My Interview With Kosmos Online Regarding Nozick’s Libertarian Project

About two months ago I was interviewed by Kosmos Online about my book. This interview is now available here,, both as an audio file and as a transcript. Unfortunately, due to a technical problem the answer to one of the four questions was inaudible and thus not included as part of the Kosmos podcast. However, I have included the fouth question below, together with my (reconstructed) answer. Kosmos, a project of the Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University, describes itself as an online community “that provides career advice and intellectual content for liberty loving academics.” Of course, all comments and questions regarding my interview are welcome.

What are the Strongest Criticisms Against Nozick? How do you Address These?

I share the opinion of virtually all of the other commentators that have reviewed it, that Nozick’s justification of the minimal state is unconvincing. I address this first by describing what I regard as more successful answers to the anarchist challenge provided by other theorists. These include the idea that a state of some sort is an inevitable outcome from the state of nature, and that accordingly the best we can do is try to shape it in a libertarian direction. Alternatively, some have argued that the state may not be inevitable, but that it is a lesser evil in terms of preserving rights than an unregulated cartel of private enforcers.

Because these strategies do not provide a moral justification for the coercion employed by the minimal state, I propose a libertarian principle of fairness, building on work done originally by H.L.A. Hart and subsequently defended by George Klosko. This principle justifies a state role in national defense and law enforcement on the grounds that these public goods, but not others, are essential for the maintenance of rational agency. State coercion in support of these functions is uniquely justified because it is rational agency that accounts for our special moral status.

Additionally, I rebut the criticisms leveled by G.A. Cohen and the left-libertarians against Nozick’s defense of the justice of original appropriation. I believe I am able to show that these objections gain their apparent force only be ignoring the “improvement” condition referenced above. In other words, they incorrectly interpret just acquisition under the Lockean model as requiring only that non-appropriators not be injured in the process, but this is a very unsympathetic reading of Nozick’s position.

Finally, I address an argument which appears again to have originated with Cohen and then adopted by others, to the effect that “substantive self-ownership” should be preferred to the merely “formal self-ownership” supposedly championed by Nozick. But as alluded to previously, this is a misreading of the moral foundation of Nozick’s libertarianism,, i.e. the great disvalue he attaches to coercion. So, even if the redistribution of wealth enhances the range of choices open to people, it would still impermissibly use some persons solely as a means of achieving this effect. The “substantive” vs. “formal” self-ownership argument actually begs the question against Nozick’s account of rights.

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