In the discussion of my three–part 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.