The late philosopher Robert Nozick authored a classic libertarian text, Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Subsequently, he didn’t exactly recant it, but did decide its viewpoint was incomplete.
In an essay, The Zigzag of Politics (in his book, The Examined Life), Nozick begins by noting that democratic institutions and liberties are not only about government; they “express and symbolize, in a pointed and official way, our equal human dignity, our autonomy and powers of self-direction.” That’s what we express in voting; we do it not because we expect to affect the outcome, or even because the outcome itself is so important. What’s more important is our membership in, commitment to, and honoring of this social arrangement of ours. Voting isn’t just a utilitarian act, it’s a public sacrament.
That’s why I keep saying “democracy” isn’t merely elections; it’s a culture, a way of life. Elections don’t create that, they reflect it. We see the lesson again and again. In Egypt, it was a lack of such democratic culture that caused Morsi to behave as he did; and caused the subsequent rotten behavior of his ousters.
Nozick says his previous libertarian position didn’t adequately incorporate the way politics is not just politics, but also symbolic, a temple wherein we give expression to our civic togetherness. The purist libertarian would limit government to doing only what enables people to freely flourish, and otherwise leaving them alone. So if your social conscience moves you to support a certain project, recognize that others have a right not to; it should be funded voluntarily, not by coerced taxation. But Nozick now says this “would not constitute society’s solemn marking and symbolic validation of the importance and centrality of those ties of concern and solidarity.” The point is “to speak solemnly in everyone’s name, in the name of society, about what it holds dear.” And while a particular individual may prefer to speak only for himself, that’s not compatible with living in society, which sometimes must speak for all.
Nozick goes on to suggest some work-arounds, like allowing a program’s “conscientious objectors” to opt out of the associated taxation, provided they pay compensatory taxes to fund something else.
I could scarcely take that seriously. And I found the rest of Nozick’s argument unpersuasive, especially in light of the modern realities of society and government.
My libertarianism is not anti-social. Indeed, you might call it “socialist libertarianism,” not because it incorporates anything of socialist economics, but rather recognition of our being profoundly social animals. (David Brooks, in his book The Social Animal, regretted that the world “socialist” was already taken, by the left.)
Why did we invent society, and support it? Not because “society” is some greater entity to which we must bow down and subordinate ourselves. That pernicious idea is at the heart of all collectivist ideologies. No – it’s because society serves us, its individual members, enabling us to realize most fully our human qualities, including our human need to interact with our fellows. Empowering this is, again, the basic limited role of government, says the libertarian.
But that may conflict with other things that our social consciences may, per Nozick, want government to do, which entail restricting and coercing people (or taxing them, also coercive). Of course, nobody much wants it restricting, coercing, and taxing him. But doing it to others . . . this is where the libertarian becomes very cautious and skeptical.
It’s all well and good to talk about noble minded projects of social solidarity, as Nozick does; but in the real world, opening this door lets in not only saints and angels but a host of creepy crawlies. I’m actually all for the social solidarity of helping the less fortunate, but the problem is that, like the Staten Island ferry of the old political joke, this drags in behind it a huge load of garbage.* And special interests know how to exploit this, much better than do the needy.
But Nozick seems to be writing from Mount Olympus (or the proverbial ivory tower; he did teach). My own ideology, as I’ve explained, is an ideology of reality – that is, I let my understandings of reality shape my beliefs, rather than vice versa. And the salient reality I see in the modern world is government grown vastly in its size, scope of operations, and role in society. We may indeed want a government and politics that give symbolic and solemn expression to our social solidarity – but haven’t we now gotten rather more of it than we’ve bargained for? Surely the role for government that Nozick is talking about is not in deficiency. It is hugely in surplus, so very hugely that this – not a need to express social solidarity – is the greatest challenge facing us today. That being so, libertarianism is the only reasonable position.
* As the ward boss explained to the worried neophyte candidate at the bottom of the ticket, “Al Smith is the ferry. You’re the garbage.”