Applied Nozick: Finessing The Entitlement Theory

Richard Epstein uses Robert Nozick’s entitlement theory of justice to interpret the ideology behind the financial meltdown. From Epstein’s latest Forbes column

Behind this lending fiasco lay the strong collective preference for the “patterned principles” of justice that Robert Nozick attacked so powerfully in his 1974 masterpiece, Anarchy, State, and Utopia.

Believers in patterned principles hold that there is some preordained social order that is more just than others. Accordingly, the function of the state is to use the levers of power to manipulate behavior to achieve the desired outcomes. These patterned principles stand in opposition to historical principles of justice, which are content to establish the rules of the game and then let the legal moves by individual players determine the social outcomes. For Nozick, the key rules were rules of justice in acquisition (to set up the initial property rights) and justice in transfer, whereby those rights (and others derived from them) could be exchanged or combined through voluntary transactions.

What were the patterns of justice our time-serving congressmen wished to impose on our society? Apparently one that says the US economy should have 12% of all mortgages issued to low-income borrowers in 1996, 20% in 2000, 22% in 2005 and 28% by 2008. I can’t think of any coherent political philosophy that would specifically set these goals with clear justifications. Time-serving bureaucrats must have simply thought 30% was a good number. It sounds like a fair share of the housing market pie, but then again, why not just say 50%? Hell, let’s say 80%! (Bonus question in applied political philosophy: try to justify any pattern in home-ownership according to Rawls’s Difference Principle.)

On the entitlement theory things would have been different. Channeling Nozick, Epstein makes a plea:

Let people rent or buy in unsubsidized markets and then watch with supreme indifference what residential patterns emerge. That distribution would have been a lot less toxic than the brew generated by our fevered political leaders. So says our frustrated libertarian. 

And so I say, too. When Nozick introduced his entitlement theory back in 1974, he thought he was providing a rights-based argument against competing theories of justice, one powerful enough to outshine the others without having to appeal to the consequences of acting on the theory. Utilitarianism was the bugbear. Nozick had hoped his principles of transfer and acquisition would have greater intuitive moral appeal, enabling the entitlement theory to rise above any type of anything goes consequentialism. Let justice be done tho the heavens may fall–that was the thing. But, intrinsic moral value aside, Epstein’s right here. Applied Nozick turns out to yield the best consequences. Ironically it also satisfies Rawls’s Difference Principle along the way, too.


1 Comment

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One response to “Applied Nozick: Finessing The Entitlement Theory

  1. PondPilot

    Love this one! Oh, what these social engineers have done given money and power.

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