Nozick is no Libertarian

 by Sean Kimpton


The greatest tragedy is to do the right thing for the wrong reasons.

T.S. Eliot


'Libertarianism' affirms not freedom as such, but a freedom of a certain type, whose shape is delineated by the thesis of self-ownership.

G.A. Cohen



This article examines the philosophical foundations of Robert Nozick as expressed in his book. It is not a review, nor a comprehensive critique of his work, but a partial  examination of what makes Nozick (pronounced Nose-ick) the best known libertarian in academia, and whether his libertarian views stand up to close scrutiny.

Robert Nozick is very likely the only so-called libertarian that tender young political science students will meet. Libertarianism is being taught at universities - that's the good news - but it is Nozick's libertarianism as found in Anarchy, State and Utopia that is being taught. Why, you may wonder? He is not the pre-eminent libertarian thinker - Rothbardians might say their hero could lay claim to that. Neither does he offer strong aruments for a libertarian position - Rand is very near impregnable there.


So why Nozick?. Well, he is a Professor at Harvard after all. Nozick received tenure at the academically tender age of thirty, becoming a libertarian only after his appointment to Harvard when he met and was philosophically seduced by Murray Rothbard and then Bruce Goldberg. The position of University Professor is described as “Harvard’s most distinguished professional position” but Nozick is not just any Harvard professor, he is to give him his full title, the "Arthur Kingsley Porter Professor of Philosophy," who in 1998 became the "Joseph Pellegrino University Professor."


He has kudos: a Presidential Citation from the American Psychological Association described him as “one of the most brilliant and original living philosophers.” J.R. Knowles, Dean of the faculty of Arts and Sciences, said “Nozick is an eclectic intellectual and a creative force in the faculty.” While the President of Harvard states that not only has Nozick had an important influence on contemporary philosophy, but “his ideas have made a real difference well beyond his discipline, and beyond the academy. Robert has one of the most versatile, piercing, and agile minds that I have ever encountered”. So he has stature; he has tenure. Academics like him. This is perhaps why he is considered the leading libertarian scholar amongst academics, particularly as he only became a libertarian after he was entrenched at Harvard.


Nozick certainly provides many conclusions that are very agreeable to libertarian-minded individuals. For example he concludes that the "taxation of earnings from labour is on a par with forced labour." He also argues that “Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights). So strong and far-reaching are these rights that they raise the question of what, if anything, the state and its officials may do. ... Two noteworthy implications are that the state may not use its coercive apparatus for the purpose of getting some citizens to aid others, or in order to prohibit activities to people for their own good or protection.”


Fine stuff indeed, but while we may be inclined to agree with these conclusions, it is important to ask how Nozick reached them. After all, a bad defence can often be worse than no defence. With this in mind, let us examine some of his philosophic foundations.


Nozick presents his argument in the Lockean tradition, that is, from the standpoint of natural rights theory. As John Locke argues, “every man has a property in his own person; this nobody has any right to but himself. The labour of his body and the work of his hands we may say are properly his.” Nozick bases his view of natural rights on his notion of the 'meaningfulness of life.' He argues that, "a person's shaping his life in accordance with some overall plan is his way of giving meaning to his life; only a being with the capacity to so shape his life can have or strive for meaningful life."


So far, so ordinary. Clearly, Nozick is arguing against coercion into people's lives, much like Locke. But he bases this argument on the likelihood that such coercion prevents them having a meaningful life. Thus, it is argued, people should be self-owners. That is, people are to be regarded as ends unto and in themselves. He argues that a person's ownership over their body is total and for "the existence of distinct individuals who are not resources for others.”


While the thesis of self-ownership is familiar to libertarian thought, this is perhaps a unique way of arguing the case. It seems to be based on a partly utilitarian premise - that we should maximise the meaningfulness of our lives - while his call for individuals to be given rights in order to achieve a meaningful life has elements similar to the Objectivist view. It does however miss one major point that Ayn Rand makes so well.


Ayn Rand argues that “there is only one fundamental right ... a man’s right to his own life. Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action; the right to life means the right to engage in self-sustaining and self-generated action - which means: the freedom to take all the actions required by the nature of a rational being for the support, the furtherance, the fulfilment and the enjoyment of his own life.” Nozick fails to realise that the primary purpose of rights is to allow Man to live by his nature. Rights allow Man to live as Man. Rand again: "The source of rights is not divine law or congressional law, but the law of identity. A is A - and man is man. Rights are conditions of existence required by man's nature for his proper survival." A meaningful life is only a secondary consequence of this, and not the primary. Of course, a meaningful life does require a system of rights based on the thesis of self-ownership, but it does not of itself give us the whole argument.


Nozick also fails to state exactly what he means by "self-ownership." Surprisingly, self-ownership is mentioned only in passing in Anarchy, State and Utopia with the following; "the most important rights are rights over oneself---the rights which constitute 'self-ownership'." The self-ownership argument is at best only implicit in his book. Indeed, most of the discussion on his notion of self-ownership has been done in interpretations of Nozick’s work. G.A. Cohen does just that, arguing that:


According to the thesis of self-ownership, each person possesses over himself, as a matter of moral right, all those rights that a slaveholder has over a complete chattel slave as a matter of legal right, and he is entitled, morally speaking, to dispose over himself in the way such a slaveholders entitled, legally speaking, to dispose over his slave. A slave holder may not direct his slave to harm other (non-slave) people, but he is not legally obliged to place him at their disposal to the slightest degree: he owes none of his slave's service to anyone else.


Why is an explicit discussion of self-ownership needed? It is needed because it can be a misleading subject. This is because the self-ownership thesis is traditionally, and correctly, viewed as a metaphor. As you are not a separate entity from your body, it is not strictly speaking true, that you own your body. Rather, you are your body, and must take certain actions in order to sustain yourself. Self-ownership is merely an analogy between the control you are entitled to have over yourself, and the control you have over private property. Thus, you are fully entitled to exercise such control over yourself, as you could over a chattel slave, except that, unlike the slave, you are not owned. Taking this metaphor literally can lead to intellectuals playing all sorts of mind games with the concept, including using slavery to justify freedom! It's a very slippery slope, down which intellectuals are very happy to push libertarianism.


Lets now turn to an analysis of Nozick’s basis for individual rights. Thomas Nagel argues that, “to present a serious challenge to other views, a discussion of libertarianism would have to explore the foundations of individual rights and the reasons for and against different conceptions of the relation between those rights and other values that the state may be in a position to promote.” Does Nozick provide us with such a solid foundation? Or do we have 'libertarianism without foundation'? Nagel maintains that Anarchy, State and Utopia is an example of the latter, declaring unequivocally that "Nozick's book is theoretically insubstantial”!


Nozick admits himself that he "does not present a precise theory of the moral basis of individual rights," but this omission is serious, and his admission does nothing to make it better. Nozick builds a political theory on his conception of rights, but it is done without proper foundation. Further, because there are several competing notions of rights, such a basis would tell us which are likely to be fruitful. Indeed, a correct view of rights would go a very long way to eliminate poor political philosophy. However, without this foundation (except the frankly weak 'meaningful life' argument) Nozick leaves himself open to criticism on his very own premises. That Nozick is the only 'libertarian' many academics and their students will ever encounter means that the libertarian argument is seen in academia to have a weak base - little wonder that he is taught to young politics students to introduce them to libertarian thought!


Nozick's weak base makes it easily pervertable: Samuel Scheffler for example argues, “It seems clear that the alternative conception of rights is a much more accurate specification than the Lockean conception of rights which people actually have. For the alternative conception assigns to each individual the right to a sufficient share of all distributable goods whose enjoyment is necessary to have a reasonable chance of living a decent and fulfilling life.” As incorrect as Scheffler’s claims might be, they show how mistaken premises can lead to good conclusions being struck down - and how convenient for the Schefflers of this world that they now have an easily perverted alternative to Locke's conception of rights to pervert. It almost makes one wish Nozick had stayed home sick the night he first met Rothbard; we might then have been spared this inconvenient ally.


For Robert Nozick, while advocating a libertarian political philosophy is doing more harm than good. He is considered by academics to be the leading advocate for libertarianism and freedom amongst modern political philosophers, but his weak arguments are too easily trumped by self-serving intellectuals who only feel obliged to answer Nozick, rather than more substantial political thinkers like Rand. So, while his prestige does get libertarian ideas into philosophy and political studies classes around the world, his arguments are treated as if they are the only ones libertarians possess. Quel horreur!


So why he is the leading libertarian scholar amongst academics? Nozick plays the game, as a good Harvard professor should, and as his various prestigious awards demonstrate. But perhaps it is the very weakness of his arguments that add to his attraction, he is the ideal libertarian straw man - easy to knock down, and to burn while he's down.


But Nozick does have value. He shows us that if your arguments lack foundations you will undo your conclusions, no matter how true they might be.