Libertarian Philosophy: Rawls and Nozick on Liberty & Equality – Learn Liberty

Libertarian Philosophy: Rawls and Nozick on Liberty & Equality – Learn Liberty


One way to think about this tension between
liberty and equality is to look at an exchange that took place between two of the great American
political philosophers in the 20th century, Robert Nozick and John Rawls. John Rawls had
argued that equality was really the benchmark, the moral benchmark, for social and political
institutions and that any deviation from equality had to be specially justified. Nozick argued
by contrast, he responded by saying, that liberty upsets patterns. Here’s what he
meant by that. He starts with your preferred signature of distribution of goods or distribution
of assets, whatever it is. The minute you allow human beings the freedom to make choices
all on their own, they’re going to start upsetting that pattern because they’re going
to make choices that you can’t predict based on their own unique schedule, preferences,
and values, so the would-be planners faced with something of a decision to make. If you
want to respect human liberty, you’re going to have to give up on the beautiful plan you
have. On the other hand, if you’re not going to give up on the beauty of your pattern,
then you’re going have to interfere with the liberty and choices of human beings, all
the time, at every stage, at every iteration. So we are faced with a similar choice, aren’t
we? Is equality so important to us that we think that we should and are justified in
interfering with people’s liberty? Nozick’s answer to that was no. And the classic liberals
answer is also no.

Author: Kennedi Daugherty

61 thoughts on “Libertarian Philosophy: Rawls and Nozick on Liberty & Equality – Learn Liberty

  1. @XulChris Okay so problems in 460 chars: 1) They both believed that equality "giving people equal consideration" was the baseline for moral systems, Nozick's system is equality (in terms of equal rights) based not freedom based. 2) Rawl's system could much more accurately be described as maximising the minimum share rather than total equality unless 'special circumstances'. 3) Nozick's criticism is valid, however he fails to provide a defensible alternative, so this videos presentation is poor.

  2. @TakeFiv3 Well it is 1:35, what do you expect? They aren't here here to completely debunk anyone that disagrees with them in a video sitting. They are to make statements and answers to many issues that are often asked associated with economics from a Libertarian perspective.

  3. @TravistheHuman Robert Nozick's book "Anarchy State, And Utopia" is beyond brilliant. Other good ones are "Liberalism" by Ludwig von Mises and "For A New Liberty" by Murray N Rothbar. Those are on liberty. As far as equality I'm not too sure. The only one I've read on that is Karl Marx's work. Which is pretty good but since he was a pioneer it's not as fleshed out some one adding on to his work would have been.

  4. anarchy or utopia are theoretical idealistic situations which are literally not realistic. reality should be and is balanced between.

  5. @TakeFiv3 No, a truly ridiculous oversimplification would be the proposal of a single unquestioned solution with un-scrutinized implications made immutable by the masses and backed by standing armies

  6. @Ash243x
    So what we are saying here is that, in the absence of a state, a person will revert back to a kind of neanderthalic, barbarous murder-frenzy in which he just kills at rapes at his own leisure because… why?

  7. @Ash243x I'm curious about where you live, every citizen must have a police officer following every movement, lest they resort to murderous rampages. Do you really think the reason people don't kill and rape each other is because of the presence of a state? Of course the greatest maker of peace is not the state, but open trade. As Bastiat noted, when goods do not cross borders, soldiers will.

  8. @Ash243x
    Man. You must have just the most pessimistic view of your fellow man as is possible for one person to have.
    News shows? News is all about showing the negative. "Everything is totally ok and nothing was dicked up today" is not news, that's the norm.

    Besides, why would we escalate into chaos? I don't know if you have, perhaps, interacted with very many people, but your average person is a sane, rational human being who has at least some capacity for empathy.

  9. @Ash243x
    Oh, also, the rape and murder rates and, indeed, the rates of forcible felonies and general have been consistently in decline for the past decade. Rape and murder are becoming less likely, not more so.

  10. @Ash243x The only way the rich have more power than the poor is if they are in bed with the government, and that is not true capitalism. The rich are rich because of "The poor" and if their services do not benefit "the poor" as good or better than a competitor they will no longer be rich.. When a person does violate or restrict the liberties of another person that is what the court of law is for. But you don't punish actions before they happen.

  11. Oversimplification of both arguments.

    Rawls theory starts by hypothetically putting a person behind a 'veil of ignorance,' where they don't know what their social standing was, or how much wealth they had. Then asking that person to design society. The resulting design would not allow someone who had started with a position of wealth, prestige, intelligence, to live a dramatically better life than the person of lower standing.

    Nozick had a great response, but I don't have the space to say why

  12. Berlin: "There is no intrinsic link between individual liberty and democratic rule, because the answer to the question ‘Who governs me?’ is logically separate from the question ‘How far does the government interfere with me?’ The desire to be governed by myself, or at any rate to participate in the political process by which my life is to be controlled, may be as deep a wish as that of a free area for action, and perhaps historically older. But it is not a desire for the same thing."

  13. Sure, although after a second look I think the professor actually did justice to Nozick's response.

    Nozick responded that Rawls hypo did not take into account how wealth got there to begin with. Wealth doesn't just fall from the sky. By trying to design an ideally just society that equalizes starting points, Rawls would interfere with the free transactions that led to the inequality to begin with.

  14. The problem that I have with the rather sudden perpetuation of libertarian ideals in today's political rhetoric is this: America can't even keep their shoes tied, let alone debate the fine differences between such weighty concepts as "Equality" and "Liberty". Today's fundamentalist religious minority elite will intentionally blur those lines to create the idea that in order to create "Liberty", one must banish "Equality" (especially in terms of how that word applies to things like gay rights).

  15. In today's United States, we generally hear the word Equality in a way that is meant as "equal access to the basic tools needed in life". Take marriage for example… Religious people argue that marriage is the "foundation" of our society and then can't understand why gays and lesbians feel entitled to share in that. Most people today don't view "equality" in terms of everyone having the same portion or allowance of income… Even the most Socialist of Democrats aren't really aiming for that.

  16. Most libertarians support gay marriage or the removal of the state from issuing marriage contracts which would have the same end result of equal treatment under the law. I also don't think it's that important of an issue compared to other things. I think getting Obama to stop making the heads of women and children explode from bombs dropped from drones is more important.

  17. The Prof. sells short Rawls and how he rationally expands on social contract theory and then uses slippery slope arguments to critique his ideas. You oversimplify to the extreme by calling Rawls and anyone who likes his theories socialists despite the fact there are huge differences between socialist states and even the most liberal welfare states. Socialist in our current discourse just a slur used by American conservatives against those that see governmental solutions to some problems.

  18. Oh No! Really? A 1 and a half minute video talking about the political philosphy of not one but TWO major philopher's magna opera is oversimplified? Wow! What a surprise! Who would think that?! Came here thinking it would be an detailed critique analyzing every single argument.

  19. Nozick ideas are very interesting but insincere. He was possibly a paid agent of Libertarian-ism or at least behaved like one any way.

  20. I think the UIL debate topic was made specifically to keep LD out of policy. Think about it, there is no agent of action in the topic, allowing for no fiat arguments or politics disads.
    Also this topic is philosophically based much more than the normal UIL topics.

  21. your liberty to choose extends beyond color of skin, you have the right to choose whether or not you want to marry a colored, whether or not you want to hire a person of less skill than another, you cannot limit liberty for "equality" by hiring someone of less skill just because it treats everyone equally.

  22. hi your point may be vallied but you'll have to flesh it out a bit as currently i have no idea where your misconseption of reality comes from but you realise liberty must be more than the liberty to starve you will see that only a leftist can be a libatarian this dose not mean of corse that all leftists are libatarians

  23. I don't recall discussing the topic with you. A common marxist concept of liberty is "liberty to starve"? In times of great stress dictators quickly arise to solve the problem. In times that should be plentyful many marxist economies had people dying from common diseases because of a poor economy induced by marxist ideas. In both cases marxist simply ignore the reality and blame others.

  24. liberty is free will, everything else if force. Inequality is the direct result of darwinism, under which's principles the world becomes better, messing with this will have serious consequences and has been shown over and over in communist/socialist/ and totalitarian states.

  25. in the 2 forms of freedom debate your a proponent of what berlin called (without predjuice)-ive freedom? & oppose what he called +ive freedom, u could make that clear, i have sympathy with the right libatarians as a socialist libatarian i can see some arguments are vallied but don't think libatarianism hangs together without a socialist component, Bakunin 1814-76 put it perfectly 'freedom without Socialism is privilege and injustice, and that Socialism without freedom is slavery and brutality'

  26. I am not sure your history is up to scratch, where has capitalism succeeded ? its only a mixed economy as advocated by west eourpean socialists which has ever succeeded, neither extreme of modern production has succeeded neither full capitalism nor full communism works, its only the mixed economy which has been proven, your ideas are as discredited as marxist-lenninism

  27. i am a great fan of liberty in its franco-American enlightenment context but our freedom is currently being diminsished by the a version of the capitalist economic system and the way it distributes wealth from those of us who work hard the lazy, idle rich

  28. you seam to advocate the liberty to starve, where as the figures show us socialism and social democracy leads to a meritocracy where if you are born poor and work hard you can become rich and ultra capitalism means if you want to be rich you better hope you are born rich, so if you want to live the American dream you better hope you are born in Sweden or Germany not the uk or usa where we have thatcher and Reagan respectively to thank for a broken system where meritocracy is a thing of the past

  29. what do you mean ? I assume you either like someone or not irrespective of my views ? orwell was like me absolutely anti soviet and absoultly anti any totalatrainism right or left but yes he was a socialist but one in the west eourpean tradition rather than in the marxist-lenninism. which we all agree was evil

  30. The only institution in the US which supports meritocracy is Caltech, all others are infected by equality programs like affirmative action. Caltech on the other hand only accepts you if you are born smart ;), that is how life accepts you. Poverty is for the stupid, PERIOD. Oh, and austria was fully capitalist in the 19th century and it was rich as fuck

  31. specifically ? seriously look at the figures on social mobility social democracy poor ppl can sucseed more full blown capitalist, if you are born poor you are lightly to die poor its all in the numbers

  32. give me (or steel me) a whole continent rich in agricultural potential and raw materials and i'd sucseed, the monetary system was however an unregulated mess, bank busts people loosein their life savings was the norm, it sounds like when I watched its a wonderful you were watching its a wonderful myth

  33. "Austria" didn't exist in 19th century. And Austro-Hungarian monarchy was far from "rich as fuck".

    Your argument that people are born stupid which in turn makes them poor is beyond ridiculous. Are you a troll or you just simply don't understand basics of socio-economic activities and relations?

  34. No it doesn't. Don't know where you got your info. You can check it out on internet and you can clearly see that you are wrong. Not to mention how peripherial kingdoms were hundred years behind central kingdoms as modernization was quite slow (things did even out after some time though).

  35. Also, on the side note, GDP doesn't show how rich society is and GDP per capita doesn't show how much wealth every "capita" actually posess.

  36. Well, it seems we are incorrect then. When you sacrifice equality for liberty into oblivion, you lose both. We are all now equally powerless when it comes to meaningful political action. Our liberty to engage in politics only extends as far as our power, created by money or otherwise. Most people are powerless because we gave those who had some power, the ability to consolidate more and more power to obscenity. Classical liberalism has lost this debate in the worst way possible: the real world.

  37. very hard to know what you mean. who is "we"? what are we incorrect about? what argument is this following ("then.") sacrificing equality is an unclear idea; specifically because advocates of liberty want liberty not control (ie. not sacrifice but the freedom to sacrifice). does equality go into oblivion to rise again in the next sentence?
    sry to heckle. but i dont know what you are saying or who's side you are on

  38. The problem with the argument is that some "free choices" of individuals can restrict the liberty of others. Let's say somebody buys all the water sources in the area, and as a result a lot of people die from thirst. In a sense, everybody had their "free choice", but the freedom of the people who died was severely violated by that person, and in reality taken away (they choose to die?). So saying that "patterns" violate liberty is very misleading, since any notion of freedom presuppose patterns.

  39. I feel like this guy deliberately leaves out a clear explanation of Rawl's position. It's a bit misleading, and Nozick expressed a lot of discontent with libertarianism later in life.

  40. every time general theories are mangled into place to fit specific (often singularly unique) conditions (for self seeking purposes), it should be called out as a sign of bad faith and intention to mislead no? Equality and Liberty are like the alternating strips of colored canvas that make up a 2-toned circus tent after all. Arguments of how large one band should be over the other, or how many stakes/pegs each group should get to secure their little bit of cloth-cover to the ground,  is as absurd as relying on the performing seal to do your central planning for you no? Lets not forget the size and length of the uni pole at the center of the tent, is also going to play a major role in how much cloth you have to muster up, how much ground or seats that can cover, and how far the pegs holding the corners down, are from each other (where freeloaders can freely sneak in and out). Although these informal openings can be a source of revenue for scalpers who you may want to allow to operate for a combination of reasons, like alleviating the pressures that build up in the main entrances. While allowing some percentages of income to be retained on the ground among chosen operators (to buy loyalty), so that it doesn't directly go into the coffers of owners who will immediately raise the size and length of that central pole again. But such skimming and pilfering can very quickly get out of hand if left unchecked also, especially once these groups start getting ideas of their own, like starting a little act of their own and taking all their customers with them right?

  41. It's simplistic and mostly false to frame the Rawls/Nozick disagreement in terms of "equality vs. liberty".

    Rawls' position had two fundamental principles: (1) equal access to the most extensive framework of basic liberties possible (political freedom; freedom of thought and conscience; freedom from harm and arbitrary detention; personal property rights), and (2) whichever social/economic distribution of goods favours the least advantaged. He gave ultimate priority to (1): his whole project was an attempt to move away from utilitarian conceptions of justice (which allow the removal of any of the individual freedoms outlined in (1) so long as it maximises happiness). He only saw (2) as important because, in extremely stratified societies, those at the bottom do not have equal opportunity to exercise their basic liberties.

    So when the guy in this video talks about "equality" being the "benchmark" of social institutions, he's misinterpreted Rawls as meaning "socioeconomic equality". But for Rawls, the role of social institutions was really the upholding of justice, which involves equal access to basic liberties, not to socioeconomic goods. Here he is right at the start of Theory of Justice: "Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice which not even the welfare of society as a whole can override".

    Rawls allowed for socioeconomic inequality. Yes, he differed from Nozick on issues like equality of (economic) opportunity, the extent of redistribution, the extent of state involvement in the market, the legitimacy of discrimination in employment, etc. (Ralws did not consider economic liberties 'basic' liberties – and therefore protected by (1) – but he nevertheless recognized their importance). Both, however, were fundamentally and primarily committed to basic liberty. So this "equality vs. liberty" dichotomy is way off.

  42. Two people come upon $100,000 in the road. They are told they must determine between themselves how to divide the money. One is a multi-millionaire are the other is destitute. If they can't decide they both must forfeit the money. Clearly the multi-millionaire is in the stronger bargaining position since forfeiting the money is much easier. You might even argue that it would be rational to agree on a split with $99,000 going to the millionaire and $1,000 to the poor man. Actually this bargain seems rational. But there is nothing particularly moral or just about it.

    That's the major problem with the Libertarian position. It has nothing particularly interesting to say on how to create a government that is to the benefit of all its citizens. Each step in the Libertairian calculus appears just but the results of numerous steps can come out quite monstrous. And it is hard to argue that each person is responsible for their lot because of the choices they make. Most people are born into their lot and being able to "pull themselves up from their bootstraps" is often made possible precisely by non-Libertarian social institutions like free schooling. Whether Rawls got it right is a different question.

  43. Great explanation of the constant tension that exists between a free society's goals of liberty and equality and the difficulty of finding a balance between the two. I think Isaiah Berlin also pointed to the inevitable conflict which has to result from attempting to maximize both liberty and equality in society.

  44. “Any deviation from equality had to be specially justified.” Well, yes. The whole idea is that the distribution of all things ought to be equal unless it be for the benefit of the least well off. This idea is not incongruous with the idea that liberty, through allowing humans to make free choices, results in inequality. That inequality is justified to the extent it benefits the least well off. You are only disagreeing with the idea if you are implying that such inequality does not benefit the least well off.

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