Huben on Nozick

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Robert Nozick's "Anarchy, State, and Utopia" was very influential, in part because of the novelty and creativity of the arguments. However, ASU can be quickly summarized as a game of hide-the-fallacy. After almost 40 years, it is still easy to identify new fallacies or describe the fallacies more obviously.

These criticisms are written from my own theory of rights as social constructions which are constrained by economics.

Yet to be written:

  • The Wilt Chamberlain Example
  • The Marriage Example
    • Gale-Shapley algorithm overcomes problems in matching markets. (see notes)
  • The Redistribution Of Eyeballs Example


Nozick's Natural Rights And Other Gut Feelings
Any time a natural rights author uses the term rights, you might as well substitute the word fairies.
The Entitlement Theory of Justice
Like most of Nozick's arguments in Anarchy, State and Utopia, the strength of the Entitlement Theory of Justice is illusory. It suffers critically from a lack of foundations and vulnerability to simple counterexamples.


No quotations found in this category.

More notes:
* Nozick (illusion of rigor)(based on Kantian and Lockean foundations)
* Free to pursue liberty as a matter of pure principle, Nozick let nothing stand in his way. Should we tax the rich to feed the poor? Absolutely not, as "taxation of earnings is on par with forced labor." (Or more precisely: "Taking the earnings of n hours of labor is like taking n hours from the person.")
        But that it what capitalism does to make profit.  Why shouldn't government have the same privileges?
*Now of course libertarians object to any such enforced redistribution
on principle.  The basis for their objection, at least in the most
familiar version of libertarianism, is their view that distributive
justice, i.e., who rightly gets what, is wholly determined by
considerations of historical entitlement.  That is, certain specified
actions generate entitlements when they have been performed, and there
are no other considerations pertinent to distributive justice.  For
example, each person is entitled to "the fruits of one's labor"
(whatever this phrase is taken to mean -- apparently it means "one's
paycheck" to some people).  A wealthy playboy is entitled to his
inherited wealth and his winnings at the gaming tables, even if he has
never done a lick of work in his life.  And Original Sin, the horror
of horrors, is any enforced redistribution of wealth or income in
order to achieve some patterned result such as equality, because such
redistribution necessarily violates the historically determined
entitlements.  (R. Carnes)
* Nagel's "Libertarianism Without Foundations" in Reading Nozick
* "Robert Nozick: Propery, Justice and the Minimal State"
        Jonathan Wolff, Polity Press, 1991. This book details Nozick's
        political theory and exposes its flaws and incompleteness(e.g.
        lack of a principled method for acquiring initially unowned

Nozick thoughts:
        Initial ownership of body is a pattern.
        If such ownership is inalienable, then it is maintaining a pattern.
                Is there a philosophical contradiction in an inalienable right
                to ownership of the body, when ownership implies alienability?
        Nozick says at the beginning: "Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights)"
        Does he explain where those rights come from?
        A general philosophical tradition of truthiness in premises.
        Then he says you can sell yourself into slavery, in which case you CAN do those things, because the slave has relinquished his rights.
        Why doesn't the initial ownership of the body also include a claim
        on the resources necessary to develop and maintain the body?
        Why is acquisition restricted to physical objects and always to every
        aspect of them?  Why not acquisition of territory by a state?

Nozick's scheme is patterned because he is redistributing rights production.
        "liberty upsets patterns" of distribution p160
        see Freeman p.127: unrestricted property rights upsets patterns.
        "liberty upsets patterns": thus property (which inhibits liberty) is
        needed to create a pattern of property ownership.  Very intrusive!
        The most intrusive thing possible!
        COntinuous interference!

Nozick's Lockean Proviso could be activated whenever price exists, denoting
scarcity.  Thus, he reinvents the present.

"Reading Nozick" ideas:
        WHO ADOPT SOCIAL ROLES.  Wolff pg 91 in Reading Nozick.
        Credit card rebuttal to Wilt Chamberlain argument: 3rd party siphoning
        Also alimony rebuttal: shows presumption of no prior claims.
        Opportunity provided in public school gyms, coaching, hoops in parks.
        WC did not spring forth full grown from the brow of Zeus.
        Continuous interference: credit card is such an example of minor
        interference which might even be preferable, inability of avoiding
        social interference, transaction costs.
        Worker ownership arguments: why hasn't libertarianism happened either?
        Democratic problem of voting benefits from treasury, republic solution?
        State may not do what individuals may not do: this doesn't consider
        what individuals  in a "state of nature" may not do.

Principle/agent problems with libertarianism.  Libs want to always act as
principles politically, deny that they can act well as agents.

Nozick is particularly vulnerable to economics arguments, and ignores ideas
of commons?  Can regulation of commons justify more than the minimal state?

The Chamberlain argument is vulnerable to the pre-existing agreement argument.
If there is a social contract to which Chamberlain and the consumers are
it occurred to me that this is patently not true of any
pattern of distribution of PUBLIC GOODS.  After all, you cannot voluntarily
sell your share of national defense.  Nor of a broadcast TV program.  Nor your
access to the road system.  (public goods are a pattern of justice that can be maintained without continuous interference.)
Wilt Chamberlain argument fails because presumes that his keeping his take
by right is free.  There is a cost to it.
Also presumes no rental fees for the auditorium.  Etc.

Nozick's eyeball argument is a specific choice that wouldn't work so well as a
kidney argument.  Kidney transplants were well known at the time.  Kidneys don't
have the yuck factor of eyeballs, actually can be transplanted, don't force you to give up steroscopic vision.  If the body is property that can be sold into
enslavement, then why can't principles of rectification redistribute body parts?
What about blood, which can and is legally sold: could it be part of
rectification?  Rectification IS fundamentally coercive.  Why then should it
be limited?  Why not eyeball transfers?  No libertarian principle explains this.
Is it possible to live actual lives without doing something that requires
rectification?  Or simply to minimize the amount?
        Does Nozick actually make some rectification theory?  Or is it BS?

The fact that we are "social products," says Nozick, "does not create in us a floating debt which the current society can collect and use as it will." (p. 95)
        Once again, an analogy is selected that favors his argument.  Even if
        (for the sake of argument) we accpet the "no debt" position, consider
        instead that because we have ongoing interactions with society, society
        can negotiate for whatever price it deems fit.  (Personification aside.)
"slightly hysterical" examples, to borrow Nozick's characterization (p. 206)

For example, it is an axiomatic tenet of economics that people engage in
informed, voluntary transactions only when both parties benefit.
        However, other parties may be harmed either in unilateral actions or
        multilateral transactions.

Amartya Sen (a pro-capitalist, pro-state intervention liberal) notes:
¿Take a theory of entitlements based on a set of rights of ¿ownership, transfer and rectification.¿ In this system a set of holdings of different people are judged to be just (or unjust) by looking at past history, and not by checking the consequences of that set of holdings. But what if the consequences are recognisably terrible? . . .[R]efer[ing] to some empirical findings in a work on famines . . . evidence [is presented] to indicate that in many large famines in the recent past, in which millions of people have died, there was no over-all decline in food availability at all, and the famines occurred precisely because of shifts in entitlement resulting from exercises of rights that are perfectly legitimate. . . . [Can] famines . . . occur with a system of rights of the kind morally defended in various ethical theories, including Nozick¿s. I believe the answer is straightforwardly yes, since for many people the only resource that they legitimately possess, viz. their labour-power, may well turn out to be unsaleable in the market, giving the person no command over food . . . [i]f results such as starvations and famines were to occur, would the distribution of holdings still be morally acceptable despite their disastrous consequences? There is something deeply implausible in the affirmative answer.¿ [Resources, Values and Development, pp. 311-2]

Nozick marriage example could be turned around by making the marriages
arranged, rather than decided by the individuals.  Because in some societies
marriage serves more than the individual interests, or because young people
tend not to be as well informed as their seniors in what makes a valuable
marriage.  Also overlooks the fact of family units.
The freedom to choose mates story overlooks the fact that the monogamy
it presumes is imposed coercively, and it might not be any more
coercive than any reordering.  It also overlooks WHY that ordering
was selected: the wealth distribution is likely to be a significant
factor, and that is a legitimate social interest.  Dicking with the
distribution of wealth might cause reordered preferences.
(Just as there might be many Pareto optima, so there can be many marriage optima.)
Even funnier in the presumptions of the existing background as natural are
that the institution of marriage is presumed, rather than other alternatives
such as serial marriages, polyamory, prostitution, etc.
We might also note that the views of the 26th couple are ignored by this
model: if they are direly opposed to monogamous marriage, they still are
coerced into accepting only each other by the decisions of the rest.
The assumption of unanimity of the participants is the kicker: it's both
unreal and would make essentially ANY system of justice work.  Ignores
Arrow's theorem.  (There might be different orderings which are also stable, or
all may be metastable.)  This really is much the same as the example of privatizing
commons as property: as soon as price arises, the Lockean proviso is violated.
Also, it is interesting that Nozick has selected a NON_PROPERTY example of just
action, where subject and object are mutual.  This is a very special case, and
may not be a good analogy.  The equivalent of choosing zero as a number, and
then demonstrating that a number multiplied by any other number remains
Presumes no externalities, such as birth defects due to brother-sister marriages.
Exploits our cultural assumptions of private decision making on this subject.
Might be circular in assumptions?

Locke and Nozick both bludgeon those who don't want their state with the
coercion of property: it is essentially impossible to exist without
using the existing property system.  Nozick admits violation of rights
by imposing minarchy, and proposes free services as "compensation".
But what reason does he have to think that there is "justice in
rectification" in this particular compensation?  Why cannot the minimal
state compensate any number of other rights violations at the same rates?
Or at any other rates that it unilaterally chooses?  Look this up in Nozick
to see if this is right.

Property is ANOTHER form of monopoly.

The baseline problem of lockean justifications by increase in production over
the state on nature is due to the fact that someone else could be pretty much
equally productive with that same resource.  Likewise, no industrial titan
should be lauded for his benefits of production: somebody else would be the
industrial titan if that one had not existed.  If Bill Gates had not
captured the market, Steve Jobs would be the world's richest man, and perhaps
we'd be better off despite higher hardware prices because the Mackintoshes are
so much less trouble-prone and easier to administer for business or home.

What libertarians hide behind "people should be able to keep what they earn
through their labor" is their endorsement that people should be able to keep
what they didn't earn through their labor as well.

Just control of resources could be arrived at by rental through continual
(or periodic) second-price auctions.  Or indirectly, through property taxes
based on selling prices, though that won't capture the full amount.
Even though Nozick thus left the field of political philosophy, he re-entered it for a brief comment on his libertarianism in "The
Zigzag of Politics" (1989). But he does not there address any of his critics; rather, he confines himself to self-criticism and
rejects his former position: "The libertarian position I once propounded now seems to me seriously inadequate, ..."8 This
confession is however not accompanied by the presentation of a new theory to replace the old one. Nozick is quite clear (in a
footnote) that this is not his intention: "In these remarks I do not mean to be working out an alternative theory to the one in
Anarchy, State, and Utopia, or to be maintaining as much of that theory as possible consistent with the current material
either; I am just indicating one major area <97> there may be others <97> where that theory went wrong."
"The political philosophy presented in Anarchy, State, and Utopia ignored the importance to us of joint and official serious
symbolic statement and expression of our social ties and concern and hence (I have written [in "The Zigzag of Politics"]) is

... But the frequency and severity of the attacks on Anarchy, State, and Utopia
only provide further evidence of his richness and profundity. If the book had
been refuted but once, it would have counted for little. That it has been
"refuted" countless times proves that he is the author of one of the enduring
classics of the political philosophy.
Richard A. Epstein, in a tribute to Nozick
        Does Epstein think similarly of "Mein Kampf"?  Protocols of the Elders
        of Zion?  Mao's Little Red Book?

I imagine libertarians were greatly relieved when Nozick came along.  Not only
was he refreshingly new, but he didn't conspicuously reek like a crank (as Ayn
Rand, von Mises, and Rothbard do.)
Yet Nozick's openness to the idea that rights may be merely claims that are
protected by liability rules -- so that it will be permissible for one
to infringe on a right whenever one is prepared to compensate the right
holder -- seems to conflict with his forceful initial claim that "individuals
have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without
violating their rights)."

Excellent and funny summary of Okin and Nozick at
another at:

NozicK ASU p163:
"The general point illustrated by the Wilt Chamberlain example and the example
of the entrpreneur in a socialist society is that no end-state principle or
distributional patterned principle if justice can be continuously realized
without continuous inerference in people's lives....  To maintain a pattern one
must either continually interfere to stop people from transferring resources as
they wish to, or continually (or periodically) interfere to take from some
persons resources that others for some reason choose to transfer to them."
Nozick's "patternless" entitlement theory of justice relies on an enormous
interference with people: the whole system of property rights.  A system of
periodic taxation is trivial compared to the continual, omnipresent duties of
forbearance that other people's property impose on us.  I cannot walk there
because somebody else owns that land.  While I can walk down a city street, I
cannot make use of the vast wealth surrounding me unless I bribe the owners with
an adequate payment.  Denying this is a pattern maintained at a cost of huge
expense and interference is ridiculous.

Rights and Resourcesâ<80><94>Libertarians and the Right to Life
James W. Harris
Refutes Nozick's slippery rights talk.

Does Nozick fail to examine Hale's ideas on property and rights?

Rothbard, Nozick and other natural rights libertarians are notoriously lacking in foundational arguments to support their strong belief in these rights.

G. A. Cohen's influential argument against anyone who, like Nozick, believes that (private) property rights embody a commitment to liberty. Cohen's view is that enforcing property rights is as coercive as robbery. Property rights require us not to initiate force.  Governments back that requirement with a threat of force, but that very threat is itself an initiation of force. Cohen says,
I want, let us say, to pitch a tent in your large back garden, perhaps just in order to annoy you, or perhaps for the more substantial reason that I have nowhere to live and no land of my own, but I have got hold of a tent, legitimately or otherwise.  If I now do this thing that I want to do, the chances are that the state will intervene on your behalf.  If it does, I shall suffer a constraint on my freedom. (Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality, p. 56)
To Cohen, "The banal truth is that, if the state prevents me from doing something that I want to do, then it places a restriction on my freedom." (Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality, p. 55) His "general point is that incursions against private property which reduce owners' freedom by transferring rights over resources to non-owners thereby increase the latter's freedom.  In advance of further argument, the net effect on freedom of the resource transfer is indeterminate." (Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality, p. 57)

Elizabeth S. Anderson Department of Philosophy University of Michigan
series of posts on political economy (including feminist POV) where she
discusses freedom, property, Hayek, Nozick, etc.
"Nozick should have considered that the important comparison is not between having his specification of a private property regime and having no private property, but between alternative specifications of property regimes. If freedom is what matters, then we should choose the specification that best promotes the freedom of everyone.  It is not sufficient to justify Nozick's specification of private property rights that it satisfies the Lockean proviso, if lots of alternative specifications would equally well satisfy it, but generate a superior package of freedoms for people generally.  We should choose the specification that generates the best package of freedoms overall."

These issues are very complex and are best left to a full treatment of the principle of rectification. In the absence of such a treatment applied to a particular society, one cannot use the analysis and theory presented here to condemn any particular scheme of transfer payments, unless it is clear that no considerations of rectification of injustice could apply to justify it. Although to introduce socialism as the punishment for our sins would be to go too far, past injustices might be so great as to make necessary in the short run a more extensive state in order to rectify them.
Nozick ASU p231

I have long entertained a suspicion, with regard to the decisions of philosophers upon all subjects, and found in myself a greater inclination to dispute, than assent to their conclusions. There is one mistake, to which they seem liable, almost without exception; they confine too much their principles, and make no account of that vast variety, which nature has so much affected in all her operations. When a philosopher has once laid hold of a favourite principle, which perhaps accounts for many natural effects, he extends the same principle over the whole creation, and reduces to it every phænomenon, though by the most violent and absurd reasoning. Our own mind being narrow and contracted, we cannot extend our conception to the variety and extent of nature; but imagine, that she is as much bounded in her operations, as we are in our speculation.
        Hume's criticism of Nozick, Epstein, Rothbard, etc.

There is nothing natural about private property, wrote Hume. The 'contrariety' of our passions and the 'looseness and easy transition [of material objects] from one person to another' mean that any situation in which I hold or use a resource is always vulnerable to disruption (Hume 1978 [1739], p. 488). Until possession is stabilized by social rules, there is no secure relation between person and thing. We may think that there ought to be: we may think, for example, that a person has a moral right to something that he has made and that society has an obligation to give legal backing to this moral right. But according to Hume, we have to ask what it is in general for society to set up and enforce rules of this kind, before we can reach any conclusions about the normative significance of the relation between any particular person and any particular thing.
"Our property is nothing but those goods, whose constant possession is establish'd by the laws of society; that is, by the laws of justice. Those, therefore, who make use of the words property, or right, or obligation, before they have explain'd the origin of justice, or even make use of them in that explication, are guilty of a very gross fallacy, and can never reason upon any solid foundation. A man's property is some object related to him. This relation is not natural, but moral, and founded on justice. Tis very preposterous, therefore, to imagine, that we can have any idea of property, without fully comprehending the nature of justice, and shewing its origin in the artifice and contrivance of man. The origin of justice explains that of property. The same artifice gives rise to both." (ibid., p. 491)
But notice how much more modest Hume's story is than the Lockean account in the moral claims that it makes (see Waldron 1994). The stability of the emergent distribution has nothing to do with its justice, nor with the moral quality of the actrions by which goods were appropriated. It may be fair or unfair, equal or unequal, but the parties already know that they cannot hope for a much better distribution by pitching their own strength yet again against that of others.
Does Nozick really deal with this correctly?

Nozick: "taxation of earnings is on par with forced labor." (Or more precisely: "Taking the earnings of n hours of labor is like taking n hours from the person.")
        But that is precisely what capitalists do.

Brian Barry was another philosopher known for blunt criticisms and non-genteel
language.  Consider his review of Nozick's Anarchy State and Utopia (ASU).
Nozick'svisionof "utopia" as a situation in whlch advantaged reinforce
their advantages by moving into independent jurisdictions, leaving	the poor and disadvantaged to fend for themselves, could be regarded as the work of a master satirist, since it is in fact merely the logical extension of pathologically divisive processes already well-established in the United States: the flight of the middle classes to the suburbs while the inner city decays from lack of resources, and the growth of "planned communities" for the wealthy aged and other specially selected groups who are able to shed much of the usual social overhead. Unfortunately, there is no sign
that Nozick, jokiness personified in other respects, sees this particular joke, but, thanks to the direction given to public policy by Nixon and
Ford and their Supreme Court, the American people have an increasing opportumty to enjoy the joke personally.

'Yet many critics (e.g., G.A. Cohen) have argued that great wealth can be a weapon of considerable power in society. First, it can give people superior access to political officeholders, enabling their views on issues to have greater influence; second, it can put them in a position where they can more readily secure the satisfaction of their interests; and third, it can allow them to control other people who do not have anything like their share of wealth... Rousseau, Mill, Aristotle, and Marx would all wonder why Nozick [a libertarian theorist] and other libertarians are so keen to protect individual liberty from intrusion by the state, would "forget" to protect it from intrusions by the rich or by firms with far greater assets than the individual. Just as political power can be used to threaten, coerce, and master people in a society, so, too, can superior wealth' (152-3) in "Political Philosophy" by Jean Hampton.

"The Tale of the Slave"
from Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, pp. 290-292.
can be compared to the tale of the free man, where somebody ends up floating
naked in isolation in the middle of the ocean.
Might also be a market oriented version.
Step 5a, where the master allows exit to anyplace else.
Step 9a where magically there are no other humans in your vicinity except your own slaves.
Is that supposed to be a good argument?  An example of the sorites paradox?  Starting at slavery, making a sequence of small changes, and claiming triumphantly that the final step must be slavery, despite the huge differences between the endpoints?  Like asking when a pile of sand becomes a heap, or blue become green, or a chimp a human.
It's not even a very good sorites.  At step 4 he jumps clear out of slavery into serfdom, at least in conventional language.
Thanks for giving me a reason not to take Nozick seriously!

    How many natural rights can dance on a pinhead?

> What are these "natural rights" that continually get spoken about as
> if they are agreed on by all and sundry?
         "Nonsense on stilts."
                  Taner Edis
Individualist philosophers seem blind to the basic importance of evolution
to philosophy: that individuals are products of evolution.  This makes their
philosophy as quaint and incorrect as geocentric cosmology.  It is only by
insisting that individuals are the center of the universe that they can
arrive at heavenly spheres such as "natural rights".

The concept of inalienable rights was criticized by Jeremy Bentham and Edmund Burke as groundless. Bentham and Burke, writing in the eighteenth century, claimed that rights arise from the actions of government, or evolve from tradition, and that neither of these can provide anything inalienable. (See Bentham's "Critique of the Doctrine of Inalienable, Natural Rights", and Burke's "Reflections on the Revolution in France"). Keeping with shift in thinking in the 19th century, Bentham famously dismissed the idea of natural rights as "nonsense on stilts".

Natural rights libertarianism is interesting the way cartoon physics is
interesting: it makes us laugh by defying real-world knowledge of gravity and
other everyday considerations.

It always surprises me to see people who believe natural rights. But then it always surprises me to see people who believe in gods and other such superstitions.
Like gods, and other such superstitions, lots of people can believe in them, but there's no way to agree on any fact about them. You may believe that there is a natural right to own land outright, while Georgists believe there is a natural right for society to collect a rent for that land.
My personal explanation for natural rights is that they are simply rhetorical claims, created in response to other rhetorical claims such as "rights of kings".
Real, enforced rights are coercive: they are political rights. Unless you are willing to coerce, mere claimed rights such as self-ownership will be laughed at by your slavemaster.
You worry about real rights being unjust. Rights are amoral social tools just as weapons are. The idea of liberalism was to use rights in ways that pleased more than just the king.

Natural rights were invented as a response to rights of kings.  Both are fictions and both were attributed to god.

There is yet another obvious positivist alternative to claiming each man has the right to own his own person.
Rights that exist are human legal creations: moral "rights" (including natural rights) are merely wishes like invisible pink unicorns.
Since rights are what we actually create, we can look at various societies and see that humans never own their persons.  Somebody may say that a rebel rejecting all claims of others owns himself, but no, that is merely possession which can be easily changed.
One of the major aspects of liberalism is to create the legal illusion of self ownership to whatever extent is practical, because it is what most of us want and because it has many beneficial externalities.  Libertarians, born on this liberal third base, assume they hit a triple with their philosophy.
Practical limitations to legal self-ownership exist everywhere and in every society with law.  Those who can't support themselves (children, elderly, ill, etc.) everywhere have less legal self-ownership.  Duties to society (taxes, military service, obediance to laws) exist everywhere.
The concept of self-ownership fails with slavery.  Slavery (a common real-world practice) is obviously a contradiction to self-ownership.  But self-ownership implies that you CAN sell yourself into slavery because you own yourself.  You can try to salvage the idea by saying that self-ownership is irrevocable, but the real world contradicts that.  You can try to salvage the idea by saying that you can still control your own body and thoughts, but that undermines the whole liberty idea of self-ownership: you are saying slaves still own themselves in some way and so are free.  Prohibiting slavery redistributes freedoms: freedom to own slaves is taken away from everybody, and everybody is free from slavery.

"This right inheres in the individual..." LP platform.
Rights do not inhere in individuals: they are social constructs.  This is
natural rights bullcrap.

natural rights
                The standard language of natural rights is largely idiomatic.
                What is said is not literally true. But one is supposed to
                understand the intent. For example: I have a right to liberty.
                        These statements are moral claims, no more.