Robert Nozick Was A Smart Man — Too Smart To Embrace The Doctrine Of Anarchy, State, and Utopia

I’ve been watching with amusement as all my intelligent friends with right-of-center views on economic policy get together in a group solidarity exercise of bashing Stephen Metcalf’s Slate article on Robert Nozick. And, certainly, the idea that you meaningfully advance the ball on an important issue of political philosophy in the course of an online article aimed at a popular audience is a bit odd. But I think the Metcalf bashers are obscuring a very important point, when the push back on Metcalf’s claim that Nozick repudiated libertarianism.

I think I can speak to this issue with some authority since I was enrolled in Nozick’s seminar on the Russian Revolution at the time of his death. And while it’s certainly true that late-Nozick self-identified as a libertarian, he no longer embraced the doctrine espoused in his famous work of political philosophy. This is, however, an important point! Julian Sanchez cites his own 2001 interviewinterview with Nozick as evidence against Metcalf, but I think it’s the reverse. Nozick says in the interview that the extent of his apostasy has been overstated, but he’s less “hardcore” than he was at the time of Anarchy, State, and Utopia. But when it comes to philosophical doctrine, the hardcoreness is all there is. By the time I was in his class, the kind of libertarian writers Nozick was assigning were Hayek, Friedman, and Von Mises. And though these guys are certainly libertarian in the ordinary language sense, there’s no philosophical gap between them and modern liberals. Keynes said he thought The Road To Serfdom features bunk economics, but “morally and philosophically, I find myself in agreement with virtually the whole of it.” Conversely, Milton Friedman has strongly anti-statist views about economics but on an ethical level always conceded the righteousness of income redistribution via a negative income tax, precisely the sort of policy whose philosophical underpinnings Anarchy, State, and Utopia was meant to undermine.

This is all just to say that while Nozick retained what you might call libertarian policy views and libertarian political group identification, he seemed to me to have abandoned distinctively libertarian philosophical commitments. Having read Anarchy, State, and Utopia before taking the class with Nozick, I came away from the seminar extremely impressed by Nozick’s intelligence but feeling a bit ripped off that my copy of ASU hadn’t come with a warning label: CORE DOCTRINES HAVE BEEN ABANDONED BY AUTHOR.

What’s more, I think Metcalf is right to try to elevate this inside baseball fact about political philosophy to a higher level of popular awareness. Hard-line metaphysically grounded accounts of property rights such as are to be found in ASU or the works of Ayn Rand have a fair degree of influence over popular political rhetoric in the United States. The fact that these kind of “harcore” views do such a poor job of withstanding scrutiny that the author of their most academically influential defense backed away from them is something people ought to be aware of. Plenty of work by self-identified libertarians holds up quite well, but it’s almost all work in economics or other empirical social sciences. The influential philosophical tradition is a broad liberal family that happily encompasses both Milton Friedman and Paul Krugman and lets them argue about how best to advance human welfare.


[UDPATE] Julian Sanchez brings to my attention page 282 of Invariances, Nozick’s last book, in which contra my account here he seems to be espousing a view that I’d say might count as more extreme than the ASU position though I think it’s hard to say how to apply the implications of that principle to any concrete political controversy.