Libertarianism, Book/Article Reviews

Reflections on Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia

Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia was published almost forty years ago – the first and still most widely known book in academic philosophy to take libertarian thought seriously. How have its arguments and ideas held up? And what does that tell us about the state of libertarian philosophy?

The Cambridge Companion to Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia addresses these questions and more with eleven original essays on all aspects of Nozick’s book: his argument against the individualist anarchist, his side-constraint view of moral rights, his libertarian theory of justice, his critique of Rawls, and his argument that the minimal state constitutes a “utopia of utopias.” The essays are written by an all-star crew, including David Schmidtz, Gerald Gaus, Peter Vallentyne, Eric Mack, Barbara Fried, Chandran Kukathas, and more. And, for an academic book, it’s pretty reasonably priced on Amazon at $29.99.

Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews was kind enough to publish my (unusually lengthy) review of the book yesterday. Here’s an bit from the introduction:

Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia is widely regarded as one of the most influential books of political philosophy of the 20th century. It is certainly the most influential book of libertarian political philosophy, at least within the academy. And yet, for all that, Nozick’s masterpiece has played a rather curiously limited role in academic political philosophy since its publication almost 40 years ago. It has, for instance, produced almost no Nozickians. It hasn’t even really produced very many people who consider themselves to be working in a broadly Nozickian tradition. The one notable exception to this generalization merely heaps irony upon neglect: left-libertarians like Hillel Steiner and Peter Vallentyne follow closely in the neo-Lockean tradition revitalized by Nozick and frequently refer to his work, but all in the service of a politics that is largely opposed to the kind of free market society championed by Nozick. When one compares its reputation with its actual effects, one might just conclude that Anarchy, State, and Utopia is the most uninfluential influential book ever written.

And from the conclusion:

There is, of course, more to ASU, and more to this companion, than the five ideas on which I have focused in this review. But the discussion here is suggestive of some general conclusions about the significance of Nozick’s work. One important conclusion is this: almost all of the central arguments that Nozick sets out in ASU in defense of the minimal state are generally regarded as (at best) less than fully successful, even by philosophers who are sympathetic to his libertarian position.

But just as ASU was not the first word on libertarianism (Nozick drew much of his inspiration from conversations with Murray Rothbard), it is also not (and was not intended to be) the last word (ASUxii). It is not even the last word on Nozickian libertarianism. Despite his seeming rejection of libertarianism in The Examined Life, Nozick stressed in his last published interview that he never stopped identifying himself as a libertarian. And in his last book, Invariances, he defended a libertarian principle of voluntary cooperation as “the core principle of ethics.” True, he does not defend that principle on grounds of self-ownership (though perhaps he never did in ASU, either — the word appears only once in its 353 pages and seems largely to be a product of G.A. Cohen’s influential criticism of Nozick). Instead Nozick, and contemporary libertarians too, seem more concerned with considerations of mutual benefit and peaceful cooperation.

Libertarian thought has thus largely moved on from ASU, in terms of both the character of its arguments and the contours of its conclusions. But to admit this is hardly to denigrate the achievement, beauty, and fun of the book. As the editors of the Cambridge Companion write, and as the essays in their volume attest, ASU is a rich source of “insightful suggestions, ideas, and arguments, as well as a range of powerful criticisms of alternative views” (11). It was the fountainhead of a research program that has been, and continues to be, enormously fruitful.

Lots more in between. Feel free to go read the whole thing yourself!

  • Daniel Shapiro

    Terrific review, Matt!


    Since I am one of the few philosophers referenced in the “almost no” part of your accurate observation that “Nozick’s masterpiece [ASU] has…produced almost no Nozickians,” perhaps I may be forgiven for mentioning my Nozick’s Libertarian Project: An Elaboration and Defense (London: Continuum Publishing, 2011) as a resource for those interested in an extended and vigorous argument in support of Nozick’s fundamental principles.

    • Consider yourself forgiven!

      I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the book when you get the chance.


        I am slowly working my way through the Cambridge Companion one essay at a time. The first that I have read carefully enough to comment on is Eric Mack’s interesting piece on the minimal state, which you discuss in your excellent review. If you are interested in my thoughts on this essay, I discuss it here:

  • Thank you for this, this is a book which I have not read, and will now do so.

  • M Lister

    It’s a very well done review (and reviews of anthologies are especially hard, I find.) I think that you’re right that A,S,&U hasn’t produced “Nozickians” in the way that A Theory of Justice produced Rawlsians, but, as you suggest but don’t really emphasis, lots of the puzzles in the book have produced a large literature. (I’m not sure, personally, whether the time was well spent in some of the cases, but that’s obviously up for debate.) One thing I would have liked to see some comment on is how you think it compares to the old volume _Reading Nozick_ in quality. That book is hard to get these days, so there is certainly an advantage for the companion on that score, but I’d be interested to hear how you think the two stack up. (My recollection is that the _Reading Nozick_ volume, like this companion and unlike David Schmidtz very nice recent volume on Nozick, focuses almost completely on A,S,&U.)

  • Fernando Teson

    ASU is one of the great books in political philosophy, period. I thought that some of the early criticisms in “Reading Nozick” (Nagel’s, for example) were unduly harsh, almost angry. Why this is the case, I don’t know, but it might be nicely explained by Nozick himself in his little essay on why academics dislike free markets (in Socratic Puzzles, I believe).

    • Aeon Skoble

      Agreed. You have answered your own question about the hostility. As to influence, it would be right to call it hugely influential if only because it made it at least minimally respectable to talk about libertarianism in academic philosophy, but besides that I think it gets underrated. Although I argue against Nozick’s minarchism in DtS, his critiques of Marx and Rawls still work just fine. E.g., I have never seen a convincing rebuttal to his Wilt Chamberlain argument. That libertarians in the academy now explore other angles is evidence of AS&U’s influence, not evidence of the opposite. Overall, though, good review, and I want to buy it.