Nozick on justice

Notes for April 8

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 the goods were acquired and transferred legitimately, then the resulting distribution 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; if not, then not.

The tricky thing is that Nozick said almost nothing about how to fill in what those three principles (acquisition, transfer, rectification) require. That’s because he thought he had two highly abstract arguments that could clear the field of all competitors. They maintain that when other views of distributive justice depart from this historical scheme they necessarily involve unacceptable infringements of liberty or unjustifiable infringements on rights.

Two arguments for libertarianism

Nozick has two arguments for libertarianism: the Wilt Chamberlain argument and the argument from rights.

I said that the Wilt Chamberlain argument isn’t as compelling as it appears to be. It pretty decisively refutes a kind of egalitarianism that no one has reason to believe. But it doesn’t show that utilitarianism is mistaken. And my patterned principle doesn’t forbid “capitalist acts among consenting adults”; it just raises their taxes. People would be free to pay Wilt Chamberlain to play ball if that’s what they wanted to do with their remaining wealth.

As our discussion showed, realizing a patterned view of justice is going to require limiting liberty. Society will have to collect taxes to pay for a welfare state or for schools, for example. And that may prevent people from doing what they want to do. To borrow Adam’s example, pop stars may find that they cannot afford sports cars.

The question is whether this obvious fact is enough to show that patterned views must be mistaken. The Wilt Chamberlain case worked because it seemed that the patterned views had to do something absurd: ban all capitalist acts between consenting adults. No one could be in favor of that. But there is nothing absurd about collecting taxes to pay for a worthy goal. Libertarians do not refute their opponents by pointing out that liberty will be lost. To win an argument, they need to show that the limits on liberty are excessive. That may be true. But proving it is not an easy thing.

The argument from rights asserts that the state’s use of force to collect taxes amounts to a violation of side constraints. This depends on what property rights people have. Earlier in the term, I passed out a handout quoting several thinkers who believed that the poor have a right to whatever they need, even if it it is someone else's property. One of them was John Locke! If they are correct about what rights people have, then collecting taxes to pay for a welfare state does not violate the rights of the property owners. It enforces the rights of the poor.

Again, I’m not saying that Nozick is wrong. I’m just saying he hasn’t proven his point. To prove his point, he would have to show that the poor do not have a right to what they need. And to prove that, he would have had to fill out a principle of acquisition showing that this is so. He did not do that.

Key concepts

  1. Entitlement conception of justice
  2. Wilt Chamberlain argument for libertarianism
  3. Argument for libertarianism based on rights.
This page was written by Michael Green for Social and Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2014. It was posted April 15, 2014.
Social and Political Philosophy