Some folks are born silver spoon in hand,
Lord, why don’t they help themselves?
But when the taxman come to the door,
Lord, the house look like a rummage sale,
It ain’t me, it ain’t me,
I ain’t no millionaire’s son, no.
It ain’t me, it ain’t me,
I ain’t no fortunate one, no.
‘Fortunate Son’, Creedence Clearwater Revival, 1969.
If you drive a car, I’ll tax the street
If you try to sit, I’ll tax your seat
If you get too cold, I’ll tax the heat
If you take a walk, I’ll tax your feet
Cause I’m the taxman.
‘Taxman’, The Beatles, 1966.
Inequality is generally defined as a negative outcome. However, inequality is not only something that exists in abundance, but something that can be justified. This essay will examine both Nozick’s argument for libertarianism and Rawls’ examination of justice through egalitarianism, with special attention given to their justification for inequality. Although both arguments find that inequalities are justified, these are arrived at from vastly different directions. For Nozick, inequality is an unavoidable by-product of liberty, whereas Rawls accepts inequality in distribution as the consequence of ameliorating biases wrought through history, birth or accident. While Nozick’s theories excuse polarisations in wealth, Rawls seeks to create a situation of equal opportunity for all. Nozick’s critique of Rawls will be explored, followed by a scrutiny of his Nozick’s libertarian views – the argument being that his work is not only flawed but stemming from a poverty of social imagination.
For Nozick (1974), justice occurs as a procedure between individuals rather than the result of state tinkering. This procedure is the free exchange of goods between individuals, free to dispense and exchange their private holdings and within an unregulated market (pp. 150-153). For Nozick, this procedure is ‘just’ if it aligns with three principles: (1) a person is entitled to their property if it has been acquired in a just manner; (2) a person is entitled to property transferred to them from someone initially entitled to it, and (3), no one is entitled to property unless through the repeated application of (1) and (2) (p. 151). These principles then advocate for a ‘night-watchman’ state (p. 25) – where the only government enforced constraints on liberty shall be in the case of various criminal activities. Nozick argues that state intervention in the free market constrains individual liberty (Beauchamp, 1991, 352), as the market is neutral, and choices are free and moral, then individual choosing is the only social mechanism that represents justice. Nozick rejects the socialist call to arms “from each according to his (sic) abilities, to each according to his (sic) needs (Marx, 2001, 20)” and replaces it with his own “from each as they choose, to each as they are chosen (Nozick, 1974, 160).”
Inequality is justified, according to Nozick (1974), as it is a natural result of the system of exchange, and any attempt to correct it through financial redistribution is a direct affront to a person’s individual liberty. Nozick rejects that equality, as envisioned through majority consensus of redistributive state policy, should be a normative model for justice (Beauchamp, 1991, 351). Nozick’s (1974) theory of justice makes no presumption in favour of equality, that equality should be assumed to be just, or, for that matter, that societal goals should be derived from anything other than the free functioning of the market (p. 233). Indeed, inequality is an unavoidable consequence of the free market in action, and any state attempts to redress this through taxation are a form of theft (p. 357). State redistribution ultimately infers that an individual does not know what to do best with their own property and that chosen recipients are undeserving (Beauchamp, 1991, 356).
While Nozick was concerned with liberty in a purely economic sense, Rawls (1971) understood that the spectrum of individual’s rights was much more complex, and the rights a society might choose to value were not a universal. Rawls argued for a just and fair society, a system of cooperation that, despite recognising a need for individual competition, could advance the good of all (p. 4). Rawls advocated a baseline of liberty referred to as the ‘original position’ (p. 15), arrived at by members of society cloaking themselves in the ‘veil of ignorance’ (p. 118), divorcing them from their histories, circumstances and prejudices to form a consensus as to what rights would be considered sacrosanct (pp. 16-19). Rawls advocated this hypothetical process to stimulate an individual’s reflection on their privileges and the absence of these in others — to recognise their current life positions and outcomes were not ‘natural’ (p. 104). Once the original position was agreed on, it would become a baseline that could not be dipped under, with all future decisions aligning with two principles; (1) the liberty principle: that all people have the right to the liberties decided in the original position, and (2), the difference principle: no advantage can be gained that requires departure from (1) (p. 56).
In this difference principle, Rawls (1971) considers inequalities to be just if they continue to raise the welfare of the least advantaged members of society. The original position works to redress inequalities that are undeserved, resulting from accidents of birth or history, yet does not guarantee absolute equality (p. 86). Rawls’ argument does not seek to create a societal requirement of equality for all, merely a baseline of opportunity from which everyone has the ability to carve out the life they wish (p. 87). The idea that people are born in different social positions, with different endowments or with greater or lesser advantage is not viewed by Rawls as unjust – merely a social fact – what can be considered unjust is the way social institutions deal with these facts (p. 87). It is not Rawls’ wish that everyone in a society be able to order from the same menu, only that they all have a seat at the table. Inequalities are desirable, and allowed, if they are consistent with equal liberty and fair opportunity – and these inequalities are not merely economic, but come in the form of education, health, housing, gender, access to social institutions and various other outcomes (Beauchamp, 1991, 371).
Nozick (1974) critiques Rawls from several angles, chiefly that is not justice for others to prosper while some are forced to have less, (p. 190). While Rawls aims to investigate a system of justice based in ‘fairness’, Nozick argues that for something to be ‘just’ it does not necessarily have to be ‘fair’ (Hunt, 2015, 157). Nozick is concerned by the ‘who decides who gets what’ mechanics of re-distribution and who gives them that power and that right to do so (Nozick, 1074, 189). This baseline of liberties and rights, championed by Rawls, is in opposition to Nozick’s belief in a ‘night-watchman’ state, and that to police this baseline, the state would have to constantly interfere in the liberties of others, and the right to accrue or distribute their holdings at will (Beauchamp, 1991, 375). For Nozick, Rawls’ veil of ignorance, by disembedding people from their holdings, treats social goods as ‘manna from heaven’ rather than something people have produced and have entitlement to (Nozick, 1974, 198). Further, Nozick challenges Rawls’ will to neutralise talents, advantages and abilities and provide a clean slate of opportunity. Nozick responds that these talents and abilities are individual belongings, as are any holdings acquired through their use, and failure to recognise this interferes with an individual’s autonomy (p. 214).
My chief criticism of Nozick’s view is that it reifies capitalism as a morally just system while condensing the complexities of human conditions and relationships into simplistic individual market exchanges. Nozick view of liberty as a solely economic situation, involving the right to accrue and transfer private holdings, unfettered from any form of intervention, seems to be a poverty of the social imagination. Economic equality requires the ability of all to function equally within the economy, and claiming the exchange of holdings is a neutral act ignores imbalances in power, experience and advantage that are evident in many transactional situations. Moreover, one may argue that all holdings in a capitalist economy are acquired unjustly, resulting in racial, gender, worker and environmental exploitation, therefore Nozick’s first principle is untenable as the original property has not been justly acquired. Indeed, Nozick never adequately describes the principle of ‘justice in acquisition’ (Hunt, 2015, 158), relying on Locke’s assessment that people are entitled to what they mix their labour with (Nozick, 1974, 174). This assertion is challenged by Marx’s (2013) theory of ‘surplus value’, in which the value labour adds to an asset is taken from the worker in the form of profit (pp. 120-137). Nozick’s (1974) mantra “from each as they choose, to each as they are chosen” (p. 160) is equally untenable, as in a system of gross inequality, freedom of choice is not something that exists for all, as “not everyone has the means to be choosers (Bauman, 1998, 86).” In this, even though Rawls’ work still reifies capitalism, I find his wish to provide a baseline of equality that an individual may use to springboard into a life of their choosing, free from the constraints of disadvantage, to be a much more socially responsible and hopeful framework for justice.
Inequality, while ostensibly a negative outcome, can be justified as a means to an end. While Nozick would argue that huge disparities between the rich and the poor are a justifiable outcome to the unfettered operations of a free market, Rawls would contend that these outcomes are only just in a society of fairness. While Nozick sees liberty in process, Rawls sees justice as an outcome – where all individuals begin from a baseline of liberties and opportunities. While Nozick’s critique of Rawls has been discussed, this essay has in turn critiqued Nozick, finding his conception of liberty to be myopic in its focus on the economy. By funnelling the dynamic complexities of the human experience and condition into the simplicity of individual market exchanges, Nozick’s concept of liberty stems from a poverty of the imagination, a selfish ‘just me’ rather than an inclusive justice.
Bauman, Z. (1998) Globalisation: the human consequences, Columbia University Press, New York.
Beauchamp, T. L. (1991) Philosophical Ethics: an introduction to moral philosophy, second edition, McGraw-Hill, New York.
Fogerty, J. (1969) ‘Fortunate Son’, in Fogerty, J., Fogerty, T., Cook, S. & Clifford, D. (performing as Creedence Clearwater Revival), Willy and the Poor Boys, Fantasy Records, California.
Harrison, G. (1966) ‘Taxman’, in Lennon, J., McCartney, P., Harrison, G. & Starr, R. (performing as The Beatles), Revolver, Parlaphone, London.
Hunt, L, H. (2015) Anarchy, State, and Utopia: an advanced guide’ Wiley/Blackwell, Malden.
Marx, K. (2013) Capital, Wordsworth Editions, Hertfordshire.
Marx, K. (2001) Critique of the Gotha Program, The Electric Book Company, London.
Nozick, R. (1974) Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Basic Books, New York.
Rawls, J. (1971) A Theory of Justice, Oxford University Press, New York.