Nozick and Process-Defective Fundamental Explanations


Jason Kuznicki

Jason Kuznicki is a research fellow at the Cato Institute and contributor of Cato Unbound. He's on twitter as JasonKuznicki. His interests include political theory and history.

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42 Responses

  1. Avatar RTod says:

    Nicely done.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

      The trouble is that arguments like these lead me to my current sub-sub-sub-category of libertarian thought, which might be called Scottekian agnarchism: James C. Scott and F. A. Hayek were both more or less right, and it is unclear whether the state can be philosophically justified.

      I’m not sure too many people want to follow me there. I’m not even sure I want to follow me there.Report

      • Avatar RTod says:

        I have recently started to wonder is the end result of these kind of political/philosophical musings aren’t all useless at best and dangerous at worst in the real world; but i am becoming more convinced that the *process* one goes through to get there is invaluable.Report

        • Avatar Pat Cahalan says:

          The end results are only useless or dangerous when you conflate the process you went through to reach the end results with the One True Way.

          Which doesn’t seem to be a big problem in these parts, but in the greater world, hells yeah.Report

      • Avatar Simon K says:

        Its a relief to me that the state can’t be philosophically justified. Firstly, it means we should consider not having one, and secondly if we’re going to have one we can be pragmatic about what it does.Report

        • Avatar Chris says:

          I’m not sure anything said here implies that the state cannot be philosophically justified. Looking at the origins isn’t enough to determine that. I mean, if we’re looking at the origin of human institutions and ruling out those whose origins were bad in some way, we’re pretty much fished. What’s more, there’s a difference between the origin of the state and the origin of the modern state. And even more, while we don’t really know the origin of the state, it’s entirely possible that there were different reasons for the creation of the state in different areas. For example, there may have been differences in the creation of the state in Mesopotamia vs. Mesoamerica, the latter of which may very well have arisen in order to protect either larger areas or areas of increasing density from marauders (whether it is a larger area or an increasingly dense population depends on where you were in the Americas, and how you look at the archeological evidence), rather than the facilitate marauding. We can be fairly certain that it didn’t arise the way Nozick described, which of course he knew, but philosophical justification is not just about the empirical origins of an institution.Report

          • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

            Agreed. And yet if all states begin with one or another forms of crime (conquest, massive land seizure, slavery, etc), then one reasonable inference necessarily remains that something is badly wrong with the state itself. Refuting that inference maybe isn’t impossible, but it’s pretty difficult.Report

          • Avatar Simon K says:

            True. Different states have different origins. None of them are good, but you can argue that massive organized land theft (as in the US) doesn’t necessarily make the relationships between the thieves inherently unjust in the way the relationship between feudal landowners and the peasant population still contaminates some European polities. I’m not sure I like this argument much, though, since it seems to show genocide being better than enslavement.

            Even if we neglect its history, to justify the modern state don’t we need to show we’re better off with it than without it? I think maybe we can, but to do so we need to include a lot of the features Nozick’s argument says aren’t justified. This is what I meant above about being pragmatic.Report

            • Avatar Chris says:

              I’m not sure that a state that arises for the mutual protection of citizens is a bad thing. And it may be the case that some mesoamerican states arose that way.

              As for whether we’re better or worse off without the state, there’s the rub. I’m not a big fan of Nozick, so I have no problem violating his philosophical demands, but it’s still an important empirical question.Report

            • Avatar Pat Cahalan says:

              I’m not so sure you can characterize the founding of the U.S. as a massively organized land theft.

              First, it presupposes that land can be owned, and second, it presupposes that you can take it *away* from someone who has no concept of owning it in the first place.

              What was done to the Native Americans was certainly a crime, but I wouldn’t exactly call it “land theft”.Report

              • Avatar Simon K says:

                Good question, Pat. I used the US example because its unusually recent and everyone knows about it, but there are lots of other similar cases. According to the genetic evidence, it seems very likely the Anglo-Saxon conquest of most of Roman Britannia was similar, and the Britons certainly understood about land ownership. The Romans did the actual sowing-the-ground-with-salt thing in what was Thrace, which now has their name.

                Native American societies probably had a lot of different attitudes to land ownership. Although I’m no expert, I’d be pretty surprised if post-Mississippian and north-eastern cultures that grew corn and beans and actively “farmed” even the woods didn’t conceive of their village land as being “theirs” in the sense that other people using it wasn’t okay.Report

              • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

                Certain cultures very definitely had an idea of land ownership, and I’m not in the least bothered by the fact that it was often a collective land ownership. We have collective ownership of lots of things too; it’s called “corporations.” What happened to the Native Americans was an atrocious crime, and there is no sense or good to come of whitewashing it.

                Even if they didn’t have an idea of a property right in land, that doesn’t mean they weren’t entitled to the land they had worked on or had come to depend upon.

                Consider: I invent an electronic device that scrambles your brainwaves and warps your thinking. Prior to this, you had no idea that your brain could be electronically assaulted. You had no idea, then, that you had a right to brainwave integrity.

                Am I free to use my device with wild abandon? Certainly not, I hope you would answer.

                Native American societies pre- and just post-contact were so diverse, however, that generalizing about them is foolish. There was absolutely no common language to unite them, no unified body of tradition, and no uniting cultural practice. Many of the things we think of as characteristically Native American ideas are really projections placed upon Native Americans by Enlightenment writers, sometimes later adopted by Native Americans themselves, but in no way indigenous to the Americas.

                I’d be happy to expound on this in a future post; I did a lot of work in grad school about first contacts and cultural borrowings in the Great Lakes region, which happened to be particularly well-documented, thanks to the Jesuits.Report

              • Avatar Boegiboe says:

                I’d like to see you write more about how the cultivation that American Indians undertook to improve their land constitutes ownership. It’d be a great example to contrast with the modern concept of land ownership.Report

      • Avatar Simon K says:

        I’m trying to combine Scott and Hayek in my head. Like you I find them both to be mostly right. But Hayek thinks prices are very important in allowing dispersed, often un-expressed knowledge about availability and possibility to be used. But having useful prices depends on the kind of legibility-creating measures Scott says you need the state to create – to know the price of corn, you need to have a consistent quality of corn and fixed measure of corn you want to price. Neither of these things was actually easy to get . Indeed consistent weights and measures are almost always imposed by states so they can collect taxes. Which isn’t to say they’re bad – no doubt we grow and sell corn more efficiently in the presence of consistent quality and measures. “Seeing Like a State” contains a section about the tax and regulation evasion potential in the fact the medieval France had different measures in almost every village. Its hard to see how prices could convey much information in such an environment, and indeed they didn’t.Report

        • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

          You should read the Cato Unbound issue with James C. Scott. Timothy B. Lee and Don Boudreaux discuss exactly these questions.

          I think the short of it is that highly adaptable social institutions always have both good and bad consequences. The practice of having fixed, unchanging names allows people to identify one another for purposes both good and evil. Roads carry bread or tanks or both. Money makes a more efficient market, but then taxation reaches deeper.Report

      • Avatar Pat Cahalan says:

        By the way:

        > I’m not sure too many people want to follow me
        > there. I’m not even sure I want to follow me there.

        This is how I generally feel about what I think about the sociopolitical realm that is the general body politic. Amen, brother.Report

  2. Avatar Chris says:

    The origin of the state is an open, and hotly debated question in anthropology. Olson’s work is interesting, and represents one of the main types of theories of the origin of the state, but it’s not the only theory, and there doesn’t seem to be a real consensus, though it’s been about 10 years since I read anything on the subject. However, its origin almost certainly looked nothing like Nozick’s version. In fact, one of the other common theories is that it arose because of the development of class strata, which led to the need for the privileged class(es) to maintain their advantages through coercion. That’s not going to lead to a state like Nozick’s, that’s for sure.

    Two things not really related to your central point:

    Have you read Ortega’s essay titled “The sporting origin of the state”? If not, I recommend it. In fact, I recommend the entire collection found under the title History as a System. Anyway, in that essay, Ortega posits an origin of the state that is similar to Olson’s and Hume’s, but much more scandalous (and somewhat more disturbing). It looks like the essay is available in its entirety in Google Books:

    Second, a neurosurgeon pick pocket who manages to pick pocket as much money as he would have made being a neurosurgeon is one seriously good pick pocket.Report

    • Avatar Murali says:

      Second, a neurosurgeon pick pocket who manages to pick pocket as much money as he would have made being a neurosurgeon is one seriously good pick pocket.

      That’s because he has a keen mind and nimble fingers.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

      I haven’t read this essay, no.

      But a neurosurgeon who only stole a little money — he’s justified, right? Because he could have done a little bit more work? Or reasonably charged a bit more for the same work?

      Either way, a bagatelle.Report

  3. “This is especially absurd when we remember the true history of state formation. It was largely a process, as Mancur Olson notes, of bandits growing more sedentary over time. Olson’s is not a new insight, by the way; David Hume was saying much the same in the eighteenth century(.)”

    Didn’t Marx say the same thing as well (primitive accumulation)? In fact, isn’t Scott’s state Marx’s state and Nozick’s state Smith’s state?

    “The entity that got the most favorable sum total of both would grow stronger, while rivals would grow weaker, but it all depended on extracting relatively more effectively from the population at hand. Statecraft is populationcraft”

    “Set up an anarcho-capitalism, and the very best you can hope for is the spontaneous emergence of a minimal state, à la Nozick.”

    Lets do this, somewhere, in some township like the Free State Project, and people can sign up over the Internet, although I imagine it’d quickly become the new Delaware and eventually take on the character of the “evil” parallel 1985 from Back to the Future: Part II.

    “Can we really expect the heirs of stationary brigandage to behave as if they were the heirs of Nozick’s much more admirable process?”

    The Australians and Georgians are all right.Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

      Didn’t Marx say the same thing as well (primitive accumulation)? In fact, isn’t Scott’s state Marx’s state and Nozick’s state Smith’s state?

      Scott’s state is Marx’s state, more or less. Scott considers himself a Marxist, in fact, although I think his work is highly amenable to non-Marxist readings as well.

      Is Nozick’s state Smith’s state? Not quite, but it’s fairly close.Report

      • Thanks. Can you tell me some of the key differences between Nozick’s state and Smith’s?Report

        • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

          Smith never hit upon the idea that a state might emerge from an invisible hand process taking place in a market of competing private protection agencies.

          Still, this idea of Nozick’s is clearly built of Smithian blocks. Smith’s state has the same fundamental function as Nozick’s, which is to prevent citizens from suffering assaults to person or property. Smith appreciated that markets can have emergent properties not designed or predicted by the agents within them.

          He might have been won over, if Nozick’s model had been presented. Or he might have recalled what his friend David Hume said of the origins of states, and doubted like I do.Report

  4. Avatar jfxgillis says:


    Just a thought, maybe silly, as I re-engage this subject, but is it so certain that Olson’s, Hume’s, Scott’s and Hayek’s account of state formation is “factual” and/or factual enough to allow for a generalization? Maybe Hume was inferring from a particular set of geographic and cultural circumstances that lent itself to the process of sedentary brigandage.

    Thinking of two references. My old Professor Beryl Crowe offered an account of very early development in what is now the Holy Land that was quite compatible with Nozick’s process. He argued that the turmoil documented in the OT was actually a later anachronistic romanticizing for what the archeology shows was pretty much 3 or 4 milllenia of peaceful, incremental development.

    Similarly, the accounts of Titus Livy, indirectly through Machiavelli, show an early Italy that would fit quite well with Nozick’s account of the origins of the minimal state.

    Finally, it might not even be logically the case that even if stationary brigandage was an enabling or empowering process, that that’s the genetic institution. After all, the brigands wouldn’t have bothered if there was nothing to steal or conquer. The cultures they dominated must have had something worth conquerring, and instituions capable of surplus production. And whatever instituions the “victims” had may well be regarded as the original institutions of the state. The “perpetrators” were, after all, frequently known to adopt the religion, customs and other social institutions of their “victims.”

    Maybe the state already existed before the brigands came along. They just added the spears. A big addition, I admit, but still, only an addition.Report

  5. Avatar Michael Drew says:

    I’m not sure it’s that far off to characterize brigands as “protection associations,” or perhaps more accurately simply to say that if the state originated in brigandry, that isn’t necessarily inconsistent with Nozick’s account of protective associations. To be sure, it’s bloodless academic language that drains the reality of its horror. But academics, certainly philosophers, do that all the time. And Nozick wasn’t attempting a history, merely a plausible account of an origin of states3 that was perhaps on a theoretical, even euphemistic, level, consistent with historical treatments of the question. Among its many other business pursuits, modern mobsters run what are euphemistically called “protection rackets,” which is to say they go around saying to people, “Pay us and we’ll protect you from other gangs; don’t and we’ll kill you just like they will.” Extortion, in other words. If what you would call gangs of brigands Nozick would call protective associations that could functionally play the role described in his account (even if he could also call other formations protective associations), then it isn’t completely clear that you have a material claim against his account (being that it only needs to be consistent for his theoretical purposes in the book since that is all he is claiming it is), though you could certainly press your claim that his account doesn’t do connotative justice to the historical reality. And that would certainly complicate any attempt by Nozick to bless or justify the original state he describes.

    Except, when I read the Nozick (and this was quite a while ago now, so I may not be remembering accurately), my impression is that he was not trying to convey any such blessing. It seemed to me that the point was not that it was a process that was particularly defensible; rather, on a negative-human-nature view, it was something like an unfortunate reality about how a few really apples amongst us cause us all to have to become slightly less trusting, and the whole thing ends up on average pretty damn ugly. In other words: the state isn’t justified on the Nozickian view, only arguably inevitable through an unfortunate logic of gains to violent aggression and self-protective rational reactions to same. Given that view, my understanding of the main claim of the book was that, if we must accept the fact of the state because of that (lamentable) logic, which is to say that we must agree that it is justified, nevertheless, we can still decide what extent of state is justified, and the majority of the book is devoted to showing that only the minimally necessary state is justifiable. But again, maybe I got the extent of his positive gloss on his origin story (which, to repeat, I think is not necessarily incompatible with a story involving brigands as the main actors) wrong. I’ll take another look if I get the time.Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew says:

      “…which is to say that we must agree that it is justified,”

      Not! Which is NOT to say that we must agree! NOT! (Though maybe that is what he was saying? But I’m saying it isn’t.)Report

      • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

        ‘sokay on the typo.

        The trouble though is that Nozick really does claim that “part I … attempts to justify the minimal state,” on p 53 among others. It may justify the minimal state as a theoretical construct when compared to anarcho-capitalism, but that’s not enough. To say a state would emerge spontaneously from anarchy is not the same as saying that this is a good or laudable development. The anarchy could very well be morally better. Or some other stop along the way, like private protection associations.Report

  6. Avatar Boegiboe says:

    I agree with your main points about the arguments of Nozick that you present being weaksauce. But the excerpt from Hume gave me an idea, which maybe Nozick had in his book and maybe he didn’t–I wouldn’t know: If the particular processes used to deprive people of their freedoms and form a state are actively quashed by the inheritors of that state, do Nozick’s arguments then make more sense?

    That is, if a de facto state is formed by the A-dynasty by preventing protests and freedom of the press, by controlling religion, by disappearing political opponents, but the B-dynasty that takes over then signs and duly enforces, for some long period of time, a constitution that guarantees the rights to these things, may we then consider the justness of that state without, or at least with less, regard to its history.

    Your point about not having much reason to believe the new boss won’t be the same as the old boss is not lost on me. But you’re addressing Nozick’s theory here, and I want a theoretical answer based on my “counterfactual.”Report

    • Avatar Jason Kuznicki says:

      You’re right — the heirs to a tyrannical regime won’t necessarily share the same tendencies. Hume made this very point about England, which by his time had developed some very admirable institutions.

      The trouble though goes back to James C. Scott. The state appears to have been a machine built to do a particular thing, one we frankly have all come to hate (if we didn’t all start out that way). Will it be adaptable to doing another thing? Is adapting it the right move? Or building something new? Can a lawnmower, by gradual modification, become a refrigerator? (Is that the best way to make a refrigerator?)Report

      • Avatar Boegiboe says:

        Can a lawnmower, by gradual modification, become a refrigerator?

        Is that the best way to make a refrigerator?
        Maybe not. But it is the MOST AWESOME WAY!!Report