Monday, April 11, 2011

Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia

1.0 Overview
Propertarianism, misleadingly called "libertarianism" by its fans, is a political philosophy. Do any supposedly rigorous arguments exist for this philosophy? Some cite Robert Nozick's 1974 tome, Anarchy, State, and Utopia as a demonstration that this question can be answered in the affirmative.

The book has three main parts. In the first part, Nozick argues that a state can emerge from an anarchistic state of nature without violating anybody's rights. The state, according to Nozick, evolves from a private protection agency; its clients become citizens. In the second part, Nozick argues that a state that tries be to more than a minimal state will violate somebody's rights, especially their right to property. For the distribution of property to be just, according to Nozick, three conditions must be met:
  • The original acquisition of property must not have violated anybody's rights.
  • The transfer of holdings must be likewise just.
  • Whatever injustices may nevertheless have arisen in original acquisition or transfer must be rectified justly.
In the last part, Nozick provides a recipe for cookbooks of the future. He describe an association of voluntary communities, where people are free to join whichever commune they like. Only some of these communities may initially be propertarian.

This obvious decomposition of the book explains the three-word title. Despite Nozick's pretense to be presenting an analytic argument, I did not find nearly as much structure at a lower level. The first part seems to beg how people in an original anarchy would behave. Nozick postulates bourgeois contract-making; I think feudalism would more likely result. He continually brings up objections and needed refinements, pursues the argument to an arbitrary level, and then declares the resolution of these details beyond his scope since he is not writing a work of psychology or epistemology or whatever. So I find it difficult to summarize much more of the book.

2.0 Popular Bits
I think Nozick originated many sayings now popular among propertarians. Maybe some he reformulated or re-emphasized.

Nozick's calls his version of Descartes' demon "The Experience Machine". His story is a science fiction story with technology, tanks to float in, and computers. It raises the question, "What else can matter to us, other than how our lives feel from the inside?"

Nozick comes fairly close to saying that there is no such thing as society:
"But there is no social entity with a good that undergoes some sacrifice for its own good. There are only individual people, different individual people, with their own individual lives."

Nozick formulates a non-aggression principle, now called the No-Initiation-of-Force principle in propertarian polemics:
"An underlying notion sufficiently powerful to support moral side constraints against the powerful intuitive force of the end-state maximizing view will suffice to derive a libertarian constraint on aggression against another."

Nozick creates a well-known example with Wilt Chamberlain. Wilt Chamberlain's contract with a basketball team gives him a share of the gate. People "cheerfully attend his team's game". Nozick's imagines that when they buy their tickets, part of the price is that each person "drops" 25 cents "of their admission price into a special box with Chamberlain's name on it." What can be wrong with all of these voluntary transactions making Chamberlin rich? In the course of this exposition, he comes up with a clever turn of phrase:
"The socialist society would have to forbid capitalist acts between consenting adults." (my emphasis)

3.0 Some Absurdities
Nozick's book is a work of political philosophy containing much economic reasoning. But Nozick makes many mistakes in economics, and ignores what seems to me some major problems in political philosophy.

For example, I think a major question in political philosophy is how people with different ideas of good and evil can live together. Nozick acknowledges he doesn't address this question:
"I have proceeded in this essay (as much as possible) without questioning or focusing upon the assumption common to much utopian and anarchist theorizing, that there is some set of principles obvious enough to be accepted by all men of good will, precise enough to give unambiguous guidance on particular situations, clear enough so that all will realize its dictates, and complete enough to cover all problems that actually will arise. To have rested the case for the state on the denial of such an assumption would have left the hope that the future progress of humanity (and moral philosophy) might yield such agreement, and so might undercut the rationale for the state.

... the day seem[s] distant when all men of good will shall agree to libertarian principles... People who prefer peace to the enforcement of their view of right will unite together in one state."

In contrast to my opinion, Nozick thinks Marxian exploitation is a normative idea1:
"One traditional socialist view is that workers are entitled to the product and full fruits of their labor; they have earned it; a distribution is unjust if it does not give the workers what they are entitled to."

Nozick doesn't understand marginal productivity. He incorrectly thinks that it is a theory of distribution:
"Almost every suggested principle of distributive justice is patterned: to each according to his moral merit, or needs, or marginal product, or how hard he tries, or..."
I could cite many more instances in which Nozick makes this mistake.

Nozick erroneously ignores the possibilities of multiple equilibria and of path dependence:
"Let us suppose that we know from economic theory that under the standard assumptions defining a competitive market economy, income and wealth will be distributed in an efficient way, and that the particular efficient distribution which results in any period of time is determined by the initial distribution of assets, that is, by the initial distribution of income and wealth, and of natural talents and abilities. With each initial distribution, a definite efficient outcome is arrived at."
Also, Nozick begs the question of the definition of property rights, of how a society determines what can be a commodity and what cannot. I could cite even more examples of Nozick getting economics wrong.

Nozick has a definite view on the always burning question of whether or not slavery is compatible with propertarianism. He thinks it is:
"Perhaps no persons completely sell themselves into slavery... Since this very extensive domination of some persons by others arises by a series of legimate steps, via voluntary exchanges, from an initial situation that is not unjust, it itself is not unjust."
And again:
"The comparable question about an individual is whether a free system will allow him to sell himself into slavery. I believe that it would."

4.0 Conclusion
I do not find Nozick's book convincing2. You might want to read it to understand some context for certain debates in political philosophy. Nozick treats Rawls in the second part of his book. Before having read Nozick, I already knew about some of the popular bits from having read Alan Haworth. Nozick tends to be cited by many soi-disant libertarians - I suspect by more than have actually read him.

1Nozick does foreshadow John Roemer's game-theoretic definition of exploitation:
"An individual benefits from the wider system of extensive cooperation between the better and the worse endowed to the extent of his incremental gain from this wider cooperation; namely, the amount by which his share under a scheme of general cooperation is greater than it would be under one of limited intra-group (but not cross-group) cooperation."
Nozick formulates "a condition of stable associations" much like this in the third part of his book.

2This is probably not surprising, given my preconceptions.


Simon Halliday said...

I found Gerry Cohen's book 'Self-ownership, Freedom and Equality' a very useful companion text for reading Nozick. He really clarified some of Nozick's points for me (especially the Chamberlain example).

Thanks, always good to hear about people reading and reflecting on thinkers like Nozick (and Marx).

gcallah said...

"For example, I think a major question in political philosophy is how people with different ideas of good and evil can live together. Nozick acknowledges he doesn't address this question:"

I think you read that passage backwards. He's saying he's not going to address the possibility that people DON'T have different ideas of good and evil, i.e., he is dealing ONLY with a world where "people with different ideas of good and evil" need to live together.

ivanfoofoo said...

You stated:

"Nozick doesn't understand marginal productivity. He incorrectly thinks that it is a theory of distribution:

"Almost every suggested principle of distributive justice is patterned: to each according to his moral merit, or needs, or marginal product, or how hard he tries, or...""

I just can't see how Nozick says that marginal productivity is a redistribution theory. I think that he is trying to enumerate some of the ideas behind redistribution, and I think that pushing the market to a "perfect competition state" so that workers can earn their full marginal productivity is one (maybe the weirdest) of those ideas.

gcallah said...

I second ivanfoofoo. Rothbard, for instance, certainly treated marginal productivity based distribution as an ideal distribution towards which the market would tend.