Rawls vs. Nozick (part 2 of 3)

In our previous post, we identified a weakness in Rawls’s theory of justice: the possibility of betrayal once the veil of ignorance is lifted. Now, let’s turn to Robert Nozick’s classic tome Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974), a book Nozick wrote in response to Rawls’s work. In Chapter 1 of Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Nozick postulates the emergence of voluntary private protection agencies in an ahistorical state of nature. In other words, instead of a hypothetical original agreement à la Rawls, Nozick imagines mafia-like protection rackets filling the legal and political void (p. 12): “Groups of individuals may form mutual-protection associations: all will answer the call of any member for defense or for the enforcement of his rights.” (As an aside, Nozick even retrodicts (p. 13) that “some entrepreneurs will go into the business of selling protective services.”) But there is a blind spot in Nozick’s theory of the pre-political state, the same blind spot that Rawls overlooks in his work: the possibility of betrayal.

In summary, since the private protection services and protection agencies in Nozick’s state of nature are the result of voluntary agreements, who enforces them? After all, Nozick’s imaginary protection agencies are operating in a lawless world, so these private protection agreements are not legally or morally binding in any meaningful sense. And without any external or credible enforcement mechanisms in a pre-political or stateless world, why should we assume that people in Nozick’s state of nature won’t betray each other when it suits them. That is, since Nozick’s private protection agencies are operating in a lawless and stateless world, what is stopping any member of any given private protection agency from repudiating his membership or from betraying a fellow member or from joining another rival protective association?

In a word: nothing.

At one point, Nozick briefly contemplates the possibility of a “breakup” (p. 13) of a private protective association due to internal discord or dissension, but he does not consider the systematic possibility of betrayal or breach among the members of his protection agencies. Nor does he explain why such private agencies would be immune to the problem of betrayal. Yet, we would expect betrayal to occur frequently in a state of nature. To sum up, then, Nozick–like Rawls–ignores the possibility of betrayal. Specifically, just as Rawls assumes that the hypothetical parties to his hypothetical “original agreement” won’t betray each other once the veil is lifted, Nozick too assumes that the private members of his private protection agencies won’t betray each other as well. But in a world where there is no penalty for breach–whether it be Rawls’s hypothetical post-original position or Nozick’s ahistorical state of nature–, these are false and fool-hardy assumptions. The original agreement or agreements for private protection are not self-enforcing.

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