Robert Nozick begins his clever and implausible study Anarchy, State and Utopia with a confident pronouncement: 'Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights).' Among Americans it is a claim which only a committed utilitarian is likely to wish to dispute. Americans suppose themselves to have many individual rights and, after their respective ideological fashions, take rights extremely seriously. At the level of pure hypocrisy their allegiance is far from distinctive in the modern world. Every member state of the United Nations, for example, is a signatory to a Declaration of Human Rights. But in many countries today (Kampuchea, Burundi, Paraguay, Haiti, Ethiopia) it is hard to imagine either government or people expressing themselves spontaneously quite in Nozick's terms. The question therefore arises whether Nozick is indeed correct or whether he is simply American. If individuals just do have rights, what gives them these entitlements, or, if this is thought a tendentious way of putting the matter, what makes the claim that they possess them true? In the Declaration of Independence, the most famous and eloquent expression of the American theory of rights, what endows human individuals with such rights is, intractably enough, their Creator. All human beings are created equal and it is because they are created equal that it is correct for them to regard themselves and each other as endowed with certain inalienable rights. Not merely is this true: it is self-evidently true (and you cannot readily get truer than that). Nozick himself keeps his cards close to his chest on the matter of what (if anything) does make his initial claim true. But it is a safe inference that his views on the question diverge from those of Thomas Jefferson.
LRB 2 October 1980 | PDF Download