Is a Basic Income Guaranty “Quasi-Nozickian?”

I have taken a vacation from blogging in order to complete the manuscript of my second libertarian philosophy book, to be published by Bloomsbury Academic late this year. It is a work of applied philosophy that starts with Nozick’s moral framework, then critiques the welfare/regulatory state on that basis. However, I hope the following may be of some interest.

Matt Zwolinski caused a bit of a stir in libertarian circles recently with his claim that  a basic income guaranty may be consistent with libertarian principles: I focus here only on the part of his argument claiming that, “A Basic Income Guarantee might be required on libertarian grounds as reparation for past injustice.” In reaching this conclusion he quotes this passage from ASU:

Perhaps it is best to view some patterned principles of distributive justice as rough rules of thumb meant to approximate the general results of applying the principle of rectification of injustice. For example, lacking much historical information, and assuming (1) that victims of injustice generally do worse than they otherwise would and (2) that those from the least well-off group in the society have the highest probabilities of being the (descendants of) victims of the most serious injustice who are owed compensation by those who benefited from the injustices (assumed to be those better off, though sometimes the perpetrators will be others in the worst-off group), then a rough rule of thumb for rectifying injustices might seem to be the following: organize society so as to maximize the position of whatever group ends up least well-off in the society (ASU, p. 231).

I don’t believe that this passage lends any support to the idea that the BIG is quasi-Nozickian, which produced the following exchange with Matt (which I think speaks for itself) on the BHL website:

Hi Matt:

I do not think that BIG can accurately be described as “quasi-Nozickian.” Correct me if I am wrong, but it contemplates coercively taxing at least some innocent people for the purposes of correcting injustices committed by others. Nozick may have been ambiguous more often than we might like, but he was very clear on the force of rights as side constraints. These constraints are powerful enough to resist what he called a “utilitarianism of rights,” which would permit a violation if it minimized the total of violations overall. See ASU, 28-9.

A view of rights as this stringent precludes, it seems to me, the taxation of the innocent for purposes of supplying a BIG. It might not preclude taxation to keep innocent people from starving in the street, but that is not what you are proposing, is it?

Perhaps you are relying on Nozick’s confusing and inconsistent remarks about rectification. But whatever Nozick had in mind, he never expressly said that the innocent should be coercively taxed for purposes of rectification, and I don’t think he should be read this way. Particularly, since BIG seems only to have rectification as a (fortunate) side-effect of a larger social purpose. If Nozick actually does recommend pursuing rectification in the way you seem to think, it renders everything else in ASU a nullity. On this, see the Adam Tebble paper Jason recently recommended.



Just curious, then, what’s your interpretation of the passage from Nozick I cite in the essay?


Well, the language you quote is immediately followed by, “This particular example may well be implausible (my emphasis), but an 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.” [which, of course, he never provides]. Perhaps I am missing something, but this doesn’t exactly read to me as a ringing endorsement of a BIG here today or anywhere else, particularly in light of his view of rights as side constraints.

Apart from the implications of the bit I just quoted, the part you quote includes various factual assumptions that are questionable: i.e. “those from the least well-off group have the highest probabilities of being the (descendants of) victims of the most serious injustice, who are owed compensation by those who benefitted from the injustices.” Not sure many of the better-off members of our society did benefit from the state’s past injustices in any material way. Perhaps Nozick says this is “implausible,” because it is an implausible assumption about our society.

Moreover, once we actually get down to analyzing rectification, I think that there are very powerful arguments that, apart from the return of specific identifiable property, it should be relatively minimal. See Tyler Cowen, “How far Back Should We Go? Why Restitution Should be Minimal” and the Tebble paper.


There are two separate questions here – one of interpretation (what did Nozick think about redistribution as a means of rectification) and one of normative political theory (would such redistribution actually be justified). Our discussion started with the first question, but you seem to be merging it into the second here.

Regarding the first question, I certainly don’t think that Nozick gave a “ringing endorsement” of the BIG – which is why I described the proposal as “quasi-Nozickian.” But he certainly didn’t ringingly reject it, either. Saying that redistribution aimed at maximizing the position of the least well off “may well be implausible” is compatible with believing that some other form of redistribution “may well” not be. And the BIG is a far less egalitarian and radical form of redistribution than the difference principle.


But the very reason that caused Nozick to call the difference principle “implausible” as a suitable means of rectification (“those from the least well-off group have the highest probabilities of being the (descendants of) victims of the most serious injustice, who are owed compensation by those who benefitted from the injustices.“) would apply equally to the BIG. In both cases you are engaging in the coercive taxation of the innocent on a wholesale basis. So I don’t see how your reply actually helps your case.

Quite apart from this, I think we need to be really careful about calling some proposal “quasi-X,” on the basis that philosopher X did not expressly and directly reject it, particularly when the proposal at hand is clearly in tension with other part’s of X’s well-considered thought. I’m sure there are ideas about sweatshops that you have not expressly rejected that you would hate to see described as quasi-Zwolinskian.


Given that Nozick didn’t say what his reasons are for thinking that the example “may well be implausible,” I’m not sure what basis you have for the claim in your first sentence. Nozick pretty clearly thought that some form of coercive redistribution might be justifiable as a kind of rectification. If he didn’t, it would have been quite easy for him to say so.

It’s not just that he didn’t expressly reject it – it’s that he said, explicitly, that it might be “best to view some patterned principles of distributive justice as rough rules of thumb meant to approximate the general results of applying the principle of rectification of injustice.” And he never says that *this* claim might be implausible – his point about implausibility is only made in reference to the particular example involving the difference principle, and even there it is made tentatively, and without any attempt at justification.


Right, there might be “some” patterned principle of justice that is suitable, but what justification do you have for thinking that the BIG is that principle? As far as I can see, absolutely none. Therefore, “quasi-Nozickian” is a wish and a hope and a prayer, but not at all text-based. You are welcome to the last word.


“Absolutely none”? “A wish and a prayer”? “Not at all text-based”? Aren’t you overstating things just a little bit here, Mark? I gave my reasons for thinking that the BIG might satisfy Nozickian considerations in my essay response to David Friedman and David Henderson. Perhaps Nozick would reject my idea if he were around today. It’s hard to know. But he seems pretty clearly open to the idea that *some* coercive redistribution might be appropriate as a form of rectification. If you’re going to deny this, it seems like *you* are the one who’s ignoring the relevant text.


I would like to add a short coda to this exchange, that goes beyond the somewhat technical issue about the correct interpretation of Nozick’s views on rectification. What makes Nozick-style libertarianism attractive to most of its followers, including yours truly, is that it holds rights to be essentially non-negotiable. For example, it doesn’t matter if your speech deeply offends everyone who hears it, and has no redeeming value in the marketplace of ideas. Potential censors will just have to learn to live with it, because to interfere with rational agents not threatening others is to show utter contempt for what gives persons their special moral status.

The same principle holds true for justly acquired property. It may be that, as Nozick acknowledges, the stringency of rights might have to be relaxed if this is the only way to avert a moral catastrophe. But the BIG in not intended to achieve this end. Rather, it is a gigantic social engineering project that might, as a fortunate side-effect, serve as a means of rectification. If libertarianism would sanction this, than as far as I am concerned it has lost its soul. As Samuel Goldwyn is reputed to have said, include me out.




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