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If you find that you agree with the arguments and conclusions of Robert Nozick, you will be enriched with ammunition for debating political philosophy. If you DON'T agree and you believe that your disagreement is based upon sound philosophy, you will still be greatly rewarded - if for no other reason than you were required to expend some great effort to refute the presented material as you read it.
The major principles presented and defended by Mr. Nozick are as follows:
1) Anarchy is not tenable. 2) A "minimal state" or "nightwatchman state" that only protects the rights of its constituents is justified/legitimate. 3) any state beyond that "minimal state" is unjustified/illegitimate because it will inherently violate the rights of (at least) some of its constituents.
Beyond these major principles, Mr. Nozick also revisits the concept of Utopia in the last section of the text. I found this last section very enjoyable. Mr. Nozick's presentation of the concept of "Meta-Utopia" opened up whole new avenues of political thought for me.
I agree with the major principles of this work as I have stated them above; however, I found that I did not agree with everything presented. I enjoyed the mental exercise required to think through many of the presented topics. I was very pleased to realize the existence of this book and to read it.
Not that it has any bearing on the significance of the presented material, I did find the book to be quite difficult to read. Similar to what many critics and reviewers of this book have stated before, I found the organization of the presented material lacking and the absence of concise summaries of major topics disappointing. I found myself wishing that this were not the case - so that I might glean more benefit from the reading of the book. Also, Mr. Nozick seems too quick to prolifically digress into tangent discussions. Although the topics of these tangent discussions are quite interesting, it is my opinion that, coupled with the organization problem already mentioned, the frequency and magnitude of these discussions detracts from the persuasiveness of the book.
Even with the shortcomings, I feel some great deal of enlightenment and joy after reading this book. Mr. Nozick obviously respects and attempts to understand opposing views to the degree that he is willing to examine them with great scrutiny and then, aptly, present his arguments against them. Since I read books like this one to help me seek answers to philosophical political and otherwise) questions, I found it refreshing that an author would approach (or at least, attempt to approach) such arguments so objectively.
As I said at the beginning of this review, anyone with an interest in political philosophy will find the reading of this book to be time and thought well spent.
In the first chapter, the author asks the reader to consider what he calls the "state-of-nature theory". This (Lockean) notion, although archaic in the author's view, allows one to answer whether a state would have to be invented if it did not exist, this being a classical question in liberal political philosophy. The chapter is a detailed justification for pursuing the state-of-nature theory. He holds to the premise that one can only understand the political realm by explaining it in terms of the nonpolitical. He thus begins with the Lockean state of nature concept and uses it to build a justification for the state in the rest of the book.
Most of the discussion in part 1 of the book revolves around the "dominant protective association" in a given geographical area. The author then builds on this in an attempt to justify from a moral perspective "the minimal state". Along the way, one reads about the "ultraminimal state", which has a monopoly over the use of force except that necessary for immediate self-defense, but will not provide protection to those who do not purchase it. The author discusses the tension that arises between the ultraminimal state and those who decide not to participate in it. The game-theoretic, optimization-theoretic approach that the author takes, although not advanced and rigorous from a mathematical standpoint, is very straightforward to follow for those not familiar with the more analytical and formal aspects of many modern treatments of political science.
In part 2 the author attempts to deal with alternatives to the minimal state, such as those proposed by the political philosopher John Rawls, and incorporating the doctrine of "distributive justice". The entitlement-welfare state dialog has not abated in modern political debate, and those who desire an in-depth analysis of these debates will find it in this book. And again, game-theoretic analysis comes into play, although not from a rigorous mathematical standpoint. One of the more interesting discussions in this part concerns the right of individuals to leave a state that they find too compulsory. If a compulsory distribution scheme is the most important, why would a state permit this emigration? Would such an overidding principle of compulsory distribution also permit forced immigration? These are the kinds of questions that the author addresses in the book, and some are left solely for consideration by the reader.
Reader who desire a list of platitudes and endless arguments supporting libertarianism will not find them in this book. Readers though who are not concerned with their political and cognitive equilibrium disturbed will enjoy immensely this book. If it can assist in more careful individual consideration of accepted political doctrine and moral cliches, it has done its job.
...and indeed it has.