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The Right to Be Rich or Poor

On the other hand, if the father of the first baby acquired his holdings legitimately, violating no one’s rights in the process, doesn’t he have the liberty to give whatever is his to his son, if he should so choose? Isn’t it implied in someone’s owning something that he has the right to do with it what he will, provided he violates no one else’s rights? And surely it is far-fetched to hold that the poorer baby has a right to some of the other baby’s wealth, merely because his ancestors were less fortunate, less astute, or less frugal in their handling of their holdings.

Our intuitions lead us in both directions. One must be wrong. Nozick tries to convince us that it is the former set of intuitions—those relating to the injustice of inherited wealth and other inherited assets—that we should give up. He does not attempt the hopeless task of arguing that those born with large fortunes or valuable natural talents have done anything to deserve these assets. Nevertheless, he says, people are entitled to their inherited assets, whether or not they deserve them. In the case of wealth he points out that orthodox theories of justice overlook the right of the donor when they consider the worthiness of the recipient of the inheritance. As for natural talents, people do not violate anyone else’s rights by having the natural talents they are born with. An artist has the right to keep a painting he has done even if his artistic talent was inherited and he did nothing to deserve it. So why shouldn’t a born entrepreneur have a similar right to the fortune his talents have brought him through legitimate means?

The legitimacy of redistribution in the direction of equality is, as Nozick says, more often assumed than argued for. We discover that, say, the wealthiest 5 percent of the population hold 40 percent of the national wealth, and then we ask what can be done about it. On the entitlement view these facts do not in themselves suggest that we ought to do anything. It all depends on how the present distribution came about. It might have come about by unjust means, through force and fraud, or through an unjust original acquisition, in which case reparations should be paid to those who are now worse off because of this injustice (though Nozick is unable to explain how we decide whether a person’s ancestor left sufficient good land for others when he appropriated his first field five hundred years ago). But the present distribution might also have come about entirely legitimately, in which case the compulsory redistribution of wealth would be a serious violation of people’s rights.

Nozick’s position sounds severe, and so it is. According to Nozick we have no obligation to help those worse off than we are. If a starving man drags himself to our house, where we are entertaining our friends with a sumptuous banquet, we are perfectly within our rights in sending him away without a crust. In mitigation, though, it is important to remember that Nozick has nothing against voluntary donations from the rich to the poor. The rich are within their rights to keep everything they have and throw what they cannot use down the sewer; but they also have the right to give everything away, and the generous and charitable will no doubt give some away.

Indeed, on the question of voluntary donations Nozick has some interesting points to make. He argues, I think conclusively, that those relatively wealthy people who advocate greater government redistribution (which would take from people like themselves and give to those poorer) can have no sound reason for not making, while they wait for the government to act, voluntary donations from their own pockets of the sum that would be taxed from them under the scheme they advocate, Presumably this argument applies to those who advocate greater government foreign aid, as well as to those who limit themselves to internal redistribution.

An ingenious illustration buttresses the entitlement theory. We start by supposing that holdings are distributed in accordance with some patterned conception of justice—let’s say the conception of equality, so that everyone has exactly equal holdings. Now suppose that several basketball teams would like to have Wilt Chamberlain playing for them. He signs a special contract with one, stipulating that he gets twenty-five cents from the price of every home game ticket. The fans are happy to pay the surcharge; the excitement of seeing Chamberlain play is worth it to them. One million people attend during the season, so that Chamberlain winds up with $250,000, far more than anyone else in the society.

The transactions between Chamberlain and his fans have upset the original, hypothetically just, pattern of holdings; but, Nozick asks, is the new distribution unjust, and if so, why? Can it be a source of injustice that a million people chose to spend twenty-five cents on seeing Chamberlain play, rather than on candy bars or magazines? Since they chose to spend it in this way, knowing that it would go to Chamberlain, surely they can have no just claim against the man they have made rich. As for those citizens who did not attend the games, their holdings are entirely unaffected by the transactions between Chamberlain and his fans. If these third parties had no just claim against the holdings of the transacting parties before the payments took place, how can the transfer give them a just claim to part of what was transferred? Yet that is precisely what those who accept taxation for redistributive purposes must believe.

In general, Nozick says, no patterned principle of justice can prevail without continuous interference in people’s lives. A socialist society would, as he puts it, have to “forbid capitalist acts between consenting adults.”

I have been able to indicate only the main strand of Nozick’s argument. There are many fascinating sidelines as well. For instance Nozick is able to show that if workers’ control of factories is desirable, it will be possible to establish it within the framework of his theory, by voluntary action. Indeed, he points out, the larger trade unions already have sufficient financial reserves to set up worker-controlled enterprises; and even smaller groups, or a single wealthy radical, could do the same, especially since consumers who favor worker-controlled enterprises could band together and buy only from these companies. Why, Nozick asks pointedly, has this not happened?

Nozick also challenges the view that greater equality will produce an equality of self-esteem and the elimination of envy. Self-esteem, he claims, is based on criteria that differentiate; if these criteria are equalized it will need to be based on something else. Trotsky’s vision of a communist society in which the ordinary man is able to fulfill his potential to such an extent that he becomes an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx does not mean that the ordinary man will have greater self-esteem. New peaks will rise beyond the heights of Aristotle-Goethe-Marx, the ordinary man will think of himself as just another Aristotle-like commoner, and envy the new super-Aristotles.

There is also some hard-headed discussion of the Marxist idea of exploitation and the labor theory of value. On these side issues Nozick may not always be right, but he is always stimulating; an open-minded study of what he has to say could be a healthy tonic for romantic leftists.

On the main issue, what I have said should be enough to show that Nozick’s case against compulsory redistribution is strong. Can it be met, and if so, how?

The first question here is whether to attempt to meet Nozick on the ground he has chosen—ground clearly indicated in the very first sentence of Anarchy, State, and Utopia:

Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights).

So we must decide whether to try to show that a system of justice based on individual rights, including a right to property, can permit—or require—compulsory redistribution; or, on the other hand, to deny that individuals have the rights that Nozick says they have, in the strong sense of the term that he intends.

In raising this question we come back to the most basic division between moral and political philosophers of modern times. For centuries there have been two lines of thought about justice. According to utilitarian theory, espoused by David Hume, Jeremy Bentham, and later utilitarians, principles of justice are rules that work for the greater good of all. They are governed by the principles of utility. If we take from the rich and give to the poor we do so not because the poor are entitled to some of what the rich have but because the poor will benefit more from this redistribution than the rich will suffer. The utilitarian who is not trying to hedge will admit that his account of justice allows property to be confiscated from one person so that another, or several others, may benefit.

The alternative view of justice associated with John Locke and Immanuel Kant starts with individual rights and prohibits the use of one person as a means to another’s end. The incorporation of Lockean rights into the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States ensured the dominance of this tradition in the political rhetoric and in the moral, legal, and political thinking of this country. There is a certain appropriateness in the fact that Nozick’s chief opponent within this tradition is the American philosopher, his Harvard colleague, John Rawls.

In his recent and widely celebrated book, A Theory of Justice, Rawls tried to develop a conception of justice that would be an alternative to utilitarianism, taking seriously “the distinction between persons” (which he claims utilitarianism, in subordinating individual rights to the general good, does not do) and ruling out “even the tendency to regard men as means to one another’s welfare.” The problem Rawls faced, however, was how to square this with his intuitive conviction that justice requires us to improve the condition of the poorest members of our society, whose poverty is not really their own fault.

Rawls attempted to solve this problem by arguing that if people in what he calls “the original position”—a hypothetical state of nature in which, to ensure impartial decision-making, people are assumed to be ignorant of their own talents and socio-economic status—were to choose the fundamental principles of justice to be followed in a newly formed society, one of the principles they would choose would be that inequalities are allowable only in so far as they improve the position of the worst-off group in the society.

Rawls thinks that people in the original position would make this principle—which has been called the maximin rule, because it seeks to maximize the minimum level of welfare existing in the society—subordinate to another principle guaranteeing maximum equal liberty for all. Whether they would give this priority to liberty need not concern us here, since we are considering only economic redistribution.

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