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A very good argument, but now painfully out of date
on 31 January 2007
Having read Rawls as part of my degree, we were also given parts of Nozick to compare it with. On reading the book, it seemed to be a more impressive argument when you see how all of his different ideas link together. He does make a forceful critique of Marxism in particular, and notes how Marxist ideas of "expoitation" could render parts of the welfare state as exploitative. There are three big problems though.
First, this was written back in the days when political debates were Left v Right. It makes no mention at all of environmentalism, and the only time that it mentions animal rights is as an example of an absurdity [Nozick actually believes that eating meat is immoral, but he uses this as an example of how utilitarianism cannot be used as a grounds for the state]. Nozick works on the old premise that, if everyone works hard enough, everyone can get what they want. In this day and age, any such argument must at least respond to the environmentalist argument that this would make life on Earth unsustainable - and I can't see how anyone can convincingly argue that.
Secondly, the book is too American. He talks about universal rights, which belong to every human being, yet writes as if Americans are the only human beings of interest. What about those in other countries who have these rights yet may have greater difficulty in setting up his sort of state [e.g. greater corruption, poorer infrastructure]. If taxation is the theft that Nozick makes it out as, is it unjust that people in Iceland may have to pay greater taxes to protect their natural rights than people in Singapore do [due to admin costs]? The final section of the book, which deals with the idea of a variety of city states with their own rules for residents, seems completely alien to any resident of Europe; it is clearly connected to the old American ideal, where state rights allowed different religious communities to settle in different areas and live by different laws. It seems quite inapplicable to anywhere in Europe.
This links in with the third problem. There is hardly any historical dimension to this book. There is no factual analysis of what unrestrained capitalism did before - of those "dark satanic mills" in parts of 18th century England, where 5 year-old boys worked 13 hour days. There is little consideration of the fact that the current property distribution cannot be said to be "just" by the terms that he lays out, which renders protection of the existing order as unjust. To be fair to Nozick, he does say that his libertarian state is just a "thought experiment". The trouble is that, considering its poor representation of the real world, it is not a very useful experiment.
To conclude, the book is worth reading mainly to get criticisms of Rawls, Marx and some other old-fashioned leftists. It is not really useful to those who want to debate with more modern radicals, and is not meant for those looking for practical solutions to contemporary problems. A classic of philosophy, perhaps - but not a modern political manifesto.