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Robert Nozick’s Framework For Utopia

September 9, 2009

“Only a failure of imagination, the same one that leads the man on the street to suppose that everything has already been invented, leads us to believe that all of the relevant institutions have been designed and that all of the policy levers have been found.”–Paul Romer, New Goods, Old Theory, and the Welfare Costs of Trade Restrictions

Since the year it was published, a preponderance of the scholarship devoted to Nozick’s Anarchy, State, And Utopia has focused on the first two thirds of his 1974 book. The first third, devoted to justifying the minimal state, has attracted the attention of anarchists and fellow libertarians. The second third is catnip for the disciples of John Rawls–Nozick uses a sketch of the common law based on (unsupported!) assumptions to illuminate some iniquities inherent to redistributing wealth. That bit has drawn fire from all comers for years. In fact, the book is now known mainly for these sections. A cottage industry was born. 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.

How to Avoid a Failure of Imagination: Go Meta!

Nozick begins the last third of his book with some thoughts on utopian intellectual history: why is it that the minimal state, one limited to the narrow functions of protecting property rights, contracts and so on–why doesn’t this minimalist vision seem to inspire any struggle and sacrifice? Why is all the love, passion and devotion left for those wily goateed radicals?  Cannot the minimal state inspire?

All the same, many utopias demonstrate a poverty of imagination. We may admire the fervor motivating utopians, but so-called utopias quickly degenerate into dystopias.  In short, why on God’s green earth are so many descriptions of utopia limited at best and morally repulsive at worst? The Cyclops raged against “no man”; political pipe-dreamers sing about “no place.” Is that historical irony? To quote Alexander Gray, “No utopia has ever been described in which any sane man would on any conditions consent to live, if he could possibly escape.”

But still, it’s worth considering, What is the best of all possible worlds for all of us to live in? What is the best world imaginable for each of us? And does a minimal state framework have any important connection to that world?

“Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same.”–G.B. Shaw

So Nozick proposes a fanciful thought experiment:

Imagine a possible world in which to live; this world need not contain everyone else now alive, and it may contain beings who have never actually lived. Every rational creature in this world you have imagined will have the same rights of imagining a possible world for himself to live in (in which all other rational inhabitants have the same imagining rights,  and so on) as you have. The other inhabitants of the world may choose to stay in the world which has been created for them (they have been created for) or they may choose to leave it and inhabit a world of their own imagining. If they choose to leave your world and live in another, your world is without them. You may choose to abandon your imagined world, now without its emigrants. This process goes on; worlds are created, people leave them, create new worlds, and so on.

There are two important assumptions in the model. First, the cost of emigration, of exit, is zero. That’s the beauty of the imagination! The second point is that the cost of new world creation is also zero. Not only do you have the power of costless exit, you also have the god-like power of creation. Granted–these are far from real world constraints. And yet the thought experiment asks an important question: will any patterns emerge from this fanciful process of exit and creation? Will any of the worlds that pass the test of time share any features?

Yes, Nozick says–in a stable world, “none of its inhabitants can imagine an alternative world they would rather live in, which (they believe) would continue to exist if all of its rational inhabitants had the same rights of imagining and emigrating.”

Another way to approach this is to consider the opposite, the worst of all possible worlds. What would that world look like? Maybe this will help clarify the point. Public goods theorists talk about “rival goods” and “non-rival goods.” Rival goods are limited in nature. Since these are scarce, people become rivals in attempts to attain and consume them. Your enjoyment of a rival good means I lose the opportunity of enjoying it myself. Whereas non-rival goods do not diminish. They are abundant goods, no matter how many people use them. Think of the information a useful equation represents. No matter how many people use it, it does not diminish in value.  The same can be said for a radio broadcast: additional listeners do not diminish the value of the radio program. The good is not used up with consumption. Neither of these concepts is to be confused with “excludability,” which is pretty straightforward. If we are able to wall off some people from using a good, whether rival or non-rival, then it satisfies this condition. Exclusion isn’t all or nothing. It admits of degrees.

Now back to the worst of all possible worlds. If public goods theory speaks of the good, then let us consider the public bad. From this view, we will have rival and non-rival evils: a non-rival evil is one that does not diminish in its awfulness however so much it is inflicted. Think of wealth-destroying corruption throughout an entire society. If I suffer at the hands of a corrupt society, that does not diminish your opportunity to suffer from it either. And instead of excludability, the correlative concept shall be entrapment. Instead of the power to keep out, the public now has the power to keep in. This also admits of degrees. Being a slave is worse than being a citizen who cannot leave, but both are bad. Obviously the idea of negative externalities dovetails nicely here–the subset of people suffering from pollution along a river suffer from a non-rival bad (where we can say those faraway from the river are not entrapped). If everyone suffers, and no one can leave, they are fully entrapped. We can map it this way:

PUBLIC EVILS Rival bad Non-rival bad
100 Percent Poison, Mein Kampf Tyranny, despotism
High Inflation
Dianetics Corruption
Degree of Entrapment
Voting on what I may do. Voting on what all may do.
0 Percent

What we see here is that the force of an evil is vitiated by a lower degree of entrapment. If we have the power of exit, whether the bad be rival or nonrival, it doesn’t matter. We need not suffer. And here we can get an idea of the worst of all possible worlds. It one where the degree of entrapment is complete and one in which those in power have access to the worst non-rival evils. We can call this world, East Berlin.

A Market for Value pluralism

Of course, what’s bad to me, need not be bad for you. As lovely as the Amish are to ponder, I would never want to live among them. The system of norms and values they live by would be a non-rival bad for me and anyone else like me who lives there. Not so for the Amish.  Many a member of that community would say just the opposite. For that sort, the life of the community is a joyful non-rival good.

The beauty of Nozick’s thought experiment is that it shows the degree of entrapment is much more important, from a moral point of view, than the nature of the bad itself. What’s more, because the cost of exit is zero (meaning the degree of entrapment is also zero) and because the cost of creating new worlds is zero, the model creates a market that allows consumers to define worlds according to their own values. One man’s good is another man’s evil, but no one is worse off because of it.

Now according to the thought experiment, it may be that none of the inhabitants of the world I have created want to live with me. They would all prefer to live in a world without me. In that case, we see that the power to exclude is the same as the power to admit. At a whim (but with due consideration), they can all exit my world and create one without me.

How to Back into Competitive Government

No world will admit someone if that person takes more from the world than he gives to it.  What he takes from a world is not the same as what he gets from it. Here, amid abundant utopia creation, we see the difference between value and cost. What a person takes from a world represents how much the inhabitants value what they give him. (If he asks for anything more than this, the inhabitants would deny him admission.) And there’s a corollary: what he contributes to the world represents how much he values his membership in it. (Otherwise, if the inhabitants asked for too much, he would leave.)

We can even imagine worlds competing with other worlds for the membership of particular people. The similarities between the thought experiment and a competitive market by now should be all but obvious. Nozick writes:

Many associations [worlds] competing for my membership are the same structurally as many firms competing to employ me. In each case I receive my marginal contribution. Thus, it seems, we have the result that in every stable association, each person receives his marginal contribution; in each world whose rational members can imagine worlds and emigrate to them and in which no rational member can imagine another world he would rather live in (in which each person has the same imagining and emigrating rights) which he thinks would endure, each person receives his marginal contribution to the world.

This is a most welcome convergence–the best of all possible worlds is really a framework for the imagination to run riot. Utopia is not one world–instead, it’s the power to costlessly exit and the power to costlessly create an infinite number of worlds. The framework, not any particular world within it, deserves the name utopia.

This post is way too long. Tomorrow, I’ll project Nozick’s model on to the real world, and then analyze its relation to seasteading, dynamic geography, Charter Cities, and everything else good under the sun. See you then!

  1. Mike Gibson permalink*
    September 10, 2009 7:19 pm

    Thanks Michael. Good call, ,too. There’s no reason to think value pluralism doesn’t hold across a lifetime as well. Strangely, I think Bryan Caplan’s recent posts on monogamy apply here!

  2. September 10, 2009 4:11 am

    Fabulous and highly needed post, Mike. I have long been shocked and disappointed by the neglect of Nozick’s Utopia of Utopias, and when people like Olivier ask me for more references on it, it is hardly the case that the last third of Nozick’s book is an easy or convenient summary.

    Going in another direction, it has also occurred to me that if we actually had a Utopia of Utopias, rather than decide that “my values” dictate that I should live in one, I might very much like to sample several, or many, of them over the course of a lifetime. Why can’t we be pluralists even with respect to the “ideal worlds” in which we might want to live?

    And great links associated with this article as well!


  1. Robert Nozick’s Framework For Utopia « Attack the System
  2. Robert Nozick’s Utopia: Beyond Side Constraints and Rights « Let A Thousand Nations Bloom
  3. Atlas Swam: Freedom, Capital, and Floating Sovereignties in the Seasteading Vision | Antipode Online
  4. The Framework is Libertarian, But Any Community Within It Need Not Be « Let A Thousand Nations Bloom

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