Robert Nozick - Libertarian

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Robert Nozick (1939-2002) is one of the most respected and honored philosophers in the world.


In 1974, Nozick -- then a largely unknown thirty-five-year-old professor of philosophy at Harvard -- published Anarchy, State, and Utopia. The book startled and amazed reviewers, reached a huge audience, and immediately established Nozick's reputation as a major new figure in philosophy -- in fact, as an international intellectual celebrity.


Anarchy, State, and Utopia was a rigorous examination and defense of libertarianism. It was controversial, exciting, and -- most shockingly for a serious philosophical work -- a pleasure to read. And it is hard to overstate the book's importance to libertarianism.


As Laissez Faire Books editor Roy Childs wrote in 1989:


"Nozick's 'Anarchy, State, and Utopia' single-handedly established the legitimacy of libertarianism as a political theory in the world of academia. Indeed, it is not too much to say that without Nozick's book, there might not be a vital and growing academic libertarian movement today, making its way from university to university, from discipline to discipline, from nation to nation."


So it was all the more shocking (and tragic for libertarianism) when, in his 1989 book "The Examined Life," Nozick hinted he had rejected the libertarian philosophy he presented so brilliantly in "Anarchy, State and Utopia." Rumors begin flying that Nozick had abandoned libertarianism. Some even said he had embraced socialism!


In a fascinating and far-ranging new interview with Laissez Faire Books Associate Editor Julian Sanchez, Nozick said he'd been a libertarian all along.


An excerpt:


Sanchez: "In 'The Examined Life' (1989), you reported that you had come to see the libertarian position that you'd advanced in 'Anarchy, State and Utopia' (1974) as 'seriously inadequate.'


But there are several places in 'Invariances' where you seem to suggest that you consider the view advanced there, broadly speaking, at least, a libertarian one. Would you now, again, self-apply the L-word?"


Robert Nozick: "Yes. But I never stopped self-applying it. What I was really saying in 'The Examined Life' was that I was no longer as hardcore a libertarian as I had been before. But the rumors of my deviation (or apostasy!) from libertarianism were much exaggerated. I think this book makes clear the extent to which I still am within the general framework of libertarianism, especially the ethics chapter and its section on the 'Core Principle of Ethics.'"


NOTE:  Nozick's scholarly work is not casual reading. Yet it is well worth the effort for the serious student of ideas. We never recommend Anarchy, State and Utopia without also passing along Roy Child's wisdom on how to read this marvelous book: "Two final things to remember: This is a book of many parts, and you can usually skip a section without harm, returning to it later. Finally, Nozick sometimes retreats into math and other modes of argument that are beyond me. I always skip this stuff and I've never had a single sleepless night over it."


(Source: Laissez Faire Books,

(This article originally appeared in Liberator Online September 11, 2001)

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