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A Robert Nozick Followup Or; How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Quit Ideal Theory

Cogitating more on the question of Robert Nozick, I’m really not sure what conclusion to draw from his very brief remarks on politics in Invariances. He says that people have a duty not to harm one another and that society ought to enforce that duty. He then considers the possibility that society ought to also enforce the duty to help others in need, but rejects it. He doesn’t offer a very extended argument for this conclusion, but cites the idea that our top priority ought to be maintaining “the functioning of nonviolent relations, so that the right of non-interference are what are to be most strongly mandated and enforced, thereby preserving room for people to pursue their own ends and goals.”

In part, this seems to stumble into the old saw of positive versus negative freedom. If I take $10,000 from Jamie Dimon and give it to a homeless person, it seems to me that the net ability of human beings to pursue their own ends and goals has been enhanced. But you also get other policy dilemmas. Are state level taxes exempted from the critique of coercion on the grounds that you can always go live in another state? If we have persuasive research to indicate that investment in high-quality preschool will do a better job of reducing violent crime then investing in prisons, should we do that instead? Is coercing people to cough up some resources they own in part because their ancestors coerced Native Americans into giving up resources an act of corrective justice aimed at deterring future coercion, or is it a new coercion of its own? Is coercing people into paying taxes to finance a war to “liberate” Iraq a way of on net increasing the amount of non-interference in the world?

Obviously, you can try to answer these questions. And arguably you can produce facts and arguments that lead to the correct small government libertarian answer in all cases. But you’d have to be making consequentialist arguments about economics, military policy, etc., and it’s really not clear that Nozick’s particular formulation of principled liberalism would make any difference in the answer. And I think the reason his remarks on politics were so brief and his argument in favor of his favored position so threadbare is precisely because he didn’t think it was possible to draw many interesting policy conclusions from his philosophical position.

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