Monday, June 13, 2011

Wilt Chamberlain and the Lockean Proviso

As mentioned previously I'm currently working my way (slowly) through Nozick's Anarchy, State, And Utopia. It's definitely interesting, especially the bits he has to say about Rawls, and the fact that he takes great exception to Rawls' social determinism raises my hopes that I'm not a complete idiot.

Anyhow, I noticed an interesting conflict between Nozick's "Wilt Chamberlain" example and some of the things he says later on about the Lockean Proviso. Specifically, he states the following in regards to people giving Mr. Chamberlain money to watch him play basketball:

If D1 was a just distribution, and people voluntarily moved from it to D2, transferring parts of their shares they were given under D1 (what was it for if not to do something with?), isn't D2 also just? If the people were entitled to dispose of the resources to which they were entitled (under D1), didn't this include their being entitled to give it to, or exchange it with, Wilt Chamberlain? (p. 161)

And yet, later on, he has the following to say in relation to trying to corner the market in a particular resource:

But still, we can imagine, at least, that something like this occurs: someone makes simultaneous secret to separate owners of a substance, each of whom sells assuming he can easily purchase more from the other owners; or some natural catastrophe destroys all of the supply of something except that in one person's possession. The total supply could not be permissibly appropriated by one person at the beginning. His later acquisition of it all does not show that the original appropriation violated the proviso (even by a reverse argument similar to the one above that tried to zip back from Z to A). Rather, it is the combination of the original appropriation plus all the later transfers and actions that violates the Lockean proviso. (p. 180)

These situations look nearly identical to me. In the market-cornering example, as in the Chamberlain example, there is an initial distribution D1, which is presumed to be just, which is subsequently transformed into D2 through a series of voluntary exchanges, each of which is just when taken in isolation. How is it, then, that Nozick can claim that the resulting distribution is unjust?

I believe that the problem here is that Nozick pays scant attention to the emergent properties of systems. He certainly acknowledges that such creatures exist; the violation of the Lockean Proviso in the market-cornering example is a clear example of such a thing. Similarly, his discussion of threshold conditions earlier in the book makes it clear that there are some behaviors which are tolerable in individual instances but unacceptable once they become prevalent.

If we restate the short-form principle of transfer (p. 160) to explicitly take into account the Lockean Proviso we arrive at something like the following:

From each as they choose, to each as they are chosen, provided that the aggregate of these choices does not violate the Lockean Proviso.

Nozick seems to think that this is a non-issue, stating that "the free operation of a market system will not actually run afoul of the Lockean proviso" (p. 182). Apart from this being an unsupported assertion it seems to me that it leaves the door open for clever counterarguments to the Wilt Chamberlain scenario above.

Firstly, the Lockean Proviso ("enough and as good left in common for others") turns explicitly on the definitions of "enough", "as good", and "left in common". I suspect that Nozick could debate Rawls and Sen on the meaning of "enough" and "as good" until the cows come home and not reach a mutually-agreeable conclusion. Moreover, its not entirely clear what the phrase "left in common" means in contemporary society: I might be able to appropriate enough through my own labor if I lived in the wilds of Montana, but there's nothing left to appropriate in downtown Los Angeles. Does this imply that I have to move to Montana or, instead, does it imply that the distribution of goods in downtown Los Angeles violate the Lockean Proviso?

A suitably motivated individual might construct a counterargument based solely on this ambiguity, but there's another issue as well: the Lockean Proviso is axiomatic and, thus, arbitrary. If Nozick is going to attach an arbitrary condition (in this case the Lockean Proviso) to the principle of transfer must he not also grant that courtesy to others? I'm unwilling to assert that there aren't other, plausible limiting conditions which might be attached to the principle of transfer which would invalidate the transfer of money to Wilt Chamberlain.


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