Thursday, April 15, 2021

Revisiting Nagel’s “Libertarianism Without Foundations”

Thomas Nagel‘s review of Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia, titled “Libertarianism Without Foundations,” is probably the most famous critique of Nozick’s libertarianism. Although I’m not a Nozickian myself, I’ve always thought that Nagel’s objections missed the mark.


Consider Nagel’s take on the Wilt Chamberlain argument. Here Nozick argues against so-called “patterned principles” of distributive justice such as Rawls’s difference principle which requires the distribution of wealth and income to maximize the material welfare of the poorest. Nozick objects that these principles fail to respect economic liberty and offers a famous thought experiment about Wilt Chamberlain to make the point.


Begin by assuming that the initial distribution of resources is perfectly just, according to your favorite theory of distributive justice. Now assume that Wilt Chamberlain offers people the opportunity to watch him play basketball for a quarter per game. A million people buy tickets to Wilt’s games and the perfect distribution of wealth and income is thereby disrupted. If economic justice is about achieving a perfect distribution, then we must conclude that the new, post-Wilt distribution is unjust. Yet Nozick argues that this new distribution is clearly not unjust. After all, who has a legitimate complaint about it? Not Wilt, because he chose to play basketball for a quarter per ticket. Not Wilt’s customers, because they chose to pay a quarter per ticket. And not those who chose not to buy a ticket because they have the same amount of money that they had before—the amount of money which was, by hypothesis, the just amount for them to have.


Nagel objects to the Wilt Chamberlain argument on the grounds that Nozick assumes that Wilt’s customers have the right to use their money however they like. But here, according to Nagel, Nozick


erroneously interprets the notion of a patterned principle as specifying a distribution of absolute entitlements (like those he believes in) to the wealth or property distributed. But absolute entitlement to property is not what would be allocated to people under a partially egalitarian distribution. Possession would confer the kind of qualified entitlement that exists in a system under which taxes and other conditions are arranged to preserve certain features of the distribution, while permitting choice, use, and exchange of property compatible with it.


Nagel’s criticism is unpersuasive. Rawls himself recognizes that ownership of personal property is a basic liberty on a moral par with freedom of speech and bodily autonomy. Thus, your right to use your personal income to watch Wilt play must not be subordinated to a patterned principle of distribution, by Rawls’s own standards.


To make this point clearer, let’s apply Nagel’s response to Nozick to another basic liberty—bodily autonomy.  Imagine that Twin Rawls endorses a patterned principle of blood distribution: “Distribute blood in the way that maximizes the welfare of the worst off.” Twin Nozick objects that this patterned principle violates bodily autonomy because it will require compelled blood donations. Twin Nagel replies that Twin Nozick misinterprets bodily autonomy—you only have the right to decide what happens to and in your body insofar as those decisions align with the patterned principle of blood distribution. Here Twin Nozick can reply that it’s Twin Nagel who has the implausible interpretation of the right of bodily autonomy, at least insofar as it is understood as a basic liberty. If we take bodily autonomy seriously as a basic liberty, we are precluded from subordinating it to a patterned principle of distribution. Nozick’s point is that the same principle should hold with respect to personal property.