Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia is one of the works which dominate contemporary debate in political philosophy. Drawing on traditional assumptions associated with individualism and libertarianism, Nozick mounts a powerful argument for a minimal "night-watchman" state and challenges the views of many contemporary philosophers, most notably John Rawls.
Robert Nozick (1938–2002) was a renowned American philosopher who first came to be widely known through his 1974 book, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974), which won the National Book Award for Philosophy and Religion in 1975. Pressing further the anti-consequentialist aspects of John Rawls' A Theory of Justice, Nozick argued that respect for individual rights is the key standard for assessing state action and, hence, that the only legitimate state is a minimal state that restricts its activities to the protection of the rights of life, liberty, property, and contract. Despite his highly acclaimed work in many other fields of philosophy, Nozick remained best known for the libertarian doctrine advanced in Anarchy, State, and Utopia.
Nozick reject anarchist claim that no state, not even the minimal, night watchman, state can be justified
Fundamental question of political philosophy, viz., “whether there should be any state at all”
Nozick seeks to counter the anarchist's claim by showing how a minimal state—essentially a state that is limited to the protection of the rights of person, property, and contract—could arise without violating rights.
Nozick's minimal state differs from common depictions of the minimal state because it does not impose taxation to finance its services. In many other ways as well, it is more like a business enterprise than a state. There are no rulers, no legislative body, no political elections, no contending parties and citizens. There is no sovereignty and no state territory. There are, instead, executives, a board of directors, shareholders, clients, and the assets of the enterprise. But the fly in the enterprise ointment is the absence of competitive market constraints on the price or the quality of the services offered by this monopoly. (If there is enough market competition to keep prices of protective services down and their quality up, there will be too much competition for this enterprise to count as a state.) It appears that the only other way to keep this monopoly in check would be through some sort of political-constitutional constraints. However, Nozick makes no mention of these. Of course, a protective association in pursuit of customers might commit itself to constitution-like constraints on its decisions and conduct as a way of reassuring potential clients.
Justification of the minimal state
The main purpose of Anarchy, State, and Utopia is to show that the minimal state, and only the minimal state, is morally justified. By a minimal state Nozick means a state that functions essentially as a “night watchman,” with powers limited to those necessary to protect citizens against violence, theft, and fraud. By arguing that the minimal state is justified, Nozick seeks to refute anarchism, which opposes any state whatsoever; by arguing that no more than the minimal state is justified, Nozick seeks to refute modern forms of liberalism, as well as socialism and other leftist ideologies, which contend that, in addition to its powers as a night watchman, the state should have the powers to regulate the economic activities of citizens, to redistribute wealth in the direction of greater equality, and to provide social services such as education and health care.
Against anarchism, Nozick claims that a minimal state is justified because it (or something very much like it) would arise spontaneously among people living in a hypothetical “state of nature” through transactions that would not involve the violation of anyone’s natural rights. Following the 17th-century English philosopher John Locke, Nozick assumes that everyone possesses the natural rights to life, liberty, and property, including the right to claim as property the fruits or products of one’s labour and the right to dispose of one’s property as one sees fit (provided that in doing so one does not violate the rights of anyone else). Everyone also has the natural right to punish those who violate or attempt to violate one’s own natural rights. Because defending one’s natural rights in a state of nature would be difficult for anyone to do on his own, individuals would band together to form “protection associations,” in which members would work together to defend each other’s rights and to punish rights violators. Eventually, some of these associations would develop into private businesses offering protection and punishment services for a fee. The great importance that individuals would attach to such services would give the largest protection firms a natural competitive advantage, and eventually only one firm, or a confederation of firms, would control all the protection and punishment business in the community. Because this firm (or confederation of firms) would have a monopoly of force in the territory of the community and because it would protect the rights of everyone living there, it would constitute a minimal state in the libertarian sense. And because the minimal state would come about without violating anyone’s natural rights, a state with at least its powers is justified.
Against liberalism and ideologies farther left, Nozick claims that no more than the minimal state is justified, because any state with more extensive powers would violate the natural rights of its citizens. Thus the state should not have the power to control prices or to set a minimum wage, because doing so would violate the natural right of citizens to dispose of their property, including their labour, as they see fit. For similar reasons, the state should not have the power to establish public education or health care through taxes imposed on citizens who may wish to spend their money on private services instead. Indeed, according to Nozick, any mandatory taxation used to fund services or benefits other than those constitutive of the minimal state is unjust, because such taxation amounts to a kind of “forced labour” for the state by those who must pay the tax.
John Rawls, a philosopher who held the James Bryant Conant University Professorship at Harvard University, published several books and many articles. He is chiefly known, however, for his book A Theory of Justice, an effort to define social justice. The work has greatly influenced modern political thought.
A Theory of Justice (1971)
Political Liberalism (1993)
The Law of Peoples (1993/1999)
Lectures on the History of Moral Phil. (2000)
Justice as Fairness (2001)
Rawls was dissatisfied with the traditional philosophical arguments about what makes a social institution just and about what justifies political or social actions and policies. The utilitarian argument holds that societies should pursue the greatest good for the greatest number. This argument has a number of problems, including, especially, that it seems to be consistent with the idea of the tyranny of majorities over minorities. The intuitionist argument holds that humans intuit what is right or wrong by some innate moral sense. This is also problematic because it simply explains away justice by saying that people “know it when they see it,” and it fails to deal with the many conflicting human intuitions.
Rawls attempts to establish a reasoned account of social justice through the social contract approach. This approach holds that a society is in some sense an agreement among all those within that society. If a society were an agreement, Rawls asks, what kind of arrangement would everyone agree to? He states that the contract is a purely hypothetical one: He does not argue that people had existed outside the social state or had made agreements to establish a particular type of society.
Rawls begins his work with the idea of justice as fairness. He identifies the basic structure of society as the primary subject of justice and identifies justice as the first virtue of social institutions. He considers justice a matter of the organization and internal divisions of a society. The main idea of a theory of justice asks, What kind of organization of society would rational persons choose if they were in an initial position of independence and equality and were setting up a system of cooperation? This is what Rawls sees as a hypothetical original position: the state in which no one knows what place he or she would occupy in the society to be created.
After considering the main characteristics of justice as fairness and the theoretical superiority of this approach to utilitarianism, intuitionism, or other perspectives, Rawls looks at the principles of justice. He identifies two principles: One, that each person should have equal rights to the most extensive liberties consistent with other people enjoying the same liberties; and two, that inequalities should be arranged so that they would be to everyone’s advantage and arranged so that no one person would be blocked from occupying any position. From these two principles Rawls derives an egalitarian conception of justice that would allow the inequality of conditions implied by equality of opportunity but would also give more attention to those born with fewer assets and into less favorable social positions.
Rawls concludes the first part of his book by looking at the idea of the original position outside society. This hypothetical original position can be approximated by using the thought experiment of the veil of ignorance. If no one could know what place he or she would occupy in the society being formed, what arrangement of the society would a rational person choose? Rawls maintains that the choice would be for a social structure that would best benefit the unknowing chooser if she or he happened to end up in the least desirable position.
In the second part of the work, Rawls considers the implications of his view of justice for social institutions. He discusses in detail equal liberty, economic distribution, and duties and obligations as well as the main characteristics of each that would make up a just society. He does not, however, identify any particular type of social or political system that would be consistent with his theory. He deals only with the demands that his version of justice places on institutions.
In the third and final section, Rawls deals with ends or ultimate goals of thinking about social justice. He argues for the need to have a theory of goodness, and he makes a case for seeing goodness as rationality. Then, he turns to moral psychology and considers how people acquire a sentiment of justice. Finally, he examines the good of justice, or how justice is connected to goodness. Rawls argues that in a well-ordered society, ideas of goodness and justice must be consistent with each other.
A Theory of Justice is widely recognized as an essential contribution to thought about the nature of justice. However, even supporters of Rawls acknowledge that his work raises many questions. One of the earliest major responses to the book came from his Harvard colleague, philosopher Robert Nozick. In Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974) Nozick offers a libertarian response to Rawls. The assumptions behind A Theory of Justice are essentially redistributive: That is, Rawls posits equal distribution of resources as the desirable state and then argues that inequality can be justified only by benefits for the least advantaged. Nozick points out that resources are produced by people and that people have rights to the things they produce. Thus, attempts to improve the condition of the least advantaged through redistribution are unjust because they make some people work involuntarily for others and deprive people of the goods and opportunities they have created through time and effort.
Other critics have focused on the idea of the original state and the veil of ignorance used as a thought experiment to approximate the original state. The claim that rational individuals behind a veil of ignorance would choose the greatest possible equality has been challenged as arbitrary and unverifiable. Rational individuals might well choose a social structure with large rewards for the majority of people and small rewards for the minority on the grounds that one is more likely to end up as part of a majority than a minority. Moreover, the veil of ignorance of where one will be in a society also takes away all knowledge of what one will do. Legal justice is generally considered a matter of appropriate responses to actions: In the version offered by Rawls, justice is detached from anything that anyone has done and thus may have nothing to do with any idea of what people deserve.
The reluctance of Rawls to identify any particular type of society as just, especially in the second part of the book dealing with institutions, may leave Rawls open to the charge that he offers no guidance for the actual content of justice. For example, proponents of a highly unequal and competitive market economy may argue that the abundance of wealth produced by their preferred system contributes to the absolute standard of living of the poorest people in society. On the other hand, advocates of a highly redistributionist economy can maintain that radical redistribution of wealth will provide the greatest support for the poorest. Because no one can know—behind a veil of ignorance—which system would lead to the best possible lives for the poor, there can be no way of deciding what kind of society should be preferred.
The fundamental idea that justice is a matter of the basic structure of society is also open to question. To say that the basic structure of society can be made just or fair is to say that it can be designed both hypothetically and actually. Some social thinkers argue that societies are not designed per se; they are produced through history and by complex webs of interaction among individuals and institutions. From this perspective, justice is a characteristic of specific acts or processes within social systems, such as legal actions or political mechanisms, and it is misleading to extend the concept of justice to a society as a whole.
Supporters of Rawls often look to revise parts of his argument, while opponents suggest alternatives. Still, most political thinkers acknowledge that A Theory of Justice introduced a new conceptual basis for debates about the core principles of social policy and action.
The Principles of Justice as Fairness
“Justice as Fairness” is Rawls’s name for the set of principles he defends in TJ. He refers to “the two principles of Justice as Fairness,” but the second has two parts. These principles address two different aspects of the basic structure of society: the “First Principle” addresses the essentials of the constitutional structure. It holds that society must assure each citizen “an equal claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic rights and liberties, which scheme is compatible with the same scheme for all.” PL at 5. The second principle addresses instead those aspects of the basic structure that shape the distribution of opportunities, offices, income, wealth, and in general social advantages. The first part of the second principle holds that the social structures that shape this distribution must satisfy the requirements of “fair equality of opportunity.” The second part of the second principle is the famous—or infamous—“Difference Principle.” It holds that ”social and economic inequalities … are to be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society.” PL at 6. Each of these three centrally addresses a different set of primary goods: the First Principle concerns rights and liberties; the principle of Fair Equality of Opportunity concerns opportunities; and the Difference Principle primarily concerns income and wealth. (That the view adequately secures the social basis of self-respect is something that Rawls argues more holistically). TJ at 477-8.
Mao and Cultural Revolution
In 1966, China’s Communist leader Mao Zedong launched what became known as the Cultural Revolution in order to reassert his authority over the Chinese government. Believing that current Communist leaders were taking the party, and China itself, in the wrong direction, Mao called on the nation’s youth to purge the “impure” elements of Chinese society and revive the revolutionary spirit that had led to victory in the civil war 20 decades earlier and the formation of the People’s Republic of China. The Cultural Revolution continued in various phases until Mao’s death in 1976, and its tormented and violent legacy would resonate in Chinese politics and society for decades to come.
The Cultural Revolution BeginsIn the 1960s, Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Zedong came to feel that the current party leadership in China, as in the Soviet Union, was moving too far in a revisionist direction, with an emphasis on expertise rather than on ideological purity. Mao’s own position in government had weakened after the failure of his “Great Leap Forward” (1958-60) and the economic crisis that followed. Mao gathered a group of radicals, including his wife Jiang Qing and defense minister Lin Biao, to help him attack current party leadership and reassert his authority.
To encourage the personality cult that sprang up around Mao Zedong during the first phase of the Cultural Revolution, Defense Minister Lin Biao saw that the now-famous "Little Red Book" of Mao's quotations was printed and distributed by the millions throughout China.
Mao launched the so-called Cultural Revolution (known in full as the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution) in August 1966, at a meeting of the Plenum of the Central Committee. He shut down the nation’s schools, calling for a massive youth mobilization to take current party leaders to task for their embrace of bourgeois values and lack of revolutionary spirit. In the months that followed, the movement escalated quickly as the students formed paramilitary groups called the Red Guards and attacked and harassed members of China’s elderly and intellectual population. A personality cult quickly sprang up around Mao, similar to that which existed for Josef Stalin, with different factions of the movement claiming the true interpretation of Maoist thought.
Lin Biao’s Role in the Cultural RevolutionDuring this early phase of the Cultural Revolution (1966-68), President Liu Shaoqi and other Communist leaders were removed from power. (Beaten and imprisoned, Liu died in prison in 1969.) With different factions of the Red Guard movement battling for dominance, many Chinese cities reached the brink of anarchy by September 1967, when Mao had Lin send army troops in to restore order. The army soon forced many urban members of the Red Guards into rural areas, where the movement declined. Amid the chaos, the Chinese economy plummeted, with industrial production for 1968 dropping 12 percent below that of 1966.
In 1969, Lin was officially designated Mao’s successor. He soon used the excuse of border clashes with Soviet troops to institute martial law. Disturbed by Lin’s premature power grab, Mao began to maneuver against him with the help of Zhou Enlai, China’s premier, splitting the ranks of power atop the Chinese government. In September 1971, Lin died in an airplane crash in Mongolia, apparently while attempting to escape to the Soviet Union. Members of his high military command were subsequently purged, and Zhou took over greater control of the government. Lin’s brutal end led many Chinese citizens to feel disillusioned over the course of Mao’s high-minded “revolution,” which seemed to have dissolved in favor of ordinary power struggles.
Cultural Revolution Comes to an EndZhou acted to stabilize China by reviving educational system and restoring numerous former officials to power. In 1972, however, Mao suffered a stroke; in the same year, Zhou learned he had cancer. The two leaders threw their support to Deng Xiaoping (who had been purged during the first phase of the Cultural Revolution), a development opposed by the more radical Jiang and her allies, who became known as the Gang of Four. In the next several years, Chinese politics teetered between the two sides. The radicals finally convinced Mao to purge Deng in April 1976, a few months after Zhou’s death, but after Mao died that September, a civil, police and military coalition pushed the Gang of Four out. Deng regained power in 1977, and would maintain control over Chinese government for the next 20 years.
Some 1.5 million people were killed during the Cultural Revolution, and millions of others suffered imprisonment, seizure of property, torture or general humiliation. The Cultural Revolution’s short-term effects may have been felt mainly in China’s cities, but its long-term effects would impact the entire country for decades to come. Mao’s large-scale attack on the party and system he had created would eventually produce a result opposite to what he intended, leading many Chinese to lose faith in their government altogether.