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A Minimal State is a Just State- Robert Nozick





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A Minimal State is a Just State- Robert Nozick

Nozick is a liberalist who believes that government should be in a minimal state. According to Nozick, the minimal state concept refers to governance with minimal interference with the state functions being compared to that of a “night watchman” whose primary role is to safeguard citizens’ rights and not dictate their actions. In political philosophy, the phrase minimal state refers to a nation with the least amount of powers that cannot be reduced any further. Nozick believes that a minimal state is the only justified state this is especially since it has limited influence and doesn’t violate the rights of the citizens. In depicting the moral justification of the minimal state, Nozick focuses on Anarchy, state, and Utopia to show that it is only the minimal state governance that is justified.

Minimal State

By a minimal state, Nozick believes that the state functions as a ‘night watchman’ with limited powers to only safeguarding citizens from theft, fraud, and violence (Nozick 1972). A just state pays more attention to the negative rights. Negative rights are those that require individuals to refrain from acting in a particular way towards others. A minimal state reserves the mandate to punish individuals who violate others’ rights. However, a minimal state doesn’t consider positive rights. Positive rights are rights that impose duties of provision rather than preventing individuals from acting in a particular manner towards others. A minimal state adopts a free method of governance and therefore doesn’t dictate roles individuals have towards others through positive rights. As Nozick phrases it, a minimal state should only act as a “night watchman” enforcing negative rights and ensuring that the citizens’ rights aren’t violated.

Justification of the Minimal state

Nozick argues that it is only a minimal state that is justified refuting other ideologies such as anarchism which is opposed to any state whatsoever (Nozick 1972). In addition, Nozick is opposed to modern forms of liberalism and socialism that believe that in addition to the state functions as a ‘night watchman’, the state also has a duty and powers to regulate economic activities, redistribute wealth, provide social services and amenities (Wellman 2002).

In justifying a minimal state over Anarchism, Nozick claims that a minimal state is justified through the use of the State of Nature theory that dictates that individuals can arise spontaneously in a method that doesn’t contravene others’ natural rights. Nozick believes that each individual possesses natural rights including the right to own property,y, right to liberty, and the right to liberty. A minimal state is justified since it doesn’t possess the mandate to interfere with the actions individuals chose with their rights as long as their actions don’t interfere with the rights of other individuals. Violators of others’ rights are punished by the state, and also individuals whose rights are violated.

Nozick believes that the minimal state is justified opposing all liberalism, according to him, a state with more extensive measures is likely to dictate various actions and thereby violating the natural rights of the citizens. Nozick is opposed to state controlling activities such as setting minimum wages and redistribution arguing that any state that engages in these activities will at some point end up violating the citizen’s rights. Nozick believes that the minimal states are more just since the ideologies on redistribution through taxation amount to some extent of forced labor necessitating individuals to work more to attain a certain amount of income – this according to him is unjust.

Entitlement theory

Nozick came up with the entitlement theory that is founded on the notion of self-ownership. Through these theories, there arises a great contrast with that of Rawls. According to Rawl, the state should have the authority to achieve equality through redistribution while also ensuring that these rights are consistent with a variety of fundamental rights and liberties. According to Rawl’s theory of justice, equality is only attained if the individuals at the bottom are better off than they would be through any other distribution. Nozick strongly opposes Rawl’s concept of distributive justice maintaining that those who have more in the society simply worked more and it would be unjust to redistribute to those who worked less (Varian 1976). According to Nozick, any redistribution of ‘holdings’ no matter how unjust is if and only if it arises from a just redistribution through legitimate means.

According to Nozick, if the world was entirely just, the following definitions would cover the aspect of justice in holdings;

  1. “A person who acquires a holding per the principle of justice in acquisition is entitled to that holding.

  2. A person who acquires a holding per the principle of justice in transfer, from someone else entitled to the holding, is entitled to the holding.

  3. No one is entitled to a holding except by (repeated) applications of 1 and 2” Nozick 1973.

Distributive and Redistributive justice

Distributive justice entails just socially just allocation of resources (Cohen 1987). On the other hand, redistributive justice is a completely different concept entailing the allocation of funds equitably collected from individuals. Raul’s theory is perceived as one of redistribution since it advocates for practices such as taxation and morally distributing resources to ensure those with less income receive the most advantage. According to Nozick, no distribution is entirely just and the aspect of redistribution shouldn’t exist at all. Nozick believes that individuals play a crucial role in determining their wealth and the aspect of redistribution infringes natural rights.

In conclusion, Nozick makes a compelling case for a just state in which the state’s powers are limited to that of a ‘night watchman.’ A minimal state is responsible for protecting individuals’ personal rights; however, a minimal state is not supposed to dictate how individuals conduct their activities. Nozick believes that a state can’t exercise its powers on individuals without being unjust to a particular group of individuals. Nozick is opposed to redistribution and advocates for caution in distribution to ensure individual rights aren’t contravened. I believe Nozick in his Entitlement theory has comprehensively dealt with the issue of a just state painting the ideal picture of how a just state should function.


Cohen, R. 1987. Distributive justice: Theory and research. Social Justice Research 1(1), pp. 19-40. DOI: 10.1007/bf01049382.

Nozick, R. 1972. Goodman, Nelson, on Merit, Aesthetic. Journal of Philosophy 69(21), pp. 783-785. DOI: 10.2307/2024624.

Nozick, R. (1973). Distributive Justice. Philosophy & Public Affairs, 3(1), 45-126. Retrieved August 11, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2264891

Varian, H. 1976. Two problems in the theory of fairness. Journal of Public Economics 5(3-4), pp. 249-260. DOI: 10.1016/0047-2727(76)90018-9.

Wellman, C. 2002. Property rights and duties of redistribution. New York: Routledge.

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