Distributive Justice: Egalitarianism versus Libertarianism

This paper was written for my Intro to Philosophy course… For a PDF version, click here.

John Rawls’ “veil of ignorance”-based egalitarian justice, as he describes it in “Justice and Fairness,” presents a very different view of what a fair society looks like compared to Robert Nozick’s account in “Distributive Justice” of the libertarian stance. As I will argue, Rawls’ position is not only undesirable in light of the alternative presented by Nozick, but is indefensible on its own grounds.

Rawls’ account begins with the idea that a society’s concept of justice must arise from the social contract (an idea he borrows from Jean-Jacques Rousseau). This contract must be “designed” (though of course no such contract is actually to be written) with “principles that free and rational persons concerned to further their own interests would accept” when considering them under a “veil of ignorance” (Rawls 555). This veil of ignorance amounts to no person knowing their situation in the society, whether they be rich, poor, intelligent, stupid, powerful, or powerless (Rawls 555). The advantage in considering the principles of justice through this veil is that “no one is able to design principles to favor his particular condition” (Rawls 555). This fits well with our intuitive (or, one might argue, our socially-conditioned) conception of justice—that every (wo)man should be regarded as equal under the law.

With a criterion for choosing a standard of justice thus laid out, Rawls’ argues for two principles of justice. The first, that “basic rights and duties” (Rawls 556) be assigned equally, shall go unchallenged here, except to wonder why the qualifier “basic” be applied (incidentally, though, the reason will eventually be made clear). One can hardly imagine, from this initial position of equality, what argument could be made for robbing some citizens of rights—especially considering that the man who argues for this might be the one losing those rights! Thus, this first principle seems a sound conclusion from the premises.

Rawls’ second principle, and the one that does not so clearly follow from the initial position, is that “social and economic inequalities . . . are just only if they result in compensating benefits for everyone, and in particular for the least advantaged members of society” (556). Let us save consideration of this principle until Nozick’s position has been considered; its flaws will be much easier to spot then.

Nozick’s argument is based fundamentally on the premise that “whatever arises from a just situation by just steps is itself just,” in the same way that a conclusion arising by logical steps from true premises is itself true. This appears incontrovertible; in this case, every step up along the way is fair, so the end result is too. Given this, if it is also true that:

a)      persons may produce property or acquire unclaimed property through just means (i.e., means which do not infringe on the rights of others), and

b)      persons entitled to property may transfer it to others by just means (i.e., means which do not infringe on the rights of others),

then any distribution of property which arises through repeated application of a) and b) is itself just (Nozick 47-48). Nozick uses the example of a very famous basketball player who trades the opportunity to see him play for the money of his fans. If this trade is made willingly on both sides, Nozick says, then any resulting distribution of wealth is completely fair (57-58). This view rightly takes no account of anyone not involved in the fan-to-player transactions, as they are neither helped nor hurt by the exchanges. Nozick’s argument has the unique characteristic of considering only the entitlement of property creators and holders to do with their property as they please. To claim that one is required to take into account the holdings of persons not involved in the creation, acquisition, or transfer of property is to claim that those same persons are part owners of the people and property actually involved (Nozick 68-69); these people have claim to one’s time and property apart from trading anything for it. Thus, in Nozick’s view, “redistribution [of wealth, as prescribed by Rawls,] is a serious matter indeed, involving, as it does, the violation of people’s rights” (65).

With this established, it is clear why Rawls’ first principle specified that only the basic rights of man be guaranteed him. Rawls does not consider the right to the products of one’s work and trade, performed under and with other consenting, rational men and women, to be something a society should be concerned with. Under Rawls’ conception, a person only has a right to one’s wealth (where wealth is meant in a broad sense, encompassing economic and social standing) when the possession of that wealth is of benefit to every other member of the society. Thus, by his standard, a woman may work hard forty years as an entrepreneur, researching markets, running offices, and taking spectacular economic risks, but if, at the end of this career, her possession of millions of dollars is not of benefit to the bum across town who has been unemployed those same forty years, her right to that wealth is forfeit. Rawls (hopefully) would be disgusted at this, and would likely object that this would not be the case, that the woman’s contributions to the people around her would make her of benefit to the bum. The principle stands, though—the hard worker is only guaranteed the profit of her labor when she has been of use to the rest of society, and emphatically not due to any right of her own.

The most common objections to Nozick-style libertarianism revolve around the question of a society’s perceived responsibility to provide for its poor. The democratic-minded argument looks something like this:

1)      No citizen of a (good, democratic) society is privileged above another.

2)      Inequality in holdings (e.g., wealth) favors certain citizens—specifically, the holders of the wealth.

3)      Thus, a (good, democratic) society must normalize its citizens’ holdings.

The error in such thinking is that, though citizens may (and should) be equal before the law, this does not imply that the government has a responsibility to, in the spirit of Robin Hood, take from the rich to give to the poor. Indeed, to do so is to explicitly contradict premise 1) above; it privileges those in need above those with excess, subordinating the wealthy to the non-wealthy. This is tied closely to a curious oversight on the part of Rawls. Having set up his premise of the veil of ignorance, Rawls claims that apart from knowledge of their own positions, citizens would agree that each of them has a right to their wealth only if their possession of it benefits all others. Rawls never explains, though, what might cause people to favor this maxim over the much simpler one suggested by Nozick: namely, that each person is entitled to whatever they fairly produce or trade.

In this way, Rawls defeats his own argument on his own terms. When starting from the initial position of equality, to think that persons would agree that those who produce and trade fairly—“fairly” here being with respect to the persons with whom they do business, and thus, with respect to everyone whose property rights are concerned—should be subjected to the needs of the masses, that each man and woman has no greater claim to the products of their own work than the rest of their society is, frankly, silly. Under the veil of ignorance, no person may know their position in society, but surely they must know that they are individuals, and that they will work and produce as individuals. Given that knowledge, only a self-destructive society would agree that the persons not involved in creating or transacting wealth should have claim to its benefits. As Jesus of Nazareth so aptly put it, “the labourer is worthy of his hire” (King James Bible, Luke 10.7).

Works Cited

The King James Bible. 1611. Web.

Nozick, Robert. “Distributive Justice.” Philosophy and Public Affairs 3.1 (1973): 45-126. JSTOR. Web. 10 April 2010.

Rawls, John. “Justice as Fairness.” Reason and Responsibility: Readings in Some Basic Problems of Philosophy. 12th ed. Joel Feinberg and Russ Shafer-Landau. Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth, 2005. 554-564. Print.


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