I currently started reading Rawls and Nozick. I have found out that Nozick's "Distributive Justice" is a libertarian analysis of John Rawls. I was wondering if anyone knows what Nozick's opinion is on the definition below that comes from Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972), p. 83.


'Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are ... to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged . . .' (Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972), p. 83. From now on ‘TJ’.)

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    You can see The Difference Principle and Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia: "four main topics that most deserve discussion with respect to ASU. [...] (3) Nozick's articulation and defense of his historical entitlement doctrine of justice in holdings and his associated critique of end-state and patterned doctrines of distributive justice, especially John Rawls' difference principle (as defended in A Theory of Justice)." Commented Apr 10, 2018 at 15:38
  • @MauroALLEGRANZA thank you very much for those links.
    – Flow
    Commented Apr 10, 2018 at 15:50

1 Answer 1


Nozick's objection to Rawls' 'difference principle' is that it is a patterned principle. This means that it considers, without regard to how actual distributions of property or entitlements ('goods' for short) have come about, that there is a proper or just pattern of distribution. That is, a pattern in which 'Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are ... to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged'.

This is clean contrary to Nozick's idea of how just distributions come about. For Nozick property holdings or entitlements are just depending purely on how they have been initially acquired and how they have been subsequently transferred. (This is why he calls his theory a historical entitlement theory of just distribution : how a distribution of goods has come about is decisive.) There are conditions for just acquisition and conditions for just transfer; as long as these conditions are met, whatever distribution of goods results is just.

It is fairly evident that there is no guarantee or even likelihood that a specific preferred pattern of distribution of goods - one that satisfies the difference principle - will result from the the processes of just acquisition and just transfer that Nozick specifies. It might do - but I might win the lottery. There can be certainty or even probability.

To complete the story we should note Nozick's slogan, 'liberty upsets patterns'. To create a distribution that fulfils the difference principle, there will need to be redistribution. This will be unjust since it removes from those with just holdings of goods (by Nozick's criteria) what is justly theirs. More than that, once the redistribution has taken place, the pattern of distribution dictated by the difference principle can be preserved only by limiting or removing people's ability justly to acquire and to transfer and so upset the pattern. That is, by curtailing their liberty.


Robert Nozick (Contemporary Philosophy in Focus) ISBN 10: 0521006716 / ISBN 13: 9780521006712 Published by Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Santosh Bakaya, The Political Theory of Robert Nozick, ISBN 10: 8178354810 / ISBN 13: 9788178354811 Published by Gyan Books, India, 2006.

A.R. Lacey, Robert Nozick, ISBN 10: 0691090440 ISBN 13: 9780691090443 Published by Princeton University Press (2001).

Simon A. Hailwood, Exploring Nozick: Beyond Anarchy, State and Utopia (Avebury Series in Philosophy). ISBN 10: 185972485X / ISBN 13: 9781859724859. Published by Averbury, 1996.

Jonathan Wolff, Robert Nozick: Property, Justice, and the Minimal State, ISBN-13: 978-0804718561 ISBN-10: 0804718563 Published by Cambridge : Polity Press, 1991*

*Copies may be hard to find but this is an exceptionally lucid introduction to Nozick.

Pulin B. Nayak, 'Nozick's Entitlement Theory and Distributive Justice', Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 24, No. 4 (Jan. 28, 1989), pp. PE2-PE5+PE7-PE8.

Neil Cooper, 'Justice and Historical Entitlement', Canadian Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 7, No. 4 (Dec., 1977), pp. 799-803

Thomas Scanlon, 'Nozick on Rights, Liberty, and Property', Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 6, No. 1 (Autumn, 1976), pp. 3-25.

  • Thank you so much for all your answers to all my posts about Nozick and Rawls. They have been extremely helpful and clear.
    – Flow
    Commented Apr 11, 2018 at 15:50
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    Nozick says that an acquisition is just if others are not made worse off by somebody's taking the resource. In that case, they have not been wronged; the acquisition is just. Not sure, frankly, how this connects with 'hard work pays off'. It seems to me one might justly acquire, under Nozick's conditions, without working hard or at all. Or one might have to work hard. I don't think he considers your particular point. Nothing more comes immediately to mind, I'm afraid. NB : I enjoy your questions and comments.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Apr 11, 2018 at 16:39
  • Yes, I agree with your reading of Nozick here - or reflexion on him. But it doesn't quite show that hard work, specifically, pays off. Nozick would not accept redistributive taxation in order to pay benefits in the welfare state way : such taxation would be unjust because it would deprive property-owners of their justly acquired goods. Mind, he does say somewhere that in face of extreme catastrophe the normal rules against redistribution can be temporarily suspended.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Apr 11, 2018 at 18:06

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