Essay: John Rawls and Robert Nozick: liberalism vs. libertarianism

Anarchy symbol - Basic traditional circumscrib...

Image via Wikipedia

These days , in the occasional university philosophy classroom, the differences between Robert Nozick‘s “Anarchy, State, and Utopia” (libertarianism) and John Rawls’A Theory of Justice” (social liberalism) are still discussed vigorously. In order to demonstrate a broad spectrum of possible political philosophies it is necessary to define the outer boundaries, these two treatises stand like sentries at opposite gates of the polis…

John Rawls, “A Theory of Justice.” Rawls’ presents an account of justice in the form of two principles: (1) liberty principle= people’s “equal basic liberties” — such as freedom of speech, freedom of conscience (religion), and the right to vote — should be maximized, and (2) difference principle= inequalities in social and economic goods are acceptable only if they promote the welfare of the “least advantaged” members of society. Rawls writes in the social contract tradition. He seeks to define equilibrium points that, when accumulated, form a civil system characterized by what he calls “justice as fairness.” To get there he deploys an argument whereby people in an “original position” (state of nature), make decisions (legislate laws) behind a “veil of ignorance” (of their place in the society– rich or poor) using a reasoning technique he calls “reflective equilibrium.” It goes something like: behind the veil of ignorance, with no knowledge of their own places in civil society, Rawls posits that reasonable people will default to social and economic positions that maximize the prospects for the worst off– feed and house the poor in case you happen to become one. It’s much like the prisoner’s dilemma in game theory. By his own words Rawls = “left-liberalism”.

Robert Nozick, “Anarchy, State, and Utopia,” libertarian response to Rawls which argues that only a “minimal state” devoted to the enforcement of contracts and protecting people against crimes like assault, robbery, fraud can be morally justified. Nozick suggests that “the fundamental question of political philosophy” is not how government should be organized but “whether there should be any state at all,” he is close to John Locke in that government is legitimate only to the degree that it promotes greater security for life, liberty, and property than would exist in a chaotic, pre-political “state of nature.” Nozick concludes, however, that the need for security justifies only a minimal, or “night-watchman,” state, since it cannot be demonstrated that citizens will attain any more security through extensive governmental intervention. (Nozick p.25-27)

” …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.” (Nozick Preface p.ix)


  1. The primary difference between the two is in the treatment of the legitimacy of governmental redistribution of wealth (and even on that issue Nozick eventually flinches — see #1 below). In place of Rawls’s “difference principle,” Nozick espouses an “entitlement theory” of justice, according to which individual holdings of various social and economic goods are justified only if they derive from just acquisitions or (voluntary) transfers. No safety nets allowed (acquisitions from social programs are not just because they are funded through the involuntary transfer of wealth via taxation and are therefore taboo). No accommodations for free-riders should be made. Problem: Nozick never spells out the criteria of just acquisition.
  • Nozick critique of Rawls’s rationale for his difference principle: it’s implausible to claim that merely because all members of a society benefit from social cooperation, the less-advantaged ones are automatically entitled to a share in the earnings of their more successful peers.


  1. Both theories jump off with a sweeping statement of the primacy of justice — Nozick more or less retained Rawls’s first principle (liberty) while rejecting the second (difference). But…
  2. Regarding governmental redistribution of wealth, Nozick seems to admit that his entitlement theory is insufficient to refute demands for a redistributionist state; surely some collective holdings were acquired via some original act of unjust conquest, right?. In response Nozick agrees that a Rawls-like difference principle is morally acceptable after all, what he terms “rectification,” on the premise that those currently least-well-off have the highest probability of being descended from previous victims of injustice. (Nozick p.152-153, 230-231)
  3. Both shared a view of political philosophy as an exercise in the production of abstract theories, with little regard for the practical grounding of justice in human nature (i.e., of conformity with the likely demands of actual human beings). Therefore both theories rate a society’s success by how closely it’s laws and procedures adhere to the model rather than whether those laws produce morally maximized outcomes. Both clearly followed Immanuel Kant‘s dictum, “let justice triumph, even if the world perishes by it.”

Some Practical Questions for Rawls:

  1. Does your system promote free-riders?
  2. Does the Leveling of society stifle competition, initiative and creative thinking?
  3. Does your system foster interest group politics?
  4. Is your state vulnerable to excessive taxation?
  5. Is your state vulnerable to excessive bureaucracy?
  6. Does accountability become increasingly difficult as your state grows?

Some Practical Questions for Nozick:

  1. Your libertarianism, which compares income taxation to forced labor, fails to acknowledge the need for a guarantee of some baseline level of social security and educational benefits to all citizens. Can you somehow still ensure the continued loyalty of the poor to the state?
  2. No federally insured bank deposits (FDIC)?
  3. No food and drug inspection?
  4. No pollution regulations?
  5. No enforceable labor laws – 40 hr work week for example?
  6. Is polygamy allowed?
  7. Are addictive drugs allowed?
  8. No workplace safety regulations or workers compensation laws?

Read The Liberal Imagination of Frederick Douglass for an excellent discussion on the state of liberalism in America today.


Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Robert Nozick. Basic Books. 1974

A Theory of Justice. John Rawls. Harvard University Press. 1971

Disclaimer: This is a forum for me to capture in digital type my understanding of various philosophies and philosophers. I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the interpretations.

13 responses to “Essay: John Rawls and Robert Nozick: liberalism vs. libertarianism

  1. its a gud wrk, kip it up.
    its bin of particular help 2 me & ur intepretations are closest 2 true.

  2. This is a really helpful explanation of both Nozick and Rawls. Thanks a lot

  3. thank you, you made my homework a lot easier

  4. Amazing Research. This essay diffidently help me to write my essay on this topic. thanks alot.

  5. This is amazingly great. Keep up the good work.



  7. i want to know the features of liberalism

  8. Thank you. This was a clear distinction and helped me a lot.

  9. A very good dichotomy of Rawls and Nozick, keep it up.

  10. Thanks for the clarification. One more question, then, can we conclude that in the name of “individual property rights and individual freedom,” Nozick argues for increasing social inequality? How solve it?

  11. Nozickian Libertarian

    Your libertarianism, which compares income taxation to forced labor, fails to acknowledge the need for a guarantee of some baseline level of social security and educational benefits to all citizens. Can you somehow still ensure the continued loyalty of the poor to the state?

    If this is a criticism, it shouldn’t be unique to Nozick. The ASSUMPTION here is that the poor WILL be loyal to the Rawlsian form of state. An assumption that cannot be taken for granted.

    No federally insured bank deposits (FDIC)?
    No food and drug inspection?
    No pollution regulations?
    No enforceable labor laws – 40 hr work week for example?
    Is polygamy allowed?
    Are addictive drugs allowed?
    No workplace safety regulations or workers compensation laws

    None, except the polygamy bit, it is highly likely that it will not be outlawed. Neither has a Socialist/Social Democratic/Rawlsian state guaranteed them nor has protected people from any such distresses. Those are just excuses to grow the state beyond what is needed.

  12. There is no just acquisition ever. You can lee going backwards through history, but every advantaged acquisitions is derived from some illegal conquest, injustice or inequality from the past.

Leave a Reply to lucy Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s