Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Historical Justice

An extreme form of the procedural approach to justice is the "historical" view of justice held by libertarians such as Nozick. On this view, what matters for justice is not the end result (e.g. alleviating poverty, or whatever), but simply the historical process, as governed by three general principles:

1) A principle of initial acquisition, specifying how one may justly gain property rights over unclaimed resources.
2) A principle of transfer, specifying how one may justly acquire resources from someone else.
3) The principle of rectification: any past injustices (i.e. violations of the above two principles) must be rectified.

In future posts I will examine these principles in more detail, but for now I just want to note an obvious flaw in the whole approach, which is the problem of inter-generational justice.

The model seems to assume a static view of history as the interactions between a fixed group of people. It provides no guidance for how to deal with the belated entrance of new (born) people into the system. They had no chance to participate in the initial distribution of resources (as guided by principle #1), as they did not exist at the time. So they are unfairly bound by the choices of those who went before them. There is no justice in the fact that a child born into a rich family has better chances in life than he would have if born into a poor family instead. Even if we suppose that poor parents are entirely responsible for their own poverty, this is no fault of their children, and it is unjust that they should suffer in consequence.

I'm not sure whether this problem is inherent in the historical approach, or merely libertarian varieties of it. It may be possible to come up with non-libertarian principles of just transfer which could deal with this problem. For example, we might allow the coercive redistribution of wealth from rich families to poorer ones, or taxes to fund freely accessible and high-quality public education. But this goes very much against the spirit of the approach, and indeed the letter of it too, as we are now directing justice towards a particular pre-conceived end (i.e. provision of goods to poor children), rather than merely letting things unfold according to a non-teleological and minimally-restricted historical process.

Simply put, the old cry of "won't somebody think of the children!?" strikes me as a knock-down argument against the libertarian conception of justice. Indeed, the problem is so obvious, I'm sure that committed libertarians must have some response to it. But what?


  1. There is no justice in the fact that a child born into a rich family has better chances in life than he would have if born into a poor family instead.

    But there is no injustice either. The theory of justice you describe pretty explicitly doesn't care about equality (or any other feature) of outcomes. So, some are born lucky, and some are not. Misfortune happens to some, and fortune to others. These facts are irrelevant to the justice of a situation.

    If your intuition tells you that the poor child is suffering some injustice, then you'll want to select some alternative theory. As for assailing this one, I reply "The plight of the poor and the unlucky is a matter for charity, not justice".

  2. I only wanted to disagree on one point with Craig's post.

    I don't agree that some people incur fortune and others misfortune or that some are lucky and others unlucky. That's just too black and white. First, the definition of lucky/fortune may be different to me than you. Not everyone thinks of luck/fortune as financial independence or riches & glory. Secondly, I believe that everyone incurs a fair share of both good and bad. A man who comes from nothing can make himself something. And a man who was born with everything can become a nothing. A lot of what happens to you in life depends on what you do with your experiences; what you learn from them and how you deal with them. I'm not expert. This is just my opinion.

  3. If a child is starving through no fault of their own, how could that not be an injustice? Sure, the libertarian theory of justice says it isn't. But surely that just proves that the libertarian theory is fundamentally wrong! (Or doesn't everyone share my intuitions about this case?)

  4. You've made a good point, Richard.


Visitors: check my comments policy first.
Non-Blogger users: If the comment form isn't working for you, email me your comment and I can post it on your behalf. (If your comment is too long, first try breaking it into two parts.)

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.