Nozick and the Coercive Power of the State

Robert Nozick contends that liberty is the most important value for society when he states at the outset of his book, Anarchy State, and Utopia, “Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating those rights)” (16). He thinks that not only should liberty almost never be curtailed, but the state should not use its power of coercion to require individuals to help others, or to protect an individual from dangerous or harmful behaviors.  He asserts that the role of the state should be the minimum required for “the protection against force, theft, fraud, enforcement of contracts, and so on” (Nozick 16). This premise maintains that people do not have a duty to help one another, or at least that the state is not the appropriate agent to enforce any duty we may have to one another aside from those specifically stipulated by contract. I will argue that not only is it permissible for the state to curtail individual liberty to help others or protect people from harm in certain instances, but also that curtailing individual liberty through the reasonable and desirable activities of the state is unavoidable.

Nozick himself admits that his book Anarchy State, and Utopia provides no “precise theory of the moral basis of individual rights” (xiv). Since individual liberty is an individual right, Nozick is also admitting that he has failed to provide a moral basis for individual liberty. This is an important confession considering that liberty is elevated to the highest moral value. At the foundation of Nozick’s definition of rights is the idea that rights are a naturally occurring attribute which precede entering into any social contract. The assertion is that individuals are at liberty to act as they wish so long as they do not impede the free action of others. This expression of “negative” liberty already demonstrates some limitations on individual liberty. If individual liberty were truly an inviolable right, then whether my action impedes someone else’s liberty or not would be irrelevant. If I were to restrain someone else’s liberty by kidnapping them, one could argue that it was simply outside of that individual’s capability to positively express their freedom. If we are to accept that the kidnapped person’s rights have been impeded by the kidnapper, then we also must admit that we are morally required to curtail the absolute right to liberty of the kidnapper in the interests of the rights of the person who would be kidnapped. This demonstrates that there is no such thing as absolute individual liberty in society.

For Nozick, protection against force is within the justified narrow function of the minimal state, but this does not adequately define the limits of state power to exclude curtailing personal liberties in other, less straightforward cases. The application of force could take on more subtle qualities, such as oligarchs refusing to release capital back into an economy. Nozick writes that “whatever arises from a just situation by just steps is itself just,” but also makes a core unjust assumption by declaring the default disposition of property as “unowned” until it “becomes permeated with what one owns” (122, 136). Rousseau’s view is, in my opinion, much more defensible. In A Discourse on Inequality, Rousseau says of “the true founder of civil society”, “Be sure not to listen to this imposter; you are lost, if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong equally to us all, and the earth itself to nobody!” (Rousseau). The duty we have to one another which limits our individual liberty is based on this co-ownership, just as the duty we have to the dignity of individuals is based in our self-ownership. The taxation that Nozick interprets as slavery could alternatively be interpreted as the state protecting individuals from life-denying economic forces and providing justice within a social contract. For certain type of libertarian, compelling the mass of humanity to labor beneath their dignity to afford a meager subsistence and employing police to prevent disruptive protests are an appropriate use of state coercive power, but enacting a tax policy that provides a bare minimum of services to support communities and our fellow human beings is an outrage. People in privileged positions of power can enjoy their liberties at a more pronounced level and are able to protect those liberties in ways that less privileged people cannot. The liberty to choose a health care plan or to have no health care at all is an absurd liberty to proclaim for a person who is in poverty and dying of cancer. Because the minimal state has a responsibility to provide justice and protect the individuals it represents from fraud, it has a responsibility to curtail the perceived liberties of privileged people who have been unjustly apportioned material wealth by a corrupt and biased economic system. The state is the natural agent for such action, since the duty we have to the dignity of one another is a type of contract which the state should uphold, and failure to do otherwise exposes people to a subtle form of violence.

Kidnapping may seem like an extreme example, but it is Nozick’s contention that the state may not use its power to coerce a citizen to aid others. He might consider it akin to kidnapping for the state to coerce a person to serve on a jury when they would prefer to go fishing. The state is demanding the presence of the juror in a place they do not wish to be, and it is not as punishment for a misdeed of which he or she is accused. This would seem to be a miscarriage of justice to Nozick. In this instance, the state is not merely prohibiting an action, it is requiring an action. There is a reason why this requirement for citizens to serve one another in this way is called “jury duty.” It is because norms in society have evolved so that we have a responsibility to serve in judgment of our peers in court, and this process is generally believed to work as a protection of individual rights and liberties overall. This example shows how society is well served by having a positive duty to one another beyond just not interfering with one another, and state enforcement of this duty contributes to the provision of justice.

Certainly, there are instances when the state may wish to encourage some behavior in individuals with the stated goal of providing a benefit to society, but punishing people for noncompliance, and thus coercing them to obey, would appear to be unjust. It could be argued that enforcing one state religion would be in the interests of society because differences in religious conviction are a source of conflict and violence. The use of state power in this instance has two major detractions. For one, it is false to assume that a decree from the state is sufficient to influence a person’s deeply held religious convictions. It is generally understood that if I cannot choose a behavior, I cannot be held morally responsible for it. It may well be impossible for me to change my core beliefs, or it could be argued that it would be unethical for the state to seek to change my unique identity through coercive psychological techniques. Let’s leave aside for the moment whether coercive psychological techniques were used to create my convictions in the first place. Second, there are benefits from diversity in society that may outweigh or at least match the friction that attends it. In fact, conflict itself is understood to not be completely negative. Conflict is usually a necessary part of a constructive, creative process. The goals of the state where limiting personal liberty is required need to pass a higher bar than merely diminishing conflict. It seems that the state should not expect an individual to sacrifice too much of their identity, to which they have a natural right and which itself is of benefit to society, to seek other benefits for society which may or may not materialize.

Another significant worry in the expression of state power is that a paternalistic state could prohibit me from some activity I enjoy because it is deemed harmful to me or to society. Since I only have my own life, Nozick reasons, and as a self-owning being I have a right to my personal liberty, I should even be able to delegate some harmful activity to someone else to enact upon me if I see fit. The caveat Nozick offers is that such delegation should not break a third-party contract with someone else (cite). This formulation accentuates our individual sense of self beyond any duty to others, and denies the fact that we all have a sort of contract with our fellow human beings. If the concept of personal liberty is itself founded in some pre-existing human dignity that is within all of us, the realization of an individual self necessarily comes out of that earlier, more foundational value. To say that my dignity is diminished by others restricting my choice to undermine my own dignity is like saying that a tolerant society must tolerate intolerance. Rawls responds to this conundrum of tolerance in A Theory of Justice by stating, “While an intolerant sect does not itself have title to complain of intolerance, its freedom should be restricted only when the tolerant sincerely and with reason believe that their own security and that of the institutions of liberty are in danger” (Rawls 200). A similar relationship is at work when society through the power of the state seeks to protect an individual from harming him- or herself.  The question is when should it be the duty of the state to use its coercive power to curtail my liberty in this regard. If I “choose” to be a heroin addict, the libertarian might argue, it should be my right to spend my inheritance on a dingy flat and a lifetime supply of opium. For one, this assumes that I have indeed made a choice. It is conceivable that I am unaware of the environment in which my choices have been diminished, and that if I were to be shown fuller options, I might make different choices. The state should certainly take an interest in protecting vulnerable people from being forced into a situation where they become addicted to drugs. Looking at the issue from another angle, by criminalizing drugs the state could be complicit in perpetuating cycles of poverty and criminality among other vulnerable groups. The way the state uses its coercive power to address any perceived social ill very often may not contribute to the desired effect. There are significant differences in the options available to express state power, from requiring therapy under threat of fines to required inhabitance of a cell in a Supermax prison. To admit the appropriateness of using state power to address self-harm should be separate from the consideration that goes into determining the degree to which that power should be applied.

I have shown why it is sometimes permissible for the state to curtail individual liberty to help others or protect people from harm. It becomes apparent when contemplating the limiting of liberty by the state that there are competing moral values at play, such as between individual liberty and the provision of justice. To hold individual liberty to be the highest ideal works to deny the individual liberties of others when these values are realized in a diverse society. Even the assertion of self-ownership denies an equally fundamental aspect of the human condition: that the life-affirming qualities of the earth are co-owned by every human being, and perhaps even non-human agents. The precious value of our individuality is undermined when we deny that we also have responsibilities to one another. Because the state has a responsibility to provide justice and protect individuals from violence, it is within the purview of the state to use its coercive power appropriately to address issues that impact social and individual outcomes to some degree, and in fact these values come into conflict so often that it is inevitable that the state will be the arbiter of justice when they do. How much the state should employ its coercive power in establishing justice, and in what ways, will remain a subject of debate.

Matthew Ebert

PHIL 457 – 1001
Dr. David Rondel

11 December 2017


Works Cited

Nozick, Robert. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Basic Books, New York, 2013. Print.

Rawls, J. A. A Theory of Justice. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA. 1971. Print.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, and Maurice Cranston. A Discourse on Inequality. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1984. Print.