The only constraints Nozick places on property is that it should be ‘justly acquired’ (not stolen or gained via the forced labour of others), ‘justly transferred’ (fair price given – not cheated or robbed), and the ‘rectification of injustice’ (giving back property that was stolen or otherwise unjustly taken).
If one were to accept Nozick’s view, the result would be a society with huge economic inequalities. There is also the problem with individuals, through no fault of their own, not being able to support themselves. Relying on philanthropy and personal savings that one has been able to save doesn’t seem ‘just’ – especially if one is a pauper and kept at the mercy of the bourgeoisie. In this sense a worker may accept a wage cut, but how much true liberty do they have in making this decision? It could be argued in a society which has no ‘safety net’ welfare system, very little.
Nozick goes onto state that we have ‘self-ownership’ of the things we create. This would therefore suggest that the proletariat working in factories, and the like, would have a right to what they produce since they have mixed their labour with it. But in a capitalist society, which Nozick supports, this would be, and is, the case. There therefore seems to be a rule for some and another for others with Nozick’s idea of ‘self-ownership’, which seriously undermines the legitimacy of his justice.
Furthermore, history shows us that a great deal of initial acquisition of property was unjust: based on theft, slavery and colonisation. All property that derives from unjust acquisition being unjustly held, one does not have the right to transfer said property, nor does the recipient have the right to what they are receiving. It would, moreover, prove very difficult, if not impossible, to rectify the injustice of the past, as Nozick thinks one should do, since we have no way of establishing what belongs to who in many cases. The conclusion we are forced to draw is that Nozick’s theory has no application if we cannot start from a just beginning.
Marx, on the other hand, focused on the plight of the proletariat, who, having nothing but their labours to sell are exploited by the bourgeoisie; who are in turn protected by the state which keeps private property legal: allowing a small number of individuals to own the ‘commanding heights’ or means of production. In such circumstances people cannot make use of their right to ‘self-ownership’ as Nozick claims, for they are creating items for the profit of the bourgeois and not themselves.
Marx therefor believed in a needs based theory of justice. This would entail the abolition of private property and see that every man, woman and child gets what they need and gives what they can. The principle can be summed up as thus, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”
Property does, however, seem to come naturally to human beings with philosophers such as John Locke claiming it is a ‘Natural Right’. When one takes the liberal view that we are rational, self-seeking, egotistical beings, it only seems right that the acquisition of property should follow. It is also true that the large percentages of the states in the world are run this way. Though this on its own cannot justify private property, it does heavily suggest that there will always be a place for private property no matter what your vison of the ‘prefect’ society is. Furthermore, one could argue that private property offers the allure of material success that motivates people to work. Even if one does not buy this argument, Rawls claimed that injustice in the distribution of property in society can work to the advantage to the poorest in society – via a welfare state etc.
Rawls invented the ‘veil of ignorance’ to prove in the ‘original position’ what justice should be. As virtue of us, humans, being free rational beings, we would consent to a free market state, but only as long as rights were guaranteed and protection for the poor put in place. For the freedom to starve is no freedom at all. We would agree to these conditions for human life, since we would not know, in theory, what our race, creed, religion, talents, opinions or health would be in advance. In this sense it is reasonable to assume that we are rational egotistical beings, for it makes sense, and is in our own self-interest, to want these conditions. As for the capitalist free market aspect, wealth creation can be the only means by which the poorest in society can benefit; via the state taxing the rich and redistributing some of it to the poor.
In this hypothetical situation we would have legal and foundational equality, as well as equality of opportunity. No one should be disadvantaged by the outcome of natural chance, the contingency of circumstances or choice of principles. In this light, the racist and the liberal would both be permitted to criticise each other; prevented from physically harming each other; and neither allowed to alter or remove foundational equality from the constitution. Importantly, Rawls thinks that once a certain level of martial wealth has been acquired (£26,000 a year in the UK), then we would value such legal and foundational rights more; as well as basic liberties such as freedom of speech and association. Thus liberty will be preferred to less liberty, but greater wealth.
This leads to Rawls’ ‘difference principle’, that we would choose to maximise the minimum level of welfare. This would create a society with a smaller gap between the rich and the poor, but also a smaller average wealth. One can object to this and state that it makes more sense to maximise the average level of wealth, especially if there is equality of opportunity meaning that one can improve oneself.
However, one could imagine a society which is less prosperous, but more ‘just’ –something based alone the lines of Marx’s desert theory. Conversely, however, justice, in terms of the distribution of property, actually comes from prosperity and wealth creation gained and produced by some, so that others can benefit from the resulting taxation of said people.
In conclusion, only Rawls can offer a theory of justice that appears sensible to the rational egotistical being; as well as avoiding the un-pragmatic approaches of Marx and Nozick. Even is one does not accept Rawls’ theory of justice – for one may be very rich and have lots of land – then at least it shows one what justice should look like.