Robert Nozick

What's more just: the government staying out of people's personal wealth and letting some people starve while other people thrive, or the government forcibly taking wealth from some so that everyone has what they need?

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Table of contents

    John Rawls argued for the latter in one of the most important works in political theory of the 20th century, titled A Theory of Justice. He believed the creation of a more just society can be achieved through the redistribution of wealth and resources in a manner that improves the position of the least well-off in society. For Rawls, justice is fairness and what is fair is to ensure that those in the most advantageous position use their position to improve the conditions of the least well off.

    Enter Robert Nozick. He had grave concerns about the flaws in Rawls's theories, and went to great lengths to address these flaws in his most important work, Anarchy, State, and Utopia.

    Robert Nozick biography

    Born in Brooklyn on November 16, 1938, Robert Nozick was an American political philosopher best known for his contribution to political theory in the form of Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Born to immigrant parents, Nozick was an only child and lived in New York until moving to New Jersey where he completed his M.A and Ph.D. at Princeton University.

    Robert Nozick, a photo of Robert Nozick, Study SmarterA photo of Robert Nozick, Author: Libertarian Review, Wiki.commons, PD US

    During Nozick's early years as a student, he worked with and supported socialist causes, including Students for a Democratic Society. As he progressed through his education he abandoned the socialist cause. By the time he had completed his Ph.D. at Princeton, he leaned much more towards the ideas of libertarianism. After multiple stints as an assistant professor, Nozick was offered a full professor position at Harvard University where he would remain for the rest of his career.

    While at Harvard Robert Nozick completed several major works that covered a vast array of philosophic and political matters, including Philosophical Explanations, Socratic Puzzles, The Examined Life, and The Nature of Rationality. In an unfortunate turn of events Robert Nozick developed stomach cancer and after an eight-year fight against it passed away on January 23, 2002, at the age of 63.

    Robert Nozick and A Theory of Justice

    Anarchy, State, and Utopia was written as a response to the work A Theory of Justice by John Rawls, a text which took the world of American political theory by storm when it was released. To understand Nozick's work it helps to have a brief understanding of the theory of justice that John Rawls was putting forward.

    A Theory of Justice, A photo of the cover of A theory of Justice, Study SmarterA Theory of Justice, Author: John Rawls, wiki.commons, PD ineligible

    For Rawls, justice is fairness, and to achieve a just society the society must first be fair. The word "fair" is highly subjective and what it means to you and what it means to the person next to you could be two entirely different things. To overcome this problem, Rawls describes fairness as those with the most in society using their superior resources and positions to uplift those with the least, which he called the "maximin" principle. Rawls further argued that achieving this fairness would require using the state to ensure the fair distribution of material goods from the top of society to the bottom, as those at the top would most likely not redistributive their advantages without some form of coercion.

    At its core, the idea of A Theory of Justice is that the state uses its power to redirect the unavoidable inequalities of society toward creating a more fair life for those who are the least advantaged. Essentially, Rawls would argue that the billionaire can have his yacht but only once everyone else in society is in a minimum position that is nearly universally accepted as fair and adequate.

    Nozick found deep flaws in Rawls's idea of distributive justice and laid out a counterargument in Anarchy, State, and Utopia.

    Robert Nozick distributive justice

    Both Nozick and Rawls develop theories of distributive justice - but what exactly does that mean?

    Distributive justice: The methods and principles that a society uses to determine the distribution of its material goods and services amongst members of society.

    For Rawls's version of distributive justice, he developed the difference principle. He argued that those in the most advantageous positions work to fill the difference between themselves and the least well off. For Nozick, who thought this was an idea that would require the coercion of the individual by the state and thus act against the rights of the individual, his answer to distributive justice was a theory of justice in holdings.

    The next section will dive further into justice in holdings and explain why Nozick preferred it over Rawls's difference principle.

    Robert Nozick Anarchy, State, and Utopia

    Anarchy, State, and Utopia, at its core, is a libertarian argument for the creation of a minimal state. That is, a state which plays the smallest role possible in society. For many libertarians, and Nozick as well, the state's primary purpose is to serve as a "night watchman" (more on this below!). The text further argues that, in regard to distributive justice, the only institution that could reasonably carry out the distribution is the state. But, in doing so, the state would act against individual rights.

    Anarchy, State, and Utopia, cover of the book Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Study SmarterAnarchy, State, and Utopia, Author: Robert Nozick. wiki.commons, PD textlogo

    Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights).1

    The above quote is the opening line of Anarchy, State, and Utopia and sets the tone for the rest of the book. For Nozick, as a libertarian, individual rights take priority over the welfare of the collective, and the state is a coercive institution whose existence by default acts against individual rights.

    To understand how the existence of the state is coercive by default, think about the most basic reason for having a government: security. Every day you go to bed knowing that a military and police force exists to protect you from individuals or groups that may wish to do you harm. But, have you ever thought about why you yourself don't commit crimes, even petty ones? Is it because you're just a good person, or because you fear the consequences of arrest, fines, jail time, and incarceration?

    The fear of jail and a possibly violent encounter with the police stops you, or in other words, you have been coerced through the threat of incarceration and violence by the state to not act in a certain manner.

    Nozick counters the Rawlsian argument for distributive justice with an account of justice in holdings. For Nozick, using the state to strip away from some to give to others is, as the opening quote of the text hints, a violation of individual rights. He's not necessarily against wealth redistribution, but he does not think the state should be the one in charge of redistribution. If people choose according to their own free will to donate money or create charities, that is a choice for them (and Nozick might even agree that there is a strong moral argument for people choosing to do this). However, it should never be forced or come at the expense of the individual's rights.

    Instead, Nozick argues that someone's wealth, as long as it's obtained legally, is just, and therefore that person has a right to it. What is unjust in Nozick's eyes is the Rawlsian argument that even though holdings are acquired legally, the state is allowed to reach into those holdings and redistribute them as it sees fit according to some plan. The person forfeiting the holdings had no say in creating the redistribution plan, or any recourse against it if they disagree with it.

    Suppose a father started a business 40 years ago and turned it into a multimillion-pound company without breaking any laws established by the state. After 40 years of running the business the father decides to sell the business and keep 20% of its worth for himself, then give 40% to his daughter and 40% to his son. The father walks away with 20 million pounds and the two children each with 40 million pounds. The state comes and says that they require 5% from each of them to use towards military spending, state welfare for the unemployed, and for improving the prison system. The father and his children deny the state the money and argue that they do not support the state's military endeavors, the prison system, or the welfare system. Because they failed to follow the law, the state puts all three in jail.

    In the above example, Nozick would say that taxing the money and then jailing the individuals for refusing to pay is a violation of the individual's rights. The only role for the state in the entire process is to ensure that the holdings were acquired legally (the father worked for them and acquired his wealth legally) and then ensure that the inheritance goes to whom it was contracted (the two children). For Nozick the only point of consideration for the state is to ensure that contracts are enforced and laws are not broken, there is no acceptable reason for the state to take from the individual. Even the utilitarian approach of state action in the name of the "greater good" is something Nozick saw as unjustifiable.

    Robert Nozick minimal state

    The minimal state, or "night watchman state," is the only acceptable state for Nozick. As discussed in the last section, the state is by its very nature coercive. In political theory, you may hear the statement "the state has a monopoly on violence." This means that the individuals within a society forfeit their right to commit violence against each other and in return the state is the only force that can use violence for agreed-upon reasons such as stopping crime or fighting wars. For Nozick, this should be the limit of the state's coercive abilities. He does not think, as the anarchists do, that the state is fundamentally wrong and should be abolished, but he also doesn't agree with the Rawlsian notion that it should be used as a tool for the distribution of goods and services.

    The 20th century was full of bad examples of what happens when a state becomes too involved in society (for example, Nazi German, Soviet Russia, and Communist China). Nozick saw this during his own life and thought that a state which attempted to equalize society according to a plan was more a recipe for disaster than success and the minimal state advocated in Anarchy, State, and Utopia was Nozick's way of checking the impulse to use the state in this manner that arose out of Rawls's work.

    Robert Nozick - Key takeaways

    • Robert Nozick rejected Rawls's idea of the difference principle and instead argued for justice in holdings.
    • Justice in holdings is the argument that the only factors that need to be considered when trying to decide what is just in regards to distribution is whether or not the holdings were acquired legally and the contracts regarding said holdings are properly followed.
    • Nozick was a proponent of a minimal state and did not agree with the idea that the state should be used to redistribute goods and social services.
    • Robert Nozick's most important work was Anarchy, State, and Utopia.


    1. Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, 1974
    Frequently Asked Questions about Robert Nozick

    What was Nozick political philosophy?

    Nozick's political philosophy argued that the state's purpose was to provide security and that attempts to redistribute wealth violated individual rights.

    What are Nozick's three principles of justice?

    Nozick's three principles of justice are justice in acquisition, justice in transfer, and the principle of rectification.

    What is Robert Nozick's position on utilitarianism?

    Nozick felt that the state should have no role in redistributing wealth because doing so is inherently coercive, even if it's for the greater good. Because of this, he didn't favor utilitarianism.

    What is the Nozick message?

    Nozick had a libertarian message, arguing that the state should be minimally involved in everyday life because it was inherently coercive. He felt that redistribution of wealth violated individual rights.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Nozick claimed that Rawls's idea of distributive justice was unjust because it...

    What is a night watchman state?

    Robert Nozick supported which political theory the most?


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