On Robert Nozick and Liberty

Chris Freiman,

Release Date
March 15, 2011


Role of Government

From the IHS Vault: Professor Chris Freiman gives a lecture on the political philosophy of 20th century American philosopher Robert Nozick, including his views on fairness, justice, and equality.

On Robert Nozick and Liberty
One way to think about this tension between liberty and equality is to look at an exchange that took place between two of the great American political philosophers in the 20th century, Robert Nozick and John Rawls. John Rawls had argued that equality was really the benchmark, the moral benchmark, for social and political institutions and that any deviation from equality had to be specially justified. Nozick argued by contrast, he responded by saying, that liberty upsets patterns. Here’s what he meant by that. He starts with your preferred signature of distribution of goods or distribution of assets, whatever it is. The minute you allow human beings the freedom to make choices all on their own, they’re going to start upsetting that pattern because they’re going to make choices that you can’t predict based on their own unique schedule, preferences, and values, so the would-be planners faced with something of a decision to make. If you want to respect human liberty, you’re going to have to give up on the beautiful plan you have. On the other hand, if you’re not going to give up on the beauty of your pattern, then you’re going have to interfere with the liberty and choices of human beings, all the time, at every stage, at every iteration. So we are faced with a similar choice, aren’t we? Is equality so important to us that we think that we should and are justified in interfering with people’s liberty? Nozick’s answer to that was no. And the classic liberals answer is also no.