Past & Future of Liberty
Essays Politics Toward a Just Political Economy

Past & Future of Liberty

Jason Peirce

On Hayek, Rawls, and Nozick

This essay is a contribution from our symposium Toward a Just Political Economy. To receive a print copy and read the other essays, order here.

The growth of government during the 20th century split the liberal movement into classical liberals, progressives, and libertarians. In the postwar period, these ideologies were best articulated by the political philosophers Friedrich Hayek, John Rawls, and Robert Nozick, respectively. For the purposes of this symposium, I hope to convince the reader that Hayek and Rawls are a natural pair for a just political economy and that Nozick is better left to dorm room debates.

Nozick’s paradigm of strictly negative rights has been a clarion call for the libertarian movement, but it rests of surprisingly weak premises. Hayek also supports a doctrine of negative rights, but his pragmatic formulation makes room for the government to preempt market coercion. As a result, it has more in common with our moral sense. When it comes to Rawls, his ideal theory of distributive justice is remarkably compatible with many of Nozick and Hayek’s concerns. Hayek and Rawls together cover the libertarian and egalitarian roots of our evolved morality, and their unique perspectives show a surprising amount of overlap. A dose of social justice properly construed might be just what we need in the wake of our current administration.

The Foundations of Nozick’s Libertopia

As a person who grew up adjacent to the libertarian movement, I was excited to read through Nozick’s oft-cited Anarchy, State, and Utopia. It is undoubtedly an impressive piece of philosophy, and I appreciate his cautious, humble tone throughout his work. Unfortunately, I have the sense that his caveats are not heeded by many of his disciples. In this section, I will bring some of Nozick’s assumptions to light to see whether they withstand scrutiny.

In his first chapter on the state of nature, Nozick presciently notes that starting from arbitrary or nonfactual premises makes any conclusion less applicable, and that political theory is only as good as its moral foundations. The latter point is especially poignant given that Nozick bases his premises on John Locke’s moral theory while recognizing that Locke “does not provide anything remotely resembling a satisfactory explanation of the status and basis of the law of nature in his Second Treatise.”1 Putting all of this together, if we conclude that Locke’s moral theory is in some way arbitrary or nonfactual, then Nozick’s conclusions are less reliable and may best serve as a case study in error.

Given how much rides on his Lockean foundations, it is surprising that Nozick mostly just takes them for granted. If we wish to uncover their original justifications, we find that in the Second Treatise, Locke simply supposes it reasonable that “being all equal and independent [in the state of nature], no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.”2 Of course, we might judge this logic to be contradictory if such libertarian principles result in inequality and dependence for some (more on this later), but here we are merely pointing out the flimsy structure upon which Nozick’s thesis rests. It is also interesting that in the same paragraph, Locke holds that “when his own preservation comes not in competition, ought he as much as he can to preserve the rest of mankind,” but Nozick selectively ignores these positive duties when citing Locke’s moral theory.3

With these caveats in mind, let us look into the work of anthropologists and evolutionary psychologists to check if the negative rights of Locke, an empiricist, holds up to the latest evidence. In particular, I will be drawing on Moral Origins by the anthropologist Christopher Boehm and The Origins of Fairness by the evolutionary psychologist Nicolas Baumard (there are other great books on this topic, but these are two of the best I have encountered). We can start with the good news. In line with Locke’s negative rights, Boehm finds that “no hunter-gatherer community condones either killing another group member without proper cause, or theft or cheating within this primary group.”4 Moreover, Baumard notes that “merit-based distribution is the rule rather than the exception in all such societies.”5 These conclusions give credence to Locke’s libertarian bent, but there is more to the story.

In fact, positive duties appear to have been obligatory throughout our evolutionary history. Boehm has convincingly shown that ancestral-like populations preach altruistic generosity in their moral codes, as did all early civilizations. Moreover, productive group members that would otherwise accumulate inordinate amounts of resources in Nozick’s libertopia are instead moved by mockery, teasing, or ostracism to share their good fortune. Boehm also suggests that this inequality aversion has an evolutionary basis. Our ancestors found that by keeping a fairly level playing field, they could suppress our inherited dominance-submission psychology for the good of the group. This egalitarian norm is not based on a utilitarian calculus, rather a deeply ingrained intuition that everyone has the same moral worth. As Baumard puts it, “our [moral] judgements seem to aim at equal respect for the interests of all.”6 It is this moral sense that prevents us from allocating resources according to a chimp-like, amoral dominance hierarchy.

Nozick might suggest that by facilitating voluntary and positive sum transactions, negative rights give everyone equal respect: “the better endowed gain by cooperating with the worse endowed, and the worse endowed gain by cooperating with the better endowed.”7 However, this is a naïve and shallow take on positive sumness. The cooperative surplus that defines a positive sum interaction is necessarily divided in a zero sum way, and when one sided uses undue power to take a bigger share of the surplus, they are unjustly elevating themselves above their cooperator. In fact, Baumard describes several experimental results showing that most people view such arbitrary power moves as unjust even when both sides act voluntarily and receive some benefit. Inequality can corrupt the virtues of voluntary exchange.

Nozick famously questions equality’s central role in morality by asking “Why ought people’s holdings to be equal, in the absence of special moral reason to deviate from equality?”8 But this is like asking why triangles ought to have three sides. It is simply the case that according to our best evidence, morality evolved to curb our inherited status psychology and make us view each other as equals. Even Locke believed we were obliged to care for our community once our needs were met. Nozick notes in his first chapter that it can be useful to explore why a given state of nature story is ahistorical, and in Nozick’s case it is due to a mischaracterization of morality. Nozick and his libertarian comrades are free to redefine morality according to strictly negative rights, but they should not be surprised when others do not play along.

The Paradoxical Nature of Hayekian Liberty

Hayek is an amphibious, multifaceted figure in political philosophy. In The Constitution of Liberty and Law, Legislation, and Liberty, his support for exclusively negative rights seem to pair him with Nozick, but his support for compulsory redistribution puts him closer to Rawls. In this section, I will try to resolve his seemingly paradoxical views on liberty and examine its moral basis by contrasting him with Nozick.

I think the best entry point into Hayek is to recognize that unlike Nozick, he does not merely assume the existence of negative rights; this is part of why I call Hayek a classical liberal and Nozick a libertarian. Hayek does make it clear that “our concept of liberty is merely negative,” but he pragmatically rests his case on “the belief that it will, on balance, release more forces for the good than for the bad.”9 Moreover, although Hayek is a committed individualist, he holds that “coercion is thus bad because it prevents a person. . . from making the greatest contribution that he is capable of to the community.”10 Unlike Nozick’s individualism for its own sake, Hayek’s liberty is expressly justified by its collective benefits.

Hayek’s pragmatic and collectivist basis also translates into a more utilitarian conception of rights compared to Nozick. For Nozick, rights are “side constraints [that]. . . reflect the underlying Kantian principle that individuals are ends and not merely means.”11 Consequently, he claims we are not allowed to violate rights in order to prevent a worse violation of rights. Hayek, however, uses the same logic to justify what Nozick calls a “utilitarianism of rights” in which we minimize coercion as much as possible: “we are concerned in this book with that condition of men in which coercion of some by others is reduced as much as possible in society.”12 Moreover, Hayek claims that “coercion according to known rules. . . then becomes an instrument assisting the individuals in the pursuit of their own ends and not a means to be used for the ends of others.”13 In other words, contra Nozick, Hayek believes that minimizing coercion via general rules is necessary to ensure that individuals are ends in themselves.

Another distinction is that Hayek wants the state to “assure to all protection against severe deprivation in the form of an assured minimum income, or a floor below which nobody need to descend.”14 Hayek also believes that, “there is little reason why the government should not also play some role, or even take the initiative, in such areas as social insurance.”15 Nozick writes that compulsory taxation for such programs “is on a par with forced labor,” but according to Hayek, the fact that such taxation can be applied generally and known in advance “deprives them largely of the evil nature of coercion.”16 Some coercion is worse than others, and Hayek is willing to make trade offs.Though it would be parsimonious to justify such compulsory redistribution by claiming that it minimizes overall coercion, Hayek downplays this possibility. For instance, Hayek holds that being impelled by indigence to find work is not  since “[poverty’s] effect on my freedom is not different from that of any natural calamity.”17 Here he aligns with Nozick who likewise distinguishes interpersonal coercion from “limited choices that are not forcings.”18 Poverty by itself is not intrinsically coercive.

At the very least, however, it is clear that being poor and unskilled puts one in a weak bargaining position. Moreover, the perverse logic of negotiation means that whoever is more in need ends up with less. In other words, the party that is more independent can hold out for a good deal, while the party that is more dependent on the transaction cannot. If it is true, as Hayek writes, that “coercion occurs when one person’s actions are made to serve another person’s will, not for their own but for the other’s purpose,” and that uneven bargaining power bends the will of the weaker party to serve the stronger side, then poverty amidst riches surely predisposes one to market coercion.19 In this sense, compulsory redistribution is merely a preventive measure that substitutes fairly benign state coercion for more extreme market coercion. I think this potential for uneven trades best resolves the Hayekian paradox of supporting compulsory redistribution alongside negative rights, but alas, Hayek does not explore this line of thought.

We can conclude by evaluating whether Hayekian liberty satisfies our moral sense. We already noted that Nozick’s liberal program of negative rights is morally problematic, but, fortunately, Hayek’s classical liberal conception is more pragmatic and prosocial. In particular, Hayek believes modest taxation via general rules is fairly benign and can be justified in order to minimize coercion. Since morality evolved to curb coercion and ensure autonomy, Hayekian liberty in theory checks all the right boxes. Unfortunately, Hayek did not connect the dots between compulsory redistribution and liberty via fairer negotiations. As a result, his notion of coercion remains ambiguous and does not necessarily satisfy the tenets of our evolved morality.

The Inclusivity of Rawlsian Justice

Rawls fits nicely in between Hayek and Nozick. Born about twenty years after Hayek, Rawls also joined the war effort against fascism and became similarly skeptical of state control. Both thinkers emphasized the need to limit government to general rules that everyone could endorse, but Rawls became encapsulated by social justice whereas Hayek saw it as a mirage. Meanwhile, Nozick was about twenty years junior to Rawls and worked alongside him at Harvard. Soon after Rawls published A Theory of Justice, Nozick came out with a libertarian alternative. Given the stature of these three thinkers, it is worth finding out whether their differences can be constructively resolved. In this section, I will introduce Rawls’s conception of distributive justice and explore to what extent it is compatible with the works of Nozick and Hayek.

Rawls’s main contribution to political theory is the difference principle, namely that socioeconomic inequality should be arranged to benefit the lowest class as much as possible. He starts by assuming that it is unjust for rules to be rooted in status imbalances or selfish interests. In order to filter out these impure motives, Rawls imagines what rules rational agents would agree to live by if they did not yet know their position in society. In effect, he is envisioning the social contract as a hypothetical insurance pool; given the monumental role of chance in our lives, he concludes that we would wisely insure ourselves from the perils of misfortune ahead of time. By levelling the playing field behind the veil of ignorance and “represent[ing] equality between human beings as moral persons,” Rawls also satisfies Baumard’s moral criterion of “equal respect for the interests of all.”20

Nozick famously came up with a libertarian theory of justice in response to Rawls, but upon closer inspection, we find that Nozick is simply asserting his negative rights paradigm over and over again. To give some backstory, Nozick held that “whether a distribution is just depends on how it came about,” and contrasted this with Rawls’s focus on the least fortunate.21 The problem with this framing is that Rawls already agreed that history matters when he wrote that “the social system is to be designed so that the resulting distribution is just no matter how it turns out.”22 In short, the two agreed that the principles of justice were paramount, but they disagreed on what these principles were. In fact, this line by Rawls could have easily been written by Nozick himself: “each is to receive what the principles of justice say he is entitled to, and these do not require equality.”23

The contention posed by Nozick, then, is that Rawls’s principles of justice are actually unjust. In other words, Nozick is claiming that Rawls’s thought experiment excludes the correct principles of justice, such as Nozick’s negative rights. It is worth pausing to note just how peculiar this objection is. Rawls’s theory of justice is premised on the idea that status imbalances and selfish motives would corrupt the principles of justice. For Nozick’s critique to hold water, status imbalances and selfish motives would instead need to play an essential role in formulating the principles of justice. Once again, we are left with Nozick’s baseless attempt to purge equality from morality. It is also worth mentioning that the Lockean negative rights that Nozick cites were progressive at the time precisely because they kept hereditary elites from using their status to selfishly exploit serfs, but our moral standards have happily evolved since then.

Hayek, meanwhile, devotes an entire volume in Law, Legislation, and Liberty to “The Mirage of Social Justice.” Though this seems contrary to Rawls’s entire project, it is actually just a semantic difference. In fact, Hayek explains in this volume that although he finds Rawls’s use of “social justice” needlessly confusing, “the differences between us seemed more verbal than substantial.”24 For instance, early on in his chapter titled “‘Social’ or Distributive Justice,” Hayek differentiates the mirage of social justice from Rawls’s “learned discussion to evaluate the effects of the existing institutions of society.”25 Hayek seems on board with Rawlsian justice.

In fact, Hayek’s anti-social justice tirades are just a plea for the price mechanism and the equality of rules. For instance, he clearly states that “the problems with which we are here concerned arise only when. . . the impersonal mechanism of the market which guides the direction of individual efforts is thus suspended.”26 It is not social justice itself that is problematic, but the central planning, protectionism, and rent-seeking it entails. Moreover, Hayek suggests that “the great problem is whether this new demand for equality does not conflict with the equality of the rules of conduct.”27 Though he is correct that equality of outcome is incompatible with liberty, he still leaves open the possibility of reducing inequality according to Rawlsian principles and general rules.

Most clearly, Hayek reiterates Rawls’s basic premise that “we should regard as the most desirable order of society one which we would choose if we knew that our initial position in it would be decided purely by chance.”28 For Rawls, this translates into securing everyone’s basic liberties and needs, both material and mental, according to the difference principle. Though Hayek chooses to write in terms of negative liberty instead, we noted earlier that minimizing coercion and letting people lead their lives likewise justifies such redistribution. Hayekian liberty emerges from Rawlsian justice.

There is even a surprising amount of overlap between these two when we get into the weeds of political economy. For instance, both Hayek and Rawls support a minimum income over a minimum wage, free market competition over central planning, and proportional taxes over progressive ones. Their main divide is that Hayek assumed economic inequality stemming from market competition was benign and would benefit the community, whereas Rawls worried that extreme inequality could capture politics and impede social mobility. Despite these minor differences, however, Hayek and Rawls share the same basic picture of a just political economy.


Judging from the science of morality, our moral sense is both liberal and egalitarian. An ideology that tips the scales too far in either one of these directions is hopeless, but we can combine the best of both worlds into a just vision of political economy. In this essay, we explored the philosophical contributions of Hayek, Rawls, and Nozick in search of a just conception of liberty.

Although both Hayek and Nozick uphold negative liberty, their shared terminology is confusing. Nozick’s rights are absolutist, indifferent to inequality, and based on hyper-individualism. The libertarianism that follows is a minority view for a reason; even Locke believed in positive duties. In contrast, Hayek’s rights are pragmatic, cognizant of inequality, and couched in collectivism. Though Hayek does not connect these dots, his seemingly inconsistent support for both redistribution and negative liberty is resolved if we view the former as a means toward the latter.

Meanwhile, Hayek’s classical liberal stance is quite compatible with Rawlsian progressivism. Hayek is well known for his anti-social justice tirades, but he broadly agrees with Rawls’s difference principle. In particular, Hayek endorses the idea of choosing our institutions as if we did not know our place in society, though he cautions us to govern by general rules, eschew equality of outcome, and protect the price mechanism. Though they write with different rhetoric, Hayek’s mission to minimize coercion and let people lead their lives mirrors Rawls’s egalitarian difference principle.

Moreover, both Hayekian liberty and Rawlsian justice fit our evolved morality. Though our ancestral societies were once organized by amoral chimp-like dominance hierarchies, we evolved our moral sense to curb this inequality and minimize coercion. Rawls’s theory of justice directly meets this moral criterion by choosing the rules of the game on a level playing field; Hayek’s emphasis on freedom from the whims of others can end up at the same place. Unlike libertarianism, classical liberalism and progressivism fit our evolved morality and can therefore play a role in our political economy.

People across the political spectrum can benefit from a Rawlsekian fusion.29 Such a philosophy prizes the freedom people need to lead their lives and interact as moral equals. To this end, a basic income or negative income tax could give low-wage workers a basis to negotiate from and thereby minimize the chance of market coercion. This vision also channels bottom-up forces towards social justice ends. In practice, this means prioritizing market-friendly policies like wage subsidies and carbon taxes over top-down regulations like rent controls and minimum wages. In conclusion, there is real potential for a just political economy that works with the logic of complex systems to achieve egalitarian ends. Let Hayek and Rawls lead the way.


1. Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia. (Basic Books, 1974), 8.

2. John Locke, “Second Treatise,” The Two Narratives of Political Economy, edited by Nicolas Capaldi and Gordon Lloyd (Wiley-Scrivener, 2010), 10.

3. Ibid.

4. Christopher Boehm, Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame. (Basic Books, 2012), 99.

5. Nicolas Baumard, The Origins of Fairness: How Evolution Explains Our Moral Nature. (Oxford University Press, 2016), 71.

6. Baumard, p. 6.

7. Nozick, p. 192.

8. Ibid, p. 222.

9. Friedrich Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty: The Definitive Edition. (University of Chicago Press, 2011), 68, 83.

10. Ibid. 200-201.

11. Nozick, 30.

12. Hayek, 57.

13. Ibid, 72.

14. Friedrich Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty. (Routledge, 2012), 249.

15. Hayek, Constitution, 374.

16. Nozick, p. 169; Hayek, Constitution, 210.

17. Hayek, Constitution, 204.

18. Nozick, 169.

19. Hayek, Constitution, 199.

20. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice. (Harvard University Press, 1999), 17.

21. Nozick, 153.

22. Rawls, 243.

23. Ibid, 275.

24. Hayek, Law, xx.

25. Ibid, 227.

26. Ibid, 249.

27. Ibid, 244.

28. Ibid, 290.

29. Will Wilkinson, “Is Rawlsekianism the Future?” Cato Institute, December 4, 2006.

Featured image: The Statue of Liberty Arrives in New York Harbor (1885) by Edward Moran via Wikimedia Commons.

Jason Peirce is a Master’s student in economics at George Mason University and an MA fellow at the Mercatus Center. He enjoys interdisciplinary thinking and the normative implications of science. He invites you to follow him on Twitter.