Robert Nozick – philosopher of liberty

Robert Nozick died 17 years ago on January 23rd 2002. He was a colleague at Harvard of John Rawls, and it was partly to counter the latter's "A Theory of Justice" that he wrote his most famous work, "Anarchy, State and Utopia."

The book is a thoroughgoing defence of liberty and the minimal state, a state that limits itself to protecting individual rights of life, liberty, property, and contract, and denies the use of state power to redistribute income, to make people moral, or to protect them from harming themselves.

Following Kant, Nozick sees humans as ends in themselves. They have rights that are not given to them or earned, but are theirs simply because they are human. Against leftist and redistributive ideologies, he asserts that any state with more extensive powers than those necessary to maintain those rights would violate the natural rights of its citizens. The state is, in effect, a "night watchman," with powers limited to those necessary to protect citizens against violence, theft, and fraud.

Redistribution of goods can only take place, he says, with consent. The state should not have the power to regulate its citizens' economic activity, to redistribute wealth in the name of greater equality, or to provide social services. There should be no price controls or minimum wage levels, because these would violate the natural right of citizens to dispose of their property, including their labour, as they wish. Similarly, the minimal state should not establish public education or health, financed by taxation, because that would violate the right of its citizens to buy those things for themselves, and would subject those required to pay the taxes to a form of "forced labour."

For Nozick, distributive justice is incompatible with the rights of individuals. He takes these rights as given, with no need to establish how they come about. Because we all have these rights, it cannot be justified to sacrifice, or make suffer, anyone for the general good of others. Coercion can only be justified to protect the citizenry from abuse by others.

Modern states are far from the utopia spelled out by Nozick, but the principles that underlie his work are a timely reminder that states have to justify their actions, and take due regard of the rights of their citizens. Because they have coercive power does not justify their use of it. Because they can does not imply that they should.