Libertarianism and Modern Philosophers, Lecture 1 with David Gordon - Mises Academy
Libertarianism and Modern
Nozick on Anarchism
●One of the most important discussions
of libertarianism in contemporary
philosophy was Robert Nozick’s
Anarchy, State, and Utopia. (1974)
●In this lecture I’m going to discuss
Nozick’s argument against libertarian
Structure of the Argument
●Nozick has an ingenious idea. How would you
argue successfully against libertarian
●You might have a different view of political
theory and attempt to argue in support of this.
But then the anarchist might just reject your
●Nozick thinks he can get out of this problem,
i.e, he can show that anarchism is false using
premises the anarchist can’t reject.
●How does Nozick achieve this goal? He
starts by assuming that libertarian
anarchism exists. His starting point in
the type of society supported by Murray
Rothbard. Libertarian anarchists
certainly can’t reject that.
●Rothbard had a great influence on
The Solution Continued
●Starting with the anarchist standpoint,
Nozick thinks that he can show that
people in it will abandon anarchism.
Rothbard’s theory is thus self-
●To reiterate, if Nozick is successful, the
anarchist won’t be able to argue, “Your
support for the minimal state rests on
●Suppose that Nozick’s argument is
successful---I don’t think it is, but this
doesn’t matter now.
●He would still have to face this
objection, “Even if you’ve shown that
libertarian anarchism is self-
undermining, this doesn’t show that the
minimal state is justified. Maybe the
●Nozick wouldn’t find this objection persuasive.
●He thinks that Rothbard’s starting point is a
good one. He thinks that people have
libertarian rights, and that these rights are
fairly close to the ones Rothbard favors.
●Thus, his argument doesn’t just aim to show
that libertarian anarchism is self-undermining.
Rather, since libertarian anarchism is the
proper starting point, getting to the minimal
state from there justifies the minimal state.
A Common Mistake about the
●Many people have a wrong idea about
the structure of Nozick’s argument.
●They think that the argument goes like
this: if you start with libertarian anarchy,
you can get to a minimal state through a
series of steps that lead to a minimal
What’s the Mistake?
●If this were all there was to the argument, it
wouldn’t be very good.
●Suppose all of you gave me all of your
money.That wouldn’t violate anyone’s
rights—you all chose to give me the money---
but , aside from being good for me, you have
no reason to do so.
●For a successful argument, Nozick needs to
show that each of the steps is either to
people’s advantage or else is required by
●Nozick assumes that people would join
protective associations to enforce their
●Everyone, or almost everyone, accepts
the same libertarian law code. This still
leaves room for differences. E.g., what
procedures an agency should use in
●If you are a client of an agency, you will want
your agency to win, if there is a dispute about
procedures that can’t be settled.
●What determines which agency will win?
Nozick assumes that the strength of an
agency is largely determined by the number
of clients it has.
●If one agency is larger than the others, it will
attract clients in a spiraling process.
●Note that here Nozick makes an exception to
the usual rule that there is no general
tendency to monopoly on the free market.
Here there is a tendency to monopoly
because size as such is an advantage.
●An obvious objection is that the agencies
could agree on what to do in disputes. Nozick
deals with this by claiming that if they do that,
they form one agency. Is this right? He also
considers locally dominant agencies.
The Results of Dominance
●Let’s suppose that Nozick is right that most
people in a territory would join the same
agency. That doesn’t create a state---why isn’
t this just a particular type of libertarian
●Here is where Nozick shows his ingenuity.
●He asks, what can the DPA do to people who
don’t join the agency? He says that it can
prohibit other agencies and independents (
people who aren’t in an agency) from using
decision procedures on its clients that it
Is This Fair?
●You might think that Nozick has slipped in an
unjustified assumption. Why does the DPA
get to prohibit procedures that it considers too
risky when other agencies don’t? Why does
its size confer additional rights on it?
●But Nozick doesn’t assume that that the DPA
has more rights. Other agencies are free to
try to prohibit procedures they deem too risky.
The point is that the DPA will win, in case of
confrontation. You aren’t under an obligation
to accept some other agencies views on risky
Why Not Compensate?
●A natural objection here is that prohibition of
risky procedures is unjustified. Suppose a
client of the DPA commits a crime against a
client of another agency. That agency
determines his guilt using a risky procedure. If
he turns out to be innocent, then can’t he be
compensated by the other agency? If this
procedure were followed, the DPA wouldn’t
be determining the procedures used in the
territory and wouldn’t be a state.
●Certain kinds of punishment generate
fear. If you think that a risky procedure
might lead to your execution or
imprisonment under harsh conditions,
you would feel afraid.
●Does this justify prohibition? Couldn’t
people wrongly convicted get
compensation for this fear, in addition to
●Nozick has an answer to this. Even
those who are never falsely accused
will fear fear. They will receive no
compensation for this extra fear,
because no cases involving them come
●This is why the DPA can prohibit risky
decision procedures and need not
The Minimal State
●A DPA that successfully prohibits any
decision procedures on its clients it considers
risky is an ultraminimal state.
●It cannot remain an ultraminimal state:
morality forbids this. By prohibiting
independents from imposing risky decision
procedures on its clients, it is disadvantaging
them. They have done nothing wrong: they
just have different views on decision
procedures from the DPA.
Compensation and the
●Because it has disadvantaged these
independents, the DPA must compensate
●It can do so by offering low-cost or free
protection packages to them.
●The DPA then becomes a minimal state.
Since it provides protective services to
everybody, and these services aren’t sold at
market prices, it is sufficiently like a state to
count as one. Some people get protection
below cost, and others must pay higher prices
The Character of the Minimal
●One might object that everyone other than the
independents would want low-cost or free
protection. But Nozick thinks this wouldn’t
happen. The compensation offered to the
independents is a bare-bones package.
●There is no taxation; but if you don’t join the
DPA, you may find it difficult to enforce
contracts or respond to rights violations that
involve its clients.
Problems with Nozick’s
●In the argument for the DPA, Nozick seems to
be caught in a predicament. The argument
can’t be too successful. If everybody joins the
DPA, it is simply a private agency with a large
clientele, not a state.
●Nozick is thus arguing against himself. The
spiraling process must end at a point that
leaves some independents around.
●The best objection to Nozick’s argument
comes from Ronald Hamowy. The
compensation offered those wrongly
convicted in cases that involve fear can
be high enough so that even those who
are never charged find the situation
acceptable. “I’m afraid, but I know that if
were ever wrongfully convicted, I’d do
An Additional Objection
●A further basic problem is that Nozick
has overestimated the importance of
differences about decision procedures.
Would these really represent major
sources of conflict? Also, why think that
the DPA would have less risky
procedures, by its own standard, than
competitors? People don’t want to be
wrongly convicted, but they also want
●Nozick seems to have overestimated
the importance of punishments that
inspire fear. Very few cases involve
●Besides, an agency could simply avoid
punishments that generated such fear.
Then the DPA could do nothing to it.
Roy Childs’s Objection
●Roy Childs claimed that a minimal state is
unstable. Because it has to offer protection to
independents it has prohibited from risky
decision procedures, it must compensate
them by low cost or free protection. But then
its prices are higher than market price for
●Another agency could then undercut it by
using the same decision procedures as the
DPA, but not offering services to
independents. The minimal state would be
Childs’s Solution Continued
●The response to Nozick doesn’t work. True
enough, another agency could undercut the
minimal state’s prices, but it couldn’t prohibit
independents from applying risky decision
procedures to its clients, since it isn’t
●Remember, the minimal state prohibits risky
decision procedures only to its own clients,
and people in other agencies aren’t clients.