Some thoughts after starting Nozick.
I’m finally reading Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia, and I’m a hundred pages in and enjoying it so far. There are plenty of nicely conceived thought experiments. But I’m not a libertarian, and it doesn’t look like this book is going to make me one, since I’m not on board with Nozick’s assumptions about natural rights. It’s a virtue of the book that Nozick is quite clear about these assumptions, and so I can follow his arguments without constantly pushing back against them in my head. I’m going to take a messy first stab at expressing why I’m suspicious of natural rights.
It seems that there’s a huge number of ways to formulate theories of natural rights, and it could be that one or more of them would satisfy me. But I’m thinking here of the versions of natural-rights theory that follow Locke’s “life, liberty, and property” rights to a libertarian conclusion. I’m averse to a theory that leaves the individual as resident of a rights-bubble, within which she may anything she pleases, and outside of which she may act only with the consent of the others whose rights-bubbles she’s dealing with. This is not how I see the world. I’m more an obligation-web kind of guy, and I tend to see the individual as a node of a web of obligations of various strengths. The strands that tie me to my family and close friends are stronger and more complicated than those that tie me to my acquaintances, which are in turn stronger than the strands that bind me (quite loosely) to strangers.
Now this image-based comparison is hardly rigorous, and I’m hesitant to offer it in such a fuzzy form, but for whatever reason it’s how I conceive of myself in the world around me. In my view, a “right” is a useful conceptual aggregation of a category of obligations.¹ For example, since (I assume) just about everyone I will ever meet has an obligation not to put my life in danger without a very good reason, I call this my “right to life.” I expect you not to just take things that I’m using or planning to use, and this becomes my “right to property.” But even though I aggregate obligations in this way, I remember that your obligation not to take my stuff differs qualitatively from my brother’s obligation not to take my stuff, and that the difference between you and my brother is not merely a matter of contract or consent, even if those things are somehow involved.
To put it a little bit more straightforwardly, I don’t think the rights-bubble approach is descriptively or prescriptively appropriate for human interaction on a small scale. I can’t conceive that rationally maximizing utility without infringing the rights of others makes for a morally satisfactory life, but I’ve encountered self-described libertarians who either explicitly claim or implicitly assume that this is in fact all that there is to morality. I get to a point where I just don’t know what to say to such people.
I’ve found that it’s a big mistake to attribute this view to anyone who leans libertarian. There’s a much more respectable case to be made that the rights-bubble view isn’t a healthy way for me to think about my friends and family, but it is the right view for government to take of its citizens. After all, isn’t the government supposed to be neutral among its citizens? So there’s a big difference between (1) “As long as I’m not infringing anyone’s rights, nobody can tell me what to do,” and (2) “As long as I’m not infringing anyone’s rights, the government can’t tell me what to do.” And it seems to me that if you look at policy arguments from libertarians like Julian Sanchez or Will Wilkinson, it’s usually only the government’s relationship to rights that matters to the argument, not the individual’s view of morality. When it comes to policy, this distinction might be pretty much inconsequential.
I think one reason I’ve attracted to communitarianism and to localist conservatism à la Front Porch Republic is that small-scale government, like Andy Griffith in Mayberry, could potentially be attentive to the reality of the complex web of obligations between different people, whereas it’s just impossible for, say, the State of North Carolina to do this. But I’m keenly aware that this could be romantic idealism on my part.
I’ve barely said anything specific to Nozick in this post… but since I don’t spend much time doubting that the minimal state is justified, I don’t have much of an argument with the first part of his book. I’ll have to wait and see what I think of his argument that nothing more than the minimal state can be justified. But I figure it’s good to try to establish some ground for further posts on Nozick if people seem to want them.
¹ For the purposes of this post, I’m going to leave to the side the important and interesting point that rights-talk is more useful to people who don’t have a great deal of power than obligation-talk. Rhetorically and politically, “I have a right to X” is a stronger claim than “You owe me X.”