The entitlement theory of justice Notes for April 13

Main points

Nozick’s entitlement theory of justice is historical. It claims that we can tell whether a distribution of goods is just or not by looking at its history. If goods were acquired and transferred legitimately, then the resulting distribution of goods is just. If they were not, then we have to ask whether the injustice was rectified according to the third principle. If so, then the resulting distribution is just and if not, then not.

The tricky thing is that Nozick said almost nothing about how to fill in what those three principles require. That’s because he thought he had two highly abstract arguments that could clear the field of all competitors. They maintain that other views of distributive justice depart from this historical scheme and, in doing so, necessarily involve unacceptable infringements of liberty.

It’s typically brilliant but, in my opinion, falls a bit short of the target.

Two arguments

Nozick’s first argument uses the Wilt Chamberlain example. This example is supposed to show that so-called patterned principles of justice objectionably limit liberty. A patterned principle of justice holds that a distribution of goods is just only if it meets a particular pattern. Here are some examples of patterns that seem like plausible candidates for being requirements of distributive justice: the distribution is equal, or it maximizes utility, or it allocates goods according to personal merit, or it meets urgent material needs.

The problem was that it was hard to show that all but one of these views reached the intolerable result of banning capitalist acts among consenting adults. But that view was a particularly dull kind of egalitarianism. Other than that, the others either clearly favored allowing Wilt to collect his quarters or could not be shown to disapprove.

The second argument involved Nozick’s theory of rights. It maintains that using the state’s power to alter the distribution of goods produced by free exchanges would violate the prohibition on aggression. If the purpose of altering the distribution is to meet one of those patterns, then the purpose of the use of force is to make one person benefit another. And that violates the idea of the separateness of persons underlying rights as side constraints.

I went back to the point I made last time about the natural rights tradition and the claims of the needy. I don’t see why the rights of the needy as asserted by Bonaventure, Aquinas, Locke (!), and Scheffler can’t be side constraints. If so, I don’t see why it’s obvious that property rights don’t violate the rule against aggression. When the comfortable defend their property against the needy, Bonaventure will say that it’s the comfortable who are using aggression, not the needy. After all, the stuff belongs to the needy according to Bonaventure. But if the rights of the needy are side constraints, then Nozick’s theory of rights hasn’t given us the material to say whether he’s correct or Bonaventure and the others are.

Finally, Nozick’s approval of Locke’s proviso seems to undercut an answer that he could have made here. Maybe Fowler is right that he should have disowned Locke on this point.

A gentle suggestion

Providing for the poor is a very minor thing that modern states do.** Added April 15. It’s 11% of the US federal budget or $313 billion. That’s small relative to defense, pensions, and health, but not obviously “a very minor thing.” It’s also one of the toughest to object to. Who really wants to insist that people should be allowed to die in the streets as a matter of principle?

I think libertarians could profitably give up worrying about caring for the poor. Either grant what Bonaventure and the rest say or at least don’t contest it. The vast majority of the government will still be up for criticism. Libertarians don’t have any special beef with the poor. They’re against the pretensions of democracy. Why should a majority vote mean that the government can control my liberty and wealth? And look at the things they do! Those are all live points whether welfare rights for the needy are on or off the table.

So my gentle suggestion to my libertarian friends is to stop worrying about the small stuff and go after the really big game. Fowler has already said that he intends to explain why he is not enthusiastic about taking up the invitation. So maybe I’ll learn why this isn’t actually a gentle suggestion. But it sure seems like one to me. For now, that is.

This page was written by Michael Green for Social & Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2009. It was posted April 13, 2009 and updated April 15, 2009.
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