The price of freedom
Alasdair Palmer celebrates the compelling logic of Robert Nozick, the libertarian philosopher who died last month
Robert Nozick, the Harvard philosopher who died last month, was more important than you would have guessed from the small ripple his demise generated in the obituary columns. True, he wrote only one book which has any chance of lasting: Anarchy, State and Utopia. But what a book! To me, as to many others, it was a revelation. Here was a work that uses all the latest gadgetry of analytical philosophy, yet, unlike all the other books of analytical philosophy, is not just intelligible, but is actually readable, even enjoyable. There is a swagger about its style and a confidence about its tone that make it clear that Nozick wasn’t simply writing for the priesthood of other philosophers; he wanted to reach anyone who is curious about the moral basis of rational government. Anarchy, State and Utopia is full of questions, puzzles and unexpected observations. I don’t, for instance, know any other book of philosophy — or any other non-fiction work, come to that — which lists ‘quality of orgasm’ as one of the essential variables for evaluating a person.
For all its quirks and jokes (and there are plenty of them, though I don’t think that he was joking about ‘quality of orgasm’), Anarchy, State and Utopia is a deadly serious piece of political philosophy. What Nozick did in it was to deliver a series of fatal blows to the concept of social justice that had been more or less taken for granted, not just by me and most of my contemporaries, but also by practically the whole liberal intelligentsia in the universities, the civil service and the BBC. It is difficult to believe it now, but 30 years ago when the book came out — even 20 years ago, when I read it — there was a consensus that freedom and social justice were straightforwardly compatible; that an egalitarian society, based on redistributive taxation, was not only ethically right but also rationally mandatory; and that it could, and would, be achieved and maintained without coercion.
John Rawls had given that consensus elaborate philosophical form in his book A Theory of Justice, a prolonged hymn to the virtues he considered to be the indivisible trinity of freedom, redistributive taxation and the welfare state. (And it wasn’t just theory; marginal tax rates in Britain were then more than 80 per cent.)
Robert Nozick argued that the whole lot was a chimera, a cloud of rhetoric with no rational foundation at all. ‘No patterned principle [of social justice] can be realised without continuous interference with people’s lives,’ he wrote. ‘Any distributional pattern with any egalitarian component is overturnable by the voluntary actions of individuals over time.’ He proved it by a very simple example. Imagine, he said, that utopia has arrived and your preferred egalitarian distribution has been achieved: everyone has the same bundle of material resources. Now imagine that there’s a particular sportsman who is in great demand. (He picked a basketball player then in vogue called Wilt Chamberlain; today, you could substitute David Beckham.) People want to see this sportsman play, and will happily pay extra to do so. When they buy their ticket for a game, there’s a special box into which they drop an extra 25 cents. The money goes to Chamberlain (or Beckham). In the course of a season, a million people watch him play, each one paying the extra 25 cents to him. He ends up with $250,000 as a result: a much larger sum than anyone else has. (You’ll excuse the quaintly small sums of money, but Nozick was writing before Pay TV.)
Nozick then poses a killer question: if the original egalitarian ‘distribution was just, and people moved voluntarily from it to the new, inegalitarian one, transferring parts of their shares they were given [under the egalitarian distribution], isn’t the new distribution also just?’ When I first read the book, I tried everything to find an answer to that question which wasn’t ‘Yes’. I failed. I eventually took some comfort from the fact that Nozick’s more elevated and sophisticated philosophical critics failed as well. They failed because there is no way round the central truth: individual free choices will destroy every attempt to maintain an egalitarian pattern of social justice.
It is difficult now — when socialism has been so comprehensively discredited, when Labour has become like the Conservatives and no longer uses the word ‘equality’ — to remember just how blasphemous that truth used to be. Robert Nozick was at least partly responsible for the fact that social justice as an ideal has simply dropped out of mainstream political argument (though not necessarily from political hopes and plans). When you consider the way diehard egalitarians respond to his arguments, you understand why: they sniffily insist that mere consumer decisions such as choosing to pay more to see your favourite star or buying a product you want don’t really count as freedom, and aren’t of any moral value — which means that it is permissible for the state to force people not to make them, and so ‘to forbid capitalist acts between consenting adults’ (as Nozick himself put it). Kim Jong-il, Osama bin Laden and the odd, closeted civil servant and professor of political philosophy may find an ideal based on continuous and colossal state coercion attractive. Not many other people do.
Nozick’s demolition of ‘patterned’ theories of social justice, of the claim that it is rationally compulsory for justice to ignore the differences between individuals’ capacities, and in particular of Rawls’s arguments for redistribution so as to benefit ‘the least well off’ to the greatest possible extent, is brilliantly effective, and I recommend it to anyone who hasn’t read it (and even to those who have: it’s worth reading again).
He produced a plethora of provocatively memorable aphorisms: ‘taxation is a form of forced labour’; a man ‘faced with working or starving chooses to work voluntarily’; ‘There are only individual people, different individual people, with their own individual lives. Using one of these people for the benefit of others, uses him and benefits the others. Nothing more. Talk of an overall social good covers this up.’
There was a major gap, though, at the centre of his positive theory: his insistence that the only state that is morally justified is one which is limited to the ‘night watchman’ function of protecting against force and fraud, and the enforcement of contracts, was based on a conception of ‘natural rights’ which he did not argue for and for which he never managed to provide any basis — as he was the first to admit. Despite appearances, he wasn’t a committed Republican, still less a conservative: one consequence of his ‘historical, entitlement theory of justice’ is that America actually belongs not to the CEOs with stock-options but to the Indians, since it was their legitimate property when it was unjustly taken from them by force and fraud by the settlers from Europe.
He tried to distance himself from the corporate types who saw in his defence of property, and his relentless attack on every conceivable reason for taking it away, a moral justification for their own greed. All the same, the failure of Nozick’s own search for a foundation for his moral position means that — despite his stress on natural rights and the sanctity of individual liberty — Anarchy, State and Utopia reads as a defence of each individual’s right to use whatever powers he has for whatever purposes he chooses. The subtext is overwhelming: morals are only for suckers, for those too stupid not to have ‘seen through’ them. You search in vain in Anarchy, State and Utopia for reasons to counteract its overpowering undertow pulling you out to a sea of limitless selfishness.
In its evisceration of all arguments for constraining the power of the strong so as to benefit the weak, in its subtle, sleek celebration of the ‘right of the strongest’, Anarchy, State and Utopia reverberates in a peculiarly disturbing way. ‘When these matters are considered by practical people, the standard of justice depends on equality of power to compel, and in fact the strong do what they have the power to do, and the weak accept what they have to accept.’ Those words weren’t written by Nozick, but by Thucydides. He records the Athenian ambassadors as saying them to the inhabitants of Melos, an island which the Athenians wanted to start paying tribute. The Melians refused, so the Athenians used their superior power to blockade and besiege the island, eventually killing the men and enslaving the women and children.
It is an outcome that the author of Anarchy, State and Utopia would have found repulsive. The problem is that it is difficult to see why the arguments in his book do not lead directly to it. It makes Anarchy State and Utopia more illuminating — and more frightening — than any other work of contemporary political philosophy.
Alasdair Palmer is Public Policy Editor of the Sunday Telegraph.
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