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« It’s Time to Call It a Failure | Main | Mr. Krugman and the Moderns »


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Great post. To be fair to Rawls, though, chapters 12-14 of A Theory of Justice preempt Nozick's point, and Rawls even says:

"In justice as fairness society is interpreted as a cooperative venture for mutual advantage. The basic structure is a public system of rules defining a scheme of activities that leads men to act together so as to produce a greater sum of benefits and assigns to each certain recognized claims to share in the proceeds. What a person does depends upon what the public rules say he will be entitled to, and what a person is entitled to depends on what he does. The distribution which results is arrived at by honoring the claims determined by what persons undertake to do in light of these legitimate expectations. These considerations suggest the idea of treating the question of distributive shares as a matter of pure procedural justice" (73-74, rev. ed.).

Rawls continues:

"...pure procedural justice obtains when there is no independent criterion for the right result: instead there is a correct or fair procedure such that the outcome is likewise correct or fair, whatever it is, provided that the procedure has been properly followed" (75, rev. ed.).

So while I think you're right to dispute the way Metcalf and others are interpreting Nozick's Wilt Chamberlain example, I'm not sure that it really works to see it as a powerful response to Rawls. A Theory of Justice arrives at very different conclusions from those reached by Nozick, but not because Rawls did not appreciate the pull of a procedural conception of justice.

Of course, you might respond that I'm missing the point, and that Rawls' argument would still be in trouble if liberty upset patterns as Nozick claims. But Rawls is just talking about the manner in which basic institutions are set up with an eye to the relative outcomes for various groups of people, not individuals like Wilt Chamberlain. Rawls writes:

"...neither principle applies to distributions of particular goods to particular individuals who may identified by their proper names. The situation where someone is considering how to allocate certain commodities to needy persons who are known to him is not within the scope of the principles. They are meant to regulate basic institutional arrangements. We must not assume that there is much similarity from the standpoint of justice between an administrative allotment of goods to specific persons and the appropriate design of society. Our common sense intuitions for the former may be a poor guide to the latter" (56, rev. ed.).

Further, the only way that Rawls would have grounds to object to a Wilt Chamberlain scenario would be if allowing Chamberlain to become wealthy would actually set back the interests of the least well-off class as compared to some alternative arrangement. Since this seems a bit far-fetched, I think it's best just to say that Rawls is in the clear here.

Whether the criticism really undermines Rawls and whether Metcalf and Chait correctly understand what Nozick is trying to do are indeed two different points.

I'm more concerned about the second than the first, in this context.

Is not it time to update and internationalise the wilt chamberlain example? who is he?

Call it the J.R. Rowling’s example: penniless Scottish welfare mum becomes first billionaire novelist through the decentralised book-buying graces of children and their harried parents. Ironically, Rowling is a very, very mild socialist who become rich through capitalism.

Contra Jim Rose, I am happy to see Wilt Chamberlain discussed in public again. He was a boyhood hero of mine.

BTW, here is David Hume, Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, Ch. 3 "Of Justice":

"But historians, and even common sense, may inform us, that, however specious these ideas of perfect equality may seem, they are really, at bottom, impracticable; and were they not so, would be extremely pernicious to human society. Render possessions ever so equal, men’s different degrees of art, care, and industry will immediately break that equality."

I think maybe Metcalf was over stating Nozick's argument but I dont think the idea that equality comes at the expense of liberty will shock any of those who support the coercive redistribution of wealth. The whole point is that the rich lose less utility than the poor gain when we take money from the rich and give it to the poor.

While Metcalf's characterization that we should feel for the slavery of Wilt Chamberlain is an exaggeration both his characterization and Nozick's argument as portrayed in your post assume that liberty is the most important principle. To libertarians who already agree with the principle this might be a compelling argument but for people who value equality over liberty neither arguement will be all that convincing or instructive.

To expand a little on the Hume quote above, not only is it true that if we "Render possessions ever so equal, men’s different degrees of art, care, and industry will immediately break that equality," but it is also true that what is earned is valued more than what is given (exceptions made for if one's wife or husband or child gives you something). Redistribution of riches thus is destructive of wealth not just in the act of redistribution itself, but because what is redistributed is valued less after the redistribution, and thus not treated as well -- that is, "art, care, and industry" is lessened.

Let me give an example. When my brother first started creating artworks, he decided that art shouldn't be a commodity, that it should be given away. I told him that if he did that, the recipients wouldn't value the works, so he ought to sell the pieces to ensure that people truly valued the works. He didn't listen. If someone said they liked a piece, he gave it to them. He even did some works specifically for people, giving it to them. Then he had a friend who, like me, believed that you should exchange value for value. Thus, he insisted on buying a piece from my brother. After that, my brother sold a few more pieces to people he knew.

One day, my brother told me that from now on, he would only ever sell his works, and that he wasn't going to give them away anymore. Why? He had gone to his friends' homes and noticed a consistent pattern: those whom he had given works to did not have the works displayed anywhere; those whom he had sold works to had the works prominently displayed. Thus was his romanticism broken and the reality about value realized.

The bottom line is that redistribution of riches is destructive of wealth. Thus, it cannot have the results desired.

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