The Nozickian outlook is often represented as moral common sense. But is it? Here I pose four questions for anyone inclined to accept Nozick’s argument that a just society is simply one in which the free market operates unfettered. Each question targets one of the premises or implications of Nozick’s argument. If you’re going to buy Nozick’s argument, you must say yes to all four. But doing so isn’t as easy as it might first appear.
A0. I think the interpretation of what “Nozickian” means is largely wrong, and the suggestion that mainstream political discourse involves much of anything at all which is either Rawlsian or Nozickian, either in method or in content, is frankly pretty loopy and a desperate grasp at far more intellectual significance than will ever actually be found in mainstream political discourse.
Q1. Is any exchange between two people in the absence of direct physical compulsion by one party against the other (or the threat thereof) necessarily free?
A1. In one sense sure, in another sense, no.
I’m not much interested in arguing over lexicography; but I will say that the sense of “free” in which all such transactions are “free” is a perfectly legitimate and coherent one; and it is ethically relevant to determining what kinds of individual or social means could possibly be appropriate in responding to a given transaction.
Q2. Is any free (not physically compelled) exchange morally permissible?
A2. No, of course not.
Hardly anyone believes this; certainly not Nozick. But of course calling something “morally impermissible” means that it’s immoral to do it. It doesn’t mean that it’s moral for a third party to prohibit it, and I fear that there may be a really crude equivocation between the notion of moral “permissibility” and the notion of legal *permission* lurking in the wings.
Q3. Do people deserve all they are able, and only what they are able, to get through free exchange?
But so what? Ownership is not, in my view, mainly a matter of desert. People deserve all kinds of things that they aren’t morally entitled to take, and people often deserve less than what they own. Maybe the best case for individual property rights derives from some kind of connection between labor and exchange, on the one hand, and desert, on the other; I’m not convinced of this, but if it’s true, it still wouldn’t follow that there’s a simple equivalence between what you deserve and what you’re entitled to own.
Q4. Are people under no obligation to do anything they don’t freely want to do or freely commit themselves to doing?
A4. “Obligation” is ambiguous. People have lots of non-consensual moral obligations above and beyond respect for individual rights. I don’t think they have any enforceable legal obligations above and beyond respect for individual rights. Certainly if the idea is supposed to be that there are no moral obligations above and beyond respect for individual rights, then this is a travesty against Nozick’s view — the point is specifically that individual rights are supposed to be side constraints on morally permissible action; not that they determine the whole content of morality. If on the other hand the claim is that *since* saving the drowning man may be morally obligatory, it may also (therefore) be made legally obligatory, then of course that would be trying to sneak in a pretty big argumentative move through the back door.