Politics and Morality: Robert Nozick-Imagine No Government…


Robert Nozick (1938-2002) was an American professor and philosopher whose best-known book was Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974) was a libertarian response to John Rawls Theory of Social Justice. One of his one-liners is that, “The fundamental question of political theory is whether or not there should be a state.” That’s like saying the fundamental question of dentistry is whether or not there should be teeth.

The naked fact is that even the most rabid anti-collectivists band together-to denounce banding together. Politics is politics and man is by nature a political animal, Aristotle said some 400 years before Jesus was born. In other words, if you build a foundation on the fairytale of man as a solitary predator instead of a member of a society, the whole building must eventually collapse.

That politics is often corrupt, that governments are often oppressive and exploitative does not negate the fact that we are stuck with some kind of organization of society. The question is: What kind? Neither Enlightenment philosophies that sought to replace politics with science or in Marx’s case, with administration, have succeeded in creating a just society. But perhaps some have come closer than others?

The free market would be the vehicle for justice according to Nozick. While few can successfully argue that true free markets actually exist (subsidies, tariffs, etc) they still argue that they should exist-and if they did the world would be just. Frankly, this looks like Financial Royalty’s bid to quietly keep the subsidies but ditch the laws that might restrain them-going for a double privilege.

Nozick asks his readers to do a thought experiment. Imagine right now that there was no government. Never mind man in a state of nature or rights or any of that, just us, right now-what kind of government would we choose? Nozick say we would choose a minimal government, a “night watchman” which would protect us from the bad guys and do nothing else. Governments have a monopoly on force, but they should not be allowed to force anyone to do something against their own will.

He admits “independents” are a problem; people who say, “O.K. you have chosen your minimal state with its minimal regulations but I don’t like it. I’m not going to cooperate with it.” What can you do about them? They have voluntarily opted out. Facts on the ground, Nozick says, you’re going to force them to comply. But it will be just because you will compensate them, pay them off.

Novick agrees that this is a sort of social contract while also admitting that social contracts do not literally exist; it’s just a way of looking at the situation. No one actually signed a social contract, even that foot print on your birth certificate was put there against your will.

Nozick is saying that the libertarian utopia is what we would choose and it is the most just society. However, by his own reasoning, what would you do with independents who said, “I’m worried about losing my job. How then will I feed my family? I want a common pool of money set aside for unemployment.” As independents who didn’t buy into the minimal state they would have to be compensated for their fear-or the society would no longer be a just one. Or perhaps many people wanted this and the state would adapt to this concern and the government would grow larger. How large? Obviously, there is some optimal sort of state. Not perfect, it will never be perfect, and if it hit perfection by accident one day, things would have changed by the following day and it will have to be adjusted again.

How is it to be adjusted? How is fairness to be upheld? Those are the questions that cannot be answered once and for all with ideologies written in stone. There are principles and there are details. Maximum personal freedom is a principle Nozick espoused and it is one almost everyone agrees is worth pursuing.

Full disclosure: I briefly joined a Libertarian party because I admit I have an anarchist streak. I think authority should be questioned. I think the drug laws are absurd. I hate the police state and our endless wars. But I don’t think its O.K. to ignore a drowning person because hell, I didn’t throw him in the river. I acknowledge that I live in a society and that the health of that society affects every one.

Libertarianism answers the question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” with a resounding, “No.” They forget that the first man who asked that question had just murdered his own brother.

Yale Open Courses: The Moral Foundations of Politics

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