How Nozick Became a Libertarian

Robert Nozick: A Historical Note

When Bob Nozick entered grad school at Princeton from Columbia in 1959, he was, politically speaking, a run of the mill social democrat. In the same year, another New Yorker, Bruce Goldberg, entered the same Princeton program in philosophy, from the City College of New York. Bob and Bruce had much in common, except that, at that point, Goldberg was an enthusiastic, proselytizing libertarian.

I’d come to know Bruce a few years earlier, at CCNY. We became good buddies, engaging in non-stop talk about everything under sun, including politics. I was already a hardcore libertarian, under the early influence of my friends Leonard Liggio, George Reisman, and, later, Murray Rothbard. Aside from our conversations, Bruce and I, outer-borough types, strolled the great city. We even ventured into Harlem, no problem in those days. Once we went to the famous Apollo theater, the only whites in the audience even then. The main performer was Eartha Kitt, in a classic turn. There were a lot of cheap Cantonese lunches and much else, as we discovered New York as young men.

When we first met, Bruce had no firm political views, inclining to a vague Trotskyism. For some reason, he’d attended a Trotskyist summer camp one year, and his family, not notably political, were average left-leaning Jews.

It didn’t take long to convert Bruce to the free market, through our talks and most of all his readings of Mises and others I brought to his attention. Bruce met Murray, who fascinated him (big surprise), and the rest of the gang, and became a junior member, so to speak, of the Circle Bastiat. Later, when the break with Rand and the Randians came, Bruce was totally on Murray’s side, as was I. He had no respect for the Randians as philosophers, while still greatly admiring Ayn as a novelist and exponent of libertarian values.

At Princeton, Goldberg and Nozick gravitated to each other at once, both recognizing the other’s obvious high intelligence and deep love of philosophy. But Bruce was always a fervent missionary, for whatever views he might hold at the time (there weren’t that many throughout his life, and all of them were well thought out). He pressed his libertarianism on Bob, who, ever intellectually omnivorous, quickly absorbed Mises, Hazlitt, Hayek, and other thinkers.

Soon Nozick was radically questioning his social-democratic orientation, picked up pretty much by accident from his New York Jewish environment. As Bruce told me the story, one time Bob went back to his pals at Dissent magazine and confronted them. If the minimum wage is so good, why not set it at, say, $10 an hour? They had no answer to the question. That is, these lifelong professional socialists, well-known and widely published writers respected to this day, could not even proceed past the first stage of the argument. Nozick began to rethink things furiously.

Then one evening, it must have been in the early 60s, Bruce brought Bob to a gathering of the Circle Bastiat at the Rothbards’ apartment on West 88th Street. It turned out to be a historical moment. If Nozick hadn’t been impressed by the Rothbardian synthesis before then, he was at that meeting. This was the genesis of his celebrated book.

From all evidence, Anarchy, State, and Utopia will be Nozick’s lasting contribution. It is replete with brilliant insights and formulations. Its defense of the free society is exemplary, if obviously in debt to earlier thinkers to anyone who knows anything of the field. But fundamentally it is a response to the Rothbardian challenge on the question of monopoly government — the State — though the author does not make that completely clear.

Once, when I asked him his opinion of Ayn Rand’s work, Milton Friedman replied, somewhat laconically, that it brought many people into the movement. In the same way, I believe that is true of Nozick, though the people he brought in or opened up to our ideas were for the most part fairly high level intellectuals, often culpably ignorant of the sources of much of his thinking on politics.

Bob Nozick was as intellectually sharp as anyone I ever met. It took an equally sharp dialectician and au courant philosopher like Bruce Goldberg (who started as a logical positivist, but ultimately turned to the later Wittgenstein) to bring him over the free market philosophy. No one else could have accomplished it.

As it happened, at Princeton Bruce also came to know another grad student, this time in political science, named George Will. Will was another run of the mill member of the American intelligentsia, a "liberal" in the mold of his father, a well thought of professor of philosophy at Champaign/Urbana. Bruce, then the dynamic, genial propagator of our ideas, converted Will as well. Temporarily. Will left to study at Oxford, where he was seduced by the tradition of Tory paternalism he discovered there. Cecil Rhodes would have been pleased.

George Will went on to compose Tory-statist pieces like those collected in his truly embarrassing book, Statecraft as Soulcraft, the title reminiscent of the Stalinist definition of Party intellectuals as "engineers of the soul." When Nozick and I were still in touch, Bob once remarked of Will with a laugh that this "tight-a**ed guy’s" idea of politics was to remake everyone in his own boring image.

Bruce Goldberg died in 1999, never having realized his full potential, although his few published articles were highly regarded by philosophers of the rank of Norman Malcolm, and a short book of his on education was published by Cato. But the impact of his powerful mind and personality continues.

For Robert Nozick and my old buddy Bruce Goldberg: may they rest in peace.

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