U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Robert Nozick and the Libertarian Mind

If you had learned your U.S. intellectual history solely from this site over the past four years, you would have seen Robert Nozick’s name explicitly mentioned only once in a post—as a secondary reference. His name has appeared indirectly, in a few books reviewed or mentioned here, such as Daniel Rodgers’ Age of Fracture. That aside, Nozick has essentially been absent from USIH discussions until today. Why? I’m not sure. So let’s begin at the beginning:

Who is Robert Nozick?

Born in New York City, he lived from 1938 to 2002. Nozick was a professor at Harvard University, where his fields of study were moral and political philosophy—in the analytic vein. His most famous work is Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974). The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP) contains a nice summary of it.[1] Some have called Anarchy, State, and Utopia the libertarian response to John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice. After his most famous work, here is what the IEP article says about Nozick’s professional trajectory:

Nozick neglected political philosophy for the rest of his philosophical career. He moved on to address other philosophical questions and made significant contributions to other areas of philosophical inquiry. In epistemology, Nozick developed an externalist analysis of knowledge in terms of counterfactual conditions that provides a response to radical skepticism. In metaphysics, he proposed a “closest continuer” theory of personal identity.

Nozick also delved into public philosophy, as you will see in the titles of a few of the following books by him:

Philosophical Explanations (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1981)
The Examined Life: Philosophical Meditations (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989)
The Nature of Rationality (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993)
Socratic Puzzles (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997)
Invariances: The Structure of the Objective World (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2001)

Before diving too deeply into the contents of any one book, or Nozick’s most significant ideas, let’s look ahead a bit. What is Nozick’s significance to later thinkers and scholars? A consideration of subsequent works about him may tell us something. With that, I’ve put together select list of significant books, theses, and dissertations that look at Nozick and his thought (located below, in order of oldest to most recent, gathered from here). A quick perusal of the list reveals that Nozick has received more attention over the last ten years.

On Nozick’s significant ideas and influence, estimates like these are hazardous, but a quick study of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (online) reveals 106 references to, and citations of, his work. About 75-80 percent of those are related to Anarchy, State, and Utopia.

Qualitatively speaking, Stephen Metcalf recently wrote the following, for Slate.com, about Nozick’s historical significance (bolds mine):


As a moral philosopher, Nozick was free to stretch liberty further than even an Austrian economist. That is, he was able to separate out a normative claim (that liberty is the fundamental value of values, and should be maximized) from an empirical claim (that the most efficient method for allocating goods and services is a market economy). Free to pursue liberty as a matter of pure principle, Nozick let nothing stand in his way. Should we tax the rich to feed the poor? Absolutely not, as “taxation of earnings is on par with forced labor.” (Or more precisely: “Taking the earnings of n hours of labor is like taking n hours from the person.”) Well, isn’t at least some redistribution necessary on the basis of need? “Need a gardener allocate his services to those lawns which need him most?”

To the entire left, Nozick, in effect, said: Your social justice comes at an unacceptable cost, namely, to my personal liberty. Most distressingly, to this end Nozick enlisted the humanist’s most cherished belief: the inviolability of each human being as an end unto himself—what Nozick, drawing on Immanuel Kant, calls “the separateness of persons.” For Nozick, the principle of the separateness of persons is close to sacred. It affirms, as he writes, “the underlying Kantian principle that individuals are ends and not merely means; they may not be sacrificed or used for the achieving of other ends without their consent. Individuals are inviolable.”

I like to think that when Nozick published Anarchy, the levee broke, the polite Fabian [read: cautious and gradualist] consensus collapsed, and hence, in rapid succession: Hayek won the Nobel Prize in economics in 1974, followed by Milton Friedman in ’75, the same year Thatcher became Leader of the Opposition, followed by the California and Massachusetts tax revolts, culminating in the election of Reagan, and … well, where it stops, nobody knows.


It should be noted that the point of Metcalf’s polemical piece is to discuss why Nozick gave up libertarianism. The title reveals the article’s thesis: “The Liberty Scam: Why even Robert Nozick, the philosophical father of libertarianism, gave up on the movement he inspired.” [Aside: This article, by the way, is the best short take-down of extreme libertarianism I’ve ever read.]

That aside, the lines I excerpted from Metcalf’s article seem to demand the following conclusion: Nozick is a major marker figure in the intellectual development of the New Right.

Before leaving Nozick for reader discussion, let me provide a final plug from historians on why Nozick matters. I don’t have Daniel Rodgers’ excellent book on hand (Age of Fracture), so I can’t relay his passages on Nozick. But I do happen to have J. David Hoeveler, Jr.’s The Postmodernist Turn at my desk.[2] Hoeveler ends his book—in the last passages just before his Afterword—with a four-page reflection on Nozick. Here are few passages (bolds mine):

In the 1960s and early 1970s, libertarianism found outspoken defenders in Ayn Rand, science fiction novelist Robert Heinlein, and Murray Rothbard. …When Rothbard happened to have a conversation with young Harvard professor, Robert Nozick, the professor decided to write a book.

Nozick took a circuitous route to libertarianism. In high school in the 1950s he had joined the youth branch of the Norman Thomas’s Socialist Party, and as an undergraduate at Columbia he founded another Socialist group. But Nozick gradually yielded to the persuasive forces of individualism and of moral and economic systems that gave highest priority to the free individual. …

Nozick’s book [Anarchy] is not an easy matter. It flourishes with the philosopher’s love of dense logic-chopping and finely-tuned disputation. The reader will find many pages full of mathematical symbols. In its analytical depth it resembles the work of Nozick’s rival Rawls. …One reviewer called [it] “a major event in political philosophy.”…[noting] that recent political theory generally assumed the necessary distributive role of the state. However correct, he added, after Anarchy…these axioms could no longer be taken for granted. (pp. 168-69)

From here Hoeveler spends a great deal of time summarizing the book, discussing Nozick terms and axioms like “the entitlement theory,” “end-result” or “end-state” principles, and Nozick’s long (50-page) direct critique of Rawls. Here is Hoeveler’s final statement on Nozick—which happens to also be the last page of the text (again, bolds mine):

Anarchy, State, and Utopia offered a theoretical, philosophical defense of libertarianism. …It often gave illustrations, but too often came up short of details. Nonetheless, reviewers took Nozick’s book to be, ultimately, a polemic against all the apparatus of the modern liberal state—welfare operations, public health care, compulsory social security, state-sponsored education, progressive taxation, and legislated equality of any kind. Some conservatives therefore welcomed Nozick’s ideas. But Nozick wanted to be consistent. His libertarianism, however welcomed by conservative businessmen…aspired to give them no privileges. Nozick insisted that he opposed any government favoritism, as, for example, no subsidies to businesses (the airlines) or in protective tariffs. …True and consistent libertarianism, like Nozick’s, always confounds the liberal-conservative dichotomies. (p. 172).

With that, I ask the reader: How important does Nozick seem to be in the spectrum of conservative political (and social) philosophy? How significant was he to neoconservatives, or the New Right generally? If a “libertarian mind” exists (I don’t necessarily believe ~one~ does), how has Nozick helped in its formation? How have you seen Nozick cited in USIH-type works beyond Rodgers and Hoeveler? – TL


[1] The IEP article is probably the most comprehensive of those I found online. It was written by Edward Feser of Pasadena City College. For what it’s worth, Feser is a self-proclaimed political conservative and “traditional Roman Catholic” in matters of religion.

[2] The Postmodernist Turn: American Thought and Culture in the 1970s (New York: Twayne Publishers/Simon & Schuster Macillan, 1996).


Select, Significant Books, Dissertations, and Theses About Nozick

(Listed from oldest to most recent)

– Golash, Deirdre. “Entitlement and Equality: A Response to Robert Nozick.” Thesis–University of Maryland, College Park, 1976.
– Goldsworthy, Jefferey Denys. “Robert Nozick and the Justifaction of Coercive Government.” Thesis (LL. M.)–University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1983, 1983.
– Luper, Steven. The Possibility of Knowledge: Nozick and His Critics. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1987.
– Paul, Jeffrey, ed. Reading Nozick: Essays on Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1991.
– Wolff, Jonathan. Robert Nozick: Property, Justice, and the Minimal State. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 1991.
– Roberts, P. M. “Historical Entitlement Theory: Robert Nozick and Hillet Steiner.” Thesis (M.A.)–University of Wales Swansea, 1994, 1994.
– Jovic, Dejan. Robert Nozick: between Anarchy and State. Manchester: University of Manchester, 1995.
– Hailwood, Simon. Exploring Nozick: Beyond Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Sydney: Avebury, 1996.
– Lacey, A. R. Robert Nozick. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2001.
– Casey, David T. “Negative Rights and Social Indifference: Trying to Resuscitate Robert Nozick’s Libertarianism.” Norton, MA: Wheaton College, 2001.
– Schmidtz, David, ed. Robert Nozick. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002. [right]
– Feser, Edward. On Nozick. Australia: Thomson/Wadsworth, 2004.
– Payne-Johnson, Jesse Paul. “Anarchy, State, Utopia & the Social Contract: The Contractarian Foundations of Nozick’s Libertarianism.” Thesis (A.B., Honors in Government)–Harvard University, 2006, 2006.
– Bakaya, Santosh. The Political Theory of Robert Nozick. Delhi: Kalpaz, 2006.
– Schwab, Alexander B. “Rectifying Justice in Rectification: Dealing with Historical Injustice in Nozick’s Minimal State.” Thesis (A.B., Honors in Philosophy)–Harvard University, 2006, 2006.
– Murray, Dale F. Nozick, Autonomy, and Compensation. London: Continuum, 2007.
– Boaheng, Paul Biredu. “Nozick’s Non-Libertarianism: A Philosophical Reconstruction.” Thesis (Ph. D.)–University of Alberta, 2007, 2007.
– Bader, Ralf M. Robert Nozick. New York: Continuum, 2010.
– Papaioannou, Theo. Robert Nozick’s Moral and Political Theory: A Philosophical Critique of Libertarianism. Lewiston, NY [u.a.]: Mellen Press, 2010.
– Bader, Ralf M., and John Meadowcroft. The Cambridge Companion to Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. [right]

10 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Before I attempt to answer your question, I’d like to say that while Metcalf’s article may be a good takedown of extreme-form libertarianism, it’s not a good takedown of Nozick. The three paragraphs you quote are, in my opinion, about the only truly cogent ones. The part about Wilt Chamberlain takes a single three-page example from ASU, exaggerates its importance to Nozick’s overall argument, and attributes to it a meritocratic attitude that it does not possess (certainly not, once again, within the larger argument). It’s a shame, because there are so many good reasons to criticize ASU’s logic.

  2. Rodgers on Nozick: “a good part of [ASU’s] capacity to dazzle lay in the radical thinnness to which Nozick cut down ideas of obligation and society” (188), and “the libertarian vision of society was radically timeless…actual history trailed away in footnotes and silences and vanished” (191). Those are the two major points relevant to Nozick. I think they demonstrate the degree to which he was representative but not central, since those two features were more or less successfully advanced by Milton Friedman et al. Nozick’s deontological argumentation meant that he was largely a figure in and around the Rothbard/Rand/anarchist branch of libertarianism. His significance is, I think, very much internal to the libertarian movement proper (so to speak), and he may have been central in bolstering the strength of those discussions. Certainly Nozick bolstered the validity of strong libertarian philosophical claims within the academy, though his lack of sustained attention to political questions hamstrung his impact. But politically, Goldwater, Buckley, Kristol, Friedman, Hayek, and Mises ought to remain front and center. And much of the influence that Nozick might have had outside of the academy has probably been taken up by Rand, which is why (I think) Metcalf takes Nozick’s arguments to involve much more desert and meritocracy than they do.

  3. Tim –

    I think you addressed both Ben’s comment in his earlier post on Bambach that Bambach does “the kind of heavy-lifting, philosophically dense intellectual history that, fairly or not, I associate more with Europeanist intellectual historians than Americanist,” as well as my question about why it seems to be the case that Americanist intellectual historians don’t do that kind of work. They certainly can, but as you point out in noting that this is the first formal discussion of Nozick here, they often do not.

    Now all we need are posts on Quine, Kripke, and Davidson and we’ll have those hoity-toity Europeanists* back on their heels where they belong.

    *N.B. Author of this comment is a hoity-toity Europeanist intellectual historian.

  4. Dear John,

    Thanks for the comments. Having not read ASU, I’ll take your word for it on the Chamberlain example. My sense was that Metcalf chose it more for its color (no pun intended) than its deepest substance.

    I really like the way that Rodgers connects Nozick to the larger postmodern project of both respecting and disrespecting history.

    My sense of Nozick’s importance (or lack of) to the New Right rests on the fact that he converted away from his original radicality—in other words, because he’s no longer discussed because he’s not a True Believer. Ideologues like to forget about those who fall away; as Tony Soprano used to say, “You’re dead to me.” Then again, I think your sense of Rand’s popularity, and the staying power of longer-term figures like Hayek and Friedman, also push Nozick down in prominence.

    – TL

  5. Varad: Historians of America’s intellectual life do indeed engage in some heavy lifting. I see the engagement in journals like JAH, AHR, and HS (as well as JHI and MIH). I was speaking ~only~ for this blog when I said that Nozick’s name had appeared here once prior. The difference between American and European intellectual history is, for the former, the frequency of appearance and topics chosen, not the quality/depth of work, in relation to appearances in prominent American history journals. This blog helps on the frequency and variety front. But blogging is not always the best venue for deep work. …These are my impressions only; I won’t hazard to speak for my colleagues’ views. – TL

  6. Stephen Metcalf’s piece apparently generated a heavy response. In this follow-up piece at Slate, Metcalf acknowledges those responses—by classes—and responds to particular criticisms. In relation to the comments here, use of the Chamberlain argument is addressed by Metcalf. – TL

  7. Re: How important does Nozick seem to be in the spectrum of conservative political (and social) philosophy? How significant was he to neoconservatives, or the New Right generally? If a “libertarian mind” exists (I don’t necessarily believe ~one~ does), how has Nozick helped in its formation?

    [The following applies only to Nozick’s Anarchy,…]

    These questions were generally addressed by Ian Shapiro in The Evolution of Rights in Liberal Theory (1986). See chapter 4, “The neo-classical moment.” The following quotes are representative of the overall discussion and critical analysis, which remains first-rate.

    “Nozick falls squarely into the tradition of neo-classical economics, which is traceable, via Adam Smith, to the English political and economic writers of the seventeenth century, but which takes on its modern form with the rise of marginalism and in particular Pareto’s Manual of Political Economy. Nozick’s ideological impact…derives mainly from the fact that it appeals to, and offers what appears to be a cogent philosophical justification for, this tradition.”

    From the conclusion of the chapter:

    “[Nozick’s] reading of the minimal state into Locke involved an anachronistic misreading of Locke and a misleading conflation of minimalism with regulation. Nozick exemplifies the libertarian tendency to look back at what is taken to be a classical liberal past, when the state really was minimal, and the market was permitted to function unimpeded. The era of this supposed Golden Age is never clearly specified by Nozick or others who ritually invoke it, but we know from Polanyi, Supple, and others that classical laissez-faire capitalism lasted briefly in nineteenth-century England and was never fully adopted elsewhere, and that the creation of capitalist markets required a massively interventionist state. [….] When Nozick appeals to the neo-classical system he is appealing to the belief that capitalist economies can be efficiently self-regulating, an empirical claim for which little evidence has ever been supplied. [Shapiro also explains in detail how Nozick’s views of a minimalist State are quited different from the conceptions of the State found in Hobbes and Locke.]

    To be continued.

  8. [….] The idea of the minimal state has always been a myt, not least today when it is invoked by the New Right on both sides of the Atlantic as a means for restoring the ‘traditional’ competitive structure of these economies. In fact, deregulation has resulted in greater concentration of capital and less competition than ever before. That Nozick invokes it is a primary reason for the ideological appeal of his work. It is the institutional manifestation of the conservatism inherent in a liberal tradition in which to be free is to be free above all from politics: the government that governs least governs best. [….]

    Nozick’s argument falls squarely into the well-established tradition of neo-classical economics and conservative liberalism which are both rooted in classical liberalism and have always comprised a powerful strand of liberal thought. From Pareto to Friedman in economics, from Hayek to the modern discipline of public choice, these ideas have substantial twentieth-century intellectual pedigrees, apart from the earlier influences…. They are also deeply embedded in contemporary liberal culture, constituting a substantial part of the prevailing Zeitgeist.”

    This does not do Shapiro’s chapter (the following chapter treats Rawls) justice so, if you’re intrigued, please read it in its entirety

  9. Patrick,

    Thanks for the long response—and the fantastic Ian Shapiro reference. I added it to my USIH bibliography straight away. I appreciate how he discusses the anachronistic misreading (i.e. minimalism) of John Locke—mistaking correlation for causation.

    Also, your comment goes to past discussions here at USIH (involving Andrew Hartman and Ben Alpers especially) about the roots of neoliberalism and the differences in terminology in relation to Western Europe and the United States.

    – TL

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