Rawls and Nozick; Justice Without Well-Being

  • Robert Ehman


In this paper, I shall argue that for all of their differences both Rawls and Nozick expound principles of economic justice that fail sufficiently to consider well-being and are for this reason untenable. For Rawls, as we all know, the fundamental principle of economic justice prescribes that we maximize the income and wealth of the least well-off segment of society; for Nozick, the basic principles prescribe that we respect voluntary acquisition and transfer whenever there is no coercion or a violation of a ‘proviso’ that we be better off than we would be without any fixed property rights at all. While there appears little in common between these views, in fact both disregard the overall consequences of economic principles; both put out of court utility and standards of perfection as criteria or economic institutions; both rely upon the ‘free market’ to allocate resources (for Rawls, once the maximum principle determines income distribution; for Nozick, without qualification); and both require unanimity among those taxed in order to finance public goods. There is little attention in either to the worth of income or of liberty. What I shall try to show is that neither income nor liberty is a sufficiently reliable index of real well-being to serve as a principle of economic justice — income because it is a mere means to goods that are not of the same value to all, liberty because in the sphere of economic institutions it is a pattern of legal options created for further ends, not a natural capacity of ‘right’ to be preserved or protected as an end in itself.


Public Good Competitive Market Economic Institution Market Good Private Good 
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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 1991

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  • Robert Ehman

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