Robert Nozick’s 1974’s Anarchy, State and Utopia deserves a re-read right now. As the long-suppressed cracks begin to open in the WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Developed) world, we are forced to face the scaling problems of party-politics democracy; and to begin to seriously consider the alternatives on offer.
Common logic (of the upper middle class millennial Twitter-using set anyway) suggests that the “only” solution to save the WEIRD world is a rejection of neoliberalism (or, as the more cynical of us might suggest, an outright rejection of liberalism altogether) in favour of big, bigger, biggest government. The policy mix on offer appears to be an unholy alliance of social communism (that is unquestioning acceptance of homogenous political correct ideology); financial socialism (that is Keynesianism’s long-awaited return, in the form of UBI, the expensive “entrepreneurial state” and magic MMT money to pay for it all); market capitalism (big business gets bigger, supported by state money, small business is left to fend for itself); trade-balance nationalism (in the form of protectionist tariffs and cold-war tactics); and globalist populism (in that the future mass movements of social and climate justice are borderless and international, even as they define national party-political lines). This strange populist protopia is proposed to have no police, and no prisons; yet guaranteed UBI will be provided for all (apparently taxes will be extracted via the threat of cancel culture for non compliance rather than the threat of physical violence or incarceration).
This unstable equilibrium, made up of cherry-picking traits of both the left and the right sides of the isle cannot be the only future on offer. Nor is it. Nozick proposes something radically different; a much, much smaller government, that is from outright anarchy to the more realistic minarchy. His seminal work approaches these truly radical ideas from the lease of ethics and philosophy, rather than from the lens of their desirability, making it a fascinating study on the path less taken. The reader is left with the unspoken challenge – if individuals are noble and responsible, there would be no need for big government, or indeed any government at all. If, however, individuals are flawed and selfish beings, then so will be their governments, made of and selected by the same flawed, selfish beings.
Anarchy is not for everyone. I am not advocating the intellectual ideas Nozick explores be applied literally (nor, indeed was Nozick, his work is focuses on the logical consistency of the arguments for and against anarchy). Yet, then again, neither is communism. There are marginal returns to both individualism and collectivism. For me, always, the future needs more alternatives, less homogeneity, more competing ideas. And, right now, with the pendulum swinging so far away from the rights and responsibilities of the individual human being, it can’t hurt to at least glance at the options of offer on the other side of the swing.
That said, the closing section of Anarchy, State and Utopia is the most interesting, even as it is the least discussed. In this last section, Nozick explores the logic of utopia, and finds, as I do, that there is no such thing as a singular utopia; indeed any utopia that cannot be escaped from at will is no utopia at all.