Saturday, June 04, 2005

Ongoing Needs and Future-Blind Justice

Do we have absolute rights over our private property and resources, such that we may justly use them however we please? Suppose we begin with a just distribution D1 (perhaps everyone has an equal share of resources, or whatever your favourite theory recommends). Now suppose a million basketball fans so enjoy seeing Wilt Chamberlain play that each is willing to pay 25 cents which goes to him as part of the admission price. So Chamberlain ends up with $250,000, and is much richer than everyone else. Robert Nozick asks:
Is he entitled to this income? Is this new distribution D2, unjust? If so, why? ... If D1 was a just distribution, and people voluntarily moved from it to D2, transferring parts of their shares they were given under D1 (what was it for if not doing something with?), isn't D2 also just? If the people were entitled to dispose of the resources to which they were entitled (under D1), didn't this include their being entitled to give it to, or exchange it with, Wilt Chamberlain? (Anarchy, State, and Utopia, p.161)

So, beginning with a just pattern of distribution, a series of voluntary exchanges can disrupt this pattern, leading to large inequalities. Nozick holds that the result must nevertheless be just, which would refute 'patterned' conceptions of justice. Such patterns cannot survive if people are free to dispose of their resources as they choose. "The socialist society would have to forbid capitalist acts between consenting adults." (p.163)

Now, it seems that liberals can co-opt this example against the libertarian. As Kymlicka suggests (Contemporary Political Philosophy, p.106), it is unjust that, at the end of the year, Chamberlain is rich whilst the handicapped man with no earning power has exhausted his resources and is starving on the streets. But the problem arises from the ongoing needs of the disadvantaged, rather than the fans' transfer of wealth to Chamberlain. As Nozick writes:
After someone transfers something to Wilt Chamberlain, third parties still have their legitimate shares; their shares have not changed. By what process could such a transfer among two persons give rise to a legitimate claim of distributive justice on a portion of what was transferred, by a third party who had no claim of justice or holding of the others before the transfer? (pp.161-162)

The problem here is not the particular use the fans made of their allocated resources (i.e. paying Wilt Chamberlain and thus producing a large inequality), but rather, the notion that they have an absolute right to those resources in the first place. If the fans had all stayed at home and held on to their quarters, the handicapped man's needs - and thus his claims on those resources - would be no less. So we should object not to the transfer, but to the initial distribution which was insufficient to provide for the ongoing needs of the disadvantaged.

There are two ways to meet such ongoing requirements of justice. The most flexible option would be to allocate present resources provisionally, reserving the right to take some back (e.g. through tax) later, and redistribute as needed. If we want to retain absolute property rights, the initial distribution, if it is to be a just one, must allocate present resources in a manner sufficient to provide for people's ongoing needs. Thus those who lack earning power should receive enough for them to invest in some sort of trust fund and live off the interest. But this is a very inflexible and impractical option. We cannot know in advance what people's needs will be. Moreover, their needs will change over time, so a one-off compensation at the present time might not be appropriate. (Is it really just to give more now to someone who will only need more later?)

If utilitarianism warrants criticism for being past-blind, we should similarly decry any absolute allocation of goods as being future-blind. Absolute property rights are not responsive to people's changing needs, and thus are inconsistent with justice. Of course, here I'm assuming that need impacts upon justice. Nozick would deny this. But insofar as his case rests upon an intuitive appeal to an individual's "right" to dispose of his property how he pleases, we may reasonably point out this rival (stronger?) intuition that Nozick neglects. Given a choice between meeting human needs or granting absolute property rights, I should think that justice favours the former.


  1. Some might argue - (as hard as it is to accept intuitively) that the basketball player does more good by playing basketball than can be achieved by helping a certain disadvantaged person.

    lets say 100,000 poeple are willing to spend 25c they would otherwise have eventally spent on health care or maybe tyres with better grip for their car and that the net effect is to shorten their lives by an average of 1 day each. It is quite likely even if presented with this data they will still chose basketball over 1 day extra. if that is the case the basketball game justifies killing 1 or 2 people.

    you could say that economics helps yo to make those hard choices when otherwise you would wrap every human in cotton wool of you just thought about death.

    Second that the basketball player destroys no wealth by playing basketball in itself and thus (in itself) has no effect on whether the disadvantaged person can eat or not anyway. Ie his being rich doesnt always make someone else poor in fact it may make them richer.

  2. I'm just arguing against a natural rights position here, so utilitarian considerations are irrelevant.


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