Contingent Allegiance: How City States Can Unite Socialism and Libertarianism

Libertarianism and socialism are – and always have been – incompatible. Yet another
apparent incompatibility – that between nation states and globalization – might provide
the ideal conditions for the two political philosophies to thrive together in city states.


Robert Nozick and G.A. Cohen are both intelligent gentlemen, and they end up at entirely incompatible political viewpoints. Nozick the Libertarian thinks taxation is equivalent to forced labour, Cohen the Socialist thinks wealth redistribution is necessary in preventing unacceptable power imbalances.

In this their conflict of ideas, Nozick was first to the punch, holistically describing his political philosophy in his 1974 three-part Anarchy, State and Utopia. Anarchy asks whether we need a state at all. After having found need for a ‘minimal state,’ which only protects property and upholds contracts, Nozick goes on to prove in the State section that this is “the most extensive state that can be justified.” (ASU 149) His justification for this last sentence covers just under 150 pages, and mostly tackles the concept of distributive justice, claiming that a socialist ’redistributive state’ is unjustified. He provides a wealth of arguments to prove it, two of which will be highlighted here: the Wilt Chamberlain example, and the Robinson Crusoe example. In return, Cohen’s Robert Nozick and Wilt Chamberlain: How Patterns Preserve Liberty successfully skepticizes both thought experiments, showing that his socialism is not opposed to freedom, as long as a socialist redistribution of wealth is freely embraced by all in the community. Thus Cohen creates common territory for both him and Nozick, as well as their philosophies.

Nozick posits that any distribution with a logical pattern will be upset every time by the allowance of voluntary exchanges. To explain why & how this is the case, Nozick memorably employs basketball star Wilt Chamberlain. The reader is asked to imagine a society in which Wilt Chamberlain is a citizen, and that the wealth of this society is distributed according to pattern which “varies along some natural dimension” like altruism, merit or need, etc. (ASU 163) Enter Wilt Chamberlain, who sells viewership of his basketball prowess at 25 cents a head. Citizens eagerly buy tickets, and Chamberlain becomes exorbitantly rich. The patterned distribution is gone; the permission of voluntary exchanges alone toppled it. Therefore any effort to maintain the initial patterned distribution will require “continuous interference with people’s lives,” because voluntary exchanges disrupt patterned distributions (ASU, 163). Socialism is against freedom, and so, unjustified in Nozick’s eyes.

Cohen strikes at the Wilt Chamberlain example in his 1977 paper. First Cohen points out that “Nozick tacitly supposes that a person willing to pay twenty-five cents to watch Wilt play is ipso facto a person willing to pay Wilt twenty-five cents to watch him play” (GAC, 11). Put differently, Cohen notes that the citizens buying tickets are unaware of the power imbalance they are creating between them and Wilt. Would they be as comfortable buying a ticket if they foresaw the power imbalance? Doubtful. Thus “it does not follow that pattern D1 may only be maintained at the price of injustice,” (GAC, 7) as Nozick fails to entertain the possibility that the citizens “deliberately refuse to use their liberty” in any way which would subvert the patterned distribution. (GAC, 7) This indication does effectively unseat the power of the Wilt Chamberlain example.

Yet, Nozick is not finished. Another memorable argument against redistribution is his Robinson Crusoe thought experiment. He has us imagine “ten Robinson Crusoes, each working alone for two years on separate islands, who discovered each other and the facts of their different allotments by radio communication via transmitters left twenty years earlier” (ASU, 185). Nozick then states plausibly that any redistributive claims from one Robinson Crusoe to another

would be silly; absurd for a ‘worse-off Crusoe’ to demand an evening-out of island wealth after twenty years of shared solitude. And so, if such redistributive claims between isolated Crusoes are without merit, why do they suddenly gain merit when the Crusoes hypothetically live on the same island, as we do, in real life? “Why does social cooperation create the the problem of distributive justice?” asks he (ASU, 185). Why does living together lead to the existence of injustice?

Cohen, in response, will not dispute the justice or lack thereof in the Robinson Crusoe example. Rather, he will re-frame the terms of debate, challenging Nozick’s assumption of egoism. In the socialist conception “human beings have and may develop further an unqualified desire for community, an unqualified relish of cooperation, and an unqualified aversion to being on either side of a master/servant relation” (GAC, 14). In other words, no ‘worse-off Crusoe’ would have the chance to make a claim on anything, because they would already be so inundated with generosity of ‘better-off Crusoes.’ Imbued with what he calls the egalitarian ethos, each of the ten Crusoes would live and breathe equality and care for each other. You don’t need to force redistribution, it would happen naturally, as the result of the combination of their freedom and their ethos. The lifeplans of each Crusoe would centre around their communal success.

Nozick would object to this unrealistically generous view of humanity. ‘In real life Cohen, people are not like that. And you cannot expect them to be so.’ In response, Cohen might reply that Nozick’s egoist (Nozick might say ‘realist’) view of humanity is a byproduct of a capitalist system. People are allowed to be selfish through capitalism, because it rewards he who gives the consumer what he wants at the lowest price. Thus, our capacity for giving, our egalitarian ethos is never embraced or tended to – but that does not mean it is absent.

That said, these hypothetical egalitarian exchanges between Crusoes, as proposed by Cohen, would be perfectly legitimate for Nozick. They are not forced. And as Cohen proposes, socialism was never meant to be forced. “Marx insisted it would be folly to attempt an institution of socialism except under the propitious conditions he was confident capitalism would create (GAC, 15)”. Here, common ground has been found between both thinkers. A lack of ‘forcing citizens to do things.’ But for Cohen, the sum of exchanges must be one which “upholds some principle of equality in the distribution of benefits enjoyed and burdens borne by its members” (GAC, 6). Are the necessary conditions for socialism to flourish without ‘forcing citizens to do things’ imaginable, let alone realistic? Enter the city-state.

Recently there has been discussion concerning the incompatibility of nation states with globalization. Think of our imagined national borders like spray-painted creases on a soccer field. When enough cleats run them over, they fade out, and need to be redrawn. In our modern age, with so much information, money, and lives crossing over our imagined & arbitrary borders, their authority will also fade out, and national sovereignty along with it. It is theorized that this incompatibility will be strong enough to cause the collapse of nation states as a whole. And in their stead will rise city-states. In these city states, power will be concentrated in the hands of the city dwellers, instead of being over-reached by regional, state and federal legislation. Thus the city-dwellers will feel empowered; not to mention the fact that their voter impact will be hold more weight, due to the reduction of the voter pool size. Yet the most important characteristic of these city-states will be their egalitarian ethos. The strength of community bonds are directly

related to two things: one, the size of the community, and two, the extent to which their experience is shared. Cities are small communities relative to countries. And, their dwellers experience the same geography, they may easily relate to each other. This small community, rich shared experience, a concentrated dose of political power in each hand; these together make for a powerful egalitarian ethos. [1]

So in the City States of The Future, socialism and libertarianism need not conflict. Nozick states “unless the just society forbids gift, it must allow transfers which do not answer to a patterning principle” (GAC, 10). What if the gift from and for the people, is an egalitarian patterned principle? Cohen states “among the reasons for limiting how much an individual may hold, regardless of how he came to hold it, is to prevent him from acquiring, through his holdings, an unacceptable amount of power over others”(GAC, 10). What if the recipient of an ‘unacceptable amount of power’ distributes it upon receipt? What if Wilt Chamberlain feels uncomfortable being so privileged in relation to his fellow dwellers and reinstates D1? What if he offers his services for free? In these city states, lifeplans are intertwined; a win for one is a win for all, and libertarianism & socialism are compatible.

It is a shame Nozick and Cohen died as intellectual adversaries. Because they both prize the idea of humans flourishing and making free choices, one can imagine them living happy and well in a City State World.


Works Cited

Cohen, G. A. “Robert Nozick and Wilt Chamberlain: How Patterns Preserve Liberty.” Distributive Justice, 1977, 63-81. Accessed November 24, 2018. doi:10.4324/9781315257563-2.

Nozick, Robert. Anarchy, State and Utopia. New York, NY: Basic Books.


[1] an ethos not unlike Durkheim’s mechanical solidarity

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At Yale-NUS College, we are thinking about ideals of equality and democracy, and how they relate to practice, in Singapore and in the wider world.

This website showcases our reflections.

Articles were originally submitted as course papers for Professor Sandra Field’s classes Contemporary Egalitarianism and Democratic Theory.

The Equality&Democracy project has been made possible through the support of a Teaching Innovation Grant from the Yale-NUS Centre for Teaching and Learning: ‘Applying Political Philosophy to Real World Cases’.

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