|Montreal, April 27, 2002 / No 102
by Edward W.Younkins
<< Part One
Nozick goes on to provide a persuasive and comprehensive case against Rawlsian justice by arguing for a theory based on the principle that all human beings have absolute rights to their person and to the fruits of their labor. Nozick compares and contrasts two systems of justice: 1) his own entitlement theory which is based on the historical process of acquiring and transferring resources; and 2) end-state or time-slice theory which is based on the current distribution of resources. Rawls’ difference principle is of the latter type.
Entitlement Theory of Justice
Nozick’s entitlement theory holds that a distribution is just if it results through just acquisition from the state of nature or through voluntary transfer via trade, gift, or bequest from a prior just distribution. Nozick proposes that: 1) a person who acquires a holding in accordance with the principle of justice in acquisition is entitled to that holding; 2) a person who acquires a holding in accordance with the principle of justice in transfer, from someone else entitled to the holding, is entitled to the holding; and 3) no one is entitled to a holding except by (repeated) application of 1 and 2.
The principle of justice in acquisition states that an acquisition is just if the item is previously unowned and the acquisition leaves enough to meet the needs of others. The principle of justice in transfer is meant to protect voluntary contracts while ruling out theft, fraud, etc. In other words, a holding is just if it has been acquired through a legitimate transfer from someone who acquired it through a legitimate transfer or through original acquisition. Nozick also proposed the principle of rectification of injustice in holdings. Although difficult to accomplish in some cases, an honest effort must be made to identify the origins of illegitimate holdings and to remedy the situation by compensating the victims of theft, fraud, and intimidation.
Nozick takes his lead from the Lockean notion that each person owns himself and that by mixing ones labor with the material world, one can establish ownership of a portion of the material world. Nozick explains that what is significant about mixing one’s labor with the material world is that in so doing a person tends to increase the value of a portion of the external world. He reasons that in such instances, self-ownership can bring about ownership of a part of the physical world. According to Nozick, the Lockean Proviso means: 1) that previously unowned property becomes owned by anyone who improves it; 2) that an acquisition is just if and only if the position of others after the acquisition is no worse than their position was when the acquisition was unowned or owned in common.
For Nozick, the right not to have others interfere in one’s life is fundamental – any coercion is illegitimate. Persons are viewed as having natural rights which are prior to society and which must be respected if we are to treat individuals as ends in themselves and not merely means in the endeavors of others. Kant’s categorical imperative provides a foundation for Nozick’s principle of transfer. Individuals should be treated as ends and never simply as means. A person’s autonomy should always be respected. Only the individual person can legitimately decide what to do with his talents, abilities, and the products of his talents and abilities.
Nozick’s idea of process equality means equal treatment before the law. The U.S. Constitution reflects this view in its due process and equal protection clauses. According to this perspective, all individuals should be identically subject to universal rules of just conduct and the state should not grant special privileges or impose special burdens upon any individual or group of individuals.
Nozick refers to the contrary view of equality as end-state equality. From this perspective equality among people is increased when the differences between their incomes, level of wealth, or standards of living are decreased. The second idea of equality is incompatible with the first. When the state interferes with the process of voluntary exchange to bring about more equality in the end-state sense, the state must treat individuals with unequal voluntary exchange outcomes unequally. In other words, the state would discriminate against those with better voluntary exchange outcomes in favor of those with worse voluntary exchange outcomes.
The process and end-state (i.e., distributive) theories of justice are irreconcilable. Since people have unequal endowments, the free market will inevitably lead to unjust, in the second sense, results. This injustice can only be remedied by coercive transfers which are unjust in the first sense.
Nozick advocates a system in which the role of the government is limited to the protection of property rights. This view rules out taxation for purposes other than raising the money needed to protect property rights. Nozick explains that any taxation of the income from selling the products of exercising one’s talents involves the forced partial ownership by others of people and their actions and work.
Nozick argues that if we can determine that a specific person is entitled to a specific piece of property, then it is apparent that people with such claims can justly transfer property to whomever they see fit such as their spouses, children, favored charitable organizations, etc. As long as the transfer is voluntary, Nozick contends that there is no need for “society” to worry about how the representative least well off person is affected. It follows that inheritance taxes are not legitimate according to Nozick’s theory.
Nozick's Framework for Utopias
Nozick’s minimal state provides society with a utopian foundation – one that permits as many persons as possible to live as closely as possible to the ways in which they want to live. There is room for a pluralist utopia within the minimal state. Nozick’s utopia is actually a meta-utopia in which people are free to voluntarily join together to pursue and try to actualize their own view of the good life. His ideal society contains a diverse and wide range of communities which people can freely belong to if they are voluntarily admitted by others. Within Nozick’s framework for utopia, it is possible to design and create your own utopia is you can convince a sufficient number of people to join you. Of course, in Nozick’s minimal state no one can impose his own utopian views upon other people.
Nozick foresees that numerous and varied types of voluntary associations, utopian experiments, and life styles will concurrently flourish within his framework for utopia. Within these voluntary communities, people many make commitments to each other which exceed those that they have within the minimal state which itself could go no further than enforcing the most basic level of ethics required for peaceful cooperation. Voluntary associations may implement rules and regulations that the state would be unable to enforce. Participation in specific communities may be conditional upon designated requirements.
Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia made libertarianism’s views on the nature and legitimacy of the minimal state respectable in academic circles. Nozick revived the classical liberal tradition with his abstract, clever, and often obscure explanation of how a minimal state might arise legitimately in the form of an all-inclusive, rights-respecting protection agency. He was instrumental in creating the intellectual and philosophical foundation that has allowed the creation and flourishing of today’s numerous libertarian organizations. Nozick did this by persuasively arguing that government should do not more than protect citizens from violence, theft, and breach of contract. He maintained that individuals blessed with talent, money, motivation, or other social advantages were morally entitled to enjoy them and to benefit from them.
Nozick was a reluctant philosopher of freedom who perhaps did not want to see his theory applied in the real world. He wrote very little on political philosophy since writing Anarchy, State and Utopia and subsequently confessed that he saw his own libertarian theory as inadequate. Nevertheless, he did make an important and enduring contribution to the libertarian movement.
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