I have always wondered why actually-existing libertarians do not seem that hot on Nozick. He is clearly the most intellectually talented libertarian in the last century. After some contemplation, however, I think that might be precisely why he is not as popular. Unlike the kind of libertarians who you see featured in jokish libertarian echo chambers, Nozick was not down for any libertarian brotherhood solidarity. If he thought an argument for libertarianism was bad, he would call it out as such, usually in very persuasive ways.
In Section 1 of “Anarchy, State, and Utopia,” Nozick just buzzsaws through nearly every libertarian framework on the way to presenting his own. I present his attacks here as succinctly as possible.
Believe it or not, there are still libertarians who think Locke’s labor-mixing account of original acquisition makes the slightest bit of sense. According to Locke, because individuals own their labor (how you own an act, I don’t know), when they mix their labor (how you mix a non-substance, I don’t know) with unowned pieces of the world, they come to own that piece. By mixing something they own (their labor) with something they do not own (the piece of the world), they somehow become entitled to the product of the two. Nozick’s response:
Why does mixing one’s labor with something make one the owner of it? Perhaps because one owns one’s labor, and so one comes to own a previously unowned thing that becomes permeated with what one owns. Ownership seeps over into the rest. But why isn’t mixing what I own with what I don’t own a way of losing what I own rather than a way of gaining what I don’t. If I own a can of tomato juice and spill it in the sea so that its molecules … mingle evenly throughout the sea, do I thereby come to own the sea, or have I foolishly dissipated my tomato juice?
There are versions of the labor-mixing approach that do not rely on utterly bizarre quasi-metaphysical ideas about owning bodily motions and mixing them with pieces of matter. The most popular are the various value-added theories. Under these, what justifies initial ownership is that an individual has added value to some piece of the world. Surely, they argue, that value must belong to them, and so they become owners. Nozick’s response:
Why should one’s entitlement extend to the whole object rather than just to the added value one’s labor has produced? … No workable or coherent value-added property scheme has yet been devised, and any such scheme presumably would fall to objections (similar to those) that fell the theory of Henry George.
The Actual Lockean Proviso
The last argument I will mention here that Nozick skewers is the actual Lockean proviso (he later goes on to argue for a modified version of it). The actual Lockean proviso states that it is permissible to grab up land so long as there is “enough and as good left in common for others.” This is pretty straightforward: you can grab up land, but enough land must still be around for others to use and grab up for themselves. Clever people should immediately see the problem: land is finite and eventually we will run out. Nozick takes this realization and shows that scarcity not only ruins the Lockean proviso in the long run; it actually ruins it right away. Due to scarcity, even the first appropriator of land would be in violation of the proviso:
Consider the first person Z for whom there is not enough and as good left to appropriate. The last person Y to appropriate left Z without his previous liberty to act on an object, and so worsened Z’s situation. So Y’s appropriation is not allowed under Locke’s proviso. Therefore the next to last person, X, to appropriate left Y in a worse position, for X’s act ended permissible appropriation. Therefore X’s appropriation wasn’t permissible. But then appropriator two from last, W, ended permissible appropriation and so, since it worsened X’s position, W’s appropriation wasn’t permissible. And so on back to the first person A to appropriate a permanent property right.
Nozick’s generalized dislike of libertarians
Not only did Nozick clearly think most libertarian justifications were quite terrible, he also seemed to loathe actually-existing libertarians and being associated with them. In the preface of “Anarchy, State, and Utopia,” Nozick writes the following about his fellow libertarians:
Since many of the people who take a similar position are narrow and rigid, and filled, paradoxically, with resentment at other freer ways of being, my now having natural responses which fit the theory puts me in some bad company. I do not welcome the fact that most people I know and respect disagree with me …
I guess it is clear why Nozick has not been so warmly embraced within the libertarian community.