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Robert Nozick’s Utopia: Beyond Side Constraints and Rights

April 10, 2012

Over at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, Peter Boettke raises the idea that best way to read Robert Nozick is not as a rights-based political theorist, but as a “process theorist” who uses invisible hand explanations for how certain political arrangements may justly arise and fall.

Ever since Anarchy, State, and Utopia was published, academic philosophers attacked Nozick for assuming the existence of rights from the get go–or what he called “side constraints”–without ever giving a moral justification for them. Since the entitlement theory of justice Nozick offers in Part II of the book depends on such rights, Thomas Nagel and other egalitarians claimed Nozick’s criticism of competitors was hollow. The upshot was “libertarianism without foundations.”

But as I wrote here a few years ago:

You can earn yourself a PhD writing on Anarchy and State, but not Utopia, getting pats on the head if you point out that Nozick never justifies his notion of “rights.” (The Experience Machine is still a magnet as well, again earning yourself bonus points if you say Nozick doesn’t think about fantasy worlds at the margins.)

This party upfront is extremely unfortunate–the last third of his book is a cascade of fireworks on competitive government, a reinvention of a theory of clubs, and is far more rewarding than the previous sections. It deserves more attention than this.

Like James Buchanan, I find Nozick’s vision for a utopia of utopias wonderfully attractive and convincing.  Since many of its arguments support our mantra (let a thousand nations bloom!), I think it’s worth revisiting in greater detail.

What Nozick’s tut-tutting critics never seemed to notice is that the last section of his book stands freely. Even if Parts I and II depend on bogus arguments with dubious assumptions, Part III must be reckoned with on its own terms. As Nozick wrote in the closing paragraphs of the book:

The argument of this chapter starts (and stands) independently of the argument of Parts I and II and converges to their result, the minimal state, from another direction. In our discussion in this chapter we did not treat the framework as more than a minimal state, but we made no effort to build explicitly upon our earlier discussion of protective agencies. (For we wanted the convergence of two independent lines of argument.)…We argued in Part I that the minimal state is morally legitimate; in Part II we argued that no more extensive state could be morally justified, that any more extensive state would (will) violate the rights of individuals. This morally favored state, the only morally legitimate state, the only morally tolerable one, we now see is the one that best realizes the utopian aspirations of untold dreamers and visionaries. It preserves what we all can keep from the utopian tradition and opens the rest of that tradition to our individual aspirations.

As projects like Seasteading and Charter Cities begin to flourish, and competition between political units takes off, I anticipate his vision will gain more attention, while all that pitter-patter about rights will molder in the dry as dust academic memory hole.

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