The entitlement theory of justice Notes for April 7

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.

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 ensures that opportunities are equal, or it meets urgent material needs.

Nozick’s argument goes something like this.

  1. Prohibiting people from paying extra to watch Wilt Chamberlain play basketball would be an intolerable infringement on liberty.
  2. A society that tried to implement a patterned principles of justice would have to prohibit people from paying extra to watch Wilt Chamberlain play basketball.
  3. Therefore, a society that tried to implement a patterned principle of justice would intolerably infringe libety.

Of course, there’s nothing special about Wilt Chamberlain. It is just a specific instance of apparently legitimate “capitalist acts among consenting adults” that societies trying to follow patterned principles of justice would have to interfere with.

The idea is simple enough. Start with a society that has met your favored pattern. Now, imagine that people are free to spend their money. They will spend it in ways that will almost certainly disrput the pattern. To preserve the pattern, the society will have to interfere with their freedom to spend their money.

This is pretty clearly true for a very strict kind of egalitarainism.

We asked whether this was true for another patterned principle: equal opportunity. Sam said that a society could guarantee equal opportunity for its members and still leave money left over to spend on basketball. That is, once you’ve paid your taxes for the school system, you can spend whatever you have left without disrupting the pattern.

There will be complications. Jon said he thought that the wealthy, like Wilt Chamberlain, would have to be taxed at a high rate. Nathaniel pointed out that the society might have to restrict inequalties of wealth to keep opportunities equal.

Suppose all that is true. Is it obvious that these would be intolerable infringements on liberty? Maybe you think they would. You’re probably already a libertarian if that’s what you think.

Of course, these taxes would limit libety. But that’s not enough to make Nozick’s point. All rights limit liberty (well, all claim rights limit liberty). Your property right in your house limits my liberty: I can’t go in. What we need is a limit on liberty that is clearly objectionable. And that’s not easy to prove.

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 on 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.

The point here is that violations of rights are intolerable limits on liberty. So everything depends on what rights we have. If Bonaventure, Aquinas, and Locke are right, for instance, the rich intolerably limit the liberty of the poor by keeping them away from their property. 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.

We’ll talk more about this next time, when we discuss Scheffler’s article.

A gentle suggestion

Providing for the poor is a fairly small part of what modern states do. For instance, take the US Federal Government.

About 11 percent of the federal budget in 2008, or $313 billion, supported programs that provide aid (other than health insurance or Social Security benefits) to individuals and families facing hardship.

These programs include: the refundable portion of the earned-income and child tax credits, which assist low- and moderate-income working families through the tax code; programs that provide cash payments to eligible individuals or households, including Supplemental Security Income for the elderly or disabled poor and unemployment insurance; various forms of in-kind assistance for low-income families and individuals, including food stamps, school meals, low-income housing assistance, child-care assistance, and assistance in meeting home energy bills; and various other programs such as those that aid abused and neglected children.

A Center analysis shows that such programs lifted approximately 15 million Americans out of poverty in 2005 and reduced the depth of poverty for another 29 million people.** Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Policy Basics: Where Do Our Federal Tax Dollars Go? December 4, 2009.

11% isn’t nothing. It was $313 billion in 2008. But it’s small relative to defense, pensions, and health. It’s also one of the toughest parts of the budget 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.

This page was written by Michael Green for Social & Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2010. It was posted April 9, 2010.
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