Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Nozick and Distributive Justice

Today's reading is from Robert Nozick and is drawn from his Anarchy, State and Utopia.

Nozick is libertarian and in this reading he argues in favour of a non-redistribution of goods in order to benefit society. The main arguments appear to be those of entitlement (if Jones can justifiably earn vast sums of money due to his talents then he is entitled to them), and that left to their own devices people will work in order to gain that which they want and that in order to prevent inequalities the state would need to interfere with what citizens gain and how they choose to use those goods that they are allowed.

The main thrust of the argument appears to be that left unregulated inequalities will always develop, and the state should not take away that which people are entitled to simply because others are less able, less willing, or less fortunate in their accumulation of goods.

As with many issues in philosophy it seems that an absolutist stance becomes ridiculous or untenable, and we need to try to tackle them and consider them as a moderate view. Here it certainly makes sense from a practical point of view to not regulate or only lightly regulate the distribution of goods. Or, as per Rawl's original contract idea, to create social institutions and arrangements that are just from the outset.

A potential counter to Nozick's arguments is that what we gain isn't necessarily what we are entitled to. Many examples of gaining through nefarious means spring to mind, but these don't serve well as a counter to Nozick's arguments. What does appear to stand up well, or so it seems to me, is reframe the issue in terms of groups and society rather than as individuals. Goods are a social resource, and usually finite. Accumulating a high proportion, or a large influence, over these social resources diminishes the pool of available goods for others, and harms their capability to acquire a share of the remaining goods. Simply because individual transactions seem fair, in aggregate they can be unfair and result in a proportion of society that the individual is not entitled to.  Additionally, recent research [citation needed] suggests that inequalities in societies is linked to a multitude of social 'ills' such as higher crime rates, lower literacy, lower life expectancies, etc (greater religiosity too, but that is whole different matter and the direction of the effect more contentious). By accumulating an undue share of social goods, society as a whole suffers meaningfully in ways not directly attributable to the share of goods. Society could be viewed as a system, with a requirement of a redistribution of resources to keep it functioning adequately. Individuals cannot live in isolation from other humans whilst maintaining their wealth (well at least not until we have a post scarcity society, or robot underlings/overlords); that wealth is a measure of social resource that can be called upon in the form of clothes, food, housing, etc.

None of this defeats the libertarian view, but it does set a case for restricting how much should be accumulated by an individual. I'm leaning towards an ideal being allowing individual accumulation and inequalities, but for the whole to be dampened. There should not be a great gap between the least and most well off.

As a rambling aside a modern notion of entitlement comes from Locke, along the lines if you mix your labour with unclaimed stuff (e.g. land) then you are entitled to it, with appropriate caveats about not taking it all and disadvantaging others. Where this seems to be break down is with inheritance, or perhaps more accurately with the arrival of the world of more persons who would benefit from (or are disadvantaged by not having access to) a share.

The reading also covers Nozick's "taxation is slavery" argument and raises the issue of property rights, and says that those that tax us are asserting a property right in us. This is a troubling argument. Potential counters include arguing that taxation is like slavery and is on a continuum with slavery, or that there is an implied contract by being part of a state and that one can opt out of it by leaving the state. This has shades of degrees of freedom about it; leaving a state isn't a trivial matter, and there may not be any other suitable states to go to.

Property rights is also an interesting point. There are interesting articles in the literature that break property rights into different sorts, e.g. control rights, and ownership rights. Also, rights may be infringed as opposed to be violated. A right is infringed if it is not upheld, but it is reasonable not to do so (e.g. my mobile phone is mine and if I leave it on the table I expect nobody to use it, but if there is a medical emergency it is reasonable for someone to use my phone without my permission to call the emergency services).

It seems that there are also different types of ownership, or more appropriately I would term this there are different types of 'my properties'. Some things are mine like my phone, and my socks. Some things are mine like my brother or daughter. Some things are mine like my eyes and my hands. Some things are mine like my ideas and stories. Some things are mine like the custodianship of a public office, or of a social artefact. Ah, taxonomies are wonderful things. We could break down the 'my properties' (needs a suitable latin or greek term methinks) and assign different types of rights and responsibilities to them.

So there you go. A brief unedited ramble of one of the readings for the Open University's A851 Philosophy course.