Nozick Alone Among the Libertarians

I’ve been researching Nozick and his commentators for the MA course I’m giving next semester on Contemporary Political Theory (details on my university web page, see right hand column). The most vicious critics of Nozick are certainly his fellow Libertarians, including Murray Rothbard who Nozick refers to as important in converting him to a Libertarian point of view. Libertarian in this context means the capitalist version in which if the state exists at all, it should only exist to uphold property rights based on voluntary contract, and protect individuals from violence. In the Anarchist, or near Anarchist version, of which Rothbard is the best example, these laws emerge in a voluntary way without any need for a state.

Though I was already acquainted with the idea that Capitalist Libertarians/Anarcho-Capitalists are a quarrelsome lot and that most of them are on the fringe of the academic world, I was startled by the response of Libertarians to Nozick. Nozick is by some way the most distinguished representative of that point of view in academic philosophy. No one has replaced him in that role since his death, and Nozick may himself have stopped filling that role. Though he did not say much about political philosophy after his Libertarian masterpiece Anarchy, State and Utopia, there are indications he pulled back from his claims in that book to a softer form of Libertarianism (presumably heading towards the kind of welfarist liberal/capitalist libertarian crossover I favour). The Libertarian response is to sneer that he turned into a social democrat. Anyway they did not like his book in the first place, and were probably relieved that he could be later labelled as an apostate .

Murray Rothbard, and his followers, express great jealousy of Nozick’s success, claiming that Rothbard’s Ethics of Liberty (click for pdf download) is a more important book. The book can be found via as can a great deal of other relevant material. I certainly don’t fault the Misess Insittute people for failure to use the Internet properly. Anyone who compares Rothbard’s book with Nozick really ought to feel embarrassed for Rothbard, and his followers, that they could be so self-deceiving and foolish as to think Rothbard’s book is better. His method of argument is constant restatement of the view that the state is unnecessary, and that left to themselves, people will create better voluntary arrangements. His method of dealing with different points of view is to insult them and to fall back on an analogy between the state and a supplier of goods or services in a market economy based on rules of a kind which have always been enforced by the state. Just like Anarcho-Communists, Rothbard relies on natural intuitions of Natural Law to substitute for the role of the state. Again the universality of these intuitions is asserted rather than argued for. The fact that Nozick’s book is composed from a variety of detailed arguments for his position is used against him by the Rothbardians, apparently people just read those arguments separately which is supposedly easier than reading Rothbard’s book through. There is nothing difficult about Rothbard’s book apart from the boredom resulting from his constant under argued assertions.

Other criticisms of Nozick from team Rothbard, and other Libertarian crews, include outrage that Nozick finds paradoxes at the foundations of Libertarianism he has to try to answer, essentailly the classic paradox of explaining how people consent to a common set of rules without force. In their zeal Libertarians are shocked by the possibility of paradox in the foundations of their ideal system, though one might think the whole point of political philosophy is to deal with the paradoxes that human reason throws up and which every inquiry into the heart of a subject always throw up.

Jealousy is never far from the surface. The feeling that famous universities are dominated by cliques of elite left-liberal academics excluding the knights of Libertarianism is a constant theme. It is not possible that the left-liberals (also Neo-Conservatives and Conservative Paternalists) could be doing honest work of high quality. The fact that Rothbard never had a job at a famous institution clearly embittered him and his followers. Rothbard appears to have been a generous and inspiring person in some respects, but somewhat lacking in a sense of proportion about his importance and the quality of his essentially polemical work. Nozick was a professor at Harvard, and even worse is very generous about the work of his famous left-liberal colleague John Rawls. Generosity to non-Libertarians is not widespread in Libertarian culture; they find it hard enough to be generous to each other. Nozick appears to have been a sensitive, understanding and well rounded individual who did not try to dominate other people or establish a clique of loyal followers. He was certainly a misfit on Planet Libertarian

9 thoughts on “Nozick Alone Among the Libertarians

  1. I’ve not read any Nozick, but Anarchy, State and Utopia is on my list ever since I discovered that this is the origin of the phrase that is most frequently used to justify Land Value Tax – the “Lockean Proviso”. The idea being that one can have property in land by attaching one’s labour to it, but only insofar as that leaves, as Lock wrote, “enough and as good in common…to others”.

  2. Yes Nozick does put the ‘the Lockean proviso’ at the centre of his book, and Locke is the most important reference despite Nozick’s gestures towards Hayek, Mises and Rothbard. The Lockean references are important in that Nozick mentions the things which do not fit in so well with the most radical capitalist libertarianism The proviso about leaving enough land is one of them, he also acknowledges that Locke recognises a right to basic welfare. In these respects ASU already contains the seeds of a ‘soft’ libertarianism which incorporates concerns with welfare, though in that book Nozick only recognises property rights as enforceable by law. The ‘utopia’ part of the book is concenred with people creating different kinds of self-regulating communities under a minimal state, and these communities could be socialistic in a voluntary kind of way, adding another dimension to the Libertarian position. I’m not too familiar with the Land Value Tax position but if it provides a way of looking at Classical Liberal themes in a way which brings out the welfarist aspects, then that is a good thing.

  3. Sounds to me as if he’s a bit of a Mutualist – which, as Kevin Carson writes is “free market anti-capitalism”. If he makes much of the “Lockean Proviso” I must get it straight away!Basically, Henry George said that a. government should not cost more than it can raise via the collection of economic rent on “land” in the economist’s sense and b. it should be much smaller than that and that the balance of the rent collected should be distributed as a “dividend” to all citizens like a Citizen’s Income.Basically the “welfare” safety net is the value of the commons. Property rights are protected in return for paying your rent – so it takes on the characteristics of a “user fee” (for the protection of your right to exclusive occupancy of that location) rather than just being a “tax”.A number of us are collaborating on a book of essays this year (first editorial board meeting tonight) on what I suspect you are calling “classical liberalism” but what I call the “liberal economic tradition” being the best way to increase the return to the ordinary person by eradicating monpoly, protectionism and the inbuilt advantages they give to capital over labour.

  4. That’s certainly advanced my knowledge. Henry George, who had great influence at one time, his followers included Tolstoy. There must be an interesting history somewhere of the ups and downs of his influence. It would be a big stretch to call Nozick a mutualist, but if you are interested in discussions of Locke on land then Nozick is an important place to go, and an important place in general for discussions of Classical Liberalism/Liberal Economic Tradition/Libertarianism. If you are collaborating on a book on mutualism, it would certainly be a good idea to include substantial discussion of Nozick as that would immensely increase the appeal to people in political philosophy/theory. I hope to hear more about the book, keep me posted if you can.

  5. I think Henry George retained a significant influence until the first third of the twentieth century. I have a copy of his “Protection and Free Trade” with a foreword by Philip Snowden from when he was Chancellor I think. And the MacDonald government under Snowden did legislate for Land Value Tax but it was never implemented. Einstein was also a fan, as was Bernard Shaw. My pet theory is that “socialists” were impatient and in the ascendency and rejected “healing” capitalism by the sort of Free Trade and anti-monopoly theories of the “Liberal Economic Tradition”, coupled with the rise of protectionism in the form of the Federal Reserve and then post depression and post-war “fix-its”. ASU now on order and promoted to the top of my reading list! And “Theory of Justice”…since I understand teh former was a response to that?

  6. ASU is at least partly a response to Theory of Justice, chapter 7 in particular is a response to Rawls and the whole book could be read in that light. Understanding of ASU is going to be greatly increased by studying Rawls. Nozick thanks Rawls amongst others for reading and commenting on his manuscript so there was a real dialogue going on Also Rawls is the starting point for most political philosophy/theory in the mode of ‘Analytic philosophy’. This approach to political theory is sometimes known as Normative Theory. Rawls created a kind of year zero for normative theory, so that what came before is the historical part of subject and what has happened since Rawls is the discipline as it exists now. Theory of Justice is 600 pages long so together with Rawls it should keep you occupied for a while.

  7. All very fascinating. I’m glad you posted this and we’ve had this discussion. My limited investigations into the “LET” have focussed on that end of c19th early c20th movement that came to a head in the People’s Budget of 1909, coupled with odd characters outside that inner circle like Reginald McKenna and Josiah Stamp. I’ve never really got to grips with this contemporary theory of liberalism/libertarianism and this will be my first foray into it. I’ll probably email you separately about the book. We’re literally only just at the starting gate tonight from which I hope we will have a framework of the issues we want to see contributed chapters on.

  8. I’ve certainly a lot from this discussion Not enough to have a firm view about Mutualism, but it seems like something that deserves renewed discussion as a way of getting the maximum of social goods from the minimum of state activity. Please do email me about the book, it would be very interesting to hear how it shapes up and what kind of points are coming up. There’s other stuff about liberal/libertarian thinking in my course, and I’m posting a lot of stuff on my academic webpage about that. You can link through the side bar and you can always contact me about anything there through the blog or email.

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