Robert Nozick, my new favorite libertarian.

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William Brafford

William Brafford grew up in North Carolina, home of the world's best barbecue, indie rock, and regional soft drinks. He just barely sustains a personal blog and "tweets" every now and then under the name @williamrandolph.

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21 Responses

  1. Avatar Jaybird
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    Excellent essay. I’ll pick it up.Report

  2. Avatar joeyhepatitis
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    Great summary. I had to read this book for class this semester, and felt the same way – not a libertarian, but Nozick is much more reasonable and convincing then I’d been led to believe about libertarians. Susan Moller Okin responds to Nozick, re: the conflicts of the rights of children/women, in Justice, Gender, and The Family that is interesting. Basically, if you accept Nozick’s idea that a person owns what they produce then it is absurd to ignore the labor used in pregnancy and birth – to brush it aside as unimportant, as she believes Nozick does, is to presuppose female inequality and patriarchy in the libertarian philosophy (also The Sexual Contract by Pateman). I thought the libertarian portion of the class was going to be the most frustrating, but the reasonableness of Nozick’s argument set a foundation for good discussion.Report

    • Avatar William Brafford in reply to joeyhepatitis
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      Okin’s response sounds interesting, and I’ll have to track it down. Without the Nozick book in front of me, it would be hard for to guess whether Nozick avoids talking about childbirth because it’s unimportant or instead because it’s complicated or it stretches his conception of rights. Now you’ve got me curious about how Nozick’s framework would have to change if he incorporate feminist criticisms… actually, I’d love to read a feminist’s take on problems with state-of-nature theory from Locke on down. Does Okin cover this?Report

  3. Avatar Nicolas Martin
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    says:

    To put Nozick in context with other (far more influential) libertarian intellectuals, I recommend the recent book, “Radicals for Capitalism.” The libertarian who converted me from leftism many years ago was Murray Rothbard. I’m swayed primarily by the moral argument: a political system whose existence depends on violence against peaceful people is indefensible.Report

    • Avatar Lee in reply to Nicolas Martin
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      says:

      Interestingly, Rothbard et al. thought Nozick was a sell-out for attempting to justify the state in the first place. Of course, you might instead take Rothbard’s position as a kind of reductio ad absurdum of (rights-based) libertarianism.Report

      • Avatar Nicolas Martin in reply to Lee
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        says:

        You might take it that way if you didn’t agree with Rothbard, or you might say he was consistent and principled, which is more than can said of Nozick, who famously got the Cambridge Rent Control Board to force his landlord to lower his rent.Report

  4. Avatar Lee
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    says:

    Nice review. Reading Nozick turned me into a libertarian for a while, and the quality of his writing has few peers among contemporary philosophers.

    You might also be interested in this review of AS&U by Peter Singer: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/9252Report

    • Avatar William Brafford in reply to Lee
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      says:

      Thanks for the Singer review, and especially for giving it to me after I wrote my own review. If I’d tracked down reviews of Nozick beforehand, I probably just would have linked to them.Report

  5. Avatar greginak
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    Its been a long time since I read Locke but something puzzles me about the way “state of nature” is used and assumptions are made about how people were pre-government in general. It seems like these kind of philosophical arguments are made solely on philosophical ( not anthropological or science based) accounts of how people used to be in some mythical past. That doesn’t seem quite right since those beginnings are all assumptions and beliefs, not the way we actually were. Now an obvious issue is that we have limited, at best, knowledge of pre-modern people and how their cultures were constructed. But looking at the closest equivalents to pre-modern people now in and the near past, does not seem to agree with how philosophy guys start their arguments. Many/most/all pre-modern societies would not share, or even understand, the modern Western concepts of individual rights and economically were far more something like a mix of feudalism/communism then anything else.

    Educate me on where i am missing the boat on Locke, Nozick and others who use these type of arguments.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to greginak
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      says:

      I think it has something to do with the alienation of modern society (said without irony).

      Back when we were, ahem, tabula rosa, things worked a certain way.

      Locke (to some degree, Rousseau) likes to point out how things were better.
      Hobbes likes to point out how things were bad. (Solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, short.)

      They then build on these assumptions and get to the things that the state is allowed/expected to do in order to bring us back to where we used to be (or keep us from regressing back to where we used to be).Report

    • Avatar Mark Thompson in reply to greginak
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      says:

      Actually, Nozick does a pretty good job of addressing exactly this concern, though it’s important to note that his state of nature argument is primarily addressed at persuading anarchists that a minimal state (at least) is justifiable. For Nozick, it doesn’t matter whether the state of nature he describes is an historically accurate description, only that it is at least a hypothetically possible description of the state of nature. Once one accepts that his vision of the state of nature is at least hypothetically possible, it becomes very difficult to dispute his argument that some form of government is justifiable.Report

      • Avatar William Brafford in reply to Mark Thompson
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        says:

        Piggybacking on Mark:

        Locke uses a basically biblical set-up, where God created Adam in a state very much like we are now. Should he have “known better” in 1690? I’m not sure. But he also says that it doesn’t much matter if there never was a state of nature, and I’ll have to look up the reference to see why he says that.

        As for Nozick, an early chapter of his book explains why he uses state of nature theory better than I can. I’ll skim through it once more and see if I can find any useful quotes to pull.Report

  6. Avatar Justin_Anderson
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    says:

    I’ve been meaning to re-read Nozick for a while now. And this review is a helpful reminder. I’m actually a Rawlsian in many ways, but I find it interesting to engage with counterarguments from thoughtful others. Nozick certainly fits into that category!Report

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