Robert Nozick and the Libertarian Time-Slice Problem
In Anarchy, State, and Utopia, philosophical heavyweight Robert Nozick offers a alternate, libertarian vision of distributive justice to the one put forward by John Rawls in A Theory of Justice (though he would balk at the term, since he argues that all such theories are actually theories of redistribution and are therefore problematic).
Nozick’s argument centers around the Entitlement Theory. He argues that you can’t begin a theory of distributive justice by asking how best to distribute things in society because this assumes that the things are up for grabs like manna from heaven. In other words, someone like Rawls begins by imagining that we can divide up a basket of goods without considering how we came by those goods. This misses the crucial question, namely where did these goods come from? Because the goods all come from somewhere – because they were created – there are moral claims that arise from their creation. From this idea, Nozick argues that you are entitled to anything you have that you got without violating anyone’s rights in the process, as well as anything given to you by someone who got the thing without violating anyone’s rights. If things are yours and you lose them because someone violates your rights (theft, fraud, exploitation), you are entitled to recovery.
Nozick argues in favor of this theory because it’s historical and it’s random; unlike so many other theories of justice, it doesn’t examine distributions at particular moments in time and then ask whether those are just and it isn’t built on the back of a patterned principle (one that distributes goods based on some dimension or weighted sum of dimensions).
And yet this isn’t the sum total of Nozick’s argument. He concludes the section of the book in which we find the above arguments by pointing out the following:
We began this chapter’s investigation of distributive justice in order to consider the claim that a state more extensive than the minimal state could be justified on the grounds that it was necessary, or the most appropriate instrument, to achieve distributive justice. According to the entitlement conception of justice in holdings that we have presented, there is no argument based upon the first two principles of distributive justice, the principles of acquisition and of transfer, for such a more extensive state. If the set of holdings is properly generated, there is no argument for a more extensive state based upon distributive justice …. If, however, these principles are violated, the principle of rectification comes into play.
If we think about this carefully, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Nozick –- who cares a great deal about the historical claims that arise from the just or unjust creation of goods –- runs into a problem. After all, taking the historical perspective on the way in which goods are acquired in a country like the United States, it seems clear that the principle of rectification necessarily, in Nozick’s words, “comes into play.” As he goes on to note, “an important question for each society will be the following: given its particular history, what operable rule of thumb best approximates the results of a detailed application in that society of the principle of rectification?”
Might we conclude, then, that Nozick’s minimal state -– one that contemporary libertarians find quite appealing -– simply can’t work in a country like the United States, given its particular history of appropriation and exploitation? Might it be the case, as Nozick states, that “past injustices might be so great as to make necessary in the short run a more extensive state in order to rectify them”? Nozick doesn’t address this issue directly and neither do contemporary libertarians; instead, they seem content to take a time-slice view of things, to argue that they are entitled to the holdings they have today without thinking at all about the historical circumstances that allowed for their possession.
If we take seriously Nozick’s historical approach to theorizing about justice, don’t we have to abandon the part of the entitlement theory that libertarians use to argue against the majority of our taxes, at least until we can find a way to rectify the injustices of the past (that continue to impact our society today)? In other words, reading Nozick carefully would suggest that if some of our holdings might have come to us as a result of historical injustice, they aren’t justly ours and taking them from us in order to rectify the injustice is a legitimate action of government.
I look forward to hearing from anyone who can demonstrate that his or her holdings are purely the result of hard work, grit, and determination and therefore are entirely disconnected with even a single example of historical injustice. Otherwise, my sense is that a system of taxation that redistributes goods from the ancestral beneficiaries of historical injustice to its ancestral victims is probably legitimate … even for Robert Nozick.