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Published : February 04, 2011 | Author : gadhre
Category : Case Laws | Total Views : 8798 | Rating :

Avinash Gadhre Administrative Officer Legal, National Insurance Co. Ltd.

Wilt Chamberlain Argument of Nozick & Its Criticism

Nozick was a Harvard philosopher. He was conservative, some would say libertarian, in his insistence on the bare minimum amount of government needed to keep society functioning. His entitlement theory embodied this, where he said people are "entitled" to keep what they own, and this ownership, in Nozick's view, is essential to justice and fair play.
Bob Nozick’s “famous Wilt Chamberlain argument” was an attempt to argue against the type of government system he described as “distributive justice.” The famous argument appears in Nozick’s first book, Anarchy, State and Utopia in 1974—the book which made the young porfessor a major star.

Robert Nozick died on January 23, 2002, after a long battle with cancer. But the impact of his most famous book continues to grow.

Basically, Nozick's entitlement theory is a theory of justice. More specifically, it is a theory of how society ought or ought not to regulate the distribution of goods (money, property, etc.)

"Nozick classifies theories of justice as (1) either end-result or historical, and (2) either patterned or un-patterned. Nozick says a patterned principle of distributive justice “specifies that a distribution is to vary along with some natural dimension, weighted sum of natural dimensions, or lexicographic ordering of natural dimensions. On the other hand, a non-patterned principle of distributive justice does not vary along some natural dimension, weighted sum of natural dimensions, or lexicographic ordering of natural dimensions. According to this view, whatever distribution arises from morally acceptable means is a just distribution.

The entitlement theory is historical and un-patterned. It does not demand that the distribution resulting from just acquisitions, transfers and rectifications be patterned, i.e. correlated with anything else (such as moral merit, need, usefulness to society); people may be entitled to things got by chance or gift. Any distribution, irrespective of any pattern it may or may not have, is just provided it has the appropriate history, provided it did in fact come about in accordance with the rules of acquisition, transfer and rectification."

In a nutshell Nozick's "Entitlement Theory" argues against social and government policies that redistribute wealth via taxation and other programs.

“Political philosophers have tended to assume without argument that justice demands an extensive redistribution of wealth in the direction of equality and that it is a legitimate function of the state to bring about this redistribution by coercive means like progressive taxation.” It was these attempts to redistribute income that Nozick argued against in his book.
Nozick had made a good case against “government policies designed to redistribute wealth”. In the process, Nozick employed “an ingenious illustration” to “buttress his entitlement theory” (the theory that a person is “entitled” to his wealth, as long as he attained it by legitimate means). That illustration involved Wilt Chamberlain, greatest NBA star of the age. And sure enough! Over time, Nozick’s Wilt Chamberlain argument became the best-known part of his book.

The Entitlement Theory
Nozick's Entitlement Theory is based on the idea that only free market exchanges respect people as equals--for him, as "ends in themselves". Indeed, even if a free market did not, for instance, produce the most overall well being on Nozick's view, it would be justified. According to Nozick, the theory consists of three principles:

Transfer principle:Holdings (actually) freely acquired from others who acquired them in a just way are justly acquired.
Acquisition principle: Persons are entitled to holdings initially acquired in a just way (according to the Lockean Proviso).
Rectification principle: Rectify violations of 1 or 2 by restoring holdings to their rightful owners, or a "one time" redistribution according to the Difference Principle.

If people's current holdings are justly acquired, then the transfer principle alone determines whether subsequent distributions are just. Consequently, any taxation over the amount required to preserving institutions of just transfer, acquisition and rectification that is, preserving entitlements--according to Nozick, are unjust.

Wilt Chamberlain Argument
Having laid out his two distinctions and the essence of his Entitlement Theory, Nozick proceeds to offer an argument against patterned principles of distributive justice. The argument is Nozick’s famous Wilt Chamberlain Argument.

1. Let D1 be a distribution according to your favorite pattern for society S, in which each person has Rn holdings. Let S have 1 million members.
2. If D1 is just, then each is entitled to Rn.
3. If each is entitled to Rn, then each may dispose of Rn as she sees fit.
4. Wilt Chamberlain is a member of S.
5. Therefore Wilt Chamberlain has Rn.
6. Suppose each person in S freely contributes .25 of her Rn to Wilt.
7. Therefore, in the resulting distribution D2, Chamberlain has Rn $250,000 and every other member of society has Rn-.25.
8. The distribution in D2 will now unequal to D1.
9. But D2 resulted from a just initial distribution plus free exchanges.
10. So D2 is just, but violates the pattern that determined D1.

Each of these persons chose to give twenty-five cents of their money to Chamberlain. If the people were entitled to dispose of the resources to which they were entitled (under D1), didn’t this include their being entitled to give it to, or exchange it with, Wilt Chamberlain? Can anyone else complain on grounds of justice? Each other person already has his legitimate share under D1. Under D1, there is nothing that anyone else has a claim of justice against. After someone transfers something to Wilt Chamberlain, third parties still have their legitimate shares; their shares are not changed.

Nozick proposed the “entitlement theory” (the “entitlement conception of justice”), in which a person is “entitled” to his “holdings” if they were attained by legitimate means.

His Chamberlain chunk was designed to challenge theories of “distributive justice,” in which the government would redistribute income according to some nobler theory. Shortly before bringing Chamberlain onto the floor, Nozick listed various theories of “distributive justice’” in them, a society’s holdings could be distributed according to various schemes. And as the Chamberlain argument starts, he imagines something which seems rather simple. It is not clear how those holding alternative conceptions of distributive justice can reject the entitlement conception of justice in holdings.

Supportive Views
Nozick argues that D2 is just. For if each agent freely exchanges some of his D1 share with WC and D1 was a just distribution (we know D1 was just, because it was ordered according to your favorite patterned principle of distribution), how can D2 fail to be a just distribution? Thus Nozick argues that what the Wilt Chamberlain example shows is that no patterned principle of just distribution will be compatible with liberty. In order to preserve the pattern, which arranged D1, the state will have to continually interfere with people's ability to freely exchange their D1 shares. For any exchange of D1 shares explicitly involves violating the pattern that originally ordered it.

· Let's say a bunch of poor kids all pay to see Wilt Chamberlain play basketball. Wilt gets the money, the kids get to see the game. At the end of the day Wilt is richer and the kids are poorer. Since we wouldn't object to any one of these transactions, why should we object to the resulting pattern?

· Any "pattern-based" notion of justice would require continual and unjustified interference in personal liberties.

· We should not ask what would be the best distribution, since the question wrongly assumes that there is something to be distributed.

· Most goods are not up for distribution, or redistribution.

· There is "nothing unjust" about the Chamberlain outcome but still perhaps we can do better in consequentialist terms. Wilt is still quite free and we get some social good in return.

Apart from this there are other communities who are getting waiver in society. For example a doctor is not required to devote his entire life, or even a part of it, to helping poor kids in Africa, even if he could create greater good by doing so. Personal autonomy matters. In the real world of course, the percentage of GDP controlled by government always grows once wealth has been achieved - and this growth in government control has nothing to do with exigencies or true public goods.

Nozick is giving a hypothetical situation that is not the real world. You are supposed to assume things in a hypothetical. His point is supposed to be that inequality itself is not objectionable because it can arise from a just situation through just steps.

Nozick analogizes taxation with forced labour, asking the reader to imagine a man who works longer to gain income to buy a movie ticket and a man who spends his extra time on leisure (for instance, watching the sunset). What, Nozick asks, is the difference between seizing the second man's leisure (which would be forced labor) and seizing the first man's goods? "Perhaps there is no difference in principle," Nozick concludes, and notes that the argument could be extended to taxation on other sources besides labor. "End-state and most patterned principles of distributive justice institute (partial) ownership by others of people and their actions and labor. These principles involve a shift from the classical liberals' notion of self ownership to a notion of partial property rights in other people."


There are lot of points where Nozick was lacking when he was giving his Chamberlain Argument because Nozick does not root his theory in social efficiency or necessity.

Nozick assumes that claims on Chamberlain's income come from "a third party who had no claim of justice on any holding of the others before the transfer". But in the real world, third parties do have just claims before transfers: they are very common. For example, if Chamberlain had been paying alimony to a wife (he never married), or had faced civil judgements for child support. If the owners of the basketball court or the other players insisted that Wilt be a paid member of the player's union if he wants to perform on that court or with those players. Wilt will not get rich by himself, he needs the cooperation of other people and they will require something for that cooperation.

A social contract such as citizenship is just such a pre-existing claim of justice: Chamberlain was a citizen obligated to obey laws, including laws on taxation. Libertarians frequently whine that citizenship is not voluntary, but that's not true: you can renounce citizenship and/or assume citizenship in other nations.

All of Nozick's major arguments rely on fallacious assumptions or illusions of logic. Nozick simply distracts from the fact that property restricts the liberty of others, and that it is only by continuous interference with liberty by very strong coercion that the pattern of property is maintained. Without that continuous coercion, people would assert their liberty to use whatever they wanted.

Nozick's "Whatever arises from a just situation by just steps is in itself just" can fail because of many implied requirements. Perfection of the original situation and the steps is required. Just initial situations are required an impracticality. And a demonstration of perfect justice-maintenance of the steps is required: a step may be just without maintaining justice. This is a big problem: he's making an argument that only looks like mathematical induction without showing the critical step.

Nozick makes a non-real-world assumption: that third parties don't have just claims. But there are examples which show that third parties do have just claims.

For example, in the local buses, which reserve seats for the elderly. You can use the seats, but must surrender them to the elderly. Thus, if you justly take such a seat (because no elderly person is present), and an elderly person boards the bus justly, your occupancy of the seat is now unjust. There have been only just steps, but an unjust situation has arisen.

“Would you abolish all taxation today, immediately, if it meant a rapid collapse into social chaos?” Ending confiscatory taxation in no way guarantees a shift into a Mad Max Universe – neither can the continuation of any particular tax regime guarantee tranquility.

Nozick's greatest failing is that he does not explain the origin of those rights: he simply presumes them, relying on the kind of "gut feelings". And that is the unscientific, supernatural woo upon which he builds his fairyland. Anyone who looks anthropologically at rights will see that they are human inventions (like contracts) that are enforced by coercion.

In this paper I addressed Nozick’s famous Wilt Chamberlain Argument and the historical, non-patterned conception of distributive justice it is meant to support. It was Nozick’s main argument against the ethics of distribution. I argued that even if we construe the Wilt Chamberlain Argument in a strong sense we can still hold egalitarianism.

In my view, this famous argument is groaningly weak, because of two main reasons; firstly, because it is totally based on assumptions and secondly, it is impossible to follow it in real world.


Authors contact info - articles The  author can be reached at: gadhre@legalserviceindia.com

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