Robert Nozick claims to have written Anarchy, State, and Utopia by accident, during a year spent at the Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University (1971-1972). He is almost boastful about the fact that the vast majority of his writings and attention focused on other subjects. Several years earlier, Harvard’s John Rawls had published a landmark study, A Theory of Justice (1971), which set up the foundation for a distributive state, a type of welfare state antithetical to the type of minimal state Nozick conceptualized. Rawls’s work became a handbook for liberalism and for advocates of the welfare state, and it was held up by humanitarians for making provisions for the least advantaged groups in society.

Rawls and Nozick published their studies at a time when the Vietnam War and the Watergate affair were producing serious disillusionment about the ends and means of the political system that had developed in the United States. The time was ripe for a raging debate in political philosophy. Nozick himself reminisced about the excitement produced in the 1950’s by C. Wright Mills’s The Power Elite (1956); the mid-1970’s seemed similar. Nozick, however, refused to respond to the avalanche of critical literature about his work or to be bound to the specialty of political philosophy. He moved on to other areas of philosophy, but his first book-length work, his most controversial, remained central to the debate in political philosophy for the next quarter century.

Basic Human Rights

Nozick admits that his study does not reflect the slow process by which his earlier socialist views were slowly chipped away by libertarian beliefs. He begins the work with the dramatic assertion that individuals have rights upon which others, including the state, cannot infringe. Clearly, he is heavily influenced by John Locke’s concept of the social contract; unlike Locke, however, he refuses to trace the origins of these rights to a divine power. Although he leaves the origins of human rights for some other study at some other time, he sees these moral rights as written in stone. Also in variance with Locke, Nozick wants a new social contract to stop at some level below that of the state. In this, Nozick is extremely radical; he is attacking a concept taken for granted in the United States for at least the past two centuries. Nozick also is heavily influenced by philosopher Immanuel Kant’s idea of the categorical imperative and political view that the individual is an end, not a means to an end. Nozick also resurrects a basic eighteenth century notion of government, namely, that the government is best that governs least.

After examining why a state of anarchy would not be conducive to happiness, Nozick concludes that at least a minimal state is necessary to enforce basic moral prohibitions. Although he respects the utilitarian concept of happiness, he is diametrically opposed to the concept that such happiness can be computed mathematically within a mass society. He concludes that utilitarians would violate a great number of individual rights in service of the abstract notion of the greater happiness of the whole. In part 1 of his three-part study, titled “State of Nature Theory, or How to Back into a State Without Really Trying,” he uses philosophical exposition to justify the minimal state and describe how it is to come about.

Mutual Protection Societies

For Nozick, the key to unobtrusive government is the formation of mutual protection societies, composed of individual clients, that would subsume many functions of the state. These associations would negotiate with one another in the event of a dispute, and they would provide compensation for disadvantaging individuals by their actions or for prohibiting individual activities that might involve risk.

The process by which the mutual protective associations would get permission for retaliation or pay full compensation for boundary crossings is detailed by Nozick in chapter 4, titled “Prohibition, Compensation, and Risk.” The associations could not use unreliable or redistributive powers and would be limited to morally permissible means of enforcement to safeguard against violation of individual rights. The state thus would exist only as a “nightwatchman,” taking on the limited functions of protection against force and fraud. Unlike anarchist concepts, Nozick’s minimal state would have the right to punish and have a mandate for self-defense.

After many different groupings of associations had occurred, successful patterns would be copied. Individuals would always be free to join any of the associations or to remain outside them. Nozick refers to rugged individualists as “John Wayne types,” but he tries to create a society that would accommodate their needs. Eventually, through the process of filtration and equilibrium, guided by an “invisible hand” (similar to eighteenth century economist Adam Smith’s conception of an invisible hand guiding supply and demand in the marketplace, for the betterment of all), most areas would see the development of one dominant association, with a number of other agencies federally affiliated with it. The entire process would be formed and governed by a type of free market.

Justification for the State

In part 2, Nozick attempts to show that the minimal state, with the primary objective of safeguarding private property, is really the maximum type of state that can be justified. Anything more extensive, Nozick argues, would violate people’s rights. He devotes particular attention to attacking distributive justice and Rawls’s theory. Marxism and other egalitarian doctrines are analytically dissected and exposed as dysfunctional. He finds people’s talents and abilities to be an asset in a free community; many people benefit from individual talents, not the least of whom should be the individual.

After leveling the other political philosophies, Nozick proceeds to establish his own entitlement theory for acquisitions (property). Holdings must be obtained and transferred according to the principle of justice, factoring in historical aspects, current time slice principles (who has what), and the increased value of the property caused by individual efforts. Nozick also qualifies that private ownership must not violate Lockean principles of life and liberty (using as an example ownership of the only watering hole in a populated desert) and that individual rights can be overridden to prevent a catastrophe. In some situations, he points out, past injustices can be so great as to necessitate, in the short run, a more extensive state to rectify them. Although Nozick has little regard for equality, he goes to considerable lengths to try to guarantee justice in acquisitions. He takes pride in working out a historical entitlement theory, something that Rawls had not done. He also congratulates himself for having probed the deep-lying inadequacies in Rawls’s theory and in all other arguments for a state more extensive than a minimal state.


Part 3 of Nozick’s study, only thirty-three pages long, is titled “Utopia.” As Nozick readily admits, he has created only a framework for a utopia. In Nozick’s minimal state, people will have the freedom to choose among many different communities of extremely diverse character and to be treated with respect. People will be free to design and live in their own utopia. In this, Nozick almost reaches the existentialist conclusion that people all live separate lives, and he tries to accommodate a wide range of lifestyles.

Nozick raises problems that may exist between communities situated closely to one another but does not seek to resolve them. How the communities will turn out, Nozick does not know, and he is not tempted to guess. Critics charged, with a good deal of justification, that Nozick’s utopia was skimpy and not very attractive. Others worried that Nozick’s minimal state would wind up violating more individual rights than most maximal states.

Nozick ends his study with as much impact as he began it: “How dare any state or group of individuals do more. Or less.” He chooses not to use exclamation or question marks, perhaps because he does not need to be more emphatic and believes that his study answers the question.

Fuel for Libertarianism and Conservatism

From the moment of its publication, Anarchy, State, and Utopia was controversial. It catapulted both its conclusions and the author into popular media such as The New York Times and Time magazine. The study was immediately heralded by the libertarian movement, which gained prestige. Conservatives also praised the study; though many neglected to read it, they used the conclusions to support trimming the welfare state and privatizing as widely as possible in the higher interests of producing a utopia.

Of particular interest to conservatives was Nozick’s contention that the state had no business helping anybody in poverty. Such sentiments had not been expressed in such a broad public forum perhaps since English economist David Ricardo’s statements two centuries earlier. Those who opposed government taxation took to heart Nozick’s contention that state taxation was tantamount to forced labor.

The alliances claimed by conservatives appear to be why Nozick all but abandoned political philosophy and refused to answer his numerous critics. That Nozick chose not to confront his critics is either an act of cowardice or a statement of an individual who had other interests and refused to be shackled to a topic for which he had only a passing involvement and interest. Major reviewers found it difficult to fathom Nozick’s complete study; as Roy A. Childs commented, “Nozick sometimes retreats into math and other modes of argument that are beyond me. I always skip this stuff and I’ve never had a sleepless night over it.”

Nozick himself bemoaned the accumulation of unwanted company and the loss of respect among his peers caused by the study. Although he chose to clarify concepts and tie up loose ends in his Socratic Puzzles (1997), Nozick seemed to dismiss his major work as an accident. That recent critics have viewed his concept as almost medieval feudalism, or a United States under the Articles of Confederation, has done much to erase the meaningful conclusions of Nozick’s work. Others would point to the fact that little, if anything, in Nozick’s study relates to the real world or has more meaning than castles built in sand. Few pages were spent on sociological, psychological, or historical development questions, whereas the idealistic notion of individuals capable of making rational choices received great attention.

A Basis for Further Thought

Even Nozick’s most severe critics could not help but compliment his deliberatively provocative style and brilliant examples interwoven throughout the study. Over the years, Anarchy, State, and Utopia became a work to which contemporary political philosophers had to refer, and it spawned many works seeking to refute its ideas.

Given a dearth of contemporary political philosophy, Nozick’s study is bound to be a source of controversy well into the twenty-first century. That few social scientists can find any empirical validity to Nozick’s key arguments seems to be beside the point. His study will remain important, if only as a point of reference and as a target that future students of political philosophy...

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(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Additional Reading

Cohen, G. A. Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1995. The first chapter of this study, “Robert Nozick and Wilt Chamberlain: How Patterns Preserve Liberty,” is an excellent Marxist critique of Nozick. Analysis of Nozick’s libertarian political philosophy is made throughout the study. For Cohen, Nozick is one of the most extreme modern spokespersons for the capitalist view of the sanctity of private property.

Corlett, J. Angelo, ed. Equality and Liberty: Analyzing Rawls and Nozick. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. This book contains...

(The entire section is 371 words.)