Finding utopia

Nozick builds a beautiful mental model in the first subsection of Chapter 10 of ASU (pp. 297-306). This simple model has the following parts (p. 299):

  1. Universal imagining rights. “Imagine a possible world in which to live; this world need not contain everyone else now alive, and it may contain beings who have never actually lived. Every rational creature in this world you have imagined will have the same rights of imagining a possible world for himself to live in (in which all other rational inhabitants have the same imagining rights, and so on) as you have.” That is, you are allowed to imagine your own possible utopia or association and you are allowed to populate your imaginary society with as many or little “rational creatures” as you like, but everyone else in your world is also allowed to imagine their own utopian associations.
  2. Universal emigration rights. “The other inhabitants of the world you have imagined may choose to stay in the world which has been created for them (they have been created for) or they may choose to leave it and inhabit a world of their own imagining.” In two words, open borders!
  3. Iteration. There is no arbitrary stopping point. This process of imagining new utopian associations and entrance into and exit from these imaginary societies will continue indefinitely until someone imagines a world that people want to voluntarily join and remain in.

After building his simple model, Nozick poses following question (p. 299): “Will the process go on indefinitely? Are all such worlds ephemeral or are there some stable worlds in which all of the original population will choose to remain? If this process does result in some stable worlds, what interesting general conditions does each of them satisfy?” According to Nozick, this iterative process of imagining and emigration will resemble a market with perfect competition (p. 302):

“We seem to have a realization of the economists’ model of a competitive market. This is most welcome, for it gives us immediate access to a powerful, elaborate, and sophisticated body of theory and analysis. Many associations competing for my membership are the same structurally as many firms competing to employ me. In each case I receive my marginal contribution. Thus, … in each world whose rational members can imagine worlds and emigrate to them and in which no rational member can imagine another world he would rather live in (in which each person has the same imagining and emigrating rights) which he thinks would endure, each person receives his marginal contribution to the world.”

The logic of Nozick’s argument is based on game theory: every possible imagined world in Nozick’s model will contain some fraction of defectors (i.e. rational creatures who take out more than they contribute) and cooperators (creatures who contribute more than they take). The problem is that a mixed population of defectors and cooperators is usually not a stable one. The cooperators will either become defectors themselves or exit the population. Suffice it to say that none of these imagined worlds in Nozick’s model will be stable if there are too many defectors. Because everyone has the right of emigration, the defectors will cause the cooperators to exit that world and imagine a new world without them. Or as Nozick puts it (p. 301): “No association will admit me if I take more from the association than I give to it: they will not choose to lose by admitting me. What I take from the association is not the same as what I get from it; what I take is how much they value what they give me under the arrangement, what I get is how much I value my membership.”

The picture I have painted above, however, is a gross simplification of game theory; under certain conditions, a mixed population can be stable. Nevertheless, Nozick’s model is an ingenious one, for it compels us to identify the conditions that a possible world must meet in order to qualify as a utopia. Unless we are allowed to imagine “manna from heaven” as well, Nozick is right: I would not want any defectors in my imaginary world. In our next post, we will see how Nozick projects his model of imaginary associations onto the actual world.

Image result for perfect competition

About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
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