Home > Ethics, libertarianism, Political Philosophy, Summaries > Nozick on Locke’s Theory of Acquisition, the Lockean Proviso, and Collective Assets (Part 2)

Nozick on Locke’s Theory of Acquisition, the Lockean Proviso, and Collective Assets (Part 2)

April 30th, 2009


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Thus, one may not only not appropriate the only water hole in a desert and charge what he pleases, but he also may not charge what he pleases if it just so happens that circumstance destroys all other watering holes. Nozick briefly deviates for a moment to clarify that the owners’ rights are not eliminated in these cases, but simply “overridden to avoid some catastrophe” (not, however, in some ad hoc way, but internal to the given theory of property).

Delving into further exposition, Nozick asserts that someone owning the entire supply of something necessary for others to remain living does not always mean that appropriations leading up to this ownership left some people in a situation worse than the baseline. In service of this assertion, he cites the case of a medical researcher who finds an effective treatment for a disease but refuses to sell it except on his own terms; the researcher does not violate the proviso because he did not appropriate the chemical materials he used in a way that, through causing scarcity, violated the Lockean proviso. Ultimately, this demonstrates that the Lockean proviso is not an “end-state principle”; the structure of the situation that results is not relevant, but the nature of the actions taken to reach that result is. Following this, Nozick puts forward his belief that a free market system would not actually come into conflict with the Lockean proviso, making the “empirical historical” claim that people’s concern for the possibility of the proviso’s violation above other possibilities is only due to the effects of previous illegitimate state action, ending his exploration of the “complication in the entitlement theory introduced by the Lockean proviso. ”

Nozick then moves on to address what he earlier labeled “the negative argument”: “the use of the claim that people don’t deserve their natural assets to rebut a possible counterargument to Rawls’ view. He has us consider the following counterargument to Rawls (“E”):

1. People deserve their natural assets.

2. If people deserve X, they deserve any Y that flows from X.

3. People’s holdings flow from their natural assets.


4. People deserve their holdings.

5. If people deserve something, then they ought to have it (and this overrides any presumption of equality there may be about that thing. )

Because Rawls would rebut this counterargument by denying the first premise, the connection between natural assets being morally arbitrary and the statement that distributive shares should not depend on natural assets is clearer. Here, Nozick attempts to show that the concept of “desert” needn’t be present in an argument of this sort for it to properly follow. He starts with a new counterargument, “F”:

1. If people have X, and their having X (whether or not they deserve to have it) does not violate anyone else’s (Lockean) right or entitlement to X, and Y flows from (arises out of, and so on) X by a process that does not itself violate anyone’s (Lockean) rights or entitlements, Then the person is entitled to Y.

2. People’s having the natural assets they do does not violate anyone else’s (Lockean) entitlements or rights.

The argument would then proceed to argue that people are entitled to the fruits of their labor and to what others voluntarily give or exchange with them. Nozick, quite succinctly, phrases his objection to holding equivalence between desert and entitlement:

It is not true, for example, that a person earns Y (a right to keep a painting he’s made, praise for writing a theory of Justice, and so on) only if he’s earned (or otherwise deserves) whatever he used (including natural assets) in the process of earning Y. Some of the things he uses he just may have, not illegitimately. It needn’t be that the foundations underlying desert are themselves deserved, all the way down.

Thus, since people can be described as entitled to their natural assets even if they can not be labeled as deserving of them, then an argument parallel to argument E with ‘are entitled to’ replacing ‘deserve’ throughout will be valid. Returning more explicitly to Rawls, Nozick then implies that Rawls’ argument is in a bind. Recognizing people’s entitlements to their natural assets could be necessary to avoid a strict application of the difference principle that would entail even stronger property rights than wealth-redistributive theories usually yield.

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