Skepticism About Distributive Justice 10:18

Brennan explains that the libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick offered important criticisms of pattern-based theories of distributive justice and offered his own alternative framework.

Further Reading
Friedrich Hayek, “The Use of Knowledge in Society”

Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia

Brennan: A lot of people when they’re discussing questions of distributive justice come in like say professor will come in the first day of class and drop a bunch of distributions on the board.  One might be more equal and be less equal, and then say “Which of these distributions is just?”  And students will often then go, “The most equal one, that’s obviously just.”  Bu one problem with that might be that maybe the information you need to evaluate whether it’s a just or unjust society isn’t actually on the board.  Maybe to know whether a society is just or unjust, you can’t just look at a snapshot of what people have at any given moment and use that to determine whether it’s just or not, you might need to know how people came to acquire what they have.  So for example, F. A. Hayek would say that it’s sort of absurd to ask whether it’s unfair that the meteor killed the dinosaurs.  It happened, maybe it’s regrettable because I like dinosaurs but it’s not fair or unfair.  It just doesn’t make sense to talk about the fairness of that.  It’s just a thing that happened.  And he thinks the results of market distributions are kind of like that like the results of the market is kind of like that.  It’s like it’s not fair nor unfair that people have what they have in a market.  It’s just something that kind of happens.  He would say that the distribution of wealth in the free market is not the result of human intention.  No one sort of decided that people would have more than others.  So people often talk about the social product being like a pie and some people really get big slices and some people get very small slices, and that makes it sound like it’s unfair because you’re sort of imagining mom at a birthday party giving like one kid a really big slice of cake and another kid a really small slice of cake for no reason, and you’re like “That just seems mean.”  But it’s not what happened.  It’s just people make decisions with the stuff that they have and some people end up having more, some people end up having less.  So similarly, the philosopher Robert Nozick says that the very term distributive justice is misleading because it suggests as though the stuff that we have is like manna that fell from heaven and it’s here in front of us, now we just need to figure out how to distribute it or who gets what and why.  But again, that’s not what happened.  People made some of that stuff, they gave it to others, they exchanged it, and that at any given time results in a distribution of things but no one actually distributed it.  So Nozick says that there’s no more a distribution of wealth than there is a distribution of mates and friendship.  And he says when some people have freedom of association, some will have more and some will have less, some will have enough to lead good lives.  So some people if we’re like just free to associate with whomever we want, some people will have lots of friends and some people will have no friends.  Some people will have fulfilling romantic lives and some people will be alone their entire lives.  And it’s sad but it’s neither fair nor unfair, Nozick would say.  It doesn’t make sense to talk about the fairness of the distribution of friends or of mates.  It’s just the thing that happens when people have freedom over their own lives.  And he turns to the left and says, “You wouldn’t think that the right thing to do would be to redistribute say romantic relationships or redistribute friendship in order to make sure that everybody has enough.  So why do you think it’s okay to do that with wealth?  There has to be some sort of difference.  They have to be different in some way.”  So Nozick says it looks like left liberals and leftists are already kind of presuming that the rights to our stuff or objects we own are weaker than our rights to bodies and our rights to associate with one another because if they didn’t think that, then the arguments that they use on behalf of redistribution, they would find unappealing.  So Nozick ends up being quite skeptical about distributive justice in general, the idea like we should try to equalize things.  And he has a kind of famous argument to point out a flaw with this way of thinking.  The idea is that liberty, giving people freedom upsets patterns.  So what he means by that is when you ask most people what is justice in holdings or distributive justice require, what they’ll say is they’ll come up with some sort of pattern that they think society ought to match.  So if you were what’s called the meritocrat, you think that we ought to distribute wealth according to merit.  The most meritorious person should have the most and the least meritorious person should have the least.  If you’re an egalitarian, you have a very different pattern.  You think everyone ought to have the same amount of stuff.  If you’re Rawls, you have a different pattern.  You think we should allow for an equality provided we maximize the welfare of the least advantaged.  If you were what’s called the sufficientarian, you think it’s okay to have as much inequality as you want as long as everyone gets enough to lead a decent life, etc, etc.  These are all different patterns that people think society ought to reach.  

Nozick is worried about this because he thinks giving people a small amount of liberty will upset any given pattern over time.  So let’s illustrate that with one example.   Suppose that finally at long last justice has been done.  We finally reached a perfectly just society in which everyone has exactly the amount of stuff that they ought to have.  For the sake of argument, it would be easier to remember, let’s imagine it’s egalitarianism.  Everyone has equal amounts of stuff, everyone has equal amounts of wealth.  And you have things.  You’re supposed to have freedom to do stuff with your stuff, to act with your things.  So now suppose LeBron James, the greatest basketball player in the world, says, “After I’m done working like in the socialist factory, I’ll go to the socialist stem, park, and I’ll start playing basketball, and I’ll let you guys watch me play basketball but provided you give me a quarter.”  And everyone is happy to do this.  He just says, “You just give me a quarter when you come and watch me play.”  So at the end of the year, what happens is he’s now a million dollars richer than everybody else.  Everyone’s happy.  Well it looks like just giving people a small amount of freedom, the freedom to distribute a quarter as they see fit destroy that initial pattern.  We started with egalitarianism and we ended with LeBron James being a million dollars richer than everybody else.  By hypothesis, if you’re an egalitarian, this second situation is really evil and bad.  Giving people the freedom to distribute a quarter as they see fit introduces injustice into the world.  But you can see the problem there.  As Nozick’s saying, liberty will upset patterns.  Even a small amount of freedom over time will destroy any preconceived pattern you think we ought to reach.  So he’s not saying libertarian freedom will destroy our pattern; just even small amounts of freedom, the freedom to distribute a quarter as you see fit.  That’s a problem because he says to the egalitarian, “Well look.  You thought this quarter was mine, right?  So you think it’s mine, I can’t even give it to LeBron James if I want to?  I don’t have any freedom to do that because I will upset your pattern?”  So Nozick worries that if you have a pattern theory of distributive justice, to maintain that pattern, you’re going to have to have pretty continuous interference with people’s liberty and kind of control their lives.  And the more strictly patterned your view is, the more strictly you’ll have to interfere with their lives.  So Nozick thinks what’s wrong with all these theories isn’t just that but they’re all missing something which is that when we think about what makes holding just or unjust, we care not just about who has what compared to whom but where it came from.  So imagine walking on the street and you find a wallet and it has a 500 bucks in it.  You don’t look at that and go, “Well, where’s the representative member of the least advantaged class?  I better give him 500 dollars.”  Or you don’t think, “To whom can I give this so that it’ll maximize utility?”  If you’re a decent person, you look and find the license in there and you find that person and give him or her back the 500 dollars because it belongs to that person.  Alright, so that’s what you do.  You think it belongs to somebody.  So Nozick thinks that’s what’s really missing with all these other theories is that when we’re talking about distributive justice, we have to ask “Where did it come from?”  So he offers an alternative way of looking at distributive justice.  He says we need as a theory, he calls it the entitlement theory, that explains how people can come to acquire stuff that wasn’t owned, how they can justly come to transfer it among themselves, and then what to do if people violate those rules.  So the entitlement theory is going to have three parts.  The first part will be sort of the principle of original appropriation, some principle that explains when stuff isn’t owned, no one has a claim to it, how can you come to make it yours?  He thinks this is going to be some very complicated truth.  I’m not going to go over it right now, like it’s a complicated theory but there’s going to be some principles that explains how you can come to acquire stuff that didn’t belong to anybody.  Then after people have acquired things, you’re going to need some sort of theory about how we can transfer it back and forth like why if I sell you something consensually, that’s okay but taking it from you is not.  And he says in a perfectly just world, justice and holdings would just be about that as long as you have stuff either through just original appropriation or just transfer, whatever you have is fine regardless of whether you have more or less than others.  And if you think about it, that’s effectively what we do when we think about the distribution of friends or the distribution of romantic relationships.  That’s how we think.  

However, we live not in a perfectly just so we’re going to have to have some third rule, a principle of rectification, that’ll explain what to do when people break the other two rules.  So for example if I bought this watch but it turned out that this watch was stolen from somebody else, then I might have to give it back to that first person without any compensation.  That’d be a way of rectifying problems.  Or if you hit somebody with your and damaged their property, it’s your fault, you have to compensate them for their loss.  So Nozick says a just distribution is just going to be whatever follows from the entitlement theory.  So he says a way of thinking about that is if you start with a just initial situation and follow just steps, then whatever distribution of income and wealth there ends up being is itself just.  However, Nozick, it’s worth noting is not actually apologizing for the inequality that we see in the real world.  And the reason for that we haven’t followed his theory.  It’s not as though we’ve been following the kind of Nozick entitlement theory throughout history and said, when you think about the history of owned objects like any owned object in the world, you’ve got slavery, and theft, and brutality, and war, and thieving, and so on.  So in fact, Nozick isn’t saying that the actual inequality that we see is justified.  He’s saying that in principle, it could be justified if it came about the right way.  Interestingly, Nozick ends up saying something like given historical injustice, it might turn out that the thing we have to do to rectify historical injustice is to have some degree of redistribution right now in order to sort of set things right, and then we can go from there.  So people often see Nozick is making as a being kind of apologist for the status quo when he’s manifestly not.

Topics Philosophy