Robert Nozick: Individual Liberty Trumps All

Would you choose the state of equality and justice envisioned by John Rawls or the state of radical individual liberty envisioned by Robert Nozick?
  • Transcript


Let’s look at what a society governed by Nozick’s principles might look like.  Nozick famously articulates a view of the conditions under which property is legitimately held and his view is this.  It’s legitimate for you to own something if you acquired it in a legitimate way when it was un-owned or if you acquired it in a legitimate way from somebody else who already owned it.  If I got the property from you as the result of your having given it to me then no one can legitimately take that property away from me.  This may sound relatively uncontroversial, but let’s look and see what it implies. 

Suppose each of us starts out with the same amount of money.  Say each of us has $100 and there are thousands and thousands of us all of whom are fans of the great 1970s basketball star Wilt Chamberlain, so suppose you give 25 cents of your money to Wilt Chamberlain and I give 25 cents of my money to Wilt Chamberlain and our friend gives 25 cents of his money to Wilt Chamberlain and so on thousands and thousands of times until Wilt Chamberlain comes to have not the $100 with which each of us started out, but thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars.  On Nozick’s picture any decision to take away any of the money which Wilt Chamberlain got through this voluntary and legitimate transaction is a violation of rights. Then no distribution of income, including one in which 1% of the people own 99% of the wealth could ever be illegitimate because what matters is how it actually came into being.  If all that 99% of the wealth came to those individuals as the result of legal transactions then nothing can be done without violating rights to redistribute it.

There is no easy answer to this question.  There is a strong intuitive pull to the view that Nozick advocates—it is in some sense theft to take from Wilt Chamberlain what each of us has voluntarily given to him.  On the other hand without such theft, more commonly known by the term taxation, we will find ourselves perhaps in the sort of situation that neither Rawls nor Nozick wants to be in.

If all of us give our quarters to Wilt Chamberlain and his companions.

Instead of having a society of which we’re all equally a part Wilt and his wealthy friends are able to buy access to the media, are able to buy advertising time for candidates that they support, are able to send their children to schools where they gain power and advantage and access to resources with the result that the fundamental rights which Nozick as well as Rawls was concerned with preserving become difficult for people to exercise.