Blogs > Liberty and Power > Nozick

Jul 2, 2005 2:21 pm


Nozick



Yes, yes, I know blogs are supposed to be timely. But mine has always been more like a commonplace book. My main audience is myself, my main objective--selfishly--to think in the disciplined mode of print. And, again selfishly, I like to get help from smart people along the way.

I'm reading Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia right now, an my first impression is..."Holy Jesus this is good!" I'd mentioned in the past being ashamed of not having read this book, and now I'm even more ashamed. Being told at an impressionable age that I need not bother with Nozick was surely among the worst advice I've ever gotten.

I have two quick notes in what will probably become an ongoing discussion.

First, on page xii of the Basic Books paperback edition, Nozick writes,
Even if the minimal state is the uniquely justifiable one, it may seem pale and unexciting, hardly something to inspire one or to present a goal worth fighting for. To assess this, I turn to that preeminently inspiring tradition of social thought, utopian theory, and argue that what can be saved from this tradition is precisely the structure of the minimal state.
Perhaps it's the clarity of the prose, or maybe it's the invocation of utopianism (which reads weirdly to someone who grew up watching utopia collapse), but I now have a question, and a fairly serious one: Why do we ask these things of the state at all? Why do people expect the state to be inspiring, and why is inspiration considered--even by Nozick--to be one trait of a good political order? If anything, there are few impulses in all of human history that have caused more misery than the inspiration people take from the state, and we could at least plausibly postulate that the most uninspiring state has a good chance of improving on our current models.

At times like these I wonder if I am not an incomplete human being; just as I take very little feeling of the sacred from religion, so too I find nationalism, the modern religion, almost completely empty. The best way I can capture the strangeness of the emotion to me is by comparing it to how most people feel about some close relatives of the state. We do not ask insurance companies or the vendors of home security systems to be inspiring, and so too, it should seem, with the state.

Personally, I would much rather have everyone look to the state with the same level of affection that they now give to their insurance companies: They are useful at times, obnoxious at others, but in no case worth getting all teary-eyed over. And to die for your insurance company? Please.

My second note concerns this passage from page 6:
What persons may and may not do to one another limits what they may do through the apparatus of a state, or to do to establish such an apparatus.
Perfect. It's succinct, crystal-clear, and altogether principled. Indeed, it's virtually the whole of libertarianism in a single sentence--so much so that I doubt if many non-libertarians would ever agree with it. To my non-libertarian readers: Do you accept Nozick's claim? Or do you find that agents of the state may do more than ordinary individuals acting in the state of nature? (Keep in mind that under a government, of course the agents of the state may do more than ordinary individuals, for we have--voluntarily or not--delegated these powers to them, and they are acting as our agents, to do the things that we may otherwise have rightfully done.)

[Crossposted at Positive Liberty.]

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:


William Marina - 7/4/2005

Oh, my, I must be in error, because we seem on essential agreement on something!


Tom G Palmer - 7/4/2005

Perhaps we could gain more clarity on what Nozick had in mind by drawing on a distinction that is more common to European discussion of politics, and distinguish what Locke termed "civil society" or "political society" from government. (In much contemporary European discussion, the term "the state" is used for what Locke would have termed civil or political society, but "the state" has relatively sinister connotations for me, at least partly because it is conflated in American English with "the government.") One can have a commitment to a certain civil society or political society, without finding the current holders of political authority inspiring, as they're just humans, after all. But the civil or political order within which they may exercise certain authority may be a different matter; that might indeed be inspiring.


John Joseph Ray - 7/4/2005

Try this:


THE PEOPLE'S ROMANCE (TPR)

There is an interesting article by Daniel Klein here (PDF) that gives Leftism a somewhat more creditable motivation than I am usually inclined to give it. Klein argues that because of our evolutionary past, people long to be part of one big group or "community". They in fact like to feel that everyone around them is on their side in some sense. It is a sort of genetic memory of the hunter-gatherer tribe supporting one-another against the elements. So people in whom that need is strong try to convert the whole of their country into one big brotherly tribe. To me as an instinctive individualist, it all seems rather pathetic and I have myself never knowingly felt that way. Being on good terms with just a few like-minded individuals is plenty for me. Nonetheless it is easy to see how such feelings must have evolved and I suppose the wonder is that such feelings are not strong among us all. So the idea is that Leftists are really trying to satisfy their primitive yearning for unity at the expense of all those who want no part of any such social straitjacket. It certainly helps explain the straitjacket societies developed under Hitler's national socialism and Stalin's "socialism in one country". An excerpt from the article:

Many people, particularly ones who in the American context would tend to vote Democrat or Green, are inclined to support economic restrictions such union privileges, occupational licensing, the minimum wage, housing market-controls, the postal monopoly, and import restrictions. Yet knowledgeable economists agree that these restrictions are bad for humankind.

Perhaps their support arises because TPR requires, as Bukharin and Preobrazhensky put it, that activities be statified. [not stratified] What seems primary is not often how well the program or policy achieves stated goals of improving education, mobility, opportunity, and so on but instead the collective endeavor itself.

Why do people who claim to be concerned for the poor so often support or go along with policies that are obviously and predictably bad for society and especially the poor? Why do they support government schooling, antidevelopment land-use policies, rail transit projects, and policies to discourage the use of the private automobile? TPR provides an explanation: these policies bind people together (like a bundle of sticks).

Many populists, right and left, oppose free trade, alleging that it will hurt low-skilled workers. Even if that claim were true, however, why do they leave out of their consideration low-skilled Chinese or Brazilians? Answer: TPR is about we Americans. "The People" excludes "the other people." TPR helps explain why "distributive justice" reaches only to the border. If you scratch an egalitarian you'll often find TPR.

I suspect that a large part of the impetus behind the welfare state is the yearning for a collective enterprise: "We" taking care of "Ourselves." In this theater, some have to be cast as the needy, helpless, disadvantaged, inferior, and so on. I suspect that one reason coercive egalitarians feel that "the disadvantaged" deserve government support is that the scheme demeans and exploits them, so that the assistance is a sort of compensation.

Why are people uneasy about globalization? The communitarian Alasdair MacIntyre rightly says: "Patriotism cannot be what it was because we lack in the fullest sense a patria. . . . In any society where government does not express or represent the moral community of the citizens . . . the nature of political obligation becomes systematically unclear (1984, 254). Globalization blurs the "we," dissolves political obligation, and deflates TPR.

Why are government officials and enthusiasts often hostile to leading corporations like Microsoft, McDonald's, Wal-Mart, and Martha Stewart? Why are they often hostile to other bases for independent private cultural power such as private builders, private schools, and talk radio? Part of the answer may be that they are jealous in guarding their role as medium and focal point in TPR. Why are they hostile to placeless "suburban sprawl," private communities, private shopping malls, the private automobile (especially big ones), gun ownership and toting, and home schooling? Because these practices are means of withdrawing from TPR and creating an autonomous circle of authority, power, and experience.



Tom G Palmer - 7/4/2005

I did read what Mr. Brady wrote. I wrote that referenda offer one means of advancing liberty, not that a referendum was the best or the only or the most effective use of my or someone else's resources. Of course, referenda can also be used to oppose war, as in those cases when non-binding referenda are held to indicate public opposition to a war. (I am unaware of any occasions in living memory when binding popular votes were taken in referenda on war, but various units of government have sponsored such non-binding referenda in the past.)

And regarding voting, I'm afraid that I can't follow Mr. Brady's too unquestioning an internalization of some public choice theorizing. Votes do and can matter; rarely are elections decided by one vote, but a multitude of people acting together can affect a change. The same logic applies to joining a street demonstration. Rarely is the presence or absence of one and only one person (Mr. Brady or me, say) going to determine whether the street demonstration has any positive impact, but that would be a strange reason not to join one. Making a commitment to vote can indeed increase one's willingness to work to get out others, and if enough others get out and vote in favor of liberty, liberty can achieve a small or large victory, depending on what is at stake. Obviously, in many cases there is no point to voting because there is no significant difference among the candidates, but that is not always the case. Since Mr. Brady is open-minded on referenda, I should point out that the very same logic against voting applies to referenda, which are also almost never decided by one vote. To be consistent, he should disparage voting on all occasions save those where it is likely that one vote would make the difference, but it seems that he doesn't.

But back to why we should hope that achievement of limited government might be inspiring. Because inspiration to achieve what is right and good can lead people to achieve important things, to fight against injustice even though the pecuniary costs to them are far, far greater than any benefits they might gain, save the benefit of living as a free person and enjoying justice. Mr. Kuznicki asked why inspiration might be considered important as a characteristic of a political order. I suggested that it may be important because it moves us to undergo costs far greater than the material benefits to achieve what is just.


Mark Brady - 7/4/2005

TGP: "Regarding point 2a of Mr. Brady's remarks, I wonder how long his memory is. Did the election of Mrs. Thatcher help to substantially reduce the power of the British state over -- at the very least - the economy? Were not British Airlines, British Telecom, British Gas, and a host of other gigantic enterprises privatized? Did that not make any difference?"

When I wrote my brief post, I had in mind the United States. Regarding Mrs. Thatcher, it’s true the largest nationalized industries were privatized--although as monopolies. What was less ambiguously pro-liberty was the transfer of ownership of municipal (local council) housing to existing tenants. And what was unambiguously pro-liberty was the abolition of foreign exchange controls--although regrettably ownership of gold bullion was henceforth subject to value added tax. It’s also worth pointing out that elite and public opinion was already moving in that direction and that UK Conservative administrations of the 1980s were perhaps more the vehicle for, rather than the cause of, the privatizations that ensued. And we shouldn't forget the unambiguously illiberal restrictions on civil liberties that occurred during her premiership and the nationalization of government prosecutions (which were formerly decentralized). Neither should we overlook her little war in the South Seas nor should we forget what was probably the ultimate reason for her departure from office—the introduction of the hated poll tax that raised, not lowered, taxes for millions of households.

Quite apart from all this, no one can point to how an individual voter can ever make any difference to government policy. So we’re left with some sort of argument that classical liberals should spend their very scarce resources encouraging other people to vote for particular candidates or parties. I remain unconvinced—particularly since electoral outcomes are often only remotely linked to the popular vote.

TGP: “Or consider the elections in the former Communist countries. Was it not better to vote for liberal candidates than for nationalist or communist candidates in Poland? Surely it mattered that such figures as Leszek Balcerowicz of the Freedom Union became ministers, rather than various nationalists or socialists?”

TGP: “Or consider what would happen in Germany if the National Democratic Party were to get into government. One could go on and on. Living memory would have to be very short-term indeed not to encompass those and many other cases.”

It wasn’t only classical liberals who voted for liberal candidates in Poland and it isn’t only classical liberals who vote against NDP candidates.

TGP: “As to point 2b, does something have to be "the best use of scarce resources" (whose?) for it to advance liberty? Mr. Brady seems to be relying on a model of optimality that assumes that we can know the very best disposition of all the resources in the world and then determine that all others fall short of that. But those resources are not given to some central planner, whether me or Mr. Brady. If a person in Michigan were to put an initiative on the ballot to eliminate state laws against marijuana and it were to win, so that at least state agents would no longer bust people for that "crime" (and had two members of SCOTUS changed, neither would federal agents in that state), would that not be a step toward a limited government? Why does it have to be what Mr. Brady considers "the best use of scarce resources" for it nonetheless to be a step toward greater justice, one that is inspired by a love of justice? The resources that I might dedicate to such a cause are not Mr. Brady's to dispose of, despite his invocation of "the best use of scarce resources."”

Please read what I wrote. I said referenda may be a way to go but I questioned whether they would be the best use of scarce resources. I also wrote that “[p]erhaps the greatest potential lies in classical liberals participating and taking the lead in a broad antiwar coalition.” Of course, what Hayek called the division of knowledge means that knowledge is dispersed and cannot be concentrated in one mind or organization, and I do not presume that classical liberals can *know* what is the correct strategy—but classical liberals can hazard guesses and profer tentative advice as to what is likely to work and what is not.


Tom G Palmer - 7/4/2005

I remember that meeting. I'm not entirely sure, but perhaps it was at the Waldorf Astoria hotel. The various papers on Nozick were given by Randy Barnett, R. A. Childs, and Jack Sanders. They offered a number of important criticisms, especially regarding the status of procedural rights, rights and risk-imposing activities, and invisible-hand explanations. Murray referred on several occasions to "Nozick's semi-libertarian book," as I recall. I also saw Bob Nozick speak in New York in the same year, where he made some interesting remarks about the anarchist challenge and his book. He was a remarkable gentleman.


William Marina - 7/4/2005

Murray's comments were in several discussions with me, but most notably, as I recall, at the Libertarian Scholars Conference in NYC in 1975, if I remember correctly.


Tom G Palmer - 7/4/2005

Regarding point 2a of Mr. Brady's remarks, I wonder how long his memory is. Did the election of Mrs. Thatcher help to substantially reduce the power of the British state over -- at the very least - the economy? Were not British Airlines, British Telecom, British Gas, and a host of other gigantic enterprises privatized? Did that not make any difference?

Or consider the elections in the former Communist countries. Was it not better to vote for liberal candidates than for nationalist or communist candidates in Poland? Surely it mattered that such figures as Leszek Balcerowicz of the Freedom Union became ministers, rather than various nationalists or socialists?

Or consider what would happen in Germany if the National Democratic Party were to get into government. One could go on and on. Living memory would have to be very short-term indeed not to encompass those and many other cases.

As to point 2b, does something have to be "the best use of scarce resources" (whose?) for it to advance liberty? Mr. Brady seems to be relying on a model of optimality that assumes that we can know the very best disposition of all the resources in the world and then determine that all others fall short of that. But those resources are not given to some central planner, whether me or Mr. Brady. If a person in Michigan were to put an initiative on the ballot to eliminate state laws against marijuana and it were to win, so that at least state agents would no longer bust people for that "crime" (and had two members of SCOTUS changed, neither would federal agents in that state), would that not be a step toward a limited government? Why does it have to be what Mr. Brady considers "the best use of scarce resources" for it nonetheless to be a step toward greater justice, one that is inspired by a love of justice? The resources that I might dedicate to such a cause are not Mr. Brady's to dispose of, despite his invocation of "the best use of scarce resources."


Mark Brady - 7/4/2005

2. (a) Candidates for office. No, at least not within living memory.

2. (b) Referenda. Maybe, but is this the best use of scarce resources? Perhaps the greatest potential lies in classical liberals participating and taking the lead in a broad antiwar coalition.

2. (c) Changing public opinion. Yes, but it is important in the first instance to seek to reach the next generation of serious scholars and work with the next generation of secondhand dealers in ideas. And it is also important to emphasize not only the case for personal liberty and private property but also the arguments for peace and against war. This is an integral part of the classical liberal paradigm. Sadly all too many of those who identify as 'libertarian' are either unaware of, or choose to ignore, this aspect of classical liberalism.


Tom G Palmer - 7/4/2005

A look inside Robert Nozick's book would show that on page xv he wrote that "It was a long conversation about six years ago with Murray Rothbard that stimulated my interest in individualist anarchist theory." On p. 336, he wrote in footnote 4 to chapter 2, "Since I wrote this work in 1972, Rothbard has more extensively presented his views in For a New Liberty (New York: MacMillan, 1973), chaps. 3 and 11, and David Friedman has defended anarcho-capitalism with gusto in The Machinery of Freedom (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), pt. III. Each of these works is well worth reading, but neither leads me to revise what I have to say here." (Murray, of course, did not offer a critique of Bob's arguments in the book that came out before Bob's.) A significant part of Bob's book was an attempt to show that the recognition of rights was compatible with the justice of limited government. He credits Murray with sparking his interest in the question, as he did Bruce Goldberg in taking "libertarian views seriously enough to want to refute them, and so to pursue the subject further." He read very widely and cited his sources meticulously.


William Marina - 7/3/2005

Perhaps the best critique of Nozick's work was by Murray, whose related work came out a year earlier. I'm not sure i would go as far as some have with respect to the notion that Nozick borrowed from Rothbard without giving sufficient credit.


Tom G Palmer - 7/3/2005

I'll first give the modest answer, then a stab at the less modest. 1. I wish I knew the answer to how to achieve greater liberty in a way that could be written down. 2. Well, it depends on the context. If there is a clear choice between better and worse candidates for public office, you could be inspired to campaign for and vote for the better (more libertaian) candidate. If there is a referendum process, you could be inspired to put on the ballot and campaign for initiatives to legalize narcotics, or get rid of segregation, or protect property rights, or.... If public opinion matters (and it does everywhere, even in the darkest dictatorships), you could educate others to the benefits of freedom and to the fragility of power when confronted by large numbers. If there is a pointless war on the horizon, you could campaign against it and build public pressure for peaceful solutions. The list is endless, but acquire support by one thing: the inspiration provided by an ideal of a just society.


Jason Kuznicki - 7/3/2005

It's a good answer. The question I raised leads to some paradoxes, among them the difficult problem of whether I would find inspiring the attainment of an uninspiring state.

But the real question, which cuts through the paradoxes, is simple: "It inspires you to do what, exactly?"


chris l pettit - 7/3/2005

Nozick is a fascinating character...one of my favorites to teach. My only complaint is that, unlike Dworkin, Rawls, Marx, and many others, he just wrote his text and then moved on. He has never bothered to address the significant and important criticisms of weaknesses in his articulation of his theory, and that detracts from its overall effectiveness. I personally like his idea of rights as sidebars, as it bears a distinct likeness to rights as trumps as articulated by Dworkin. His rights structure allows for my personal take on human rights and the rule of law, which is that there is a certain point where democracy and individualism stops, and where there must be highly trained, impartial and non-ideological individuals (read: a judiciary) that are able to rise above the ideological prejudices of normal miseducated and misinformed individuals (due to religion, nationalism, politics, ethnicity, cultural relativism, what have you) and be a rights and law protectorate. It is interesting to me to note that this idea is not necessarily in opposition to the theory articulated by Nozick...but many libertarians would claim that it is in opposition to the right to liberty and is the beginnings of a minimal state of some sort. So the nationalism as religion and nonsensical artificial hierarchy point I am in agreement with...and swim upstream against constantly.

I am interested in the confusion in this whole democracy and federalist exercise...referring to your last quote about delegating power. In my understanding, we do not delegate power to certain elected officials to represent our selfish individual interests or (in reality) the interests of the powerful, the wealthy, the moral entrepreneurs, etc. The power that is delegated as representatives is to present the preferences of the consituents, but only in context of what is best for the deomcracy and community of Americans as a whole. This is why i find it absurd that states rights and libertarians sometimes walk hand in hand. Is this a blantant misunderstanding of what democracy actually is? It is not, as many would argue, individuals all getting one vote and being able to vote their ideology (although this is the reality and is why democracy should have a minimal place in human rights and peace, except when dealing in universals that we all share). Rather, it is individuals expressing their opinions but realising that they as individuals only exist in relation to the entirety of the community, and knowing what may seem to be best for the liberty of the individual in the short term is indefensible when viewed in terms of an interrelated community. THis gets to the usual core problem...and Nozick's...of identifying liberty and/or property as the fundamental rights. THis position decends into a helpless muddle when one considers that idea in context with the idea (also voiced by Nozick) that ones rights should not impose on the rights of another. Well...when is it imposing...who decides...if we simply say the individual, we are returned to Hobbes state of nature and have to articulate some sort of social contract (which raises other problems)...this is where the idea of the minimal state comes in.

I guess I need to answer a question with a question...

Do you think that one can actually build a system of rights with liberty and property as the basis...and without a minimal state?

I agree with the quote you raised...but within my definition of what a minimal state should be...a weak executive and/or legislature that allows for "democracy" in the everyday running of society (rule of man) to allow for efficiency and stability...and a strong independent judiciary charged with being a human rights protectorate, non-ideological, impartial, and not connected to the political process in any way (to protect the rule of law). Re-reading that, I guess that I would answer your question by stating that yes, there are certain individuals who are able, for the most part, to overcome the ideological bias that is inherent in politics, religion, nationalism, etc. and are able to understand and articulate universal rights of individuals as they are manifested within an interrelated community of mankind. They are also able to understand historical and social inequalties and see that, if one truly wants to speak of rights, they must be based in universality, equality, dignity, and justice (meaning making up for those inequalities). This is a key aspect that Nozick misses.

As you read him...I would encourage you to be on the lookout for circular arguments that he raises that actually contradict some of his own statements. In addition, try and figure out the core assumptions upon which he bases his argument, and try and figure out at the end of the day whether he actually is speaking of rights...or whether he is articulating something else entirely. And ask yourself whether a system based on the right to liberty and property can actually be a system of rights, or whether it inevitably descends into the same structure of power relationships that the libertarian critique of a State, utilitarianism, and other theories suffer from...thereby becoming a state of its own (maybe under the guise of a free market and individualism...maybe under something else).

As I said...Nozick is an interesting character and I dont totally agree or disagree with anything he says. As with most of us who struggle with rights theory and legality, his points raise as many questions as they answer...and some of the criticisms that have been made make his theory pretty shaky at the end of the day. That being said, there are certain interpretations that give him some stronger footing, if one is willing to make certain leaps (for instance regarding the judiciary). if you want some additional resources, I would be happy to send along the articles and such that I utilize on my syllabus.

CP


Tom G Palmer - 7/3/2005

Since Jason believes that "I would much rather have everyone look to the state with the same level of affection that they now give to their insurance companies," he asks a good question: why should we want the minimal state to be inspiring? I think I know the answer. It's not that *having* a minimal state should be such an inspiration, but *getting* one (or maintaining one in the face of threats or other options) should be. We shoudl be inspired to strive for the minimal state, because it is more just than other states, and if we are not inspired, we are unlike to strive.


Kenneth R Gregg - 7/3/2005

At this time of year, there is a classic short brief on libertarianism that I always read:

"When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation."

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. --That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security."

These two short paragraphs contain the core of libertarian thinking which explain both libertarian principles and libertarian strategy.

I have come back to these and similar statements over and over again. The clarity and perceptiveness of these few sentences are bold statements which will always excite and enthuse me.

How could someone over two centuries ago have come up with this? How did others bring this message throughout the globe? And why?

This is the gist of libertarian history. Something truly amazing to ponder.

Just a thought.
Just Ken
kgregglv@cox.net