Monday, September 14, 2009

The rectification principle

Next week will see me back teaching political philosophy for the first time in over four years.

Though it will only be two lectures, it is still exciting to reread the classics and try to come up with new smart ideas about how to teach them. For one thing, when covering Nozick, I will put some extra emphasize on his rectification principle since it, at least by some interpretations, has some rather interesting implications for his more general entitlement theory.

As we all know, Nozick argued that the demands of liberty effectively upset any “patterned” distribution. According to him, we have to accept prevailing social inequalities if these are the results of (a) free and voluntary exchanges and based on (b) just initial acquisition. Since we know that human history did not at all unfold along such lines we can reasonably assume that the people who are rich today are, at least partially, rich because of different transgressions in the past (think slavery, colonization or, why not, simply theft). Because of this problem of historical injustices, Nozick (on page 231 in “Anarchy, State and Utopia”) writes:

“For example, lacking much historical information, and assuming (1) that victims of injustices generally do worse than they otherwise would and (2) that those from the least well-off group in the society have the highest probabilities of being the (descendents of) victims of the most serious injustice who are owed compensation by those who benefited from the injustices […], then a rough role of thumb for rectifying injustices might seem to be the following: organize society so as to maximize the position of whatever group end up least well-off in the society.”

On this and some other pages (especially 152-153), Nozick finds himself sliding into acknowledging the need for a one time redistribution according to, yes, the Difference Principle. The problem is, how exactly do we carry out a “one time redistribution”? As many theorists of justice have pointed out, it is not like that we can take all our monetary resources and put them in one big heap that we then divide fairly. Even if carried out that way, it would only take a short while until many of the old injustices would reappear since the most valuable things in a late-capitalist economy tend to be not only immaterial but also very demanding to redistribute. Just think of the role that our upbringing plays in what opportunities we are able to identify and pursue. To avoid the spectre of paternalism in the process of redistribution, there are good reasons why we should opt for “slower” means of redistribution (such as making health insurances universal or higher education free) rather than “faster” means (such as re-education camps)... All in all, it seems that we indirectly have arrived at a justification of a rather extensive welfare state :-)

(which, of course, can be justified on other and more civilized non-Nozickian grounds)



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