Libertarianism and Modern Philosophers, Lecture 4 with David Gordon - Mises Academy
Libertarianism and the
Philosophers Lecture 4
The Egalitarian Approaches of
Thomas Nagel and Ronald
A Problem for Rawls
●Last week we discussed Rawls’
difference principle. This says that all
inequalities should be for the benefit of
the least well off class in society.
●One of the reasons Rawls thinks this is
that those with superior talents don’t
deserve to benefit from them. Their
superior talents stem from luck.
Why Equality Only Within a
●But Rawls doesn’t think that rich countries
have a duty to send money to poor countries
in accord with the difference principle.
●But isn’t it a matter of luck that people are
born in a rich country like the US?
●How can an egalitarian like Rawls limit
distribution to one society? Both Nagel and
Dworkin try to answer this problem.
Nagel –Everybody Favors
●Nagel thinks that almost everyone
favors equality, but this has a non-
●He doesn’t mean everyone agrees on
equal incomes. Rather, almost
everyone thinks that persons in some
way count equally.
●This applies to utilitarian and rights-
based theories, as well as egalitarian
Why Favor Equality?
●Nagel says we can consider our lives
from two points of view.
●From the personal standpoint, we care
about ourselves and people we are
close too. Others matter to a much
The Impersonal Standpoint
●We can step back from our lives and we
ourselves from an impersonal standpoint.
Here our life counts as no more important
than anyone else’s. There is nothing special
about us. From this standpoint, e.g., if I have
a reason to avoid pain, I must recognize that
the fact that someone is in pain gives me,
other things equal, a reason to relieve his
pain. This generates some commitment to
●You might think that utilitarianism doesn’t
treat people as equals because it says we
should try to achieve the best outcome
●But it does count everyone’s utility the same,
and in this way it treats people as equal.
●It can be criticized because particular people
may be sacrificed to the general good.
●Moral theories that stress rights also can be
considered a type of egalitarian theory
because everyone has the same rights.
●Nagel recognizes that a system of morality
based on rights will have to take these rights
to be negative, i.e., they forbid people from
doing certain actions. Positive rights, duties to
give people certain things, might not be
capable of being observed together---conflicts
A Third Approach
●Nagel suggests that there is a third way,
neither utilitarian nor standard rights-
based, to take account of the equality of
●In this third approach, we give
preference to those who have the most
●This preference isn’t absolute and in
any case must be balanced against
A Surprising Result
●You might think that Nagel is going to say that
we have strong egalitarian duties to
redistribute money to the poor, but he doesn’
●He says that at most we might have some
duty to help the really unfortunate, but we
can’t get comprehensive obligations out of
this. Remember, the impersonal point of view
●People within a nation have stronger
obligations to each other than to those
outside the nation.
●People in a nation form a moral
community. This is like Rousseau’s
●This moral community generates strong
Property Is Conventional
●Nagel seems exposed to an obvious
objection. What if you don’t want to be part of
such an egalitarian moral community?
●Here is where the most controversial aspect
of Nagel’s theory comes in. If you didn’t want
to be part of the community, you couldn’t take
your property with you if you left. You don’t
have absolute property rights; all property is
Political Conception of Justice
●In this view, we start with people in a nation
who have land and resources at their
disposition. They don’t have justice-based
obligations to people in other nations.
●This is a political conception of justice, rather
than a cosmopolitan conception. In a
cosmopolitan conception, rights and
obligations aren’t dependent on the political
community. Libertarianism is an example of a
Origins of the Political
●As Nagel notes, the political conception
stems from Thomas Hobbes. In Hobbes’
theory, once people have contracted to obey
the sovereign, its up to him to distribute
property as he wishes.
●In Nagel’s theory, it is up to the people in a
nation to decide on property rights. In doing
so, they will take into account egalitarian
considerations based on their bonds in
forming the community.
Are Property Rights
●Libertarians will object that Nagel has failed to
show that property rights are conventional.
What are his arguments against libertarian
●He doesn’t have any. He thinks that it is
obvious that property is conventional.
Wouldn’t even libertarians, e.g., have to admit
that the details of property regulations are just
matters that have been legislated, or have
been established through custom?
What’s Wrong with Nagel’s
●The fact that regulations are needed to
establish property rights doesn’t imply that
people can make whatever regulations they
●Compare with free speech---we need legal
regulations to establish when can speak. But
the regulations must conform to our natural
right to free speech. Why not the same with
Dworkin and Equal Respect
●Like Nagel, Dworkin’s theory of justice
is confined to particular societies.
●Each person should be treated with
equal respect. This need not imply that
each person is treated in exactly the
same way. E.g., he supports affirmative
Equality As the Dominant
●Unlike Nagel, Dworkin thinks that other
values, like liberty, don’t have to balanced
●You are free only if you don’t violate someone
else’s rights. If the government prevents you
from assaulting others, it isn’t interfering with
your liberty. Similarly, if the government taxes
your income to promote equality, it isn’t
making you less free. This seems an
●There is a surprisingly libertarian aspect
of Dworkin’s theory.
●People are responsible for their own
lives. If you make bad choices, you can’
t demand that others bear the cost of
●In order for people to lead responsible
lives, a free market is essential.
Criticism of Rawls
●Dworkin has another argument that
libertarians will find helpful.
●He criticizes Rawls’ argument for his theory of
justice. Rawls says that the principles of
justice are those that would be chosen by
self-interested actors in the original position,
where people are behind the veil of
ignorance. Dworkin asks, why should we
think that choice in this situation establishes
the requirements of justice?
Why Dworkin Isn’t a
●If Dworkin favors the free market and
personal responsibility, why he isn’t he a
●He thinks that people who choose in a way
that works out badly should bear the cost of
their choices. This is option luck.
●But people are not responsible for brute luck.
This includes how their talents are valued and
how healthy they are.
The Artificial Market
●Dworkin proposes to correct for brute luck by
imagining an artificial market.
●Each person starts with equal resources.
Then, he participates in two auctions.
●In the first, each person knows his own
talents but doesn’t know how the market will
value these talents. People buy insurance
against their coming up with a poor outcome
The Artificial Market
●In the second market, people don’t know the
state of their health. They buy insurance
against having debilitating illnesses or
●One problem with this idea is that it is very
difficult to estimate what amount of insurance
would be chosen. On Mises’s view of
probability, such estimates aren’t possible.
●Based on its estimates of the results of
such insurance markets, the
government makes payments to those
whose talents aren’t highly sought after
and to those with illnesses and
●Once people get these payments, they
are on their own.