Sunday, May 4, 2008

Justice by holdings

by Aimee Mesiona
ADDU Graduate Student

Justice by holdings is a response to the concept of distributive justice. Nozick argues that “distributive” justice seems to assume that there should be some agent greater than the individuals within society that decides how primary goods should be allocated among its citizens. In a truly democratic situation, the reality is that individuals have control over varied resources, and it is through voluntary acts and exchanges of goods that new holdings arise. Every person is entitled to decide for himself which goods to keep, to acquire or to exchange. One can do whatever he or she wants to do with his or her possessions.


Nozick asserts that justice should be concerned with the acquisition of things not formerly possessed (original acquisition of holdings), how possessions can be transferred from one citizen to another (transfer of holdings), and the things that must be done to correct violations of the previous two. By the first principle, justice in acquisition, an individual is entitled to own whatever he makes or creates. He or she is also entitled to own something that has not been previously owned by anyone, as long as his act of possessing it does not leave other individuals in a worse condition than they are already in. In both cases, the properties are originally acquired. By the second principle, justice in transfer, holdings are acquired through the proper and voluntary exchange between two individuals. There should be no coercion coming from an outside entity (such as the state) that makes the individual participate in such an exchange. Therefore, it would be wrong for a government agency to force a well-off citizen to give up his resources and transfer them to less fortunate citizens for the sake of the general good of society.

By the third principle, holdings acquired through neither the principle of justice in acquisition nor the principle of justice in transfer, are not just holdings. Acts such as stealing, fraud, slavery, aggression and forms of force are examples of unjust methods of acquiring holdings. In a minimal state, it is only these crimes that the government would have the power to rectify. Nozick summarizes his principles in the following statement: From each as they choose, to each as they are chosen. Each individual gives only what he chooses. Each individual gets only that which he/she has made for himself/herself or that which other individuals have freely chosen to give to him/her from their own justly acquired lot.

Nozick’s Justice by Holdings differs greatly from Rawls’ principles. One clear conflict between the two is that Rawls advocates the duty of those who are better off to ensure the improvement of those who are the worst-off. Nozick disagrees that there exists such a duty; he asserts that any aid given by one individual to another should be completely voluntary. In Rawls’ theory, the state plays a major role in ensuring the proper allocation of rights, duties and social and economic goods. Nozick, on the other hand, discourages any involvement of the government except in ensuring that the voluntary acquisition and exchange of goods is in no way violated. There is to be no agency of central distribution of goods. While Rawls’ take on distributive justice may be said to be “patterned” (that is, there is an end-state in mind) in that he prescribes how social and economic inequalities should be structured, Nozick only adopts a “free market” policy governed fully by the voluntary decisions of individuals (who would take into account the benefits that he or she would get from these transactions).