70 pages 2 hours read

Robert Nozick

Anarchy, State and Utopia

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1974

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Summary and Study Guide


Anarchy, State, and Utopia is Robert Nozick’s seminal work of political philosophy. Its publication in 1974 brought him into the public eye as a major philosopher of political libertarianism. Fifty years after its publication, the work remains highly influential, attracting both praise and criticism in philosophical and political circles.

Nozick wrote Anarchy, State, and Utopia in response to John Rawls’s Theory of Justice, published in 1971. When writing this book—his first—Nozick was a convinced libertarian, influenced by economists such as F. A. Hayek and Ludwig Von Mises. In 1969, he joined Harvard University as a professor. Previously, he studied philosophy at Columbia University and Princeton University, where he encountered leftist and social democratic political organizations and participated in their activities. By the time he wrote Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Nozick had collected various experiences as a political thinker. His response to Rawls’s social-democratic liberalism secured his position as a right-libertarian. In addition to Rawls’s ideas, Nozick also addressed other political theories such as Marxism, anarchism, utilitarianism, and frameworks centered on egalitarianism.

Anarchy, State, and Utopia addresses the fundamental principles of libertarianism and the minimal state. The book is situated in the context of 20th-century political discourse, engaging with the ideas of individual freedom and minimal government intervention. It has been widely recognized for its contribution to political theory. In 1975, it received the National Book Award.

This guide refers to the 1974 Basic Books print edition.


In the Preface of Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Nozick establishes his central thesis: A minimal state, focused solely on protecting people from violence, theft, and fraud, is both justified and necessary. This state should not infringe on individual rights and should stand as a moral institution.

In Chapter 1, Nozick proposes starting with a non-political situation and theoretically demonstrating the emergence of a political state, in alignment with John Locke’s state-of-nature theory. State-of-nature theory, he argues, offers insights into human behavior in the absence of governmental control.

In Chapter 2, Nozick discusses Locke’s idea of the state of nature, marked by freedom and the law of nature, which forbids harm to others. In this state, challenges such as biased judgment and disproportionate retribution lead to the formation of mutual-protection associations. These groups evolve into protective agencies. Nozick explores how such agencies could transition into a dominant protective association resembling a minimal state.

Chapter 3 introduces the concept of the ultraminimal state, distinguishing it from the minimal state. Nozick discusses the moral legitimacy of redistributive functions for protection services. He rejects utilitarian approaches, advocating for moral constraints on actions that respect individual rights. The chapter also addresses Kant’s categorical imperative and the moral significance of individuality, arguing against sacrificing one person or one weaker being for another. Following Kant, Nozick argues that individuals should be treated not as means but as ends.

Chapter 4 discusses the relationship between a dominant protective agency and those who choose to remain independent. Nozick considers scenarios in which independents live within the agency’s territory, leading to potential conflicts and questions about the legitimacy of the agency’s actions. He also addresses the moral implications of actions that violate an individual’s rights, the nature of compensation, and the justifications for prohibiting certain actions.

Chapter 5 elaborates on the prohibition of private enforcement of justice and how a dominant protective agency might act toward non-clients. Nozick examines the agency’s role in protecting others and compensating independents, which culminates in the emergence of a minimal state.

Chapter 6 offers further considerations and objections related to the argument for the state. Nozick discusses the balance of power in self-defense, preventive attacks, and the behavior of individuals in the process of state formation. Nozick questions the legitimacy of the state’s authority to punish and enforce justice, the entitlement of everyone to punish, and the concept of preventive restraint.

In Chapter 7, Nozick challenges the concept of distributive justice, which assumes a central authority for resource distribution. He introduces the term “holdings” to emphasize individual entitlement over collective distribution. Nozick outlines three principles of justice in holdings: justice in acquisition, justice in transfer, and rectification of injustice in holdings. He contrasts his historical entitlement theory with current time-slice principles, which focus on outcomes without considering the history of distributions.

Nozick critiques patterned distribution principles, like merit or equality, as they require constant interference in individual choices and transactions. He illustrates this with the Wilt Chamberlain example, in which Chamberlain's wealth accumulation through voluntary transactions is just despite resulting in unequal distribution.

In the second part of Chapter 7, Nozick critically analyzes John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice. He argues that justice principles should apply at both macro and micro levels, and he questions why natural endowments should not partially determine distributions. Against Rawls’s argument of fairness for the least advantaged, Nozick argues in favor of the moral significance of individual entitlements and capabilities.

Chapter 8 further discusses the concepts of equality, self-esteem, meaningful work, and exploitation. Nozick challenges the assumption that material equality is inherently just, emphasizing the legitimacy of individual rights and processes over outcomes. He examines the concept of equality of opportunity, suggesting that it infringes on individual rights. Nozick also explores envy in egalitarianism, arguing that alleviating envy should not limit individual capabilities. He considers the nature of meaningful work and its relation to self-esteem, questioning the generalization that subordination diminishes self-esteem. Nozick takes up the Marxist theory of labor exploitation, arguing that it oversimplifies market realities and undervalues factors like innovation and risk.

In Chapter 9, Nozick presents a thought experiment in which individuals sell shares of their rights, which leads to a complex system of collective ownership and decision-making. This system represents a form of democracy where everyone holds fractional ownership of each other’s rights. Nozick argues that while this system may eliminate personal domination, it also significantly reduces individual autonomy and freedom.

Chapter 10 presents Nozick’s conceptualization of a utopian society within the parameters of the minimal state. Nozick challenges the traditional notion of a singular, perfect utopia, acknowledging the inherent subjectivity in defining an ideal world. He proposes a flexible framework that allows for the existence of multiple, diverse communities, each catering to the unique preferences and visions of its members. This model, termed “meta-utopia,” emphasizes voluntary association and individual choice, enabling people to join or leave communities as they desire.