My Response to the Review of Nozick’s Libertarian Project in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

My book, Nozick’s Libertarian Project: An Elaboration and Defense (“NLP”), was just reviewed by Professor Matt Matravers for Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews: Set forth below is my analysis of his comments. To cut to the chase, while Matravers generally does a good job of describing my objectives and the thrust of my arguments in NLP, I have serious issues with a number of his substantive conclusions. Unless otherwise indicated, parenthetical references below are to my book.

I must begin by begging the reader’s patience, as there are a few preliminary matters that must be cleared away before I get to the “meat” of the review. At the risk of having this response sound too much like “sour grapes,” I start with the old adage that one should never discuss either religion or politics with strangers. The logic of this advice is obvious: not only are these subjects incredibly divisive, but they resist all attempts at rational discussion. I cannot help but believe that my reviewer’s ideological sympathies are far removed from my own and that, as seen below, it has affected his objectivity.

His notes initially that “this is a timely book politically if not philosophically” because a “significant part of a mainstream political party in the USA is committed to an ill-thought-out libertarian anti-statism.” One wonders if in Matravers believes that a significant portion of the other major U.S. political party is equally guilty of an “ill-thought-out anti-libertarian statism.” I can’t read his mind, but this strikes me as another case of liberal arrogance to the effect of “only people who share my political preconceptions are capable of rational thought.”

Matravers observes that I “write as if engaged in a political war of us (right-thinking libertarians) against them (prejudiced liberals), often to the detriment of philosophical nuance.” Well, as an ex-litigator, I suppose that I am by temperament a little more tendentious than most philosophers, who attempt to preserve the appearance of impartiality while often violating it in substance. See my critique of Barbara Fried’s attack on Nozick’s “style” in another post on this site: //

The Fried piece referenced above is just one example of “cheap shots” directed at Nozick. One of the best-known reviews of ASU was by Thomas Nagel, a prominent liberal philosopher. He wrote that it “attempts to set forth the libertarian position in a way that will persuade some of those who do not already accept it. Despite its ingenuity of detail, the effort is entirely unsuccessful as an attempt to convince, and far less successful than it might be as an attempt to explain to someone who does not hold the position why anyone else does hold it” (my emphasis). Thirty five years later, it is quite clear that this judgment has been consigned to the dustbin of history.

With respect to my own effort to answer Nozick’s critics, Matravers unfortunately fails to present any examples regarding my lack of “nuance,” and thus it is difficult to say more in response than that I tried my best to be fair to Nozick’s ideological opponents. By this I mean that I attempted to present and address their arguments in an intellectually honest way, i.e. without distorting their views in ways that weaken them and thus made them easier to deflect.

Matravers professes to “having no idea” what I mean by my statement that Nagel’s criticism [in the above-cited review] of Nozick for offering “libertarianism without foundations” is “somewhat overblown given the standards generally applied to political theories” (3). I note that the language of mine that he quotes appears in the Introduction, where I am summarizing what will follow. In Chapter 1, however, immediately before reconstructing Nozick’s argument for libertarian rights, I say the following: “competing political theories are also value-laden, taking (for example) utility or equality as basic, and so must also found these ideals in some fashion” (20). I immediately go on to say that, accordingly, the appropriate standard for the evaluation of Nozick’s arguments are competing political/ethical doctrines.

Since political theorists do not reject out of hand (say) utilitarianism as a political doctrine because its proponents offer no formal argument for the value of welfare or preference satisfaction, I do not see why Nagel–even assuming that he is right about the lack of an ethical foundation for natural rights–is entitled to dismiss libertarianism on this basis. Thus, Nagel’s criticism on this front is “overblown.” I believe a careful reading of my text should have made my meaning apparent to Matravers.

However, the entire point of Chapter 1, as Matravers realizes, it to demonstrate that Nozick did indeed present in ASU a fairly elaborate and substantial, if not entirely systematic, argument for libertarian rights. I elect to recast Nozick’s argument in the form of a deductive proof, consisting of five premises and a conclusion, in order to “make Nozick’s premises explicit and [because it] allows us to assess the overall strength of his reasoning” (3). While he does not quibble much with premise 1, Matravers asserts that the validity of my premise 2 [“The special moral status of persons (and potential persons) renders them morally inviolable, i.e. there are side constraints on how they may be treated” (20)] “is harder to evaluate as it is not clear exactly what Friedman takes it to mean.”

Here again, I am unsure of the source of his confusion. In my defense of this premise (22-4) I clearly set forth a position that has come to be known as “moderate deontology;” that is, that persons are inviolable within certain limits. So, for example, it would be wrong for us to sacrifice one innocent person to save five other innocents, but not wrong to make the same sacrifice to save a million other innocents. It is true that I do not attempt to describe the exact strength and dimensions of side constraints, because this is irrelevant for purposes of Nozick’s argument. All that matters here is that such constraints “are an undeniable aspect of our ordinary moral consciousness” (24).

Matravers criticizes my decision to lay out what I take to be Nozick’s overall argument for libertarian rights in the form of a deductive proof on two grounds, neither of which persuades me. First, “the argument struggles against any such standard not least because the meaning and scope of the key terms (what side constraints? what counts as force? what are the limits of inviolability? and so on), is yet to be determined.” As already indicated, I reject the claim that I failed to adequately explain my use of these terms, at least for purposes of describing Nozick’s moral framework, if not for its application (which comes in subsequent chapters).

His second reason for disliking my use of the deductive form is that since I accept that Nozick’s burden is comparative, i.e. the plausibility of his political theory relative to its competitors, I don’t need “this faux-logical style.” Rather, I need only defend the idea that “autonomous persons (which is all adult, functioning human beings) have a special moral standing such that they should be free from interference in living their chosen lives, including interference justified by an increase in general welfare.”

With respect to the “faux-logic” bit, I expressly warn in the text that by placing Nozick’s argument in the form of a deductive proof I do not intend to suggest that this imbues it with any greater certainty than other methods of reasoning (24), but do so simply for purposes of clarity. I continue to believe that this is appropriate because Nozick’s argument, as I understand it, proceeds in a series of steps. The plausibility of the initial premise(s) provides the justification for subsequent ones. Thus, the deductive form is useful to the reader by enabling him/her to understand the connections between the various stages of this argument.

So, Matravers objection seems to be nothing more than quibbling about style rather than delving into substance. Since I sincerely wish to benefit from informed criticism of the arguments presented in NLP, I wish he had devoted less of the limited word-count available to him to matters of this sort, and more to my actual reasoning.

This gets us to a more serious, substantive objection: “Unfortunately, Friedman seems to take the argument [outlined in Chapter 1] to have established particular, substantive, claims. Thus, Chapter 2 begins with the claim that an implication of the ‘proof’ is that ‘innocent persons may not be coerced, including for purposes of redistributing resources’ (32).” Matravers goes on to claim that “nothing in the argument so far allows the implication that ‘redistributing resources’ is a form of coercion. That has to be established (and never is).”

Well, the quotation in the preceding paragraph is an accurate one, but it is immediately followed by these two sentences, which he omits to mention: “However, this discussion did not address how libertarian rights to property may justly arise and (assuming they can) whether they must yield when confronted by claims of ‘social justice.'” It is to these questions that we now turn.” I should also add at this point that I had previously highlighted Nozick’s caveat (ASU, 30n) that side constraints might have to yield if necessary to prevent a moral catastrophe, and that I would return to this question in Chapter 6 (19). So, all I have claimed thus far is to have set forth Nozick’s (plausible) argument for libertarian rights, not to have fleshed out its particulars or how it is to be applied.

Matravers’ claim that I have simply assumed what needs to be shown is particularly puzzling because in his earlier discussion of my premise 5, he observes that I “accept that those with an inkling of what’s coming will already be distinguishing in their minds between forced organ donation and ‘forced’ general taxation (28), but whether any such distinction is legitimate — and so the meaning and obviousness of this premise — is postponed for discussion in the next chapter.” Exactly!

Thus, in Chapters 2 and 3 I discuss, and attempt to rebut (using Nozick’s basic principles), a variety of arguments intended to show that property rights may easily be overridden in order to promote egalitarian outcomes. This includes, in the course of my defense of Nozick’s “taxation as forced labor argument” (47-9), a specific discussion of what constitutes unjust “coercion.” And, since I devote a substantial portion of Chapter 6 to defending the stringency, but not the absolute inviolability, of property rights, I am genuinely puzzled about what question I am supposed to have begged.

I turn now to Matravers’ remarks regarding my treatment in Chapter 2 of Nozick’s famous “entitlement theory” of justice. Here, he objects to my “surreptitious” introduction of the word “full” in my claim that if the Locke/Nozick conditions for just original acquisition of natural resources are satisfied, the appropriator has earned “full rights to this property” (38). He posits that the argument I offer, “if it works, shows that the person has justly acquired her property. Nothing has been said about what follows from just acquisition…where did the notion of ‘full’ rights come from (and what does it mean)?”

Addressing the definitional issue first, I am sorry to say that I am not nearly so stealthy as Matravers assumes. On the previous page, in defending the Locke/Nozick model of just acquisition, I argue that the requirement that “an appropriator invest her time, energy and/or capital in improving a natural asset…is an integral part of our willingness to regard Lockean appropriation as conferring a libertarian property right” (emphasis supplied). Although I did not find it necessary to formally define “full rights,” given the context the obvious and correct understanding would be “total, complete, unfettered, unconditional…”

My argument for the recognition of “full rights” should also have been clear to Matravers. As described both in Chapters 2 (34-8) and 3 (71-2), I interpret Nozick as making an argument grounded in the notion of desert. In other words, if an (initial) acquirer takes the risks involved in homesteading or otherwise substantially improving natural property and in doing so does not worsen the position of other, non-appropriators, then he/she has earned whatever benefits can be derived from this resource.

Matravers also questions my (admittedly brief) treatment in Chapter 2 of Nozick’s principle of rectification (39-40). Specifically, he takes issue with my comment that it is intuitively obvious that “the normative force of any demand for rectification diminishes with the number of generations intervening between the occurrence of the injustice and the time the wrong is addressed.” He asserts that I am wrong to focus on mere “worries about who now might be required to pay whom for past injustice,” because “current entitlements are legitimate if, and only if, they came about in accordance with the demands of just acquisition and just transfer, which contemporary holdings clearly did not.”

Matravers has identified here an important issue, and with the benefit of hindsight I wish I had devoted a little more space to this topic in NLP. Nevertheless, Matravers is simply incorrect to assert on the basis of the above that “if the original pattern of entitlements was illegitimate, that illegitimacy passes down through the generations.”

Consider the following example. Through force or fraud A originally acquires real property X from common users, group B, in a morally illegitimate way. A‘s descendants hold X for a few generations and then sell X to C, C then sells to D, D to E, E to F, for many generations on to M in the current day. In all transfers of X from A to C onwards, the purchaser paid a negotiated price in a completely voluntary transaction, and had no actual knowledge regarding how A acquired X. Meanwhile, all of B‘s descendants have died, i.e. there are no survivors from this line.

Because I believe that Nozick would regard the sale of X by L to M as constituting a “just transfer,” the entitlement theory would not condemn M‘s ownership of X, nor (I think) should we be disappointed in this result. Obviously, this example is no substitute for a fully worked out theory of rectification, but it is sufficient to discredit Matravers’ claim, and to demonstrate the relevance of my remarks about rectification quoted above.

We now come to my “favorite” part of the review, Matravers’ remarks about Chapter 3, where I address a variety of challenges to Nozick’s principle of justice in acquisition. Here, the review says only that the “quality of the argument varies considerably depending on the degree to which Friedman’s conviction that Nozick is right and his opponents wrong interferes with his ability to appreciate the opponents’ arguments.”

Isn’t this a little like charging a person with a “crime” without specifying the offense or the conduct in question? Naturally, I am a complete loss for a response. I guess I should draw some comfort from the fact that I am apparently capable of making a quality argument in some circumstances!

Matravers correctly describes the purpose and scope of Chapter 4, which attempts to justify the minimal state, but has nothing substantive to say, and so neither shall I. He takes a very similar approach to Chapter 5, and I would add only that I was quite open in acknowledging that my mini-survey of the modern histories of Britain, Germany and Mexico was not intended to “prove” in some conclusive way the intimate connection between respect for property rights and liberty generally. Rather, I note that “the purpose of this historical survey is not to prove this thesis, but merely to show that it is plausible” (122). A related goal was to “illuminate the mechanisms by which a society’s commitment to individual rights is strengthened by its respect for economic liberty” (106).

I am disappointed in the short shrift given to my book’s final Chapter 6, which as Matravers observes, “attempts to defend libertarianism generally as a plausible public philosophy.” A key part of this effort is intended to show that Nozick-style libertarianism is not committed to letting the proverbial “widows and orphans” starve in the streets should private relief prove unavailing. I argue this on two separate grounds: one internal to Nozick’s basic principles, and alternatively, by incorporating value pluralism in a manner that doesn’t vitiate the libertarian commitment to stringent property rights.

Sadly, Matravers limits himself to noting that “Friedman happily embraces the language of the undeserving versus the ‘deserving’ — or sometimes the ‘innocent’ — poor, only the latter of whom can expect assistance and then only in ‘truly desperate’ circumstances (144).” If this is intended as criticism, it is a strange one. As I point out in the text the distinction between the deserving (i.e. responsible) and the undeserving (i.e. irresponsible) poor is recognized as legitimate even by most egalitarian-minded theorists (140). Furthermore, my use of the term “truly desperate circumstances” occurs immediately following a sentence (144) that denies the “right of innocent persons to be lifted out of unpleasant, but not exigent, living conditions,” and should be understood in this context.

However, Matravers’ dismissive comment does not seem to be narrowly directed at me:

but I doubt those who would be made angry by this will have persevered this far. As has been said many times about Nozick’s ASU, if you are not convinced that, for example, holdings are absolutely held and that one form of interference is much like any other and all equally bad, there is nothing in Nozick — or Friedman — that will change your mind.

But, one of the key points of Chapter 6 was that holdings are not absolutely held, and that all interferences are not the same. So, Matravers is simply appealing here to the widespread perception of his readers that libertarianism is essentially irrational and fit only for the callous and uncaring. This brings me back to the adage about never discussing politics with strangers.

In sum, I had hoped for better, but cannot say that I am surprised by the tone and substance of this review. I am unbowed, as I have always assumed that books like mine can only hope to persuade those who approach these issues with at least a semi-open mind.



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