I recently got back from a vacation in South Haven, Michigan, where I was re-reading Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia. I won’t go over the extensive philosophical framework Nozick formulates for social justice (aka distributive justice), but let me just describe one excerpt that, though imperfect and ripe for valid criticisms, is extremely interesting and at the very least worth pondering. It also is worth mentioning that the name of this blog comes from this part of Nozick’s book (though the authors of this blog do not agree with all of Nozick’s premises or conclusions).
Nozick, after formulating his theory social justice, mostly in rebuttal to John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, proves through an interesting analogy deemed “The Wilt Chamberlain example” why any “patterned” form of justice will be upset as long as people are free. A “patterned” form of justice, how I like to briefly sum it up, is a conception of justice that is based on end-state principles that come from natural dimensions. In other words, a patterned distribution is ‘just’ based on the way things end up and the way things end up should be based on things like talent, intelligence or moral worth. Essentially, people who follow this train of thought usually argue it is an injustice for people to be in poverty or for any intelligent child to not have a good education just because their parents are poor.
So, the beginning of the Wilt Chamberlain example: let’s say there’s a distribution (of resources, wealth, etc.) that you believe is just. It’s irrelevant whether it is logical or how you justify it. Let’s just say it’s your favorite and I’ll accept it to be just. Call it D1.
Now, add on to this the caveat that under this fair distribution D1 (your favorite one that is just) that people are able to exchange their respective holdings/property in any manner they see fit, as long as it’s voluntary. This doesn’t seem too controversial.
Suppose Wilt Chamberlain decides he wants to play some basketball and some people want to see him play basketball. He decides to charge 25 cents to each person who wants to see him play. We’ll say that 1,000 people show up. All of those people pay Wilt 25 cents to watch him play. Wilt is now $2,500 richer. Those 1,000 people all have 25 cents less. Call this distribution D2.
D1 was just (given, since it was decided by you that it was just). D2 has a higher degree of wealth inequality than D1. But how could one argue that D2 is not just if D1 is just? Where was the injustice in the transition between D1 and D2? Wilt wouldn’t complain; he played basketball voluntarily and has more money. The spectators wouldn’t complain; they could have spent their money on candy bars, a movie, or some other form of entertainment. Their seeing him was voluntary. The people who are neither Wilt nor the spectators have no right to complain, since their resources under D1 were not altered.
The point here is simple. If we are to evaluate how just a distribution is based on how things end up, we must constantly interfere with people’s liberties. In this case, we’d have to stop some people from seeing Wilt Chamberlain, or disallow Wilt from playing basketball. Both of these violate the liberties of the parties involved. Hence, to arrive at a purely end-state principle of social justice, we’d need to constantly interfere in people’s lives in order to prevent injustice.
One can argue against Nozick’s assumptions regarding property rights and other things he believes are so. The authors of this blog also support, at the very least, somewhat of a social safety net including government-funded education which is not incompatible with a limited government perspective. Nonetheless, the Wilt Chamberlain example is, I believe, an excellent mind exercise.
In conclusion, liberty upsets patterns.