Robert Nozick, paternalist hater of liberty

As I mentioned in the previous post, the basic problem with procedural accounts of property rights is first ownership. There is simply no way to get around the fact that when the first owner asserts himself, every other person in the world is dealt a blow. They can no longer access a piece of a world that they previously could. Their liberty to use, move across, and enjoy that piece of the world is extinguished, unilaterally and at the barrel of a gun.

I am definitely not the first person to realize this. Proudhon — the father of property critiques — provided a somewhat different version of this critique in “What is Property?” It is not just anarchists and other sorted leftists who see this either. None other than Robert Nozick concedes the point that initial property ownership involves liberty infringement. Check it out in Chapter 7, Section I of Nozick’s magnum opus “Anarchy, State, and Utopia:”

It will be implausible to view improving an object as giving full ownership to it, if the stock of unowned objects that might be improved is limited. For an object’s coming under one persons’s ownership changes the situation of all others. Whereas previous they were at liberty (in Hohfeld’s sense) to use the object, they now no longer are.

There it is as clear as it can be. Under scarcity, grabbing up a piece of the world and excluding others clearly changes the situation of others in that they now can longer access that piece of the world. As you may know, Nozick ultimately supports a very procedure-heavy account of libertarianism, and so you might be wondering how, given this problem that even he admits. The key is in the next sentence: “This change in the situation of others (by removing their liberty to act on a previously unowned object) need not worsen their situation.”

Juxtaposed these seem like strange and contradictory claims. If at time 1 I could access X and at time 2 I cannot, all things equal, my position is worsened. Isn’t it? Nozick’s solution to this, although not phrased in this way, is to temporarily embrace paternalism. His solution in short is this: sure initial appropriation unilaterally destroys people’s liberty and pre-existing access to pieces of the world, but the system that private property ownership generates — capitalism — is so great that even accounting for that loss of access, the access-losers will be better off.

So that is how you can take something from someone without worsening their situation. I think there are deep problems with his solution on many levels, but for a moment just really bask in the normative reality of what he is proposing. Nozick is unequivocally arguing that it is permissible to non-consensually destroy the liberty of others if you are actually doing them a solid and making them better off. Does that sound like procedural justice to you? Does that sound like libertarianism to you?

What Nozick is proposing does not normatively differ from what Michael Bloomberg is doing in New York City right now with the large soda ban. Bloomberg is non-consensually (well at least he was elected, not the case with the “homesteader”) destroying the liberty of individuals to buy large sodas. Arguably this liberty destruction actually leaves those who are affected better off: their health may improve. Would libertarians say that Bloomberg’s move is permissible? Obviously not. But it’s not clear why if you accept the normative assumptions of Nozick’s initial appropriation move.

So to recap, Nozick — the brilliant and earnest advocate of strict just-processes libertarianism — had to resort to temporary liberty-destroying paternalism to get initial appropriation off the ground. It is alright that initial appropriation violently steals away access because it’s for your own good! How endearing and libertarian of him! I bring this up not to berate Nozick. He is absolutely brilliant. His handicap is not a lack of imagination or intelligence; it’s advocating for a position that does not actually work.