May 4, 2008


Robert Nozick and the Coast of Utopia (DAVID LEWIS SCHAEFER, April 30, 2008, NY Sun)

Three years after the appearance of "Theory," a departmental colleague of Rawls, Robert Nozick, published a libertarian response, "Anarchy, State, and Utopia," which argued that nothing more than a "minimal state" devoted to protecting people against crimes like assault, robbery, and fraud could be morally justified.

Nozick's book was far more concise than Rawls's "Theory," and "Anarchy, State, and Utopia" did not go unnoticed: It won the 1975 National Book Award and was later listed by the Times Literary Supplement as one of the 100 most influential books of the 20th century. "Anarchy" remains a staple of the syllabus in courses on political theory, where it is usually juxtaposed with selections from Rawls to suggest that Rawls's welfare-state liberalism and Nozick's libertarianism represent the full spectrum of possibilities for contemporary liberal democracies.

Nonetheless, Nozick's reputation and influence in the academy — to say nothing of his name recognition in the broader world of law and politics — have never rivaled those of his colleague. (Though 15 years younger than Rawls, Nozick died in the same year, 2002, after a long struggle with cancer.) Doubtless, part of the explanation is that Rawls's "left-liberalism" (as he later described his position) harmonizes far better with the typical orientation of the contemporary professoriat. In addition, unlike Rawls, Nozick never made the advancement of a particular political doctrine the unifying concern of his academic career. Rather, his wide-ranging intellect led him to follow "Anarchy" (his first book) with other works addressing a considerable variety of philosophical topics, ranging from free will to decision theory to (in his 1989 book "The Examined Life") love, death, faith, and the meaning of life.

More important, however, "Anarchy" never constituted a true alternative to Rawls's doctrine, since, on every substantive issue except the legitimacy of governmental redistribution of wealth, Nozick and Rawls agreed. (And even on that issue, in a passage typically ignored by his admirers, Nozick himself hedged.)

Like Rawls's "Theory," "Anarchy" opens with a sweeping statement of the primacy of justice — understood, in the latter book, as individual rights, defined as freedoms from external restraint over one's actions — over all other criteria for assessing political and social institutions. In other words, Nozick more or less retained Rawls's first principle (liberty) while eliminating the second (difference).

Suggesting that "the fundamental question of political philosophy" is not how government should be organized but "whether there should be any state at all," Nozick offers an adaptation of John Locke's doctrine that government is legitimate only to the degree that it affords greater security for life, liberty, and property than would exist in a chaotic, pre-political "state of nature." More emphatically than Locke, however, Nozick concludes that the need for security justifies only a minimal, or "night-watchman," state, since it cannot be demonstrated, he believes, that all rational individuals would find any more extensive government necessary to secure their rights.

The tragedy of Rationalism is the patently absurd notion that Reason should render one answer to every question, when, in reality, it renders whatever answer you wish. Thus, imagining the test of what "all rational individuals" would find is an exercise in futility. It is because far Left and far Right rely on such fictional scenarios and deny human nature that they produce such disastrous political philosophies.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 4, 2008 11:43 AM
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