The empty idea of equality?

Nozick begins Chapter 8 by addressing the issue of income inequality and by pointing out an embarrassing gap in the scholarly and popular literature on this subject. According to Nozick, scholars who defend equality as a desirable normative goal are committing a version of the ipse dixit fallacy. They are simply asserting without argument their conclusion.

Consider the example of medical care. It is often argued that everyone should have a right to medical care. But as Nozick correctly notes, the same thing could be said about food, housing, sex, or any other basic need! And as a matter of logic, if people have a right to x (where x is one or more of the aforementioned basic needs), then someone must have an obligation to provide x! Thus (p. 234), when the layers of this normative argument of medical care for all or food for all or housing for all or whatever for all are peeled away, “what we arrive at is the claim that society (that is, each of us acting together in some organized fashion) should make provision for the important needs of all of its members.” So, what’s wrong with this argument? The problem is this: it commits the manna-from-heaven fallacy: it assumes the existence of a sufficiently large economic pie that is worth dividing but ignores the all-important question of incentives for production.

In short, although it took Nozick an entire chapter to respond to Rawls’s theory of justice, Nozick is able to dispatch the argument for income equality in just a few sentences. Moreover, Nozick’s critique of equality also extends to the more limited normative ideal of equality of opportunity. We will explore Nozick’s counter-intuitive but powerful critique of equal opportunity in our next blog post.

Image result for medical care for all

But so is food, housing, clothing, etc., etc.!

About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
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4 Responses to The empty idea of equality?

  1. Kathy H says:

    What would you do with the people unable to produce due to disability or some other reason out of their control. Let them die? Provide an education for only those able to pay? Food for only those who could pay for it? Rather than looking as providing people with basic needs as “manna from heaven” could providing basic needs actually benefit society as a whole in the long run?

    • That is a good question. I will be the first to say that the family of the disabled person has a moral obligation to provide for them, but Nozick’s concern is about legal obligations (if I am understanding him correctly). That is, why should the disabled person’s neighbor be required to provide for their needs?

  2. Kathy H says:

    Not every disabled person has a family. Should they be left to die? Should the law be used to enforce a moral obligation? Many laws do. What about education? Why should I pay taxes to educate someone else’s child? Why should I be forced to send my child to school if I don’t want to or to even provide them with and education if I don’t want to. Because it is good for society to have and educated population. Protect the individual and you protect the group. Nothing is without costs. It is finding the right balance.

    • Those are valid points: not just schools, but also post offices, roads, fire departments, courts, etc. are all subsidized via general taxes. But at the same time, the question remains: where should we draw the line between public and private provision of goods? Also, in many of the above examples, the government will rely on private contractors to provide the service or good in question!

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