In his introduction to the latest edition of Robert Nozick’s book, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Thomas Nagel says the following:
If some flourish and others are left behind, there is nothing wrong in that, nothing that the state may use its power forcibly to correct. As Nozick says repeatedly, it is no more wrong than the fact that A cannot marry B because B prefers to marry C. A may be miserable, but no one has suffered a wrong or an injustice. There is no moral presumption in favor of equality; the separateness of persons is the basis of the moral order.
The general point, I think, is sound. I’ve noted before the problematic tendency of many on the left to conflate any and all inequality or unhappiness with injustice. Even in the most idealized socialist utopia, in which evils arising from material need — and perhaps the moral evils of our baser nature — have been eliminated, there would still be inequality and unhappiness. After all, ‘natural evil’ and ‘moral evil’ — to use the old theological categories — are not the only sources of human unhappiness; the game theoretic interactions of human beings, even if they are innocent of any malice, inevitably benefit some and harm others. No less a leftist than Theodor Adorno recognizes this point in a selection from Minima Moralia. Note the similarity to Nozick’s example:
While literature has treated all the psychological species of erotic conflict, the simplest external source of conflict has remained unnoticed because of its obviousness. It is the phenomenon of prior engagement: a loved person refuses herself to us not through inner antagonisms and inhibitions, too much coldness or repressed warmth, but because a relationship already exists that excludes another …. Even, and precisely, in a society cured of the anarchy of commodity production, there could scarcely be rules governing the order in which one met people. Such an arrangement would amount to the most intolerable interference with freedom.
No doubt there are disanalogies between market interactions and interpersonal relationships. One might have principled arguments for thinking that the state is justified in intervening in the first but not the second. It’s not my intention to get into the debate about the proper role and scope of government in this post. However, this little exercise helps us guard against utopian thinking. For the socialist, there will never be a perfectly egalitarian utopia. For the anarchist, there will never be a perfectly free utopia. The game theoretic dimensions of the human condition guarantee that there are hard limits to the amount and kinds of equality and freedom we can achieve through state action, or lack thereof. In other words, if complete human happiness is the goal of our politics, then our politics is destined to fail.