Anarchy, State, and Utopia

As many of you know, I’m on a 100 book tear as I prepare for my doctoral prelims. The latest book on my list was Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia. I wasn’t sure it would be more than a book to get through, but I was wrong.

First off, Nozick performs the most convincing take-down of John Rawls that I’ve ever seen. They were both high-powered Ivy League types, so I’d love to know if they ever discussed the issues in person. Probably not. Nozick praises Rawls to the heavens, but absolutely wins the debate as far as I’m concerned. I make the remark about Nozick and Rawls to tantalize. Go read it for yourself.

Second, and more to the point of this post, I found myself arrested by an amazing sequence in which Nozick shows anything more than a minimal state is essentially equal to slavery. I’m pasting it in below:

“The Tale of the Slave”from Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, pp. 290-292.

Consider the following sequence of cases, which we shall call the Tale of the Slave, and imagine it is about you.

1. There is a slave completely at the mercy of his brutal master’s whims. He often is cruelly beaten, called out in the middle of the night, and so on.

2. The master is kindlier and beats the slave only for stated infractions of his rules (not fulfilling the work quota, and so on). He gives the slave some free time.

3. The master has a group of slaves, and he decides how things are to be allocated among them on nice grounds, taking into account their needs, merit, and so on.

4. The master allows his slaves four days on their own and requires them to work only three days a week on his land. The rest of the time is their own.

5. The master allows his slaves to go off and work in the city (or anywhere they wish) for wages. He requires only that they send back to him three-sevenths of their wages. He also retains the power to recall them to the plantation if some emergency threatens his land; and to raise or lower the three-sevenths amount required to be turned over to him. He further retains the right to restrict the slaves from participating in certain dangerous activities that threaten his financial return, for example, mountain climbing, cigarette smoking.

6. The master allows all of his 10,000 slaves, except you, to vote, and the joint decision is made by all of them. There is open discussion, and so forth, among them, and they have the power to determine to what uses to put whatever percentage of your (and their) earnings they decide to take; what activities legitimately may be forbidden to you, and so on.

Let us pause in this sequence of cases to take stock. If the master contracts this transfer of power so that he cannot withdraw it, you have a change of master. You now have 10,000 masters instead of just one; rather you have one 10,000-headed master. Perhaps the 10,000 even will be kindlier than the benevolent master in case 2. Still, they are your master. However, still more can be done. A kindly single master (as in case 2) might allow his slave(s) to speak up and try to persuade him to make a certain decision. The 10,000-headed monster can do this also.

7. Though still not having the vote, you are at liberty (and are given the right) to enter into the discussions of the 10,000, to try to persuade them to adopt various policies and to treat you and themselves in a certain way. They then go off to vote to decide upon policies covering the vast range of their powers.

8. In appreciation of your useful contributions to discussion, the 10,000 allow you to vote if they are deadlocked; they commit themselves to this procedure. After the discussion you mark your vote on a slip of paper, and they go off and vote. In the eventuality that they divide evenly on some issue, 5,000 for and 5,000 against, they look at your ballot and count it in. This has never yet happened; they have never yet had occasion to open your ballot. (A single master also might commit himself to letting his slave decide any issue concerning him about which he, the master, was absolutely indifferent.)

9. They throw your vote in with theirs. If they are exactly tied your vote carries the issue. Otherwise it makes no difference to the electoral outcome.

The question is: which transition from case 1 to case 9 made it no longer the tale of a slave?

I thought about getting into my own thoughts about this passage and how it relates to my understanding of the Bible, for instance, but I decided to draw back and see what others might say. Discuss, if you like.

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21 thoughts on “Anarchy, State, and Utopia

  1. Hunter — much too late to say anything intelligent about Nozick’s masterpiece; I just wanted to say that I envy you. I remember back to the day more than twenty years ago that I cracked this book open, in a class designed to prepare me for my theory prelims. Oh to be that young and fresh again, when ideas were the most powerful aphrodisiac in the world. and we thought reason and discourse would of necessity improve the lot of man.

  2. Kathy, if only I were THAT young. Unfortunately, I’m in my thirties and this is my third time around in grad school!

    Nevertheless, let’s see if people have anything to say about good Nozick.

  3. It’s an interesting way to describe the concept. Naturally as an anarchist I’m inclined to accept the thesis. It might be worth pointing out that this sort of demonstration could just as easily be used to show that all forms of capitalism are slavery as well.

  4. I’ve never heard the name before, but I’m always interested in political/governmental theory, so I’ll trot on down to the university library and find myself a copy.

    One of the reasons I keep coming back, aside from the sheer enjoyment I get out of mudslinging non-debate (according to Tom, at least), is that y’all incite me to read a wider variety of books than I would otherwise. All those philosophy discussions forced me to pick up books and start learning what I was talking about or have to shut up. And if there’s one thing I hate, it’s having to shut up. =]

    I suspect, given the passage quoted by Hunter, that Nozick is one of those who equates civil obligation to slavery, no matter how apparently benign. I mean, who’s the slave supposed to be in half of those, Puerto Rico (Can I tell you how effed up it is that territorial citizens don’t have voting representation?)? I’ll have to read more to find out though.

  5. It is my understanding that the slave is us (ie, everyone).

    The idea is that the only time your vote counts is when the issue is decided by a mere single vote.

  6. The question is: which transition from case 1 to case 9 made it no longer the tale of a slave?

    I believe it was Bob Dylan who said, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes indeed
    You’re gonna have to serve somebody.”

    It seems unavoidable that we’re going be a slave to the system in some fashion. However, I would probably feel least like a slave if I had the option to choose between (competing) systems…to pick my poison.

  7. The idea is that the only time your vote counts is when the issue is decided by a mere single vote.

    What a silly idea.

  8. “What a silly idea.”

    Why do you say that?
    If a ballot passes by 100 to 50 is an identical situation to if it passed by 100 to 49 in all important repsects.

  9. It is a silly idea. If everyone abided by it, no one would vote. When living in a plural union, a vote is a cumulative thing and not just an act of individual validation. It is a contribution to a populist whole.

    The whole premise of a vote being useless and therefore men are slaves dismisses the idea of democracy as an individually unfulfilling and pointless act. For an anarchist such as yourself, that’s a fine argument. However, it’s a purely reductionist argument: minimal government advocates get nothing out of it.

    Democracy is an inherently pluralist act. Individual actors combine into something greater.

  10. I suspect, given the passage quoted by Hunter, that Nozick is one of those who equates civil obligation to slavery, no matter how apparently benign.

    It’s been a long time since I read it, so I should probably let Hunter tackle this one. But I believe it would be fairer to say that Nozick lays out a case that on one hand, any social contract to which an individual has not given his explicit consent cannot be distinguished in principle from slavery, but on the other hand anarchy, the only form of social organization that does not rely on pre-existing binding social contract, is doomed to fail. If both these statements are true, what is the closest man can come to “utopia” (or at least non-servitude)? I won’t give away the answer.

    Many people say you can’t appreciate Nozick in isolation from Rawls’s Theory of Justice. I don’t think that’s true, but if you’re not familiar with Rawlsian political theory, you might want to check it out as well. Rawls is also concerned with the optimum social contract, but comes up with both a very different mechanism for achieving it, and a very different vision of what it would look like.

  11. Thank you for the clarification. That makes a little more sense. Nozick’s view sounds very similar to Jefferson’s belief that future generations should not be bound by the rules, contracts, and mores of their forefathers.

  12. Nozick’s view sounds very similar to Jefferson’s belief that future generations should not be bound by the rules, contracts, and mores of their forefathers.

    Yeah, but Jefferson probably just said that because he wanted the cream of every generation to be forced to spend a huge chunk of time arguing about a &%$@ piece of parchment in the sweltering Philadephia heat.

  13. More like he thought it was criminal for the living to have to abide by rules created by people long dead.

  14. What Nozick is saying is that there are many, many different visions of how life should be lived. He puts a much larger emphasis on the “you and me” than on the “us.” In his view, a person has only one life to live and why should it be lived in thrall to the collective visions of others. Thus, his conclusion is that the only just government is one that essentially guarantees basic protection of physical safety and sees that contracts are honored (e.g. people pay for the costs they impose and get paid for the value they provide).

    Beyond this minimal state that pretty much allows you to live they way you think best, he sees you as living in slavery. He has a pretty strong point, I think. Of course, it raises the question of whether slavery can be a good thing under certain circumstances. We generally seem to think it is when defined closer to step nine than to step one.

    I’ll deal with his vision of utopia in a future post.

  15. “What Nozick is saying is that there are many, many different visions of how life should be lived.”

    You mean *gasp* relativism?

    “In his view, a person has only one life to live and why should it be lived in thrall to the collective visions of others.”

    Funny how this sounds rather familiar to things I (and others) have said before on this very site.

    “Thus, his conclusion is that the only just government is one that essentially guarantees basic protection of physical safety and sees that contracts are honored (e.g. people pay for the costs they impose and get paid for the value they provide).”

    I’m not sure why he’d pick those two attributes as being indispensible aspects of the state, I mean it’s not as if either one has ever been very well done by government.

    Surely it’s clear that our law enforcement is pathtically incapable of preventing crime. All they can generally do is to apprehend criminals after the fact, by which point of course the damage is done.

    And as for contracts why would you need or want the state involved in such matters when inevitably the state will come to forcefully maintain the contracts that suit those it favors and ignore those that don’t.

    I haven’t read the book but from what you’ve said he sounds like someone who realized anarchism was the right path but didn’t have the courage to accep it.

  16. T, just go read the first few chapters. He explains his minimal state logic quite well. Basically, he reasons from a state of nature like Locke does. He sees protective associations arising because of inequal abilities of individuals to protect themselves. One thing leads to another and you have a single protective association in a geographical area. That ends up being government. I don’t recall how contracts get sucked in, but I think it’s because you’d want to retaliate if a contract was broken and the protective association is invoked at that point.

    As far as your GASP relativism comment, I didn’t say I was some kind of apostle of Nozick. I just said he demonstrates impressive reasoning. I’m not necessarily an evangelist for everything I discuss.

  17. Gosh, it’s been far too long since I read my philosophy stuff, though admittedly, I was reading Carlos Casteneda & Jurgen Habermaas & of course Marx. Good luck on your exams. Please write your doctoral dissertation. (this advice from a 27 year long ABD).

    This kind of guys back to Tom’s graphic about social libertarianism and economic libertarianism. I’m all for not having the government tell me I can’t do drugs, discouraging me from red meat or even selling my body into prostitution if I want.

    But what happened to things for the collective good, like education, research? Public policy directed towards certain ends doesn’t have to equate with freedom restrictions unless one measures government only in terms of taking money away from you in taxes.

    While I’m sure that I’d have been one of the lucky ones to get an education in a extremely limited government society, the liberal in me would feel that everyone else should have had that opportunity.

  18. One other thing, where are the conservatives on smoking bans? I can’t think of any greater restrictions of freedom. If I own a restaurant and I want to let people smoke in it, why shouldn’t I be able? Why should cities be able to tell every restaurant they can’t have smoking.

    This is one case I’d let free market work. If people want non-smoking restaurants, people will operate them and patrons will go.

  19. “While I’m sure that I’d have been one of the lucky ones to get an education in a extremely limited government society, the liberal in me would feel that everyone else should have had that opportunity.”

    The compassionate conservative in me would second that. The funding of our schools at the local level is perhaps our greatest national scandal, where zip codes can add $100 grand to the value of a house, and reactionary righties and limousine libs are equally to blame.

    Neither of us went to St. Alban’s, and neither of us has a prayer in hell of changing our side of the aisle on this.

  20. ” One other thing, where are the conservatives on smoking bans?”

    Me … I hate ’em, even though I don’t smoke! Where I live, I do benefit from the bans, but that does not justify them.

    “I’m not necessarily an evangelist for everything I discuss.”

    Great point Hunter. Playing devils advocate does not make one the devil.

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