We have re-imagined Nozick’s extended review of Rawls in the second part of Chapter 7 of ASU as an intellectual bout involving a series of rounds. We scored Round 1 for Rawls and Round 2 a draw. What about round 3? Nozick delivers a devastating blow to all theories of distributive justice in the fourth subsection of the second part of Chapter 7 (pp. 198-204), but as we shall explain below, this fierce blow is not enough to knock Rawls out.
To borrow Nozick’s terminology, the main problem with Rawls–and with all theories of distributive justice, for that matter–is that he focuses on end-states instead of real-world or historical processes. That is to say, such theories assume there will be an economic pie worth dividing at time Tn+1, when, in reality, the overall size of the pie will depend on the rules of distribution chosen at time Tn. Rawls’s theory of justice is especially vulnerable to this “end-state” fallacy. In Nozick’s memorable phrasing (p. 199), people in the original position “will treat anything to be distributed as manna from heaven.” But of course, the manna-from-heaven model is wrong. Wealth and prosperity do not fall from the sky. Goods and services must be produced by someone, and the amount of production will depend on the principles of distributive justice agreed to in the original position.
Nevertheless, although Nozick’s critique of the end state fallacy is a strong one, it is not sufficient to deliver a knockout punch, since it might be possible, in theory, to identify a different set distributive principles that maximize production and minimize economic inequality. But does such an optimal set of rules really exist? We are skeptical, so we will award Round 3 to Nozick. We will discuss the next subsection of Chapter 7 (“Macro and Micro”) in our next blog post.