Nozick devotes the next subsection of Chapter 8 (pp. 235-238) to attacking the concept of equality of opportunity. But before we proceed any further, I must make a confession. Although I agree 99% with Nozick’s criticism of equality of outcomes, I was at first aghast by Nozick’s negative appraisal of equality of opportunity. I mean, for goodness’ sake, who can be against the ideal of equal opportunity? Nevertheless, I ended up changing my mind about this after I digested Nozick’s no-hold-barred condemnation of this concept. It turns out that equality of opportunity is not only an impossible goal; it is also a dangerous one.
As Nozick himself notes (p. 235), there are only two ways of providing equal opportunity to everyone: (1) “by directly worsening the situations of those more favored with opportunities” or (2) “by improving the situation of those less well-favored.” I won’t dwell at all on the first possibility, since that solution would end up making everyone worse off, but what about the second solution, i.e. expanding the opportunities of those less favored? After all, lifting people up (expanding opportunities) sounds better than pushing people down (taking away opportunities), but the problem with lifting people up is that there are no “magic wands,” to borrow Nozick’s fitting phrase on page 235 of ASU. Improving everyone’s lot “requires the use of resources, and so it too involves worsening the situation of some.” (Ibid.) Simply put, the second solution and the first are one in the same!
To sum up, Nozick’s critique of equality of opportunity is based on his entitlement theory of justice (p. 238, emphasis in original): “The major objection to speaking of everyone having a right to various things such as equality of opportunity, life, and so on, … is that these ‘rights’ require a substructure of things and materials and actions; and other people may have rights and entitlements over these.” In other words, the right to property is superior to the right to equality.
Nevertheless, although I appreciate the logic of Nozick’s objection to equality, one possible reply to his anti-egalitarian arguments is to note that not all property rights are private ones. In any society, even libertarian ones, some property rights will be held in common, especially over such public or “non-rivalrous” goods as air, bodies of water, parks, etc. (See chart below for a full description of different types of goods.) Even copyrighted materials eventually enter into the public domain. Accordingly, to the extent the state has a legitimate right to certain forms of public property, why can’t the state use those collective resources to help the plight of the poor? Furthermore, don’t forget the Lockean proviso, and don’t forget that some private property rights may have been obtained ab initio by force or fraud, thus requiring some form of rectification under Nozick’s own entitlement theory.
But at the same time, even with these key caveats in mind (the Lockean proviso as well as the force and fraud exceptions), we still need a workable theory of equality. What if, however, the desire for equality were motivated by envy? Nozick will explore this possibility in the next subsection of Chapter 8, and so will we in our next blog post.