Anarchy Minimax?

In Anarchy State and Utopia, Nozick argues that we should be careful to condemn anarchy on the grounds that it might be terrible without first acknowledging that some states can be terrible as well. His is a meta point about decisions between types of political organization:

Which anarchic situation should we investigate to answer the question of why not anarchy? Perhaps the one that would exist if the actual political situation didn’t, while no other possible political one did. But apart from the gratuitous assumption that everyone everywhere would be in the same nonstate boat and the enormous unmanageability of pursuing that counterfactual to arrive a particular situation, that situation would lack fundamental theoretical interest. To be sure, if that nonstate situation were sufficiently awful, there would be a reason to refrain from dismantling or destroying a particular state and replacing it with none, now. It would be more promising to focus upon a fundamental abstract description that would encompass all situations of interest, including “where we would now be if.” Were this description awful enough, the state would come out as a preferred alternative, viewed as affectionately as a trip to the dentist. Such awful descriptions rarely convince, and not merely because they fail to cheer. The subjects of psychology and sociology are far too feeble to support generalizing so pessimistically across all societies and persons, especially since the argument depends upon not making such pessimistic assumptions about how the state operates. Of course, people know something of how actual states have operated and they differ in their views. Given the enormous importance of the choice between the state and anarchy, caution might suggest one use the “minimax” criterion, and focus upon a pessimistic estimate of the nonstate situation: the state would be compared with the most pessimistically described Hobbesian state of nature. But in using the minimax criterion, this Hobbesian situation should be compared with the most pessimistically described possible state, including future ones. Such a comparison, surely,the worst state of nature would win.

I don’t think this section convinces. First, as I understand it, minimax usually refers to a game involving two players, and not to a decision procedure for making a choice under uncertainty.

Of course, Rawls famously did extend the idea of minimax to situations involving choice under uncertainty, but he carefully points out that such a procedure is plausible only if we do not know the probabilities of various circumstances obtaining. However, it seems that in comparing anarchy with states, we do have a probability distribution of states. Some are really bad, but not that many, and a good number of them are at least alright (or not?). So it seems that we might choose to maximize expected utility even if the worst state is worse than the worst state of nature.

Maybe Nozick’s point is just that the state has the possibility of doing so much damage that we shouldn’t risk it and opt for anarchy, since no matter how bad it gets, it can’t be as bad as a renegade state (think Nazi germany).  But again, this is a different thesis, and it seems that if on average states are better than anarchy, than the difference in utility might justify gambling that a very bad state comes up.

Also, it’s very hard for Nozick to ask us to think of the range of possible anarchies since no one really agrees about a case of anarchy that we could look at, much less a range of them.


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