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New Left Review I/150, March-April 1985


G. A. Cohen

Nozick on Appropriation

1. Associated with the recent rightward movement in the politics of Western capitalist societies is the influential political philosophy of libertarianism, whose most impressive exponent is Robert Nozick of Harvard. [1] See his Anarchy, State and Utopia, Basic Books, New York 1974. The foundational claim of libertarianism is the thesis of self-ownership, which says that each human being is the morally rightful owner of his own person and powers. [2] The meaning of this claim is elaborated at some length in my ‘Self-Ownership, World-Ownership and Equality: Part I’, of which the present article is an abridgement. The unabridged version will appear in a volume of lectures delivered at the Leonard Symposium held at the University of Nevada at Reno in October 1983, to be published by Cornell University Press, and edited by Frank Lucash. He is, consequently, [3] In so designating what is foundational and what is derivative in Nozick, I am denying that he thinks that freedom comes first and that, in order to be free, people should be self-owning. For he gives us no independent purchase on freedom which would enable us to tie freedom and self-ownership that way around. His real view is that the scope and nature of the freedom we should enjoy is a function of our self-ownership. That is why he does not regard the apparent unfreedom of the proletarian—see section 4 below—as a counter-example to his view that freedom prevails in capitalist society. For the proletarian forced daily to sell his labour power is nevertheless a self-owner, indeed must be one in order to sell it, and is, therefore, nevertheless free, in the relevant sense. free (morally speaking) to use those powers as he wishes, provided that he does not deploy them aggressively against others. He may not harm others, and he may, if necessary, be forced not to harm them, but he should never be forced to help them, as people are, according to libertarians, in fact forced to help others, by the supposedly redistributive taxation which sustains the welfare state. That state is, in the libertarian view, entirely wanting in moral justification. Libertarians believe, moreover, not only that people own themselves, but also that they can become, with equally strong moral right, sovereign owners of the potentially indefinitely unequal amounts of worldly resources which they can gather to themselves as a result of proper exercises of their own and/or others’ self-owned personal powers. When, therefore, private property in natural resources has been rightly generated, its morally privileged origin insulates it against expropriation or limitation.

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