THE IDEA THAT justice means equality is often assumed bur rarely argued for, Writers assume that to show that a small percentage of the population has a larger percentage of wealth or income is to show that a social problem exists. The only question that remains is how to change it. Robert Nozick, professor of Philosophy, challenges this assumption arguing that an unequal income distribution is not necessarily wrong, and that any state which pursues egalitarian goals is inherently unjust. In support, Nozick introduces a new theory of distributive justice.
This is only one major feature of Nozick's book, although probably the most important. His main argument is that only a state limited to police protection and court service is justifiable. Nozick examines the major moral and ethical arguments for a more extensive state and finds them inadequate.
One of the positions he attacks is the argument for income redistribution enforced by the state. He addresses both a tricot egalitarian outlook and the more moderate theory of justice that John Rawls, professor of Philosophy, advanced in 1971, Nozick powerfully dissects both positions with imaginative and masterful counter-arguments.
In their place, Nozick offers an entitlement theory of justice. This theory is in a different category than all others which require a patterned distribution of goods--to each according to his need effort, marginal productivity, etc. Nozick emphasizes the history or process by which a distribution is achieved rather than the end state or pattern. He argues that a distribution is just if people have acquired their goods fairly and squarely, without violating anyone else's rights.
For example, consider a society in which everyone receives an equal income which would be just by egalitarian principles. Basketball is the rage in this society and a child is born. Wilt, who grows up to be 7 1/2 feet tall. Half the people would be willing to pay an extra $.25 per game to see Wilt play and the other half don't care about basketball and don't go to any games. A million fans go to see Wilt play in a year and he earns $250,000, much more than anyone else. In what sense would this inequality be unjust? Those who did not go to see Wilt play are in no sense worse off, they have made no sacrifice. They had nothing to do with a deal between the fans and Wilt in which both were made better off.
Clearly the fans had a right to dispose of their income and choose what to spend it on. Why else was it given to them? They could have spent it on Lay's potato chips or Karl Marx postcards, but if a million of them choose to give $25 to Wilt, what is wrong with that? Those who did not participate in the trade did not have their shares of income changed and if they were just before, why are they not just now?
Enforcing the egalitarian pattern in this case would be unjust. Nozick argues, because it would prevent citizens from the free exercise of their preferences, even though they hurt no one else. In fact, enforcing any distribution pattern would involve continual interference with people's lives to prevent them from making transfers that would violate the pattern. A society which enforced equal income distribution would have to forbid people from doing things for other people for money after work. The government would have to outlaw capitalist acts between consenting adults. This restricts both what a person can do with his life and his income.
Thus, people have a right to what they acquire through voluntary, free trade no matter how much inequality may result. The only requirements is that both sides have a right to what they trade in the first place. Nozick advances a theory of original rights to goods, using many Lockean concepts of property, to get things started.
There would be, therefore, no incompatibility between liberty and justice or trade-off between efficiency and equity. This does not, however, justify the present income and wealth distribution either. Because of the many government interventions that have provided unjust benefits to the rich, they would have to pay indemnities to those injured by these interventions, under Nozick's principle of rectification. Nevertheless, the theory does justify the income distribution that would arise from a laissez-faire, free market, economy. The importance of Nozick's theory cannot be overestimated. His challenge goes right to the heart of the argument for socialism.
Nozick develops an argument for moral constraints on the way people or governments can treat individuals. He holds each person inviolable. No man may initiate aggression against another man. This arises from the idea that each man's life belongs to himself, that each man owns his own life. Nozick objects to the idea that anyone can be used, without his consent, as a means to someone else's ends.
An important implication of this argument is that no man has a right to goods that must be provided by someone else, such as education, heath care, food, etc. Such a right would imply a right to the person who must produce them. The right to such goods would imply the right to force someone to work the hours necessary to provide them. It would imply that some people have a right to determine what shall be done with parts of other peoples lives (the hours necessary to produce the goods). Someone is said to own something if he has the right to determine what shall be done with it. The existence of these rights, therefore, would imply that the person claiming the goods has part ownership over the producer's life, such as requiring him against his will to produce the goods for someone else's consumption. The position of the producer is identical to that of a slave. The slave is owned by a master who has the right to determine what shall be done with the slave's life and can force him to work to provide the master with goods. This is wrong, Nozick argues, because each person's life belongs to himself. Each man has a right to his own life, not to someone else's.
PEOPLE WHO ADVOCATE rights to such goods look only at how to distribute them and fail to recognize how they are produced. Goods come into existence with people who have entitlements or rights over them; they don't fall from heaven. This does not mean Nozick is opposed to charity or unaware of social problems. It means he is opposed to government (force) and political "solutions." Political solutions not only have an inherent tendency to immorally sacrifice some people at the state's altar for the benefit of others, but those others rarely get the benefits.
Nozick's book comes at a crucial time. America's welfare warfare state mixed economy is failing. No economy can long withstand rapidly alternating runaway inflation and depression, let alone both together. With the present situation intolerable, a consensus is developing that change in needed. But there is no consensus on what we should be changing to.
The predictable viewpoint, which shall be ascribed to the Leontiefs and the Galbraiths, is that the current crisis proves freedom as failed. Supposedly the Great Depression proved the instability of the laissez-faire free market. The policy prescriptions of Keynesian economics "saved capitalism," along with the interventions of the New Deal, Fair Deal, New Frontier an Great Society programs, establishing the mixed economy.
It is essentially that Keynesian policy prescriptions that are failing now. To the Leontiefs and the Galbraiths, this proves freedom is unworkable and we must change the economy again, to a centrally planned socialist economy. This intellectual bluff should be called, because there is no sound basis for this conclusion.
One strongly established alternative position belongs to Milton Friedman and his monetarists. Friedman contends that we have never had laissez-faire and the Great Depression was caused by government mismanagement, particularly the Federal Reserve's great contraction of the money supply, which triggered the crisis. The present crisis is again the result of government mismanagement. Friedman argues, especially government overspending and over-expansion of the money supply, which caused inflation to get out of control.
Another position belongs to Nobel Laureate Freiderich Hayek, Professor Murray N. Rothbard and the "Austrians," who agree that we have never had laissez-faire but use the Austrian theory of the business cycle in their analysis. Rothbard and Hayek argue that government intervention, especially the policy of the Federal Reserve in the late '20s, started the cycle which resulted in the Great Depression. In his book America's Great Depression. Rothbard details these interventions and their consequences. Today, Rothbard and Hayek argue, government polices in the '60's started a similar cycle that is the cause of current problems. Friedman, Rothbard, and Hayek agree, therefore, that it is the government that is the cause of these problems and the solution is not more government, but less. The solution is to remove the cause.
The question is whether we should try a more libertarian free market or a socialist centrally controlled economy. Seen against this background. Nozick's book is a powerful, unequivocal addition to the argument for the former. His position suggests the free market solution would not only be efficient, but also just.