Robert Nozick, Preventative Restraint, & The Minimal State


Nozick believes in the idea of a “Minimal State.”  It is something more than Anarchy, but less than the modern State.  Sounding like a Randian Objectivist, he contends that the best State should be “limited to the narrow functions of protection against force, theft, fraud, enforcement of contracts, and so on,” and that “any more extensive State will violate a person’s rights not to be forced to do certain things, and is unjustified.”  Nozick does not believe that State should NOT “use its coercive apparatus for the purpose of getting some citizens to aid others,” nor should it “prohibit activities to people for their own good or protection.”

Nozick attempts to make a distinction between his “Minimal State” (which possesses the monopoly of supreme force, as well as redistributive powers) and the “Ultra-Minimal State” (which only possesses the monopoly of supreme force).  However, I would argue that force is always used precisely for the cause of distributing finite resources in the way the force-wielder sees fit.

In its main role as “Protector,” the Minimal State’s jobs would boil down to:  1) the detection of crime,  2) the apprehension of suspects,  3) the judicial determination of legal innocence or guilt, 4) punishment,  and  5) exaction of compensation.

Nozick states that redistribution, though a power of the Minimal State, would actually seldom be used in a Society which has been properly set-up.  Nozick contends that if the way people obtain their wealth is legitimate, than their wealth is legitimate, and there is no basis for redistributing it among the less well-off.  Says Nozick, “if the set of holdings is properly generated, there is no argument for a more extensive State based upon distributive justice.”

Nozick is suspicious that envy underlies this conception of justice” in which redistribution is required.  He remarks  –fairly, I’d say–  that there is a “great ingenuity with which people dream up principles to rationalize their emotions.” 

Nozick makes a good point about one of the benefits of small government which does not usually get mentioned… a small State apparatus presents a less attractive take-over target for one group to seize in order to unfairly help itself achieve its desires.  “To strengthen the State and extend the range of its functions,” says Nozick, […] “makes it a more valuable prize and more alluring target.”  Of course, one counter-argument to this that leaps to mind is that people will attempt to influence or control the power-holder, no matter who it is, government or non-government.  If the power is not in the hands of the government, then it will reside in the hands of someone else… someone perhaps even more likely to be “bought” or “taken over” than a well-fashioned government.  These real-world, non-government power-holders could take the form of oligarchic enterprises, billionaires, landlords, warlords, organized crime rackets… there is almost no end to the ways in which power can pimple to the surface.

Nozick also makes some interesting remarks about how a two-party Democracy works– especially when, as in our country, those two parties are fairly equally balanced.  It is Nozick’s contention that, in reality, the Upper Class would not actually need to convince fifty-one percent of voters to vote their way.  They would only need to convince the “swing middle” voters.  Thus, the Upper Class would not aggressively fight against measures benefitting the Middle Class for the reason that, as long as the Middle Class is placated or at least remains below some pain threshold– they will not join forces with the Lower Class in fighting for real change.

It’s my own guess that the more evenly split the parties in a two-party system, the narrower the sliver of the “swing middle” group becomes.  Whoever can buy-off this “swing middle” group WINS.  And in reality, the people at the top are always going to be able to outbid the people at the bottom.  Therefore, we know ahead of time who’s gonna win that game.

Nozick takes this idea of using the swing-middle group and expands upon it, waxing philosophical about the general morality of “using” others at all.  In our society, except for a few fringe groups, we pretty much accept that humans may “use” animals.  The question Nozick asks is, how far should we take this?… “Are organisms arranged on some ascending scale, so that any may be sacrificed or caused to suffer to achieve a greater total benefit for those not lower on the scale?”  He calls this view the “Elitist Hierarchical View.”  Under this view, a being may be sacrificed only for those beings occupying a higher place on life’s value scale.

Nozick lists a few competing outlooks to the Elitist Hierarchical View…

Competing View One:  a being can NOT be sacrificed for ANY other being’s sake  [this group might include, say… vegetarians, or those Buddhist sects which refuse to step on a bug, or those Manichaeists who will not murder plants].

Competing View Two:  a being may be sacrificed only for those beings ON THE SAME VALUE LEVEL OR HIGHER.  [Perhaps this would include soldiers, or people who receive less than the best healthcare so that the wealthy may receive the most and the best]

Competing View Three:  any being can be sacrificed for ANY other being, above or below it on the value scale.  Perhaps this would mean that it would be okay to kill-off tree-cutting settlers in order to preserve the local owl population (and the trees!).

If using people means making them do things for you, than perhaps the flipside would be NOT allowing them to do things– for the reason that their activities might harm you in some way.  Nozick really struggles with the question of a Society’s exercise of “preventative restraint.”

And, I confess, I have struggled with same issue.  After so many years and so many experiences, I feel personally confident that there have been situations– rare but existent– in which I have interacted with a person who I knew– knew beyond a shadow of a doubt– would –sometime someplace– hurt someone badly.  And we can even assume that the person in question had already served time for assault or worse.  But what could I do?  You can’t lock-up someone just because your gut warns you that they are evil incarnate.  You can’t even “take ’em out.”  I found it a terrible feeling and a burden to carry.

Nozick never comes up with a great answer concerning the exercise of “preventative restraint.”  He eventually leads himself to the conclusion that if we restrain someone from an activity which MIGHT harm us, then we owe them some kind of compensation for such a restraint upon their freedom.  This comes under his general 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.”  This gets very sticky, very quickly.  For instance, should we compensate people because we force them to lower their driving speed to something we consider “safe?”

At one point, Nozick suggests that Society should provide liability insurance for people as part of the Compensation Principle.  Says Nozick, “providing such insurance almost certainly would be the least expensive way to compensate people who present only normal danger to others.”  Although this idea of public liability insurance seems quite socialist on one hand, Nozick contends he arrived at the idea via logic and strictly Libertarian values.


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