Libertarianism, Academic Philosophy

Modern Libertarianism — Robert Nozick Process Theorist

Today we will be discussing the contributions of Robert Nozick to modern social philosophy and political economy.  It is my impression, perhaps wrong, that most philosophers and political theorists focus on Nozick’s “rights theory” and his rights-based arguments against Rawlsian social justice.

I don’t deny that such a reading makes sense, but I wonder if it is the best reading of Nozick’s book.  As an economist, I emphasize his style of reasoning (invisible hand theorizing) and the mechanisms he identifies (e.g., competition between political units).  And even in the sections dealing with social justice, Nozick is as much a process theorist as a rights-based theorist.

In discussing Nozick’s contributions among philosophers and political theorists how much time and effort is spent thinking about invisible-hand explanations, process tracking, the benefits of competitive pressures among political units, etc.?

  • Eselpee

    I am looking forward to this discussion to see if BHL can see how self regulation of the marketplace leads to the formation of worker’s unions and government regulations. Voila – full circle!  

  • Keith Hankins

    Hi Pete, I think you’re right in your impression of how political philosophers tend to read Nozick and I think you’re also right to suspect that that standard reading misses some of the most interesting contributions of ASU. If I’m not mistaken, Jason Brennan was planning on doing a series of posts on how to read ASU back when the blog was relatively new. It might be worth digging through the archives to look those up. I know that Jason, like me, is of the opinion that the Introduction to ASU is very important. If one reads the introduction carefully, one sees Nozick laying out a very different project from the one often attributed to him. In particular the main aim of the book IS NOT to defend a version of Lockean natural rights theory, but merely to explore the implications of taking such a view seriously.

    I also think you’re right that Nozick is in many important ways a process theorist and he had a lot of interesting things to say about invisible hand explanations (albeit within just a few very short pages of the book). Jerry Gaus has a very good essay that focuses on the explanatory and justificatory role of invisible hand explanations in ASU that recently cam out in a Cambridge Companion to Nozick. I highly recommend looking at that with your class if the reading list isn’t already set. There’s a pdf available on his website:

  • Thomas Hepplewhite

    “Individuals have rights and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights).”
    — First sentence of ASU.

  • Andrew Cohen

    Pete-When I teach Nozick, I talk at least as much about the things you mention as I do his rights talk.  (By the way, best not to call him a “process theorist” or “process philosopher” amongst philosophers–“process philosophy” was a thing.)

    • good_in_theory

      Nozick – secret disciple of Whitehead?


    Interesting perspective, and one well worth exploring. However, I believe that with one notable and important exception, while Nozick would find the ideas you mention (invisible hand explanations, competition between political units, etc.) congenial, I do not believe they are central to his core arguments.

    The exception, of course, is his attempt to justify the minimal state through an invisible hand explanation. Here, I would mention two things. First, this effort takes place against the backdrop of a certain conception of rights (as side-constraints against aggression), which is itself not subject to an invisible hand justification. Thus the first sentence of ASU, “Individuals have rights…” precedes the second sentence “So strong are these rights…that they raise the question of what, if anything, the state and its officials may do.” 

    Second, Nozick’s invisible hand justification is almost universally (and correctly) regarded as a failure precisely because the process he envisions only “works”–produces the minimal state–if morally impermissible coercion is employed by the DPA to drive out independent enforcers of justce.  So, although Nozick attempts to avoid this outcome by invoking his “principle of compensation,” nevertheless this process ends up violating the side-constraints that he acknowledges earlier. Of course, the fact that this particular justification of the minimal state fails does not prove that no alternative justificfation is available. 

  • berserkrl

    Kind of related:  I think Nozick’s “historical” theory is best understood as a causal (including present-day causal) theory rather than a purely historical one.

  • 3cantuna

    Dr. Boettke,

    Is this (re)interpretation of Nozick an expression of hermeneutical methodology on your part? 

    • Pboettke

      No, hermeneutical methodology, just reading what the man actually says — see pages around 20ff, and then look at the last part of the book.  Rights theory simply is not doing the heavy intellectual lifting in Nozick — economics is :).

      • 3cantuna

        Ok, thanks. When do we know hermeneutics is in play then? 

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