Author’s note: I’d written this piece for a class on Justice at MIT in response to a prompt—however, as per the professor’s request, I will not be sharing the prompt; that said, the article remains readable even without prior knowledge of the prompt I’m responding to. (Note that because this article was written for a class, with very minor edits, the style and structure of writing is different to other articles on my blog, i.e. it’s a lot more academic than usual.)

A little bit about Robert Nozick: Robert Nozick was an American political philosopher best known for his work “Anarchy, State, and Utopia”, a book in which he argues that only a minimal “watchman-like” state is societally justified. He makes this claim that such a state minimizes the extent of and the number of violations of the rights of individuals among all possible states. I don’t quite agree with Nozick in some substantial ways, but his work, particularly his thoughts on what makes a utopia, are worth responding to.



Introduction

People are generally divided on the issue of a state using its powers to coerce individuals into aiding others, the jurisdiction regarding the exercise of these powers, and when it is—if ever—justified. On the question of redistribution (which I define formally in Section I), Utilitarians champion a state with the power to redistribute wealth as needed to eliminate inequality; in opposition, Libertarians like Robert Nozick assert that a state should never overstep its only role as a guarantor of property rights and a facilitator of just and free exchange among consenting adults–i.e. a “night-watchman” state–that is, irrespective of any resulting inequalities.1 The difference in opinion between Utilitarians and Nozick effectively comes down to differing treatments of the rights individuals have over wealth. As such, I will first describe Nozick’s interpretation, the so-called entitlement theory of justice, in Section I. Then, I describe in detail two of Nozick’s arguments against the redistributive state: first, that the redistributive state is contrary to the natural rights of individuals, and that taxation, a form of redistribution, is on par with forced-labor (Section II); and second, that there are examples of wealth distributions (e.g. his famous Wilt Chamberlain example) for which any subsequent redistribution would be rebuked as unjust by any reasonable person (Sections III and IV).

Within these sections of the paper, I will provide my own comments in rebuttal. To Nozick’s first point, I will conclude that the equivalency made between taxes and forced labor is false by way of a counterexample. As for his second point, I will argue that the ambiguities regarding landownership within the Wilt Chamberlain example weaken its persuasiveness; nevertheless, I conclude by describing how said example can be improved without violating Nozick’s principles, i.e. those contained within his entitlement theory of justice.

I. Entitlement Theory of Justice

Nozick’s entitlement theory states that a distribution of wealth in society is just if and only if every member of society is entitled to their portion. Nozick provides the following three principles, for which, if at least one is observed and none is violated, an individual is justly entitled to their wealth:2

  1. Justice in acquisition concerns the ownership of previously unowned things; one can come to own something if doing so doesn’t leave others worse off.

  2. Justice in transfer says that one can acquire wealth by free exchange with others, or through a gift.

  3. Rectification of injustice concerns how one might deal with wealth that was unjustly acquired or transferred, compensation given to the aggrieved, and other similar questions related to past transgressions.

Formally, redistribution entails seizing the private earnings of some group \(A\), to give to some possibly intersecting group \(B\), i.e. taxation. Assuming \(A\)’s earnings were acquired justly—as defined by the principles above—their nonconsensual appropriation is an injustice in itself, says Nozick, notwithstanding the amount of positive benefit that \(B\) obtains.3 With Nozick’s entitlement theory in mind, I will now explore how “nonconsensual appropriation” constitutes an injustice by examining “consent”.

II. Inalienable Rights

According to Nozick, people have certain inalienable rights by virtue of being human. One such right enshrines the sovereignty of the individual and the privilege of the individual to act however they please, provided they observe the negative freedoms of others.4 Therefore, any state capable of coercion that goes beyond its role as a minimal night-watchman is inherently at odds with said rights. I’ll formalize Nozick’s claim as follows: one’s sovereignty is violated if and only if they are coerced into a state, \(s′\), without their consent.5 This claim rests upon the reasonable premises that: (1) an individual is capable of giving explicit consent; (2) no one can grant consent on the behalf of another; (3) the observance of negative rights is sufficient to define what is just, or at least what is not definitively unjust; (4) with regards to the un/just treatment of an individual, it comes down to whether or not consent was granted; and (5) the desirability of \(sʹ\) doesn’t diminish the need for prior consent.

Referring back to the formal definition of redistribution in Section I, Utilitarians argue that if the total benefits experienced by \(B\)’s members exceeds the total losses experienced by those in \(A\), then such a transfer of wealth is just because it increases happiness/utility in aggregate. Usually, the sets \(A\) and \(B\) have a nonzero intersection (e.g. although we’re taxed, we also enjoy the benefits of the amenities and infrastructure the tax funds). However, like Nozick, I find the idea that taxes are always paid voluntarily specious: short of abandoning society altogether, we are wholly unable to dictate which taxes we wish to pay and which we wish to abstain from.

According to Nozick, there is an additional way in which redistributive taxation is unjust; he makes the argument that taxation is morally equivalent to forced labor6, the implication being that forced labor is unjust because it is by definition obtained without consent. This implication rests upon the Lockean proviso, which was later amended by Nozick (his amendment is not relevant here and thus omitted.) The proviso says, in brief: self-ownership entails exclusive ownership over one’s labor and the fruits of one’s labor when it [labor] is mixed with natural resources.7 As such, if one’s taxable earnings are \(x\), then after taxes, a portion of \(x\) is uncompensated labor, i.e. labor done freely, and is thus in violation of the Lockean proviso. One might argue, however, that this view isn’t universally true. The following argument might be especially convincing to those who believe that it is only what one perceives which determines their own reality, i.e. subjective reality. (This is a view I am not personally fond of; I can anticipate several unsavory logical implications). First, assume, as I’ve described earlier, that an action done upon an individual is unjust if consent was expressly not given. Second, assume that, practically speaking, consent can neither be given nor explicitly withheld in situations wherein an individual has no knowledge whatsoever of the action to which they’d otherwise consent (the “consentable” action) and of which they continue to remain unaware their entire lives. From the vantage point of the would-be consenter, consent in these cases is ambiguous. (Ambiguous in the sense that although you might lean one way or the other, you do so on intuition rather than a predefined set of logical reasons). It follows that, subjectively speaking, whether something is definitively just or unjust is also ambiguous. Of course, objectively speaking, that is from the vantage point of an entity with perfect knowledge, consent was not given because the question is binary: an “either-or”, rather than an “either-or-maybe” in the imperfect knowledge setting.

Let’s contextualize the argument above by supposing that an individual \(I\) derives an income of \(x\) from a subscription-based business model to which there are \(k\) yearly subscribers. Consider first the situation in which \(I\) is aware of their tax liability; here \(I\) indeed renders a service for free and is effectively forced in doing so as Nozick suggests. (Here, one might argue that because \(I\) continues to labor despite their awareness of a tax, they must be doing so willingly. However, we need only apply this same reasoning to wage agreements to see the deficiency in this argument: an employee may begrudgingly agree to an abysmally low wage out of desperation or an imbalance in power between herself and her employer. In such a case, we intuitively feel that some injustice has been committed “agreement” notwithstanding—consistency demands that similar intuition applies in \(I\)’s case).

Now, consider the situation in which \(I\) is totally unaware of any tax liability (because they’re not the one paying it). If the tax is levied on the \(k\) subscribers and not on \(I\), then, while it is true that \(I\) takes home a diminished xʹ (due to the tax’s downward effect on demand), from \(I\)’s knowledge-constrained vantage point, they did not “technically” render any of their labor for free. This is one such situation in which some party is taxed, and the other party, due to a lack of knowledge, is not performing any free, forced labor as Nozick would otherwise have us believe—subjectively speaking of course. Therefore, the equivalence Nozick makes between redistribution and forced labor is not universally true; it depends partly on one’s beliefs regarding subjective and objective realities. I will now turn my attention to Nozick’s compelling Wilt Chamberlain example.

One might ask the following in rebuttal: “if I lie to you and you don’t find out, is it the case that I did not lie? If I steal from you and you don’t know, is it the case that I did not steal?”

Yes, objectively speaking, me not knowing that you’ve stolen from me doesn’t eliminate the fact that you stole from me, i.e. a tree whose felling no one witnessed is still a felled tree. But so what? If you later confessed that you’d robbed me—a robbery I up to that point never knew of—then the harm to me (that is attributable to your thievery) materializes only because I in some way revise my life from the time that the theft purportedly happened to the time of your confession, and from there conclude I have indeed been worse off because of your theft. If you never confess, then although I might’ve long been aware that I’ve suffered some type of loss, I’ve long chalked it up to my bad luck at best, or a “blameless case of theft” at worst (blameless in the sense I can’t point fingers at anyone without myself possibly committing an injustice of false accusations).

This stems from how I think of justice: only another human can do an injustice onto another human. Any “injustice” you suffer that is not attributable to a person or to the conditions made by several persons, then the type of injustice you’ve suffered is bad luck, it is a “cosmic injustice” so to speak, e.g. that I am born lame in one arm does not give me license (generally speaking) to blame anyone but the universe (or God if you prefer). Similar thinking applies in the theft case. The box of what I know to be the world at the time of an event usually includes myself, some other actors, and our environment. If, as far as I can tell, you are no longer in that box, then your theft, subjectively speaking, takes on the form of a cosmic injustice rather than a “human injustice”. This is the same thought with the tax. If the subscription provider \(I\), as I’ve described, is taxed by the government without knowing it, then the only things they can say in light of receiving a diminished income is: “Huh, I’ve fewer subscribers than I normally do. Strange. Perhaps they no longer enjoy my content, perhaps some no longer have the discretionary funds for my subscription, etc. etc.” Now, I don’t mean to claim that all of these speculations are blameless, but none of them have the IRS as \(I\)’s “blamee”—mostly because of my stipulation that \(I\) is not directly taxed.

I’ve said all this, but I don’t realllllllly buy it, not because I think the logic is flawed, but because there is no way one can guarantee the continued ignorance of another with respect to an action/injustice they’ve committed against them. The lack of this guarantee means that at any point in the future, upon their realization, one’s action will have been harmful subjectively speaking, and (somehow) become an injustice for all time before that realization, and all the time after it. (It become a human injustice for which one can assign blame.)

III. Wilt Chamberlain Example

Can one construct a sequence of processes \(\alpha\) (an execution) that takes an egalitarian distribution \(D_1\) at a time \(t_1\) and transforms it into a highly unequal distribution \(D_2\) at \(t_2\) where \(t_1 < t_2\), and for which no reasonable person can properly call \(\alpha\) unjust? If so, then it follows that redistributing the shares of wealth in \(D_2\) would be unjust (because \(D_2\) is just) and would be a strong argument against the state’s coercive apparatus. Nozick certainly believes we can construct such a case, and presents his popular Wilt Chamberlain example as an instance of \(\alpha\). For the sake of saving space, rather than quote Nozick directly, I will reproduce in my own words the argument that emerges from his example; that said, please read the passage for yourself because my comments that follow are made against his original presentation (Ibid., p. 160-161). The argument goes:

  1. An arbitrary distribution \(D_1\) is just if and only if it follows a certain egalitarian structure, i.e. everyone has equal shares of the total wealth. (Premise held by Nozick’s egalitarian critics).

  2. People are free to transfer things between themselves if it is consensual. This is just; recall justice in transfer in Section I.

  3. By some execution \(\alpha\), which can include many transfer processes between individuals, we may obtain from \(D_1\) a new distribution \(D_2\).

  4. If no reasonable person can argue that \(\alpha\) is unjust with respect to its constituting parts, then one cannot conversely claim that \(D_2\) is unjust. For the sake of completeness, \(\alpha\) must be just and \(D_2\) must also be just.

From (2) and (3), it is clear that the 25 cents given freely by each of one million persons over Wilt Chamberlain’s season composes a just execution \(\alpha\). The majority of reasonable people cannot see anything egregiously unjust with the Chamberlain scenario as presented (more on this later), and so from (4) we can conclude that the final distribution is indeed just. However, this result contradicts (1), which states that an arbitrary distribution is just only if it follows some egalitarian structure, i.e. \(D_2\) is not egalitarian but is still just. This concludes Nozick’s argument and his desired result.

That said, when presented with this scenario, although people aren’t quite able to articulate why, they intuitively feel that said result is wrong (I say this anecdotally): “surely not all distributions are just despite their causative executions being themselves just”. I am one of such people, and I believe I have pinpointed, at least for myself, where the issue lies: I take issue with the hidden premise that people “cheerfully attend” these games and give their money freely. There are opportunity costs (those that concern land ownership/use) which Chamberlain exacts on others that go uncompensated and unmentioned—the final distribution \(D_2\) is thus unjust insofar that these injustices are neither corrected nor acknowledged. Since Nozick’s entitlement theory accommodates redistribution in rectification of historical injustice, I will not be rejecting Nozick’s brand of Libertarianism outright but rather propose clarifications to remove the ambiguities that undermine the persuasiveness of his Wilt Chamberlain example.

IV. Comments on Wilt Chamberlain

In this section I will attempt to: (1) define the conditions under which consent is truly given in a spirit similar to Section II, and (2) evaluate whether Nozick’s Libertarian tradition is compatible with my own observations regarding opportunity cost in his Wilt Chamberlain example.

What does it mean for consent to be given? Consider again the employer and employee briefly mentioned in Section II. Some believe that any wage contract entered into “voluntarily” is by definition just, because the involved parties, via their own mental calculus, concluded that the benefits obtained from engaging in said contract exceeded those without. This is only superficially true. From the vantage point of the employee, certain economic conditions outside her control might force her to accept a wage lower than her “objective” worth (the wage her labor would otherwise fetch in a more favorable setting). So, although consent was given, the consentable options presented are themselves artificially constrained insofar economic conditions are the result of the combined actions of people other than said employee. The employee can rightly complain that an injustice has been committed, especially if there are other superior employment options to which she would have readily consented. I will now argue that in the Wilt Chamberlain example, the usage of land, to the exclusion of others, for the purpose of playing basketball, which presumably wasn’t democratically agreed upon, imposes a similar cost on the attendees for which they must be compensated for \(D_2\) to be just. Before doing so, I make the following economic assertions about land:

  1. There are three factors of production and their associated returns, these are: labor (wages), land (rents), and capital (interest). By land I mean location in three-dimensional space and other natural resources; those occurring without humans. We can observe that no productive enterprise can take place without being situated somewhere in space and that land comes materially before labor and capital.

  2. Land occurred naturally and is in fixed supply. No person can increase it, nor diminish it. No number of people can occupy the same point in space at the same time, and so land is inherently rivalrous and excludable, which is further enhanced by our (Western) conception of property rights.

  3. Consequently, no individual can properly claim rents in perpetuity. (Any private claim on its rents is unearned). Because nobody is entitled to it, practicality demands that all of society is entitled to it, or more precisely, society’s members are owed some, possibly equal, portion of its rents, i.e. the rents are made common. Nozick admits a similar albeit weaker assertion: “An owner’s property right in the only island in an area does not allow him to order a castaway from a shipwreck off his island as a trespasser […] Notice that the theory does not say that owners do not have these rights, but that the rights are overridden to avoid some catastrophe.” 8

In light of the aforementioned assertions, the Chamberlain example can be made unambiguous. I’ll describe one way of doing so. For the purpose of the narrative, suppose that Wilt Chamberlain owns the land on which he’s also paid to play basketball. Further suppose that said land rests upon an oil reserve, and that all other land is similarly held in private. If it were put to a vote, we might observe that those in the community strongly prefer extracting the oil to watching basketball. Therefore, Wilt Chamberlain using the land to play basketball runs contrary to these interests, and so according to assertion 3, imposes an opportunity cost on the game’s attendees (those belonging the community). As a result, the 25 cents, which is merely the assessed value of watching Wilt Chamberlain play basketball, contains an increment which properly belongs to society on account of his private appropriation of common rents. (In fact, the opportunity cost might very well exceed the 25 cents, in which case, Wilt Chamberlain pays the attendees). This, I believe, is the particular injustice which makes me and others hesitant to laud \(\alpha\) and \(D_2\) just. An acknowledgment of this land question, and an invocation of the third principle of the entitlement theory, justice in rectification (possibly via a tax on the value of land returned back to society), would strengthen the persuasiveness of Nozick’s Chamberlain example and entitlement theory.

Conclusion

This concludes two of Nozick’s argument against the redistributive state and my appurtenant thoughts. My conclusions are a refutation of Nozick only to the extent that they draw attention to some errors made in omission. With the appropriate revisions, some of which I’ve made suggestions for, Nozick’s two arguments—that redistribution violates the rights of the individual, and that just executions inevitably lead to just distributions—against the redistributive state will be strengthened.



Footnotes

  1. Robert Nozick 1974: Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York: Basic Books: ix (Preface) 

  2. Ibid., p. 151 

  3. Ibid., p. 172 

  4. Ibid., p. ix (Preface) 

  5. The use of “state” here refers to a unique configuration, e.g. there are several “states” that make up an agent’s state space. 

  6. Ibid., p. 169-170 

  7. Ibid., p. 174 

  8. Ibid., p. 180