Home > Philosophy > Locke + Nozick = Locke

Locke + Nozick = Locke

October 16th, 2016

In the discussion of my threepart critique of Locke, I mentioned my view that Rothbard and Nozick added nothing of value, and promised to expand on this when I got some time. I discussed Rothbard here, and have finally got around to Nozick.

Someone (I think Jerry Cohen) remarked that Nozick was be taken very seriously by Marxists and not nearly as much by social democrats and (US) liberals. Obviously, my reaction (that of a social democrat) illustrates this. The reason for this divergence is obvious enough. If you would like to derive property rights from a notion of self-ownership (and the Marxist concept of exploitation is close to this), Nozick provides a reductio ad absurdam. So, a critique like Cohen’s is essential.

OTOH, if you start from the ground that property rights are social structures, and that their justice or otherwise is inseparable from that of the society in which they operate, Nozick is of no real interest. All the important errors in his work were already made by Locke. However, I’ll point out some new ones.

The basic problem with Nozick is the same as with all propertarians. He wants to treat (a subset of) the property rights created under existing states as indefeasible, while dismissing any conditions currently attached to those rights as unjust. Invariably this produces hopeless contradictions. I’ll discuss a couple, one relatively trivial and the other fundamental.

Nozick claims that a requirement to pay taxes is on a par with slavery, which puts the recipients of tax-funded payments (just about everyone, at some point in their lives) in the position of slaveholders. But, if someone has used tax-funded income to buy a piece of property, Nozick wants to treat their ownership as a natural right. But how can the proceeds of enslavement be justly held.

Nozick blurs this point with a long discussion of how things might have been in a state of nature, and what, theoretically, might be involved in rectifying past injustices, before assuming he has a can-opener (‘Idealizing greatly, let us suppose sophisticated theoretical investigation will produce a principle of rectification). From then on, he forgets about rectification and implicitly assumes that existing rights in private property (but not, it seems, rights to Social Security or public education) have been justly acquired.

The second problem is, I think, more fundamental. Nozick begins by dismissing arguments about justice based on an ‘end-state’ of the current and future allocation of welfare.. In his dismissal of consequentialism, he makes no attempt to claim that the changes he favors would make everyone better off compared to the current situation. This is obviously that this is not the case and, if it were, Nozick would be writing a very different book (something more like Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson.

Yet only a few pages later, Nozick introduces the Lockean proviso that the appropriation of property rights by some should not worsen the position of others. He tehn asserts (p 182) ‘I believe that the free operation of a market system will not actually run afoul of the Lockean proviso’, that is it will not make anyone worse off.

Compared to what? Clearly not the status quo: Nozick has implicitly conceded this already. Presumably, he has in mind some sort of propertyless state of Nature in which we are all engaged in a Hobbesian war of all against all. With the same starting point, Hobbes derived the conclusion that we must all submit to absolute and untrammeled state power. Nozick invokes the same argument to conclude that only a minimal state is justified. The two claims refute each other. Once the correct comparison, that with the status quo, is made, Nozick’s whole case collapses.

Finally, I’ll respond to Nozick’s Wilt Chamberlain example, which seems to have impressed quite a few readers. The basic point is that, if lots of people would be willing to pay a small amount to watch Wilt play, he could get very rich, while the watchers would be better off. At the core of this example is simply the observation that, given any initial allocation of property rights, there are potential gains from trade and that voluntary trade between two parties will make them both better off (though it may make others worse off, a point Nozick does not address). Furthermore, there is nothing inherent in this process that prevents some people from getting very rich.

But the choice of sport as an example is self-refuting. As the history of sport demonstrates, marginal differences in the structure of property rights could produce very different outcomes. If today’s intellectual property laws had been in place in 1891, James Naismith could have patented the idea and copyrighted the rules (the copyright would have expired in 2009, too late to help Chamberlain). If his invention were viewed as a work for hire, it might be the property of the YMCA. Or, if basketball was organized like college sports, Chamberlain wouldn’t be able to cash in at all, while his coaches could earn a fortune.

The actual structure of property rights under which Wilt Chamberlain acquired a net worth estimated at $10 million is one that includes an obligation to pay taxes at rates determined by legislation. Nozick gives no coherent reason why this particular feature of the property rights system is unjust, while the rest of the system is fine.

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  1. tony lynch
    October 16th, 2016 at 14:20 | #1

    It is a funny thing. If US liberals didn’t pay much attention to Nozick, then they missed pretty much everything that was going on. (One might venture a definition of US liberalism on this basis.)

  2. paul walter
    October 16th, 2016 at 16:33 | #2

    As usual I don’t really feel qualified to comment, but John Quiggin has been very patient in trying to explain the problem of selfish Individualism over quite some time.

    I did try to read Nozick at uni but found his pedantism and reductionism always back the rights of the blow you jack individual outside of any social and cultural context abit intolerable,

    He seems to rely on a very narrow view of what the individual is, her origins and formation, and development through the processes of life. I always think of Malthus, Bentham and Hobbes (Morrison, Frydenberg, Robb?) when thinking of him, yet those concepts were successfully challenged by a vast number of people including Marx, Freud, Einstein and so many social and cultural theorists who look for some thing better from the species and from life than a robotic existence.

    Now, lest I display my ignorance further and sin the further against philosophy, I ask to be returned to my Skinner Box, but will contemplate further now that the idea has started to natter away at the back of my mind, for I will know no peace otherwise from this point.

  3. Ikonoclast
    October 16th, 2016 at 17:26 | #3

    If I might be permitted a slightly tangential post. Stay with me here, I am being humorous not serious or humorous and then serious.

    Locke + Nozick = Locke

    Subtract Locke from each side of the equation and;
    Nozick = 0 (intellectually speaking)

    I have no problem with that.

    Dylan titled a song;

    Love Minus Zero/No Limit (apparently to be read as Love Minus Zero over No Limit)

    Love – 0 = Love

    Love / No Limit = Love/?

    The most likely suggestion (if love is infinite) is that the equation resolves to 1 (unity or One)

    I always read the title as;

    Love Minus Zero : No Limit
    Love – 0 = No Limit
    Love = ?

    So what appeared avant-garde was really the most trite repetition of conventional religionism. And now he has a noble prize in literature. ROFL. I guess he couldn’t get one in music (is there one in music?) because in terms of melodies his plagiarism was even more clear.

    But he was a great trickster, made fools of so many, and utilised the ownership system of capitalism to claim copyright over his entire pastiche oeuvre. Hilarious! It’s a morality play on capitalism.

  4. October 16th, 2016 at 17:40 | #4

    Hobbes and Nozick cancel each other out? Raith Rovers puts a team of 11 men on the pitch. Do does Barcelona. So it’s a draw, right?

  5. October 16th, 2016 at 17:49 | #5

    Further on Hobbes. Given his pessimistic psychology, his conclusions follow. But we have both observational and theoretical reasons to think that he’s wrong. Both aggression and violence, and cooperation and altruism, are hard-wired human potentials. So a state of nature can be improved by multiple social contracts, some tilted to hawks, others to doves. Democracy is one of the dovish equilibria.

  6. John Quiggin
    October 16th, 2016 at 17:53 | #6

    @James Wimberley

    To spell it out, they illustrate the general syllogism

    The state of nature is awful, so we must do something else
    X (my preferred policy program) is something else
    So, we must do X

  7. GrueBleen
    October 16th, 2016 at 18:53 | #7

    @Ikonoclast
    Your #3

    So this is the serious bit:

    But he was a great trickster, made fools of so many, and utilised the ownership system of capitalism to claim copyright over his entire pastiche oeuvre. Hilarious! It’s a morality play on capitalism.

    Oh, that’s so very humorous !

  8. paul walter
    October 16th, 2016 at 20:22 | #8

    I’ve gone back to Homesteading and the Carolinas and still can’t see much in it beyond the construction of an environment that encourages violence and theft as morality and an alibi for this that leads to some thing as exotic as fascism. Isnt it actually reactive philosophy rather than original thinking?

    Are we not seeing the vicious side effects of crypto fascism played out at this very moment whereby DB pensioners, often with quite profound problems, being kicked off their pensions because of some sort of arbitrary nonsense that the rich cannot afford to pay more tax?

    And is this not an extension locally of Asylum Seeker policy? From this point, you go to Dr David Kelly, hounded to death over Iraq Weapons of Mass Destruction and many others also persecuted for exposing rapacious criminality. There would not be refugee trails if the $trillions had been used wisely instead of being drawn from the US economy when the system (I know, a bad word) was captured by bandits at the turn of the century, to both beggar the American People and turn the planet into an oil Serfdom?

    Ok, so Liberalism is an attempt to reconcile the baser aspects of human nature and the human condition with an eye to progress based on the development of a “fairness” component. But doesn’t it fail before it even starts when it weakens at the knees and promotes “knowing” stuff like the Carolina Constitution of the seventeenth century. No wonder Marxism was an inevitable rebuttal located in historical time, against earlier stuff.

  9. October 17th, 2016 at 01:21 | #9

    John
    I will propose the third angle:
    That property rights increase incentives, ideation, productivity, risk tolerance, opportunity creation, monetary and economic velocity. And as a consequence produce higher returns ( commissions or taxes ) for the minority who imposed property rights over the objections of the rent seeking majority. And as a consequence upward distribution of returns slowly domesticates ( reduces the reproduction of ) the lower classes, further accelerating cooperation.

    This is in fact the process that occurred in Europe.

    Painful truths are still truths.

  10. Collin Street
    October 17th, 2016 at 06:06 | #10

    > Given his pessimistic psychology, his conclusions follow.

    People assume others are like themselves, of course.

  11. Ikonoclast
    October 17th, 2016 at 06:07 | #11

    @Curt Doolittle

    Your position is riddled with contradictions. You claim property rights (of the right libertarian kind I guess you mean as there are other kinds of property rights) increase “monetary and economic velocity”. By this I assume you mean right libertarian property rights increase aggregate demand in the economy. Given that inequality is increasing under market liberalism (our closest approach yet to right libertarian economics) and given that the rich have a lower marginal propensity to consume then the opposite would be true. Aggregate demand declines under market liberalism and right libertarian economic structure. The empirical facts bear this out.

    You speak of a “rent seeking majority”. The majority of people of workforce age are paid workers. If we add in unpaid workers (mostly women as mothers and house spouses) then we have even a greater majority who are workers. How are workers “rent seekers” except in isolated, minor and secondary ways? They do the work of society after all, except for that work which is done by machines (including computers). The rent seekers are the idle rich who live off capital, of real assets and “fictitious” or paper (now electronic) assets like shares, stocks and bonds.

    Your statement is redolent of classism and inconsistency. I mean in particular “upward distribution of returns slowly domesticates ( reduces the reproduction of ) the lower classes, further accelerating cooperation”. Actually, is more equitable distribution which humanises people (allows fuller actualisation of individual human talents and wishes and better social integration). Working class women, for example, make choices to have less children when they are treated more as equals (the process is not complete), have power over their own reproduction choices and have choices to be in the workforce if they wish.

    I mean, really how would making the working class poorer, or stagnating, help any of this? If you believe your propaganda you must not have been watching the collapse of Detroit and now of Chicago not to mention the stagnation of Europe and its peripheral countries in depression. These are the outcomes of market liberalism and right libertarian economics.

  12. Ikonoclast
    October 17th, 2016 at 06:20 | #12

    @Collin Street

    Under certain situations of war, a colour blind person is useful. He or she can see some camouflaged positions which a normally sighted person cannot see. It can be useful to have such a person in the squad. Under certain conditions of political economy and social struggle, it can be useful to heed the views of the congenitally pessimistic person (if said pessimism is what might be termed “logical pessimism”). He or she can see aspects of the situation which the ever-optimistic “Pollyannas” cannot see. Learn to value, or at least consider, the insights of everyone in the squad or team. That would be my advice.

    There has been some work done which shows that optimism of some degree might be of survival value. That is, it might have been selected for. The existence or popping-up of “contraries” or “negatives” (the pessimistic ones) happens often enough to suggest there might be value to the group or value to the individual, in unusual conditions, to being pessimistic. Certainly, the world now is not like the one we evolved in, where the only dangers we faced were proximal. Now we face systemic dangers, ones our negative externalities have generated, and ones with new signals that only the instruments of science and the methods of develped logic can discern. These are not dangers we have evolved to sense. “Pollyannas” seem to be slow in discerning this new kind of danger or at least slow in taking it seriously.

  13. October 17th, 2016 at 07:03 | #13

    @Ikonoclast Regarding your use of the phrase “selected for.” I’d be a little cautious about ascribing evolutionary characteristics to attitudes or personality traits. There are “scientists” trying to do such things but often considered pseudoscience. There is no doubt some behaviors are inherited but those are more basic than optimism or pessimism. I’d hate to see that being used to interpret economics. We have too much of that going on already.

    Social Darwinism anyone? I’m not accusing you of it but it trouble me to see evolutionary concepts being applied to that which influences public policy.

  14. October 17th, 2016 at 07:17 | #14

    @John Quiggin
    JQ: try an addendum on Hobbes. I think you will find it is a trifle harder to refute him than Locke and Nozick. Barcelona can be beaten, but it’s hard going.

  15. Greg McKenzie
    October 17th, 2016 at 07:24 | #15

    Karl Marx wrote that private property was theft! He was writing this from his observations of nineteenth century London. To Marx all economic outcomes were a result, or by product, of public policy. The private property laws in the United Kingdom of 1950, pandered to the vested interests of the landed aristocracy. To Marx the crime here was that value added was being stolen by the landlords. Marx would see little difference between capitalism, as an economic system, and feudalism. Only historical inevitability would convince Marx of the differences between an agrian economic system and an urban economic system. But there was still theft going on and the workers were the victims. Now in the Twenty-First century this exists only in African countries, and a few Middle Eastern countries. But Public policy still favours the wealthy. If it did not then there would not be a growing gap between the rich and the poor. In Australia, that gap is becoming a chasm.

  16. Julie Thomas
    October 17th, 2016 at 07:45 | #16

    @paul walter

    “He seems to rely on a very narrow view of what the individual is, her origins and formation, and development through the processes of life.”

    Locke had some interesting views on women, apparently seeing them as having the capacity to be ‘individuals’ who although they did have “weaknesses” could like men, be educated to be rational. In his personal life and letters there is evidence he admired a few individual women but he didn’t really try to work out how human capital in the form of a new life that starts out as a free rider and at some stage is supposed – magically it seems to some people – to turn into a responsible adult who contributes to the economy/society according to their ability and takes according to their need.

    I’m googling looking for more background about Locke’s views on religion and how he used the religous right to justify his political theory of Possessive Individualism and I found this.

    “There is one passage from Locke that is often quoted to challenge the idea that Christianity is simply ahead of Islam in learning to accept religious diversity. As a sort of mind-game, the philosopher urged readers to imagine two doctrinally different Christian churches standing side by side, with neither having any hope of supplanting the other. That would be impossible in the Christian world, he suggested, but very possible among the Muslim Ottomans.

    Locke wrote: “Let us suppose two churches, the one of Arminians, the other of Calvinists, residing in the city of Constantinople. Will anyone suggest that either of these churches has right to deprive the others of their estates and liberty (as we see practised elsewhere) because of…differing from it in some doctrines and ceremonies, while the Turks, in the meanwhile, silently stand by and laugh to see with what inhuman cruelty Christians thus rage against Christians?”

    Conclusion? “It is evident Locke was deeply struck by the contrast between the paradoxically tolerant ‘barbarians’—the Muslim Ottomans—and violently intolerant yet ostensibly ‘civilised’ Christians.”

  17. Julie Thomas
    October 17th, 2016 at 07:50 | #17

    @Zed Hogan

    There are scientists who think that nothing about human behaviour makes sense except in the context of evolution.

  18. Julie Thomas
    October 17th, 2016 at 08:01 | #18

    @James Wimberley

    Perhaps I am jumping to conclusions and misunderstanding your views about which part of Hobbes is more difficult to refute but I’m wondering if Spinoza might have said somethings about Hobbes that are relevant.

    This quote might be interesting or not and will lead you to a bit more of Spinoza’s views on how he differs from Hobbes.

    “Spinoza is criticizing here is the Hobbesian view of contracts (covenants) or the transference of one’s natural right. The transferability or alienability of one’s natural right to judge how to defend oneself serves as the foundation of Hobbes’ political theory; it allows him to explain the formation of the commonwealth and the legitimacy of the sovereign.

    In Spinoza’s view, however, Hobbes violates naturalism here. By conceiving of one’s natural right as something like an entitlement that can be transferred, which in turn leads him to drive a wedge between right and power in the commonwealth, Hobbes never fully rids his account of the vestiges of the juridical tradition that Spinoza sought to overturn.”

  19. GrueBleen
    October 17th, 2016 at 08:41 | #19

    @Greg McKenzie
    Your #15

    Karl Marx wrote that private property was theft!

    Very amusing, considering that Marx was supported financially by a highly ‘private propertied’ rent-taker. What was that old saying about beams, motes and eyes ?

    But of course private property always is a form of “theft” isn’t it: it’s basically a kind of adverse possession: take it and hold it long enough and then it becomes legitimately yours. Every little robber baron throughout human history has known that.

  20. paul walter
    October 17th, 2016 at 16:13 | #20

    Yes, Julie Thomas, such wisdom, while he participates in the defrauding of the Native Americans of the Carolinas.

  21. Lindsay Berge
    October 17th, 2016 at 21:01 | #21

    Deleted. Nothing more please

  22. Blissex
    October 18th, 2016 at 02:58 | #22

    Discussions about “libertarians” are usually pointless because of the contorted absurdities the take as premise, for example this:

    «Nozick claims that a requirement to pay taxes is on a par with slavery»

    In most countries there is no «requirement to pay taxes», paying taxes is a totally voluntary option: for example I don’t pay the high taxes of Sweden by the simple device of not going to live in Sweden. There is a market in levels of taxations and people can purchase the citizenship of the country that best suits their level of taxation preference.

    Nozick’s argument applies only to people who are physically imprisoned in a country and then forced to pay tribute at gunpoint: that is indeed *partial* slavery.

  23. ChrisH
    October 18th, 2016 at 18:13 | #23

    ‘Property is theft’ was Proudhon’s dictum (Greg McKenzie at #15, GrueBleen at #19).

    And Blissex (at #22) confirms that Nozick does claim that a requirement to pay taxes is on a par with slavery. (No surprise; anyone who looks up Nozick’s writings will find that he makes the claim.)

    But it is not a defence of Nozick or a limitation on the ‘contorted absurdity’ of Nozick’s claim to say that tax is voluntary because ‘people can purchase the citizenship of the country that best suits’ their tax preference. Most people cannot purchase citizenship of any country; no-one can purchase citizenship of more than a few countries; and tax evasion generally depends on much murkier transactions than the purchase of citizenship (or tax residence, or anything similar).

    Or was Blissex suggesting that it was ‘contorted absurdity’ to refer to Nozick’s claim that being required to pay taxes is on a par with slavery? Was Blissex suggesting that this claim by Nozick was somehow insignificant?

  24. Greg McKenzie
    October 19th, 2016 at 07:41 | #24

    Karl Marx wrote that PrivateProperty is theft. Marx was no utopian socialist. His point was that the existence of private property laws legitimised the theft of the labour value added to production. In 1850, British private property laws were absolute. So if a person stole even a loaf of bread, that person could be sent for transportation, I.e., effectively placed into slavery to the state. Utopian socialists lived in a mythical world were there was no property that was not communally owned. Marx saw that this was a delusion and insisted that an entity-the state – had to own ALL property. Only then would the worker be fully rewarded for the value they added to production. You then taxed everyone and no one was allowed to be idle.

  25. Blissex
    October 19th, 2016 at 22:40 | #25

    «Most people cannot purchase citizenship of any country»

    For a proper libertarian that kind of “positive” liberty does not matter: for a libertarian if you could have the surgery that saves your life but can’t afford it, that’s your problem not the collective problem of ensuring that you have the freedom to have such surgery if you can afford it. If the jackbooted thugs of the government do not prevent you from choosing something else, then you are free, regardless of whether you can afford to choose something else.

    People who don’t understand the structure of libertarian argument can be misled by the clever dissembling they are usually based on.

  26. ChrisH
    October 20th, 2016 at 16:42 | #26

    Most citizenship is not for sale. Not to anyone. Not at any price that can be offered as a payment.

    You can’t purchase bankruptcy or insolvency treatment either: you get the treatment provided in your jurisdiction. Some things are not for sale; some things are not property; what those things are, as JQ’s position seems to me to set out, is part of an overall social position.

    Blissex argued (#22) that there is a market in tax levels by way of citizenship, that can be purchased. Any such market is coupled with all the collective action, including law and property and their administration, that goes along with citizenship of the country in which citizenship can be purchased. Effectively, the ‘market in tax levels’ has the same problem as ‘property shorn of its limits and features’: there are no tax levels, just as there is no property, shorn of the rest of the matrix. Any different libertarian view is hopeless.

  27. ChrisH
    October 20th, 2016 at 16:45 | #27

    Most citizenship is not for sale. Not to anyone. Not at any price that can be offered as a payment.

    You can’t purchase bankruptcy or insolvency treatment either: you get the treatment provided in your jurisdiction. (There’s a pretty strong argument that bankruptcy and insolvency treatment are among the largest collective economic interventions, though they don’t show up as government spending.)

    Some things are not for sale; some things are not property; what those things are, as JQ’s position seems to me to set out, is part of an overall social position.

    Blissex argued (#22) that there is a market in tax levels by way of citizenship, that can be purchased. Generally there is no such market. Any such market – where it exists – is coupled with all the collective action, including law and property and their administration, that goes along with citizenship of the country in which citizenship can be purchased. Effectively, the ‘market in tax levels’ has the same problem as ‘property shorn of its limits and features’: there are no tax levels, just as there is no property, shorn of the rest of the matrix. Any different libertarian view is hopeless.

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