Saturday, 18 January 2014

ASU Ch. 2: The State of Nature

There are four threads to this chapter.

  1. A brief explanation of John Locke's view of the state of nature
  2. Nozick's own views on the state of nature, leading to his conclusion that a dominant Rights Protection Association (RPA) would emerge.
  3. A discussion of "Invisible Hand explanations". The term invisible hand is, of course, taken from Adam Smith and Nozick applies it in a broad sense, including to his own explanation of the emergence of the state.
  4. An explanation of why Nozick does not believe the dominant RPA constitutes a State.

John Locke's view of the state of nature was that it had problems in rights enforcement: most particularly with regard to judgement. (Quoting from Nozick) "In a state of nature, the undestood natural law may not provide for every contingency in a proper fashion... and men who judge in their own case will always give themselves the benefit of the doubt and assume that they are in the right. They will overestimate the amount of harm of damage they have suffered, and passions will lead them to attempt to punish others more than proportionately and to exact excessive compensation. Thus private and personal enforcement of one's rights (including those rights that are violated when one is excessively punished) leads to feuds, to an endless series of acts of retaliation and exactions of compensation." There will be no way to reliably end feuds.

As something of an afterthought, it is mentioned that weak people may be unable to enforce their rights.

My understanding is that the whole system of RPAs is Nozick's answer to the first of these problems. I suspect that the state of nature would indeed suffer from a tendency towards over-punishment, but I doubt it would really lead to a system of ongoing, eternal feuds. In Medieval Iceland (to go-to example for any anarcho-capitalist) one's legal claims were transferable property rights - that is to say, if my brother were to be murdered and I lacked the funds to take the murderer to court, I could sell the right to bring case against the murderer to someone who had the funds. In this way I would receive compensation and the murderer would be brought to justice. My suspicion is that such a system, if implemented, would also help to dissociate legal claims from the claimant and so make feuds less likely to occur. Moreover, the ability to sell a legal claim would provide justice for even someone with no money - for example, a wrongdoer who has been punished to an unjust extent.


One central feature of anarcho-capitalist explanations of life in the state of nature are organisations for the resolution of disputes (DROs) and associations for the protection of rights (RPAs). Nozick starts with an assumption that people begin by attempting to enforce their own rights; following from this, groups of friends and neighbours will group together to protect each other's rights. There are two key problems with the set-up at this point: that hotheads who get into many disputes will place an inordinate cost upon others, and that it will be very costly and inconvenient to be constantly on call in case someone calls upon you to help enforce his rights.

In response to the first, RPAs will assess cases before acting upon them, and will not pursue claims unless it appears that there has been a genuine infraction against a member's rights. In order to deal with the issue of inconvenience, RPAs will hire professionals to enforce rights - in essence, private detectives and private police officers. There will necessarily be a cost to both of these, and so RPAs will charge membership fees. Thus a whole market for RPAs will develop, with different RPAs competing to provide better coverage at lower costs.

In many disputes it will be the case that the sides are served by different RPAs. In many cases the RPAs will be able to negotiate and discuss who is in the right and who is in the wrong, but it will sometimes be they case that they disagree, with each side favouring their own member. In this case, Nozick believes that they will come into conflict. He identifies three possible outcomes of such conflict:

1. One side wins, defeating the other and so becoming the dominant local rights protection association.
2. Each side wins in certain geographical areas and loses in others, thus leading to a patchwork of local dominant rights protection associations.
3. Neither side can defeat the other in anything more than the short term. In order to avoid a wasteful and never-ending conflict, the two appoint an arbiter between them, with the power to compel them to comply. This represents a dominant rights protection itself, which happens to have other RPOs beneath it.

It should be noted that throughout the above process, RPOs are assumed to be behaving in a generally moral fashion, and the conflict is due to genuine, honest disagreement. Nozick does not think a violent, unreasonable RPO would get very far at all, since it would lack to power to subvert an entire population and would not be able to negotiate with other RPOs.


Invisible hand explanations are those which (roughly defined) explain a phenomenon as emerging entirely from lower-level phenomena, with no deliberate design (although it may appear as though these is design). Nozick gives various examples: the free market, evolution, Thomas Schelling's model of discrimination and various others. Nozick's view of how the state comes to be in the state of nature is such an explanation.


Nozick considers the question of whether the dominant RPA is really a state. He observes that Max Weber's celebrated definition of the state as "an organisation possessing a monopoly on the use of force within a given geographical area" is somewhat inexact; he proposes an an improvement, though still not a perfect definition, that a state will, within a given area, punish to the best of its ability anyone who it discovers to have used force without its express permission.

He then identifies two key differences between a dominant RPA and a state: first, that no justly-acting RPA will punish anyone who takes rights protection into their own hands, so long as they do not violate anyone else's rights in the process. Secondly, a state (at least in theory) provides protection to all within its jurisdiction, whereas a RPO would only protect those who pay its membership fees. For these reasons, he does not consider a dominant RPA to be a state as such.

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