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Nozics's and Rawls's Political Theory

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As theory, political theory must share features with theories of other phenomenon. It may even have some features in common with theories of the physical or the biological world. However, by virtue of being political theory, it must possess characteristics that are distinctive. Some of these distinctive features separate if from theories of nature but not from theories pertaining to human affairs more generally. But its truly distinctive features must flow from its focus on the political. Now the term political has multiple meanings. The first goes back to classical Greece and is derived from the word polis which literally means the city, but is better, more properly understood as place with a common world or even more simply, a community. Political then pertains to whatever is done within or by the community. Decision making itself has a specific connotation.

Political theory then is a particular form of word-dependent systematic reflection on any or all of the following: a) the collective power to take decisions about the good life of a community, b) the mechanisms by which power is exercised by one group over another, c)the use of state power to achieve the good of the community, d) the use of the state by one group to exercise power over another, e) on the values by which a particular community governs its life. Finally, f) there can be a grand political theory that reflects on the general condition of the entire human kind or the values by which the entire humanity may govern its life (Wolff, 1991).

Nozics and Rawls

Nozics was a libertarian thinker. He was often called a conservative, but he certainly refuted this claim himself, he also rejected the idea he was a liberal. Indeed, in his work we see an argument that is pro-free market, but also pro-individual rights, including minority rights, such as gay rights. These rights were not simply subordinated to economic arguments – rather they were based upon attempts to define a philosophically ethical standpoint for the character of the state and its relations to citizens. There is a genuinely radical edge to his thought in his expression for the desire that drugs, sex, pornography and other illicit items be bought and sold just as morally as buying food and clothes under his free market principle of self-ownership.

Robert Nozics fits no neat category ideologically. Neither liberal nor conservative, he was a critic of utilitarianism and knew few boundaries in the subject matter of his own writing. This spanned across, science, issues of rights and literature. He was a career philosopher who spent his life in academic institutions in the United States, primarily at Harvard. However, he was no simple ivory tower scholar, and as a testimony to the general popularity of his work and his accessible writing skills he was the winner of an American National Book Award.

John Rawls was also a Harvard man, teaching at the university for almost 40 years. “In A Theory of Justice, which is examined here, Rawls attempts to reconcile liberty and equality in a principled way, offering an account of justice as fairness. Central to this effort is his famous approach to the seemingly intractable problem of distributive justice” (Frankel, 2007). Published in 1971, this text has often been cited as single handedly reviving political theory as a discipline, following the almost pervasive impact of positivism and empiricism after the Second World War. While this claim may be somewhat exaggerated, there is little doubt that it would be impossible to have a series of lectures  on contemporary political thought without sometime being devoted to this seminal works study.

Robert Nozics’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia is a Lockean-inspired attempt to justify a minimal state that would be largely confined to the role of basic securities and protections. Following the traditional modern state of nature, Nozics sees the state as emerging by an invisible hand that does not usurp anyone’s rights, and progresses from a simple protectorate towards a modern functional minimal state. All in all, Nozics presents a defense of the libertarian state in a popularity albeit theoretical manner. This seminal work has had a wide influence, particularly in the United States, where it has become standard reading for political science students.

Nozics’s argument is based on the opinion that all human beings have absolute self ownership. This entitles us to our basic freedoms: of contract, civil liberties and property rights. If we have such a natural entitlement then consequently it follows that we must respect the same right for others. Nozics argues that we are obliged to treat others as ends and not means. As a consequence of this ethical standpoint, the argument develops a political and social implication: that as individuals we cannot expect others to take responsibility for our actions and life chances, and that includes collective welfare provision. So according to Nozics, all redistributed taxes are therefore immoral. Public schools, roads, national parks, welfare systems, minimum wages, rent control, corporate subsidies, social housing and universal healthcare cannot be justified. In a British context, Nozics would understand the NHS and the British welfare system with its wide array of benefits, tax credits and so on as undermining the fabric of the human condition. It is important to note that in many ways this is a moral argument, a philosophical one, and not an out-and-out politically conservative one. It is important that, given this context, any critique of Nozics is based on the philosophical and moral sustainability of his thought, rather than the outcome of these ideas in political, social and economic terms.

In support of this last point it can be stated that Nozics himself, in Anarchy, state, and Utopia, shows no interest in attacking interventionist government based on a means of measuring their success or lack of it. He moves towards an argument for a free market because from the logic of his thought they are moral.  Nozics specifically challenges other theories where distributive justice is taken as a measure of political and social effectiveness, particularly, of course, John Rawls’ theory of justice. In this thesis Rawls argues that privately held wealth be redistributed in order to benefit the less well-off. In contemporary political thought, then, there is a substantive debate to be investigated by making some comparison between these authors work.

Nozics and Rawls political theories

Such are some of the general points and critiques of Rawls’ major work. The question now remains, how does the work of the two authors relate? Furthermore, we need to explore how a comparison of their ideas can help us to understand the political content of what these authors have to say and their contemporary relevance. We may start by saying that both authors share an interest in the relationship between the state and the individual. This is an area of inquiry that is fundamental to political thought and in this sense places them both at the heart of what politics is all about. Furthermore, each author does so with consequent implications for the role of government. “To start with, Rawls acknowledges the tension between an individual and society as a whole. The principles of justice which we have looked at briefly above are the principles that he maintains are the best to reconcile the interests of the two parties. Society is described as a cooperative venture for mutual advantage, although it is typically marked by a conflict as well as by an identity of interests. Conflict occurs because humans are self-interested” (Bakaya, 2006).

 It is important to note here that unlike Nozics’s free market, for Rawl conflict as it is implied is taken as a realistic norm, but nevertheless as something that needs to be  dissipated as far as possible, and in this sense is a negative not part of political discourse (perhaps even a moral bad rather than a moral good). That conflict is seen as something that is undesirable in politics and in civil relations is an assumption of Rawls’ that could have political consequences and is worth considering. Trying to make politics devoid of conflict and setting the goal of social harmony as a good denies that conflict is part of social negotiation and political aspirations. Think of political settlements in Northern Ireland and South Africa that actually have become more stable because of an acknowledgement and attempt to live with conflict, rather than eradicate it.

Although Nozics does not specifically criticize Rawls on this point, there is much in Anarchy, State, and Utopia that is a direct response to his Harvard colleague’s theory of redistributive justice. Indeed, this text may be seen as a testing-out of whether such as form of justice is possible. Rawls is more openly criticized by Nozics for infringing upon the freedom of individuals. This critique of Nozics’s can be seen right at the very beginning of his argument where he sets out his foundational points.

Another point of tension between Nozics and Rawls concerns the very central tenant of distributive justice. Nozics argues that there is no central distribution processes or single person or group that may be entitled to control all the resources and, furthermore, has the authority to decide how these will be distributed. “Distribution, he continues, is a result of choice: ‘What each person gets, he gets from others who give to him in exchange for something, or as gift---- the total result is the product of many decisions which the different individuals involved are entitled to make. ‘In a free society, Nozics maintains, each individual uses each other to their own ends in accordance with the freedom they have to do so. Whether or not the distribution resulting from these transactions is ‘just’ would be the question for Rawls” (Nozics, 1974). Really the authors are coming at the moral aspect of the question of distribution in different ways.

Nozics insists that just transactions are ones that are permissible in a free society, and that their outcomes are always unknown. Indeed, there is no way of judging them, no Archimedean point from which they might be ‘objectively’ judged. Rawls, however, believes that society can set basic principles of transactions in order to facilitate justice taking place in a fair and distributive manner. It is one of those times in political philosophy, one of those frequent times one can say, that when two authors are compared, seemingly around the same subject, there is often a point at which they stop conversing with each other as their arguments have taken them so far down the road that they can no longer be merely ‘compared’. Rather, the student of these ideas has to go back and think through the entirety of the authors arguments in order to make up one’s own mind. Such is the toil of political thought.

Another point that Nozics makes in relation to Rawls’ work is the lack of historical character to his principles of justice. Rawls does present an historical, conceptually abstracted version of this principle. Nozics describes the type of principles that Rawls advocates as ‘current time-slice principles of justice’ rather than historical. He holds that, ‘the justice of a distribution is determined by how things are distributed as judged by some structural principles of just distribution’.

In essence he is critiquing Rawls for presenting a contemporary yet merely fashionable or current strand of thought in terms of the principles of justice.  One  that takes it that all that matters with this principle is ‘what people get’. He has a point here. If we were to consider Rawls’ argument in terms of the multi-various philosophical and practical discussions that pre-date it, we would find many competing accounts and changing ideas about ‘who gets what’ through the ages, to say the least. Rawls would argue that the ‘veil of ignorance’ leads to equality and fairness in the original position. And that it is strength in his non-historical view. Yet the veil of ignorance in this case may well be masking the fact that Rawls has not really justified his approach unless we accept that everyone should agree to rationally abandon the historical context for the sake of equality. Rawls does have a small wild streak, where he considers the issue of civil disobedience.

“Civil disobedience is, by nature, an act responding to injustices internal to a given society, appealing to the public’s conception of justice. Civil disobedience can be justified, according to Rawls, if the following three conditions are all met:

1-     If the injustice is substantial and clear, especially one that obstructs the path to removing other injustices (e.g. poll taxes and other burdens on the right to vote). This certainly includes serious infringements of the principle of liberty and blatant violations of the principle of fair equality of opportunity.

2-     If the normal appeals to the political majority have already been made in good faith and have failed. Civil disobedience is a last resort.

3-     If there are not too many other minority groups with similarly valid claims. The just constitution would be eroded if too many groups exercised the choice of civil disobedience. The resolution of this situation is a political alliance of these multiple minorities to form a working majority coalition” (Frankel, et al., 2007).

Given that Rawls’ work is probably the most discussed political thought in contemporary studies of the subject today, the above provides but a brief overview of the complexities of his thought in here. Similarly, criticism of his work runs far and wide. As well as being criticized by communitarian thinkers and other authors who do not share his liberalism, even within the liberal field of studies there have been significant challenges to his work.

From those who might be expected to be sympathetic to his ideas, critique has centered around a number of key themes. For example,  the stability of the type of state and the rights within it that Rawls outlines. Many have argued that human nature would not work in its favor and that simple envy between individuals would undo its basic premise. Furthermore, Rawls seems to assume an inevitable ‘progress’ and acceptance of rights, when no such assumptions can be made. The structures imposed by the ‘war on terror’ since 9/11 and the specific handling of human rights issues in Afghanistan, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay might indicate, it is argued, that human rights and issues of justice are not on an inevitable trajectory upwards. Moreover, issues regarding self-respect are rather nebulous and individuals will have very different ideas of their boundaries. This is particularly the case in relation to material goods. One only has to look at the Premier League in English football to see that the prize of great wealth can often undermine personal loyalty and achievement.


To conclude what may be regarded as a theoretically sympathetic argument to Nozics’s position, he is not focused upon economic inequality because he believed that what mattered was not the presence of inequality, but the process by which that inequality arose. Was the process the outcome of a just or moral set of interactions between individuals?  If so, the outcome itself was irrelevant. Norzick’s theory of the state and in a sense his libertarian apologia for the existence of states in the first instance is that they can legitimately be or become minimal. While no actual existing state matches Nozics’s theoretical edifice, his notion of the state is set as an ideal type to explore further moral questions and questions around justice. Ideally, states ought to develop through an evolution –through an invisible hand.

This follows the Lockean social contract theory of the state that the state tacitly evolves through a set of micro-agreements and contracts between the ruled and the rulers in regard to their rights and duties. Individuals would not surrender their rights to the state if this were not the case, and the case for all, according to Nozics. The state becomes the guardian of individuals’ self-ownership. However, this is only the case up to a certain degree. Nozics’s stages of the development of the state illustrate the boundaries that are in place in this contract.

Nozics argues that there is a certain moral necessity to the way in which the stages of the state ought to develop. He begins by stating that individuals act morally and pacifically – that is, attempts in good faith to act within the limits of Locke’s law of nature (Nozics, 1974).

John Rawls can be credited with the revival of political theory in recent times; his path breaking book. ‘A Theory of Justice’ (1971) laying a novel foundation of moral political theory. Both Rawls and Nozics represent two dominant ideologies of our time.

While Rawls’ represents the Keynesian tradition of liberal egalitarianism, Nozics represents the classical liberal view of the free market and the minimal state. The fifth chapter tackles this great debate between Rawls and Nozics. Rawls theory of Justice has been called the most influential contemporary contribution to political philosophy and has been credited with revitalizing the discipline. The theory’s most notable critic is Robert Nozics, who had denounced it as advocating a redistribution of wealth and property in Anarchy, State of Utopia (1974).

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