Notes on Nozick
Ken Parish links to various critiques of Nozick’s arguments in support of libertarianism. Broadly speaking, Nozick claims that libertarianism is right not because it produces good outcomes (he doesn’t argue one way of the other on this) but because a requirement for just process implies that property rights should be inviolable. Nozick’s position has been criticized in various ways, often focusing on the fact that he never specifies a just starting point. I want to present a different argument: that given any plausible starting point, Nozick’s approach leads to the conclusion that the status quo, including taxes, regulations and other government interventions is just. I illustrate this point with a story.
Once there was an island, whose sole inhabitant was named William. For Nozickian purposes, we’ll assume that William was had justly acquired ownership of the island at some time in the past.
William invited various other people (head tenants) to come to the island to live and to take up land, on the basis of an annually renewable agreement which stipulated that
(i) William could resume ownership of the land whenever he wished
(ii) Each year, William could demand whatever payment s\he wished, taking account of the tenant’s income, needs and so on if she chose
If agreement could not be reached, the tenant could leave taking with them whatever property they had brought with them in the first place, and anything William chose to give them.
This arrangement went on for some time, from generation to generation, and some of the tenants brought in subtenants under a variety of arrangements. Eventually, some difficult negotiations led one of William’s heirs to make an agreement with the (head tenants) that the terms of their leases would not be changed unless a majority of them, acting as a body corporate, voted in favour of the change.
Eventually, a later heir agreed to transfer her rights almost entirely to the head tenants, in return for several nice houses and a guaranteed annual income.
Time went on, the head tenants disagreed among themselves, and some sought to strengthen their position by extending membership of the body corporate to some of the subtenants who they thought would take their side. They succeeded in gaining majority agreement for this proposal as required under the original articles of the body corporate. The new members in turn voted to admit others, until, in the end, every adult in the island was a member of the body corporate.
At this point, it became evident that the members of the body corporate needed schools, hospitals and so on. Some members thought it would be best ifthe body corporate charged higher rents and provided the schools and hospitals free of charge. Others thought that it would be better for everyone to pay separately, and that it would not be fair that some should pay more in rent than they received in benefits.
Some of the latter group heard of a Professor Nozick who had written a book on this topic and he agreed (at a mutually acceptable price) to provide his advice. Here is what he said.
As I proved in Anarchy, State and Utopia it would be unjust for anyone elseto take your property or the income from your property to serve any purpose. however beneficial. However, having looked at the history of your island, it appears that none of you have ever owned any property absolutely, excepting the long-decayed clothes in which your ancestors arrived. The property was justly acquired by William in the first place and has been justly transferred to the body corporate. Both William and the body corporate have dealt with you and your ancestors on a basis of mutual consent.
You may, of course, have arguments to show that individual provision of schooling and health care would produce better consequences than provision by the body corporate. But I disdain such arguments, and care only about the justice of processes. If you can’t convince the majority of the body corporate, you are justly obliged to pay the rents they demand.
Having secured the endorsement of Professor Nozick, the body corporate went ahead and raised the rents. At the same time, after reading the works of various other professors, they decided it would be a good idea to change the name of the body corporate to Parliament and to call the rents ‘taxes’.
Of course, this story isn’t true. But if you don’t worry about thejustice of the original acquisition (and Nozick never does), and ignore a variety or more minor injustices along the way, it’s a pretty accurate summary of the history of property rights in England since 1066 or, with minor modifications, Australia since 1788. The only people who have legitimate objections to state powers of eminent domain, taxation and so on are the heirs of those dispossessed in the original acquisition (theoretically, English Saxons and, more relevantly, Australian Aborigines).
The general implication is that, in any society with a constitutional history, the only set of property rights that can be supported by a Nozickian analysis is the status quo, including state powers such as the power of eminent domain and the power to tax. Any attempt to separate property rights granted by the state from the limitations associated with these grants is nonsensical in terms of Nozick’s analysis of process.