An Assessment of Robert Nozick's Entitlement Theory

on Tuesday, 25 May 2010

An Assessment of Robert Nozick’s Entitlement Theory

“The minimal state is the most extensive state that can be justified. Any state more extensive violates people’s rights.” (Robert Nozick)


Robert Nozick was one of the most influential political philosophers of the 20th century. In 1974, he published the book “Anarchy, State and Utopia”, which would eventually become a modern classic of Political Philosophy. In “Anarchy, State and Utopia”, Nozick developed a political theory which he named “Entitlement Theory”. He argued that the minimal state is the most extensive state that can be justified, and that any state more extensive violates people’s rights. (1974, p. 149) By minimal state he meant a State that is limited to the provision of security to its citizens and the enforcement of contracts.

The aim of this essay is to determine to what extent Nozick’s attack on distributive justice can be deemed as an efficient one. The first part of this essay will be dedicated to a more detailed exposition of Nozick’s theory. The second part is a discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of his arguments. In the conclusion, a verdict is given on whether Nozick is or is not successful in his attempt to prove that redistribution is unjustifiable.


Nozick’s entitlement theory is based on the following three principles:

1. A person who acquires a holding in accordance with the principle of justice in acquisition is entitled to that holding.
2. A person who acquires a holding in accordance with the principle of justice in transfer, from someone else entitled to the holding, is entitled to the holding.
3. No one is entitled to a holding except by repeated applications of 1 and 2.

According to the entitlement theory, people should only possess what they are actually entitled to according to these principles. Nozick doesn’t provide a principle of justice in original acquisition and neither does he provide a principle of justice in transfer. Instead, he resorts to Locke’s theory of property.

He distinguishes between historical and time-slice principles of distributive justice. The entitlement theory is based on historical principles, since historical principles of distributive justice confer to different people what they deserve, taking into account their past actions. On the other hand, end-result principles do not take historical events into consideration. Utilitarian theories are examples of time-slice principles of distributive justice. The core difference between end-result principles and historical principles of justice is that, “in contrast to end-result principles of justice, historical principles of justice hold that past circumstances or actions of people can create differential entitlements or differential deserts to things”.(1974, p. 155)

Nozick also distinguishes between patterned and non-patterned theories of distributive justice. (1974, pp. 155-164) A patterned theory of distributive justice is one that uses a pattern as a reference for how it distributes wealth, such as “to each according to his merit” or “to each according to his needs”. The Entitlement Theory, on the other hand, is not patterned. There is no single criterion that determines the distribution of wealth under the entitlement theory. The criterion is no other than the entitlement to possess something according to the three key principles of distributive justice. What this entails is that the State does not have any power of redistribution, since the distribution must be historical, autonomous and free. Nozick argues that redistributionist states upset the freedom of people to do what they wish with their property, hence they are morally unjust. Any kind of redistribution violates people’s freedoms, or in other words, patterns upset liberty. Nozick’s thesis is that patterned principles of distributive justices do not allow individuals to choose what to do with the holdings they are entitled to. (1974, p.160) In order to illustrate this claim he uses the following example:

“Suppose a distribution favored by one of these non-entitlement conceptions is realized (A patterned theory of justice). Let us suppose it is your favourite one and let us call this distribution D1; perhaps everyone has an equal share, perhaps shares vary in accordance with some dimension you treasure. Now suppose that Wilt Chamberlain is greatly in demand by basketball teams, being a great gate attraction. (Also suppose contracts run only for a year, with players being free agents.) He signs the following sort of contract with a team: In each home game, twenty-five cents from the price of each ticket of admission goes to him. (We ignore the question of whether he is “gouging” the owners, letting them look out for themselves.) The season starts, and people cheerfully attend his team’s games; they buy their tickets, each time dropping a separate twenty-five cents of their admission price into a special box with Chamberlain’s name on it. They are excited about seeing him play; it is worth the total admission price to them. Let us suppose that in one season one million persons attend his home games, and Wilt Chamberlain winds up with $250,000, a much larger sum than anyone else has. Is he entitled to this income? Is this new distribution D2, unjust? If so, why? There is no question about whether each of the people was entitled to the control over the resources they held in D1; because that was the distribution (your favourite) that (for the purposes of argument) we assumed was acceptable. Each of these persons chose to give twenty-five cents of their money to Chamberlain. They could have spent it on going to the movies, or on candy bars, or on copies of Dissent magazine, or of Monthly Review. But they all, at least one million of them, converged on giving it to Wilt Chamberlain in exchange for watching him play basketball. If D1 was a just distribution, and people voluntarily moved 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?” (1974, pp 160-161)

Nozick also claims that redistribution is equivalent to forced labour. He defends such a claim in the following manner:

“Taxation of earnings from labor is on a par with forced labor. Some persons find this claim obviously true: taking the earnings of n hours labor is like taking n hours from the person; it is like forcing the person to work n hours for another’s purpose. Others find the claim absurd. But even these, if they object to forced labor, would oppose forcing unemployed hippies to work for the benefit of the needy. But a system that takes five hours’ wages in taxes does not seem to them like one that forces someone to work five hours, since it offers the person forced a wider range of choices in activities than does taxation in kind with the particular labor specified. (But we can imagine a gradation of systems of forced labor, from one that specifies a particular activity, to one that gives a choice among two activities, to …; and so on up.)” (1974, p. 169)

It follows from the entitlement theory that the only state that can be justified is one that does not perform any kind of redistributionist functions. We will see, in the next section, if such a claim can be successfully defended.


Although Nozick raises some interesting points, I feel compelled to criticize some of the elements of his theory.

1) Perhaps the most significant shortcoming of the entitlement theory is the fact that it is a construction without any foundations. By this I mean that, although the theory is based on three key principles, it does not, in fact, provide any content for those principles. Nozick puts forward the claim that, in order to deserve something, a person must be entitled to it according to the principle of justice in acquisition, the principle of justice in transfer, or the principle of rectification. However, he does not tell us what these principles actually consist of. Consequently, his theory lacks much of the value it could have had if it had been more complete. As it is, it has very little, if any, practical value.

Instead of providing an original principle of justice in acquisition, Nozick refers us to Locke’s theory of property. By doing so, he inherits all of the weaknesses of the Lockean theory of property. This is particularly important since, if the principle of theory in acquisition is flawed, the entire entitlement theory collapses, because this principle constitutes the foundation of all kinds of entitlement to holdings.

In turn, Nozick completely ignores the principle of justice in transfer. How can we know when it is just to transfer holdings from one person to another? The entitlement theory provides no answer to that question, other than suggesting that people are free to transmit their holdings to others if they wish to do so.

Finally, the only principle sufficiently explained, the rectification principle, relies on the other two in order to acquire any meaning, so if the other two principles are void so is the rectification principle.

Overall, the entitlement theory as it has been put forward by Robert Nozick feels incomplete, like a law which has a defined structure but does not have the actual legal dispositions inside it to give it real meaning.

2) A second problem with Nozick’s theory arises from the claim that taxation violates people’s freedom. Such a claim creates some difficulties.
The first problem is that although the claim might be true sometimes, in some cases it is not. Taxation violates a person’s freedom because it is an imposition that goes against one’s personal will. But taxation is only forceful if it is done against the person’s consent. If, on the other hand, the person consents to the terms of the taxation then his freedom is not being violated. Now consider the notion of a contract of citizenship. By this I am referring to the arrangement by which a person voluntarily agrees to become a citizen of a state. Citizenship implies, for the neo-citizen, the acceptance of certain obligations to the state. The reason why the neo-citizen agrees to oblige derives from the benefits of citizenship, that is, the rights he will gain by being a citizen of that State. The citizenship contract is therefore a rational agreement by which the citizen accepts to perform certain duties in exchange for the commodities that the State provides. Amongst these duties is, often, if not always, the duty of paying some taxes in order to benefit from the services that the State provides.
However, the argument of the contract of citizenship cannot be applied to all citizens, for there are at least two ways of acquiring the citizenship of a country. The first one is by voluntary acquisition, hence a contract of citizenship. The second is by inheritance. A person who inherits a citizenship is someone who is given, without his consent, the status of citizenship. While in the first case the decision to acquire citizenship is voluntary, in the second case it is imposed. Someone who is born in the USA generally does not have the choice not to be an American citizen. He is an American citizen not because he decided to be one, but because he inherited that condition. A critic might claim that the person could decide to renounce to the American citizenship when he is old enough. However, this is not a real option. He cannot renounce his American citizenship because he would have no citizenship at all if he did. Where would he go? Where would he live? How would he make a living? For someone who is born in a country in which/where citizenship is inherited it is not a matter of choice but a fruit of circumstance that the individual is not responsible for. Whereas in the first case, citizenship is a matter of choice, in the second case it is not. Hence, the claim that taxation violates people’s rights cannot be sustained in the cases where citizenship is acquired via contract, but it can still be sustained in the situations where citizenship is inherited.
I have admitted that, in the cases where citizenship is inherited taxation indeed violates peoples’ freedom. However, this claim does not suggest that the violation of people’s freedom for the purpose of taxation is never justified. In fact, the very notion of political community implies that, sometimes, violations of people’s freedoms are necessary in order to achieve the greater good. This last sentence can be interpreted in a myriad of ways, from the utilitarian views that put the well-being of the community ahead of the rights of the individual, to the socialist theories that deemphasize the importance of private property, to liberals who sanctify property rights and civil liberties. However, all of these views share the assumption that some compromises must be made in order to make the existence of the State viable. Nozick’s mistake is to assume that because an action violates someone’s freedom, that action is not justified. This view, libertarian as it is, cannot coexist with any vision of a political community. The violations of people’s freedom, the use of coercion, and the punishment of individuals are all undesirable actions that are asked for by any State precisely because they are necessary in order to maintain any form of the State. The only alternative to this is a condition of anarchy, which is indeed closely associated to libertarian views. Nozick, nevertheless, rejects anarchism in order to embrace a different kind of political theory, one that accepts the existence of the State, but advocates the cause of total freedom. Such a view is nevertheless an impossibility in itself.
The contradictory nature of Nozick’s position is revealed in yet another matter. Nozick says that all redistributionist policies are illegitimate, since they violate the entitlements of persons to the holdings they possess. From this it follows that the State must not be allowed to perform any kind of redistributive measures. Hence Nozick constructs the notion of a minimal State, whose functions are limited to the protection against force and the enforcement of contracts, arguing that this is the only kind of State that can be justified. However, aren’t the provisions of security and the enforcement of contracts redistributionist activities to some extent? And why should we consider the provision of a necessity such as security legitimate, and consider other necessities such as education or healthcare illegitimate? Why is it legitimate to tax people in order to pay soldiers, policemen and judges, but it is not legitimate to tax people in order to raise the money to pay the salaries of school teachers and doctors? Nozick would probably say that whereas education and healthcare are private goods, security is a public good. This makes sense on economic terms, but considering that Nozick claims that it is illegitimate for the State to do anything that violates people’s freedom, then it would not be justified to tax people for any reason at all, as long as they do not want to be, no matter if the money is going to be destined to pay for private or public goods. Should we not consider that the state is violating the freedom of pacifists when it taxes them in order to pay for the salaries of soldiers and to buy new weapons? On the other hand, isn’t it a valid claim that not only is investing in the army, the police and the courts in the interest of the entire population, but investing in public roads, bridges, tunnels and gardens, or even in a good public education system is also in the general interest of the people? In the modern world can anyone truthfully reject the claim that a good education system is as important as a powerful army in order to achieve national prosperity? And if this is true, why would the enforcement of contracts and the provision of security be more justified than the creation of a good public system of roads or even a good educational infrastructure? Certainly, the criteria of public interest cannot be defended after considering these arguments.

3) Nozick could choose to reply to the last objection by saying that the prerogatives of the minimal state are inherited from the historical process of formation of the State, as he describes it in “Anarchy, State, and Utopia”. However, this would not be a sufficient response, since it would raise two new difficulties. First, in order to vindicate his claim it would be necessary to prove beyond all doubt that his conception of the formation of the State corresponds to the truth. Second, even if his account of the formation of the State was true, this would still not entail that the minimal State is justified simply because it happens naturally. If this were correct, then the redistributive state would also have to be justified on the claim that it happens naturally since almost every, if not all states in the World are in fact redistributive States, and not minimal States (using Nozick’s terminology). In the first part of his book, Nozick tries to prove that we would fall into a minimal state even if we did not want to. However, history showed us that we also end up falling into a redistributive state even if we don’t have that intention. It is no coincidence that no state in the world is a minimal state (using Nozick’s terminology), since the transition from the minimal to the redistributive state is a natural political evolution that can be observed all over the world and throughout the entire history of man. Finally, natural evolution does not necessarily mean legitimacy. Therefore, the fact that the minimal state is a natural evolution from the state of nature could not in any case provide legitimacy to Nozick’s minimal State.


In this essay I have tried to outline Nozick’s arguments against the idea of redistributive justice and to establish if they could be successfully defended or not. My conclusion is that Nozick’s position is flawed. I have argued that there are a number of problems with Nozick’s theory which cannot be overcome. A significant flaw on the construction of the Entitlement Theory is its lack of content. Although Nozick creates a framework for the theory, he “forgets” to insert the content of two of its three principles. Instead, he uses Locke’s theory of property which does not clarify what the principle of justice in transfer should be, while providing a controversial solution for the issue of the principle of justice in acquisition. As a result, the Entitlement Theory is incomplete. However, Nozick’s “original sin” is to claim that a violation of people’s rights cannot be justified. This claim is the source of the many difficulties of Nozick’s position which have been discussed in this essay. Nozick argues that the violation of people’s freedom cannot be justified and that, therefore, redistribution is illegitimate, but by doing this he sets himself a trap. How can you justify any form of taxation if taxation is a violation of people’s freedom and violating people’s freedom cannot be justified? Nozick tries to justify this by arguing in favor of a minimal state, however his arguments are not even sufficient to justify the minimal state itself or even to sufficiently distinguish the basis of the legitimacy of the minimal state from any other kind of State. Nozick’s attempt to demonstrate that “the most extensive state that can be justified is the minimal state” is interesting, but his argumentation is ultimately inefficient, and hence so is his attack on the idea of social justice.


NOZICK, R. 1974. Anarchy, State and Utopia, Maldon (USA); Oxford (UK); Carlton (Australia) Blackwell.


Roberta said...

Nozick explicitly says that taxes are justified if citizens consent to be taxed.

Plus, 'Nozick’s mistake is to assume that because an action violates someone’s freedom, that action is not justified.' That is not Nozick's mistake, it is the result of Kantian principle that he is basing his theory on - persons can only be ends and never means. There is punishment in minimal state (how did you miss more than a third of Nozick's book?) and he shows how nothing more is necessary for a minimal State to function.

'Aren’t the provisions of security and the enforcement of contracts redistributionist activities to some extent?' Nozick devotes a large part of book to prove that it is not and explicitly says that it is not. Did you even read the book, sir?

There are several more mistakes in this article. Maybe Nozick's theory has contradictions, but none of them are portrayed in this article, which is based purely on misconceptions.

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