Anarchy, State, and Utopia


By Robert Nozick

Read by Kevin Stillwell

Formats and Prices


This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around October 2, 2018. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

In this classic work, award-winning philosopher Robert Nozick offers a “complex, sophisticated, and ingenious” (The Economist) defense of libertarianism

First published in response to John Rawls' A Theory of Justice, Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia has since become one of the defining texts in classic libertarian thought. Challenging and ultimately rejecting liberal, socialist, and conservative agendas, Nozick boldly asserts that the rights of individuals are violated as a state's responsibilities increase—and the only way to avoid these violations rests in the creation of a minimalist state limited to protection against force, fraud, theft, and the enforcement of contracts.

Winner of the 1975 National Book Award, Anarchy, State and Utopia remains one of the most philosophically rich defenses of economic liberalism to date. With a new foreword by Thomas Nagel, this revised edition introduces Nozick and his work to a new generation of readers.



INDIVIDUALS have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights). So strong and far-reaching are these rights that they raise the question of what, if anything, the state and its officials may do. How much room do individual rights leave for the state? The nature of the state, its legitimate functions and its justifications, if any, is the central concern of this book; a wide and diverse variety of topics intertwine in the course of our investigation.

Our main conclusions about the state are that a minimal state, limited to the narrow functions of protection against force, theft, fraud, enforcement of contracts, and so on, is justified; that any more extensive state will violate persons’ rights not to be forced to do certain things, and is unjustified; and that the minimal state is inspiring as well as right. Two noteworthy implications are that the state may not use its coercive apparatus for the purpose of getting some citizens to aid others, or in order to prohibit activities to people for their own good or protection.

Despite the fact that it is only coercive routes toward these goals that are excluded, while voluntary ones remain, many persons will reject our conclusions instantly, knowing they don’t want to believe anything so apparently callous toward the needs and suffering of others. I know that reaction; it was mine when I first began to consider such views. With reluctance, I found myself becoming convinced of (as they are now often called) libertarian views, due to various considerations and arguments. This book contains little evidence of my earlier reluctance. Instead, it contains many of the considerations and arguments, which I present as forcefully as I can. Thereby, I run the risk of offending doubly: for the position expounded, and for the fact that I produce reasons to support this position.

My earlier reluctance is not present in this volume, because it has disappeared. Over time, I have grown accustomed to the views and their consequences, and I now see the political realm through them. (Should I say that they enable me to see through the political realm?) Since many of the people who take a similar position are narrow and rigid, and filled, paradoxically, with resentment at other freer ways of being, my now having natural responses which fit the theory puts me in some bad company. I do not welcome the fact that most people I know and respect disagree with me, having outgrown the not wholly admirable pleasure of irritating or dumbfounding people by producing strong reasons to support positions they dislike or even detest.

I write in the mode of much contemporary philosophical work in epistemology or metaphysics: there are elaborate arguments, claims rebutted by unlikely counterexamples, surprising theses, puzzles, abstract structural conditions, challenges to find another theory which fits a specified range of cases, startling conclusions, and so on. Though this makes for intellectual interest and excitement (I hope), some may feel that the truth about ethics and political philosophy is too serious and important to be obtained by such “flashy” tools. Nevertheless, it may be that correctness in ethics is not found in what we naturally think.

A codification of the received view or an explication of accepted principles need not use elaborate arguments. It is thought to be an objection to other views merely to point out that they conflict with the view which readers wish anyway to accept. But a view which differs from the readers’ cannot argue for itself merely by pointing out that the received view conflicts with it! Instead, it will have to subject the received view to the greatest intellectual testing and strain, via counterarguments, scrutiny of its presuppositions, and presentation of a range of possible situations where even its proponents are uncomfortable with its consequences.

Even the reader unconvinced by my arguments should find that, in the process of maintaining and supporting his view, he has clarified and deepened it. Moreover, I like to think, intellectual honesty demands that, occasionally at least, we go out of our way to confront strong arguments opposed to our views. How else are we to protect ourselves from continuing in error? It seems only fair to remind the reader that intellectual honesty has its dangers; arguments read perhaps at first in curious fascination may come to convince and even to seem natural and intuitive. Only the refusal to listen guarantees one against being ensnared by the truth.

The contents of this volume are its particular arguments; still, I can indicate further what is to come. Since I begin with a strong formulation of individual rights, I treat seriously the anarchist claim that in the course of maintaining its monopoly on the use of force and protecting everyone within a territory, the state must violate individuals’ rights and hence is intrinsically immoral. Against this claim, I argue that a state would arise from anarchy (as represented by Locke’s state of nature) even though no one intended this or tried to bring it about, by a process which need not violate anyone’s rights. Pursuing this central argument of Part I leads through a diversity of issues; these include why moral views involve side constraints on action rather than merely being goal directed, the treatment of animals, why it is so satisfying to explain complicated patterns as arising by processes in which no one intends them, the reasons why some actions are prohibited rather than allowed provided compensation is paid to their victims, the nonexistence of the deterrence theory of punishment, issues about prohibiting risky actions, Herbert Hart’s so-called “principle of fairness,” preemptive attack, and preventive detention. These issues and others are brought to bear in investigating the nature and moral legitimacy of the state and of anarchy.

Part I justifies the minimal state; Part II contends that no more extensive state can be justified. I proceed by arguing that a diversity of reasons which purport to justify a more extensive state, don’t. Against the claim that such a state is justified in order to achieve or produce distributive justice among its citizens, I develop a theory of justice (the entitlement theory) which does not require any more extensive state, and use the apparatus of this theory to dissect and criticize other theories of distributive justice which do envisage a more extensive state, focusing especially on the recent powerful theory of John Rawls. Other reasons that some might think justify a more extensive state are criticized, including equality, envy, workers’ control, and Marxian theories of exploitation. (Readers who find Part I difficult should find Part II easier, with Chapter 8 easier than Chapter 7.) Part II closes with a hypothetical description of how a more extensive state might arise, a tale designed to make such a state quite unattractive. Even if the minimal state is the uniquely justifiable one, it may seem pale and unexciting, hardly something to inspire one or to present a goal worth fighting for. To assess this, I turn to that preeminently inspiring tradition of social thought, utopian theory, and argue that what can be saved from this tradition is precisely the structure of the minimal state. The argument involves a comparison of different methods of shaping a society, design devices and filter devices, and the presentation of a model which invites application of the mathematical economist’s notion of the core of an economy.

My emphasis upon the conclusions which diverge from what most readers believe may mislead one into thinking this book is some sort of political tract. It is not; it is a philosophical exploration of issues, many fascinating in their own right, which arise and interconnect when we consider individual rights and the state. The word “exploration” is appropriately chosen. One view about how to write a philosophy book holds that an author should think through all of the details of the view he presents, and its problems, polishing and refining his view to present to the world a finished, complete, and elegant whole. This is not my view. At any rate, I believe that there also is a place and a function in our ongoing intellectual life for a less complete work, containing unfinished presentations, conjectures, open questions and problems, leads, side connections, as well as a main line of argument. There is room for words on subjects other than last words.

Indeed, the usual manner of presenting philosophical work puzzles me. Works of philosophy are written as though their authors believe them to be the absolutely final word on their subject. But it’s not, surely, that each philosopher thinks that he finally, thank God, has found the truth and built an impregnable fortress around it. We are all actually much more modest than that. For good reason. Having thought long and hard about the view he proposes, a philosopher has a reasonably good idea about its weak points; the places where great intellectual weight is placed upon something perhaps too fragile to bear it, the places where the unravelling of the view might begin, the unprobed assumptions he feels uneasy about.

One form of philosophical activity feels like pushing and shoving things to fit into some fixed perimeter of specified shape. All those things are lying out there, and they must be fit in. You push and shove the material into the rigid area getting it into the boundary on one side, and it bulges out on another. You run around and press in the protruding bulge, producing yet another in another place. So you push and shove and clip off corners from the things so they’ll fit and you press in until finally almost every thing sits unstably more or less in there; what doesn’t gets heaved far away so that it won’t be noticed. (Of course, it’s not all that crude. There’s also the coaxing and cajoling. And the body English.) Quickly, you find an angle from which it looks like an exact fit and take a snapshot; at a fast shutter speed before something else bulges out too noticeably. Then, back to the darkroom to touch up the rents, rips, and tears in the fabric of the perimeter. All that remains is to publish the photograph as a representation of exactly how things are, and to note how nothing fits properly into any other shape.

No philosopher says: “There’s where I started, here’s where I ended up; the major weakness in my work is that I went from there to here; in particular, here are the most notable distortions, pushings, shovings, maulings, gougings, stretchings, and chippings that I committed during the trip; not to mention the things thrown away and ignored, and all those avertings of gaze.”

The reticence of philosophers about the weaknesses they perceive in their own views is not, I think, simply a question of philosophical honesty and integrity, though it is that or at least becomes that when brought to consciousness. The reticence is connected with philosophers’ purposes in formulating views. Why do they strive to force everything into that one fixed perimeter? Why not another perimeter, or, more radically, why not leave things where they are? What does having everything within a perimeter do for us? Why do we want it so? (What does it shield us from?) From these deep (and frightening) questions, I hope not to be able to manage to avert my gaze in future work.

However, my reason for mentioning these issues here is not that I feel they pertain more strongly to this work than to other philosophical writings. What I say in this book is, I think, correct. This is not my way of taking it back. Rather, I propose to give it all to you: the doubts and worries and uncertainties as well as the beliefs, convictions, and arguments.

At those particular points in my arguments, transitions, assumptions, and so forth, where I feel the strain, I try to comment or at least to draw the reader’s attention to what makes me uneasy. In advance, it is possible to voice some general theoretical worries. This book does not present a precise theory of the moral basis of individual rights; it does not contain a precise statement and justification of a theory of retributive punishment; or a precise statement of the principles of the tripartite theory of distributive justice it presents. Much of what I say rests upon or uses general features that I believe such theories would have were they worked out. I would like to write on these topics in the future. If I do, no doubt the resulting theory will differ from what I now expect it to be, and this would require some modifications in the superstructure erected here. It would be foolish to expect that I shall complete these fundamental tasks satisfactorily; as it would be to remain silent until they are done. Perhaps this essay will stimulate others to help.


THE first of the nine chapters of this essay were written during 1971–1972, while I was a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Palo Alto, a minimally structured academic institution bordering on individualist anarchy. I am very grateful to the Center and its staff for providing an environment so conducive to getting things done. Chapter 10 was presented in a symposium on “Utopia and Utopianism” at a meeting of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association in 1969; some points from that delivered address appear scattered in the other chapters. The whole manuscript was rewritten during the summer of 1973.

Barbara Nozick’s objections to some of the positions defended here helped me to sharpen my views; in addition she helped enormously in innumerable other ways. Over several years, I have benefited from Michael Walzer’s comments, questions, and counter arguments as I tried out on him ideas on some topics of this essay. I have received detailed and very helpful written comments on the whole manuscript written at the Center from W. V. Quine, Derek Parfit, and Gilbert Harman, on Chapter 7 from John Rawls and Frank Michelman, and on an earlier draft of Part I from Alan Dershowitz. I also have benefited from a discussion with Ronald Dworkin on how competing protective agencies would(n’t) work, and from suggestions by Burton Dreben. Various stages of various portions of this manuscript were read and discussed, over the years, at meetings of the Society for Ethical and Legal Philosophy (SELF); the regular discussions with its members have been a source of intellectual stimulation and pleasure. It was a long conversation about six years ago with Murray Rothbard that stimulated my interest in individualist anarchist theory. Even longer ago, arguments with Bruce Goldberg led me to take libertarian views seriously enough to want to refute them, and so to pursue the subject further. The result is before the reader.



State-of-Nature Theory, or How to Back into a State without Really Trying



Why State-of-Nature Theory ?

IF the state did not exist would it be necessary to invent it? Would one be needed, and would it have to be invented? These questions arise for political philosophy and for a theory explaining political phenomena and are answered by investigating the “state of nature,” to use the terminology of traditional political theory. The justification for resuscitating this archaic notion would have to be the fruitfulness, interest, and far-reaching implications of the theory that results. For the (less trusting) readers who desire some assurance in advance, this chapter discusses reasons why it is important to pursue state-of-nature theory, reasons for thinking that theory would be a fruitful one. These reasons necessarily are somewhat abstract and metatheoretical. The best reason is the developed theory itself.


The fundamental question of political philosophy, one that precedes questions about how the state should be organized, is whether there should be any state at all. Why not have anarchy? Since anarchist theory, if tenable, undercuts the whole subject of political philosophy, it is appropriate to begin political philosophy with an examination of its major theoretical alternative. Those who consider anarchism not an unattractive doctrine will think it possible that political philosophy ends here as well. Others impatiently will await what is to come afterwards. Yet, as we shall see, archists and anarchists alike, those who spring gingerly from the starting point as well as those reluctantly argued away from it, can agree that beginning the subject of political philosophy with state-of-nature theory has an explanatory purpose. (Such a purpose is absent when epistemology is begun with an attempt to refute the skeptic.)

Which anarchic situation should we investigate to answer the question of why not anarchy? Perhaps the one that would exist if the actual political situation didn’t, while no other possible political one did. But apart from the gratuitous assumption that everyone everywhere would be in the same nonstate boat and the enormous unmanageability of pursuing that counterfactual to arrive at a particular situation, that situation would lack fundamental theoretical interest. To be sure, if that nonstate situation were sufficiently awful, there would be a reason to refrain from dismantling or destroying a particular state and replacing it with none, now.

It would be more promising to focus upon a fundamental abstract description that would encompass all situations of interest, including “where we would now be if.” Were this description awful enough, the state would come out as a preferred alternative, viewed as affectionately as a trip to the dentist. Such awful descriptions rarely convince, and not merely because they fail to cheer. The subjects of psychology and sociology are far too feeble to support generalizing so pessimistically across all societies and persons, especially since the argument depends upon not making such pessimistic assumptions about how the state operates. Of course, people know something of how actual states have operated, and they differ in their views. Given the enormous importance of the choice between the state and anarchy, caution might suggest one use the “minimax” criterion, and focus upon a pessimistic estimate of the nonstate situation: the state would be compared with the most pessimistically described Hobbesian state of nature. But in using the minimax criterion, this Hobbesian situation should be compared with the most pessimistically described possible state, including future ones. Such a comparison, surely, the worst state of nature would win. Those who view the state as an abomination will not find minimax very compelling, especially since it seems one could always bring back the state if that came to seem desirable. The “maximax” criterion, on the other hand, would proceed on the most optimistic assumptions about how things would work out—Godwin, if you like that sort of thing. But imprudent optimism also lacks conviction. Indeed, no proposed decision criterion for choice under uncertainty carries conviction here, nor does maximizing expected utility on the basis of such frail probabilities.

More to the point, especially for deciding what goals one should try to achieve, would be to focus upon a nonstate situation in which people generally satisfy moral constraints and generally act as they ought. Such an assumption is not wildly optimistic; it does not assume that all people act exactly as they should. Yet this state-of-nature situation is the best anarchic situation one reasonably could hope for. Hence investigating its nature and defects is of crucial importance to deciding whether there should be a state rather than anarchy. If one could show that the state would be superior even to this most favored situation of anarchy, the best that realistically can be hoped for, or would arise by a process involving no morally impermissible steps, or would be an improvement if it arose, this would provide a rationale for the state’s existence; it would justify the state.*

This investigation will raise the question of whether all the actions persons must do to set up and operate a state are themselves morally permissible. Some anarchists have claimed not merely that we would be better off without a state, but that any state necessarily violates people’s moral rights and hence is intrinsically immoral. Our starting point then, though nonpolitical, is by intention far from nonmoral. Moral philosophy sets the background for, and boundaries of, political philosophy. What persons may and may not do to one another limits what they may do through the apparatus of a state, or do to establish such an apparatus. The moral prohibitions it is permissible to enforce are the source of whatever legitimacy the state’s fundamental coercive power has. (Fundamental coercive power is power not resting upon any consent of the person to whom it is applied.) This provides a primary arena of state activity, perhaps the only legitimate arena. Furthermore, to the extent moral philosophy is unclear and gives rise to disagreements in people’s moral judgments, it also sets problems which one might think could be appropriately handled in the political arena.


In addition to its importance for political philosophy, the investigation of this state of nature also will serve explanatory purposes. The possible ways of understanding the political realm are as follows: (1) to fully explain it in terms of the nonpolitical; (2) to view it as emerging from the nonpolitical but irreducible to it, a mode of organization of nonpolitical factors understandable only in terms of novel political principles; or (3) to view it as a completely autonomous realm. Since only the first promises full understanding of the whole political realm,1 it stands as the most desirable theoretical alternative, to be abandoned only if known to be impossible. Let us call this most desirable and complete kind of explanation of a realm a fundamental explanation of the realm.

To explain fundamentally the political in terms of the nonpolitical, one might start either with a nonpolitical situation, showing how and why a political one later would arise out of it, or with a political situation that is described nonpolitically, deriving its political features from its nonpolitical description. This latter derivation either will identify the political features with those features nonpolitically described, or will use scientific laws to connect distinct features. Except perhaps for this last mode, the illumination of the explanation will vary directly with the independent glow of the nonpolitical starting point (be it situation or description) and with the distance, real or apparent, of the starting point from its political result. The more fundamental the starting point (the more it picks out basic, important, and inescapable features of the human situation) and the less close it is or seems to its result (the less political or statelike it looks), the better. It would not increase understanding to reach the state from an arbitrary and otherwise unimportant starting point, obviously adjacent to it from the start. Whereas discovering that political features and relations were reducible to, or identical with, ostensibly very different nonpolitical ones would be an exciting result. Were these features fundamental, the political realm would be firmly and deeply based. So far are we from such a major theoretical advance that prudence alone would recommend that we pursue the alternative of showing how a political situation would arise out of a nonpolitical one; that is, that we begin a fundamental explanatory account with what is familiar within political philosophy as state-of-nature theory.

A theory of a state of nature that begins with fundamental general descriptions of morally permissible and impermissible actions, and of deeply based reasons why some persons in any society would violate these moral constraints, and goes on to describe how a state would arise from that state of nature will serve our explanatory purposes, even if no actual state ever arose that way. Hempel has discussed the notion of a potential explanation, which intuitively (and roughly) is what would be the correct explanation if everything mentioned in it were true and operated.2 Let us say that a law-defective potential explanation is a potential explanation with a false lawlike statement and that a fact-defective potential explanation is a potential explanation with a false antecedent condition. A potential explanation that explains a phenomenon as the result of a process P will be defective (even though it is neither law-defective nor fact-defective) if some process Q other than P produced the phenomenon, though P was capable of doing it. Had this other process Q not produced it, then P would have.* Let us call a potential explanation that fails in this way actually to explain the phenomenon a process-defective potential explanation.

A fundamental potential explanation (an explanation that would explain the whole realm under consideration were it the actual explanation) carries important explanatory illumination even if it is not the correct explanation. To see how, in principle, a whole realm could fundamentally be explained greatly increases our understanding of the realm.† It is difficult to say more without examining types of cases; indeed, without examining particular cases, but this we cannot do here. Fact-defective fundamental potential explanations, if their false initial conditions “could have been true,” will carry great illumination; even wildly false initial conditions will illuminate, sometimes very greatly. Law-defective fundamental potential explanations may illuminate the nature of a realm almost as well as the correct explanations, especially if the “laws” together form an interesting and integrated theory. And process-defective fundamental potential explanations (which are neither law-defective nor fact-defective) fit our explanatory bill and purposes almost perfectly. These things could not be said as strongly, if at all, about nonfundamental explanation.

State-of-nature explanations of the political realm are fundamental potential explanations of this realm and pack explanatory punch and illumination, even if incorrect. We learn much by seeing how the state could have arisen, even if it didn’t arise that way. If it didn’t arise that way, we also would learn much by determining why it didn’t; by trying to explain why the particular bit of the real world that diverges from the state-of-nature model is as it is.


  • "No contemporary philosopher possesses a more imaginative mind, broader interests, or greater dialectical abilities than Robert Nozick."—Harper's
  • "Complex, sophisticated and ingenious."—The Economist
  • "[Nozick's] powers of argument are profound, and his insights are at times staggering in their brilliance."—New Republic
  • "A major event in contemporary political philosophy...[Nozick] is always stimulating; an open-minded study of what he has to say could be a healthy tonic for romantic leftists."—Peter Singer, New York Review of Books

On Sale
Oct 2, 2018
Hachette Audio

Robert Nozick

About the Author

Robert Nozick (1938-2002) was the Arthur Kingsley Porter Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University. The author of numerous books including The Examined Life and Philosophical Explanations, Nozick was the recipient of the National Book Award for Anarchy, State, and Utopia.

Learn more about this author