Introduction to Political Theory

(Marvins-Underground-K-12) #1

Nozick’s starting point: private property rights

The very first line of Anarchy, State, and Utopiareads: ‘individuals have rights, and
there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights)’
(Nozick, 1974: ix). Jonathan Wolff argues that Nozick is a ‘one-value’ political
philosopher (Wolff, 1991: 3–4). Other philosophers accept that there is more than
one value; for example, they might maintain freedom is important, but so is equality,
and since freedom and equality often conflict we need a method for resolving that
conflict. Rawls’s twoprinciples of justice express this idea. Wolff maintains that
Nozick’s one value is private property, or, more precisely, the rightto private
property. When we use the term property in everyday speech we tend to think of
real estate. Everyday usage is not wrong, but political philosophers have a wider
conception of private property: it is the legally sanctioned (or morally legitimate)
appropriation of things. A rightis an advantage held against another person – if
you have a right, then another person has a duty to do something (or notdo
something: that is, not interfere), so a right is a relationship between people. Bringing
together the two concepts – private property and rights – we can say that a right
to private property entails the exclusion of other people from the use of something.
Nozick’s ‘entitlement theory’ of justice is based on the inviolability of private
property rights. There are three parts to the theory:

Part 1: Just acquisition
Part 2: Just transfer
Part 3: Rectification.

Just acquisition – Locke and Nozick

The first question to ask is: how did anybody acquire the right to exclude other
people from something? Nozick draws on the work of John Locke (1632–1704),
specifically, his defence of private property, especially his argument for ‘first
acquisition’. We have to imagine a historical situation in which nobody owns
anything, and then explain (justify) the parcelling up of that which has hitherto
been held in common. The standard interpretation of Locke is that he was
attempting to reconcile Christianity and capitalism at a time – the seventeenth
century – when capitalism was beginning to replace feudalism as the dominant form
of economic organisation. Locke began with three Christian premises:

  1. God had entrusted the material world to human beings, who were its stewards
    and thus had a duty to respect it.

  2. The implication of 1 is that the world is owned in common by humanity.

  3. God as creator had rights to what he created. As God’s creatures human beings
    have a duty to God to preserve themselves.
    Capitalism poses a challenge because it was wasteful of natural resources, which
    violates stewardship; capitalism implied private ownership and not common
    ownership, and it threatened to push large numbers of people into poverty and
    starvation, thus undermining their capacity to fulfil their duty to God to preserve
    themselves. For example, in seventeenth-century England we begin to see the

Chapter 4 Justice 85
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