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Political and Social Philosophy

Phil. 213
R. N. Johnson


Nozick's Entitlement Theory is based on the idea that only free market exchanges respect
people as equals--for him, as "ends in themselves". Indeed, even if a free market did not, for
instance, produce the most overall well being on Nozick's view, it would be justified. According to
Nozick, the theory consists of three principles:

1. Transfer principle:Holdings (actually) freely acquired from others who acquired them
in a just way are justly acquired.
2. Acquisition principle: Persons are entitled to holdings initially acquired in a just way
(according to the Lockean Proviso).
3. Rectification principle: Rectify violations of 1 or 2 by restoring holdings to their
rightful owners, or a "one time" redistribution according to the Difference Principle.

If people's current holdings are justly acquired, then the transfer principle alone determines
whether subsequent distributions are just. Consequently, any taxation over the amount required to
preserving institutions of just transfer, acquisition and rectification--that is, preserving
entitlements--according to Nozick, are unjust.


The Wilt Chamberlain example is supposed to show intuitively that no "patterned" theory of
just distribution is defensible: Any distribution which results from free exchanges between persons
entitled to their holdings must be just. But free exchanges will always disrupt any favored
patterned of distribution. If we have legitimately acquired something, we can dispose of it as we
see fit, whatever pattern of distribution results. Some will flourish, some will starve, and this will in
turn affect the chances of offspring, etc. But these results, though perhaps undesirable, are not

1. Let D1 be a distribution according to your favorite pattern for society S, in which

each person has Rn holdings. Let S have 1 million members.
2. If D1 is just, then each is entitled to Rn.
3. If each is entitled to Rn, then each may dispose of Rn as she sees fit.
4. Wilt Chamberlain is a member of S.
5. Therefore Wilt Chamberlain has Rn.
6. Suppose each person in S freely contributes .25 of her Rn to Wilt.
7. Therefore, in the resulting distribution D2, Chamberlain has Rn +$250,000 and
every other member of society has Rn-.25.
8. The distribution in D2 will now * D1.
9. But D2 resulted from a just initial distribution plus free exchanges.
10. So D2 is just, but violates the pattern that determined D1.

3, of course, is question-begging. Nozick has not really allowed any favored initial

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distribution principle in determining D1, but only those apportioning absolute rights to property.
That is how he is able to argue that any resulting distribution, e.g., D2, from free exchanges must
just. But whether people have absolute rights over their shares is what is in question. Does Nozick
have an argument for 3?


Yes, he does, the Self-Ownership Argument. Put more simply, the Chamberlain argument is:

1. D1 is just according to your favored pattern of distribution (stipulation).

2. If D1 is just, then each has an absolute right to her holdings.
3. If each has such a right, then any D2 which arises from D1 plus free exchanges is
4. D2 will be random with regard to any pattern of distribution.
5. Therefore, for any pattern of distribution in D1, any new pattern D2 derived from D1
plus free exchanges will be just.

The problem we noted above was that premise 2 is question-begging: Why should we think
that if a distribution is just, it entails absolute rights over holdings? This is where the
self-ownership argument comes in.
The self-ownership argument is based on the idea that human beings are of unique value. It
is one way of construing the fundamental idea that people must be treated as equals. People are
"ends in themselves". To say that a person is an end in herself is to say that she cannot be treated
merely as a means to some other end. What makes a person an end is the fact that she has the
capacity to choose rationally what she does. This makes people quite different from anything else,
such as commodities or animals. The latter can be used by us as mere means to our ends without
doing anything morally untoward, since they lack the ability to choose for themselves how they will
act or be used. Human beings, having the ability to direct their own behavior by rational decision
and choice, can only be used in a way that respects this capacity. And this means that people
can't be used by us unless they consent.
The paradigm of violating this requirement to treat people as ends in themselves is thus
slavery. A slave is a person who is used as a mere means, that is, without her consent. That is, a
slave is someone who is owned by another person. And quite obviously the reverse of slavery is
self-ownership. If no one is a slave, then no one owns another person, and if no one owns another
person, then each person is only owned by herself. Hence, we get the idea that treating people as
ends in themselves is treating them as owning themselves.
The Self-ownership argument tries to show that redistributive taxation is equivalent to using
people as mere means, that is, not consistently with their self-ownership, since it uses them
without their consent:

1. If people are ends in themselves, then they may not be used without their consent.
2. If they may not be used without their consent, then they own themselves.
3. If people own themselves, then they own their talents and abilities.
4. If they own their talents and abilities, then they own the products of their talents and
5. Patterned redistribution allows some people to own the products of others' talents
and abilities.
6. Therefore, patterned redistribution allows some people to own other people, and so
does not treat them as ends in themselves.

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The basic idea here is that one doesn't really own oneself if others have a legitimate claim
over what one produces by one's talents. And if only I have a legitimate claim over the products of
my talents, then I have absolute property rights over them. Hence, Nozick argues for absolute
property rights on the basis of the fact that people are ends in themselves. And distributive
schemes such as Rawls', which allows people the products of their talents only to the extent that
they benefit the less talented treats people as mere means to the enhancement of the less


Put simply, Nozick argues that if we own ourselves absolutely, then we own what we
produce absolutely. But redistributive taxation takes some of what we produce without our consent
and gives it to others. So redistributive taxation is inconsistent with self-ownership, and so is
unjust. But does absolute self-ownership really imply absolute ownership over the products of
one's talents?
No. Free market exchanges involve much more than simply ourselves and our talents and
abilities. We exchange houses, cars, TVs and so on, all of which are not entirely the products of
our talents and abilities. For they are made in part of natural resources as well, and natural
resources are not the products of our talents and abilities. Every commodity, except labor iself, is
the outcome at least two items, human powers and natural resources. For instance, a house is
made by human talents and abilities; but it is made out of wood, bricks and land as well. So even
supposing that we have absolute control over our own talents and abilities, it would not imply that
redistributive taxation is inconsistent with self-ownership, since we do not have absolute control
over resources as well. So if libertarianism is justified in terms of self-ownership, it requires in
addition the help of some view about how we come to have ownership over the resources on which
we exercise our talents and abilities.
Of course, if we freely exchange for a resource over which someone has absolute rights,
perhaps we can have absolute rights over it. But recall that on Nozick's view, I am entitled to
whatever has been transferred to me by someone who had legitimate title over it. The legitimacy of
my entitlement is thus dependent on the legitimacy of the previous owner's entitlement. If she was
not entitled to it, then the transfer to me, no matter how free, does not entitle me to it. For
instance, I may buy a car from someone for a price we both agree on. But I will still not be entitled
to it if it was stolen. Hence, our entitlements are all dependent on the legitimacy of the entitlement
of previous owners, and theirs on those previous to them, and so on. This general concern raises
the following dilemma from G.A. Cohen:

1. The acquisition of most natural resources was by force.

2. Either force made the acquisition illegitimate or not.
3. If it did, then governments may now rightfully confiscate and redistribute it.
4. If it did not, then governments may now rightfully confiscate it and redistribute it.
5. Hence, either way, if force was the source of the initial acquisition, then governments
may rightfully redistribute current holdings.

Nozick takes the first horn of the dilemma: Governments may confiscate and redistribute all
holdings that were acquired by force, that is, unless we can restore holdings to their rightful
owners (e.g., Native Americans).
But what about the very first person to acquire a given resource, as opposed to someone
down the line who forced another to give it up. What would make the initial acquisition of the
holding legitimate? If the initial acquisition is legitimate, then all subsequent free exchanges are

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legitimate, and the current holder is entitled to her holding. However, if the initial acquisition was
not legitimate, then the current holder is not entitled to her holding. Moreover, Nozick must show,
not merely that people can come to acquire natural objects that were previously unowned, but that
they can come to have absolute rights over them. If one could initially get absolute property rights,
then they could be freely transferred.

IV. The Lockean Proviso

How might an initial acquisition be legitimate? Nozick appeals to the Lockean Proviso:
Natural resources, such as land, come to be rightfully owned by the first person to appropriate it,
as long as she left "enough and as good" for others. Suppose we are talking about a parcel of
land. A may appropriate as much land as he wants only if he leaves enough and as good for
others. Suppose A takes half, then. Now others come along, and each can appropriate only if she
leaves enough and as good for others. So B can take half of the half left by A, C half of the half
left by B, D half the half left by C, and so on through the alphabet. It is easy to see that evenutally
there will not be enough left for some person, Z. Z can then complain that X did not leave enough
and as good, so X's appropriation was illegitimate. But if so, then Y did not leave enough and as
good for X, and so on all the way back up the alphabet to A. This seems to show that it will be
impossible to meet the Lockean Proviso, since it will be impossible, no matter how little A takes, to
leave "enough and as good" for others.
Because of this, Nozick re-interprets the proviso to mean that if initial acquisition does not
make anyone worse off who was using the resource before, then it is justly acquired. Hence, A
can even entirely appropriate available unowned resources as long as A offers B, who was using
the resource before, access to it, to the extent that B is not made worse off by A's appropriation. B
can become a sharecropper for instance, or just a laborer, for A, earning a wage that keeps him at
least as well off as he was before A's appropriation. But since the resource is now A's, the terms of
their agreement is completely within A's hands.
(Keep in mind here that, together with the self-ownership argument, even this does not
result in absolute rights over the products of our talents and abilities. For the Lockean Proviso
does not purport to show how initial acquisition of natural resources can be acquired so as to
result in absolute rights over that property.)
Notice that in this story

(1) B is no worse off after the appropriation just in case his material well being is no
worse off after the appropriation, and
(2) it is the pre-appropriation material condition of B according to which we measure

Kymlicka argues that both are problematic.

1. Material well-being.

A. Since B is now subject to A's will, B may be as well off materially as she was before,
but she is not as well off in absolute terms. For now B has no control over the land,
whereas she had control before, and no control over how her labor will be used, which
she also had before.

B. Moreover, B need not have given her consent to A to appropriate the land. So B's
being subject to A's will is quite inconsistent with Nozick's own emphasis on persons
being ends in themselves. Yet since the alternative is death, B must accept A's terms.

2 P i ti diti

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2. Pre-appropriation conditions.

A. Counterfactual objection #1: Suppose that if B had appropriated rather than A, both
would have been better off, since B would have been more efficient. Hasn't B then
been made worse-off by A's appropriation? Or suppose that they had split the land;
wouldn't B then have been better off than he is now with A's owning all of it?

B. Perpetuity objection: No matter what happens subsequently to anyone after A's

appropriation, to B, B's descendants, or anyone else, as long as they are as well off as
they would have been in the pre appropriation condition, then the Proviso is met. But
this is absurd, since this means that a distributive scheme is just, just in case no one is
living below subsistence.

C. The starvation objection: If B has no skill valuable to A and so starves, then she
cannot object that she was made worse off by A's appropriation, since she would have
starved anyway. But it is absurd to suppose that by starving to death a person has not
been made worse off.

D. Counterfactual objection #2: It is tempting to try to save the Lockean Proviso by

saying that a person is better off just in case there is no alternative scheme possible
under which she does better. But this is impossible. For someone with no talents will
be better off under Rawls' principles than Nozick's, but someone with many talents will
be better off under Nozick's scheme than Rawls'. What we want is not that we are
made as well off as possible by a distributive scheme. We want to be treated as fairly
as possible by a distributive scheme. And that may require Rawlsian, or other
principles, but surely not unrestricted property rights.

3. Finally, the Lockean Proviso assumes, without argument, that there was a time when the world
was unowned. But there are alternatives, for instance, that the world is originally owned jointly by
everyone. So he must offer some argument that the world is unowned originally. If the world is
originally jointly owned, however, then those who are naturally less talented can veto uses of
resources that do not benefit them.


What further sorts of arguments are there for unrestricted property-rights that go beyond mere

1. Self-owning people would agree to such a regime. But since different people with
different talents will do best in different regimes, that seems implausible.
2. Unless the world is initially jointly unowned, we cannot be self-owners, since how
can I own myself if I cannot do anything without the permission of others? That is,
substantive self-ownership entails self-determination, or the ability to act on our
conception of the good. Yet in a libertarian scheme, only some can have substantial
self-ownership. If B sells his labor to A on adverse terms, he still has formal
self-ownership on Nozick's view, and that is all that he legitimately has a right to. Thus,
full self-ownership in a property-less world is no less substantive than the full
self-ownership in a Nozickian world. And it may be more, since A and B have to strike a
d lf ith t k f I d d if b t ti lf hi i t

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deal for either to make use of some resource. Indeed, if substantive self-ownership is at
issue, then liberal schemes do better than libertarian.


What these objections apparently show is that self-ownership does not lead to absolute
property rights by itself, but only together with dubious views about ownership of resources. Once
we reject these views, we can see that self-ownership is compatible with a variety of views on the
ownership of resources. The absolute property rights sought by libertarians, it seems, must be
established in some other way.

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