Anarchy, State, and Utopia

Anarchy, State, and Utopia

"Anarchy, State, and Utopia" is a work of political philosophy written by Robert Nozick in 1974. This libertarian book was the winner of the 1975 National Book Award. It has been translated into 11 languages and was named one of the "100 most influential books since the war" by the "Times Literary Supplement".

In opposition to "A Theory of Justice" by John Rawls, and in debate with "Spheres of Justice" by Michael Walzer, [ The United States in the World – Just Wars and Just Societies: An Interview with Michael Walzer] , in [ Imprints] , Volume 7, Number 1, 2003] Nozick argues in favor of a minimal state, "limited to the narrow functions of protection against force, theft, fraud, enforcement of contracts, and so on." When a state takes on more responsibilities than these, Nozick argues, rights will be violated. To support the idea of the minimal state, Nozick posits an ultraminimal state as a thought experiment and attempts to show how it will, by the workings of an "invisible hand", lead to a minimal state.


Nozick's Entitlement Theory, influenced by John Locke, and Friedrich Hayek, which sees humans as ends in themselves and justifies redistribution of goods only on condition of consent, is a key aspect of "Anarchy, State, and Utopia".

The book also contains a vigorous defense of libertarianism against more extreme views, such as anarcho-capitalism (in which there is "no" state and individuals must contract with private companies for "all" social services). Nozick argues that anarcho-capitalism would inevitably transform into a minarchist state, even without violating any of its own non-aggression principles, through the eventual emergence of a single locally-dominant private defense and judicial agency that it is in everyone's interests to align with, because other agencies are unable to effectively compete against the advantages of the agency with majority coverage. Therefore, he felt that, even to the extent that the anarcho-capitalist theory is correct, it results in an unstable system that would not endure in the real world.

Philosophical Activity

The Preface of "Anarchy, State, and Utopia" (ASU) contains a passage about "the usual manner of presentingphilosophical work," i.e. its presentation as though it is the absolutely final word on itssubject. Nozick believes that philosophers are really more modest than thatand aware of their works' weaknesses. Yet a form of philosophicalactivity persists which "feels like pushing and shoving things to fitinto some fixed perimeter of specified shape." The bulges are maskedor the cause of the bulge is thrown "far" away so that no one willnotice. Then "Quickly", you find an angle from which everythingappears to fit perfectly and take a snapshot, at a fast shutter speedbefore something else bulges out too noticeably." After a trip to thedarkroom for touching up, " [a] ll that remains is to publish thephotograph as a representation of exactly how things are, and to notehow nothing fits properly into any other shape." So how does Nozick'swork differ from this form of activity? He believed that what he saidwas correct, but he doesn't mask the bulges: "the doubts and worriesand uncertainties as well as the beliefs, convictions, and arguments."

Why State-of-Nature Theory?

He gestures towards perhaps the biggest bulge when he notes (in Chapter 1, "Why State-of-Nature Theory?") theshallowness of his "invisible hand" explanation of the minimal state,deriving it from a Lockean state of nature, in which there areindividual rights but no state to enforce and adjudicatethem. Although this counts for him as a "fundamental explanation" ofthe political realm because the political is explained in terms of thenonpolitical, it is shallow relative to his later "genealogical"ambition (in "The Nature of Rationality" and especially in "Invariances") to explain both the political and the moral by reference to beneficial cooperative practices that can be traced back to ourhunter-gatherer ancestors and beyond. The genealogy will give Nozick an explanation of what is only assumed in ASU: the fundamental status of individual rights. []

The State of Nature

A rational response to the "troubles" of a Lockean state of nature is formation of groups of individuals into mutual-protection associations, in which all will answer the call of any member. It is inconvenient that everyone is always on call, and that the associates can be called out by members who may be "cantankerous or paranoid". The logic of the situation dictates that entrepreneurs will go into the business of selling protective services, and that a dominant protective association will emerge in a given geographical area. This is something "very much resembling a minimal state". Nozick judges that Locke was wrong to imagine a contract as necessary to establish civil society. He prefers the invisible-hand explanation, showing how it would lead to the association's preventing individuals from enforcing their own rights, and how it would protect all individuals within its domain.

Moral Constraints and the State

Nozick arrives at the night-watchman state of Classical liberalism theory by showing that there are non-redistributive reasons for the apparently redistributive procedure of making its clients pay for the protection of others. Proponents of an ultraminimal state, which would not enforce this procedure, are correct to hold that its members' rights are a side-constraint on what can be done to them. So no utilitarianism of rights can justify the procedure on the grounds that protecting the rights of non-members through the procedure minimizes rights violations in the long run. The side-constraint view, which reflects the underlying Kantian principle that individuals are ends and not merely means, requires a different justification for the procedure. (See below.)

Nozick supports the side-constraint view against classical utilitarianism and the idea that only felt experience matters by introducing the famous Experience Machine thought experiment. It induces whatever illusory experience one might wish, but it prevents the subject from doing anything or making contact with anything. There is only pre-programmed neural stimulation sufficient for the illusion. Nozick pumps the intuition that each of us has a reason to avoid plugging into the Experience Machine forever. This not to say that "plugging in" might not be the best all-things-considered choice for some who are terminally ill and in great pain. The point of the thought experiment is to articulate a weighty reason not to plug in, a reason that should not be there if all that matters is felt experience.

Prohibition, Compensation, and Risk

The procedure that leads to a nightwatchman state involves compensation to non-members who are prevented from enforcing their rights, an enforcement mechanism that it deems risky by comparison with its own. Compensation addresses any disadvantages they suffer as a result of the prevention. Assuming that non-members take reasonable precautions and adjusting activities to the association's prohibition of their enforcing their own rights, the association is required to raise the non-member above his actual position by an amount equal to the difference between his position on an indifference curve he would occupy were it not for the prohibition, and his original position. The association compensates the non-member for how much worse off the association's action would have made a reasonably prudently acting non-member. Only those disadvantaged are compensated, and they are to be compensated only for their disadvantages. (Nozick's account of compensation leads into an important discussion of punishment. He defends a retributivist view in which punishment deserved is "r" x H. where H is the amount of harm and "r" is the degree of responsibility for bringing about H. Self defense invokes a rule of proportionality that omits consideration of responsibility, in a function "f" of H where "f"(H) > H. The defender may draw against the punishment deserved, "r" x H, according to the formula "f"(H) + "r" x H. The expenditure amount A in self defense is then subtracted from deserved punishment according to the formula "r" x H - A.)

The State

Non-member independents might group together and agree to a procedure for private enforcement of rights, so as to reduce the total danger to a point below the threshold at which the association would be justified in prohibiting it. This procedure fails because of the rationality of being a free rider on such grouping, taking advantage of everyone else's restraint and going ahead with one's own risky activities. In a famous discussion he rejects H.L.A. Hart's "principle of fairness" for dealing with free riders, which would morally bind them to cooperative practices from which they benefit. You may not charge and collect for benefits you bestow without prior agreement.

"As the most powerful applier of principles which it grants everyone the right to apply "correctly"," Nozick concludes, the dominant protection agency "enforces its will, which, from the inside, it thinks "is" correct." Its strength makes it the only enforcer and judge of its clients. "Claiming only the universal right to act correctly," it acts correctly according to its own lights, which happen to be the only lights with the strength so to act. It provides independents with protective services against its clients. It provides this compensation only to those who would be disadvantaged by purchasing protection for themselves, and only against its own paying clients on whom the independents are forbidden from self-help enforcement. This is a disincentive to free riding. "The more free riders there are, the more desirable it is to be a client always protected by the agency." The equilibrium is moved towards almost universal participation in the agency's protective scheme.

Further Considerations on the Argument for the State

A discussion of pre-emptive attack leads Nozick to a principle that excludes prohibiting actions not wrong in themselves, even if those actions make more likely the commission of wrongs later on. This provides him with a significant difference between a protection agency's prohibitions against procedures it deems unreliable or unfair, and other prohibitions that might seem to go too far, such as forbidding others to join another protective agency. Nozick's principle does not disallow others from doing so.

Distributive Justice

Nozick's discussion of Rawls's theory of justice raises the dialogue between libertarianism and liberalism to an epic level. The entitlement theory is sketched. In slogan form it states, "From each as they choose, to each as they are chosen". It comprises a theory of (1) justice in acquisition; (2) justice in rectification if (1) is violated (which might require apparently redistributive measures); (3) justice in holdings, and (4) justice in transfer. Assuming justice in acquisition, entitlement to holdings is a function of repeated applications of (3) and (4). Nozick's entitlement theory is a non-patterned historical principle. Almost all other principles of distributive justice (egalitarianism, utilitarianism) including Rawls's 3 principles are patterned principles of justice. Such principles follow the form, "to each according to..."

Nozick's famous Wilt Chamberlain argument is an attempt to show that patterned principles of just distribution are incompatible with liberty. He ask us to assume that the original distribution in society, D1 is ordered by our choice of patterned principle, for instance Rawls's Difference Principle. Wilt Chamberlain is an extremely popular basketball player in this society, and Nozick further assumes 1 million people are willing to freely give WC 25 cents each to watch him play basketball over the course of a season (we assume no other transactions occur). Wilt now has $250,000, a much larger sum than any of the other people in the society. The new distribution in society, call it D2, obviously is no longer ordered by our favored pattern that ordered D1. However Nozick argues that D2 is just. For if each agent freely exchanges some of his D1 share with WC and D1 was a just distribution (we know D1 was just, because it was ordered according to your favorite patterned principle of distribution), how can D2 fail to be a just distribution? Thus Nozick argues that what the Wilt Chamberlain example shows is that no patterned principle of just distribution will be compatible with liberty. In order to preserve the pattern, which arranged D1, the state will have to continually interfere with people's ability to freely exchange their D1 shares. For any exchange of D1 shares explicitly involves violating the pattern that originally ordered it.

Nozick analogizes taxation with forced labor, asking the reader to imagine a man who works longer to gain income to buy a movie ticket and a man who spends his extra time on leisure (for instance, watching the sunset). What, Nozick asks, is the difference between seizing the second man's leisure (which would be forced labor) and seizing the first man's goods? "Perhaps there is no difference in principle," Nozick concludes, and notes that the argument could be extended to taxation on other sources besides labor. "End-state and most patterned principles of distributive justice institute (partial) ownership by others of people and their actions and labor. These principles involve a shift from the classical liberals' notion of self ownership to a notion of (partial) property rights in "other" people."

Nozick then briefly considers Locke's theory of acquisition. After considering some preliminary objections, he "adds an additional bit of complexity" to the structure of the entitlement theory by refining Locke's proviso that "enough and as good" must be left in common for others by one's taking property in an unowned object. Nozick favors a "Lockean" proviso that forbids appropriation when the position of others is thereby worsened. For instance, appropriating the only water hole in a desert and charging monopoly prices would not be legitimate. But in line with his endorsement of the historical principle, this argument does not apply to the medical researcher who discovers a cure for a disease and sells for whatever price he will.

The Difference Principle

Nozick attacks John Rawl's "Difference Principle" on the ground that the well-off could threaten a lack of social cooperation (that Rawls deems as desired by everyone) to the worse off in the same way that Rawls implies the worse off will be assisted by the well-off for the sake of social cooperation. Nozick asks why the well-off would be obliged, due to their inequality and for the sake of social cooperation, to assist the worse-off and not have the worse off accept the inequality and benefit the well-off. Furthermore, Rawl's idea regarding morally arbitrary natural endowments comes under fire; Nozick argues that natural advantages that the well off enjoy do not violate anyone's rights and therefore have a right to them, on top of which is the fact that Rawl's own proposal that inequalities be geared toward assisting the worse-off is in itself morally arbitrary.

The Original Position

Nozick's opinions on "historical entitlement" ensures that he naturally rejects the "Original Position" since he argues that in the "Original Position" individuals will use an "end-state" principle to determine the outcome, whilst he explicitly states the importance of the historicity of any such decisions (for example punishments and penalties will require historical information).

Equality, Envy, Exploitation, Etc.

Nozick presses "the major objection" to theories that bestow and enforce positive rights to various things such as equality of opportunity, life, and so on. "These 'rights' require a substructure of things and materials and actions," he writes, "and "other" people may have rights and entitlements over these."

His discussion of Marxian exploitation leads him to the conclusion that "Marxian exploitation is the exploitation of people's lack of understanding of economics."


Demoktesis is a thought-experiment designed to show the incompatibility of democracy with libertarianism in general and the entitlement theory specifically. People desirous of more money might "hit upon the idea of incorporating themselves, raising money by selling shares in themselves." They would partition such rights as which occupation one would have. Though perhaps no one sells himself into utter slavery, there arises through voluntary exchanges a "very extensive domination" of some person by others. This intolerable situation is avoided by writing new terms of incorporation that for any stock no one already owning more than a certain number of shares may purchase it. As the process goes on, everyone sells off rights in themselves, "keeping one share in each right as their own, so they can attend stockholders' meetings if they wish." The inconvenience of attending such meetings leads to a special occupation of stockholders' representative. There is a great dispersal of shares such that almost everybody is deciding about everybody else. The system is still unwieldy, so a "great consolidational convention" is convened for buying and selling shares, and after a "hectic three days (lo and behold!)" each person owns exactly one share in each right over every other person, including himself. So now there can be just one meeting in which everything is decided for everybody. Attendance is too great and it's boring, so it is decided that only those entitled to cast at least 10,000 votes may attend the grand stockholders' meeting. And so on. Their social theorists call the system "demoktesis", "ownership of the people, by the people, and for the people," and declare it the highest form of social life, one that must not be allowed to perish from the earth. With this "eldritch tale" we have in fact arrived at a modern democratic state.

A Framework for Utopia

The utopia mentioned in the title of Nozick's first book is a meta-utopia, a framework for voluntary migration between utopias tending towards worlds in which everybody benefits from everybody else's presence. This is meant to be the Lockean "night-watchman state" writ large. The state protects individual rights and makes sure that contracts and other market transactions are voluntary. The meta-utopian framework reveals what is inspiring and noble in this night-watchman function. They both contain the only form of social union that is possible for the atomistic rational agents of "Anarchy, State and Utopia", fully voluntary associations of mutual benefit. The influence of this idea on Nozick's thinking is profound. Even in his last book, "Invariances", he is still concerned to give priority to the mutual-benefit aspect of ethics. This coercively enforceable aspect ideally has an "empty core" in the game theorists' sense: the core of a game is all of those payoff vectors to the group wherein no subgroup can do better for itself acting on its own, without cooperating with others not in the subgroup. The worlds in Nozick's meta-utopia have empty cores. No subgroup of a utopian world is better off to emigrate to its own smaller world. The function of ethics is fundamentally to create and stabilize such empty cores of mutually beneficial cooperation. His view is that we are fortunate to live under conditions that favor "more-extensive cores", and less conquest, slavery, and pillaging, "less imposition of noncore vectors upon subgroups." Higher moral goals are real enough, but they are parasitic (as described in "The Examined Life", the chapter "Darkness and Light") upon mutually beneficial cooperation.



Fellow libertarian (but anarcho-capitalist) Murray Rothbard has criticised "Anarchy State and Utopia" in his essay "Robert Nozick and the Immaculate Conception of the State" [] on the basis that:

# No existing State has been "immaculately conceived" in the way envisaged by Nozick;
# On Nozick's account the only minimal State that could possibly be justified is one that would emerge after a free-market anarchist world had been established;
# Therefore Nozick, on his own grounds, should become an anarchist and then wait for the Nozickian invisible hand to operate afterward; and
# Even if any State had been founded immaculately, the fallacies of social contract theory would mean that no present State, even a minimal one, would be justified.
# His claim that "liberty upsets patterns" is inconsistent with his own view of liberty. Nozick holds a "Lockean" conception of liberty, where liberty is simply "the right to do, that which you have a right to do". Thus a restriction only infringes upon liberty if it infringes upon rights. Thus to examine whether enforcing a pattern violates liberty we must examine whether the pattern includes the right freely to transfer goods in whatever way the holder wishes. But there is no reason to suppose that all patterns include this right. Thus enforcing a pattern need not restrict liberty at all.


"Anarchy, State, and Utopia" came out of a semester-long course that Nozick taught with Michael Walzer at Harvard in 1971, called "Capitalism and Socialism". [ [ Interview] with E. J. Dionne] The course was a debate between the two; Nozick's side is in "Anarchy, State, and Utopia," and Walzer's side is in his "Spheres of Justice," where he argues for "complex equality".



*Robinson, Dave & Groves, Judy (2003). "Introducing Political Philosophy". Icon Books. ISBN 1-84046-450-X.
*Nozick, Robert "The Examined Life"

External links

* [ Rothbard, Murray: Robert Nozick and the Immaculate Conception of the State]
* [ A distillation of Jonathan Wolff's criticisms of Nozick]
* [ Robert Nozick's cricism of John Rawls in Anarchy, State and Utopia]
* [ An Explanation of Nozick's View of the State in Anarchy, State, and Utopia]
* [ An Explanation of Nozick's Argument Against Distributive Government]

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