Nozick’s minimal state

I am reblogging part 2 (see below) of my in-depth review of Robert Nozick’s “Anarchy, State, and Utopia.” Among other things, the post below explores the problem of coercion and asks, when is collective coercion against an individual ever justified? (John Stuart Mill, for example, famously argued that coercion is only justified to prevent harm, but how should we define the concept of “harm”?) Also, looking back on my original post from four years ago, I would pose several additional questions to my fellow readers of Nozick. Specifically, how should we define such key terms as “fraud” and “theft” and “contract”? (Under our Anglo-American common law tradition, for example, not all promises are legally-enforceable and not all acts of deceit are “torts” or civil wrongs.) Also, however those key terms are defined, the moral or legal “badness” of fraud or theft implies that people have a right to private property and a right to “truth”, so to speak–i.e. a right not to be lied to. But why is telling a lie wrong, i.e. a violation of one’s rights? More fundamentally, doesn’t my right to private property in X, by definition, deprive you of the right to X, especially if you haven’t consented to this arrangement? These are some of the questions that Nozick will have to answer as we proceed …

prior probability

Nozick’s preface sets forth his main conclusion: only a “minimal state”–i.e. a collective “limited to the narrow functions of protection against force, theft, fraud, enforcement of contracts, and so on”–is consistent with the principle of individual rights. Nozick further concludes that a collective may not use coercion to promote distributive justice (reduction of income inequality) without violating individual rights, and he also tells us that he arrived at these libertarian conclusions “with reluctance.” Be that as it may, these conclusions raise a new set of difficult (and perhaps unanswerable) questions. At what point, for example, does a state stop being “minimal”, and further, what rights do people have? Yet, as we mentioned in our previous post, Nozick’s makes no attempt (so far) to identify what these sacrosanct individual rights consist of. By all accounts, it looks like Nozick is against coercion and that respect for individual rights must entail…

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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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