Robert Nozick Agrees With Ta-Nehisi Coates

Earlier, I explained that libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick agrees with Thomas Piketty. Like Piketty, Nozick feared the entrenched wealth of patrimonial capitalism and proposed steep taxes (inheritances taxes in Nozick's case) to break it up. In the aftermath of Ta-Nehisi Coates' new piece on reparations, it might be worth pointing out that Nozick also thinks reparations are pretty cool.

Under Nozick's theory of entitlement (i.e. theory of what should belong to who), there are three principles. The first principle is justice in acquisition (i.e. initial acquisition must be just). He fails to show how this is possible, but we'll leave point that aside here. The second principle is justice in transfer (i.e. subsequent trading must be just). And the final principle is rectification of injustice. It is that last principle where reparations comes in.

Nozick writes:

This principle uses historical information about previous situations and injustices done in them (as defined by the first two principles of justice and rights against interference), and information about the actual course of events that flowed from these injustices, until the present, and it yields a description (or descriptions) of holdings in the society. The principle of rectification presumably will make use of its best estimate of subjunctive information about what would have occurred (or a probability distribution over what might have occurred, using the expected value) if the injustice had not taken place. If the actual description of holdings turns out not to be one of the descriptions yielded by the principle, then one of the descriptions yielded must be realized.
 
If the actual holdings of property do not match the holdings that would have resulted under the conditions of justice, then steps must be taken to rectify that and place things back in just order. That's the most straightforward reparations argument there is.
 
Nozick continues:
 
[A]n important question for each society will be the following: given its particular history, what operable rule of thumb best approximates the results of a detailed application in that society of the principle of rectification? These issues are very complex and are best left to a full treatment of the principle of rectification. In the absence of such a treatment applied to a particular society, one cannot use the analysis and theory presented here to condemn any particular scheme of transfer payments, unless it is clear that no considerations of rectification of injustice could apply to justify it.
 

You cannot condemn transfers done for rectification purposes "unless it is clear no considerations of rectification of injustice could apply to justify it."

What about those who weren't alive when the actions that generated the present unjust distribution occurred? Nozick says:

[W]hatever difficulties [an entitlement theorist] has in applying the principle of rectification to persons who did not themselves violate the first two principles are difficulties in balancing the conflicting considerations so as correctly to formulate the complex principle of rectification itself; he will not violate moral side constraints by applying the principle.
 
Their conflicting interests are to be balanced in the course of trying to work out an appropriate rectification. But they are not an excuse for not carrying out the rectification, just an additional consideration to be sensitive about in formulating how best to do so.

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