Mike Konczal has a post over at Next New Deal today about rents and Nozick. He uses Nozick’s famous Wilt Chamberlain argument as a counterpoint to the anti-rentier arguments that have been floating around recently (see mine here). Nozick’s argument basically challenges people to explain what is unjust about people voluntarily giving an extra bit of money to Wilt Chamberlain when they go see him play. In context, his argument is against using patterned distributive principles altogether (for instance, Rawls’ difference principle).
His basic argument is that even if we grant that patterned distributions are just, they immediately become distorted by people then going out and spending that which they have just been distributed. But surely spending what you have been distributed how you’d like is the whole point of being distributed it in the first place isn’t it? So even a patterned distribution, if sufficiently free, eventually falls in on itself and generates the very inequality it seeks to prohibit. I never thought this was that serious a challenge to the idea of patterned distribution. Nozick bemoans the fact that you would have to constantly intervene to keep getting the distribution back where you want it, and my thought is just “ok that’s fine, let’s do that then.” After all, property institutions also require constant, interminable state interventions. What’s the difference?
Konczal takes a different approach and says that we should separate out the ability to pay your money to whomever you want and being able to receive and keep whatever you get. He says that folks only have a right to do the first, not the latter. And it is the latter that anti-rentier arguments get at. Anti-rentier arguments complain that the rentier — even though arriving at their rents through “voluntary” (libertarian definition of that term) means — does not deserve to keep what they are getting for one reason or another. Usually the reason is something like: rents are money for nothing and that is unfair.
It is interesting that Konczal trots out Nozick as the counterpoise in this debate because Nozick actually turns on this argument, in a way, later on in his life. In four pages of his book “The Examined Life,” Nozick lays out a flurry of arguments against certain types of inheritance, the classic money-for-nothing unearned income. I conveniently scanned those four pages here.
Generally, Nozick is fine with inheritance across one generation. So a mother can leave her estate to her daughter. What he does not like is inheritance across two generations. So if that daughter then leaves that estate down to her son, that is not cool. Why? Nozick gives a variety of reasons. Here are some:
- Passing on inheritance to third generations involves giving money to a party unknown by the original donor, which negates the reason for donations in the first place: expressions of love and care and bonds.
- Third generation inheritance produces “continuing inequalities of wealth and position” and these “resulting inequalities seem unfair.”
- The specialness of the wealth being bequeathed is precisely that the donor created it, imbuing it with their identity, and expressions of their self. This is severed in third-generation inheritance.
Nozick says a few other things in those pages, some of them really bizarre. This whole book is really bizarre to be honest. But his proposal for fixing this problem — he modifies it a few times even in just these four pages — is simple enough. When a person dies, subtract from their estate that which they inherited from other people previously. So if I got $5k from my dad, and then left $8k to my daughter, when I died the state would take $5k from my estate, leaving my daughter with only $3k. That would be the marginal increment that I actually added to the inheritance. You can imagine pretty easily how dramatically this would cut off inheritance.
What I think is interesting here is that even though Nozick is making some really sentimental arguments here, he is also making arguments about injustice. He specifically objects to the resulting inequalities of chains of inheritance as themselves being unfair. It is not just that you got some dead money that doesn’t have the spirit of the original donor infused within it that causes him to object to your inheriting third-generation money, it’s the inequalities too that bother him. He also implicitly accepts the idea that you are flat out not entitled to give money to whomever you like or receive money from whomever wants to give it to you, contra the Chamberlain example above. He accepts that society can step in and prevent that if it has good reason.
I’d read the four pages to get a better sense of what is going on here, but I think there are some anti-rentier sentiments in this, at minimum a belief that no one is specifically entitled to do what they want with what they inherit. That suggests to me that he views inheritance as a special kind of thing separate from other kinds of income, you know like unearned money for nothing. Nozick specifically calls the inheritor a “non-earner” at one point. So there’s also that.