Nozick Under Fire

Anarchy, State, and Utopia introduced libertarianism to the academic world, but it's been a mixed blessing


The publication of Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia in 1974 was the most important event in the recent history of the philosophy of liberty. Whether one agrees or disagrees with Nozick's particular arguments, one must grant that the great flood of attention that greeted his work established libertarianism as an option that could no longer be ignored by those interested in academic political philosophy.

It is hard to overestimate the shock value of Nozick's work within the ranks of professional moral and political philosophers. Nozick had already won, in spite of a very spare publication list, a reputation as one of the brightest young philosophers in the United States, and he taught (and teaches) at Harvard. Yet here he was, arguing the most outrageously unenlightened things. Taxation of wages is slave labor, indeed! As much as most academic philosophers hated reading such opinions, the fact that Nozick had published them in a book, the vivacity and wit of which few had the cheek to deny, made them, forthwith, legitimate positions to be considered in the academic debate. In this way Nozick gave a tremendous boost to all libertarians working in serious philosophy, including those who disagreed with many of his views and rather openly regarded him as a johnny-come-lately.

Nevertheless, it seems appropriate now, five years later, to consider the longer-range effect of Anarchy, State, and Utopia on the position of libertarianism in academic philosophy. An appropriate occasion for such a consideration is provided by the necessity of confronting recent issues of two respectable academic journals devoted primarily to Nozick and Nozickian issues. Unhappily, the task is much less entertaining than reading Anarchy, State, and Utopia.

The first number of the Arizona Law Review for 1977 (apparently the issue actually appeared in 1978) is given over entirely to a symposium on Nozick. The Personalist for October 1978 publishes a group of papers and replies from a conference on "Minimal Government" held at Drake University in November 1976 as the Fifth Plenary Conference of the American Section of the International Association for Philosophy of Law and Social Philosophy (AMINTAPHIL). Even though the topic of this conference was minimal government in general, Nozick is clearly predominant in many of the papers as the foremost recent proponent of such government.

I am sorry to have to report that, with the exception of a very few papers, reading these two journals was for me a grim and unrewarding task. Both volumes contain papers written by persons from several different disciplines, but on the whole, the essays are turgid, humorless, generally ill-written, and unremittingly uncharitable to Nozick's views.

Obviously, such a broad generalization risks condemning some writers unfairly, so I hasten to mention as an example a special island of relief in this murky sea. John Hospers's essay, "The Nature of the State" (from the Drake University conference), is a crisp and clear indictment of the desperate devotion to State power so clearly evinced by most of his fellow conferees. While this paper contains little that will be new to libertarians, it is a compact and useful piece. It is particularly pleasant, after reading these volumes, to imagine Hospers saying these things to those assembled at Drake in the context of the other papers.

One other fine piece should be noted for its injection of humor into these dry collections. A note by two student authors is included in the Arizona volume under the title "Using Metaright Theory to Ascribe Kantian Rights to Animals within Nozick's Minimal State." If I understand it rightly, this note is a very good satire of Nozick's much-noted concern for the purported rights of animals. Perhaps it is a measure of what good satire this piece is that I still entertain a doubt that it is satire at all and harbor a fear that it just might have been intended to be read literally. If so, it is remarkably silly, but I prefer to view it as a very nice piece of satire.

There are far too many essays included in these two issues for me to be able to consider them all individually here (nor, for that matter, would I wish to do so anywhere else). I shall, therefore, discuss four typical responses to Anarchy, State, and Utopia that I find well illustrated in these essays and shall use these responses as the basis for some further reflections on the present significance of Nozick's work for libertarian philosophy.


One kind of response to Nozick that has been fairly common is the complaint from various students of politics that he somehow ignores political reality. I have heard and read such suggestions often. The Arizona volume contains a particularly pointed example of this approach in an essay entitled "How Not to Do Political Theory: Nozick's Apology for the Minimal State," by Lawrence A. Scaff of the Political Science Department at the University of Arizona.

Scaff says at one point that some might even say Nozick wants to rule out politics altogether, as though this were a charge, or somehow unthinkable. But, of course, that is what Nozick says. He writes in his preface that he should perhaps say that his views enable one to see through the political realm. It is as clear as can be that, to the extent that politics is understood as the attempt to gain and wield coercive power, Nozick rejects it. It is equally clear that Nozick has plenty of room for politics if it is conceived as the attempt to attain shared goals by non-coercive means. But to point out these simple facts is no argument either way.

To say, as Scaff does, that Nozick gives him an eerie feeling as if the clock had been turned back and Croly, Beard, Veblen, and Dewey had never written proves nothing at all. One point of Nozick's book is to challenge the received wisdom of such works. He is explicitly questioning the usual doctrines of authority. What good is it, then, to offer as an objection that Nozick has no room for an account of political legitimacy and obligation? Pious repetition of these myths is no argument in their defense. It begs the question as surely as does the fundamentalist who quotes scripture as a reason for the unbeliever to accept the authority of scripture. While this whole response to Nozick may seem too silly to merit the time I have spent on it, the sad fact remains that it is a very common response in the critical literature.


Another typical response to Nozick has a vaguely intuitionist flavor. Several writers I have seen have argued along the general line, "Nozick says that X is permissible, but we all believe principle P; and if P is true, then X is not permissible; therefore, Nozick is wrong." The crucial point here is the appeal to what "we all believe" or some analogue thereof. Naturally, such an argument is easy to construct against Nozick, since he has written specifically to challenge so many of the political beliefs prevalent among academics. But while it may be good group therapy to undertake such exercises, the philosophic benefit is minimal because, once again, the question is begged.

The Arizona volume contains an interesting article by Judith Jarvis Thomson of M.I.T. that is a particularly sophisticated instance of this approach to Nozick. Professor Thomson is a very able philosopher, and her article is carefully reasoned in most respects, although her prose is rather heavy in places. She undertakes to consider Nozick's claim that taxation for redistribution violates the rights of citizens. Her argument is too involved to summarize fully, but after the usual philosophical clarification of terms and claims she undertakes to show that there is a whole class of cases in which it is morally permissible to seize property in spite of the rights of its owners.

Her discussion hinges on an imagined case in which you are out of town but have locked in your box the only supply of a medicine needed to save a child's life. In the crucial case you are contacted but refuse your consent even though the box and medicine mean nothing special to you. Professor Thomson holds that in this case it is morally permissible for "us" to burglarize your box and seize the medicine. Her reason baldly stated is that "it is indecent for you to refuse consent."

This notion of indecency is employed again later in the essay in much the same way but is never explained further at all. In spite of all her technical care and skill, her argument comes down to her confident belief that a certain state of affairs is "indecent." The inadequacy of this stares one in the face. There are simple, obvious ways to beg questions and complexly sophisticated ways to beg questions, but no matter how elaborate the background and paraphernalia, a begged question is begged all the same.

It might seem that I am being too hard on Professor Thomson here, and by extension on others who have argued against Nozick in similar fashion, since Nozick assumes that individuals have roughly Lockean rights and does not provide a justification for this assumption. But Nozick makes this assumption very clear and thus begs no questions. Further, and more important, the rights Nozick assumes are not just pulled out of the air. The appeal to Lockean rights has had an honorable place in the American tradition from its beginnings. Even if the importance of such claims is debatable, the invitation to reason on the basis of such an assumption is, in the American context, reasonable and interesting.

But who knows about Professor Thomson's "indecency" and other such dodges, which seem explicitly invented to hide the absence of argument at a crucial point? To be sure, the natural-rights tradition is in need of contemporary reinterpretation, but inventions such as "indecency" await original defense as basic moral categories.


A very interesting article by Robert Paul Wolff, a well-known, nonlibertarian anarchist, illustrates another tendency of Nozick's critics. It seems that many even among those critics who have taken Nozick seriously and have worked carefully in arguing against him feel a special need to disassociate themselves from him morally as though they might be contaminated by the very exercise of considering his views.

Wolff's essay in the Arizona volume, "Robert Nozick's Derivation of the Minimal State," is a very able attack upon Nozick's attempt to show that a minimal state would arise from a state of nature by permissible steps. Wolff presents a careful internal critique of Nozick's argument. Space does not allow a full exposition here, and the point I wish to make does not require such exposition, anyway. Suffice it to say that Wolff's critique is probably the best thing I have seen on Nozick's argument against anarchism except for Eric Mack's essay in the recent Nomos volume on anarchism.

Nevertheless, Wolff adds at the end of his paper a section titled "On the Weirdness of Anarchy. State, and Utopia"! In that section Wolff calls Nozick's work "creepy"—for its attempt to bring the "rationalizing" language of economics and game theory to bear on moral and social questions that have not been "rationalized" (and should not be) as capitalism has "rationalized" productive and economic questions. In passing, he tars James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock with the same brush. Now, I can easily see why many thinkers would not want to "rationalize" moral thought, since their mystic holdovers from other times would have to be given up. Nonetheless, Wolff's attack on Nozick is itself bizarre, apparently based on a desire not just to argue against Nozick (which he has done well) but to read him entirely out of court.

Wolff is certainly not the only critic to take this tack, nor is he by any means the worst. I can understand such inclinations only as a reaction to having been forced to take Nozick's individualist views so seriously. Most academics still entertain a gut-level hatred for individualist and libertarian views, however much they may have to acknowledge them as live options these days.

Finally, I turn to what I see as the most important philosophic reaction to Nozick's work. I shall mention no specific article here, since many of them touch on what is at issue. Three interrelated points attract the chief attention of those who wish to argue against Nozick's contention that any State more extensive than his minimal State would violate people's rights. The first is his failure to provide a detailed defense of the rights on which he bases his argument. As a result of this point, supporters of a bloated State zero in on two others—Nozick's remarks concerning the Lockean Proviso (that individuals have a right to justly acquired property unless they hold an exclusive monopoly on it) and his admission that rectification of past injustice might require temporarily a more than minimal State.

Again and again in the volumes under consideration, one finds remarks Nozick makes in discussing these points seized upon in order to show that even his principles do not really support a government, or a set of duties, as meager as he thinks. In fact, I believe that Nozick's positions on the proviso and rectification are unsatisfactory and must be given up, but the questions are complex, and I cannot possibly discuss them here. Rather, I want to point out how surely Nozick's opponents believe that they have found weaknesses here that undermine much if not all of his libertarian stand.

This fact brings us back to overall assessment of Nozick's importance for libertarianism five years after Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Curiously, in spite of my insistence on the great benefits all libertarian philosophers have reaped from the publication of Anarchy, State, and Utopia, I must admit that at present Nozick is a mixed blessing. Statist critics believe with some justice that they have drawn much blood in attacking his lack of a theory of rights and his treatments of rectification and the proviso. Unlike John Rawls, whose Theory of Justice has been subjected to much criticism, Nozick has chosen to make no reply at all to critics. When one adds to this the fact that most academic critics treat Nozick almost as though he were the only living libertarian, one arrives at the result that many critics feel that they have scored heavily against libertarianism and that their criticism remains unanswered.

Thus, I conclude that we are in a crucial and dangerous time for libertarianism in regard to academic philosophy. Unless either Nozick himself or other libertarian philosophers soon provide convincing answers to these critics, and succeed in getting their attention (which may be the more difficult task), Nozick's bold attempt may be regarded as a flash-in-the-pan, and libertarianism may again be generally ignored by most philosophers.

Charles King is a professor of philosophy at Pomona College. He is currently on leave for some intensive studying of economics at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute.