I first read that passage in a book manuscript that was circulating in the Princeton University philosophy department in 1974. It reminded me of the words Ayn Rand put in the mouth of her hero in Atlas Shrugged :
"[I]ndividuals are ends and not merely means; they may not be sacrificed or used for the achieving of other ends without their consent. Individuals are inviolable."
"The socialist society would have to forbid capitalist acts between consenting adults." Nozick
Though he made ample use of economic theory in this critique, he wrote primarily from a moral point of view. Like Rand, he enraged the Left by denying them the moral high ground—and he did so with great wit. "The socialist society," said Nozick, "would have to forbid capitalist acts between consenting adults." In a discussion of the income tax as a device for redistribution, he argued that "taxation of earnings from labor is on a par with forced labor." On one issue after another, he punctured the political idealism of those who wanted government to pursue their vision of utopia; he did it by showing that any such program uses coercion to violate individual autonomy.
In the world of academic philosophy, Nozick became the most prominent advocate of libertarianism, the theorist with whom every other viewpoint had to contend. This was not because his case for freedom was fundamentally original. Many of the arguments he used can be found in the long tradition of classical liberalism, from John Locke in the seventeenth century to Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand in our own era. The reason for Nozick's prominence was principally that he cast the arguments in the method and style of analytic philosophy, the approach that dominates academic philosophy in English-speaking countries.
As the name suggests, analytic philosophers consider their job to be the close and detailed analysis of issues. They prize philosophical dissection: subtle distinctions, rigorous arguments, precise formulations of positions. Nozick was a master of this approach. He handled the scalpel of analysis with a speed and dexterity that awed his colleagues, even when they didn't like his views. And indeed, his book did much to clarify issues of distributive justice and the nature of the conflict between libertarians and egalitarians.
But the goal of close analysis creates occupational hazards. Analytic philosophers are often insensitive to the wider context of the issues they deal with and unwilling—or unable—to examine their own fundamental assumptions, concepts, and methods. As a result, they tend to take for granted the current state of play in their specialist domains, treating complex, derivative concepts and assumptions as axiomatic. Nozick was no exception.
This was nowhere clearer, to me at least, than in an early article he wrote criticizing Rand's moral and political philosophy. Nozick more or less completely failed to come to grips with Rand's theory, spinning his wheels in an effort to break apart her integrated view of human life and values. In Anarchy, State, and Utopia, the shortcoming of his method was most evident in his failure to explain why individuals are ends in themselves and why they are inviolable; his statement of the principle was about as far as he went. Nozick did not accept Rand's explanation that individuals are ends in themselves because life is metaphysically an end in itself, the fundamental value that each person seeks to realize. But he did not offer any alternative.
Nevertheless, Anarchy, State, and Utopia is a genuine classic in the literature of freedom. Robert Nozick fought the good fight with intellectual brilliance, moral idealism, and personal courage. Everyone else engaged in that fight owes him a large debt of gratitude.
This article was originally published in the March 2002 issue of Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.