Robert Nozick argues from the (Kantian) principle that nothing and nobody can use an individual as a means rather than an end. We are inviolable in ourselves as individuals and as owners of our property (legitimately acquired in the form of land etc.; or understood as our bodies/minds). Any boundary crossing not expressly consented to, is a violation of these fundamental negative rights. Understood as such, any state that seeks to redistribute through taxation is performing an unconsented-to boundary crossing, and is therefore guilty of violation of these fundamental rights.
It’s altogether a very impressive feat of logical, consistent argumentation from first principles. I find the book impeccable. I am not a libertarian after reading Nozick’s book, but it has forced me to devote a lot of time and energy to working out why I’m not a libertarian. After all, who can disagree with the principle of ‘don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want others to do to you’? The morality underlying Nozick’s edifice is entirely acceptable, and yet as the argument progresses I found myself getting more and more uncomfortable. The problem has to do with which rights you might agree are fundamental and inviolable. Is the right to property, however acquired, fundamental to liberty? Nozick argues that it is. Without justice in property, there is no justice. Or Freedom. Or Liberty. Without the concept of private property, we are all potentially slaves to the State.
Concomitant with that proposition is an attitude which can be labelled ‘individual atomism’. Nozick, in keeping with other libertarians like Von Mises, Rothbard and Hoppe believes that individuals are paramount, unique and indivisible. Nothing may impinge on them. They enter the world fully formed (philosophically speaking) and exist before, above and outside of society. Indeed, I suspect that for most libertarians, society is a rootless (pointless?) concept. This isn’t necessarily a provable falsity. It is a view-point which however, is myopic. For by focussing so exclusively on one aspect of individuality, it ignores a host of other elements that contribute to individuality. Humans do not grow up alone. Our very being – in whatever category you choose to view it (philosophically, developmentally, ethically, biologically) – is formed in relation to, in opposition to, in agreement with others of our species (and, indeed, with other species). There is a totality which, through a ‘perspective shift’ suddenly leaps into sight. It is this – society? – which Nozick et. al. are uncomfortable with. To be fair to Nozick, he is perhaps an abstainer on the concept of society. In the ‘Utopia’ part of his book, he argues that as individuals we have the freedom to choose whichever society we might, assuming we can find enough other individuals who share our value preferences. And indeed, by going back to the first ethical principle of ‘don’t do to others what you don’t want them to do to you’ Nozick can claim that he’s arguing from a principle which recognises other individuals as equal to – if completely separate – from ourselves.
If there is a flaw in the libertarian and/or Nightwatchman State position, we must seek it in the so-called inviolability of private property rights. Nozick is very fuzzy here, and such fuzziness is telling. He disagrees with the Lockian formula for justice in acquisition and replaces it with a notion that there is justice in acquisition if by such acquisition we don’t leave others any worse off. If we do, then compensation (however determined) is due. That’s a very ‘nice’ principle, but it seems to me to be a fairytale. A libertarian political philosophy has to, at some stage, come to grips with the notion of origins, and it is here that Nozick fails. Can there ever be justice in acquisition of private property? How much property is needed? Can somebody allowably grab more than others? If so, then they will have more ‘freedom’ than the rest, and more liberty. A secondary consideration has to do with demographics. Libertarianism seems to me to be a view-point ideally suited to frontier communities. Where are we to find such communities these days? And how could you possible recreate them?
A final word on the usual association of libertarianism and free-market economics. Clearly Nozick thinks that only the unfettered operations of a free-market can sort out the competing claims of individuals in a State Of Nature; and that through such operations a minimal or Nightwatchman State can arise. He is, to be fair, agnostic on the rights of individuals to choose other forms of economic arrangements in his Utopia. But I suspect that he’ll have his bets firmly behind the capitalists who will out-compete all other social systems…