Friday, August 28, 2009

Robert Nozick's Wilt Chamberlain Example

Robert Nozick has a famous and highly influential example intended to undermine the case for redistributive taxation based on a thought experiment in which people freely choose to give their money to someone, assuming that they had it justly in the first place, and, given that free, informed choices about distributing one's own money is a right one has, then the resulting distribution of money/goods is also just.

The thought experiment is to imagine that Wilt Chamberlain, at the time of Nozick's writing clearly the NBA's greatest basketball player, strikes a deal with the other NBA teams to add a $.25 surcharge to every game in which he plays. His presence increases attendance at the games; everyone is happy with the arrangement; and Chamberlain receives an additional $100,000 over the salaries of all the players. Imagine that the original state was just (following whatever distributive theory you prefer). And since the transfer principle, that everyone receives something they value as much or more than the amount they pay, the resulting situation must also be just. If Chamberlain has a right to this money, if the resultant situation is just, then it is unjust to take his money.

None of this argument counts against taxation per se. It is perfectly reasonable to tax Chamberlain for benefits he receives by being a member of society, and it is even reasonable to tax progressively if he acquires more benefits than others--since his larger amount of wealth requires more resources to protect adequately, his bigger car requires more space on the roads, etc. However, according to this argument, it is not just to tax Chamberlain to give his money to someone else, to redistribute his wealth. He cannot be required to benefit others if his ownership is justified although he could be required to pay for his own benefit. (At least, this is consistent with the Wilt Chamberlain argument; Nozick may have other arguments with which I am unfamiliar.)

It does appear that the resultant situation must be just if the original situation is just. People should be free to pay what they wish to for goods and services they desire; they have a right to spend the money as they choose. However, from the fact that people have a right to spend their money as they choose, it does not follow that the recipient has a right to that money. For example, Bernie Madoff's investors had the right to invest their money with him, but it does not follow that Madoff had a right to that money since he acquired it by means of fraud and deception. So one person having a right to give money to someone else, it does not follow that the second person has a right to the goods that the first person has a right to give.

This undermines the basic assumption of Nozick's argument. If Chamberlain does not have the right to the money he receives, even though the basketball fans have a right to give it to him, then we cannot conclude that redistributive taxation is unjust. Still, why think that Chamberlain does not have a right to that money? He did not acquire it by obviously unjust means: the public were fully informed; they knew exactly what they were receiving for their money and were happy to pay it. The reason, I think, has to do with the original situation. Chamberlain's basic genetic abilities and environment are not under his control. Other basketball players work as hard as he does but do not have his genetic predispositions or environment. So, if Chamberlain's work for his pay is what justifies him in receiving it, other basketball players equally deserve that pay yet do not receive it. Chamberlain's abilities, relative to other players who work as hard as he does, are a matter of luck. He is no more entitled to those abilities than Paris Hilton is entitled to her inheritance.

So, in short, while people have a right to spend their money as they choose, not everyone that choose to give it to has an equal right to receive it. If we consider fraud sufficient for undermining that person's right, then other broader considerations of justice in society may also undermine especially if the person who receives the good only receives it because of luck or matters beyond his control.

One last point. This point does not depend on determinism. All it requires is that some matters that influence one's abilities are not in the person's control. This is compatible with libertarianism as much as determinism or compatibilism.

Update: It is possible that I am committing a strawman. Could it be that Nozick means that people can justly distribute their own money however they choose provided they are fully informed about what they are receiving in return for that money? Probably, so. I'm not sure that people are just whenever they spend money as they choose when that choice is informed, but I'll get back to this later.

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