Robert Nozick’s “Anarchy, State, and Utopia” offers arguments in opposition to John Rawls’ “A Theory of Justice”, rejecting liberal-egalitarianism in favor of libertarianism. These arguments are derived from Lockean ideology, which emphasizes natural rights to life, liberty and property. These rights are imprescriptible; there is no way to justify their revocation. Consequently, any violations or constraints on an individual’s liberty – without his consent – are immoral. The only acts that can be held as just are those that come about voluntarily by all parties involved and do not infringe upon the rights of others. Furthermore, governments that frustrate or prevent this process are exercising their powers unjustly. Governments that assist their poorer citizens by redistributing wealth from the richer are indeed upsetting this course of action. Governmental redistribution of wealth does not come about voluntarily; therefore, it is unjust and should not be permitted.
Nozick’s libertarianism reflects the belief that, as rational beings, humans exercise self-ownership. Immanuel Kant’s “Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals” presents a single categorical imperative, which necessitates that individuals respect their own rational natures, as well as the rational natures of others. Using a human as a means to satisfy one’s own desires or the desires of others is a violation of that human’s rational nature. This rational nature provides each individual with inherent dignity, but dignity will be forfeited if an individual is only used as a means to an end; treating humans in this way is not morally justifiable. However, redistribution of wealth does treat humans as a means to an end. The self-ownership that rational beings enjoy is inclusive to all that constitutes an individual: his body, talents, abilities, labor, and that which exists as a result of his talents, abilities, and labor (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Wealth comes as a result of an individual’s labor; in accordance with the self-ownership thesis, an individual is fully entitled to that wealth if he has labored for it. Redistribution of wealth forces people to renounce their rights to their wealth.
More specifically, Nozick’s entitlement theory lends itself to the argument against redistribution of wealth. This theory establishes the three ways by which individuals can legitimately and justly obtain property: (1) acquisitions of previously owned holdings, (2) transfers of legitimate holdings by voluntary consent, and (3) rectification for holdings that came about in violation of the first two principles. Nozick’s ensuing principle of distributive justice states that “distribution is only just if it arises from another just distribution by legitimate means” (Nozick 714). Governmental redistribution of wealth does not occur in accordance with any of the principles established by the entitlement theory, so there is no way that it can be justified. This is an act of coercion and does not come about voluntarily.
Nozick contends that other principles of distributive of justice suggest the presence of a central distributor – a person, or institution, who is responsible for allocating resources; furthermore, resources should be distributed in accordance with attributes such as merit and need (Ockham). However, in reality, no such central distributor exists. People do not obtain things with the thought that they might be appropriated in the way that other principles of distributive of justice insinuate. “Things come into the world already attached to people having entitlements over them” (Nozick 718). Only an individual who has rightful ownership of a thing possesses the authority to decide what can be done with it; the government cannot morally compel those individuals to give up the holdings that they are legitimately entitled to.
It is also important to consider the absence of a presumption of equality. The natural rights and self-ownership that Locke and Nozick assume do not grant egalitarianism. In accordance with these rights, individuals may employ their resources in whatever way they desire; this will obviously result in disequilibrium. Only a state that forces individuals to employ their resources in named and distinct ways has the potential to reach equality among its people. But a state that does not allow individuals to maintain sole command over their own things is unjust and immoral. Natural rights and economic equality are incompatible with one another.
In “The Theory of Moral Sentiments”, Adam Smith argues that governmental redistribution of wealth is not necessary in a free market society. A society that rewards more labor with greater sums of money will inevitably lead to financial disparity among individuals, but this will ultimately result in a natural, non-coercive redistribution of wealth. People who work the hardest will earn the most money, providing them with a higher standard of living. Consequently, others will work harder in the pursuit of wealth to attain that higher standard of living, as well. The summation of all individuals’ labor will result in a more developed and advanced society where citizens are able to experience economic mobility.
Egalitarians – those in disagreement with Nozick’s libertarian ideology – argue in favor of governmental redistribution of wealth, asserting that it is necessary “to meet basic material needs” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Even if redistribution of wealth ultimately leads to financial and material benefits for poorer citizens without causing quantitative damage to the rich, this end does not justify the method by which it was brought about. Individuals may have “positive ethical duties” to help the poor, but unless “universal consent for these policies can be secured”, government-implemented redistribution of wealth cannot be designated as moral or just (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).