Nozick’s libertarianism isn’t just

By Aristophanes


In Anarchy, State, and Utopia, philosopher Robert Nozick presents what he believes to be the correct view of justice in holdings, describing how a state ought to protect both the just original acquisitions of holdings and the subsequent just transfers of holdings. He argues against “patterned theories of justice,” describing how an ideal governing body would be limited, as far as economic responsibility, to merely enforcing the free trade engaged in through the mutual consent of all involved parties, as well as the protection of justly acquired property thereof.

These claims directly contradict those of more egalitarian-minded philosophers, such as John Rawls, who believes the right to universal liberty should be made as extensive as possible while remaining compatible with the same liberty for others, while also asserting that social and economic inequalities are only just if they work to the advantage of all involved in any certain system.

Nozick’s theory fails to adequately address the concept of inter-generational wealth. In order to counter Rawls’ claim of the moral necessity in ensuring maximal, non-conflicting universal liberty over the protection of all justly acquired property, as well as the idea that a “patterned” distributive scheme is more just than an “unpatterned” one, Nozick would have to provide a satisfying answer to the justification for inequalities in opportunity that are sometimes paradoxically produced through the seemingly just and consensual trade of past generations and the natural bequeathal of wealth upon familial descendants. Nozick fails to do so, which I believe is ultimately the largest oversight in his otherwise compelling case for libertarianism.

Nozick begins his argument for what he calls the “entitlement theory” with two main principles, which he refers to as the principle of justice in acquisition and the principle of justice in transfer. A person is entitled to a holding by either principle, he argues, and no one is entitled to a holding except through application or repeated application of these two principles, or through the process of the redistribution of goods previously distributed in an unjust manner. Further, redistribution of goods can only be just if it is in fact a rectificatory step in righting the wrongs of unjustly distributed goods. However, if holdings are acquired through only just steps, then the holdings have themselves been justly acquired, Nozick argues. Thus, if one is speaking in terms of a society in which items only come to be held through applications of the two entitlement principles, it would be an injustice to redistribute any of those holdings without permission, according to Nozick.

The entitlement principles are historical, Nozick says, meaning the determination of the justness in holdings of a system is decided entirely by the justness of the steps leading up to the current condition. The idea of mutual consent amongst all involved parties is crucial to Nozick’s theory of an “unpatterned” distribution scheme. The system is considered “unpatterned” because distribution is not based on any natural dimension, such as the moral merit of participants, but only on the original acquisition of un-held goods and the full consent of others in trading away their own held goods. Given the full consent of rational parties, Nozick believes his system to be justice preserving. Thus, the rules of the game, as it were, are being played fairly, Nozick argues, because all of those playing have mutually agreed to abide by them, or else suffer the necessary consequences of later redistribution (by this, I speak mainly of theft and legally-enforced restitution).

To further illustrate his point, Nozick presents the Wilt Chamberlain example. In this thought experiment, Chamberlain, an incredibly talented basketball player, is in high demand to sign with a team. Because of his potential in being a great attraction, a certain team agrees to a rather lucrative contract: Chamberlain will receive 25 cents from the price of every ticket of admission at every home game. Over time, cheerful crowds flock to see Chamberlain play, willingly putting this extra 25-cent markup in a box separate from the main admission cost. In a single season, 1 million home tickets are sold, and Chamberlain makes $250,000. This throws the distribution of wealth in society largely in Chamberlain’s favor, as $250,000 is well above the median income. However, Nozick would argue that Chamberlain is fully entitled to his money, as he earned it by playing fair and with the full consent of all who willingly provided it.

John Rawls, on the other hand, attempts to argue for the necessity of “patterned” distributive schemes. In Theories of Justice, Rawls presents three basic principles of justice: the principle of equal liberty, the difference principle and the fair equality of opportunity principle. In the first principle, Rawls asserts that each person in a society should have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a like liberty for all. This minimum standard is the base on which everything else must build. In the second principle, Rawls says that social and economic inequalities can only be arranged so that they advantage everyone in the system, most notably those receiving the least. In other words, the success of those at the top must not come at the cost of those at the bottom. In the final principle, Rawls notes that in order for this system to be entirely just, the positions and offices to which our society’s social and economic goods are attached must be open to all. This principle demands equal opportunity for advancement, barring an individual’s willingness to work for achievement. If opportunity is not equal amongst all individuals in a society, then the system cannot be fair, Rawls says.

An important distinction drawn by Rawls is in the divide between fairness within the existing rules of a distributive scheme and the fairness of said rules themselves. Rawls is much more concerned with the latter, as evidenced by his emphasis, under the third and final principle, of the necessity of equal opportunity for all. If this stipulation, or, for that matter, any of his stipulations, is not met, then a distributive scheme will not be fully just. Interestingly, this final point leads back to his support of “patterned” distribution. In order for equality of opportunity to exist, those who have more must sacrifice a portion of the excess to evening the playing field for the next generation, and this must be continually done over the course of a society’s existence — one time redistribution will not suffice. This is most easily done through the education system. If access to equal education is made available to everyone, which will probably only be feasible given some form of redistributive taxation — a form of “patterned” distribution — or some similar policy, equal opportunity becomes a much more attainable goal.

This consideration, of equality in starting positions, is what Rawls accentuates and Nozick fails to consider. In Nozick’s ideal world, certain children would be born into households more privileged than others, giving them a greater likelihood in succeeding than children born into less privileged families. Thus, the child, through no fault of her own, inherits the ramifications of the consensual choices made by her ancestral line. She cannot strike out on her own with equal chance of success as someone with the same willingness but a better overall starting position. Thus, Nozick establishes a society in which fairness can be achieved within the existing set of rules, but in which the rules themselves will not be entirely fair for those involved. Failing to match the justice achievable in Rawls’ theory, Nozick’s argument simply fails to present sufficient reasoning for the claim that “patterned” distributive schemes are in some way superior to their “unpatterned” brethren. ■



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