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Monday, April 13, 2009

Robert Nozick, "Anarchy, State, and Utopia"

Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974).

There are some books I have found myself in love with, despite disagreeing with almost everything the author has to say. My next favourite book is one of these. The book in question is Anarchy, State, and Utopia, by the Harvard political philosopher Robert Nozick (who, incidentally, died in 2002).

As a bit of pointless trivia, there is an episode of The Sopranos which features this book as a prop. A man who has witnessed a hit by Tony Soprano’s crew gets a call from the police, telling him that the charges against the mobsters have been dropped. When his phone rings, the man is sitting in his living room, reading a copy of Anarchy, State, and Utopia. I’m sure there is no particular plot-based reason for this choice of reading material.

Now, some warning is in order. The book is very controversial, having become one of the most influential works of libertarian thought ever written. And Nozick himself does not pull any punches. For example, he is notorious for having suggested that taxation is akin to forced labour. Therefore, in case you are scared off by the misconception that I am some kind of radical libertarian, I can assure you that I am not. Although liberty is a very important value, it is not the fundamental one. There are other values that, depending on circumstances, may have just as much claim on us as liberty. Having said that, liberty is not something to be cavalierly bargained away for magic beans or bread doles.

(If you must ask, if I had to force a political label upon myself, I suppose the closest fit would be “Red Tory” — see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_Tory — but with serious reservations).

On the other hand, reading Nozick’s work was the final nail in the coffin of my youthful flirtation with socialism. In a nutshell, Nozick begins by arguing for the legitimacy of some kind of state, as opposed to mere anarchy. On the other hand, the only kind of legitimate state he sees is what he calls the “minimal state”, one whose powers are largely limited to the protection of citizens from internal or external violence, and a few other functions, such as the protection of property rights, the redress of injury, and enforcement of contracts. Anything more than a minimal state would involve coercion and violation of individual rights and, as such, would lack legitimacy. Anarchy, State, and Utopia is a long, densely argued work. Personally, I am unconvinced, but just as I haven’t the space here to do justice to Nozick’s argumentation, so I also lack space to fully articulate the reasons for why I disagree with him. Instead, I wish to focus on one important aspect of his work, namely his conception of distributive justice, as laid out in the tour-de-force Chapter 7. It is this chapter that has had the most influence on my thinking.

Rawls and Distributive Justice

Nozick embarks on a lengthy examination of distributive justice in Chapter 7 because he wants to examine the claim that a more-than-minimal state can be justified on the grounds that only such a state can achieve distributive justice. So, what is distributive justice? The simplest way to put it is that distributive justice deals with the question of who gets what, and for what reason?

Nozick’s views make much more sense if we see them as a response to a particular theory of distributive justice, namely that put forth in John Rawls' A Theory of Justice (1971). Rawls’s book has the reputation of being the greatest work of political philosophy of the 20th century, and perhaps one of the greatest ever written. Personally, I think Rawls is one of the most over-rated philosophers of all time, but perhaps my opinion is tainted by the amount of time I had to spend studying his work in both of the universities at which I studied. However, at the time that Nozick wrote, one couldn’t swing a dead cat in a room full of intellectuals without hitting a Rawlsian (and in some philosophy departments it’s still that way).

Rawls presented a social contract theory which seems to justify a redistributive state. It is based on a thought experiment called “the original position”, in which a collection of people get together to agree on the basic principles of justice that will structure the state they are trying to achieve. They do so behind what Rawls calls the “veil of ignorance”: nobody knows anything about their personal characteristics, or their talents and “natural assets”; and most importantly, nobody knows what socio-economic position they will occupy in the new state.

Rawls argues that in the original position, bargainers would opt for principles that will maximize the position of the worst off, given the possibility that any of them could end up being among the worst off. Thus, they will agree on principles of distributive justice that will embody some degree of egalitarianism. Inequality would thus only be justifiable if the gains of the better off would also improve the lot of the worst off. Otherwise, equality must be preserved, even at the cost of redistribution.

Nozick’s Entitlement Theory

Nozick’s theory of distributive justice is called the “entitlement theory”. He says, first off, that we should not view goods like property and wealth as manna from heaven, dropped in our laps out of nowhere, to be divided up amongst us according to some abstract principle of justice. Such goods are not just dropped here, for the most part. They are produced, by people. Moreover, the pie to be divided up is not a fixed one; it is not necessarily the case that one person’s larger share must mean someone else’s getting a smaller share.

For Nozick, one is entitled to one’s holdings if they are held according to any of the following principles:

1. They are held according to the principle of just acquisition.
2. They are held according to the principle of just transfer from someone who is entitled to them.
3. No one is entitled to their holdings except by (repeated) applications of 1 and 2.

(To these, Nozick adds a principle of corrective justice, stating that one can acquire one’s holdings through rectification of another’s unjust appropriation.)

Patterned vs. Unpatterned and Historical vs. End-State

Nozick makes two distinctions between kinds of principles of distribution. According to one, a principle may be patterned or unpatterned. If it is patterned, then the resulting distribution will be one that could not plausibly have arisen through chance. The clearest example would be a distribution that is strictly egalitarian. Any principle of the form “To each according to his X” would result in a patterned distribution, in which those who are X hold more than those who are not X.

The other distinction is between principles that are end-state and those that are historical. End-state principles assess the justice of a distribution on the basis of a current time-slice of that distribution. Thus, strict egalitarianism might judge an equal distribution to be just, regardless of how it got to be that way. By contrast, a historical principle is concerned with how that distribution came about.

Rawls’ theory of justice is patterned and end-state. Given the above, we can see that Nozick’s entitlement theory is unpatterned and historical. He illustrates this with his famous example of Wilt Chamberlain.

Wilt Chamberlain

Nozick has us imagine a particular patterned and end-state distribution, for simplicity’s sake, let it be strict egalitarianism, where everyone’s holdings are the same. Now, imagine that based on his talents Wilt Chamberlain (for those too young to know, Wilt Chamberlain was once a famous basketball player) cuts a deal with his team’s owners for part of the gate receipts to their games. The team agrees to this. Now, every time people come to see his team play, Chamberlain gets 25 cents. A million people come, so soon he has amassed $250,000. Chamberlain now has much more money than everyone else (with the possible exception of his team’s owners). Is the resulting distribution unjust? It is certainly unpatterned, given that the egalitarianism has been broken up — as Nozick puts it, liberty upsets patterns.

According to Nozick, it is not unjust, because Chamberlain has become rich as the result of the individual choices of all the people that came to see him. So long as (by hypothesis) the spectators held their money justly, they justly transferred a part of their holdings to Chamberlain. Because we can only judge the justice of the resulting distribution on the basis of on how it came about, Nozick’s entitlement theory is historical.

Now, the previous egalitarian distribution can only be restored through forced redistribution, which can only occur through violating the principles of justice in holdings outlined by Nozick. The state must effectively steal money from Wilt Chamberlain and give it back to the people who gave it to him of their own volition. Thus, a redistributive state must resort to injustice in order to preserve its chosen conception of distributive justice. It is in this context that Nozick compares redistributive taxation to forced labour — working as the instrument of the wishes of others.

Private Property and Redistribution

Some of these ideas are not new. In his Politics, Aristotle gave what to me is still one of the best arguments for a regime of private property I have come across. Aristotle said that private ownership of property gives greater scope for the exercise of the virtues. “Common ownership” is a misnomer, he says, because under such a regime, nobody really owns anything. And if you can’t own things, you can’t give anything away, for you cannot give away what is not yours. Therefore, under common ownership, it becomes impossible to truly exercise the virtue of generosity. And if generosity is fundamental to friendship, then true friendship becomes impossible under this regime. And friendship is a very important arena for the exercise of many other virtues.

I imagine that without the possibility of generosity and friendship, social life would lose much of its lustre. I have had the privilege of speaking with many people who have had the experience of living under communist regimes, and this is one of the things they always point out to me, that the state sinks its tentacles even into personal relations. It is ironic that a system like communism, supposedly based on the notion of solidarity, should be so adept at undermining it.

Friedrich Hayek, in The Road to Serfdom (1944), made an argument similar to Aristotle’s. We tend to think highly of ourselves when we approve of various redistributive schemes our governments propose, but before we pat ourselves on the back for our generosity, we should always ask ourselves whether it is really our money we are proposing to spend. For as Hayek puts it, “we are neither entitled to be unselfish at someone else’s expense nor is there any merit in being unselfish if we have no choice. The members of a society who in all respects are made to do the good thing have no title to praise.”

As I’ve already mentioned, Nozick’s book is a great part of the reason why I am no longer a socialist. But despite my rather charitable presentation of Nozick’s ideas, he has certainly not converted me to libertarianism. I hope to outline why I am not a libertarian in a future posting.

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