03 April 2019

Robert Nozick on ‘rights’

Libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick on the individual’s rights versus the state’s rights:
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? [...]

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 [...]*
When political philosophers discuss ‘rights’ they usually overlook the fact that ‘rights’ are an imaginary concept. The concept may be a convenience but it does not have objective reality and it cannot be proven.

It is possible to imagine a society in which each person knew what his possessions were, and knew that only he could make use of them. But in practice it would be difficult and complicated to protect each person's property ‘rights’ from everyone else. Discussions of how this might be done should not be confused with defining what a ‘right’ might be.

* Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia, Basic Books, 1974, p.ix.