Finnis versus Nozick (partial review of Chapter VII)

We now proceed to Chapter VII of “Natural law and natural rights,” the chapter on justice. Alas, Professor Finnis’s beautiful theory of justice is built on theoretical quicksand, for it is premised on his view of the common good, and we have already demolished Prof Finnis’s circular and vacuous theory of the common good in our previous post. To the extent “the objective of justice is … the common good” (p. 174), to quote Finnis’s own words, and to the extent the concept of the common good is just meaningless babble, we don’t have much more to say about Finnis’s conception of justice in Chapter VII. Why beat a dead theoretical horse? That said, there is one part of Chapter VII that I will discuss in more detail in this post: Professor Finnis’s moralistic critique of Robert Nozick’s critique of taxation.

To sum up Nozick’s critique of taxation, Nozick had argued in “Anarchy, state, and utopia” (published in 1974, six years before the first edition of Finnis’s book on natural law) that taxation of income is worse than theft; it is a form of forced labor! Instead of making you give up x hours of your time per week to help the needy, government taxation of income is the equivalent of taking x hours of your weekly paycheck to produce the same result. (See pp. 169-172 of Nozick’s book “Anarchy, state, and utopia” for a full exposition of Nozick’s argument against taxation. For our part, we have previously reviewed every chapter of Robert Nozick’s masterpiece on this blog, including Nozick’s entitlement theory of justice (see our blog post dated 17 Jan 2018) and Nozick’s forced-labor critique of taxation (see our blog post dated 23 Jan 2018).)

Professor Finnis, however, rejects Nozick’s novel critique of taxation. According to Finnis, taxation can be a morally-justified method of meeting our pre-existing moral obligations to foster and favor the common good and the needs of others (p. 187, emphasis in original): “For in establishing a scheme of redistributive taxation, etc., the State need be doing no more than crystallize and enforce duties that the property-holder already had.” In fact, when Finnis is presenting his theory of distributive justice (see VII.3), he frames private property not as a natural right but rather as a kind of public trust or affirmative duty to promote the common good. According to Finnis’s warped common good theory of distributive justice, property owners are morally obliged to use their assets productively and not for speculative purposes (whatever that means), for “owners have, in justice, duties not altogether unlike those of a trustee in English law” (p. 173). This trustee view of property rights certainly sounds and looks morally attractive, but it is a bunch of bullshit. Specifically, where does this affirmative moral obligation end? What is the relevant limiting principle, if any? Alas, Finnis waves away these questions by conceding “there are, of course, no very precise yardsticks for assessing these questions.” You don’t say!

Sorry, but not sorry, we are with Nozick on this one. Except in the domain of one’s family, there are no general affirmative duties. We will proceed to Chapter VIII in the next day or two …

Image result for taxation as theft

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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