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Nozick Contra Rawls

The application of equality today would necessitate the violation of the principles of liberty and therefore cannot be justified.

This statement is a version of Robert Nozick’s famous argument against John Rawls’ principles of justice. Jonathan Wolff, in his commentary of the debate, defends John Rawls principles from Nozick’s argument. Nozick’s argument is clear, he believes that Rawl needs to pick one from liberty and equality because they are at odds with each other and cannot go together. Liberty brings inequality and application of equality is the same as limiting liberty. Intervening in lives of people to control the property they can acquire is to limit liberty. But if liberty is not controlled, inequality is inevitable. The question here is, which of the two states is just? Is liberty at the expense of equality, justified? Nozick would say yes but the egalitarian would maintain that equality is very important. In section I, I will discuss Nozick’s argument in favor of a libertarian view of justice and Wolff’s egalitarian defense of the principles of justice. I will speak of the patterned theories of justice and Nozick’s argument against them. I will explain how Nozick believes taxation is a method of applying equality that violates liberty. Wolff agrees with this but even then believes taxations works for the welfare of liberty. In section II, I will state this problem in my words and argue that there needs to be a check on liberty, not because equality is very important but because of liberty’s maintenance.


It is important to know what patterned and unpatterned theories of justice are to understand Robert Nozick’s argument. A patterned theory of justice is one that maintains a pattern of distribution. In other words, such a theory of justice is maintained through intervention or through a method of maintaining equality. “To each according to their need” is an example of a patterned theory. Nozick believes that all patterned theories can be refuted with one example, the Wilt Chamberlain example. For instance, everybody in the society is given according to their need but this baseball player Wilt Chamberlain demands 25 cents from those who want to watch him play. So a lot of people are at liberty to decide if they want to watch him play or not. There are people who make the free choice that they want to watch him play. Wilt Chamberlain ends up getting very rich and the different choices that people bring inequality amongst them. Nozick proposes that inequality is inevitable if people are allowed such liberties and so all patterned theories are defeated if liberty is given proper respect (Wolff 172).

I am wondering if a patterned theory allows Chamberlain to make such a demand. Shouldn’t Chamberlain get according to his need too and not be allowed to make this demand. Yes, I am proposing a patterned theory, a control on liberty.

Also, Wolff points out that the inequality brought up by the free choice of people is not just; therefore there is a need for a patterned theory. Chamberlain’s money may put him in a position to cause harm to people and everybody did not chose to watch him play anyway. But Robert Nozick’s argument goes on and he believes there are still more ways to maintain patterns. One is to “ban certain transactions” and the other is “to constantly intervene in the market to redistribute property.” These applications of equality will clearly violate liberty so no patterned theory can be proposed that does not violate the basic principle of liberty (Wolff 173).

Cover of "A Theory of Justice"

Cover of A Theory of Justice

Moving on to the possible replies by Rawls, as Wolff points out, we need to look at Rawl’s liberty principle. The liberty principle is: “each person has an equal right to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties which is compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for all.” His liberty principle speaks of basic liberties for all, these liberties would be: freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom of organization, etc. (Wolff 174). The application of equality cannot violate these basic liberties. However, this defense is rather weak. It is not practical in its use of the word liberty. If this principle of liberty cannot ensure the true meaning of liberty then these principles are meaningless. So, Nozick’s argument remains stronger and undoubtedly application of equality is not possible against people’s basic right to liberty, especially the liberty to property. The question is, is the freedom to own property a basic liberty that Rawls speaks of in his first principle of justice? If yes, then Nozick’s attack is legitimate.

Taxation is one way to maintain a pattern, or to maintain equality, and not violate liberty. But Nozick does not accept this. He brings his argument from Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government where Locke says that every person has a right to the fruit of his labor (Exdell 459). Taxation, for Nozick, is again an application of equality that violates property right. He believes taxation is forced labor or slavery.

“Seizing the results of someone’s labor is equivalent to seizing hours from him and directing him to carry on various activities. If people force you to do certain work, or unrewarded work, for a certain period of time, they decide what you are to do and what purposes your work is to serve apart from your decisions. This process whereby they take this decision from you makes them a part-owner of you; it gives them a property right in you . . . These principles involves a shift from the classical liberals’ notion of self-ownership to a notion of (partial) property in other people” (Exdell 459).

Wolff believes calling taxation forced labor or slavery is serious ‘exaggeration’ (175). And yes, taxation is again a form of applying equality that intervenes with liberty but it is important to note that applying equality enhances liberty as well. Taxation is a threat to liberty but not as much as it is an advantage to liberty (Wolff 175).Taxation is supposed to take money from the wealthy and distribute it amongst the poor. The ones who earn more give more taxes and those who earn below average get a share from those taxes. This brings poor to a level where they get the same liberties as the rich. The equal distribution of liberty is very important and distribution will remain equal if the society will remain classless. Otherwise, rich will have more liberties and the poor will have less. Hence, taxation helps towards liberty more than cutting down liberty.

In theory, philosophers overlook the practicality of things. The point to note here is that taxes do not really work as they are supposed to. Application of taxes barely brings a classless society and therefore it hardly contributes towards liberty.


My argument begins with analyzing Rawls first principle. Note that the analysis of the first principle is free of the second principle; I shall not take it into consideration. I believe there are two feature of his first principle. The first is ‘basic liberties’ and the other is ‘for all.’ I would call the former basic liberties and I will call the latter ‘equality of liberty.’ It is important to know that Rawls does emphasize on the equality of liberty. Now, liberty will always bring about inequality and the inequality will also be an inequality of liberty. In other words, if X chooses to watch Chamberlain he will end up poor as compared to Y who did not choose to watch Chamberlain play. Their different choices brought differences in their property or inequality. While, X becomes poor, Y remains better and Chamberlain becomes excessively rich we have a lot of inequality. “The rich can do more than the poor, and hence have more liberties” (Wolff 171). So the inequality in property is bound to bring the inequality in liberty.

The cycle is obvious; liberty causes inequality in property which causes inequality is liberty. The equality of liberty is a very important feature of the first principle of Rawls principles of justice. But as you see well enough, liberty in its purest form is doomed. It will inevitably result in its own doom. This doom is because liberty in its purest form disrupts equality which is a prerequisite for liberty. Equality is very important for liberty or liberty will not survive. Hence, for liberty’s own protection it is important to maintain equality. Even though it looks as if the application of equality violates liberty, the fact is that there is no survival for liberty without equality. Therefore, a patterned theory, taxation or some form of intervention to redistribute property to observe equality is necessary. The application of equality is justified for the protection of liberty itself, it may look as if it violates liberty but in the long run it maintains the only form of liberty possible. Liberty is not at odds with equality but liberty is dependent on equality; without equality liberty cannot survive.


There is no doubt to the fact that the application of equality kills the true essence of liberty. Nozick’s attack is legitimate in this sense but he overlooks the deeper picture. Unpatterned theory of justice, in which equality is not maintained, will result in the death of liberty. It may show true spirit of liberty in the beginning but without a check on equality the liberty will reach its death. Hence, the capitalism Nozick is in favor of is the death of liberty even though it looks like the best form of liberty. Hence, the application of equality is justified. It is the only way to maintain liberty.

Besides, the purest essence of liberty Nozick talks about is not even possible. The very structure of the society or nature violates that pure form of liberty. Hence, the liberty Nozick talks about is unattainable and the only attainable form depends on equality.


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