Nozick’s critique of welfare economics and theories of distributive justice

On pp. 153-155 of ASU, Nozick launches a powerful and stinging critique against “welfare economics” and equality-based theories of distributive justice. (Welfare economics is a branch of economics that purports to measure a society’s overall well-being or welfare at the aggregate level.) How does Nozick accomplish this heroic task? By drawing a distinction between two approaches to justice: historical or sequential versus time-slice or end-states. In the words of Nozick (p. 153, emphasis in original): “The entitlement theory of justice is historical; whether a distribution is just depends upon how it came about.” According to a time-slice approach, by contrast (p. 154), “all that needs to be looked at, in judging the justice of a distribution, is who ends up with what.” The problem with such time-slice or end-state theories of justice, however, is that they neglect just deserts. According to Nozick (p. 154), “Most persons do not accept current time-slice principles as constituting the whole story about distributive shares. They think it relevant in assessing the justice of a situation to consider not only the distribution it embodies, but also how that distribution came about.” In other words, a given distribution of goods will be just so long as the initial acquisition of goods and their subsequent transfer are themselves just, even if people end up with shares of different or unequal sizes. (But by Nozick’s own logic, couldn’t one argue that transfer and acquisition are not the whole story either?) We are fighting a cold, but we will try to continue our review of Ch. 7 tomorrow …

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