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Robert Nozick (1938-2002)

American philosopher and professor who almost single-handedly made modern libertarian thinking acceptable.

Robert Nozick
Robert Nozick
  • In 1974, he wrote, Anarchy, State, and Utopia
  • “…no moral balancing act can take place among us; there is no moral outweighing of one of our lives by others so as to lead to a greater overall social good. There is no justified sacrifice of some of us for others.” (Anarchy, State and Utopia, pg. 33)

 On Justice (Or Why he Thought Rawls was an Idiot)

Three Major Ideas

In his book Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?, Harvard Professor Michael Sandel idenitifes three core beliefs held by Nozick: 

  • No Paternalism. Libertarians oppose laws to protect people from harming themselves. Seatbelt laws are a good example; so are motorcycle helmet laws. Even if riding a motorcycle without a helmet is reckless, and even if helmet laws save lives and prevent devastating injuries, libertarians argue that such laws violate the right of the individual to decide what risks to assume.
  • No Morals Legislation. Libertarians oppose using the coercive force of law to promote notions of virtue or to express the moral convictions of the majority. Prostitution may be morally objectionable to many people, but that does not justify laws that prevent consenting adults from engaging in it. Majorities in some communities may disapprove of homosexuality, but that does not justify laws that deprive gay men and lesbians of the right to choose their sexual partners for themselves.
  • No Redistribution of Income or Wealth. The libertarian theory of rights rules out any law that requires some people to help others,including taxation for redistribution of wealth. Desirable though it may be for the affluent to support the less fortunate—by subsidizing their health care or housing or education—such help should be left up to the individual to undertake, not mandated by the government. According to the libertarian, redistributive taxes are a form of coercion, even theft.

Entitlement Theory

  • In a nutshell, then, Nozick’s “Entitlement Theory” argues against social and government policies that redistribute wealth via taxation and other programs. This would be in opposition to Marxist or socialist theories that advocate a redistribution of wealth. Marx, for example, is famous for saying, From Each According to His Abilities, To Each According to His Needs” meaning that members of a society should work at what they do best. Some people have the ability to be doctors, some lawyers. Others may have lesser abilities.
  • A person has 1) aright to own what he makes, and 2) to appropriate anything not already owned
  • However, this is violated when an owner finds herself to be the sole owner of something and all other supplies have been lost.
  • A just distribution of property is one where everyone is entitled to the property they have.

No Presumption of Equality

  • Nozick argues against the assumption that differences between persons are arbitrary unless they can be justified. In a free and just society, distribution results from many exchanges between rational actors

 The Natural Lottery is Not Unjust

  • While Rawls argued that behind the veil of ignorance talent should be concealed, Nozick believes that “Whether or not people’s natural assets are arbitrary from a moral point of view they are entitled to them, and to what flows from them.”

 Equal Opportunity is Not a Right

  • Possessions that people are entitled to may not be seized to provide equality of opportunity for others. “’No centralized process judges people’s use of the opportunities they had; that is not what the process of social cooperation and exchange are for.”

 Redistributive Action by the Government is Unjust

  • According to Nozick, taxation is equivalent to forced labor. Taking a proportion of earnings is like making a person work a proportion of his working time for another’s purposes. It is unjust to force a person to work for another’s benefit.