Saturday, November 2, 2013

Book Review: Anarchy, State, and Utopia by Robert Nozick

I'm certainly not a libertarian. My views rest very much closer to Rawls and the communitarians. So I was prepared to dislike this book from the start. Yet one cannot embrace the Rawlsian view without also being open (and knowledgeable) of those who critique it. I communitarian who has never read Nozick is no better than a libertarian who has never read Rawls. So I set out to tackle this beast. I was pleasantly surprised. Nozick is a great philosopher. His logic is clean. His arguments (usually) concise and easy to follow. Yet I disagree with his conclusion.

The main reason I end up disagreeing with Nozick's arrival at a minimal state is due to his presumptions. Nozick believes that the foundation of the state must begin with individual rights. I'm inclined to agree with him. The rights be believes the state should enforce, however, are limited to property rights and freedom from aggression (pretty explicitly stated as bodily harm from assault or war). I find this far too narrow a list of rights. I am much closer to the Nussbaum/Sen idea of rights as capabilities/functionings. Why should the state preserve the right of a citizen to not be assaulted, yet deny that citizen the right to health care? The difference seems arbitrary. Nozick's idea of giving individual rights primacy coupled with the human capabilities approach could yield some very interesting results.

My other main disagreement with Nozick comes from his defense of the minimal state against those who have criticized libertarianism. When defending one's position against critiques, real or imagined, it is often difficult to avoid arguing against a straw man. Unless citing specific criticisms of one's position, it is very easy to construct a hypothetical position and then argue against THAT instead. I feel Nozick does this to a degree when he explains why libertarianism can withstand the assault of communitarians.

Overall, this is a must read for anyone interested in the justice debate of the last 40 years that started with Rawls and continues to the present.

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