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The Robert Nozick Problem

with 2 comments

So, John brought up Anarchy, State and Utopia, a book I sometimes suggest to people who know nothing about libertarianism and either can’t or won’t read Ayn Rand, but a book  I always recommend with mental reservations.

I first heard of Robert Nozick in 1983.  I bought the book in London in 1984, going to one of those big academic bookstores they used to have to find it.  I was excited, at the time, for obvious reasons.  The idea of a libertarian–and a radical libertarian–on the faculty of the philosophy department at Harvard was a really neat idea.   It was even neater that he became chairman of that department, just as John Rawls had been before him.  Rawls has got to be the premiere liberal (American sense) philosopher of the last half of the twentieth century.

And Nozick really is a radical libertarian–radical on both fronts of libertarian thought, which is where he gets into trouble, at least for me.

He’s radical in the limitations he would place on government, basically reducing it to the police, the courts, and the military.  Ayn Rand was, of course, there before him, and went farther.

The standard libertarian formula for goverment says that government may properly intervene in cases where one citizen or group of citizens initiates the use of force or fraud against another citizen or group of citizens, and can perform those functions necessary to the continued existence of the society that cannot be successfully performed any other way.

The second half of that formula allows for a certain amount of wiggle room, and most libetarians think it’s okay for governments to run road systems, for instance. 

But Nozick’s problem came in addressing the second issue of libertarianism–what liberty meant for the individual–and in my opinion, he went to the edge of the cliff and just jumped off.

Consider Thomas Jefferson’s reworking of the Lockean formula on rights–not “life, liberty and property” but “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

A lot of people have taken that to mean–and almost all libertarians have taken that to mean–that government has no business interfering in the individual life style choices of citizens.   Most libertarians are pro-choice, but most of them are also in favor of ditching all the drug laws. 

But now let’s take an extreme example–what if you want to own slaves, and know somebody who wants to be a slave.  What right has the government to interfere in your choice?

In a certain sense of “choice,” the answer to the above may be:  none.  Go out on the Internet, and you’ll find entire networks of websites devoted to the “dom and sub” lifestyle, which is all about choosing to be or have slaves in the confines of your own home.   That would seem to indicate that “being a slave” or “having a slave” was a lifestyle choice you are able to make.

But.  Here’s the thing.

A slave isn’t a slave because he voluntarily submits to the will of his master.  He’s a slave because his submission is involuntary.  As long as you can leave any time you want to, you’re not choosing to be a slave,and you aren’t really a slave owner.  You’re playing a game with roles on both sides but no solid basis in reality.

In order for it to be possible for you to choose to be a slave or choose to be a master, your government would be required either to enfoce your choices–to bring your slave back to you when he runs away–or to stay neutral while you did (by, say, hunting down your runaway slave and dragging him back).

This government will do neither of those things, and on the subject of slavery we actually have a Constitutional amendment to cover it.

Now take another example–a real one.  And I warn you, this is gross.

A few years ago, a young man in Germany placed a classified ad saying that he had always wanted to eat a human being, and asking if there was anybody out there who had always wanted to be eaten. 

He got a taker, and the two men hooked up together for a truly remarkable few weeks, during which the first man chopped off bits and pieces of the second, cooked them, and then both ate them hismelf and fed his apparently willing victim.  Finally, the first man killed what was left of the second man, and ate that.

The German government was not amused. Nor were they inclined to be understanding of the lifestyle choices of two consenting adults.

Robert Nozick wasn’t thinking of extreme cases like this when he formed his conviction that in a free society, groups of people should be able to form communities that decided that rules for themselves, no matter how objectionable they might seem to other people.

He was thinking of things like religious communities, not only the  Amish but less strict sects that, for instance, didn’t accept the political equality of women and expected them to e subordinate to their husbands, or groups that wanted polygamay. 

If the pursuit of happiness was to mean anything, Nozick said, then such communities must be able not only to form, but to enforce their rules within their communities.

In a way, he went right back to the Greek understanding of liberty–not as an attribute of individuals, but of societies.  For the Greeks, a society was free if it could make its own rules unimpeded by outside power or authority.  It didn’t matter if those rules were crushingly oppressive to individual action.

Nozick would in fact have been okay with government enforcing–or allowing communities to enforce–slavery.  I don’t know what he would have thought of the second case, but there’s nothing in any of the books I read by him, or any of the articles, that gives me even a hint that he’d be able to oppose it.

The simple fact of the matter is this–in a free society where liberty inheres in the individual, you can pursue happiness, but nobody can guarantee that your fellow  citizens wil like you for it, or respect you for it, or refuse to jude you for it.  Nor are your fellow citizens required to pay for it.  Nor are they required to enfocrce it. 

And that means that we will never be perfectly free.  I’m free to buy a beachside mansion in the Hamptons, but I don’t have the money for it, so my freedom is moot for the moment.  I’m free to decide to dye my entire body neon green and my hair neon pink, but not to walk the streets without getting started at or keep my job as the spokesperson for the Family Values Association.

Some choices are harder to make than others.  They cost more mentally, emotionally, and materially than others.   You are free to make them, but you are required to take the consequences.   If those consequences make you feel constrained in your choices, that’s not lack of liberty but presence of calculation. You are free to jump off a twenty-story building.   You are not free not to go splat when you hit the ground. 

I like a lot of Nozick’s work, and I have a tendency to send people links to my favorite essay of his, “Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism.”  The link is here:


But although individual liberty is ultimately the right to choice of various kinds, that’s not all it is, and reducing your defense of liberty to choice and choice alone is going to get you into a lot of trouble.

The nation Nozick visualized, the one in which individual groups could go off and live with rules of their own making no matter what those rules were would not have been free in any sense of the term, maybe not even in the sense the Greeks gave the word.

In the end, a free country is one in which the government defends the rights of individuals to make free choices, and that ultimately means not only that communities have limited rights of choice in at least some cases, but that individuals themselves may have limited rights of choice in some areas if those choices would decrease or endanger the liberties of the rest of us.

In other words,  Robert Nozick wouldn’t have been able to come up with a defense of the  German government’s prosecution of the cannibal for murder–but  I could do it with my eyes shut.

Written by janeh

July 21st, 2009 at 8:09 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'The Robert Nozick Problem'

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  1. With Jane on libertarianism, I am largely in agreement. With Nozick on intellectual anti-capitalism, not so much
    “We have found, I think, an explanatory factor that (once stated) is so obvious that we must believe it explains some real phenomenon.”

    Sadly, the “obviousness” of an explanation is no proof of its connection to reality. We’ll set aside the lack of anti-capitalist animus on the part of musicians, composers, sculptors and personal trainers as something for sociological investigator to verify or disprove. Well accept a plethora of anti-capitalist “intellectuals.” But let’s break it down a few levels.

    The intellectuals are anti-capitalist because they did relatively better in school. Well, of course they did. They’re so bright. After all, they grew up to become

    “poets, novelists, literary critics, newspaper and magazine journalists, and many professors. “ and they’re concentrated in “academia, the media, government bureaucracy.”

    Government bureaucrats? How’s that one again? I can find you a number of “govies” who are anti-capitalist to some degree, but not many of them are poets or literary critics. And they aren’t notably academic or clever, for that matter.

    But were journalists notably successful students? Of the poets, novelists and literary critics whose lives you have read about, how many graduated at or near the top of a college class? How many even graduated?

    Which leaves professors. I will concede that these days anyone with tenure spent a long time in school and likely had his terminal degree from a prestigious institution. This is not the same as conceding that they were either brighter or more academically successful than those who didn’t go into academia. And if they weren’t at or near the top of the class, the whole edifice collapses. I don’t think this whole speculation is ready for the sociologists yet.

    A couner-hypothesis? I don’t really need one, but just to be sporting I’m going to go against Brother William and posit two sources of anti-capitalist animus. Academics, please keep in mind, mostly ARE government bureaucrats. Government bureaucrats benefit in many ways from a larger more powerful government. And few of the people outraged when Haliburton gets a no-bid contract would care much for having to submit bids for teaching Freshman Comp. That sort of thing is for plumbers.

    The second source consists of entertainers who despise their audience. Some of them are successful nonetheless. Think of certain film directors and producers. Others are poets and novelists on the edge of subsidy publishing. All can see themselves producing great works of art if they didn’t have to pander to the philistines.

    I look at anti-capitalist criticism, and I consider the source.


    21 Jul 09 at 6:31 pm

  2. Jane, I believe there is a saying “Hard cases make bad laws.” I question whether the cannibal case should be used as a test. Its too extreme.

    Robert, I agree that Nozick has a weak argument. Its not clear that being good at high school math necessarily makes a student good at high school English. But I suspect that most University professors did well in High School. Whether that is true for journalists and poets is another matter!


    21 Jul 09 at 8:32 pm

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