L. Neil Smith's
Robert Nozick, RIP
by W. James Antle III
Exclusive to TLE
The passing of Robert Nozick is an occasion for mourning by lovers of liberty. Few philosophers of the twentieth century worked to develop a framework of ideas that respected individual rights and self-ownership, especially Harvard University faculty members at that. Yet Nozick contributed mightily to his discipline's understanding of individual rights in a way that lionized the individual rather than the collective.
Syndicated columnist George F. Will once described the previous century as the century of the swollen state. Income redistribution dominated economics, collectivism dominated social sciences and politics was simply an unending call for the government to be granted new powers to solve any number of intractable problems. Neither the rights of the individual nor the metaphysical limitations of the modern state were prominent in discussions of public affairs.
Nozick dissented from the collectivist mantras of his time. Originally a radical leftist, he converted to a more libertarian perspective based on his reading of Fredreich Hayek and Milton Friedman. He would go on to become a philosophical defender of liberty and decentralized authority on a par with Hayek, almost without peer.
Indisputably, the groundbreaking work of Nozick's career was his 1974 classic Anarchy, State and Utopia, written largely in response to John Rawls' 1971 defense of wealth redistribution and the bureaucratic welfare state, Theory of Justice. Nozick argued that individual liberty was paramount and nothing more than a minimal state empowered to protect individuals against theft, violence and contract violations was morally justified. Anarchy, State and Utopia won the National Book Award and was listed among "The Hundred Most Influential Books Since the War" by the Times Literary Supplement.
The book's premises are quintessentially libertarian. The individual enters life owning himself. Based on this self-ownership, Nozick established the principle of justice by acquisition, in which things in the natural world without owners obtained single owners. This principle establishes a right to private property and justifies the transmission of this property to new owners by voluntary transfer. Thus, consistent with libertarian principles, neither real nor threatened force is a valid means of acquiring property. People should have protection against those who would violate their individual rights to their property.
This view contrasts sharply with the collectivist impulse to micromanage property ownership in order to impose a certain distribution of wealth in accordance with certain values. This would not leave individuals secure in their property and does not treat private property as something belonging to a self-owning individual on the basis of acquisition. This would instead permit the government to use its monopoly of force to deprive rightful property owners of that which they owned. Thus, instead of the limited government that leaves individuals secure in their property rights as envisioned by Nozick, the collectivist vision (as Hayek and others duly explained as well) inevitably leads to a government that is itself a violator of these rights.
While Nozick's work upheld a number of Hayekian principles, he was less influenced by tradition, custom and concepts of social evolution than Hayek. He was more inclined to favorably view the use of reason in the formulation of social conclusions. Law professor Richard Epstein noted in his obituary for Nozick that appeared on the web site of National Review magazine, "His techniques of analysis were vastly different from those of Hayek; yet two great minds came by quite different routes to the conclusion about the proper system of justice among ordinary individuals."
While the other movements of the day championed amorphous concepts of social justice predicated on finite amounts of wealth being distributed by political authorities among the populace, with the intent of aiding the disadvantaged, Nozick was thus a firm defender of the individual having the right to the fruit of his labor. His explanations and able defenses of this right scarcely revisited by defenders of liberty since John Locke's Second Treatise on Government.
The Harvard University website described Nozick as a reluctant theoretician for the national libertarian movement. His devotion to ideas made him hesitant to be drawn into political conflict or perceived as connected to the interests of some ideological crusade. Perhaps this is why he softened some of the strong individualist stands taken in Anarchy, State and Utopia toward the end of us his life, though he never embrace Rawls' theories of justice.
Nozick was however a consistent libertarian, especially in his prime, rather than a man of the right. In an article for the New York Times Magazine in 1978, he criticized his conservative allies who selectively applied the principles he established in his work. Nozick noted that "right-wing people like the pro-free-market argument, but don't like the arguments for individual liberty in cases like gay rights - although I view them as an interconnecting whole. ..." At a time when thinkers associated with libertarianism and free-market economics, such as Friedman, were increasingly identified with the political right, Nozick was offering the sharpest distinctions between traditional conservatism and ideological libertarianism since Hayek's "Why I Am Not a Conservative."
Nozick was not without libertarian critics. Some found his theory of a microstate or "night watchman" state wanting in contrast with Murray Rothbard's ideal of a stateless society. As mentioned earlier, he also began to move away from some of the positions he advocated when he first gained national prominence.
It is nevertheless the case that few writers laid out the case for liberty as comprehensively, extensively and persuasively as Nozick. At a time when collectivism in its various forms was the ideological rage, he was a lonely voice for the individual within the academy. His prolific and vibrant scholarship on a wide variety of philosophical subjects seemed to give credence to the political philosophy his best works meticulously outlined and defended.
Nozick will be remembered for his celebration of freedom and his model of justice with the individual at the center. Libertarians should remember his work as they feel the void created by his loss. In these times, defenders of the individual are all too rare.
W. James Antle III is a senior writer for Enter Stage Right.