Sidgwick's Critique of Nozick

David Braybrooke

Henry Sidgwick's The Principles of Political Economy (1883) and The Elements of Politics (1891) have long been out of print, consigned by The University of Texas library (and no doubt other libraries) to remote storage if not to discard. Paul Lyon has brought them back to availability by putting them on the Internet. But who reads these books nowadays (in contrast with Sidgwick's Methods of Ethics [1874, and still in the public eye, at least among philosophers])? Why, apart from antiquarian interest, should anyone read them in this progressive age? One telling reason is that those works contain a searching and unsettling critique of Robert Nozick's work, in particular of Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974). Of course, because Sidgwick wrote long before, and certainly did not have Nozick in mind, never having heard of him, it is an anachronism to rank him as a critic of Nozick. But this, one might reasonably say, is only a trivial technical point. The implicit critique in the works mentioned is not only, point by point, pertinent, it is right up-to-date; indeed, Sidgwick is much more up-to-date than Nozick and always has been. He was more up-to-date in relation to current society when he wrote; and to take into account developments in institutions and social attitudes since his time, what he says needs only straightforward amending (by adding certain topics to an agenda already inclined to be friendly to them). Nozick's views, on the contrary, have no easily intelligible relation to society at the end of the 20th Century, or to society in Sidgwick's time, or indeed to any society that has ever existed in history. If Nozick had only read Sidgwick's arguments before taking pen in hand himself, he might have been deterred from writing the things that he did write; and many naive philosophers would have escaped the misleading spell of his ideas, beautifully lucid, but always untimely.

This global difference between the two authors, which I shall describe as a difference in realism, is what I want to most emphasize, though I do not at all want to discount the importance of the point-by-point counterarguments against details of Nozick's views that can be derived from Sidgwick's global position.

Sidgwick is much more realistic than Nozick, in the first place, because he does not abstract from the populous industrial society of his time (too populous to be supported except by industrialization). Hence he is always ready to cite, against the more or less extreme theses of the libertarians that he knew (such as Herbert Spencer), the provisions that organized society has found useful to make (or continue to make) against some of the practical implications of those theses. Are the provisions entirely well-conceived, or entirely efficient? Sidgwick does not say, or need to say: His point again and again is that without some provisions of the sort life in society would be much less agreeable to everyone. Without, for example, some protection against slander, everyone would be worse off; so everyone would be without bridges and streets in towns, most efficiently built as governmental projects. The argument, of course, is in general tenor consequentialist and utilitarian, as one would expect from Sidgwick; but he does not need to mobilize any more of a utilitarian apparatus for evaluating consequences than figures in finding that everyone will be happier for having these things.

In the second place, and even more fundamentally, Sidgwick is more realistic just in having some going society to refer to in mounting his arguments. As it happened, it was his own society, 19th Century England. But this can be taken to represent any of a number of societies, real or possible, that stand in an historical relation to the arguments. Nozick has no such society to appeal to. He goes back to Locke; and characteristically takes as the basis for his own thinking the unhistorical side of Locke: unhistorical, in the sense that the state of nature as Locke thinks of it was never historical. If you go back to the beginnings of human society, you are not going to find Locke's solitary gatherers of acorns, or his independent subsistence farmers; you are going to find hunter gatherer societies living in families or small bands and sharing the day's catch.

Something can be made in Nozick's favor of the approximation to a society of independent subsistence farmers (independent short of having a few supporting artisans---blacksmiths, millers) that was set up in parts of the North American colonies in Locke's day. As an approximation, that sort of society survived long enough to give for a while a plausible basis to the protections of the first ten amendments to the U. S. Constitution. (The first of those amendments forbids the federal government to interfere with freedom of speech; that might have been enough protection for people economically self-sufficient.) But even the approximation demands multiple historical qualifications: The land on which the colonists set up was not land to which they had first claim; the colonies were organized to a large extent under grants of property from London (which did not really have a good first claim either); the colonists often came in organized groups including tenants and indentured servants; they began very early to import slaves.

Nozick's views, like Locke's, fit best a society of independent subsistence farmers and independent artisans; but it is doubtful whether any current society originated in such a society. This is a problem that social contract thinking in the style of Locke creates for itself; and Nozick, taking the side of Locke---one side of Locke---arrays himself against philosophers like Aristotle, or Saint Thomas, or Sidgwick, who continually had in mind some current society, indeed the society current in each case with themselves.

Even if a current society did originate in a Lockean state of nature, how would the institutions that it found convenient have any special claim to precedence over other institutions that might be better suited to a populous industrial society? Nozick, by postulating as sacrosanct certain free-standing rights respecting the acquisition and exchange of tangible property, would like to hold that the claim to precedence lies in the justice of present claims to property, insofar as they are founded on acquisitions and exchanges that conformed to the postulated rights. Indeed, this is the centerpiece of his theory of justice. But as he admits, in a startling, but little-noticed, confession of intellectual bankruptcy, there is no way of sorting out how far present claims to property are founded on rightful historical sequences. Hence, he suggests (A, S, & U, Ch. 7, final para) as a rough attempt to rectify the past injustices that have contaminated all present claims, a social policy of redistribution guided by Rawls's Differerence Principle, which he began by rejecting theoretically as an end-result principle, unacceptable in itself and requiring (he had claimed) an intolerable amount of continual tinkering. (Cf. Sidgwick's discussion of inequality and his approach, perfectly consistent with his basic position, to endorsing the Difference Principle: Politics, Chapter 10, §6.)

Sidgwick never got so far from current society as to commit himself like Nozick to a thoroughly idle appeal to history---not really to history, at best to a sort of history-in-principle, history as it might have been, dream history. Nor does Sidgwick get so far from current society as to contemplate anything like Nozick's Utopia, of people (most likely, again, independent subsistence farmers and independent artisans with their own small holdings of capital) freely emigrating between associations that foster different life-styles. Nozick acknowledges barriers to such mobility in the real world, but does he understand how formidable the barriers are, or how disinclined people may be to emigrate even when the barriers are relatively easy to surmount? Why should people leave Sweden or The Netherlands? There may be nowadays a trickle of people leaving who in accordance with Nozick's beliefs are moving to the United States to try their chances as entrepreneurs; but even they would not be leaving because they found the public provisions in those countries, for medical care, education, unemployment insurance, and pensions in old age, directly oppressive; or the comparatively honorable record of those countries in international aid an intolerable drain on their pocket-books.

The unrealistic abstraction of Nozick's thinking from current society and real social problems lends itself to the abuse of his doctrines (for which he is I daresay not to be held entirely responsible). The agents at issue, though they are properly no more than independent subsistence farmers and independent artisans, are taken to be somehow typical and current, some of them ready to stand on their own feet, never mind that in the real world they are in fact employees at some level of hierarchical authority or other of large organizations, while some of them who have not quite fit into the employment matrices are not. These are called upon to make themselves self-sufficient, though that is not what for the most part their luckier fellow-citizens are themselves. There results a sort of populist rationale for policies that reduce the social benefits coming from government or dispense with them altogether, policies in short that favor the rich and disfavor the poor. This is not because Nozick's doctrines imply such policies; they are too remote from current society (or any historical society) to imply anything about current policies (cf. his own caveats, A, S, & U, again Ch. 7, final para). But they paint what some readers have found an appealing picture in which only a minimal state is justified and leave the readers to apply the doctrines in almost any way they like. So the doctrines end up reinforcing the conscious anti-governmental bias widespread in public attitudes in the English-speaking countries. Along with that conscious bias they reinforce the largely unrecognized bias tending to perpetuate and strengthen the plutocratic aspects of public poliicies.

In Sidgwick, there is none of this loony confusion between never-never land and current society with its real problems. In the perspective of current society, Sidgwick grapples with point after point on the libertarian agenda, shows what a balanced view of the issues will make of them, and leaves his readers with overall equipment suited to dealing with current policies.

He begins by setting up, in the face of the extreme libertarian position that governmental action (interference) is allowable only to directly protect people's liberty, what he calls ``the Individualistic Minimum'', that is to say, the minimum of government action or interference that accords with a principle derived from utilitarianism, of gaining as much as possible of the benefits of mutual noninterference. He expresses this minimum (Politics, Ch. 4, §3) as consisting of government support for personal rights under three heads, namely, (1) the Right of personal security, including security to health and reputation; (2) the Right of private property, together with the Right of freely transferring property by gift, sale, or bequest; (3) the Right to fulfilment of contracts freely entered into. All of these, he points out, go beyond directly preventing people from interfering with each others' freedom, taking that in the basic sense of being free to do what they wish to do, unobstructed by force or fear of force. Hence the Individualistic Minimum goes beyond---far beyond---what an extreme libertarian would demand.

What is the status of these rights? Sidgwick argues for them on the basis of the utility ascribed to them by current society; but he does not rely on any questionable procedure for aggregating personal utilities. It suffices for his purposes, as I have said, that everyone will find life more agreeable if these rights are protected than if they are not. But maybe there needs to be no reference to utility at all. We might just begin with these rights, treating them as free-standing postulates, as Nozick treats the rights of acquisition and exchange. Will they not do just as well as Nozick's rights? Indeed (2) [private property] is equivalent to Nozick's on the topic of exchange, and though it does not imply his right of acquisition, (2) might be developed to include it; and (1)[personal security] and (3) [contracts] seem to be natural supplements to his scheme, even arguably implications of it when it is fully laid out. But none of them, in Sidgwick's treatment, not even in respect to acquisition, imply going back to any original state of nature. It is, for example, just acquisition given present resources and opportunities that is to be covered. With funds saved from one's wages, a worker makes a down payment on a house, or buys pots and pans, and some crockery.

The importance given by Sidgwick to security of reputation deserves a moment's pause. In any real society, people are connected with one another in a complex network of personal relations, which they look to for various benefits. Those benefits will be jeopardized by slander. A woman cannot expect to marry as well as she could, unslandered; her parents will not be able to place her in a marriage favorable to them as well as to her; her children, if she does marry, will suffer directly or indirectly from the injured reputation of their mother. Nothing of this sort comes up with Nozick's farmers and artisans, who seem to be related to one another only by the exchanges that they make of tangible commodities. Is this a society, even a society in principle? It is only a rather implausible attempt at the skeleton of a society.

Sidgwick proceeds to argue that the Individualistic Minimum is not enough to gain all the benefits of government action consistent with the principle that endorses it as a minimum. These include, not just punishing fraud, but taking precautions against it and other evils by having government prescribe weights and measures, and inspect food and other goods; and by having government restrict ``the manufacture and carriage of explosive substances''. Sidgwick admits that cases like these fall on ``the disputed margin'' of the Individualistic Minimum; and invite charges of paternalism, as do, even more so, goverment schemes for licensing medical practicioners and for refusing to enforce contracts with unlicensed ones. But he holds that in many of these cases the individualistic principle suffices to endorse government action; and he does not repudiate paternalism out of hand, even in dealing wtih sane adults, since even sane adults may be liable to victimization in one way or another.

In the next stage of his argument, Sidgwick goes beyond even the margin of individualism. ``There is no reason to suppose that a purely individualistic organization of industry would be the most effective and economical'' (Politics, Ch. 10 § 3;). Socialism, he holds, meaning in its most intrusive instances, not just regulation, but production carried on by the government, is in order for education, managing forests, building bridges and streets in towns, providing roads, parks, and waterways elsewhere, making banking and insurance available to the poor. He thinks that there are drawbacks to government production, in particular in respect to motivation. It is not easy to make up for the acute interest that individual entrepreneurs, proprietors of their own businesses, bring to production. However, Sidgwick does not regard this as an insuperable disadvantage. In time, motivations may change, for example, toward public spiritedness, in ways favorable to extending socialism, even to the extent of having government production become predominant. He contemplates with equanimity the eventuality of having land come under national ownership (though this would be brought in with due compensation). In every one of these connections, it is a practical comparison between individualistic methods and socialist ones that will decide whether to go forward to more socialism. It is not the restrictions of an abstract doctrine of rights that govern the comparison, furthermore, but a comparison of benefits, in the simplest cases a comparison of the quantities produced with given amounts of resources.

I have been drawing mainly on the book about politics, rather than on Political Economy. Sidgwick runs much the same argument when he focuses on the workings of the economy. Laissez faire---``the system of natural liberty''---invites the attachment of individualists. However, for a variety of reasons, including excessive value ascribed to goods consumed by the rich, the special requirements of dealing with public goods, and the need to make special provisions for training the poor in useful skills, an economy run entirely under the banner of laissez faire will not achieve optimal production, even if everyone involved is a well-informed judge of her own interest. Nor is the system optimal for distribution, since, among other things, it does not distribute enough to the poor to enable them to improve their productive skills, and it allows landowners to appropriate unearned increments to the value of their land. (This, characteristically, is a point that Nozick does not mention; it is not a benefit that reduces simply to acquisition or the exchange of acquired goods, but one that supervenes on the interactions of a concentrated population.)

Sidgwick mentions monopoly, but does not give it special prominence or recognize the ubiquity that according to the 20th Century theory of monopolistic competition must be ascribed to it, though it is radically questionable how much of the ideal either on the production side or the distribution side will be left standing when the ubiquity is appreciated. More striking and more important is Sidgwick's omission to say how business cycles affect production and distribution. If full production under the laissez-faire ideal is realized only intermittently, and the economy is periodically depressed, with effects on income and happiness falling with much greater impact on workers---who lose their jobs and livelihoods, and may fall into destitution---than on capitalists, must not these effects be taken into account? The economy must be judged not just on its performance at peak moments, but over periods of some length, where the net benefits realized under the system of natural liberty may be much less impressive. Sidgwick, however, is at least prepared to consider carrying on production in other ways, and open to experiment with socialist projects. Thus amendments on this point will come in the way of extending further some allowances that Sidgwick has already made.

On other points, the amendments will have to correct some shortcomings. Sidgwick did not appreciate how weak the bargaining position of a worker is vis-a-vis an employer, even when the employer is a small manufacturer. Hence he objected to establishing minimum hours for work as an infringement of personal liberty. Nor did he appreciate the scope for petty oppression on the employer's part that is opened up by the worker's immobility, given among other things family attachments and the fixed location of some of his few assets (like a house partly paid for). These differences between workers and employers have not gone away as huge bureaucratic organizations have supplanted small employers in the economy private and public. Sidgwick, moreover, is very skeptical about the motives of typical workers; and finds some merit in the British workhouse as a deterrent to idleness. But even here, he is prepared to learn from other countries, and prepared in principle at least to go forward with measures of social insurance. It is also perhaps only fair to concede to him that what in U. S. politics is called the ``welfare'' problem has not yet been wholly solved.

Is there anything here that is not now, as it has been for some time past, a commonplace in the discussions of economics? But Sidgwick had a part in making the points at issue commonplaces, mostly a useful part, a part for good. Sometimes he plays a part for ill, with others who established the commonplaces---for ill, chiefly in beginning with the idealized merits of a competitive market and introducing realistic qualifications one by one as so many deviations, if not quite as abnormalities. That is the way economists still think, and the way that the public has by and large been persuaded to think, too. They would all do better to treat fully competitive markets as precarious and transient phenomena, deviations from a reality steadily unsuited to keeping them going.

Even if Sidgwick's Political Economy were no more than a systematic presentation of what have become commonplaces, it is a striking implication of the comparison with Nozick that points recognized at least by an exceptionally judicious thinker generations earlier just go missing in Nozick's work. But Sidgwick's presentation is still useful as an introduction to the moral criticism of economic activity, especially if it is amended in the ways that I have mentioned, and in other ways. Furthermore, it shows how classical liberalism in economics---``the system of natural liberty''---invited transformation under the pressure of utilitarian considerations into what has been called ``liberalism'' in the United States since at least the time of the New Deal, and lately vilified under that name (as it was, formerly, under the name of socialism) in spite of its achievements in giving capitalism a human face. Sidgwick was a classical liberal, but he was also, like some other leading classical liberals though not all, a utilitarian, too. Still in current commitments a classical liberal, he looked forward to transformation in the direction of the welfare state, ``socialist'' in his view, more or less ``socialist'' in other people's usage; and he helps to get the transformation moving just by this looking forward.

The argument of Elements of Politics resists even more easily the charge of rehearsing commonplaces. The points advanced by the argument---the points made in Political Economy reflected, recast, and supplemented---are the views that experience with a market economy has installed in common sense. Anyone who disregards them, as Nozick disregards them, does so only at great risk of irrelevance. They are thus suitable places to begin reflecting on politics. In the course of presenting them, Sidgwick offers a rationale for what advanced governments do, including governments more advanced that that of England in his time; and in the course of doing so, a rationale for the services that their citizens generally strongly favor, though in many cases this is hardly consistent with the antigovernmental (anti-``liberal'') rhetoric that has been induced in them by libertarian doctrines and other ill-considered influences. Sidgwick also supplies grounds for improving those services when occasion to do so can be found. He is more inclined to contemplate additions to the services than subtractions from them---experiments with privatization---but that is an effect of his view of the future and his assumptions about progress. Subtractions, along with revisions of services that continue, are undeniable logical possibilities. Sidgwick, with some amendments, thus also offers a place to begin comprehensive reconsideration of current policies.

What does Nozick have to say about application to current policies and current politics? Essentially, nothing on his own. He supports a principle of rectification to be applied to present holdings, but, as I have pointed out, he can do no better in approximating it than go outside his own doctrine, indeed go outside to borrow the Difference Principle from his main target. But if the Difference Principle is to work acceptably, it must go hand-in-hand with the Principle of Fair Equality of Opportunity, which Rawls brings in to help make sure that the people who arrive at various positions, top and bottom and in-between, in the income level scheme, are the people best qualified to hold them. Rectification will thus open up a far-reaching opportunity to reorganize (more or less comprehensively, more or less rapidly) the economy, and consider not just what is to be done about Rawls's principles, but also about all the points that Sidgwick argues must be provided for. Sidgwick like Rawls is ready with advice about the reorganization. Nozick has nothing useful to add.

David Braybrooke
The University of Texas at Austin
31 December 2000

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