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Anarchy, State, and Utopia

by Robert Nozick

1974, Basic Books

Written by Darrell Anderson.

Robert Nozick’s book Anarchy, The State, and Utopia often is hailed by many libertarians, but as a liberty-minded individual, I found Nozick’s effort mostly a waste of time.

The book is divided into three discussions, exactly as the title of the book suggests.

In Part I Nozick wanted to refute basic anarchist theory and legitimize a minimal state. He began his treatise using a concept known as the “state of nature.” This ambiguous phrase is derived from Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. The phrase attempts to convey the idea of humans living without any formal social structure. Yet as many people have noted and as Nozick admitted, at no time in human history has any such condition existed. Humans naturally are social creatures because they are not self-sufficient creatures as are some other animal species. Unlike some animal species that hit the ground running, at birth humans are utterly dependent upon others for survival. Nozick nonetheless pursued a discussion based upon this flawed and unrealistic idea. Many people will not recognize that Nozick silently equated the concept of anarchy with “the state of nature.”

Nozick never provided or developed an explicit definition of anarchy. Without explicit definitions any ensuing discussion is frustrating. Additionally, all but some fringe anarchists embrace the reality that humans are social creatures and are not self-sufficient, and that any non-statist social structure must necessarily acknowledge this reality. Almost all credible anarchist theory recognizes the cooperative nature of humanity. Thus, from the beginning, Nozick’s anti-anarchist discussion is pure conjecture based upon no reality.

Nozick assumed that while humans existed in this so-called state of nature, which never has existed, humans would form social relationships such that “protective agencies” will appear. Nozick never developed this assumption because the thrust of his discussion is not so much to attack anarchist theory, but to argue that within one component of that theory protection agencies could evolve without infringing upon anyone’s rights. Yet, why bother? A straightforward perusal will reveal that no such organizational structure appears in many classical anarchist theories. The idea appears only in the so-called modern anarcho-capitalist (market anarchist) doctrine. This then, seems to be the thrust of what Nozick wanted to attack.

Two examples quickly negate Nozick’s assumption that protection agencies will evolve in any anarchist structure. The people of Switzerland use no protective agencies — every Swiss individual is expected to be a willing participant in protecting each other if ever there is a collective call to arms. The ancient Hebrews, as interpreted from Jewish texts, also had no centralized protection agency of people. Like the Swiss, the ancient Hebrews provided for their mutual protection on-the-fly as needed. Additionally, for several hundred years the ancient Hebrews had nothing in their culture resembling an executive or legislative branch of “government.” For a while they did quite well with only a set of basic laws. These observations are not to say that protection agencies would not evolve, or are an irrational idea, only that they need not necessarily evolve.

Through these congested assumptions and arguments, Nozick concluded that a minimal state would evolve because eventually one protection agency of people would tend to dominate all other agencies. He argued that a dominant protection agency would evolve through some “invisible hand” process. By assuming that protection agencies would evolve he concluded that anarchy is impossible.

The overwhelming assumption in Nozick’s early discussion is that force and coercion are necessary and must be used as punishment. Hence the rise of protection agencies. He ignored the possibilities of peaceful ostracism and forgiveness. Additionally, Nozick seemed to assume that most conflicts would arise only within the context of exchange but without either party negotiating a conflict-resolution clause in any contract. This is too big of an assumption. In an environment of true free association and voluntary exchange, and without the force and coercion components of statism, people would learn very quickly to negotiate such clauses and prepare for the possibility of disagreement and peaceful resolution. Most humans learn this simple lesson as children. The moment Mom and Dad refuse to help resolve sibling disagreements, children learn to engage one another cooperatively. Nozick expends much energy on this concept of a protection agency evolving but from an unrealistic perspective.

Of course, conflict still is possible outside the realm of direct exchange. Accidents and willful trespass (crimes) do not disappear. However, in a world without the force and coercion of statism, will people simply ignore that potential? Unlikely. Insurance protection schemes and cooperative restoration strategies will remain popular. However, insurance protection is hardly the same thing as a protective agency. Thus, why bother with this discussion based upon a “state of nature”?

In Part II, having thus (incorrectly) concluded that anarchy is impossible, Nozick proceeded to discuss why anything other than a limited “night watchman” state is illegitimate and unjustified. He argued that because (he thought) a minimal state would evolve naturally, that we might as well accept that idea and then discuss why we need to limit that organizational process. This is all old hat for anybody with a libertarian mind but probably not for those who never have considered any social structure other than statism. At the core of his discussion is an explicit assumption of a Lockean model of rights. The implied assumption is that rights appear from the same source as his protection agencies — thin air. There are many people who would disagree with such an assumption. More importantly, Nozick never argued convincingly that a minimal state would evolve. So why bother discussing why that process should be limited?

Nozick argued that an entitlement theory of rights is better than a distributive theory such as that proposed by John Rawls (A Theory of Justice), as long as possession of holdings is obtained without violating the rights of others. His theory was that possession of resources is justified through initial raw acquisition and voluntary exchange but no other method. Distributive justice is a catch-phrase promoting coercive redistribution — theft under the color of law. Fundamentally then, Nozick justified unequal distribution of resources, at least within the context of his entitlement theory.

In Part III, Nozick’s discussion about Utopia is worth reading because his core idea is that there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all Utopia. The best humans can hope for is multiple concurrent utopias, defined by the people of each community. The simple reason is the overwhelming diversity in each individual’s definition of utopia.

Overall this book is not the champion that many libertarians profess, unless one is a minarchist. The book is empty in many places and throughout the book Nozick simply stopped his discussion and said he would not pursue or investigate other points. Much of the discussion is purely academic and interspersed with glassy-eyed mathematical arguments. The only thing Nozick proved in those discussions is that he must have attended at least one logic class in his studies. Otherwise, those texts offer nothing to the overall flow of the book. Worst, Nozick’s book is not well organized. A good book editor would have helped Nozick do much better.

Like his predecessor John Rawls (who in an academic manner Nozick criticized in Part II), Nozick missed the big picture. The problem is not how to control a minimal state or create Utopia, but how to eliminate the ignorance that prevails throughout humanity that allows corrupt social processes to appear. Focus on root problems and conflict thereafter might be reduced dramatically. Core problems such as currency inflation, compound interest, coercive wealth redistribution, using political systems to allow theft under the color of law, as well as creating artificial scarcities, all are root causes of conflict that must be addressed. Eliminate that kind of nonsense and what problems remain in the social structure might be more palatable. Without the force and coercion that results from the illusion of statism, all humans would form their own natural communities. In those communities individuals will cooperate with one another more fully based upon commonly shared beliefs. That alone would eliminate much conflict because the basis for forming each community is explicit consent.

There is no need to play the ivory tower games to resolve many of these problems. Just apply tough honesty that statism is a root problem. And without addressing the awful problem of willful ignorance, the minimal state grows without bounds.

Finis.

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