Throughout the past decade, hostility against growing economic inequality has gained ground. An increasing consensus seems to be gravitating towards the seductive demand for “fairness,” even by right-leaning politicians. When applied by progressives, the term refers to equal outcomes.
But how can we define fairness? American philosopher Robert Nozick might be useful here because the only way to achieve fairness without violating individuals’ rights is by securing procedural justice, not end-state justice.
Inequality and the Veil of Ignorance
Philosopher John Rawls was a great contributor to the present debate. In A Theory of Justice,Rawls derives his principles of justice from the contract tradition. Rawls believed that fairness cannot validly be deduced from intuition, and so he committed himself to develop a comprehensive theory. Utilizing sophisticated methods, he developed the difference principle that permits inequalities insofar as they benefit the least-advantaged. While alluring, such claims require thorough examination because they provide a strong case for an extensive government.
Regardless of how compelling his theory may seem, politicians should abstain from echoing this refrain. The Rawlsian supposition that people — subjected to the hypothetical experiment within the veil of ignorance — will favor an equal distribution if they were to be randomly assigned a position afterward, is highly questionable. The reason Rawls proposed this method was to avoid considerations of qualifications conducive to personal success. By “concealing” this information behind a fictional veil, Rawls makes people ignorant of their position. Accordingly, the personal bias is eliminated and people will agree upon the principles of fairness suggested by Rawls (A Theory of Justice, 136-142).
Intuitively, Rawls’ supposition may appear convincing. However, various questions arise from the Rawlsian hypothesis: would not rational individuals prefer a society with larger income variabilities, provided the possibility of increasing their income by, say, perhaps 20 percent? Secondly, Nozickian adherents would probably proceed to contend that an initially equal distribution cannot be maintained without continuous violations of individuals’ rights.
In an iconic section of Anarchy, State and Utopia, Nozick substantiates this point by summoning the famous basketball player Wilt Chamberlain. Nozick presupposes that individuals in a given society have agreed upon a “patterned” principle of justice favoring an equal distribution, D1. Suppose now, that Wilt Chamberlain, a well-endowed and desired basketball player, is indentured to a team remunerating proportionally to his merit and attraction. And so it is agreed that Chamberlain is rewarded with 25 cents from the price of each ticket sold. Suppose afterward, that Chamberlain attracts a great audience who happily attend the team’s games. Throughout the season, a million people voluntarily watch Chamberlain and his team play.
The aggregate result yielded by the individual dispositions of a million people is a remarkable distortion, D2, of the initially approved distribution, D1. The ramification of individuals freely disposing of their resources is thus an unequal distribution incongruent with the favored distribution. Wouldn’t the authorities have to accept the emergent result? According to Nozick, the answer is yes. For, he argues, the only way to maintain the favored pattern is by continuous interference with people’s lives:
“Any favored pattern would be transformed into one unfavored by the principle, by people choosing to act in various ways; for example, by exchanging goods and services with other people, or giving things to other people, things the transferrers are entitled to under the favored distributional pattern.” (ASU, 163)
Leaving out of account the infeasibility of a patterned scheme, the essence here is that end-state principles of justice require continuous intrusion in the exchange of goods in order to satisfy the proposed measure of justice (income equality). Alternatively, governments must totally deprive their citizens of the right to exchange freely.
Procedural Rights and Fairness
Bearing in mind Wilt Chamberlain: only few would justify expropriating Chamberlain’s excess of resources, for has he not acquired it legitimately? Have not the large host of supporters transferred voluntarily a small share of their income to him? By answering these questions, Nozick erects concise principles of justice protecting citizens from arbitrary confiscation.
For Nozick, justice is defined by process, and so what eventuates from small-scale transfers between individuals and corporations is inherently just and can consequently be transmitted to a large macro-scale. Following this principle, it seems evident that politicians should not concern themselves with GINI-coefficients and other statistical measures of economic inequality.
Anarchy, State and Utopia indisputably had its defects; a task we shall not pursue to examine here. Despite its flaws and deficiencies, Nozick presented a theory of paradigmatic rights and deontological claims which should serve as inspiration for governments around the world expanding the legal domain of government with extensive redistribution.
People exhibit natural differences in aspirations and abilities, which inevitably entail a certain degree of inequality. That should not, however, legitimize extensive government schemes with punitive taxes and massive redistribution.
Filip Steffensen is a Danish free-marketeer advocating the principles of a free society.
The AEC’s fundamental goal is to promote a free, responsible and prosperous society. Through education and improving public understanding of key economic questions, the AEC promotes the idea of a free market economy and the ideal of a free society.