Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Nozick As Social Contractualist


....Nozick argues that independents are to be forcibly incorporated into society. Even if their rejection of it is their right, they pose a danger to what they reject (thus on a utilitarian basis decreasing the happiness of those accepting society by increasing their fear.) They can live in society obeying its laws or be dealt with by the monopolizer of force if their rejection leads to law breaking and worse. Since ought entails can, there is no moral duty to do the impossible. On this basis, the state does not lose legitimacy by that forcible incorporation: it is impossible to deal with the independents otherwise. In one way of understanding this, that incorporation comes down to the sheer power of the state compared to the relative powerlessness of the independents. 

Now, to take this one step further, what if a majority in the state want national health insurance. (Getting it increases their happiness.) What position can the minority take who oppose but are perforce required to help fund it through their taxes, or, even more pervasive, the welfare state? Does the state lose its legitimacy by forcing those opposed to support them by making them pay their taxes? Does the reasoning for the forcible incorporation of the independents without sacrificing legitimacy lose its force in relation to forcing dissenters from welfarism without, the argument is, by analogy, losing legitimacy? I'd think that those who oppose welfarism would continue to insist on their opposition but would do so conceding legitimacy. 

So if Nozick is:

as I understand he is, a social contract theorist;

and if he agrees that the basis of social contract theory is consent;

and if he rejects any proposition, as I understand he does, advanced by some that since unanimous consent in any state is impossible the state, any state premised on deep individual pluralism is therefore necessarily illegitimate;

then his notions of consent and legitimacy necessarily brook majorities that hold to policies that he stands fundamentally against.

If so, then what exactly is the core of his notion of  legitimacy, and what does that core do to the illegitimacy of the welfare project you argue against? Arguments pro and con specific policies on the basis of legitimacy run up against the concession of legitimacy to the state even as majority policies breach libertarians' central thesis of deep pluralism not to be trenched upon. And so, finally, arguments against say welfare policy can cite that central thesis, but can't with consistency, I don't think, assert the illegitimacy of that policy. Or can they?...


....      I can recognize nothing of Nozik in what you write here. Right from the start you couch things in terms of 'independents" vs the State, and I cannot recognize this language  as Nozik's. I am admittedly not any kind of expert on Nozik, and I have absolutely no sympathy for Nozik's views. I do not find them in the least bit interesting, and he is no longer discussed in the intellectual circles with which I have contact. So you are forewarned that what I have to say here may be seriously distorted. 

       I can see no good reason for classifying Nozik as a social contract theorist, and I have never seen him discussed in those terms, and this despite the fact that he springs out of Locke, who was a social contract theorist. Nozik was perfectly aware that social contract theories are only analytic conceits sometimes providing us models for thinking about political/social issues;  Every social contract theory I am familiar with postulates an original state of nature and give different accounts of it, but in every account, individuals in a state of nature have absolutely no rights whatever. They have only interests and needs, Rights are always treated as social constructs arising out of the establishment of the social contract for purely utilitarian reasons. Rights enable people to perform utilitarian calculations that will maximize the individual and the social good, so that, e.g., society can tax people unequally if that policy will maximize the public good, even if it falls more heavily on some rather than others. 

     You will find none of that in Nozik, although he discusses social contract theory and utilitarianism at length, mostly, but not exclusively, in criticism of John Rawls. So what was Nozik up to? This is where things get messy. In the first place you have to understand who his targets are. Rawls is obviously a big one. But early in his career, Nozik was a socialist/social democrat, and after his quick abandonment of that, he embraced the cranky views of Murray Rothbard, the campus guru of young right-wing extremists, viz., individualistic anarchism. 

Nozik, sensibly enough, came to reject anarchism, and so undertook to construct a theory in which the State could be intrinsically legitimate, requiring no justification, utilitarian or otherwise. In this, I agree with him and with Aristotle from whom it originally derives. 

According to Aristotle, living in political societies is as natural for us as can be. Unlike other social animals, such as ants, bees, and various pack animals such as wolves etc who have no political organizations, we are endowed by nature with rationality in a high degree, and it is reason that makes it possible for us to transcend merely animal sociality. 

Noziks view is, that if there were a pre-political state of nature for us, we would in that state itself have certain absolute natural rights, the most important of which are the right to the life and security of the person, and the right to the ownership and transfer of private property. These rights do not derive from the State, in Nozik's view, and are not social constructs. In order to defend this view he needs a theory of property acquisition, and he has one, deriving straightforwardly from Locke. Property comes into existence (in a state of nature, if there is one) by mixing one's labour into resources found in nature - you chop down a tree, cut it into planks and build yourself a house, and it is by right of nature your property and yours alone, and nobody else is entitled to claim it. His view of rights is that they are all entitlements, not concessions others might make to you for utilitarian reasons. 

That is why Nozik is frequently referred to as an absolute Entitlement theorist, rather than a social contract theorist; property rights (and the others) are existentially prior to all possible contracts, and the State exists legitimately only to enforce acceptance and respect for property or other natural rights. No utilitarian calculations are involved, and Nozik rejects utilitarianism precisely because it can easily be used to justify modifications of absolute property rights. 

Nozik's State is Locke's "night watchman State", and is legitimate only insofar as it performs that role. In these ways, Nozik is able promote consistently both an absolutist libertarianism and a legitimate State using coercive enforcement of entitlements, i.e., force preventing some people from attempts to nullify or qualify our absolute entitlements. Applied to practical social/political life, Nozik's views forbid any kind of redistributivist programs whatsoever. 

The way wealth is acquired is what justifies it according to Nozik, so that even if a single honest individual working hard and using his natural talents etc. were able to acquire all of the wealth in the world, thereby reducing absolutely everybody else to dire poverty, he is entitled to his wealth, and any effort to use the powers of the State to relieve the suffering of the others would be unjust, rejecting as he does Rawls' (and our) intuition that 'Justice is Fairness' in favour of his own view that Justice is the protection and enforcement of entitlements. My own view is that Nozik's theories are their own Reductio ad Absurdum. 

    I do not wish to get into any discussions of Nozik's views. I am too old and I do not regard them as worth my efforts at this time of my life. There is no doubt that he was a very clever philosopher, but not a deep one, I think. Your best bet among modern thinkers is Rawls, I think....


....Don, again I thank you for the time and effort you took to set  out your views at my request. I'm not sure how to respond since you don't want discuss Nozick but I'll try.

What follows isn't to get into the good or bad or much of the substance of Nozick's views but just to say why I think he's rightly called a social contract theorist. The big point I see emerging from your comments, if I'm understanding them, is the incompatibility of social contract account and a natural law account, the inclusion of any aspect of the latter vitiating the former.  That doesn't seem right to me.

In Nozick's theoretical account of state formation the independents are a rump group who refuse to join the state after all others have associated with others of like interest and have all agreed to submit themselves to a "night watchman" state of limited power over them save to provide security and the most essential services. The issue then becomes the justification for how the state deals with the independents in its midst given their innate, inalienable (natural law) liberty. The argument about the independents cuts against the notion of Nozick as theorist of absolute entitlement and leads to what I try to sketch as a deep contradiction in his system.

Nozick classifies himself as a social contract theorist and so do a couple of Yale and Harvard political and gov't theorists who've lectured on him. Since consent is at the heart of social contract theory, I can see on Nozick's account of state formation how he is one, though one where consent is sharply defined and limited. 

And in your terms, Nozick also posits an "analytical conceit" at the base of his theorizing. He also in his account delineates interests, rights and needs. But he also, as does Locke, hold to a natural law account of inalienable rights. That does not, as I read you to suggest, their social contractualism. Hobbes's account is closer to what you sketch in your third paragraph. But he's different from Locke in his emphasis and Nozick falls in the tradition of Locke. If he's not a social contractualist for the reasons you say, then Locke isn't one either. Both hold to rights pre-existing states. 

Rawls tries to provide a justification for the redistributionist state and Nozick stands foursquare against him. Both proceed from a notion of consent but have antithetical ideas of what comprises that consent when seen what each thinks man is, what comprises justice and what comprises legitimacy.

Whether what I point to is a good way of disassembling Nozick or not, and without wanting to appear presumptuous since I'm strictly an amateur in all this, I do agree, and for many of the reasons you say, that in what I understand of what he argues, it's finally incoherent. 

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