May 28, 2002


Robert Nozick, anarcho-capitalist : The import of his greatest work made Robert Nozick a figure of political as well as philosophical importance. (Roger Scruton, 16 May 2002, Open Democracy)
The enduring relevance of Nozick's argument is brought out in the dispute with [John] Rawls, who develops a thought experiment, drawing on the tradition of "social contract" philosophy, with which to justify a broadly welfarist distribution of goods and services. The just society, according to Rawls, is one which obeys the "difference principle", guaranteeing the best possible position for those at the bottom of the social pile.

Nozick's critique is based on the thought that justice is not a matter of distributions or patterns, but a matter of procedures and rights. We act justly when we respect rights, unjustly when we violate them. But by respecting rights we produce unpredictable outcomes. Any attempt to squeeze those outcomes into a distributive pattern will inevitably involve violating the rights of someone.

The example Nozick considers is that of the basketball player, Wilt Chamberlain, who will respond to an invitation to play only if each spectator pays a supplement of $5 for the privilege of seeing him. The spectators willingly pay this supplement, and Wilt Chamberlain willingly receives it. Nobody's rights are trampled on and everyone is happy with the outcome - everyone, that is, except the socialist academic, who deplores a situation in which one man ends up a millionaire, while the rest of us remain where we were, only $5 the poorer. But there is no way of avoiding this outcome, which does not involve interfering with the rights of someone. To forbid Chamberlain to play is to deny his right to make use of his talents, skills and training. To forbid us to pay the supplement is to deny us the right to use our money as we wish; to confiscate Chamberlain's profits is an act of expropriation; and so on.

The example may seem trivial, but it has important consequences, and the value of Anarchy, State and Utopia lies in the way those consequences are spelled out, so as to defend private property, private medicine, private schooling and private welfare services, and a variety of social and economic inequalities--not as good in themselves but as the unavoidable outcomes of the only concept of justice that we really understand: the concept of the "justice preserving transaction". It is not states of affairs, distributions or patterns of ownership that are just or unjust, but the human actions that produce them.

Once we understand what justice means, in the real circumstances of human action, then we will see that we cannot respect the demands of justice, and also aim at a socialist or redistributive state.

That's fine in so far as it goes, but the great weakness of the argument is that absent the human dignity and rights that the West grounds on God, there's no basis for the rights that Nozick wants to vindicate other than a mere assertion that they are important. Posted by Orrin Judd at May 28, 2002 7:50 AM
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