Does Nozick Have a Theory of Property Rights?


Publish Date:
March 9, 2011
Publication Title:
Stanford Public Law Working Paper
Working Paper
  • Barbara H. Fried, Does Nozick Have a Theory of Property Rights?, Stanford Public Law Working Paper, No. 1782031 (2011).


In the almost forty years since Anarchy, State and Utopia has appeared, Nozick’s libertarian theory of property rights, laid out in Part II of the book, has been subject to innumerable internalist critiques. In this paper, I argue that the Nozick of Parts I, II and III, read together, holds at least three mutually inconsistent theories of property rights: utilitarian; libertarian; and anything goes, provided that citizens have some unspecified level of choice among legal regimes. If any of the three predominates, it is not libertarianism but utilitarianism.

Nozick is hardly alone in this regard. Nozick’s inconstancy to libertarian principles is symptomatic of the problems deontologists of all stripes encounter in translating abstract articulations of rights theory into concrete rules. His de facto solution is typical as well: When the going gets tough, rights theorists tend to turn utilitarian.