividing the discussion into three parts, we divide it into fi ve by adding a separate discussion of Nozick’s moral philosophy, as well as a description of his thought post-Anarchy, State, and Utopia. The reason for the former alteration is that Nozick does not provide a unifi ed and systematic account of morality. Instead, his discussion of such issues is spread throughout Anarchy, State, and Utopia as well as some of his other writings. It will be useful to try to synthesize these various statements since a systematic account of Nozick’s ethical thought will be important for evaluating and understanding the rest of his project.

A few methodological disclaimers are in order. Due to considerations of space, we will only focus on Nozick’s main line of argumentation in favour of the minimal state and against any more extensive state. This requires us to leave aside many of Nozick’s insightful and fascinating tangential discussions and intellectual excursions, such as his treatment of animal rights, his discussion of the Marxist theory of exploitation, and his account of demoktesis (‘ownership of the people, by the people and for the people’, cf. p. 290). Similarly, we will not consider in detail Nozick’s lengthy critique of Rawls’s A Theory of Justice as well as other sometimes technical discussions, but only integrate them into the systematic exposition of Nozick’s positive contribution when relevant. Moreover, Nozick’s discussions of ethics and politics in his other writings will be largely ignored, except when pertinent to the issues discussed in Anarchy, State, and Utopia.