Anarchy, State, And Utopia - by Robert Nozick

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.

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.

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

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.

Individuals in Locke’s state of nature are in “a state of perfect freedom to order their actions and dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave or dependency upon the will of any other man”. The bounds of the law of nature require that “no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions”. Some persons transgress these bounds, “invading others’ rights and... doing hurt to one another,” and in response people may defend themselves or others against such invaders of rights. The injured party and his agents may recover from the offender “so much as may make satisfaction for the harm he has suffered”; “everyone has a right to punish the transgressors of that law to such a degree as may hinder its violation”; each person may, and may only “retribute to [a criminal] so far as calm reason and conscience dictate, what is proportionate to his transgression, which is so much as may serve for reparation and restraint”. There are “inconveniences of the state of nature” for which, says Locke, “I easily grant that civil government is the proper remedy”.

Out of anarchy, pressed by spontaneous groupings, mutual-protection associations, division of labor, market pressures, economies of scale, and rational self-interest there arises something very much resembling a minimal state or a group of geographically distinct minimal states. Why is this market different from all other markets? Why would a virtual monopoly arise in this market without the government intervention that elsewhere creates and maintains it? The worth of the product purchased, protection against others, is relative: it depends upon how strong the others are. Yet unlike other goods that are comparatively evaluated, maximal competing protective services cannot coexist; the nature of the service brings different agencies not only into competition for customers’ patronage, but also into violent conflict with each other. Also, since the worth of the less than maximal product declines disproportionately with the number who purchase the maximal product, customers will not stably settle for the lesser good, and competing companies are caught in a declining spiral.

There is a certain lovely quality to explanations of this sort. They show how some overall pattern or design, which one would have thought had to be produced by an individual’s or group’s successful attempt to realize the pattern, instead was produced and maintained by a process that in no way had the overall pattern or design “in mind.” After Adam Smith, we shall call such explanations invisible-hand explanations. (“Every individual intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in so many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.”)

Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain. Should you plug into this machine for life, preprogramming your life’s experiences?

What does matter to us in addition to our experiences? First, we want to do certain things, and not just have the experience of doing them. In the case of certain experiences, it is only because first we want to do the actions that we want the experiences of doing them or thinking we’ve done them. (But why do we want to do the activities rather than merely to experience them?) A second reason for not plugging in is that we want to be a certain way, to be a certain sort of person. Someone floating in a tank is an indeterminate blob. There is no answer to the question of what a person is like who has long been in the tank. Is he courageous, kind, intelligent, witty, loving? It’s not merely that it’s difficult to tell; there’s no way he is. Plugging into the machine is a kind of suicide. It will seem to some, trapped by a picture, that nothing about what we are like can matter except as it gets reflected in our experiences. But should it be surprising that what we are is important to us? Why should we be concerned only with how our time is filled, but not with what we are? Thirdly, plugging into an experience machine limits us to a man-made reality, to a world no deeper or more important than that which people can construct. There is no actual contact with any deeper reality, though the experience of it can be simulated. Many persons desire to leave themselves open to such contact and to a plumbing of deeper significance.h This clarifies the intensity of the conflict over psychoactive drugs, which some view as mere local experience machines, and others view as avenues to a deeper reality; what some view as equivalent to surrender to the experience machine, others view as following one of the reasons not to surrender! We learn that something matters to us in addition to experience by imagining an experience machine and then realizing that we would not use it.

We shall not pursue here the fascinating details of these or other machines. What is most disturbing about them is their living of our lives for us. Is it misguided to search for particular additional functions beyond the competence of machines to do for us? Perhaps what we desire is to live (an active verb) ourselves, in contact with reality. (And this, machines cannot do for us.) Without elaborating on the implications of this, which I believe connect surprisingly with issues about free will and causal accounts of knowledge, we need merely note the intricacy of the question of what matters for people other then their experiences. Until one finds a satisfactory answer, and determines that this answer does not also apply to animals, one cannot reasonably claim that only the felt experiences of animals limit what we may do to them.

To get to something recognizable as a state we must show (1) how an ultraminimal state arises out of the system of private protective associations; and (2) how the ultraminimal state is transformed into the minimal state, how it gives rise to that “redistribution” for the general provision of protective services that constitutes it as the minimal state. To show that the minimal state is morally legitimate, to show it is not immoral itself, we must show also that these transitions in (1) and (2) each are morally legitimate. In the rest of Part I of this work we show how each of these transitions occurs and is morally permissible. We argue that the first transition, from a system of private protective agencies to an ultraminimal state, will occur by an invisible-hand process in a morally permissible way that violates no one’s rights. Secondly, we argue that the transition from an ultraminimal state to a minimal state morally must occur. It would be morally impermissible for persons to maintain the monopoly in the ultraminimal state without providing protective services for all, even if this requires specific “redistribution.” The operators of the ultraminimal state are morally obligated to produce the minimal state. The remainder of Part I, then, attempts to justify the minimal state. In Part II, we argue that no state more powerful or extensive than the minimal state is legitimate or justifiable; hence that Part I justifies all that can be justified. In Part III, we argue that the conclusion of Part II is not an unhappy one; that in addition to being uniquely right, the minimal state is not uninspiring.

A protective agency dominant in a territory does satisfy the two crucial necessary conditions for being a state. It is the only generally effective enforcer of a prohibition on others’ using unreliable enforcement procedures (calling them as it sees them), and it oversees these procedures. And the agency protects those nonclients in its territory whom it prohibits from using self-help enforcement procedures on its clients, in their dealings with its clients, even if such protection must be financed (in apparent redistributive fashion) by its clients. It is morally required to do this by the principle of compensation, which requires those who act in self-protection in order to increase their own security to compensate those they prohibit from doing risky acts which might actually have turned out to be harmless for the disadvantages imposed upon them.

The moral objections of the individualist anarchist to the minimal state are overcome. It is not an unjust imposition of a monopoly; the de facto monopoly grows by an invisible-hand process and by morally permissible means, without anyone’s rights being violated and without any claims being made to a special right that others do not possess. And requiring the clients of the de facto monopoly to pay for the protection of those they prohibit from self-help enforcement against them, far from being immoral, is morally required by the principle of compensation.

PART II Beyond the Minimal State?

In this chapter we consider the claim that a more extensive state is justified, because necessary (or the best instrument) to achieve distributive justice.

There is no central distribution, no person or group entitled to control all the resources, jointly deciding how they are to be doled out. What each person gets, he gets from others who give to him in exchange for something, or as a gift. In a free society, diverse persons control different resources, and new holdings arise out of the voluntary exchanges and actions of persons. There is no more a distributing or distribution of shares than there is a distributing of mates in a society in which persons choose whom they shall marry. The total result is the product of many individual decisions which the different individuals involved are entitled to make.

The general outlines of the entitlement theory illuminate the nature and defects of other conceptions of distributive justice. The entitlement theory of justice in distribution is historical; whether a distribution is just depends upon how it came about. In contrast, current time-slice principles of justice hold that the justice of a distribution is determined by how things are distributed (who has what) as judged by some structural principle(s) of just distribution.

We construe the position we discuss too narrowly by speaking of current time-slice principles. Nothing is changed if structural principles operate upon a time sequence of current time-slice profiles and, for example, give someone more now to counterbalance the less he has had earlier. A utilitarian or an egalitarian or any mixture of the two over time will inherit the difficulties of his more myopic comrades. He is not helped by the fact that some of the information others consider relevant in assessing a distribution is reflected, unrecoverably, in past matrices. Henceforth, we shall refer to such unhistorical principles of distributive justice, including the current time-slice principles, as end-result principles or end-state principles. In contrast to end-result principles of justice, historical principles of justice hold that past circumstances or actions of people can create differential entitlements or differential deserts to things. An injustice can be worked by moving from one distribution to another structurally identical one, for the second, in profile the same, may violate people’s entitlements or deserts; it may not fit the actual history.

To think that the task of a theory of distributive justice is to fill in the blank in “to each according to his ...” is to be predisposed to search for a pattern; and the separate treatment of “from each according to his ...” treats production and distribution as two separate and independent issues. On an entitlement view these are not two separate questions. Whoever makes something, having bought or contracted for all other held resources used in the process (transferring some of his holdings for these cooperating factors), is entitled to it. The situation is not one of something’s getting made, and there being an open question of who is to get it. Things come into the world already attached to people having entitlements over them. From the point of view of the historical entitlement conception of justice in holdings, those who start afresh to complete “to each according to his ...” treat objects as if they appeared from nowhere, out of nothing.

So entrenched are maxims of the usual form that perhaps we should present the entitlement conception as a competitor. Ignoring acquisition and rectification, we might say: From each according to what he chooses to do, to each according to what he makes for himself (perhaps with the contracted aid of others) and what others choose to do for him and choose to give him of what they’ve been given previously (under this maxim) and haven’t yet expended or transferred.   This, the discerning reader will have noticed, has its defects as a slogan. So as a summary and great simplification (and not as a maxim with any independent meaning) we have: From each as they choose, to each as they are chosen.

No end-state principle or distributional patterned principle of justice can be continuously realized without continuous interference with people’s lives. Any favored pattern would be transformed into one unfavored by the principle, by people choosing to act in various ways; for example, by people exchanging goods and services with other people, or giving things to other people, things the transferrers are entitled to under the favored distributional pattern. To maintain a pattern one must either continually interfere to stop people from transferring resources as they wish to, or continually (or periodically) interfere to take from some persons resources that others for some reason chose to transfer to them. (But if some time limit is to be set on how long people may keep resources others voluntarily transfer to them, why let them keep these resources for any period of time? Why not have immediate confiscation?)

Maintaining a distributional pattern is individualism with a vengeance! Patterned distributional principles do not give people what entitlement principles do, only better distributed. For they do not give the right to choose what to do with what one has; they do not give the right to choose to pursue an end involving (intrinsically, or as a means) the enhancement of another’s position. To such views, families are disturbing; for within a family occur transfers that upset the favored distributional pattern. Either families themselves become units to which distribution takes place, the column occupiers (on what rationale?), or loving behavior is forbidden. We should note in passing the ambivalent position of radicals toward the family. Its loving relationships are seen as a model to be emulated and extended across the whole society, at the same time that it is denounced as a suffocating institution to be broken and condemned as a focus of parochial concerns that interfere with achieving radical goals. Need we say that it is not appropriate to enforce across the wider society the relationships of love and care appropriate within a family, relationships which are voluntarily undertaken?

Taxation of earnings from labor is on a par with forced labor. Some persons find this claim obviously true: taking the earnings of n hours labor is like taking n hours from the person; it is like forcing the person to work n hours for another’s purpose. Others find the claim absurd. But even these, if they object to forced labor, would oppose forcing unemployed hippies to work for the benefit of the And they would also object to forcing each person to work five extra hours each week for the benefit of the needy. But a system that takes five hours’ wages in taxes does not seem to them like one that forces someone to work five hours, since it offers the person forced a wider range of choice in activities than does taxation in kind with the particular labor specified.

When end-result principles of distributive justice are built into the legal structure of a society, they (as do most patterned principles) give each citizen an enforceable claim to some portion of the total social product; that is, to some portion of the sum total of the individually and jointly made products. This total product is produced by individuals laboring, using means of production others have saved to bring into existence, by people organizing production or creating means to produce new things or things in a new way. It is on this batch of individual activities that patterned distributional principles give each individual an enforceable claim. Each person has a claim to the activities and the products of other persons, independently of whether the other persons enter into particular relationships that give rise to these claims, and independently of whether they voluntarily take these claims upon themselves, in charity or in exchange for something. Whether it is done through taxation on wages or on wages over a certain amount, or through seizure of profits, or through there being a big social pot so that it’s not clear what’s coming from where and what’s going where, patterned principles of distributive justice involve appropriating the actions of other persons. Seizing the results of someone’s labor is equivalent to seizing hours from him and directing him to carry on various activities. If people force you to do certain work, or unrewarded work, for a certain period of time, they decide what you are to do and what purposes your work is to serve apart from your decisions. This process whereby they take this decision from you makes them a part-owner of you; it gives them a property right in you. Just as having such partial control and power of decision, by right, over an animal or inanimate object would be to have a property right in it. End-state and most patterned principles of distributive justice institute (partial) ownership by others of people and their actions and labor. These principles involve a shift from the classical liberals’ notion of self-ownership to a notion of (partial) property rights in other people.

Rawls imagines rational, mutually disinterested individuals meeting in a certain situation, or abstracted from their other features not provided for in this situation. In this hypothetical situation of choice, which Rawls calls “the original position,” they choose the first principles of a conception of justice that is to regulate all subsequent criticism and reform of their institutions. While making this choice, no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, or his natural assets and abilities, his strength, intelligence, and so forth.   The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance. This ensures that no one is advantaged or disadvantaged in the choice of principles by the outcome of natural chance or the contingency of social circumstances. Since all are similarly situated and no one is able to design principles to favor his particular condition, the principles of justice are the result of a fair agreement or bargain. What would persons in the original position agree to? Persons in the initial situation would choose two ... principles: the first requires equality in the assignment of basic rights and duties, while the second holds that social and economic inequalities, for example, inequalities of wealth and authority are just only if they result in compensating benefits for everyone, and in particular for the least advantaged members of society. These principles rule out justifying institutions on the grounds that the hardships of some are offset by a greater good in the aggregate. It may be expedient but it is not just that some should have less in order that others may prosper. But there is no injustice in the greater benefits earned by a few provided that the situation of persons not so fortunate is thereby improved. The intuitive idea is that since everyone’s well-being depends upon a scheme of cooperation without which no one could have a satisfactory life, the division of advantages should be such as to draw forth the willing cooperation of everyone taking part in it, including those less well situated. Yet this can be expected only if reasonable terms are proposed. The two principles mentioned seem to be a fair agreement on the basis of which those better endowed, or more fortunate in their social position, neither of which we can be said to deserve, could expect the willing cooperation of others when some workable scheme is a necessary condition of the welfare of all.

A procedure that founds principles of distributive justice on what rational persons who know nothing about themselves or their histories would agree to guarantees that end-state principles of justice will be taken as fundamental. Perhaps some historical principles of justice are derivable from end-state principles, as the utilitarian tries to derive individual rights, prohibitions on punishing the innocent, and so forth, from his end-state principle; perhaps such arguments can be constructed even for the entitlement principle. But no historical principle, it seems, could be agreed to in the first instance by the participants in Rawls’ original position. For people meeting together behind a veil of ignorance to decide who gets what, knowing nothing about any special entitlements people may have, will treat anything to be distributed as manna from heaven.

Rawls’ view seems to be that everyone has some entitlement or claim on the totality of natural assets (viewed as a pool), with no one having differential claims. The distribution of natural abilities is viewed as a “collective asset.” We see then that the difference principle represents, in effect, an agreement to regard the distribution of natural talents as a common asset and to share in the benefits of this distribution whatever it turns out to be. Those who have been favored by nature, whoever they are, may gain from their good fortune only on terms that improve the situation of those who have lost out... No one deserves his greater natural capacity nor merits a more favorable starting place in society. But it does not follow that one should eliminate these distinctions. There is another way to deal with them. The basic structure can be arranged so that these contingencies work for the good of the least fortunate.

People’s talents and abilities are an asset to a free community; others in the community benefit from their presence and are better off because they are there rather than elsewhere or nowhere. (Otherwise they wouldn’t choose to deal with them.) Life, over time, is not a constant-sum game, wherein if greater ability or effort leads to some getting more, that means that others must lose. In a free society, people’s talents do benefit others, and not only themselves. Is it the extraction of even more benefit to others that is supposed to justify treating people’s natural assets as a collective resource? What justifies this extraction?   No one deserves his greater natural capacity nor merits a more favorable starting place in society. But it does not follow that one should eliminate these distinctions. There is another way to deal with them. The basic structure can be arranged so that these contingencies work for the good of the least fortunate. And if there weren’t “another way to deal with them”? Would it then follow that one should eliminate these distinctions? What exactly would be contemplated in the case of natural assets? If people’s assets and talents couldn’t be harnessed to serve others, would something be done to remove these exceptional assets and talents, or to forbid them from being exercised for the person’s own benefit or that of someone else he chose, even though this limitation wouldn’t improve the absolute position of those somehow unable to harness the talents and abilities of others for their own benefit? Is it so implausible to claim that envy underlies this conception of justice, forming part of its root notion?

Equality, Envy, Exploitation, Etc.

The legitimacy of altering social institutions to achieve greater equality of material condition is, though often assumed, rarely argued for. Writers note that in a given country the wealthiest n percent of the population holds more than that percentage of the wealth, and the poorest n percent holds less; that to get to the wealth of the top n percent from the poorest, one must look at the bottom p percent (where p is vastly greater than n), and so forth. They then proceed immediately to discuss how this might be altered. On the entitlement conception of justice in holdings, one cannot decide whether the state must do something to alter the situation merely by looking at a distributional profile or at facts such as these. It depends upon how the distribution came about. Some processes yielding these results would be legitimate, and the various parties would be entitled to their respective holdings. If these distributional facts did arise by a legitimate process, then they themselves are legitimate. This is, of course, not to say that they may not be changed, provided this can be done without violating people’s entitlements. Any persons who favor a particular end-state pattern may choose to transfer some or all of their own holdings so as (at least temporarily) more nearly to realize their desired pattern. The entitlement conception of justice in holdings makes no presumption in favor of equality, or any other overall end state or patterning. It cannot merely be assumed that equality must be built into any theory of justice.

Equality of opportunity has seemed to many writers to be the minimal egalitarian goal, questionable (if at all) only for being too weak. (Many writers also have seen how the existence of the family prevents fully achieving this goal.) There are two ways to attempt to provide such equality: by directly worsening the situations of those more favored with opportunity, or by improving the situation of those less well-favored. The latter requires the use of resources, and so it too involves worsening the situation of some: those from whom holdings are taken in order to improve the situation of others. But holdings to which these people are entitled may not be seized, even to provide equality of opportunity for others. In the absence of magic wands, the remaining means toward equality of opportunity is convincing persons each to choose to devote some of their holdings to achieving it. The model of a race for a prize is often used in discussions of equality of opportunity. A race where some started closer to the finish line than others would be unfair, as would a race where some were forced to carry heavy weights, or run with pebbles in their sneakers. But life is not a race in which we all compete for a prize which someone has established; there is no unified race, with some person judging swiftness. Instead, there are different persons separately giving other persons different things. Those who do the giving (each of us, at times) usually do not care about desert or about the handicaps labored under; they care simply about what they actually get. No centralized process judges people’s use of the opportunities they had; that is not what the processes of social cooperation and exchange are for.

The major objection to speaking of everyone’s having a right to various things such as equality of opportunity, life, and so on, and enforcing this right, is that these “rights” require a substructure of things and materials and actions; and other people may have rights and entitlements over these. No one has a right to something whose realization requires certain uses of things and activities that other people have rights and entitlements over. Other people’s rights and entitlements to particular things (that pencil, their body, and so on) and how they choose to exercise these rights and entitlements fix the external environment of any given individual and the means that will be available to him. If his goal requires the use of means which others have rights over, he must enlist their voluntary cooperation.

People generally judge themselves by how they fall along the most important dimensions in which they differ from others. People do not gain self-esteem from their common human capacities by comparing themselves to animals who lack them. (“I’m pretty good; I have an opposable thumb and can speak some language.”) Nor do people gain or maintain self-esteem by considering that they possess the right to vote for political leaders, though when the franchise was not widely distributed things may have been different. Nor do people in the United States today have a sense of worth because they are able to read and write, though in many other societies in history this has served. When everyone, or almost everyone, has some thing or attribute, it does not function as a basis for self-esteem. Self-esteem is based on differentiating characteristics; that’s why it’s self-esteem. And as sociologists of reference groups are fond of pointing out, who the others are changes.

The most promising ways for a society to avoid widespread differences in self-esteem would be to have no common weighting of dimensions; instead it would have a diversity of different lists of dimensions and of weightings. This would enhance each person’s chance of finding dimensions that some others also think important, along which he does reasonably well, and so to make a nonidiosyncratic favorable estimate of himself. Such a fragmentation of a common social weighting is not to be achieved by some centralized effort to remove certain dimensions as important. The more central and widely supported the effort, the more contributions to it will come to the fore as the commonly agreed upon dimension on which will be based people’s self-esteem.

Often people who do not wish to bear risks feel entitled to rewards from those who do and win; yet these same people do not feel obligated to help out by sharing the losses of those who bear risks and lose. For example, croupiers at gambling casinos expect to be well-tipped by big winners, but they do not expect to be asked to help bear some of the losses of the losers. The case for such asymmetrical sharing is even weaker for businesses where success is not a random matter. Why do some feel they may stand back to see whose ventures turn out well (by hindsight determine who has survived the risks and run profitably) and then claim a share of the success; though they do not feel they must bear the losses if things turn out poorly, or feel that if they wish to share in the profits or the control of the enterprise, they should invest and run the risks also?

The reduction of an evil from two instances to one is as important as its reduction from one to zero. One mark of an ideologue is to deny this. Those prone to work for compulsory giving because they are surrounded by such ideologues, would better spend their time trying to bring their fellow citizens’ abstractions down to earth. Or, at least, they should favor a compulsory system that includes within its net only such ideologues (who favor the compulsory system).

Since inequalities in economic position often have led to inequalities in political power, may not greater economic equality (and a more extensive state as a means of achieving it) be needed and justified in order to avoid the political inequalities with which economic inequalities are often correlated? Economically well-off persons desire greater political power, in a nonminimal state, because they can use this power to give themselves differential economic benefits. Where a locus of such power exists, it is not surprising that people attempt to use it for their own ends. The illegitimate use of a state by economic interests for their own ends is based upon a preexisting illegitimate power of the state to enrich some persons at the expense of others. Eliminate that illegitimate power of giving differential economic benefits and you eliminate or drastically restrict the motive for wanting political influence. True, some persons still will thirst for political power, finding intrinsic satisfaction in dominating others. The minimal state best reduces the chances of such takeover or manipulation of the state by persons desiring power or economic benefits, especially if combined with a reasonably alert citizenry, since it is the minimally desirable target for such takeover or manipulation. Nothing much is to be gained by doing so; and the cost to the citizens if it occurs is minimized. To strengthen the state and extend the range of its functions as a way of preventing it from being used by some portion of the populace makes it a more valuable prize and a more alluring target for corrupting by anyone able to offer an officeholder something desirable; it is, to put it gently, a poor strategy.

In this chapter and in the previous one we have canvassed the most important of the considerations that plausibly might be thought to justify a state more extensive than the minimal state. When scrutinized closely, none of these considerations succeeds in doing so (nor does their combination); the minimal state remains as the most extensive state that can be justified.


Is there some way to continue our story of the origin of the (minimal) state from the state of nature to arrive, via only legitimate steps which violate no one’s rights, at something more closely resembling a modern state? Were such a continuation of the story possible, it would illuminate essential aspects of the more extensive states people everywhere now live under, laying bare their nature. I shall offer a modest effort in that direction.

People do not conceive of ownership as having a thing, but as possessing rights (perhaps connected with a thing) which are theoretically separable. Property rights are viewed as rights to determine which of a specified range of admissible options concerning something will be realized. Admissible options are those that do not cross another’s moral boundary; to reuse an example, one’s property right in a knife does not include the right to replace it between someone else’s ribs against their will (unless in justified punishment for a crime, or self-defense, and so on). One person can possess one right about a thing, another person another right about the same thing. Neighbors immediately surrounding a house can buy the right to determine what color its exterior will be, while the person living within has the right to determine what (admissible thing) will happen inside the structure. Furthermore, several people can jointly possess the same right, using some decision procedure to determine how that right would be exercised. As for people’s economic situation, the free operation of the market, some people’s voluntarily uniting (kibbutzim, and so on), private philanthropy, and so on, greatly reduces private destitution. But we may suppose it either not wholly eliminated, or alternatively that some people are greatly desirous of even more goods and services. With all this as background, how might a state more extensive than the minimal one arise?

Some suggest that the recalcitrant people be allowed to opt out of the corporation yet remain within the territory. Why shouldn’t they be allowed to stay in the midst of the corporation, choosing precisely those contacts with the corporation they wish to have, formulating their own personal package of rights and duties (above and beyond nonaggression) vis-à-vis other persons and the corporation, paying for the particular things they receive, living independently? But others reply that this would be too chaotic; and that it also might undermine the corporate system. For others (“gullible others,” it is said) also might be tempted to resign from the guild of shareholders. And who would be left? Only those least able to fend for themselves. And who would take care of them? And how would those who did leave manage on their own? And would fraternity flourish as greatly without universal shareholding, and without all persons (able to do so) being forced to aid others? Almost all view their historical experience as showing that this system of each person’s having an equal say (within some specified limits) in the lives of all others is the best and fairest imaginable. Their social theorists agree that their system of demoktesis, ownership of the people, by the people, and for the people, is the highest form of social life, one that must not be allowed to perish from the earth.

In elaborating this eldritch tale we have arrived, finally, at what is recognizable as a modern state, with its vast panoply of powers over its citizens. Indeed, we have arrived at a democratic state. Our hypothetical account of how it might arise from a minimal state without any blatant violation of anyone’s rights through a series of individual steps each arguably unobjectionable has placed us in a better position to focus upon and ponder the essential nature of such a state and its fundamental mode of relationship among persons. For what it’s worth.

Might a more-than-minimal state arise through a process of boycott? People favoring such a state might refuse to deal or exchange or have social relations with those who don’t commit themselves to participate in that state’s additional apparatus (including the boycott of nonparticipants). The more who sign up pledging themselves to boycott nonparticipants, the more restricted are the opportunities to these nonparticipants. If the boycott works completely, all might end up choosing to participate in the additional activities of the more-than-minimal state, and indeed might then give it permission to force them to do things against their will. Under this resulting arrangement, someone could refuse to enter or could opt out of the additional processes and constraints, if he was willing to face however effective a social boycott might be mounted against him; unlike a more-than-minimal state, where everyone is compelled to participate. This arrangement, which would mirror certain institutional features of a more-than-minimal state, illustrates how coordinated actions which people might choose can achieve certain results without any violation of rights. It is highly unlikely that in a society containing many persons, an actual boycott such as the one described could be maintained successfully. There would be many persons opposed to the additional apparatus who could find enough others to deal with, establish a protective agency with, and so on, so as to withstand the boycott in an independent enclave (not necessarily geographical); furthermore, they could offer incentives to some participants in the boycott to break it (perhaps secretly, to avoid the response of the others who continue to maintain it). The boycott would fail, with more leaving it as they see others doing so and profiting by it. Only if almost all in the society so adhere to the ideal of the more-than-minimal state as to welcome its additional restrictions and to resist personal gain to effectuate the boycott and are so concerned and involved as to continually mold their relations to achieve the goal will the analogue of the more-than-minimal state be established. It is only the analogue of the more-than-minimal state, under which each person retains the choice of whether to participate or not, that is legitimate; and only when it arises in the fashion described.

How should hypothetical histories affect our current judgment of the institutional structure of a society? Let me venture some tentative remarks. If an existing society was led to by an actual history that is just, then so is that society. If the actual history of an existing society is unjust, and no hypothetical just history could lead to the structure of that society, then that structure is unjust.


No state more extensive than the minimal state can be justified. But doesn’t the idea, or ideal, of the minimal state lack luster? Can it thrill the heart or inspire people to struggle or sacrifice? Would anyone man barricades under its banner? It seems pale and feeble in comparison with, to pick the polar extreme, the hopes and dreams of utopian theorists. Whatever its virtues, it appears clear that the minimal state is no utopia. We would expect then that an investigation into utopian theory should more than serve to highlight the defects and shortcomings of the minimal state as the end of political philosophy. Such an investigation also promises to be intrinsically interesting. Let us then pursue the theory of utopia to where it leads.

Prospects for stable associations are improved when we realize that the supposition that each person receives only what others give up to him is too strong. A world may give a person something worth more to him than the worth to the others of what they give up to him. A major benefit to a person may come, for example, from coexisting in the world with the others and being a part of the normal social network. Giving him the benefit may involve, essentially, no sacrifice by the others. Thus in one world a person may get something worth more to him than his payoff from the stable association which most values his presence. Though they give up less, he gets more. Since a person wishes to maximize what he gets (rather than what he is given), no person will imagine a maximally appreciative world of inferior beings to whose existence he is crucial. No one will choose to be a queen bee. Nor will a stable association consist of narcissistic persons competing for primacy along the same dimensions. Rather, it will contain a diversity of persons, with a diversity of excellences and talents, each benefiting from living with the others, each being of great use or delight to the others, complementing them. And each person prefers being surrounded by a galaxy of persons of diverse excellence and talent equal to his own to the alternative of being the only shining light in a pool of relative mediocrity. All admire each other’s individuality, basking in the full development in others of aspects and potentialities of themselves left relatively undeveloped.

In our actual world, what corresponds to the model of possible worlds is a wide and diverse range of communities which people can enter if they are admitted, leave if they wish to, shape according to their wishes; a society in which utopian experimentation can be tried, different styles of life can be lived, and alternative visions of the good can be individually or jointly pursued. If there is a diverse range of communities, then (putting it roughly) more persons will be able to come closer to how they wish to live, than if there is only one kind of community.

It would be disconcerting if there were only one argument or connected set of reasons for the adequacy of a particular description of utopia. Utopia is the focus of so many different strands of aspiration that there must be many theoretical paths leading to it. Let us sketch some of these alternate, mutually supporting, theoretical routes.

The first route begins with the fact that people are different. They differ in temperament, interests, intellectual ability, aspirations, natural bent, spiritual quests, and the kind of life they wish to lead. They diverge in the values they have and have different weightings for the values they share. (They wish to live in different climates—some in mountains, plains, deserts, seashores, cities, towns.) There is no reason to think that there is one community which will serve as ideal for all people and much reason to think that there is not.

No utopian author has everyone in his society leading exactly the same life, allocating exactly the same amount of time to exactly the same activities. Why not? Don’t the reasons also count against just one kind of community? The conclusion to draw is that there will not be one kind of community existing and one kind of life led in utopia. Utopia will consist of utopias, of many different and divergent communities in which people lead different kinds of lives under different institutions. Some kinds of communities will be more attractive to most than others; communities will wax and wane. People will leave some for others or spend their whole lives in one. Utopia is a framework for utopias, a place where people are at liberty to join together voluntarily to pursue and attempt to realize their own vision of the good life in the ideal community but where no one can impose his own utopian vision upon others. The utopian society is the society of utopianism. (Some of course may be content where they are. Not everyone will be joining special experimental communities, and many who abstain at first will join the communities later, after it is clear how they actually are working out.) Half of the truth I wish to put forth is that utopia is meta-utopia: the environment in which utopian experiments may be tried out; the environment in which people are free to do their own thing; the environment which must, to a great extent, be realized first if more particular utopian visions are to be realized stably.

The third theoretical route to the framework for utopia is based on the fact that people are complex. As are the webs of possible relationships among them. Suppose (falsely) that the earlier arguments are mistaken and that one kind of society is best for all. How are we to find out what this society is like? Two methods suggest themselves, which we shall call design devices and filter devices.

Design devices construct something (or its description) by some procedure which does not essentially involve constructing descriptions of others of its type. The result of the process is one object. In the case of societies, the result of the design process is a description of one society, obtained by people (or a person) sitting down and thinking about what the best society is. After deciding, they set about to pattern everything on this one model. Given the enormous complexity of man, his many desires, aspirations, impulses, talents, mistakes, loves, sillinesses, given the thickness of his intertwined and interrelated levels, facets, relationships (compare the thinness of the social scientists’ description of man to that of the novelists), and given the complexity of interpersonal institutions and relationships, and the complexity of coordination of the actions of many people, it is enormously unlikely that, even if there were one ideal pattern for society, it could be arrived at in this a priori (relative to current knowledge) fashion. And even supposing that some great genius did come along with the blueprint, who could have confidence that it would work out well?

Filter devices involve a process which eliminates (filters out) many from a large set of alternatives. The two key determinants of the end result(s) are the particular nature of the filtering out process (and what qualities it selects against) and the particular nature of the set of alternatives it operates upon (and how this set is generated). Filtering processes are especially appropriate for designers having limited knowledge who do not know precisely the nature of a desired end product. For it enables them to utilize their knowledge of specific conditions they don’t want violated in judiciously building a filter to reject the violators. It might turn out to be impossible to design an appropriate filter, and one might try another filter process for this task of design. But generally, it seems, less knowledge (including knowledge of what is desirable) will be required to produce an appropriate filter, even one that converges uniquely upon a particular kind of product, than would be necessary to construct only the product(s) from scratch. Furthermore, if the filtering process is of the type that involves a variable method of generating new candidates, so that their quality improves as the quality of the members remaining after previous filtering operations improves, and it also involves a variable filter that becomes more selective as the quality of the candidates sent into it improves (that is, it rejects some candidates which previously had passed successfully through the filter), then one legitimately may expect that the merits of what will remain after long and continued operation of the process will be very high indeed. We should not be too haughty about the results of filter processes, being one ourselves. From the vantage point of the considerations leading us to recommend a filter process in the constructing of societies, evolution is a process for creating living beings appropriately chosen by a modest deity, who does not know precisely what the being he wishes to create is like.

The filtering process, the process of eliminating communities, that our framework involves is very simple: people try out living in various communities, and they leave or slightly modify the ones they don’t like (find defective). Some communities will be abandoned, others will struggle along, others will split, others will flourish, gain members, and be duplicated elsewhere. Each community must win and hold the voluntary adherence of its members. No pattern is imposed on everyone, and the result will be one pattern if and only if everyone voluntarily chooses to live in accordance with that pattern of community. The design device comes in at the stage of generating specific communities to be lived in and tried out. Any group of people may devise a pattern and attempt to persuade others to participate in the adventure of a community in that pattern. Visionaries and crackpots, maniacs and saints, monks and libertines, capitalists and communists and participatory democrats, proponents of phalanxes (Fourier), palaces of labor (Flora Tristan), villages of unity and cooperation (Owen), mutualist communities (Proudhon), time stores (Josiah Warren), Bruderhof, kibbutzim, kundalini yoga ashrams, and so forth, may all have their try at building their vision and setting an alluring example. It should not be thought that every pattern tried will be explicitly designed de novo. Some will be planned modifications, however slight, of others already existing (when it is seen where they rub), and the details of many will be built up spontaneously in communities that leave some leeway. As communities become more attractive for their inhabitants, patterns previously adopted as the best available will be rejected. And as the communities which people live in improve (according to their lights), ideas for new communities often will improve as well.

The operation of the framework for utopia we present here thus realizes the advantages of a filtering process incorporating mutually improving interaction between the filter and the surviving products of the generating process, so that the quality of generated and nonrejected products Furthermore, given people’s historical memories and records, it has the feature that an already rejected alternative (or its slight modification) can be retried, perhaps because new or changed conditions make it now seem more promising or appropriate. This is unlike biological evolution where previously rejected mutations cannot easily be recalled when conditions change. Also, evolutionists point out the advantages of genetic heterogeneity (polytypic and polymorphic) when conditions change greatly. Similar advantages adhere to a system of diverse communities, organized along different lines and perhaps encouraging different types of character, and different patterns of abilities and skills.

The use of a filter device dependent upon people’s individual decisions to live in or leave particular communities is especially appropriate. For the ultimate purpose of utopian construction is to get communities that people will want to live in and will choose voluntarily to live in. Or at least this must be a side effect of successful utopian construction. The filtering process proposed will achieve this. Furthermore, a filtering device dependent upon people’s decisions has certain advantages over one which operates mechanically, given our inability to formulate explicitly principles which adequately handle, in advance, all of the complex, multifarious situations which arise.

The framework has two advantages over every other kind of description of utopia: first, it will be acceptable to almost every utopian at some future point in time, whatever his particular vision; and second, it is compatible with the realization of almost all particular utopian visions, though it does not guarantee the realization or universal triumph of any particular utopian Any utopian will agree that our framework is an appropriate one for a society of good men. For good men, he thinks, voluntarily will choose to live under the particular pattern he favors, if they are as rational as he is and thus are able equally to see its excellence. And most utopians will agree that at some point in time our framework is an appropriate one, for at some point (after people have been made good, and uncorrupt generations have been produced) people voluntarily will choose to live under the favored Thus our framework is now admitted, among a wide range of utopians and their opponents, to be appropriate common ground, sooner or later. For each thinks his own particular vision would be realized under it.

The operation of the framework has many of the virtues, and few of the defects, people find in the libertarian vision. For though there is great liberty to choose among communities, many particular communities internally may have many restrictions unjustifiable on libertarian grounds: that is, restrictions which libertairans would condemn if they were enforced by a central state apparatus. For example, paternalistic intervention into people’s lives, restrictions on the range of books which may circulate in the community, limitations on the kinds of sexual behavior, and so on. But this is merely another way of pointing out that in a free society people may contract into various restrictions which the government may not legitimately impose upon them. Though the framework is libertarian and laissez-faire, individual communities within it need not be, and perhaps no community within it will choose to be so. Thus, the characteristics of the framework need not pervade the individual communities. In this laissez-faire system it could turn out that though they are permitted, there are no actually functioning “capitalist” institutions; or that some communities have them and others don’t or some communities have some of them, or what you will.

What is desired is an organization of society optimal for people who are far less than ideal, optimal also for much better people, and which is such that living under such organization itself tends to make people better and more ideal. Believing with Tocqueville that it is only by being free that people will come to develop and exercise the virtues, capacities, responsibilities, and judgments appropriate to free men, that being free encourages such development, and that current people are not close to being so sunken in corruption as possibly to constitute an extreme exception to this, the voluntary framework is the appropriate one to settle upon.

“So is this all it comes to: Utopia is a free society?” Utopia is not just a society in which the framework is realized. For who could believe that ten minutes after the framework was established, we would have utopia? Things would be no different than now. It is what grows spontaneously from the individual choices of many people over a long period of time that will be worth speaking eloquently about. (Not that any particular stage of the process is an end state which all our desires are aimed at. The utopian process is substituted for the utopian end state of other static theories of utopias.) Many communities will achieve many different characters. Only a fool, or a prophet, would try to prophesy the range and limits and characters of the communities after, for example, 150 years of the operation of this framework. Aspiring to neither role, let me close by emphasizing the dual nature of the conception of utopia being presented here. There is the framework of utopia, and there are the particular communities within the framework. Almost all of the literature on utopia is, according to our conception, concerned with the character of the particular communities within the framework. The fact that I have not propounded some particular description of a constituent community does not mean that (I think) doing so is unimportant, or less important, or uninteresting. How could that be? We live in particular communities. It is here that one’s nonimperialistic vision of the ideal or good society is to be propounded and realized. Allowing us to do that is what the framework is for. Without such visions impelling and animating the creation of particular communities with particular desired characteristics, the framework will lack life. Conjoined with many persons’ particular visions, the framework enables us to get the best of all possible worlds. The position expounded here totally rejects planning in detail, in advance, one community in which everyone is to live yet sympathizes with voluntary utopian experimentation and provides it with the background in which it can flower; does this position fall within the utopian or the antiutopian camp? My difficulty in answering this question encourages me to think the framework captures the virtues and advantages of each position. (If instead it blunders into combining the errors, defects, and mistakes of both of them, the filtering process of free and open discussion will make this clear.)

The framework for utopia that we have described is equivalent to the minimal state.

We argued in Part I that the minimal state is morally legitimate; in Part II we argued that no more extensive state could be morally justified, that any more extensive state would (will) violate the rights of individuals. This morally favored state, the only morally legitimate state, the only morally tolerable one, we now see is the one that best realizes the utopian aspirations of untold dreamers and visionaries. It preserves what we all can keep from the utopian tradition and opens the rest of that tradition to our individual aspirations. Recall now the question with which this chapter began. Is not the minimal state, the framework for utopia, an inspiring vision? The minimal state treats us as inviolate individuals, who may not be used in certain ways by others as means or tools or instruments or resources; it treats us as persons having individual rights with the dignity this constitutes. Treating us with respect by respecting our rights, it allows us, individually or with whom we choose, to choose our life and to realize our ends and our conception of ourselves, insofar as we can, aided by the voluntary cooperation of other individuals possessing the same dignity. How dare any state or group of individuals do more. Or less.