I’m happy to see something good came of that silly Stephen Metcalf hit on Robert Nozick: The smart folks over at Bleeding Heart Libertarians have decided to form a sort of online book club to reread Anarchy, State, and Utopia. In the first section, Nozick attempts to show how a (minimal) government could arise from an anarcho-capitalist state of nature, even on quite optimistic assumptions about most people’s commitment to respecting the sort of libertarian rights advocated by someone like Murray Rothbard. This is very much a historical argument geared to showing what would really happen under highly favorable circumstances—as opposed to a kind of thought experiment meant to reflect an ideal bargain, and thereby help identify principles of justice. Since, of course, we know that existing states didn’t arise this way, many readers have wondered just what all this is supposed to prove. As Nozick himself later observes, a thief is hardly justified by the observation that, after all, his victim could have voluntarily made a gift of the stolen property. Expressing a similar thought, Jason Brennan writes:
What exactly does it mean to say the state is justified, though? Of course he doesn’t mean that just any state anywhere is justified—at most some states are justified. When Nozick claims that state can be justified, that is consistent with holding that all extant states are unjustified. Does it mean we could just impose a minimal state on a well-functioning anarchic society, if we ever found one? Probably not. If X could or even is likely to arise out of Y through a series of blameless steps, and if Y is better than X, it doesn’t automatically follow that we can impose Y upon people who are in situation X. (E.g., suppose I could prove that nearly everyone who has a blue stripe Mesa Boogie Mark III will end up naturally wanting to buy a Mark V instead, and I could prove that the Mark V is superior to the Mark III. It wouldn’t follow that people with Mark IIIs are obligated to buy Mark Vs, nor would it follow that I could force them to buy Mark Vs right now.)
I have some views on what Nozick thinks it means to justify a state this way, but I’ll just leave it as a puzzle here.
Of course, if we did find a well-functioning anarchic society, that would tend to undermine Nozick’s argument: For he isn’t just claiming that a state might arise in the fashion he describes. Rather, he’s pretty clearly trying to make the case that it almost certainly would arise, even granting the anarchist the most favorable realistic conditions. This, I think, points the way to understanding what Nozick is up to here. Anarchists, after all, are not generally seeking to convince us that we ought not to set up governments and spoil our beatific anarchies. They’re trying to persuade us that we ought to abolish (or at least flee) the governments that are already all but ubiquitous in the modern world.
Now, it might be that no existing state is directly justified by having arisen from a state of nature without violating anyone’s rights. But if it were established that even under the most favorable realistic circumstances, we would in any case end up with a de facto (minimal) government, then the argument seems to lose a good deal of its practical force.
The anarchist can, of course, continue to stress that this actual state did not emerge from a series of a series of free contracts (plus compensation for the prohibition of risky enforcement) by an invisible hand process—and suggest that if a morally justified state would emerge in that way from anarchy, then we ought to let it do so, and consider that state justified (or less unjustified?). But if this is likely to entail (at best) a costly, and quite likely a messy and violent transition process, it gets hard to see the point once we allow that the outcome is still, ultimately, going to be a state. On Nozick’s view, it might be a much smaller state, but if the point is to arrive at that goal, then working to shrink existing states—however quixotic an endeavor it might sometimes seem—is at any rate unlikely to be more difficult than abolishing those same states, building new ones (perhaps by invisible hand mechanisms from competing protection agencies), and then endeavoring to keep these new states properly limited.
What we perhaps get out of Nozick, then, is a kind of negative or inertial justification of existing states: Not an argument for thinking that they are legitimate in the sense that his morally pristine Dominant Protection Agencies might be, but an argument against the moral necessity of abolishing rather than reforming states that are admittedly historically unjustified, because that’s what we’d end up with anyhow after a great deal of trouble, even if nearly everyone were reasonably conscientious about trying to respect people’s libertarian rights.