Jul 11, 2014

Property Rights versus Economic Equality by Isaac Snow

Distributive justice concerns the nature of a socially just allocation of the goods in a society. Like all discussions on a topic concerning justice, there are numerous basic stances on what qualifies as a just distribution. John Rawls approaches the concept of distributive justice from an egalitarian point of view. A strict egalitarian notion of distributive justice would have everyone in society have the same level of material goods and services. Rawls distinguishes himself from this stance by introducing his 'difference principle', He contends that any just conception of freedom is one that would be agreed upon and accepted by everyone from a fair position. This conception of freedom would theoretically be developed in the concept Rawl’s introduces as the 'original position'. The concept states that the initial negotiations of society's distributions would happen behind a veil of ignorance. Meaning the negotiators, including all in the society, would not be aware of their own individual position. In the end the principle of justice settled upon would be fair. This theory requires that individuals that are in a well-off position agree to a distributive rule that may not be in their individual favor. Rawls believes that a society is well ordered when members of the society agree on and know the principles of social justice and the institutions in the society satisfy these principles.

Rawls’ distribution theory helps to maximize the position if the most disadvantaged. A redistribution is considered just when it would help to improve the situation of the most disadvantaged. Rawls allows inequalities to the extent that the inequalities make the least advantaged better off then they would be under a strict egalitarian system. This makes the assumption that the possibility of earning greater income gives the incentive to the individual to put forth greater productive effort that he wouldn't under a strict egalitarian system.

Another American philosopher Robert Nozick, in contrast to Rawls, begins his theory of distributive justice from a libertarian stance and proposes what he calls the 'entitlement theory'. The entitlement theory states that a just situation would allow a person to hold property that he has lawful entitlement to and transfer it at his discretion with no outside interference. This stance necessarily conflicts with Rawls as it would be unjust under the Nozick system to take from the rich and give to the poor. Nozick holds that property rights are non-negotiable and an individual’s personal liberty makes state policies of redistribution illegitimate.

Rawls introduces two principles of justice. The first is liberty wherein each person has a right to the extensive schemes of standard civil liberties such as freedom of speech and voting rights. The second principle is the difference principle. This second principle has less priority than the first. The difference principle states that social and economic inequalities need to meet two conditions. They must be to the greatest benefit of the least advantages and be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair opportunity. The difference principle is a maxi-min principle and a legitimate constraint on the liberty principle.

Rawls does take into account the economists notion of incentive. The overall economic wealth of a society would be reduced – and therefore the worst off left even worse off – if incentives are taken away. Inequalities can constitute incentives that increase the overall economic pie can make everyone better off. Rawls states that society must redistribute income up to the point where the wealth of the representative poorest individual is maximized. Rawls makes a few statements concerning redistribution. He believes that society should equalize the prospects of those whom were not born in to wealthy families by redistributing the undeserved gain of children of rich families. Rawls wants to try to equalize the inequalities created by society and historical circumstances. Rawls also does not see the reason to allow distribution of wealth to be allowed by natural endowments. A man’s natural endowments are not considered his own property, but that of society’s. Rawls subscribes to the Kantian theory of equality in moral dignity. Nozick as well agrees with these Kantian ideas. Rawls’ Kantian theories help to prevent the individual ignorance of utilitarian principles but also prevents libertarianism’s inability to account for arbitrary inequalities of fortune. Rawls’ goal is to put individuals in the position they would have been in if not for undeserved circumstances. Rawls contends that his theories are political and not metaphysical in that the theories do not require agreements in morality. His theories demand democracy and prior agreement – so that disagreements are resolved not by force.

Nozick approaches property rights from a different point of view than Rawls. This difference is the main elements of the two philosophers’ disagreement. Rawls’ theories include a personal property right that is defended in terms of moral capacities and self-respect. Nozick approaches property rights from a libertarian point of view that is similar to the classical liberalism of John Locke but diverts on a few conclusions. Nozick believes that the distribution of goods is just if brought about by a free exchange among consenting adults and from a just starting position. He argues that the term distributive justice is inappropriate as there is no central distribution and all distribution was made by individual decisions. This remains just even in the face of large inequalities that may arise from the process. Nozick argues that property rights are non-negotiable and that personal liberty makes state policies of redistribution illegitimate; whereas Rawls sees no reason why the greater gains of some shouldn’t compensate for the lesser losses of others. Differences in wealth are mostly due to arbitrary matters and are not justified. Nozick fears a reduction of wealth creation that could result from a coercive redistribution. Nozick seems to have a greater fear of this than Rawls. Rawls sees his redistribution as resulting from prior agreements and in a non-violent and non-coercive manner.

Nozick believes that justice in holdings is historical and depends on what has actually happened. Injustice in past holdings is an issue that he approaches as well. Redistribution of holdings could be considered just if it is a rectification of a past injustice. This introduces another of the core differences in the two men’s philosophies. Nozick approaches the idea of distributive justice from a historical point of view. The current position of individuals is justified by the legitimate acquisitions and transactions of the past. Rawls looks at distributive justice from a “current-time slice” point of view. The current position of individuals is all that matters. Any redistribution that can help make the worst off better is considered and could be considered justified.

Nozick’s entitlement theory may not be fully adequate when explaining why a person is more deserving than another for getting more goods or social status but it is a better explanation than Rawls gives. What claim can an individual make under Rawls philosophy to be more “deserving” than another? That he has more urgent need or a more significant need? Individuals made the original acquisitions and voluntary transfers and these individuals have a legitimate entitlement to the goods that I do not think should be overridden. Rawls theory faces the problem that it would be difficult to get a well-off person to accept that he should have less in order to help the worst-off segment. On what basis is worthiness decided? Rawls might say, urgency of need and significance of need.

Nozick comments on the concept of patterning. Where the distribution is a society is hypothetically composed by patterned distributions (such as by IQ). Nozick’s entitlement theory is not a patterned system due to liberty – which allows freedom in transaction. Rawls end-state ideas may require constant governmental intervention to maintain the specific pattern that is (perhaps arbitrarily) considered to be preferable. Nozick diminishes the importance that Rawls puts on the worst-off segment of society. Nozick also criticizes Rawls tendency to group individuals into social classes when an individual in the “original position” would not be concerned about groups but about himself.

Comparing the two philosophers to the current Canadian stance we can see that with progressive tax rates Canadian law has adopted a philosophy that may be agreeable with Rawls. Wealthy citizens have a smaller need with each marginal increase in wealth; thus, a dollar to a poor person means more than another dollar to a wealthy person. With this in mind, Canadian law attempts to redistribute wealth with significance in mind.
From an economic point of view, Nozick holds a more persuasive position. His theories are in line with modern economic thinking, namely that the free operation of the market will lead to the greatest amount of wealth in society and that transactions arising from liberty are justified. However, Rawls current-time slice view is ideal in helping all members of a society enjoy life. It is fully in line with Kantian deontological ethics.

However, I argue, with economic theory in mind, that a redistribution of wealth under Rawls principles will do more harm than good for society because it violates an individual’s right to property and reduces private incentive to create more utility. Nozick holds the position that has the least issues even if it may not be compatible with many notions of justice as it may not adequately treat everyone as moral equals. I believe that the entitlement theory is a better alternative than the insecure contract Rawls proposes.

Isaac Snow
Distributing this paper justly from Kelowna, BC
September 2013

Further Reading: 

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/justice-distributive/

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