Is taxation theft?

Review of ‘Anarchy, State & Utopia’ (1974) by Robert Nozick (New York: Basic Books) – re-published 2013.

Few scholars in contemporary political theory have stirred such extensive, heated and long-lasting debate as Robert Nozick. As a philosopher, Nozick ventured from area to area without tending to stick around for too long. He published in fields ranging from epistemology to decision theory and left a substantial mark wherever he went, but nothing came close to the mark left by his one work in political philosophy: Anarchy, State & Utopia.

Prior to Anarchy, State & Utopia, political philosophers generally took it as given that justice requires an extensive (and legitimate) redistribution of wealth via coercive means, such as progressive taxation (Singer 1981: pp.37-38). Nozick’s work constitutes a mighty attack on such an assumption, arguing that such redistribution violates individual property rights and cannot be justified.

Nozick maintains that redistributing wealth/holdings according to some ‘pattern’ treats them as ‘manna from heaven’ (p.198) and neglects the ownership rights of those whose holdings are to be redistributed (p.168). Patterned distributions are those in which what people receive varies in accordance with some natural feature they possess, such as moral desert, marginal product or need. One example of a patterning principle is sufficientarianism – under which what people receive depends on whether they have a sufficient, base-level of well-being. For Nozick, however, redistributing holdings from their natural, un-patterned distribution towards a patterned distribution neglects how the natural distribution came about. If the natural, un-patterned distribution came about through just means (just original acquisition in keeping with the Lockean proviso, free transfer, and just rectification of past injustice) then to coercively alter this distribution (e.g. via progressive taxation) constitutes a grave injustice. Thus, redistribution, say, to counteract astronomical inequality or fund the welfare state, amounts to a rights violation upon those whose justly acquired wealth is being seized. Nozick instead sees distributive justice as ‘historical’ in that the history of holdings may not be disregarded in assessing the justice of current distributions – a just state may not treat holdings as ‘manna from heaven’.

Upon first reading Nozick, my response was a fairly typical one – repulsion. How can a theory of justice sit content with the most vast, grotesque inequalities? How can a just state have no obligation to help the starving, the homeless or the disabled, and leave their survival entirely dependent on others’ charity? It is this emotional response that has made ASU so widely discussed and contested; for most, it’s just such a counterintuitive, morally troubling proposition. It is also a response that Nozick himself first held – he did not wish to believe something ‘so apparently callous to the needs and suffering of others’ (p.xix). Brian Barry even claimed that ASU ‘amounts to no more than the mean-spirited conventional wisdom of middle America pushed to its logical conclusion’, that it simply ‘articulates the prejudices of the average owner of a filling station in a small town in the Midwest who enjoys grousing about paying taxes and “welfare scroungers” and who regards as wicked any attempts of interference, in the interests, for example, of equal opportunity or anti-discrimination’ - and that such an emotional response was the only intellectually honest one (1975: pp.331-332). Whilst few have taken such an impassioned refusal to engage with Nozick as Barry, it is easy to see how ASU has proved such a controversial piece of work.

Interestingly however, in the nearly 45 years since the book’s release, there is still no overwhelming consensus on what exactly is wrong with Nozick’s position. And this is, in part, due to Nozick’s sheer ability as a persuasive philosopher – something that goes a long way to explaining why his work influenced so many other right-wing libertarians. Putting aside, for a moment, the standard emotional response to his conclusion, it cannot be avoided that ASU constitutes a brilliant piece of philosophy. It is beautifully written, the thought-experiments are constructed with such craft and ingenuity, rebuttals are sharply anticipated, and the argument flows with such flair. It really does ‘display the agility of an intelligence of the highest order’ (Nagel 2013: p.xvi).

Although, of the many attempted refutations of Nozick’s work, a considerable number focus on the lack of a robust defence of the theory of rights underpinning ASU. Scheffler is one of many who observe that Nozick has painfully little to say on the nature and source of natural rights (1976: p.63). As a result, Nozick leaves the background of ASU open to considerable contention. Nagel, for instance, maintains that Nozick focuses only on the possessor of rights. In doing so, he neglects the importance of the relationship between the possessor and the ‘actor’ (i.e. the potential rights violator) and also between individual rights and the goals constrained by them (1981: pp.198-199). Whilst the vast majority of theorists accept the internal validity of Nozick’s argument, many are unconvinced by the conception of individual rights working in its background.

Personally, I take issue with Nozick’s conception of rights as side-constraints. Under the side-constraint model, others’ rights constitute intractable limits on individual (and state) action, meaning individual rights can never be violated in the pursuit of any goal, even the goal of minimising overall rights violations. Whilst Nozick validly observes that purely consequentialist approaches (e.g. utilitarianism) tend to neglect the rights of individuals, this does not mean consequentialist intuitions themselves ought to be completely disregarded. Nozick’s claim that redistribution is unjust is dependent on his side-constraint model, and does not hold if we adopt an alternative approach. One such candidate is Amartya Sen’s broadly consequentialist ‘goal rights’ approach, in which rights retain an important role, but within the context of other social goods that include other non-rights considerations (1982). Under Sen’s approach, property rights are valued for their intrinsic importance, but state intervention may be justified when it would lead to better overall consequences. Thus, both consequentialist intuitions and intuitions on individual inviolability are acknowledged, and neither monopolises our moral reasoning space.

Anarchy, State & Utopia surely is a momentous event in the history of political philosophy. It constituted such a radical and powerful departure from (and attack upon) the mainstream arguments on distributive justice of the 20th century. It truly changed the landscape of debates on justice and the legitimate role of the state, and theorists in these areas must acknowledge and respect it. If nothing else, it forced theorists to either reconsider, or provide a robust defence of, the redistributive state and equality as a distributive ideal – or to reconsider the nature of individual rights. Even though the majority (including myself) will disagree with Nozick, ASU certainly commands real admiration as a bold, provocative, and impressive piece of political philosophy.

Barry, B. (1975). ‘Book Review: Anarchy, State & Utopia’ in Political Theory, 3(3), pp. 331-336. (California: SAGE Publishing).

Nagel, T. (1981). ‘Libertarianism Without Foundations’ in Reading Nozick: Essays on Anarchy, State & Utopia edited by Paul, J., pp.191-203. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell).

Nagel, T. (2013). ‘Foreword’ in Anarchy, State & Utopia (New York: Basic Books Co.)

Scheffler, S. (1976). ‘Natural Rights, Equality & the Minimal State’ in Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 6(1), pp. 59-76. (Calgary: University of Calgary Press)

Sen, A. (1982). ‘Rights and Agency’ in Philosophy & Public Affairs, 11(1), pp.3-39. (Princeton: Princeton University Press)