Williams and Nozick Notes for September 12

Main points

Williams tries to show how equality is a significant political ideal. In particular, he tries to show how egalitarians can move from apparent facts about human equality to normative conclusions about how they ought to be treated. We concentrated on his remarks about the distribution of goods and said less about his very interesting remarks about equal opportunity.

Nozick criticized Williams for failing to take production seriously. In particular, he said that Williams’s views would intolerably infringe on individual rights to liberty.

In my opinion, they are talking past one another. Williams is describing a rational distribution of goods while Nozick is describing a system of rights.

Williams and health

Annie noted that Williams seems to have made a mistake in only describing goods that should be allocated according to merit as scarce. Health care, one of his examples of a good that should be allocated according need, is scarce, she said. There’s always some treatment that might do some good. (And there’s always some research program or technology that might help us to extend and improve our lives just a bit more). In other words, she thought, there is no limit to our spending on health care and there will always be excess demand for it.

Amadé disagreed. He thought that scarcity in this area is a temporary phenomenon that would be solved by technological progress. He made a strong case. But it leaves open the question of how we should allocate our resources now.

Professor Brown gave a historical explanation. Williams almost certainly had Britain’s National Health Service in mind when he was writing this. But the pressure to adopt ever more expensive technology only started building later, after the Americans adopted Medicare. I hadn’t been aware of that history. Neat!

Nozick and freedom

Dylan and Akshata made very interesting remarks about how Nozick’s understanding of liberty is related to others’ views of it.

Dylan pointed out that Nozick is supremely indifferent to the economist’s notion of efficiency. All that matters for Nozick is whether people have acted within their rights. As Arrow will show next week, this will lead to an efficient result in some cases and an inefficient one in others. But the fact that a distribution is inefficient has no bearing on whether it is just or not, by Nozick’s lights. The only thing that matters is whether the distribution was produced in ways that did not violate anyone’s rights.

Akshata said that she thought people’s social circumstances could limit their freedom. For example, the very poor are not as free to choose their occupations as those who are well off. For Nozick, all that matters is that rights have not been violated. It would be extremely interesting to see if we could find a premise about liberty that someone like Nozick would share with someone like Akshata. If we could do that, maybe we could find an argument that would favor one view over the other. My own feeling, for what it’s worth, is that Akshata is probably right, although it’s going to be really tricky to say exactly what freedom consists in if that’s so.

This page was written by Michael Green for Freedom, Markets, & Well-being, PPE 160, Fall 2012. It was posted September 13, 2012.
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