Robert Nozick

An Answer to "Questions for Free-Market Moralists"

Mark D. White

I read with great interest Amia Srinivasan's contribution to the New York Times' philosophy column "The Stone" titled "Questions for Free-Market Moralists." After introducing the political philosophies of John Rawls and Robert Nozick, she states that "on the whole, Western societies are still more Rawlsian than Nozickian: they tend to have social welfare systems and redistribute wealth through taxation. But since the 1970s, they have become steadily more Nozickian." Then she presents four statements that she claims describe Nozick's minimal state -- and are representative of what she terms "free-market moralism" -- with which she assumes most people will not be comfortable. (Certainly not readers of The New York Times, by any rate.) But I'm not so sure, especially once we clarily what the four statements are talking about.

The four statements are:

1. 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?

2. Is any free (not physically compelled) exchange morally permissible?

3. Do people deserve all they are able, and only what they are able, to get through free exchange?

4. Are people under no obligation to do anything they don’t freely want to do or freely commit themselves to doing?

For each statement, Ms. Srinivasan provides an example of what such a world would look like: for instance, after statement #2, she suggests the following. (Note that this example also invokes statement #3 about inherited wealth.)

Suppose that I inherited from my rich parents a large plot of vacant land, and that you are my poor, landless neighbor. I offer you the following deal. You can work the land, doing all the hard labor of tilling, sowing, irrigating and harvesting. I’ll pay you $1 a day for a year. After that, I’ll sell the crop for $50,000. You decide this is your best available option, and so take the deal. Since you consent to this exchange, there’s nothing morally problematic about it.

This example points out my problem with Ms. Srinivasan's argument: she conflates political philosophy with moral philosophy. It is perfectly consistent to maintain, as in statement #2, that free exchanges are morally permissible while also believing that that is something morally problematic with the situation described above -- as long as you don't subscribe to a perfectionist system of morality that fails to distinguish between forbidden and merely "problematic" actions.

But there's more. Statement #2 really isn't speaking to morality -- instead, it's talking about legality that's simply based on a certain morality. How statement #2 should be read (based on my understanding of Nozick, at any rate) is as saying that the state has no moral basis to question free exchanges. Of course, the situation above is distasteful to most, but does this mean should it be forbidden by law? This is a different issue than the one Ms. Srinivasan addresses in her example -- and I suspect many would answer "no, it shouldn't be illegal" even if they regard the landowner's behavior as despicable. This doesn't imply a moral free-for-all, but simply a state that stops short of legislating all moral (or immoral) behavior.

Consider also Ms. Srinivasan's example for statement #4 regarding forced obligation:

Suppose I’m walking to the library and see a man drowning in the river. I decide that the pleasure I would get from saving his life wouldn’t exceed the cost of getting wet and the delay. So I walk on by. Since I made no contract with the man, I am under no obligation to save him.

The problem of duties of beneficence is an old and well-worn one in moral philosophy: while most would say we do have a general obligation to help those in need when it would come at little cost to ourselves, not as many would be willing to make that a strict requirement, much less a legal one (though some jurisdictions have). Ms. Srinivasan seems to draw a extreme and false dichotomy between coerced beneficence and rapacious self-interest -- I would like to think that no matter what kind of state we live in, people would still extend a hand to those in need when they can. (Furthermore, I see no reason to believe this would be any more likely to occur in a Rawlsian system where the state, not the individual, is the party understood to do most of the helping.)

As I understand him, Nozick was describing a state that enables people to make choices when they don't wrongfully harm others, and the market was but one framework in which they could do that. (For that reason, I disagree with the term "free-market moralist," but that's of little concern.) He did not, as Ms. Srinivasan writes, maintain that "the market can take care of morality for us," nor did Rawls hold that morality was the sole responsibility of the state. Fundamentally, Rawls and Nozick differed on the degree to which the state should exercise individuals' collective responsibility to each other on their behalf. Neither Rawls nor Nozick denies a role for private morality outside of the state. But Nozick and the "free-market moralists" believe that individuals, as parts of families and communities, bear the bulk of the responsibility to take care of one another, a responsibility borne voluntarily and, yes, imperfectly (unlike how perfectly the state conducts it, of course).

Ms. Srinivasan also holds Nozick's system to an incredibly high standard, arguing that to concede any weakness in any of the four statements "is to concede that the entire Nozickian edifice is structurally unsound. The proponent of free market morality has lost his foundations." But she neglects to mention the problems with Rawls' system, especially the very particular psychological assumptions that ground the "results" of the veil-of-ignorance exercise -- a brilliant metaphor also found in the work of other philosophers and with various predictions regarding the terms of the social contract.

Ms. Srinivasan states clearly that she believes that Western societies should be tilting back towards Rawls (I would say "further" rather than "back," but that's a difference of interpretation) and away from Nozick. Fair enough -- we disagree on that. But she makes Nozick's system an all-or-nothing proposition while ignoring problems with Rawls, and further misinterprets Nozick's work as describing the whole of morality rather than the operation of the state alone. In the end, her article shows a troubling lack of faith in people to care for each other outside the confines of the state -- and an overly optimistic belief in the power of the state to do the same.