Saturday, March 15, 2008

I'm with Somerby

From Somerby's "Philospher Fridays":

NOZICK (pages 160-162): It is not clear how those holding alternative conceptions of distributive justice can reject the entitlement conception of justice in holdings. For suppose a distribution favored by one of these non-entitlement conceptions is realized. Let us suppose it is your favorite one and let us call this distribution D1; perhaps everyone has an equal share, perhaps shares vary in accordance with some dimension you treasure. Now suppose that Wilt Chamberlain is greatly in demand by basketball teams, being a great gate attraction....He signs the following sort of contract with a team: In each home game, twenty-five cents from the price of each ticket of admission goes to him....The season starts, and people cheerfully attend his team’s games; they buy his tickets, each time dropping a separate twenty-five cents of their admission price into a special box with Chamberlain’s name on it. They are excited about seeing him play; it is worth the total admission price to them. Let us suppose that in one season one million persons attend his home games, and Wilt Chamberlain ends up with $250,000, a much larger sum than the average income and larger even than anyone else has. Is he entitled to this income? Is this new distribution D2 unjust? If so, why? There is no question about whether each of the people was entitled the control they held over the resources they held in D1; because that was the distribution (your favorite) that (for the purposes of argument) we assumed was acceptable. Each of these persons chose to give twenty-five cents of their money to Chamberlain. They could have spent it on going to the movies, or on candy bars, or on copies of Dissent magazine, or of Monthly Review. But they all, at least one million of them, converged on giving it to Wilt Chamberlain in exchange for watching him play basketball. If D1 was a just distribution, and people voluntarily moved from it to D2, transferring parts of their shares they were given under D1 (what was it for if not to do something with?), isn’t D2 also just? 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 of D1. Under D1, there is nothing that anyone has 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. By what process could such a transfer among two persons give rise to a legitimate claims of distributive justice on a portion of what was transferred by a third part who had no claim of justice on any holding of the others before the transfer?...

I can't believe this is all there is to Nozick's illustration.

1) Not all people are basketball fans, or attend Chamberlain's games, yet all are subject to the resultant income inequality. The behavior of a few -- maybe even a tiny minority -- ends up having deleterious effects on everyone.

2) Anyone who's been in an intro to Econ class should recognize a tragedy of the commons effect here. People, as individuals make a decision to go watch Chamberlain play, not to make him rich and foul up a wealth distribution that they found pleasing. Chamberlain's wealth is an unintended consequence, a collective outcome of individual behavior, which leads to

3) People, as a group, found D1 just, and presumably find D2 unjust. Isn't that all that's needed? Isn't "just" a subjective concept, that has to be hammered out by general agreement? Don't people have the right to try to correct injustice, regardless of how the injustice came about?

Usually this stuff bores me because it's a bunch of people sitting around trying to prove how smart they are, but I'm going to follow this one with some interest, as Somerby generally posts e-mails from people with objections to his reasoning, and the points I made above should have been dealt with in the past. It wouldn't surprise me if the right wing latched on to an argument like Nozick's, because their standards are generally low when it comes to anything that furthers their agenda, but this is a field of academia, where huge egos and careers are built on arguments like these. I assume I'm missing a lot of stuff that's been covered. But until then I'm with Somerby. This strikes me as sloppy.