Nozick’s Justice Essay

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One of the most important topics in political theory is how the state should be justified. The minimal state, in Robert Nozick's opinion, is the most expansive state that can be supported. The liberties of state residents are violated whenever the minimal state is expanded. There is no such thing as an ideal state; the minimum state is the ideal state. But what we have is what might be described as an improper or ultra-minimal condition. This incredibly minimal state retains a forced monopoly by only providing services to those who pay for them. According to Nozick, the function of state is to protect property which is essentially a bundle of rights. These include the right to acquire property, use it, dispose it as well as the right to forfeit property. Justice demands that I should be able to exercise all the rights that come with my property. (Honoré 1961) The state is the body that is in charge of prohibiting the capitalist actions that the author speaks of. The fact is that such a state cannot come up without violating anyone’s rights. Therefore, the theory of state ends up creating conflict with Nozicks’s theory of justice.

The Entitlement Theory

Robert Nozick’s distributive justice has its foundation on the entitlement theory which is composed of three major elements of justice on holdings. These include the original acquisition of holdings which deals with how un-held chateaus are appropriated. The second element deals with the transfer of the said holdings from individual to individual in a society. The third element of the theory of entitlement is concerned with the rectification of injustice as far the first two principles are concerned. (Nozick 1974) In an ideal society, distributive justice would be exhaustively covered under the following summary.

An individual who acquires property in accordance with the principle of justice in holding legitimately acquires rights to the said property.

Any individual who acquires property in compliance with the principle of justice in transfer, from an individual who has legitimate property rights, is entitled to the same property rights.

Legitimate property rights can only arise out of the application of 1 and 2 above.

To put this in perspective, the author prefers a historical theory of distributive justice to patterned theory and end-state theory. This simply implies that what happened in the past affects present and future holdings. Therefore, an individual who does not have a legitimate right to property cannot pass a good title to another. However, we do not exist in a just society and some individuals will steal, defraud or enslave others. Injustice arising out of past injustice necessitates the principle of rectification. The principle of rectification revolves around remedying injustice in the acquisition as well as the transfer of property. According to Robert Nozick, a socialist society would have to ‘forbid capitalist acts involving consenting adults.’ (Nozick 1974) I agree that the socialist state needs to impose some kind of control over capitalist actions. In essence, he says that the private sector poses a threat to a socialist republic if left alone to do as they please. The next sections will shed more light on the need for Nozick’s claim.

Liberty and Patterns

According F.A Hayek, distributive justice in a society can be achieved via the perceived value of a person’s actions in society rather than moral merit. This is because we cannot know adequately about every individual’s actions to effectively distribute to them based on moral merit. Patterned distribution principle varies distribution based on a natural dimension. Basis for patterning include needs, effort, marginal product, moral merit and so on. (Nozick 1974) The author uses an example of Wilt Chamberlain, an NBA professional and that of an entrepreneur in a socialist society to illustrate his argument. In a liberal society, patterns are interfered with by people choosing to act in ways that would benefit them. This informs the need for constant interference to prevent the transfer of holdings as people choose.

The end-state principle is unrealistic because it is based on three assumptions. It assumes that every individual will want to maintain the existing pattern. The individuals that deviate from this pre-established pattern are subjected to self-criticism or re-educated. It also assumes that every individual in the state has access to information on the consequences of his actions as well as the current activities of others. As a result, they are in apposition to know which of their actions are bound to upset the pattern. Moreover, the end-state principle also assumes that individuals in a diverse society can coordinate their actions effectively to dovetail the pre-established pattern. (Nozick 1974) In any liberal society, voluntary actions of individuals under transfer justice are bound to thwart any attempt at patterning. It therefore goes without saying that an end-state theory rises some instability concerns. This can be remedied by an entitlement system.

Constant interference is a necessary evil if the achievement of a patterned distribution or end-state principle is to be realized. This is involves either stopping individuals from transferring property or holdings to others in the society or taking a percentage of the earnings from the transfer of property. If you think about it for a second, the author is talking about the need for taxation in order to control capitalist transactions in a socialist state. Entitlement to property includes the right to dispose of the said property. Nozick’s Social justice dictates that constraints be placed upon the choice to exercise these rights. A legitimate patterning therefore operates under social justice and is thus constrained the rights of individuals. Under the entitlement theory, redistribution is a critical issues since it involves the violation of rights of individuals except in cases where it serves the purpose of rectification. Taxation is one of the main methods through which redistribution is achieved. Locke’s proviso requires that appropriation justice should not worsen the situation of others, that is, upon appropriation of un-held property, there should be enough and as good left in common for the other members of the society.

For instance, I cannot purchase the only well in a desert for miles and charge what I please. Based on the Lockean proviso, there are limits to his rights over the well even though it is legitimately his holding. It is the same principle that comes into play where the owner of a private island cannot castaway a shipwrecked individual from his ‘property.’ This does not imply that the owners have lost or have no rights to their holdings, no. Under this extraordinary circumstances, their rights to do as they please with their property are temporary suspended to avert a catastrophe. The author says it is necessary for a socialist state to limit or forbid capitalist actions between consenting adults so as control how the appropriative actions of individuals affect others in the society.

This is especially true where public resources are concerned. There needs to be some limit as to how much control an individual can exercise over scarce resources that other members of the society require. However there are exceptions to this, if an individual takes total supply of resources that are adequate and easily obtainable then he or she does not worsen the welfare of other members of the society. This is also the case where an individual discovers a new resource, that is, his appropriation of all of that substance does not leave the other members of the society in lesser or worse state. (Nozick 1974)Therefore, forbidding acts between capitalists in a socialist state should be done selectively and only in instances where total appropriation would not leave enough and as good left for everyone else. Nozick’s entitlement means that an individual can exercise all the rights that come with legitimate holdings. This includes the disposal and destruction of the said holdings. In essence, this means that if an individual can purchase a state then he or she can dismantle it without regard for the welfare of other members of the society. Of course this is a worst-case-scenario but it clearly paints a picture of what would happen in the long-run if capitalist acts in a socialist state were allowed to go on unchecked.

Uncontrolled capitalism is a threat to society hence the need to exercise some sort of checks upon the acts of consenting adults. Based on this, a limit has to be placed on the enjoyment of the rights on property to ensure that others don’t fall below their baseline position. Where the bequest of a resource is limited then there must be constraints to the exercise of rights to property by the legitimate holder. Nozick uses an example of patents to illuminate what it means to worsen another’s position or not. A patent holder invents a previously non-existent property, as a result, he or she is entitled to all the rights that come with the intention. However, this inconveniences other independent inventors and denies them the right to enjoy their own invention. This informs the enforcement of a time limit on patents. (Nozick 1974)

The society that we live in is a venture for mutual benefit based on cooperation. Identity of interests leads to conflict more so where property is concerned. The political theory put forth by Robert Nozick emphasizes on a historical theory of entitlement. Legitimate owners of a title pass a legitimate title once they chose to transfer their holdings. Sometimes, the title passed is illegitimate because of pre-existing injustices. Distributive justice calls for an intervention to help rectify the said injustice. In modern societies, courts have the duty of rectifying injustices that arise out property acquisition, transfer, disposal or destruction. (Waldron 2012) Moreover, the same distributive justice dictates that legitimate title grants the owner the right to do as he pleases with his property. The state exists to protect the property rights of individuals in the society. In addition, the state has a duty to forbid capitalists acts that impact societal welfare in negative light. This presents a sort of conflict of interest with the entitlement theory in that the same arm that is charged with protecting the property rights of individuals is required to forbid acts of capitalism between the same individuals.

As previously stated, the state has a fundamental duty of the state is the protection of the rights of its citizens. For the sake of our argument these rights are property rights; the right to acquire, use, sell, dismantle and dispose of their legitimate holdings. This compounded by Robert Nozick’s invisible hand theory presents a problem, that an individual can buy a state and dismantle it with reckless abandon. (Lahno 2013) To remedy this, Nozick contends that a state would have to forbid capitalist actions between its citizenry if it goes against Locke’s proviso. Locke’s proviso holds that an individual’s appropriation of private property should ensure that there is enough and as good left for other members of the society.


In conclusion, I concur with Nozick on the need to constrain individual choices in a socialist state on how to deal with their holdings. The right to property does not include the use of the said right to violate the rights of other individuals. (Nozick 1974) The state is charged with the right to protect the property of its citizenry. This seems to contradict Nozick’s claim in that it curtails the freedom of this same individuals it is supposed to protect. This is not the case however since in forbidding specific capitalist acts and constraining the actions of its citizens in their exercise of property rights, the state ensures that Locke’s proviso is Therefore, the state reserves the right to forbid capitalist acts between consenting adults in a socialist republic if it serves a utilitarian purpose.


Honoré A. M. (1961), “Ownership”, in: Guest, A. G. (ed.), Oxford Essays on Jurisprudence,

Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lahno, B. (2013), “Can the Social Contract Be Signed by an Invisible Hand—A New Debate on an Old Question”, Rationality, Markets and Morals Vol. 4, 39–43.

Nozick, R. (1974), Anarchy, State, and Utopia, New York: Basic Books. — (1997), Socratic Puzzles, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Waldron, J. (2012), “Property and Ownership”, in: Zalta, E. N. (Ed.). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2012 Edition), URL:

July 07, 2023
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