Libertarianism 5: Robert Nozick on the Minimalist State

This post is part of an ongoing series on the topic of Christian libertarianism.  Previous posts in this series can be accessed via these hyperlinks: Post 1, Post 2, Post 3, Post 4

In this week’s post I’m going to present a summary of Robert Nozick’s libertarian case for a minimalist state, developed in his important book Anarchy, State, and Utopia.  Before doing so, however, I want to situate this summary within the flow of the argument I began a few weeks back.  Earlier I made the claim that minarchism (i.e. a libertarian perspective that asserts the legitimacy of a minimalist state) is self-defeating in that minarchists offer no distinctively libertarian basis that can justify the actions of even a minimalist state.  Last week I argued that John Locke’s social contract theory is not self-defeating, but it is also not all that libertarian, at least by the standards set out earlier in this series.

But what about Nozick? My sabbatical this semester has afforded me the opportunity to reread Nozick’s book, one that I haven’t touched since my doctoral work.  In Anarchy, State, and Utopia Nozick offers readers an alternative spin to social contract theory that, while beginning where Locke does, offers readers a very different picture–a “thought experiment,” as it were–of how a minimalist state could emerge from the state of nature that does not violate the natural rights of persons. Nozick’s argument goes much farther in advancing a distinctively libertarian response to the argument I’ve been developing.


Nozick has a story to tell about how a minimalist state could emerge from the state of nature.  I’m going to tell Nozick’s story below, but before doing so I feel the need to explain the purpose of what philosophers sometimes call “thought experiments.” It is more or less common practice in some branches of philosophy for scholars to offer up simple, sometimes quite extreme, examples as a way of advancing a philosophical argument.  One of the more famous thought experiments is the Trolley Problem, a thought experiment that has generated not only an endless series of outlandish memes but an entire cottage industry of academic articles and book-length treatments of the problem.


Those who defend the use of thought experiments recognize that the scenarios they are describing are imaginary, not historical.  Philosophers use thought experiments in order to isolate relevant features in the topic at hand. To borrow from author David Edmonds, thought experiments allow philosophers to block out the background variables (the “moral hiss”) that make our real world judgments and intuitions more difficult to discern. The point is that philosophers believe that these sorts of stories can be illuminating even if they are not describing a real, historical moment.  The Trolley Problem can help us grasp something important about our rational moral judgments, even if there was never a moment in history when a person had to decide whether to pull the lever, push an obese man off a bridge, or spin the turntable. The concept of the state of nature can be useful in illuminating the purpose and legitimacy of the state, even if it does not describe a real moment in human history.

Nozick’s argument in Anarchy, State, and Utopia is similar to the Trolley Problem in this sense: Nozick wants to tell us a story about how a minimalist state could emerge without violating the rights of any individual.  He is not saying that the story he tells is a historical analysis of how states formed.  He is offering, in his words, a “fundamental potential explanation” (8) of how a minimalist state could form, even if actual states emerged through some other process.  Like philosophers who rely on thought experiments, Nozick believes that his story offers us leverage in understanding why a minimalist state is justifiable.

Nozick begins where John Locke does, back in the state of nature.  To get at the substance of Nozick’s argument consider how different his vision is than Locke’s.  As I described in my last post, Locke believes that individuals living in the state of nature when encountered with the inconveniences of that state will consent to enter into a social contract, giving up their executive power to a sovereign authority responsible for adjudicating conflicting property claims and protecting their natural rights. In so doing individuals implicitly consent to submit themselves to the majority will, though individuals retain their natural rights even under the social contract and may resist those states that threaten these rights.


Like Locke, Nozick identifies all of the disadvantages that we encounter in the state of nature as problems that demand a solution.  But from this point Nozick parts company with Locke.  Locke believes that the disadvantages of the state of nature give ample reason for individuals to give up their executive power. As I noted in my previous post, Locke’s argument leads to some decidedly non-libertarian conclusions about the legitimacy of the state (which, according to Locke, you implicitly consent to as a member of the community) and the authority of the majority will.

Not Nozick.  Nozick observes that individuals faced with the disadvantages of the state of nature have other options that stop short of giving up their executive power. Nozick offers up a more complicated story how how a state could emerge from the state of nature, a story that (from the libertarian perspective) offers numerous advantages when compared to the story that Locke tells. We might think of Nozick’s story (his “thought experiment”) as one that occurs over multiple connecting moments, like links in a narrative chain.

Link 1: From the State of Nature to Mutual Protective Associations

At the beginning of the story we are back in Locke’s state of nature. Faced with all of the disadvantages that Locke observes (e.g. what if I’m weaker than the armed robber who stole my property? What if other individuals seek restitution from me that is excessive?), Nozick argues that there is nothing logical that demands that I give up my executive power.  Instead of entering into a Lockean social contract, in the state of nature individuals could choose to form “mutual protective associations” (MPAs) with other individuals.  An MPA is a union of individuals in which each member agrees to come to the other’s aid when faced with unjust aggression. Imagine Larry and Moe, who are members of the same MPA:

Larry: “Moe, last night one of our neighbors, Curly, broke into my home and stole a wooden chest I fashioned over many months from wood I hewed in my back yard. As an MPA member, I am calling on you to come to my aid so that we can recover my stolen property.”

Moe: “Larry, what Curly has done to you is terrible!  I’ll be at your door shortly and will help you recover your stolen property. Do you know Shemp and Joe?  They are members of our association too.  I’ll invite them to come along.  I’m sure the four of us together can solve this problem.”


Participation in an MPA is entirely consensual; nobody here is forcing anyone to enter into a contract. Instead of world in which each of us is beholden to a single authority (a “state”), we find ourselves in a world populated by multiple MPAs, each with its own membership.  These MPAs exist alongside individuals who are members of no MPA at all and retain their individual executive power. The MPAs will go some way in addressing some of the disadvantages intrinsic to life in the state of nature.

Alas, says Nozick, while MPAs might resolve some of the problems, individuals who live in this world will encounter other disadvantages just as troubling as those they left behind.  In an MPA each individual will be on permanent call to come to the aid of other members, a burden that will be cumbersome, especially if an MPA includes even a few paranoid or cantankerous members who feel their rights to be constantly under threat. Who among us will have the time to respond to every threat or harm experienced by every member? Also, what is an MPA to do when there is disagreement between MPA members over property rights? What if Curly has some reason to believe that the wooden chest is his property (what if Larry mistakenly used wood from Curly’s back yard?)? What if Curly is a member of the MPA and he calls on the MPA to come to his aid when Larry arrives at his door? What are members of the MPA to do?

Quickly these disadvantages will lead MPAs to contract with  individuals who will take responsibility for providing protection (i.e. a defense force that assumes the burden previously placed on each individual) and adjudicating member disputes (i.e. an independent system of arbitration that resolves the conflicting claims of group members). Larry will no longer call directly on other MPA members to come to his aid.  Instead, Larry and other clients will pay a regular fee to the MPA, and the MPA will hire a defense service dedicated solely to the task of protecting client members.

Link 2: From MPAs to Dominant Protective Associations

This does not yet get us to a state, however.  What we have instead is a world filled with multiple MPAs, each one now contracting with its own private defense force that provides protective services to its members alone. Nozick argues that this world will inevitably evolve into a world in which a single protective association becomes dominant in a given region (a “dominant protective association”).  How so? Initially MPAs are likely to offer their services in a free market, with each MPA competing for the same clients.  MPAs are analogous to insurance companies in this sense: they are offering protection to individuals who are free to choose which company they will contract with (or to choose no company at all to provide these services). Imagine Larry, faced with three protective associations–State Farm, Prudential, and Blue Shield–each offering to provide him protective services. Larry looks at the price and range of services each company is offering, and he opts to go with State Farm.  Some of his neighbors do as well.  Other neighbors go with Prudential, and others with Blue Shield.  In other regions there are other competing companies, each offering their own protective services.

So now imagine that Larry, a client of State Farm, has a property dispute with Curly, who decided to go with Prudential.  State Farm and Prudential are required to protect the property rights of their clients.  So what happens if representatives of State Farm and Prudential do not agree about the respective property claims of Larry and Curly? In the face of their conflict, there are three possibilities.

First, State Farm and Prudential could do battle (these are defense forces, after all!), and one of them could win repeatedly.  If State Farm wins most of them time, and Prudential loses, Curly (and other Prudential clients) will quickly lose trust in the services that Prudential is offering. Curly will not keep paying for protection from an agency that isn’t protecting him. In this circumstance, Curly will eventually opt to purchase the services of State Farm.

Second, State Farm and Prudential might each win in different geographic regions.  If State Farm tends to win in region A and Prudential in region B, then in region A individuals will tend to contract with State Farm, and in region B individuals will contract with Prudential. Larry and Curly are neighbors and would either end up both contracting with State Farm, or Curly might opt to move to region B to be closer to the power center of Prudential, his preferred protective association.

Third, State Farm and Prudential might win and lose more or less equally in the same geographic region. Finding their conflicts to be costly, State Farm and Prudential will quickly realize they need some sort of third party judicial system that can take responsibility for adjudicating these conflicts. They agree to set up just such a system to resolve these disputes in a less costly manner.

Here is the key point: In each of these outcomes, what we eventually arrive at is a situation in which a single association dominates in a geographic region, or an agreed-upon third party emerges in a region with regulatory power that supersedes that of any individual association. This moves us one step closer to a state, and in Nozick’s telling this quasi-state is emerging not through coercion but through the consensual exchanges of individuals. Says Nozick,

Out of anarchy, pressed by spontaneous groupings, mutual-protection associations, division of labor, market pressures, economies of scale, and rational self-interest there arises something very much resembling a minimal state or a group of geographically distinct minimal states” (16-17).

Link 3: From Dominant Protective Association to the Ultraminimalist State

In this thought experiment we now find ourselves in a world filled with geographically-centered dominant protective associations. Dominant protective associations are not minimalist states, however. Larry and Curly may be members of State Farm, but they are always free to stop being clients, and there may well be individuals like Shemp who finally decide to opt out altogether from the association. If Shemp is a non-client he retains his executive power.  Shemp cannot assume that the association will protect him or provide him any other service. Shemp is on his own, free to assert his natural rights and to punish unjust infringements of them.

But here protective associations face a new problem.  State Farm has an obligation to protect its members from unjust and arbitrary infringements of their rights. Very quickly State Farm will recognize that non-clients like Shemp who retain their own power to punish infringements pose a threat to their clients. How can anyone be confident that Shemp, responsible for protecting his own rights and for punishing those who violate them, will do so in a fair and non-arbitrary way?


“If there were many independents,” says Nozick, “who were all liable to punish wrongly, the probabilities would add up to create a dangerous situation for all” (89). Shemp might be rational and reasonable (though I doubt it. Have you ever met Shemp?), and it could be the case that his judgments will be fair and nonarbitrary.  But what about other individuals? State Farm cannot assume that all individuals will act fairly in executing their natural rights. Indeed, recall that concerns about the inevitable tendencies of individuals in the state of nature to allow self-interest to cloud their judgment are one of those disadvantages that initially compelled individuals to seek some remedy.

In order to protect members from this substantial risk, dominant protective associations inevitably will become “ultraminimalist states.” An ultraminimalist state assumes a de facto (not de jure) monopoly on executive power. State Farm is going to say to Shemp and every other individual non-client, “No you are no longer permitted to enforce your own rights.” However, in an ultraminimalist state, the only persons who receive the protective services of the state are those clients who pay for these services (i.e. the members of the dominant protective association).  The ultraminimalist state does not redistribute resources to provide universal protection to non-clients.  Here State Farm prohibits Shemp from protecting himself.  State Farm also does not provide any protective services to Shemp.

Link 4: From the Ultraminimalist State to the Minimalist State

In order to protect its clients, the ultraminimalist state prohibits individuals from enforcing their own rights, but as it stands an ultraminimalist state only provides protective services to its clients. But denying Shemp the opportunity to enforce his own rights puts him in a grave circumstance. Denied access to the protective services of State Farm, Shemp seems to have no recourse when his rights are violated. This leads to the moral crux of Nozick’s story.  Because the ultraminimalist state prohibits individuals from enforcing their own rights, this state acts unjustly unless it becomes a minimalist state that guarantees universal protection to all:

“A protective agency dominant in a territory does satisfy the two crucial necessary conditions for being a state.  It is the only generally effective enforcer of a prohibition on others’ using unreliable enforcement procedures (calling them as it sees them), and it oversees these procedures. And the agency protects those nonclients in its territory whom it prohibits from using self-help enforcement procedures on its clients, in their dealings with its clients, even if such protection must be financed (in apparent redistributive fashion) by its clients. It is morally required to do this by the principle of compensation, which requires those who act in self-protection in order to increase their own security to compensate those they prohibit from doing risky acts which might actually have turned out to be harmless, for the disadvantages imposed upon them” (113-114).

Nozick believes that State Farm acts reasonably and justifiably when it denies Shemp the power to enforce his own rights, much as communities today act justifiably when they deny those suffering from epilepsy the right to drive an automobile, given the threat they pose to other drivers.  But in denying individuals this right, State Farm must compensate those individuals for this denial. Shemp will not be permitted to enforce his own rights, but Shemp (and every other person in State Farm’s geographic center) will receive the protective services of State Farm as compensation for this infringement.

So here is a graphic summary of Nozick’s “thought experiment”:


Let’s take stock of Nozick’s argument by connecting it to the complaint of Citizen X from my previous post.  Recall Citizen X’s complaint to the minarchist:

Citizen X: “I don’t want to submit to your authority.  I’m perfectly willing to purchase my own protection, and I’m more confident that a private personal defense contractor will provide better protective service to me than a bloated, inefficient state.  Further, I object to your demand that I pay taxes to subsidize the cost of the protective services you are providing to others.  If other people want your police protection, make them pay for it.  I see no reason why I must pay so that other people get access to the services you are offering.”

As I described in my previous post, John Locke’s reply to Citizen X would appeal to the implicit consent that Citizen X gave when he left the state of nature to enjoy all of the advantages of political community.  Nozick, by contrast, offers a reply to Citizen X that does not depend on appeals to an imaginary moment in which implicit consent overrides the explicit objections of citizen X:

Robert Nozick: “Citizen X, yes I know you must experience it as a grave and unfortunate thing that the state is denying you the power to protect your rights as you yourself see fit. This denial is regrettable, but it is also necessary. The state has an obligation to protect the natural rights of all members, and while it may well be the case that you are an individual who would execute your rights justly and proportionately, we cannot guarantee that every individual will do so. To permit every individual to execute justice for themselves will subject other people to risk and fear. This is why we are denying you this power.  However, we recognize that in doing so we are crossing a moral boundary that adversely impacts you. In so doing, we also recognize that this boundary crossing requires compensation to you. The compensation that we offer you is this: we will guarantee you all of the protective services that we provide to our members. It is reasonable for us to expect you to pay as much as you would have paid for the private protective service you desire, so taxing you for the services we are providing to you is not unjust unless the financial burden we place on you is greater than what you would have paid privately.  We are a minimalist state, so our financial expectations will be similarly minimal.”

This post has gotten long, so I’ll conclude by returning to the initial question: does Nozick’s case for minarchism avoid my criticism that minarchism is self-defeating? On close inspection I’m not persuaded that it does. If my summary of Nozick’s response to citizen X above is accurate, then it begs us to wonder how many other interventions by the state could be justified on compensatory rather than redistributive grounds. Murray Rothbard wonders how Nozick could possibly keep his minimalist state from devolving into a totalitarian one. The logic of Nozick’s argument leads to conclusions that no libertarian could possibly embrace:

“[T]he most important argument for Prohibition was the undoubted fact that people commit significantly more crimes, more acts of negligence on the highways, when under the influence of alcohol than when cold sober. So why not prohibit alcohol, and thereby reduce risk and fear, perhaps “compensating” the unfortunate victims of the law by free, tax-financed supplies of healthful grape juice? Or the infamous Dr. Arnold Hutschneker’s plan of “identifying” allegedly future criminals in the grade schools, and then locking them away for suitable brainwashing? If not, why not?”

While I find some of Rothbard’s critique of Nozick to be overwrought, his observation here is on target. Consider just how many other “risks” individual (non)actions pose to members of society.  Individuals who do not have health insurance pose financial risks to people who do, for example. Individuals without insurance indirectly raise the cost of insurance premiums for all of us, and the uncompensated care they receive directly raise the overall cost of emergency care. On the basis of Nozick’s own minarchist logic, why would these facts not provide sufficient reason to mandate that individuals purchase coverage, subsidizing the cost for those unable to pay?

Or consider that some families refuse to vaccinate their children for measles, a decision that poses real health risks to young infants not yet old enough to be vaccinated. On the basis of Nozick’s own argument, why wouldn’t it be justifiable to mandate that parents vaccinate, compensating individuals by subsidizing the cost of this protection? If Nozick insists that it is morally appropriate to mandate states provide universal police protection and military defense as a way of compensating individuals who might otherwise engage in risky behavior, why stop there?  Liberals like me have our own reasons for embracing universal health coverage and mandatory vaccinations.  We’d be perfectly happy to allow Nozickian-minded minarchists to offer up their own reasons for reaching these same conclusions, celebrating the overlapping consensus that leads us to embraced shared policy. While these policies are surely a bridge too far for minarchists, it’s not entirely clear why this should be so.

Looking ahead: next weekend I’m heading to Pennsylvania for a Spring Break trip that will include several days at Grove City College, which houses the collected papers of Ludwig Von Mises.  Not quite certain if I’ll find what I’m looking for there, but I am looking forward to the visit.  This trip will likely delay my next blog post.  My tentative plan is to turn my attention to anarcho-libertarianism in my next post.  I eventually want to test the logical limits of anarcho-libertarianism by attending to Rothbard’s own assessment of how anarcho-libertarianism handles the difficult issue of children’s rights and parental responsibility (why this is a problem might not be readily apparent here; I’ll get into this in a future post). Following this, I plan to turn my attention to the topic of Christian libertarianism by looking more closely at a written debate I uncovered during my research between two Congregationalist ministers of the 20th century, Edmund Opitz (a prominent figure in libertarian circles) and John Bennett (an important figure in 20th century liberal Protestantism). Virtually no academic work has been done on this debate, and some of my archival work this Spring has uncovered some primary sources that shed light on a Christian conversation occurring in the mid-20th century between Christian libertarian iconoclasts and representatives of the liberal Protestant mainstream.  More to come on this!








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