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Study notes

Robert Nozick (1938−2002)

  • Levels: A Level
  • Exam boards: AQA, Edexcel, IB

Robert Nozick is a key figure along the libertarian-right of the political spectrum and is best-known for the philosophical debate with John Rawls concerning the role of justice.

Nozick sought to defend the concept of natural justice i.e. that justice is served by considering that which would occur naturally without state interference. Social justice (advocated by Rawls) however takes the opposite view and requires a degree of state intervention. Both sides of the debate claim their outlook is the fairest.

Nozick wrote widely throughout his career, but his most important work remains ‘Anarchy, the State and Utopia’ in which he promotes the case for a minimal state. This was Nozick’s response to Rawls’ work a few years earlier on the Theory of Justice. The debate between these two intellectuals did much to revive political philosophy, and Nozick was gracious enough to acknowledge that the Rawlsian conception of justice provided “the benchmark, where all others must subscribe or state their reasons why not.”

According to Nozick, justice should be based upon moral entitlement. Following Kantian principles that the individual is an end in itself, we are entitled to use our resources as we see fit. From this, Nozick claimed that whatever outcome resulted from the free exchange of labour and other resources must be a just one. In contrast, state-imposed egalitarian measures would result in outcomes that favoured electorally significant groups (such as the elderly, insider pressure groups and powerful producer interests).

Nozick favoured a minimal state that was only concerned with the enforcement of contracts and protection against theft. Nozick also argued that the distribution of goods as a result of the free market is a just position. This is a clear rebuttal to the social justice position adopted by Rawls and others on the libertarian-left. Nozick also criticised the redistribution of wealth because it undermines the rights of the individual. In a particularly evocative phrase, he depicts taxation as a form of “legalised theft.” Egalitarian measures in the name of social justice reduce the status of the individual towards the means to an end, and policies committed in the name of social justice was merely state-justified robbery of the wealth we have created.

Another famous passage from Nozick’s work concerns the ‘tale of the slave’ in which the state is portrayed as the potential master of individuals. Any form of redistribution by the state leads to individuals gaining talents they do not deserve. Redistributive policies thereby reduce the status of the individual to that of a slave towards a collective goal. We must therefore avoid the worship of the state in the name of the supposedly desirable goal of social justice, of which there is no moral basis whatsoever. In this regard, he shares common ground with other libertarian figures such as Ayn Rand.

Nozick was a true libertarian who wholeheartedly advocated free market capitalism. At the core of Nozick’s philosophy is the concept of individual sovereignty. We thereby hold property over our person, and possession of bodily integrity is a natural right. Such libertarian ideas led towards him favouring the decriminalisation of victimless crime such as drug consumption. Along with other libertarian figures such as Milton Friedman, Nozick concludes that the choice to consume drugs is ultimately down to the individual. It is the responsibility of the person taking drugs, rather than the state legislating on the basis of say the harm principle outlined by John Stuart Mill.

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