Review: Anarchy, State and Utopia- An Anarchist Defence of Minarchism

Anarchy, State and Utopia was American philosopher Robert Nozick’s magnus opus and as a response to John Rawls’ Kantian magnus opus, A Theory of Justice (which we will get into more details of).

The book is divided into 3 parts, Anarchy, State and Utopia. In Anarchy, Nozick discussed the Lockean state of nature that individual rights are enforced regardless of whether a state is present or not, however, individuals do form groups for mutual cooperation that may serve functions of protecting its members. Therefore, no contract is in fact needed for the formation of such associations. People can choose their own associations and the associations in turn sell their services to its clients, they associations compete with each other in a given geologically confined area, states may emerge when only one dominant association is present in a given area that out compete others. Therefore, formation of a minimal state seem inevitable because of the “invisible hand” would result in a minimal state without violating the non-aggression principle.

There are a few problems with this theory, the first one, as Rothbard pointed out was that Nozick has based his arguments on hypothesis that contradicted to how states were formed in the history. The “social contract” as coined by Hobbs was a protection racket involuntarily forced upon individuals, therefore Nozick was unable to find historical evidence to support his claims. The second criticism of Anarchy is that Nozick would need to be an anarchist and hope for the abolition of all presents states then could he justify having a minimal state arose out of lassiz faire society. While I agree with Rothbard’s argument in part, Nozick would be correct in theory if all the states would be overthrown and people can began free market anarchism afresh, the counter argument is that a potential is simply not reality, even Nozick has claimed that he did not see potential for everyone to become anarchist any time soon, thus he did in fact contradict himself by basing his theory on faith rather than facts. But in defence of Nozick, Rothbard had the misconception that one must sacrifice our autonomy when we select a protection agency, but that would be false the protection agency as Nozick explained, could not cover every single person at any given time, therefore there is a need for individual agency (as in the case of Emergency as discussed by Rand in The Virtue of Selfishness). 

Thirdly, we do not know if one agency would in fact out compete the other therefore, the term state would need to be used cautiously. But Rothbard’s argument against this natural monopoly was also false. There have been no anarcho capitalist system ever in place, so the examples used in his critiques would be invalid as they are not pure anarchy, not to mention the lack of references with the examples (especially with his favourite ancient Ireland example). It would be absurd to say insurance companies are states in the sense that they do not have the right to use force without the consent of the customers who were voluntarily engaging with the agency.

Then Nozick talked about the experience machine, he provided 3 reasons for not plugging into the (utilitarian) machine

  1. We want to actually perform an action, not just experience it if it was never done.
  2. Experience shapes who we are
  3. Simulation is not an objective reality

Utilitarianism is thus destroyed as there could be experiences which are pleasurable but may not contribute to the overall happiness.

Nozick then talked about the “risk” management which was a discussion on how much freedom we may have against prohibition based on perceived risks. This is a more logical section in the book, which also talks about the punishment aspect of the potential clients’ aggression against non-members. However, it is dubious as to how much a real ultraminimal state would follow through with Nozick’s hypothesis. Rothbard also argued that the simple utility loss scheme proposed by Nozick to compensate clients does not account for actual justice raised by the cost.

But what is to compel people to join the ultraminimal state? Imagine having free riders in the system who enforce their own justice while others are constrained by it? Nozick argued that because the protection agency is able to exercise measures to protect its clients, the independents are disadvantaged if they don’t join the scheme.

Then Nozick launched a full on attack against Rawls’ Distributive Justice. He identified 2 types of principle for “justice”. One is the patterned principle that to correct the perceived injustice based the utilitarian idea of the present while the other, historical justice, focuses on understanding the justice of acquisition (obtaining property without damaging liberty). He used Wilt Chamberlain, a basketball player as example on the natural distribution, which would be unjust to the patterned principle but nonetheless not violating liberty. However, Nozick was indecisive on following the principle during extreme situations where goods might not be widely available, making just acquisition forfeit, despite not providing reasoned explanation for this inconsistency.

Nozick went on to explain the liberal idea of ownership does not extend to partial ownership of others. The natural advantages one may enjoy does not directly make others worse off. The difference principle used by Rawls was attacked by Nozick  because he forgot the fact that people don’t simply maintain content with their currently perceived disadvantages and there is no moral justification for the assistance of the worse off without the violation of other people’s rights. Nozick then devoted the rest of the chapter attacking Marxism.

The final chapter in the second part is an attack on democracy by using the analogy of “human” share market to show how democracy would eventually result in oligarchy.

The last part of the book is about how an ideal ultraminimal state would allow full voluntary exchange to take place for the mutual benefit of every person. If anyone is unsatisfied, they can dissociate and form their own society as long as they do it on their justly acquired private property.

While Nozick’s argument may not have been 100% perfect to convince everyone to favour ultraminarchism, it does help us to see the difference between socialism and capitalism.

Further Reading:

Robert Nozick and the Immaculate Conception of the State


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